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Journal ArticleDOI

Women, Ethnics, and Exotics: Images of Power in Mid-Nineteenth-Century American Fiction.

01 May 1984-American Literature-Vol. 56, Iss: 2, pp 276
About: This article is published in American Literature.The article was published on 1984-05-01. It has received 5 citations till now.
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Journal ArticleDOI
TL;DR: The Scar of Shame (1927) as mentioned in this paper is one of the few silent melodramas with an all-black cast available for rental in the United States, and is also an attempt to see how theories of literary and cinematic melodrama can be applied to AfroAmerican culture.
Abstract: When blacks began to finance and direct their own films in the teens and early 1920s, they consistently produced domestic melodramas. Some of these early productions have racial themes which reorganize the world in such a way that black heritage is rewarded over white paternity; they are schematic renunciations of the prevailing order of things in white American society where, historically, the discovery of black blood meant sudden reversal of fortune, social exclusion, or banishment.' Feminist studies of literary, cinematic, and theatrical melodrama have suggested that the melodramatic world view favors the weak over the strong as it adheres to a moral order which privileges the lesser and handicaps the greater. Since these new theories have shown that there is something genuinely affirming for women readers in narratives which organize the world around the female character and her domestic haven in the home, I wondered if domestic melodrama had ever produced an analogous position for black viewers or "readers," female or male.2 What I found surprised me. Although the black viewer is not exactly "affirmed" in the silent film text, this viewer is implicated in it in a way that is still pertinent to the whole project of understanding the subversive potential of domestic melodrama. At the outset I did not expect that it would be necessary to reconstruct the black viewer in history. Nor did I expect to find that cinema aesthetics and the aesthetics of racial distinction could be so closely linked. In fact, as I will argue, they are one and the same. My reading of The Scar of Shame (1927), one of the few silent melodramas with an all-black cast available for rental in the United States, is also an attempt to see how theories of literary and cinematic melodrama can be applied to AfroAmerican culture. Since, with a few exceptions, this heritage has not been submitted to any systematic analysis as mass culture, I offer this approach as an example of how we might deal with cultural products which are politically offensive to later generations of black American viewers.3 The advantage of this approach is that since it does not measure mass culture against high culture, the people who enjoy popular entertainment are not condemned by association with it. In order to consider the black viewer in 1927, whom we will never exactly "know," and about whom we can always ask more, I will take up the problems of melodramatic mode of address, the use of the mulatta type, the subversive aspects of style, and the reception of the "happy ending." An attempt to recon-

29 citations

01 Jan 1984
TL;DR: Bisland as discussed by the authors studied minor Louisiana women novelists from the end of the Civil War to the passage of women's stiff rage, finding that women were ambivalent about Southern traditions and the old order.
Abstract: This dissertation is a study of minor Louisiana women novelists from the end of the Civil War to the passage of women's stiff rage. A large number of Louisiana women were spurred to write novels by the war and Reconstruction, motivated by both financial considerations and the need to explain their lives. They use conventional forms, like the plantation romance, but the stories they tell suggest that women were ambivalent about Southern traditions and the old order. In breaking down the social codes which both protected and repressed Louisiana women, the Civil War and the Reconstruction led Louisiana women novelists to reconsider the values they had inherited, and even, implicitly at least, to challenge traditional female roles. Although they often seem to have loved the men who perpetuated it, they rebelled against a repressive social structure. In projecting their internal resentments and anxieties in fiction, they were not essentially different from many nineteenth-century women writers. But unlike, say, women writers in New York, or in Yorkshire, Louisiana women writers lived in a defeated patriarchal society founded on the subjection of blacks and on the cult of ideal white womanhood. This society confronted them with parallels to and metaphors for their condition. While their explorations of the issues of freedom and autonomy are frequently tentative and veiled, close examination of plot and characterization reveals that women writers in Louisiana identified the condition of women generally with the suppression and dehumanization of blacks and mulattoes, especially mulatto women. Elizabeth Bisland

