Daily Archives: February 17, 2007

How can we talk about race in English literature?

[Cross-posted to the Valve]

Last night I attended a particularly fruitful talk by Kim Hall (Director of Africana Studies at Barnard) on sugar production in the seventeenth-century West Indies and the use of “sweetness” in English writings about domestic economy and husbandry. Her talk, “Foreign Encounters with Domestic Economies,” covered a great deal of ground, moving from historical descriptions of the African slave labor that produced sugar from cane (making it, for the first time, readily available to English people outside the very wealthiest class) to the kinds of advertisement writing that appeared in the seventeenth century describing the West Indies to the English, and therefore to prospective investors. Not surprisingly, these latter texts largely skip over the facts of slave labor, instead describing the land as itself somehow yielding up not only ready-to-use sugar, but also candies, cakes, and marmalades. Later, she went on to discuss the use of “sweetness” in C17 English poetry, the valuation of “sugar” metaphors over “honey” ones, and especially how the use of “sweetness” relates to English conceptions of English husbandry, as employed at home and in the colonies.

The range and depth promise good things for her forthcoming book, The Sweet Taste of Empire, which promises to cover all this material in greater depth and detail.

Obviously, narratives of labor and empire have had a wonderful effect on our analysis of historical texts. One can’t imagine reading something like Edmund Hickeringill’s 1661 Jamaica Viewed (one of Hall’s main source texts) without considering the ways that slave labor have been erased from its narrative of production in the West Indies. But what I found quite revolutionary about Hall’s work was the way she goes on to show how anxieties about that erasure appear even in the more “literary” texts of the period. She quotes the following lines from Robert Herrick’s “A Country Life”:

Who keep’st no proud mouth for delicious cates:
Hunger makes coarse meats delicates.
Canst, and unurg’d, forsake that larded fare,
Which art, not nature, makes so rare,
To taste boil’d nettles, colworts, beets, and eat
These and sour herbs as dainty meat,
While soft opinion makes thy genius say,
Content makes all ambrosia.

Here we see sweetness (associated with the class-marker-yearnings of the country gentry) rejected in favor of the humble, local products of English husbandry. Nettles and beets are associated with what one’s own hands can gather, rather than what can be bought from overseas labor. The content he urges is not only content with what is simple or cheap, but with what is readily within one’s grasp. Hall demonstrates how the surpassing sweetness of sugary confections is coded with distance, class, and the labor of foreign hands.

Miriam Burstein’s Valve post on “The historicist’s useful fiction” got me thinking about how much one can read into, for example, Herrick’s treatment of sweetness. After all, the narratives coming back to England from the West Indies, as Hall says, tend to erase the labor that goes into planting cane, harvesting, pressing, rendering, and storing. How much would Herrick have known about the vast industry of slave labor that fueled the sugar production that makes the “delicates” fit for the tables of the upper class?

Not much, probably, but, in the end, does that much change the validity of Hall’s claim that anxieties about sweetness and husbandry begin to infuse the poetry of domestic economy in the seventeenth century?

In conversation with Prof. Hall after the talk, I began to think about the ways that I teach literature of this era as aware of globalization and foreign labor. I’m about to start doing Gulliver’s Travels with my British Lit Survey students, and, for me, it’s clearly not just a satire on British society, but also on imperial English perspectives, foreign labor, racism, and genocide. For some reason, these were never really issues that any of the professors I’ve studied Swift with have ever brought up much. We talked about British religion, philosophy, government, and class, all things that Swift obviously knew and cared about, but we never really discussed whether Swift was concerned about slavery, subjugation, and murder. We know he read Dampier and patterned GT on it closely (and to quite humorous effect, if you’ve read Dampier), but the explicitly racist depiction of the Yahoos is rarely discussed. There is a queasiness about whether Swift aligns himself with the Houyhnhnms who wish to annihilate these beings, or whether he is satirizing Gulliver’s creepy eagerness to distance himself from them. To me, the text suggests the latter, but certainly this requires a bit of faith in the amount to which Swift associates the English treatment of the Irish with the European treatment of other peoples around the world. I’ve taught it before with this assumption, while offering the possibility that I’m wrong.

It’s a difficult, and perhaps uncomfortable question that one may not wish to raise about an author whose opinion of human nature is so low that it’s hard not to see some satisfaction in his character’s willingness to turn away from humanity altogether.

I worry sometimes, though, that in our hesitance to suggest too much about an author’s knowledge or opinions, we may be unwilling to bring up issues of colonial power, slavery, and racism while teaching, even if we willingly accept these issues as valid subjects of critical discussion. Is it wrong to suggest the possibility of an author’s awareness of global struggle to undergraduates?

18th century versions of local and universal knowledge in Michael Braddick

Hello folks, sorry to have slowed down on my posts these past few weeks, but it’s been a hectic time: I was redoing the index for my book (now off my desk: woo hoo!),  and I’ve been pulled in to the accreditation stuff going on on our campus.  (If anyone else has had experience dealing with SACS QEPs [don't ask], write me offline at dmazella@uh.edu).

In the midst of all this, I’ve been going through a book I just picked up, David Armitage and Michael Braddick’s The British Atlantic World:  1500-1800 (Palgrave, 2002), and was really impressed by the quality of the essays.  Braddick himself contributes a terrific essay on “Civility and Authority” in the Atlantic world, which I’d like to recommend to you.  It seems like a precis of the argument of the Cambridge UP book he published in 2000, State Formation in Early Modern England, which I missed, but which I will now definitely look at.

