Classic Essays

Were America’s Greatest Writers “Racists”?

Poe

FEW WRITERS WHO concur in Ezra Pound’s opinion that “artists are the antennae of the race” take seriously or literally Ezra’s minor premise that the artist has a concomitant obligation to rebroadcast his received wisdom. For his pains over Radio Rome on Mussolini’s behalf, Pound was imprisoned in an open cage, tried for treason and then declared insane. Released in 1958, he returned to Italy, lapsed into silence and died. Although regarded as one of the poetic pathfinders of the twentieth century, Pound the politico was an embarrassment to his friends and admirers, an outrageous and quixotic figure — the quintessential eccentric. Never before had a major American artist betrayed such a frenzied obsession with politics, and never before had an artist’s politics entered so integrally into his art. When Pound was awarded the 1948 Bollingen Prize for his Pisan Cantos (which recount his experiences as a prisoner of his own country’s army) critics and the public were indignant. Few had any informed objections to Pound on poetic grounds; rather, the issue was moral. How, they hollered, could a jury award such a distinction to a lunatic fascist? It was not so much that they scrupled at a political role for the artist. How could they since many of them plainly stated their own political preference for poets with liberal-democratic plumage? What they rejected was not politics, but Pound’s politics. And so it went, and so it goes. Only a gifted few are capable of distinguishing between what an artist says and the artistry with which he says it. Milton, for instance, would probably be more highly thought of today if one could only forget his defense of regicide and simply appreciate the beauty of his words and craftsmanship. We seem willing to grant the artist oracular status only so long as his ideology ratifies our own.

(ILLUSTRATION: bust of Edgar Allan Poe by sculptor Bryan Moore)

This problem is raised again in the introduction to Race and the American Romantics (Schocken, 1971), an anthology of writings on slavery by ten of the most important American novelists, poets, and essayists of the nineteenth century. Editors Vincent Freimarck and Bernard Rosenthal, while exhibiting that brand of academic smugness peculiar to scholarly iconoclasts, seem nevertheless genuinely pained by the revelations their book contains. Sounding for all the world as if they were debunking Santa Claus in the presence of a teary-eyed Virginia, they swallow hard and report, “unpleasant as it will prove to those who prefer their Romantics on the side of the angels . . . at best, in a surprising number of cases no passionate antipathy against slavery existed among the American Romantics. At worst, they were racists.”

Chief among the latter was Edgar Allan Poe, whose “views on slavery — on race in general — corresponded perfectly with those of the South’s most articulate defenders of the institution, John C. Calhoun and Thomas E. Dew.” Freimarck and Rosenthal continue:

Stated briefly, the views of these men were that blacks were biologically inferior and, since all cultures were founded on the institution of slavery (i.e., “wage slavery” in the North or in Europe), the only question for a society to answer was what type of slavery it would have. Negro slavery was thus seen to be highly desirable, since it united political law with biological law. To this view, Poe was totally committed. His literary work reflects it.

A brief but illuminating discussion of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym then follows, in which the cryptic conclusion of Poe’s only novel is convincingly explicated by demonstrating its relationship to Poe’s ideas on race.

One might expect Poe, a Southerner, to champion the institution of slavery, but it comes as a genuine surprise to read that Walt Whitman was not far behind him. More than anyone else, Whitman seems to editors Freimarck and Rosenthal an especially despicable character. “Of all the American Romantics,” they observe,

no writer has more totally been seen as the embodiment of an egalitarian democratic spirit. The man and his work have been viewed as one, the poet and the poem as part of an organic democratic whole. This view has done justice neither to history nor to Whitman’s brilliant ability to divorce his private political visions from the poetic pose he maintained in his guise as the lyric spokesman for the transcendent bond of humanity.

To be sure, Whitman “opposed the extension of slavery” — but for reasons wholly different from those of the ordinary abolitionist. He believed slavery would have a ruinous impact upon the white economy, since “white free labor could never successfully compete with black slave labor.” Moreover, he seems to have been an adherent of a view of cultural development with which readers of this journal are likely to find themselves in sympathy. As Freimarck and Rosenthal summarize his position,

White people did not want to live with “colored” people. It was, as Whitman argued, against the laws of nature for different races to live with each other. Not insisting that “colored” people  were incapable of creating a viable society, Whitman nevertheless argued that if they were to do so, it must be someplace away from whites.

In describing Whitman as if he were an immoral poseur, Freimarck and Rosenwith nowhere pause to remark the similarity of his views to those of two other presumed integrationists: Presidents Jefferson and Lincoln. The first did not believe that a multiracial society was possible or desirable. The latter, had he lived, might have carried out his plans for the expatriation of the slaves he had so lately emancipated.

aman5
Nathaniel Hawthorne

It was in support of the presidential ambitions of another man — Franklin Pierce — that Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote the campaign biography that is one of his few works to deal explicitly with the question of slavery. His fiction ignores it. As Freimarck and Rosenthal point out, “No major American writer of the period lived in an imaginative world quite as racially white as Hawthorne’s. His famous ‘power of blackness’ never quite extended to the question of race. His novels contain no Negro characters and scarely hint that the race exists.” But his campaign biography of Pierce proves his awareness of and interest in the problem, even if the attitude he takes will strike many readers as remarkably close to Whitman’s. “Hawthorne,” his editors write,

held to the view that the South’s problem was essentially its own, that the union of America was far more important than the rectifying of a questionable institution. In short, Hawthorne felt that meddling with the institution of slavery was unconstitutional, and it is difficult to escape the judgement that this writer, so dedicated to the inviolability of the human heart as the highest value, subordinated compassion to the necessity of strict constitutional constructionism.

As always, Melville’s position was more ambiguous, and those readers who see his treatment of the race problem in “Benito Cereno” as a clear-cut vindication of white civilization against the onslaught of a ferocious black barbarity have missed much of the irony and complexity of that story. Freimarck and Rosenthal suggest that Melville’s true position can be discerned in Mardi, his neglected allegory. “There,” they report,

Melville presented the dilemma of the individual who sees the hypocrisy and inhumanity of a democratic society that maintains slavery but who, because of his commitment to social order, is ultimately prevented from acting on his moral assumptions. In the concept of justice defined in Mardi, one will find the political philosophy behind works so widely separated as “Benito Cereno” and Billy Budd or even the rationale for Melville’s rejection of political rebellion found in his monumental poem Clarel.

To appreciate the thoughtfulness of Melville’s attitude, one has only to contrast it with Thoreau’s. Moving “from a position advocating private spiritual growth to one advocating public commitment,” Thoreau was eventually prepared to endorse even the most violent means to achieve abolition. Hence his support of John Brown, whose tactics he defended as the quickest way to liberate the slaves. In this as in most things, he was more admirably straightforward than his mentor Emerson, who — in a formulation as silly as some of his verse — was able to convince himself that Brown’s raid was an act of divine love. But neither of the twin Transcendentalists enters the polemical fray to any significant degree, and in their art they deal with the race question only tangentially. The fact remains that in nineteenth century America, the cause of abolition had no great artistic champion, and as Freimarck and Rosenthal ruefully concede, “the writing of a great antislavery opus was left in the sentimental hands of Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe.”

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Source: Instauration magazine, January 1978

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