16 citations

Journal ArticleDOI
01 Oct 2001-Legacy
TL;DR: Spofford's "Circumstance" as mentioned in this paper is based on an event in the life of her maternal great-grandmother, who was attacked by a wild animal called the "Indian Devil" and was swept as its prey into a tree.
Abstract: A frontier woman in early Maine journeys home after tending a sick friend. Setting out at dusk, she is surprised by the ghostly vision of a "winding-sheet" and the sound of a "spectral and melancholy voice." Three times the voice cries, "The Lord have mercy on the people!" Hurrying on, the woman refuses to let herself be unsettled by such "fancies and chimeras." But as she enters the woods, she is attacked by an animal called the "Indian Devil" and is swept as its prey into a tree. Through the long night, the heroine prolongs her life by singing to the beast. At dawn she is rescued by her husband. Just as the husband has rescued his wife, however, so has the wife saved her husband and child. In their absence, their small settlement has been attacked by the Indians and, like Adam and Eve at the end of Paradise Lost, the members of this small family find themselves standing alone, facing an unknown future. "The world was all before them, where to choose" (Spofford, "Circumstance" 85, 96). (1) This, briefly summarized, is the plot of Harriet Prescott Spofford's remarkable story, "circumstance." First published in 1860 in the Atlantic Monthly, the story was based on an event in the life of Spofford's maternal great-grandmother, Mrs. Josiah Hitchings. Only the bare outlines of Mrs. Hitchings's experience appear to have been preserved by family legend. (2) But Spofford had no difficulty re-creating the experience with the kind of lavish poetic detail that had become the trademark of her early fiction. She not only describes the harrowing circumstances that beset the heroine throughout her night in the forest, but also dramatizes the inner workings of the heroine's consciousness as she moves from her fear of a horrific death by mutilation to a transforming experience of evangelical Christian renewal. Spofford specifically grounds the heroine's religious experience in the singing of Methodist hymns, based largely on scripture, and in the memory of her first communion. (3) She also reveals that the ecst atic spiritual experience that results from the singing of hymns has prepared her heroine for a future that, as the passage from Milton suggests, is as limitless as the uncharted wilderness. Although "Circumstance" depicts the liberating potential of Christian revelation for a white woman on the frontier, the heroine's self-renewal nonetheless is deeply compromised. Her spiritually reconstituted identity and the promise of her family's future depend upon the demonizing of native American people and the rhetoric, however indirect or subdued, of manifest destiny. The end of the story, in fact, expresses an imperialistic vision of the land stretched out "all before" the young family and a confidence in the extension of empire that, in the American nationalist project, was constructed in part upon the Christian ideology of the new nation. "GRAND AND SWEET METHODIST HYMNS" No sooner has the heroine of "Circumstance" been attacked by the "Indian Devil" (or panther) than she begins to experience an ordeal both physical and mental. Held in the clutches of a wild animal, facing death by mutilation, she remains highly conscious of her fate: "Let us be ended by fire," she thinks, "and we are ashes, for the winds to bear, the leaves to cover; let us be ended by wild beasts, and the base, cursed thing howls with us forever through the forest" (89). In part, the woman feels a disgust for the "strength of our lower natures let loose" or the animalistic dimension of human nature of which the beast reminds her (89). But she does not struggle explicitly with her own "lower nature," as Anne Dalke suggests (76). She is overtaken instead by a fear similar to that faced by many American women who made journeys into the wilderness--the fear of turning savage and becoming wild themselves. The capacity to go "wild," it was thought, existed just below the surface of civilized existence; it would no t take much for a civilized, Christian woman to descend to the level of an animal or a savage. …