Braddick’s essay is interesting because he begins with what I’d call the “cultural history” approach of, say, Lawrence Klein on politeness and civility, reading “civility” R. Williams-style as one of a series of “key words” or “structures of feeling” for understanding behavior in this period, but then shows concretely and convincingly how these terms helped determine practices of political power and authority up and down the social scale.  This combination of approaches, semantic and material, is useful, because it takes Klein’s groundbreaking insights into 18c politeness, as well as Bryson’s excellent work on the cultural stakes of a rhetoricized “civility,” and pushes the discussion of the history of manners into a whole new phase.

In brief, MB reframes the discussion by taking civility and the material culture undergirding it, and treating both together as part of a social apparatus that allows the “gentleman” to project power and authority over others, in a social order “based explicitly on difference and inequality” (94).  He says, “Political authority was projected and sustained in terms of a language of rule which included the material expression of social distinction: to rule one had to be able to live appropriately, ‘to bear the port, charge, and countenance of a gentleman.’” (95).   We can all think of literary examples of this vision of social order, early and late, that more or less approximates this vision of social hierarchy: 17c pastorals like “Upon Appleton House,” but also nostalgic variants like Matt Bramble’s estate in Humphry Clinker.

Braddick’s discussion of how social position was supposed to mirror, and reinforce, political authority (in what Judith Butler would call a mimetic relation) feels like the missing piece of the puzzle in analyses like Klein’s, which stress the consistency and systematicity of such regimes of politeness, but perhaps neglect the reasons why they were sustained with such passion for such a long time, because of the incremental advantage they gave individuals striving to assert authority over others, who were forced to respond in kind.  So yes, civility and power need to be thought together more systematically.

As I indicated to Laura in our exchanges over Berg, this aspect of civility as projection or display of social position and power could be brought over to the function of antiquarians in such societies, especially under conditions of increased change.  MB notes:

A distinctive genre of writing developed in Elizabethan England, referred to as “chorography.”  In these writngs landscape, history, legal liberties, and local genealogies were intertwined.  They celebrated not simply material aspects of local life but their history and antiquities, particularly the history of important local families.  Distinctive local societies were erected over the land and around local social hierarchy.  These local and social distinctions were expressed in display.  The chimney, the parlor, the glazed window were all signs of social status–in effect they represented a material expression of the right to rule.  As we have seen, keeping up appearances–playing the part of a gentleman–was essential to the maintenance of “natural” authority.  This rested in part on material expressions of taste and distinction on the landscape, in the home, and on the body (102).

In some ways, I’m glad I waited to finish this post until after we discussed Berg, because I believe that MB has put his finger on the historical differences between consumption practices in an inegalitarian setting of inherited birth and worth and contemporary consumption, their power to signify not just money but inherited social rank and consequently social position and genuine power.  I think Bourdieu has taught us all to think in terms of “distinction” and “cultural capital,” but I wonder to what extent these terms can translate backwards to talk about the cultural capital represented by a  family portrait gallery or a pew in a local church.  (Williams is very good on this aspect of the large country houses and the estates they sat on)  I suppose the key here is the fact that the distinction they represent is peculiarly local, and therefore untranslatable, in the same way that local histories are assumed to have little interest for outsiders.

One of the virtues, however, of MB’s little essay is its ability to portray such systems of signifying practices not as closed, but as open and evolving–one of the benefits, perhaps, of its Atlanticist perspective.  And so we find a dialectical counterpart to the local antiquarian’s interest in civility, the cosmopolitan merchant, who had his own perspective on civility:

For many contemporary commentators, trade was closely associated with civility, something demonstrated by the history of Greek and Roman civilization–classical republicanism had as its model a society in which expansion came through the establishment of towns with improved agricultural hinterlands . . . . [T]rade created an Atlantic mercantile elite whose members connected the port towns and their hinterlands in Britain and the New World.  They dominated government in those places, and operated as effective lobbyists in London.  In England, they were often skeptical about the possibilities, or value, of pursuing the status of gentleman in the narrow sense, adhering to their roles in urban life rather than seeking an uncertain acceptance into country society.  But these people nevertheless acquired the trappings of refinement that made them, and their counterparts elsewhere, substantial figures in the port towns of the Atlantic world.  Their charitable acts, their officeholding, their art collecting marked out their place in local society–these grave civic figures bore rule, not as gentleman in the strict sense, but as men of refinement.  Their refinement was in relation to aristocracy a statement of independence; for their social inferiors it continued to mark out a superior local role.  They were not only the products of the Atlantic world of course, but were also the means by which it was created and held together–their associational life was at the heart of the Atlantic world, and it was transnational.  Here were the original “citizens of the world” (104).

For me, this is a better explanation of the complex class status of a figure like Benjamin Franklin, than the one provided in Gordon Wood’s biography, which feels a bit flat in its analysis of Franklin’s fraught relations with the elites in Philadelphia and London.  Moreover, we find here an interesting account of alternative “uses” of consumption (art collecting etc.) for this particular class.  But I particularly value this essay because it really opens up the complexity of the local/universal knowledge distinction in our period.  Clearly, “Enlightenment” is at work on both ends of this dialectic, but for different purposes and with complex ramifications.

So where does Braddick leave us in the discussion on consumption, civility, and the local and cosmopolitan versions of Enlightenment?

Best,

DM