Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Clarel and Mattie Griffith's "Student"


Self-portrait with Hand on Brow
1910, Käthe Kollwitz
Elbow on knee, and brow sustained
All motionless on sidelong hand,
A student sits, and broods alone.  (Clarel 1.1)
That's Melville's depressed divinity student in the opening canto of Clarel.  Newly arrived in Jerusalem, head on hand Clarel "sits, and broods alone" in his room, at twilight.

At first glance, Clarel looks like he transferred out from the start of Mattie Griffith's poem "The Student":
THE STUDENT.

ALONE he sat.  His broad and lofty brow
Was bent upon his thin, pale hand...
Griffith's student sits "All alone" at twilight and mournfully contemplates successive deaths of dear loved ones, seemingly his entire family.  He covets and wins fame which fails, however, to cure his inward grieving.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Mattie Griffith and Melville on the New York City Draft Riots

Here is the paper I presented Wednesday, June 5, 2013 at the Melville and Whitman conference in Washington, DC. 

LOOKING DOWN ON THE DRAFT RIOTS:
MATTIE GRIFFITH AND THE ELEVATED POINT OF VIEW IN “THE HOUSE-TOP”


Melville and Whitman each had his say about the New York City Draft Riots of July 1863, widely regarded as the worst civil uprising in U. S. history. In the year of the Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg, working-class whites, mostly Irish immigrants, feared increased competition for jobs and opposed the new Conscription Act with its $300 exemption for men of means. Anti-draft demonstrations yielded in subsequent days to extreme racist violence. Some rioters invaded homes, looted businesses, tortured and lynched African Americans, and burned down an orphanage. State militia and some federal troops were called in finally to quell the insurrection. Whitman wrote of the shocking violence as “the Devil’s own work.” Melville blamed some blend of devolution and depravity in “The House-top,” one of the better known Civil War poems from Battle-Pieces.  

Neither Melville nor Whitman was in town that week in mid-July to personally see anything of the draft riots.  Mattie Griffith (1828-1906) was.  She gave her first-hand impressions in a letter to fellow abolitionist Mary Anne Estlin (1820-1902) of Bristol, England.  I want to share part of Griffith’s account and compare her take with Melville’s.  Besides identical subject matter, the particular relevance to “The House-top” concerns point of view, the question of who speaks.  Is it Melville himself, as omniscient Bard (Helen Vendler)?  Or Wordsworthian wanderer (Robert A. Duggan, Jr)?  One influential line of criticism starts with the reading of the poem by Stanton Garner as the dramatic monologue of a radical Republican, contemptuous of the Irish rabble, aggressively patriotic as a member of the elite Union League Club and therefore glad for any military intervention that restores order.   Others like Timothy Sweet in Traces of War and Gary Grieve-Carlson recognize one meditative speaker of several minds, hence the changing, unstable perspective.  Cody Marrs likes the single “genteel witness” identified by Garner.  Dennis Berthold also would accept one speaker, but one whose disdain for unruly mobs is close to Melville’s and therefore not so ironic as Garner supposed.  Discerning multiple voices, David Devries and Hugh Egan argue against Garner’s lone spectator that the initial eyewitness perspective “dissolves into competing philosophical discourses” (31).  Wyn Kelley similarly emphasizes the poem’s “contending views,” but locates them in one speaker with a ventriloquist’s ability to project different convictions about human nature and civil society (237).  No critic thinks the speaker is a woman.