10 citations

Journal ArticleDOI
TL;DR: The question of why Hester Prynne was given the name Hester has been examined in a number of critical studies as discussed by the authors, including the work of Bercovitch.
Abstract: Why does Hawthorne give Hester Prynne the name Hester? The question seems an inevitable one for a writer like Hawthorne, who works at least partly in a Spenserian tradition of allegory. Dimmesdale's first name, Arthur, and Hawthorne's daughter's name, Una, suggest some of the influence of Spenser on Hawthorne's acts of naming. Hawthorne himself, as is well known, changed his family name from Hathorne, to distance himself from those Puritan ancestors whose achievements and excesses haunted his fiction. The Scarlet Letter tells of Roger Prynne's reinvention of himself by an act of naming: when he finds his wife Hester in disgrace in the new world he adopts the name Chillingworth. Hester names Pearl with reference to the gospel of Matthew: "But she named the infant 'Pearl,' as being of great price, - purchased with all she had, - her mother's only treasure!" (1:89).(1) The romance's central symbol, on the other hand, the scarlet letter A, resists the sort of hermeneutic rigidity that naming entails. As an initial letter, or simply as an initial, the A notoriously hints at all sorts of names while claiming none. As a great orchestrator of meanings, Hawthorne is aware that names are full and even overfull of meanings, and he could in no way be said to arrive at his characters' names casually. It is surprising, then, that critics of Hawthorne have not carefully considered the question of Hester's name. In "The Custom-House" Hawthorne calls up "the figure of that first ancestor," the Puritan "who came so early, with his Bible and his sword" (1:9), and The Scarlet Letter participates deeply in Puritan biblicism. Chillingworth identitifies himself as "the Daniel who shall expound" (1:62) the riddle of the identity of Pearl's father; on another biblical - or perhaps rather Miltonic - level he is a version of Satan. Dimmesdale, when in the final scaffold scene he declares himself "the one sinner of the world" (1:254), becomes a Christ figure. Hester, exposed to the eyes of the multitude, is likened to "the image of Divine Maternity" (1:56); in the "Conclusion" Hawthorne plays with the idea of Hester as a prophetess. D. H. Lawrence found in Hester's seduction of Dimmesdale the story of Eve's temptation of Adam to eat the forbidden fruit.(2) The tapestry of the chamber shared by Dimmesdale and Chillingworth depicts "the Scriptural story of David and Bathesheba, and Nathan the Prophet" (1:126). The multiplicity of biblical intertexts may reflect Hawthorne's desire to write a story of new world Puritanism that would acknowledge and, moreover, incorporate the extreme textualization of that society. The Puritans could perhaps only be brought back to life in fiction if the fiction were as saturated in the Bible as the Puritans were themselves. Yet one key biblical intertext, the Book of Esther, which serves as a sort of sunken groundwork or hidden scaffolding for Hawthorne's tale, has been missing from discussion of The Scarlet Letter. That Hester is named for the biblical Queen Esther has been briefly noted in a handful of critical studies, though it has probably been quietly taken for granted by many more readers. Sacvan Bercovitch remarks that Hester Prynne "builds upon the tradition of the biblical Esther - homiletic exemplum of sorrow, duty, and love, and figura of the Virgin Mary . . . . But primarily Hawthorne's 'sermon' traces the education of an American Esther." He continues that "a major source for Hawthorne, it seems probable" is Cotton Mather's Ornaments for the Daughters of Zion, a conduct manual in which Esther is one of the biblical heroines adduced as models of proper behavior.(3) Bercovitch does not draw any further parallels between the Book of Esther and The Scarlet Letter. Kristin Herzog and Luther S. Luedtke mention the coincidence of names in reference to Hester's magisterial bearing.(4) Jean Normand observes elliptically that "Hester before the Governor is comparable with Esther before Ahasuerus," but elaborates no further. …

3 citations

01 Jan 2011
TL;DR: The authors examined the trace of slave narrative in William W. Brown's Clotel, a novel written almost as a sequel to his autobiography Narrative of William W.'s A Fugitive Slave, focusing attention on the evils of the "peculiar institution" of slavery.
Abstract: The arousal of Black consciousness was what Brown aimed at through Clotel; Or, the President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, the first book of fiction ever written by a Black American. Written almost as a sequel to his autobiography Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave, Brown's Clotel boldly and unabashedly focuses attention on the evils of the "peculiar institution" of slavery by trying to "shake into wakefulness a mass human conscience which had slumbered far too long" (Whitlow 1974:46). Himself an escaped slave the son of a white father and a mulatto slave mother who was allegedly the daughter of Daniel Boone -Brown was able to give to Clotel added vehemence and startling realism because he himself had either experienced or witnessed the horrors and the evils that are described in the novel. Referring to this, Sterling A. Brown (1969:39) writes, "Scattered throughout the book are intimate glimpses that only one who had been a slave could get." This paper aims to examine the trace of slave narrative in William W. Brown's Clotel.