[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?