With that in mind as a possibility, let me excerpt part of what Mattie Griffith wrote Mary Anne Estlin from NY on July 27, 1863
My dear Miss E[stlin],
It is scarcely the time to write to you now, while I am so excited by the recent outrageous Irish mob which has just disgraced this city of the free North; you will, no doubt, have read accounts of it. For four days this entire city was under the rule of the most boisterous, noisy, riotous, murderous mob that ever disgraced barbaric, let alone civilized, times. The conscription was made the pretext, but really it was the outbreak of the sympathizers with the Southern rebellion. That I live to tell you the story is a marvel, for the mob threatened to burn our house, because the American Freedman’s Commission Office is under this roof, and we lived in momentary expectation of an attack. I can scarcely describe to you my feelings—they were not feelings, but a confused sense of half being. We had no police in the streets; they had all been detailed to the more immediate scenes of violence. Murder and arson stalked abroad. Men entered houses and demanded money from ladies at the point of the bayonet. The mob burnt any house they fancied; one telegraphic wire was destroyed; railway tracks torn up; the fire-engines were not allowed to work; plunder and murder went on by the wholesale. Through the bowed blinds of my windows I watched the strange, wretched, abandoned creatures that flocked out from their dens and lairs. They stood under my window, defied the Government, cursed the draft, and used all sorts of wicked language. I was heart-sick. The negroes—the poor negroes! They have been the worst sufferers—no one helped them. They were recklessly shot down, hanged, burned, roasted alive—every device and refinement of cruelty practiced upon them, and no one dared interpose in their behalf. God knows my heart bleeds when I attempt to recount the atrocities to which, in their friendless, helpless condition, they were forced to submit. A child of three years of age was thrown from a fourth story window and instantly killed. A woman one hour after her confinement was set upon and beaten with her tender babe in her arms, and driven, on peril of her life, to the woods, where she remained during a pelting storm, and was found dead next morning. Children were torn from their mothers’ embrace, and their brains blown out in the very face of the afflicted mothers. Men were burnt by slow fires,—mutilated,—arms, limbs cut off, and they forced to meet death in this slow manner! All sorts of barbarities were practiced for four long bloody days, each one of us silently waiting our own call. You see our “Copperhead” governor [Horatio Seymour] had most artfully denuded the city of the military, by ordering off the regiments to Pennsylvania under pretext of whipping the rebel invaders of that state.

It makes my blood boil to think of all these outrages....

[Courtesy of the Trustees of the Boston Public Library / Rare Books
MS. A. 9. 2. 31 p. 74]
My sincere thanks go to librarian Sean Casey of the Rare Books Department, Boston Public Library for expert help in locating this printed copy of Mattie Griffith's letter to Mary Anne Estlin at BPL.
Most obvious among similarities is the physically elevated viewpoint. Melville’s speaker looks down from the house-top or roof. Mattie Griffith looked down “through the bowed blinds of my windows” on real rioters from above her workplace. Melville’s reference to Sirius, the dog-star that sets in the southwest, situates the House-top somewhere uptown, north and east of visible fires—possibly in Mattie Griffith’s vicinity in the present East Village, at the corner of Second Avenue and East 9th Street. Both use arson as trope to get at the evil behind the setting of fires. Griffith personifies arson sensationally, as one of two roving criminals: “Murder and arson stalked abroad.” Melville’s “red Arson” with a capital A “balefully glares,” demonically, like Milton’s Satan or a medieval monster—say Grendel. In Mardi, the phrase baleful glare occurs in allegories of slavery and rebellion, connecting Calhoun as a southern zombie and the European revolutions of 1848.

Looking down involves for both writers an attitude of moral and cultural superiority, beyond physical elevation. Both employ animal imagery to describe the scene of the riots. Griffith views rioters as subhuman denizens of the jungle: “strange, wretched, abandoned creatures that flocked out from their dens and lairs.” Melville’s speaker belittles working-class rioters as common pests: ”The town is taken by its rats.” Melville’s “ship rats” and wharf rats are inescapably Irish rats with ancestors in fairy tale and Elizabethan folklore. Figuring Law and Religion as metaphorical charms and spells does not betray contempt for Law and Religion, necessarily. As the Pied Piper teaches, that’s how you get rid of rats. Rhyme them to death with song, perhaps incantatory blank verse, or as one old playwright has it, “satire steeped in vinegar.”

