Monday, August 24, 2009
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
Friday, August 21, 2009
Washington, D.C.'s Union Hotel Hospital (setting for Alcott's Hospital Sketches), ca. 1863.
I ended Part One of this post with Faith Dane’s reaction to Robert’s scarred face: “...pain so distorted, and the cruel sabre-cut so marred that portion of his face, that, when I saw it, I felt as if a fine medal had been suddenly reversed, showing me a far more striking type of human suffering and wrong than Michel Angelo’s bronze prisoner.” In L.M. Alcott: Signature of Reform, biographer Madeleine B. Stern describes Alcott witnessing the return of fugitive slave Anthony Burns to his owner in Boston in 1854, under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850: “As she stood on Boston’s Court Square, Alcott saw the houses draped in black, the crowds on the sidewalk hissing the troops, the flags waving Union down. For a moment she caught a glimpse of the fugitive’s face, scarred by a burn or a brand. She would not forget the rendition of Anthony Burns, or his scar.” Stern notes the importance of Burns’s scar in Alcott’s antislavery fiction. It is worth mentioning here that physical scars figure prominently in all three of Alcott’s antislavery stories, although in “My Contraband,” Robert’s physical scar does not cut as deeply as the psychic scars that wound him. Mutilations, both physical and psychic, are among the most debilitating legacies of slavery as portrayed in Alcott’s work.
Faith remains fascinated by Robert’s odd behavior, and curious about why he has been behaving so strangely with the sick Confederate prisoner, Ned, who lies gravely ill in the hospital bed. The strong gothic elements of the story are dramatically brought to the forefront in a scene where Faith has overslept while on night duty. She is in an isolated wing of the hospital late one night with Robert and Ned, and when the clock ominously strikes three (a.m.), she awakens:
I sprang up to see what harm my long oblivion had done. A strong hand put me back into my seat, and it held me there. It was Robert. The instant my eye met his my heart began to beat, and all along my nerves tingled that electric flash which foretells a danger that we cannot see. He was very pale, his mouth grim, and both eyes full of sombre fire; for even the wounded one was open now, all the more sinister for the deep scar above and below.”
Robert confesses that he has thrown out Ned’s medicine. The next passage reads as feverishly erotic, as if Faith is expecting something more—slightly sinister, but sexually charged: “I saw murder in his eyes, and turned faint with fear; yet the fear excited me, and, hardly knowing what I did, I seized the hands that had seized me.” Faith implores Robert not to kill Ned, asking him why he would want to commit such a horrific crime. Robert then reveals that Ned is his former master as well as his half-brother, and he is ready to kill Ned for raping his wife, Lucy. Robert has locked Faith in the room so that she can neither minister to Ned nor call for help.
“My wife—he took her—” Robert says haltingly. Robert’s double tragedy—being a product of miscegenation (his slave mother was raped by his father) and knowing of his wife’s rape by Ned—results in his mad compulsion to seek vengeance. He typifies the gothic antihero—doomed, dismal, and tenebrous.
In contradistinction to the rampant nineteenth-century stereotype of the “loose” black woman as a cause of white degeneracy, Alcott places the blame for Robert’s twin tragedies (mentioned above) squarely on the shoulders of white southern men, whose hypocrisy left black women even more vulnerable to exploitation. “In that instant,” writes Faith, “every thought of fear was swallowed up in burning indignation for the wrong, and a perfect passion of pity for the desperate man so tempted to avenge an injury for which there seemed no redress but this.”
Faith’s sympathies are conflicted—she cannot allow Robert to commit the murder, and yet she understands his reasons for wanting to do so. His claim to full humanity is tied up in avenging his wife’s degradation. The expression of manhood that killing Ned would provide to Robert is very important, Alcott appears to suggest. The underlying eroticism of the story moves to the surface in this scene, as Faith listens to Robert’s lurid family history while tendering caressing his hair: “[I] put my hand on his poor head, wounded, homeless, bowed down with grief for which I had no cure, and softly smoothed the long, neglected hair, pitifully wondering the while where was the wife who must have loved this tender-hearted man so well.”
Faith’s sympathy for him as she listens is palpable, and yet suffused with eroticism. She is “hot with helpless pain and passion,” and her description of Robert’s anger and indignation also reads, curiously, as erotic: “How the man’s outraged heart sent the blood flaming up into his face and deepened the tones of his impetuous voice, as he stretched his arm across the bed.” Robert then reveals that he was whipped mercilessly by the master’s family and sold further down the river. The preciseness of Alcott’s diction when Robert exposes his scarred back to Faith is telling: “With a sudden wrench he tore the shirt from neck to waist, and on his strong brown shoulders showed me furrows deeply ploughed, wounds which, though healed, were ghastlier to me than any in that house.” His virility and concomitant suffering are so magnified in her eyes that she practically swoons as she gazes upon his naked back, and becomes momentarily speechless.
Andrea Henderson has commented on the controlling gaze of the “sympathetic spectator,” who, she states, “…masochistically suffers at the sight of the object of sympathy, but the spectator also enjoys a feeling of separation from, and even control over, that object.” Faith’s gaze has been suddenly transformed by what she sees, and she attempts to gain control over Robert through a convergence of extreme sympathy and superior language skills.
