Abolitionism, Abolitionists, American Civil War, American Literature, American Renaissance, Aminadab, Aylmer, Chiefly About War Matters by a Peaceable Man, Edgar Allan Poe, Literary criticism, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Race, Racism, Slavery, The Birth-mark, The Oval Portrait
I was recently reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birth-mark,” which was first published in the Pioneer in 1843, and I was struck by its similarity on several fronts to Edgar Allan Poe’s three stories “The Black Cat” (1843), “The Gold-Bug” (1843), and “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether” (1845) (which Tychy has previously analysed here, here, and here). In these tales, Poe ventured imprecise and somewhat inconsequential allegories of antebellum America, in which it was at times possible to discern representations of America’s North, South, and Negro slaves. No opinion on slavery is ever offered in these tales, not merely because Poe shared in a particularly Romantic aversion to didacticism, but because for many readers the subject was something of a sore point. The scholar Terence Whalen has observed critics of Poe in a “fervent hunt for some blatant racist utterance” – an approach which “crosses the boundary from political criticism into sheer character assassination” – and he suggests why there are “conspicuously few” references to slavery within Poe’s writing:
Unable and unwilling to bear the risks of political speech, Poe succumbed to the pressures of a national literary market either by falling silent on controversial issues or by searching for an average racism that could take the place of unprofitable doctrines about slavery… All of this suggests that Poe, far from being “the most blatant racist among the American romantics,” was arguably the most discreet.
Unlike Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne would live to witness America descend into civil war and the strategy of “falling silent on controversial issues” become increasingly inadequate. Not that silence was anything other than golden for Hawthorne – in the preface to The Marble Faun, which was published as late as 1859, he lamented over the “difficulty of writing a romance about a country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity, in broad and simple daylight, as is happily the case with my dear native land.” Hawthorne’s “dear native land” was, of course, sliding into anarchy, and these unfortunate lines have since caused many lovers of Hawthorne’s otherwise exquisite prose to grind their teeth. Hawthorne had put things more accurately, however, in an 1856 letter to William Pike, when he wrote of “no inducement to return to our own country, where you seem to be on the point of beating one another’s brains out.”
When silence was no longer an option, Hawthorne’s attitude towards slavery was largely one of conservatism. In “The Birth-mark,” he alludes disapprovingly to abolitionism, although his imprecision on this point was possibly informed by the strategies within Poe’s fiction. Whilst Poe had once abandoned a fulsome review of Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tales to quite erroneously convict the author of plagiarising his own “William Wilson,” in “The Birth-mark” Hawthorne appears to genuinely plunder Poe’s fragmentary tale “The Oval Portrait” (1842).
Just as the “painter” in Poe’s tale has “already a bride in his Art,” Hawthorne’s Aylmer cannot be “weaned” from Science by “any second passion.” Poe’s painter aspires to achieve the ideal portrait of his wife, whilst Aylmer marshals all the insights of modern science in order to remove a birth-mark from the cheek of his wife, Georgiana, and thus render her ideal. And just as Poe’s painter “would not see that the tints which he spread upon the canvas were drawn from the cheeks of her who sate beside him,” Aylmer will fatally extract the tint from his wife’s cheek.
“The Oval Portrait” offers no racial allegory, whereas the name of the almost-ideal Georgiana echoes that of Georgia, where Southern womanhood was itself a formidable ideal. We may conjecture that the bloody “defect” which mars Georgiana’s Aryan perfection symbolises the institution of slavery, although it may be uncertain whether this refers to the Negro race or the South’s crime (or both). Georgiana’s bitchy girlfriends call her birthmark “the Bloody Hand,” which suggests a mark of sin, and just as many Americans found themselves sickened by the South, the girls contend that the Hand “quite destroyed the effect of Georgiana’s beauty, and rendered her countenance even hideous.”
Aylmer is potentially cast as an abolitionist who wishes to save the South from its bloody crime by completely segregating whites and blacks, or rather, by removing the Negro “blemish” upon Aryan society. There is doubtlessly a comment here about abolitionists who were more concerned with saving white souls than black bodies (some were indeed most horrified at the slaveholders’ “blasphemous” usurpation of God’s mastery). One may deduce that just as Aylmer must learn to accept his wife’s “imperfect” humanity, the American South will only survive through learning to accommodate a less-than-Aryan citizenry. Yet whilst Aylmer addresses his failure as a lover with an act of cosmetic surgery rather than developing a greater moral understanding, as a symbolic abolitionist, he assumes that America’s imperfections can be simply abolished along with the institution of slavery. Hawthorne thus appears to be condemning the abolitionists for confronting human failings with an entirely “cosmetic” solution.