Besides all the rats, Melville’s animal imagery includes references to dogs (the dog-star Sirius; plus dog-like cynics) and tigers. It’s the dog-days and the summer heat agitates New Yorkers like tropical heat agitates “tawny tigers” in “matted shades.” It’s tempting to equate the overheated tigers with rioters, but that would soon lead us to confuse cats and rats. The tiger symbolizes wild, strong forces, menacing in destructive capability. One hundred and fifty years ago next month, broadsides all over the city proclaimed: “DON’T UNCHAIN THE TIGER” with evident reference to the threat of violence by working-class gangs. But conservative Democrats overtly read the tiger as a symbol of the radical wartime agenda, exhibited in the unlawful suspension of constitutional rights and the Emancipation Proclamation. As the Pittsfield, Massachusetts Sun (still Melville’s local newspaper, though not for long) editorialized on August 27, 1863, the tiger of “mob spirit” was preceded by the more dangerous “abolition tiger” of radical anti-slavery who
“began his ravages when fanatics and partisans obtained a prepondering influence in the administration of public affairs.” 
Unleashed by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the “abolition tiger” represents for the Sun and like-minded readers the bigger enemy to freedom and national unity, more powerful and menacing than the tiger of “mob spirit.” If the speaker in “The House-top” is a Republican and abolitionist, Melville’s image of “tawny tigers” would seem all the more ironic and self-revealing in the way of dramatic monologues. To Pittsfield conservatives, Abolition tigers were less manageable than Irish rats, more to be feared as influential agents of political agitation and unrest. With vexed, overheated blood Melville’s tigers are “apt for ravage,” recalling the perceived “ravages” of abolition tigers. Not only that, they pace in their “matted shades,” almost daring you to imagine Mattie Griffith the abolitionist, looking down behind her bowed blinds, with her blood understandably boiling.

Besides the similar use of animal imagery, Griffith and Melville both characterize the actions of rioters as chronological regression. Griffith describes the rioters as a collective disgrace to the Stone Age. In the same spirit Melville goes even further. Unwilling to grant human status to roaming torturers and killers, Melville registers their moral devolution in geological rather than historical time: “man rebounds whole æons back in nature.” With aeons Melville generously ascribes unspeakable deeds to prehistoric creatures with the morality of protozoa. Folk-tale imagery of rats and magic no longer suffices.

If any lines of “The House-top” are “steeped in vinegar” to ward off rats, those would be the lines that expressly, imperially “hail” Draco, as everyone recognizes the embodiment of uncompromising, intolerably harsh justice. The State as Draco brings disproportionate military force but arrives “late,” in other words too late to stop the horrifying attacks by rioters. Draco’s refusal to parley, to confer or negotiate with militant crowds, necessarily multiplies the casualties, as reported July 23, 1863 in the Pittsfield Sun:
“Upwards of 500 persons, including women and children, are believed to have fallen under the fire of the military and police.”
Lynch mobs slander human nature. “Wise Draco” defies the Constitution. The bloody spectacle of both on the streets of New York argues for misanthropy and the virtues of monarchy: as Mortmain will aver in Clarel: “Man’s vicious: snaffle him with kings.”

The part of “the Town” most grateful for military intervention—eager for more in the form of martial law (never enacted, by the way)—consisted of Republicans, especially Union Leaguers opposed to conservative Democrats. “Being thankful,” as Melville’s rooftop commentator has it, and remaining firmly in power, pro-Union elites need not be bothered by the hole in their democratic principles, which amount after all to a kind of faith. Melville is still enough of a believer to affirm that faith, if only by the magic spell of song. Leaving us with the ancient thought that Man “is Nature’s Roman, never to be scourged,” the last verse nobly affirms inalienable human rights and dignity—against experience, against the reality of evil, against the poet’s own strong impulses toward misanthropy, in spite of the grime.

Is Mattie Griffith then the one Republican and Union Leaguer that Garner detected on Melville’s imagined Manhattan housetop? Well, she can't be the Union Leaguer that Garner sees, being triply ineligible for the elite Union League Club as a woman and southerner with no regular income.  Nevertheless, she boasted the very best pro-Union and anti-slavery credentials. Her letter to Mary Estlin goes on to recount her solicitude for black victims of violence, a prominent concern of the Union League Club, and her activism as a member of the Ladies’ Loyal League to endorse the Emancipation Proclamation. Eminent abolitionists quickly embraced her anti-slavery fiction and her real life story. Lydia Maria Child, Garrison, Phillips all cheered and promoted her. Harriet Martineau commended her as “the Southern heiress who saw so much of slavery in her childhood that when she came of age (being an orphan) she freed all her slaves.”

Somehow everybody knew or knew about Mattie Griffith. Nathaniel Hawthorne heard about her through the proselytizing of his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, who exasperated the Hawthornes by trying to send their daughter Una excerpts from Mattie Griffith’s new book. Shocked by the graphic depiction of a slave auction, Sophia Hawthorne resented her sister’s direct and to Sophia’s mind unbelievably sensationalized appeals to her daughter:
“It is not necessary she should arrive at the idea of the beauty of holiness by means of knowing about Mattie Griffith.” (As quoted in Bruce A. Ronda, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody at 264)
Emerson stole his notorious remark that John Brown’s hanging would “make the gallows glorious like the cross” from Mattie Griffith. In England, Bulwer-Lytton hosted her at Knebworth House. When Bulwer prophesied the inevitable breakup of the Union, a fellow-guest witnessed Mattie Griffith “dancing a wild Indian war dance” behind his back.

At the time of her letter to Mary Estlin, Griffith was much in the company of Robert Dale Owen, a former member of Congress and now colleague of Union Leaguer James McKaye, on the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission. Owen was also credited with a major role in convincing Lincoln to make the Emancipation Proclamation. In October 1862, Frances Dana Barker Gage reported conversing with them “morn, noon and eve of the war, of slavery, of American affairs generally”:
Opposite me, at Mr. Owen’s right hand, sits Mattie Griffith, the little Kentucky poetess, once such a favorite of the Louisville Journal and the Missouri Republican, known now more generally in the free States as the Emancipator of her slaves, and the author of sundry books and tales on slavery, among them, Autobiography of a Female Slave….”
(The Liberator, November 21, 1862)
After the war Griffith immediately began working for equal voting rights for women and blacks, with colleagues now including Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucy Stone. At American National Biography Online, Joe Lockard continues Griffith’s story through her marriage to lawyer/banker Albert Gallatin Browne and their first move to Boston, where “Neighbors remembered Griffith as an independent spirit who liked to appear in Harvard Square dressed entirely in red, including red gloves.” Back in Boston after a New York interlude, only her death in 1906 could stop Mattie Griffith’s admirable career of social activism.

IN CONCLUSION. Switch the gender and Garner’s notion of one radical speaker in “The House-top” holds up surprisingly well in light of the parallel attitudes and imagery in Mattie Griffith’s letter on the draft riots. Not to mention the tantalizing whisper of Mattie in “matted shades.” The original letter is in London, but the Boston Public Library holds a printed version among papers of the Weston Sisters that was published alongside Deborah Webb's poem on John Brown in some yet unidentified piece of ephemera, possibly an anti-slavery newsletter or circular. The printed format increases the chances that Melville ever saw it from zero to possibly, at least.

One suggestion for further study. In late 1852, eight years before Melville tried and failed to get his first book of poems accepted for publication, the New York house of D. Appleton & Company came out with Poems by Mattie Griffith. For a little book Griffith’s volume (dressed in red, see!) is fearless in exploring powerful feelings of rejection and abandonment. Emotionally intense verses from poems like “Thou Lovest Me No More” and “The Orphan” and “The Orphan Dreams of Fame” conceivably might have appealed to Melville and moved him, more personally and more deeply than her later prose or politics. [deleted:  Hawthorne had left the year before; then and after Melville began to interest himself in writing creatively about heroic loneliness and endurance of longsuffering women, from the real Agatha Hatch, loved and left by her bigamist sailor husband, to the fictional Chola widow in “The Encantadas.” Griffith’s spurned lover in “The Deserted” sounds a lot like Urania in “After the Pleasure Party”; her “Student” apparently transferred to the first canto of Clarel. Along with the lonely student, hermit, and lover, the orphan figures repeatedly in these early verses. For her part, Griffith did not need to read Moby-Dick to the end to know what Ishmael felt like as “only another orphan.” When she speaks in verses “To Mother” of “the lonely orphan wanderer,” she means herself.]

Adding some links, I find the Boston Public library also has a printed copy or rather extract of another, different letter from Mattie Griffith to Mary Anne Estlin, this one describing and reflecting on the assassination of President Lincoln. Mattie Griffith's letter on the assassination of Lincoln was published May 26, 1865 in some unidentified newspaper under the title "THE POPULAR FEELING IN AMERICA."  Further research may eventually identify the newspapers and other periodicals that were publishing Mattie Griffith's letters to Mary Anne Estlin.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Streets of Washington: Book Review: Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C...

Book ordered, on the way!
Streets of Washington: Book Review: Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C...: Frederick Douglass (c. 1818-1895), the most famous African American of the 19th century, has been in the news lately because his statue is t...

Saturday, June 8, 2013

What Frederick Douglass really said about thieving politicians in his 1875 Lecture on our national capitol

UPDATED AGAIN 07/31/2014 in Don't get it twisted

UPDATE 6/10/2013
By email, Ed Folsom has kindly supplied important background showing that a previous incarnation of his plenary lecture included just what seemed to me was missing from the talk as I heard it.  Introducing the attributed remark of Douglass, Folsom originally gave fuller context, duly noted the questionable authenticity of the quotation, and also explicitly acknowledged the biographical work of John Muller, both in Muller's recently published book and his reflections online.  Wow!  Before cutting Folsom had said all I was thinking about, only more expansively and eloquently.  The thing that to me most needed emphasizing, was Muller's most perceptive and essential insight about the incongruity of the ever-principled Douglass wanting to identify with a thief.  Turns out that before cutting, Folsom also had made a point of noting this same incongruity, how the confessed impulse to "steal something" attributed to Douglass "seems so out of keeping with Douglass’s character."   

Below, a long excerpt from Ed Folsom's email reply, in which he helpfully gives the relevant text from the earlier version of his conference talk, before the regrettable deletions:

"As I told a number of people at the conference, I felt like I was presenting a much-too-edited-down version of a paper that, as I wrote it over the past few months, had grown to nearly three times the size it needed to be for the keynote talk.  In an earlier version of the piece, I offered a fuller contextualization of the quote from Williams.  First, here’s what you heard me say in the talk at the conference:
I want us, finally, to begin to understand what Frederick Douglass might have meant when he made one of his most enigmatic statements, reported by a Wisconsin congressman in the House of Representatives: “Douglas said he could never account for it: but somehow, whenever he got in sight of the Dome of the Capitol in Washington, he always felt as though he wanted to steal something.” Douglass, looking back at the years just after emancipation, said: “The South wouldn’t have us; the North didn’t want us. We were strangers in a strange land.” But the land was least strange here in DC, where emancipation had come nine months before Lincoln’s proclamation, and where, for a very few short years after the war, a biracial democracy had begun to form, one that desperately needed the encouragement and imagination of writers who failed to see the possibilities of the emancipated Freedom that looked down on them from above.
 And here’s what that passage looked like in the earlier and longer draft:
Finally, I want to consider a statement attributed to Frederick Douglass by a Republican Wisconsin congressman, Charles G. Williams, in 1878, who recalled his friend Douglass (they met when both lived in Rochester, New York) saying something quite enigmatic: Williams reported in the House of Representatives that “Douglas said he could never account for it: but somehow, whenever he got in sight of the Dome of the Capitol in Washington, he always felt as though he wanted to steal something.”  A colleague of mine pointed this comment out to me some time ago, and I have since talked with several colleagues about what the comment could have meant, since it seems so out of keeping with Douglass’s character.  Douglass’s most recent biographer, John Muller, whose new book on Douglass’s life in Washington, D.C., just appeared last year, recently reproduced the quotation on his blog for the book, and he asks: “Was Douglass joking or dead-serious or dead-serious although joking?”  Of course, Douglass may never have said it.  But I want to have us think about the statement in relation to the way in which the Capitol dome came to be so racially inflected during the period it was being constructed.  Muller’s new book makes clear just how betrayed Douglass felt when Andrew Johnson became president and began quickly to try to stand in the way of the formation of a biracial democracy.  Douglass, looking back at the years just after emancipation, said: “The South wouldn’t have us; the North didn’t want us.  We were strangers in a strange land.” But the land was least strange here in DC, where emancipation had come nine months before Lincoln’s proclamation, and where, for a very few short years after the war, a biracial democracy had begun to form, one that desperately needed the encouragement and imagination of writers who failed to see the possibilities of the emancipated statue of Freedom that looked down on them from above.  Something in those years following the war had been stolen from the newly emancipated slaves, and, as we will soon see, many Americans were seeing the Capitol dome as the symbolic site of a stolen Liberty.
At least the longer version made clear a little more about the Williams quote and suggested that its provenance was uncertain.  I had had so many interesting and illuminating talks with my colleagues here at Iowa about the quote over the past few months that I thought it was worth throwing it out there in the context of the new material I had found that attached the dome so thoroughly to the battles over civil rights for freed slaves.  Your pointing out Douglass’s citation of the Brownlow quote certainly could indicate that Williams simply was misremembering what Douglass said, or it could mean that Douglass adapted Brownlow’s statement for his own purposes in a conversation with Williams.  In any case, it’s an interesting and strange quotation by Williams of Douglass."
(Ed Folsom, quoted by permission from his email of June 9, 2013)



In his instructive and well-received plenary lecture June 4, 2013 at the recent Melville and Whitman conference in Washington, DC, Whitman scholar Ed Folsom quoted (twice, at least) Frederick Douglass on the Capitol Dome.  The quotation sounded odd to me and Folsom did not explicate, but rather floated it out there as a possible (and vaguely "disturbing," maybe) instance of the way the Dome symbolized and provoked racial divides and themes during and after the Civil War.  Folsom quoted Douglass as saying something like, whenever he saw or came near the Capitol Dome he always felt like he "wanted to steal something."

That did not sound anything like the deeply principled Douglass to me, so naturally I had to Google it. 

Turns out Douglass was quoting (approvingly yet perhaps ironically, too) an old anecdote about crooked politicians associated with William Gannaway Brownlow, the former Tennessee governor and US Senator.  As itinerant Methodist preacher, Brownlow had once refused to debate Douglass.  Later Brownlow famously supported the Union, Reconstruction and black enfranchisement.   The context of Douglass's citation of Brownlow is Washington with its corrupt politicians as a "moral monster" for supporting slavery and the southern rebellion:
"Like any other moral monster, there was contamination in its touch, poison in its breath, and death in its embrace. There was something more than a wild and witty exaggeration in the saying of Senator Brownlow when he remarked to a fellow passenger that he must be getting near Washington, for he began to feel as if he wanted to steal something.  In fostering and fomenting the late slaveholders' rebellion, Washington performed its full share. It sustained Buchanan when he trifled with treason. It applauded Breckenridge when he served the rebellion better in the Senate with his tongue then he could possibly serve it in the field with his sword. It stood between President Johnson and deserved impeachment and cheered him on in his ministry of disorganization. It smiled upon the cowardly and murderous assault of Brooks upon Senator Sumner. It hatched out in its heat and moral debasement the horrible brood of assassins who murdered the noble Lincoln and attempted the murder of Seward. Its people would, at any time during the great war for union and liberty, have preferred Davis to Lincoln and Lee to Grant." (Frederick Douglass: a Lecture on our National Capital)
The main idea of the original anecdote is proverbial, "when in Rome..."  When in Washington, you do as they do in the nation's capitol, which is STEAL.

Douglass borrows the Brownlow anecdote for his own purposes, adapting it to a discussion of pro-slavery racism.  However, the anecdote as transcribed here more generally describes Washington and Washington political culture, and not specifically the Capitol Dome as building or architecture, which was the focus of Folsom's talk. 

Maybe Folsom saw this blog entry or the new book on Frederick Douglass in Washington, DC where Wisconsin congressman Charles G. Williams is cited from the Congressional Record, loosely recounting the remark by Douglass a few years earlier.  Unfortunately I don't have the book yet, I'm getting this part from the wordpress blog of  John Muller.

What I like about Muller's handling of Williams's misremembered quotation in the blog and book is that he can't quite believe the upright Douglass would ever say such a thing, despite the authority of the Congressional Record.  Therefore Muller perceptively guesses if he did say that he must have been "joking" somehow

Link to source at American Memory, Library of Congress:
Frederick Douglass: a Lecture on our National Capital. By Frederick Douglass. Smithsonian Institute Press, Washington D.C., 1978. Chesapeake Bay Book Collection.

For more on the extant manuscript versions of Douglass's remarks on Washington, see the updated Melvilliana post Don't get it twisted.