See Disclaimer Below.

Posts Tagged ‘nineteenth-century’

Law in Melville and Hawthorne

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Historicism, History, Humanities, Law, Law-and-Literature, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Novels, Writing on July 11, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

Law was a common trope in the writing of nineteenth century American authors.  The jurist Roscoe Pound referred to nineteenth century America as a “frontier society” that was struggling to define what law was.  Justice John Marshall was carving out the jurisdiction of the nation’s high court, even as Andrew Jackson challenged Marshall’s authority to do so.  (Jackson supposedly said, in regard to Worcester v. Georgia, that Marshall had made his decision, “now let him enforce it.”)  American jurisprudents were seeking to reconcile the contradictions between liberty and equality on the one hand—the ideals of the revolutionary generation—with the peculiar institution of slavery on the other.  The ethos of republicanism and the ideal of open discourse clashed with the legislative attempts among the Southern states to resurrect Roman code to validate slave laws, even as the judiciary, on all levels and in all states, attempted to incorporate British common law into a new setting with unique problems.  In short, law was in flux during the nineteenth century in America, and writers like Melville and Hawthorne picked up on this problem and gave it unique and sometimes troubling articulation in their literature.

The “facts” in Benito Cereno are strikingly similar to the facts in one of America’s most memorable cases: U.S. v. The Amistad, in which John Quincy Adams, among others, served as an attorney.  In both “cases,” slaves took over a slave ship, killed some of their white captives, and demanded that the remaining white shipmen return the boat to Africa.  Rather than doing that, however, the white shipmen steered a path toward America, where the unsuspecting crew of another ship, sensing something wrong, came to assist.  These fact patterns raise sensitive and disturbing questions about the law.  What is justice?  How should it be determined?  Which party is right, and what does it mean to be right or to have rights?  For that matter, what is the law to begin with?

In Benito Cereno, Cereno is the captain of the ship bearing slaves, and it is from Delano’s perspective that we learn, gradually, that a slave revolt has occurred and that Cereno is being held captive by Africans.  Delano is the captain of a different ship who has come aboard Cereno’s ship to assist Cereno’s apparently distressed crew.  The leader of the slave revolt, Babo, himself a slave, is always by Cereno’s side, thereby giving Delano the impression that Cereno has a loyal servant.  What Delano eventually discovers is that the slaves have spared the lives of only Cereno and a few other whites in order that these whites return the ship to Africa.

In Amistad as in Benito Cereno, the African slaves had been removed from their homeland, without their consent, and taken to a foreign land among alien peoples for the sole purpose of perpetual enslavement.  On the other hand, the white shipmen had, it could be argued, complied with the law of the sea in conducting these actions, and they were murdered by mutinying slaves.  The problem here is that neither side seems to represent an unquestionably moral or obviously right position.  Slavery is evil, but so is murder.  Melville, perhaps realizing the literary possibilities created by this tension, subjects this challenging set of circumstances to rigorous interrogation by way of a captivating narrative. Read the rest of this entry »

Advertisements

Shakespeare, Othello, and Science in America: An Argument I Might Make (If I had the time)

In American History, Arts & Letters, Literary Theory & Criticism, Shakespeare on September 27, 2010 at 2:35 pm

Kris Collins interrogates the mutually affirming racial discourses of the theater and the natural sciences in nineteenth-century America.

“The nineteenth-century scientific community’s fascination with the black body,” Collins explains, “provides a contemporary analytical template for the racialized anxieties expressed in both minstrelsy and mainstage productions of Othello: white America’s struggle to define and defend the whiteness of their own bodies” (88).

Collins focuses on the work of several white Euro-American scientists: George Gliddon, Josiah Nott, Herman Burmeiter, Cesare Lombroso, Samuel G. Morton, and Louis Agassiz. All of these men classify races hierarchically and by taxonomies putatively dependent on racial intelligence. Because of the inherent differences between the races, these scientists argue, the white population should not mingle, sexually or otherwise, with the black population. Collins thoroughly debunks these claims, which she relates to nineteenth-century minstrel performances of Othello that solidify racist significations of the black body.

While the scientists that Collins identifies opined on racial distinction, another scientist, the young Charles Darwin, dissertated on theories of natural selection and evolution. One wonders whether Darwin’s ideas about genetics and heritable traits influenced the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century stage as much as Collins’s subjects influenced the stage in the preceding era.

More to the point, Herbert Spencer’s appropriations of Darwin—epitomized by the phrase “survival of the fittest”—may have justified and authorized racial divisions at the same time that high brow / low brow and elite / popular distinctions began to congeal. This simultaneous segregation (scientific and socio-cultural) was not so much coincidental as mutually (re)affirming.

Bardification and Shakespeare idolatry proliferated along with scientific discourses suggesting that whites were “better adapted” or “more advanced” than people of color. Shakespearean performances—most notably blackface performances of Othello but also early twentieth-century performances starring African American actors as Othello—gradually and perhaps unwittingly reflected the Spencerian drive to “preserve” the “favored” races.

This argument is the logical extension of Collins’s work; it compels a look at the continued influence of natural science on the next generation of American actors, directors, and theater-goers. Although the display of scientific racism and its corresponding effect on the theater may have changed, the underlying idea of racial superiority remained in place.

For further reading:

Collins, Kris. “White-Washing the Black-a-Moor: Othello, Negro Minstrelsy and Parodies of Blackness. The Journal of American Culture 19.3 (June 2004), pp. 87-101.

%d bloggers like this: