Sunday, August 16, 2009

Louisa May Alcott: Black Blood and White Desire

Louisa May Alcott is most well-known for writing Little Women, but many people don’t know that she also wrote “sensation” stories, much like her fictional character, Jo, or that she also wrote three antislavery love stories with interracial themes. I have done some scholarly writing on Alcott’s work, but here, I’d simply like to introduce two of the stories in my next few blog posts, with the hope that some of you will be moved to read them and consider Alcott from a different perspective, one that highlights her abolitionist side.

“He was no longer slave or contraband, no drop of black blood marred him in my sight, but an infinite compassion yearned to save, to help, to comfort him,” writes narrator Faith Dane of Robert, the revenge-seeking mulatto hospital attendant she eventually falls in love with in Louisa May Alcott’s Civil War story, “My Contraband” (originally published as “The Brothers” in November of 1863 in the Atlantic Monthly).

Dane’s obvious compassion for Robert, however, is undermined by her negative characterization of his so-called “black” blood as a pollutant. “My Contraband” illustrates the contradictory stance of Faith Dane, the abolitionist nurse (and Alcott alter ego) whose eroticized references to Robert’s physical features and mixed blood appear to advance a sympathetic view of interracial relationships while also serving to reinscribe then-current ideas of white superiority. Alcott further complicates the story by transforming Dane’s initial concern and sympathy for Robert into desire as she begins to fall in love with him. Her barely hidden sexual yearnings are seen in the heightened tension that pervades the story.

Alcott, an ardent abolitionist, nonetheless found it difficult to reject certain commonly-held nineteenth century beliefs about black inferiority. She faced great difficulty in her attempt to show romantic love between blacks and whites without alienating the vast majority of whites (Northerners and abolitionists) who still held unfavorable views regarding such couplings. While quite progressive on the subject of intermarriage between the races when compared with her contemporaries, however, Alcott was not completely immune. It is hard to reconcile her public stance on black equality (for which she was a vociferous advocate) with her implied belief in the inferiority of “black” blood as indicated by its pejorative use in her antislavery works. Alcott used her own experiences as a Civil War nurse at the Union Hotel Hospital in Washington, D.C. in December 1862 through January 1863 as the background, and the hospital itself, as the setting for “My Contraband.” The theme was notably different from the other hospital sketches, however, in that it dealt with miscegenation, rape, and fratricide. I should mention here that the instability of racial classification itself figures into all three of her antislavery stories.

Written using the conventions of the sensation thrillers that she would perfect in stories and novellas such as Behind A Mask and A Whisper in the Dark, “My Contraband” is gothic in its approach, atmospheric and claustrophobic. Alcott casts herself as Faith Dane, an abolitionist-turned-nurse who ministers to wounded soldiers on both sides of the conflict, and takes as her subject the “brother against brother” characterization of the Civil War. The twist is that these brothers, who share the same father, are of different colors—one, Robert, is a black (“mulatto”) slave, and the other, Ned, is a white Confederate captain. Robert’s tragedy (his mixed blood), having been created by his master/father, is compounded by Ned’s rape of Robert’s wife, Lucy. Robert, the contraband (as the freed slaves were called), is working in the hospital for Faith Dane as he recovers from his own wounds. He is a very handsome light-skinned black who could easily pass for white. Nurse Dane appears at first to be quite taken with him: “Feeling decidedly more interest in the black man than in the white, yet remembering the Doctor's hint of his being ‘high and haughty,’ I glanced furtively at him as I scattered chloride of lime about the room to purify the air, and settled matters to suit myself. I had seen many contrabands, but never one so attractive as this.” Faith describes Robert as “strong-limbed and manly.” She is clearly physically attracted to him, beguiled as she casts furtive looks at him, the implication being that she has directed her gaze onto contrabands before.

The reason for Dane’s interest is not specified, although, since she goes on to describe him purely in terms of his physical attributes, one might read the subtext in the classic Lacanian sense of the gaze, in that Faith’s gaze upon Robert, as the object of her desire, intensifies throughout the story. “The profile which I saw possessed all the attributes of comeliness belonging to his mixed race,” she writes. Alcott’s view of the mulatto as a tragic and yet desirable being is underscored by her description of Robert as dark, brooding, and doomed: “He was more quadroon than mulatto, with Saxon features, Spanish complexion darkened by exposure, color in lips and cheek, waving hair, and an eye full of the passionate melancholy which in such men always seems to utter a mute protest against the broken law that doomed them at their birth.” Being “more quadroon than mulatto,” i.e., one quarter black as opposed to half black, would mean that he had even less “black” blood (as Alcott refers to it) in him. The equation of the color of blood with the color of skin was common in the nineteenth century, as was the measuring and fractionalization of blood. “White” blood wasn’t really white, of course, nor was so-called “black” blood actually black. These phrases, however, highlight the complicated history of race-mixing in the United States since its inception, and especially leading up to and during the Civil War, when the hysteria over what came to be called “miscegenation” (another new word in the American lexicon) dominated much of the scientific, as well as the political, thinking of the time.

Louisa May Alcott’s frank treatment of miscegenation as being created and carried forth by degenerate southern white men contrasts sharply with what proslavery forces wanted the public to believe. However, as noted earlier, this treatment is complicated by the fact that all of Alcott’s black heroes are nearly white in complexion. Dane is an abolitionist, but from her words it would appear that she has special reserves of pity for those who, but for a drop or two, would be white, free, and entitled to all the privileges of whiteness.

Dane does initially view Robert as a “man,” however, and is moved by him—so moved in fact, that “following the impulse of the moment” she goes and touches him. Immediately, she is pulled out of her reverie by his slave status, which manifests itself in his servile attitude and voice: “In an instant, the man vanished and the slave appeared.” The mixture of revulsion and disappointment is unmistakable. She is at once deflated and revolted by his servility: “any romance that had gathered round him fled away” and “the manhood seem[ed] to die out of him.” Slavery and manhood are incompatible—a slave is not a man, and a man is not a slave, in Alcott’s view—echoing Frederick Douglass’s famous quote from his 1845 Narrative. Faith’s revulsion/attraction to Robert is heightened when he turns and she sees, for the time, his deeply scarred face.

I will end this post here, but would encourage you to read the short story—it’s fairly brief—about 15 pages. You may be surprised at how hot and heavy Alcott's prose becomes! I will continue my discussion of this text in my next post.

Here is the direct link to Alcott’s 1869 collection Hospital Sketches; and, Camp and Fireside Stories, with the full text of “The Brothers” (in this volume as “My Contraband”) and “An Hour” from the Internet Archive. I suggest you bookmark the site, as you will want to return!

All best, Rebecca


Julian said...

I've read this story and I love your take on it. But, wouldn't u agree that all Miss. Dane wants is for African-Americans to have self-respect and not have so much deference? It is not so much that she hates his blackness, but that she hates his subservient attitude that comes along with it.

Anna Marie Sewell said...

I just happened upon a picture of LMA, and immediately thought, she's of Black descent, before even seeing who it was. Is the possibility of her own Black heritage something that is discussed? And what do you think? Does it resonate with her writerly ambivalence about mixed race people?
(I am an Indigenous Canadian of mixed ancestry, and grew up with a lot of folks who 'passed' as White, and who pressured my family to do the same, which we refused to do, but which has been a common enough response to racist barriers here).