Monday, August 24, 2009
Faith and Forbidden Love in "My Contraband" (Conclusion)
Recruitment poster for the Massachusetts 54th Regiment
Herewith the conclusion of my focus on Louisa May Alcott's "My Contraband." Faith locks Robert in his room, then returns to her own room and flings open her window to get some fresh air. At dawn, as she completes the rest of her shift, and hears the doctor, in whom she has confided Robert’s story, enter Robert’s room. Instead of resting herself when she finally returns to her own room, Faith is unable to sleep; instead, she lies awake, pining over Robert for at least an hour, but not able to hear anything more than a murmur, one time punctuated by Robert’s heavy sobs. The doctor comes to her door to let her know that arrangements have been made for Robert to be taken north to Massachusetts.
Faith continues to work the entire next day, hoping to get a glimpse of Robert. She claims that what has happened to Lucy is what is filling her mind with anxiety, but this rings false—she is really only concerned about Robert: “I tried to rest,” she writes, adding that the “thought of poor Lucy [was] tugging at my heart,” but her true feelings are revealed by her next words: “[I] was soon back at my post again, anxiously hoping that my contraband had not been too hastily spirited away.” She now refers to Robert as her possession—she has, in a sense, now come into full emotional ownership of him, and refers to him as “my contraband” at several points as the story moves toward its conclusion.
Faith gives him money to go North, promising that “…when I come home to Massachusetts, we’ll meet in a happier place than this.” Curiously, there is no mention of Lucy in their goodbyes. Faith also gives Robert a small bible, the cover of which contains an illustration of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus, upon which he comments, “I never saw my baby, Missis.” Robert’s final words suggest that he and Lucy had a child who was taken from them and sold into slavery. Faith is suddenly overcome by emotion, her eyes fill with tears, which blur her vision so much that she does not see Robert leave. Her other senses take over: “…I felt the touch of lips upon my hands, heard the sound of departing feet, and knew my contraband was gone.”
Robert’s statement about his baby appears to shake Faith out of her romantic reverie, for she then goes to confront Ned about Lucy’s whereabouts with renewed conviction. Ned admits that Lucy killed herself when Robert was sold down the river. Faith sends the bad news to Robert, who replies to her letter with one of his own, telling her that he is glad that Lucy is beyond pain. Robert then informs Faith that he will now fight for her (Faith), until he is killed. He ends up joining the Massachusetts 54th regiment and is present at the July, 1863 battle of Fort Wagner in South Carolina.
Here, Alcott departs from the fictional narrative to acknowledge the contributions of blacks to the war effort by providing details about the bravery of the black soldiers during the calamitous attack on Fort Wagner. This odd departure might feel out of place to contemporary readers, but Alcott’s nineteenth century audience (including with the real-life troops who were reading her stories while recovering in Union hospitals) would have understood her desire to rally their continued support during the darkest days of the Civil War—the death toll from the three costliest engagements of 1863 (the Battles of Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and Chickamauga) was in excess of 54,000 on the Union side alone.
During the battle, Robert meets up with Ned, who has recovered fully from his wounds, been exchanged (as a prisoner of war) for a Union officer, and is once again fighting for the Confederacy. Robert, however, is mortally wounded by Ned this time. He is brought back to the hospital and Faith discovers that he has taken her last name, “Dane,” as his own. Robert has unwittingly initiated the miscegenetic impulse by taking Faith’s name. This interracial “marriage,” however, cannot be consummated, as Robert lies near death, so Faith’s earlier desire for him, emblematic of what Laura Hinton has termed “the perverse gaze of sympathy” (with Robert still the object of Faith’s gaze), is again transformed, this time into a maternal longing. Faith’s sexual instincts are finally repressed by her maternal ones.
She listens as one of Robert’s black comrades tells her of Robert’s fateful altercation with his half-brother. The soldier attests to Robert’s rash, almost suicidal bravery as he rushes recklessly toward his doom. In this passage, Alcott highlights the male bonding between the black soldiers, viewing the tenderness with which Robert’s fellow soldier fans him as he lay dying as a sign of higher masculine bravery. Alcott also notes the special viciousness of the Confederate soldiers toward black soldiers, who “…scalp, slash, an’ cut our ears off, when they git us,” as the soldier tells Faith. He goes on to explain that Ned ran his sword through Robert, wounding him, and that he himself killed Ned and brought Robert to the hospital to die. Faith is relieved that Robert did not end up as the one who killed Ned, although it seems curious (to me, at least) that she is able to separate his hell-bent determination to kill his brother from his inability to do so, as if he were not placing his soul in danger merely through sinful intent.
Faith turns to Robert, who has finally awakened. Her sense of loss is apparent in her passionate description of his last moments as she is once again drawn to his sad, doomed countenance:
…Robert’s eyes met mine—those melancholy eyes, so full of an intelligence that proved he had heard, remembered, and reflected…He knew me, yet gave no greeting; was glad to see a woman’s face, yet had no smile wherewith to welcome it; …he was too far across the river to return or linger now; departing thought, strength, breath, were spent in one grateful look…. His lips moved, and, bending to them, a whisper chilled my cheek….
This is as close as Faith comes to actually kissing Robert (who dies moments later), as Alcott abruptly retreats from the intimacy of the moment as well as from the visual image of Faith’s face bent closely over Robert’s. Alcott’s readers, who may have been comfortable with nurses tending to dying men, might have recoiled from the graphic image of a white woman’s lips suspended over those of a black slave, no matter how visibly white he may have looked.
However, the scene feels unsatisfying to my modern sensibility as it suddenly shifts from the temporal world to visions of a great hereafter: “…in the drawing of a breath my contraband found wife and home, eternal liberty and God.” In addition, even a hint that the love of a white woman might be the prize for the courageous fighting troops of the black regiments would have added more fuel to the already inflamed debate that was about to be transformed by the “Miscegenation” pamphlet, which appeared less than a month after “My Contraband” was published. Alcott’s attempts at black subjectivity fall somewhat short, as she is never able to really get inside Robert’s mind and motives.
In this story, as well as in Alcott’s other antislavery works, the black body remained a site of erotic fascination. Her desire to show a positive interracial relationship had come earlier in the year, with the January 1863 publication of “M.L.,” but the depiction of Paul and Claudia’s love in that story was quite chaste compared to what I am suggesting in the subtext of “My Contraband.” Her 1864 story, “An Hour,” also featured interracial romance (between a white slave owner and a mulatto slave) in the midst of a planned insurrection. Nevertheless, she is to be lauded for her progressive, if at times problematic, attempts to illustrate African American humanity and to interrogate racial discourses of the nineteenth century through her fiction.
I hope you have enjoyed this look at Louisa May Alcott--I highly recommend Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, by John Matteson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Biography last year (2008). Matteson teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice/CUNY.
All best, Rebecca