For Hawthorne, the abolitionists were an exasperating bunch of hotheads, who were irresponsibly bent upon undermining America’s political stability. In “The Hall of Fantasy” (1843) he portrayed an abolitionist brandishing “his one idea like an iron flail,” whilst he elsewhere derided his sister-in-law Elizabeth Peabody for her abolitionist “squint.” Significantly, Hawthorne was a close friend and campaign-biographer of Franklin Pierce, the fourteenth American president who was eventually ditched by the Democratic party after only one term due to (amongst other things) his support for the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854). If many had assumed that slavery was safely locked away in a Southern cellar, this Act potentially licensed its expansion into two new states, and it was widely denounced as appeasing Southern slaveholders.
Once the civil war was underway, Hawthorne accepted an invitation to visit the front line and observe the war firsthand. His consequent account of this expedition – “Chiefly About War Matters by a Peaceable Man,” which was published in Atlantic in 1862 – remains outrageously indifferent to the politics of the war. For where once the done thing was “falling silent on controversial issues,” now a modest prayer for peace had no hope of remaining apolitical and uncontroversial. For many of the Atlantic’s readers, the civil war was a moral crusade, and the cantankerous pacifism of “Chiefly About War Matters,” and its grumbling at the inconveniences of war (“the war has done a great deal of enduring mischief, by causing the devastation of great tracts of woodland scenery…”) represented an unwelcome intrusion of tawdry human realities into the realm of ideals.
Observing an occupied Southern town, Hawthorne found his mind wandering to consider “how very disagreeable the presence of a Southern army would be in a sober town of Massachusetts,” and if abolitionists were riled by the casual comparison of both sides as if they were equals, then Hawthorne would continue with this quite deliberate carelessness to liken those whose actions would win the freedom of the black man to a tribe of savages:
Set men face to face, with weapons in their hands, and they are as ready to slaughter one another now, after playing at peace and good-will for so many years, as in the rudest ages, that never heard of peace-societies, and thought no wine so delicious as what they quaffed from an enemy’s skull.
If the abolitionists had considered themselves as paternalistically caring for the black man, Hawthorne bumps them down to what he saw as equality with the Negro. In this respect, it is significant that the “savage” of “The Birth-mark” is not a black man:
This personage had been Aylmer’s under-worker during his whole scientific career, and was admirably fitted for that office by his great mechanical readiness, and the skill with which, while incapable of comprehending a single principle, he executed all the practical details of his master’s experiments. With his vast strength, his shaggy hair, his smoky aspect, and the indescribable earthiness that incrusted him, he seemed to represent man’s physical nature…
Those familiar with traditional depictions of the Negro within American letters may initially assume that Aminadab is black, or at least not white. Whilst Poe’s Legrand was attended by the manumitted slave Jupiter and his Zenobia is followed by the “negro valet” Pompey, Aylmer is assisted by this “servant” (none of them have the more politically charged status of “slave”). Aminadab immediately evokes the figure of Caliban: fit only for menial work, he possesses a “smoky aspect” and “indescribable earthliness.” Aylmer calls him a “man of clay,” whilst he in turn “mumbles” to his “master.” Yet although his name carries a faintly Oriental note, it was actually most popular amongst Quakers, and an Aminadab turns up in that most new-fangled of revelations, The Book of Mormon. Aminadab has “shaggy” hair where the racism of the day dictated that black locks should be “woolly.” Moreover, he is not quite the brainless machine described by the narrator – when the wooing Aylmer “left his laboratory to the care of an assistant,” we can surely deduce that this is Aminadab, for Alymer has no other “assistant.”
Aminadab is essentially a blackface – an inauthentic black man, who has deliberately disregarded or concealed the perfectly white skin which Aylmer covets, whilst simultaneously colluding to betray the colour with which he apparently identifies. Aminadab indeed mutters that he would “never part” from the birthmark, and Georgiana is woken to her death by the “gross, hoarse chuckle” which Aminadab utters as the birth-mark fades, an expression of the “invariable triumph over the immortal essence” and the failure of ideals to survive in our world. Yet Aylmer himself acknowledges that the removal of the birth-mark is mostly Aminadab’s work. The significance of this, for us, is that an apparently black man, whom we may have assigned the role of “Other,” turns out to epitomise our own imperfect and (self) destructive humanity. He is not a brute but a brother – for, as poor Goodman Brown will learn, there is only one human “race”:
“Lo! there ye stand, my children,” said the figure, in a deep and solemn tone, almost sad, with its despairing awfulness, as if his once angelic nature could yet mourn for our miserable race. “Depending upon one another’s hearts, ye had still hoped that virtue were not all a dream! Now are ye undeceived! Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness. Welcome, again, my children, to the communion of your race!”
In his dream about removing Georgiana’s birth-mark, Aylmer will end up cutting out her heart. Years later, on the fields of the civil war, Hawthorne would personally encounter those whose slavery he had thought necessary if America was to be preserved. Hawthorne conceded that although not “altogether” human, “for the sake of the manhood which is latent in them, I would not have turned them back; but I should have felt almost as reluctant, on their own account, to hasten them forward to the stranger’s land…” Hawthorne saw that the former slaves would not fit happily into his America, but he would still concede that they were “brethren”:
They are our brethren, as being lineal descendants from the Mayflower, the fated womb of which, in her first voyage, sent forth a brood of Pilgrims on Plymouth Rock, and, in a subsequent one, spawned slaves upon the Southern soil,–a monstrous birth, but with which we have an instinctive sense of kindred, and so are stirred by an irresistible impulse to attempt their rescue, even at the cost of blood and ruin.
Far from being a mark of race, the birth-mark signifies “Evil… the communion of your race.” It does not symbolise the black man, but the crimes inflicted upon him. Admittedly, the birthmark has a significant association with race. “Georgiana’s lovers were wont to say, that some fairy, at her birth-hour, had laid her tiny hand upon the infant’s cheek, and left this impress there,” and this notion of “imprinting” upon Aryan perfection accords with a famous image from popular fiction:
It happened one day about noon, going towards my boat, I was exceedingly surprised with the print of a man’s naked foot on the shore, which was very plain to be seen in the sand. I stood like one thunderstruck, or as if I had seen an apparition….
Just as the fairy handprint becomes a “frightful object” of “trouble and horror” for Aylmer, Robinson Crusoe is “thunderstruck” by the sight of a black man’s footprint and he subsequently hides in his house for three days. The footprint teaches Crusoe that no man is an island, but adapting his perfectly white world to this dark intrusion will necessitate the resort to slavery. The link between a bloody handprint and a sandy footprint is furthered by the premise of Hawthorne’s unfinished manuscript “The Ancestral Footstep”: a bloody footprint left on the threshold of a English manor house as the record of a family crime. There is the intriguing possibility that the tiny, bloody handprint on Georgiana’s cheek symbolises that of a child who will perish in her womb, but in Hawthorne’s world, human imperfection inevitably amounted to the sins of the fathers, the crimes of a people, and the communion of the race.
Although it is typically assumed that “The Birth-mark” warns against Aylmer’s inflexible idealism, Aylmer and Georgiana are themselves both fully conscious of this folly and helpless to arrest their slide into disaster. Georgiana knows that her husband will never accept her humanity and that it is therefore impossible to live with the birthmark. Aylmer concedes that he is powerless to overcome the “tyrannizing influence acquired by one idea over his mind.” This seemingly conveys the inevitability of America’s reckoning with its crimes, but if Aylmer is a symbolic abolitionist, despite all the narrator’s generous accolades to his powers, he is a disastrous scientist and his career is a list of “mortifying failures.” When Georgiana bursts into tears after reading the “volumes” of Aylmer’s case studies, it is because she has finally grasped that she is going to die at his hands.
Hawthorne’s wife, Sophia, had lived on a sugar plantation in Cuba for over a year, and, amongst other horrors, she had witnessed mothers resorting to infanticide rather than rear slave children. Hawthorne fully appreciated the consequences of continuing with slavery, but grimly and very bloodily, he judged that far greater disruption would have resulted from its abolition. On this side of history, it is easy to see that he got it wrong, but he cannot quite be indicted of gross naivety and he would have insisted that there was both reality and morality to his scepticism of the abolitionists.