Robert stands with his hands wrapped around his barely conscious brother’s throat, ready to squeeze the life out of him as Faith attempts to talk him out of his murderous intent. She manages to regain her composure and begs Robert not to kill Ned, noting that her tongue and her sympathy are her strongest weapons: “words burned on my lips, tears streamed from my eyes, and some good angel prompted me to use the one name that had power to arrest my hearer’s hand and touch his heart.” The name, of course, is that of Lucy, Robert’s wife. The control Faith exerts over Robert through her religious importuning begins to calm him—he asks whether God will bring Lucy back to him if he lets Ned live. Faith replies, “As surely as there is a Lord, you will find her here or in the beautiful hereafter, where there is not black or white, no master and no slave.” This entreaty comes directly from Paul’s letter to the Galatians 3:28, which many abolitionists quoted as a Biblical condemnation of slavery: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”
The religious tone of Faith’s narration, as well as her entreaties and supplications, tie Alcott to other abolitionist women writers of the 19th century. Alcott scholar Sarah Elbert notes that both Alcott and Harriet Beecher Stowe “believed that spiritual conversion of the heart (sentiment) is the real vehicle of historical social change. The redemptive power of women, who were entrusted with the hearts and homes of the nation, was therefore limitless, as least in literature by women for women readers.”
Faith’s appeal continues as she tells Robert that she is filled with pity and hope and a desire to help him, works, and she leads him back to his room. Here we get more of Faith’s impassioned writing—she will give Lucy back to him—she will “move heaven and earth.” “Thank Heaven for the immortality of love,” Faith writes, presumably about Robert’s enduring love for Lucy. It is not, however, too difficult to substitute Lucy with Faith herself—I read the tenderness with which she cares for Robert as somewhat suggestive here: “…when all other means of salvation failed, a spark of this vital fire softened the man’s iron will, until a woman’s hand could bend it. He let me take from him the key, let me draw him gently away, and lead him to the solitude which now was the most healing balm I could bestow.”
Faith observes Robert intently, commenting that “he fell down on his bed, and lay there, as if spent with the sharpest conflict of his life.” One might read Faith’s actions as more than just plain compassion, especially keeping in mind the earlier discussion of her controlling gaze and Robert’s respondent passiveness.
There's more to this story--I will post my concluding thoughts on Sunday evening, also providing a teaser on Alcott's next story, a sultry, steamy interracial romance set in the midst of a planned slave insurrection--the author of Little Women--who knew?
All best, Rebecca
Sunday, August 16, 2009
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
Monday, August 10, 2009
I found this comic many years ago, while browsing in Forbidden Planet, a regular haunt when I lived in the East Village. I still have my copy, protected in a plastic cover. It is one of the most famous of all DC comic books—with a quick perusal of the Internet, you can probably find and read all the panels on line.
Those of an earlier generation might find the provocative title quite amusing, as it is based on a 1960s Swedish “art” film (read: nudie) called I Am Curious (Yellow)—which had its own sequel, I Am Curious (Blue). I, of course, was ignorant about that "adult" stuff—I just loved Superman!
The George Reeves Superman series was my favorite television show when I was a kid. It came on in endless reruns throughout my early childhood. My siblings might say that my viewing bordered on obsession. I had a 6-foot Superman poster on my bedroom wall, a Superman coffee mug (years before I ever began to drink coffee), and all manner of Superman comic books (Superman, Action Comics, Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane, Superfamily). I played “Superman” with my G.I. Joes (yes, I had G.I. Joes—no surprise there) and my Jane West doll.
Although I have seen every episode of the television show ever filmed, my favorites were the first couple of seasons of the show, when the emphasis was on crime and mystery, before it turned into a “superhero” kiddie-type of program, with less serious episodes and light comic elements.
The series was much darker in the early episodes—very much B-movie tough guy stuff. These episodes also had the benefit of the superior Lois Lane character, portrayed by actress Phyllis Coates. The early episodes were filled with gangsters, suicide, megalomania, murder, savage beatings and a cynical, dark attitude. I have the first season on DVD and, every time I watch it, I am surprised at the level of violence and pessimism the shows contain. I remember when I first found out that Superman actor George Reeves had committed suicide. If I had just seen the first season of the show, I wouldn’t have been surprised—he is a far different actor than in the later seasons. One rumor I remember was that he had taken an overdose of LSD, thought he really could fly, jumped out of a window, and fallen to his death.
Years later, I found out the truth—that he had died of a gunshot wound, perhaps by a mistress or maybe by his own hand. The question was, though, was it murder or suicide? I couldn’t imagine Superman killing himself, and I resisted believing it for a long time. How could he? He was “super,” and he was a hero. It wasn’t until the release in 2006 of Hollywoodland, starring Ben Affleck, that I finally felt a sense of closure regarding Reeves’s death. The scenario presented in that film seemed much closer to the truth than any of the others. Ben Affleck’s* very affecting performance is worth seeing—he is well-cast, and gives an incredibly moving portrayal of an actor trapped in an image he couldn’t escape.
*Also REALLY worth seeing is Gone Baby Gone, which Ben Affleck directed (in addition to co-writing the screenplay). Deep Baby Deep.
Superman and the Mole Men: Racial allegory or justification for segregation?
Superman and the Mole Men (also known as The Unknown People) was a feature-length movie (dir. by Lee Sholem) that was later re-edited into two episodes for the TV show.
The plot revolves around three little visitors from the center of the earth’s core, whose lives are disturbed by an oil rig that has drilled deep into the earth. When the little mole men (ignore the zippers on the back of their costumes) come up from their habitat to explore the desert, the townspeople become frightened because they are “different.”
A mob (led by a bully) forms, and the three are nearly lynched. Of course, the film has been read as a reaction to the Cold War Communist “scare” (and Cold War-era movies), but it can also be read as an allegorical reading of race relations and mob mentality, with Superman, of course, as the voice of reason. The little mole men mean no harm, and after witnessing the evil and hatred and intolerance of humankind, they return to their own world at the center of the earth.