Little Steppe of Horrors: Metaphysics, Monstrosity and the Picaresque Trickster in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Wu Cheng’en’s A Journey to the West

©Mary Crockford May 24, 2018

Little Steppe of Horrors: Metaphysics, Monstrosity and the Picaresque Trickster in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Wu Cheng’en’s A Journey to the West

While one is a postmodern Western lauded as an incarnation of the Great American Novel, and the other a Medieval epic still beloved by China’s modern body politic, the protagonists of both Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West bear strikingly similar markers of the picaro of Baroque Spanish nascency. Both stories feature a youthful male – one human and one simian, respectively – destined to spend “his hours and days, his childhood, his youth” wandering through “surroundings…unfavorable to his improvement” in search of security and significance; each fulfills the paradoxical role of both pawn and hero exposing the problem of individual agency and cultural conformity for the emergent citizen in the nation in need of reform and “union…as much territorial as spiritual” (Cuneo 125); and each undergoes the developmental journey or bildungsroman fictionalizing the societal outcast’s “growth, or retrogression, as a mark of social determinism” (Ardila 77) placed upon him by stratified society cyclically forcing and frustrating his quest for individuation.

It is not the purpose of this paper to claim that either novel or protagonist is clearly picaresque in the Spanish tradition, but to examine some of their shared thematic and narrative elements in the context of the Baroque picaresque novel, as well as traits of the picaresque hero and trickster their protagonists possess to varying degrees. Through these elements and the employment of irony, doubling and other techniques of disarming the reader, the origins of each novel can be recognized as purposeful alternatives to national pastorals and chivalric tales enshrouding in myth the narratives of Chinese and American Western transnational expansionism.

As Chengen’s answer to political and philosophical fracturing resulting from centuries of dynastic legalism and imperialism designed to “generally squelch or discourage philosophical expression” (Von Himsbergh), his protagonist Sun Wukong emerges from a multi-millennial process of creation beginning with a dually entropic and inertial “state…called chaos” in which “Everything is dead,” and coalescing in the ascendence of “the three great powers, Heaven, Earth and Man” and a solid “world…divided into four great continents” (Cheng’en 1-2). Sun Wukong’s emergence is not one of human reproduction and birth, nor one arising out of royal succession, but of hatching from a stone egg. He arrives as both untested savior to a pre-enlightenment world ruled by capricious and ineffectual deities, and hominoid trickster “transformed into a stone monkey with the five senses of the body complete, and able to creep and run” (2).

From his emergence, he is a metaphysical force of nature resistant to dogma, so like the protagonist of Aleman’s seminal picaresque text Guzman de alfarache, his entire life story is “largely anti-clerical and dangerous” (Ardila 41). He “astonish[es] the dwellers of heaven” with his reputation for hubris “even reaching the Jade Emperor in his golden palace in the clouds” and his “heavenly ministers.” The Jade Emperor finds the prideful primate “the most incomparable of all living creatures” who is not simply resilient but “[does] not suffer” (2) so he cannot be controlled. The heavenly rulers leave Monkey alone to seek and find pleasure and establish a limited earthly authority in a “true resting place” within the Happy Land of the Flower and Fruit Garden and its Waterfall of the Heavenly Cave (4), but in exchange for his freedom, Monkey is conscripted by the goddess Guanyin to accompany the Taoist monk Xuanzang to India to obtain the Buddhist texts which alone have the power to tame him.

It is at the Garden’s watery portal that one can see that while not purposeful, parallels between Sun Wukong and Renaissance Spain’s Charles I and V provide for fruitful exploration of the role of monarch as its own loose type of national antihero, for purposes of political and existential discourse reflecting “the period in which [picaresque] literature developed.” As it was for Charles I and V, who in “the last half of the fifteenth and the first half of the 16th centuries” was Holy Roman Emperor of Spain and Germany, for Monkey as Song Dynasty monarch “misery reigned about him” in the form of political rivalries, boundary wars, and religious incoherence keeping the citizenry “in a state of intermittent confusion [serving] to exhaust the strength of the nation” (Cuneo 125). Finding his localized kingship insufficient, and plagued by mortal fears of “the world after death” (6), egoistic Sun Wukong interprets his conscription as a noble gesture of volunteerism, pledging before “all kinds of monkeys who were princes, statesmen, and their assistants” (4) to lead the pilgrimage West to obtain the religiously and politically unifying Buddhist scriptures:

In face of these difficulties, suddenly a monkey came forward and cried

out, “I will venture in.” … He shut his eyes, bent his body and rushed into the

midst of the waterfall. Then he opened his eyes and raised his head to see.

There was no water, but there was an iron bridge. (3)

The stone monkey was delighted beyond measure. He shut his eyes again

and doubled up his body and jumped through the waterfall to the outside…

He said, “There is no water at all, only an iron bridge, On the other side of

the bridge is a palace full of treasures.” (4)

Owing to his dualistic nature as supernatural emissary and spiritual pilgrim, Monkey has vision into the opaque boundary between the material and immaterial worlds, crossing them effortlessly through activation of the “destructive-transformative side of the cosmic will” (Perera quote, Fraleigh 150) native to the trickster’s body. He is in a sense the embodiment of metafiction, the Nietzschean ubermensch who is both monster and monkey possessing the Rabelaisian open body “shown as continually undergoing change” (Davidson) enabling him to make gravity-defying leaps and bounds.

Like laws of science, social mores governing class mean nothing to Monkey as he mirrors the bridge on the other side of the falls, his body and imagination transgressing the physical and spiritual so others may emulate and follow the picaro’s “daring reconquest” (Cuneo 126) of traditional narrative boundaries. He persists in seeking “the possible fulfillment of the so-called bourgeois dream” (Ardila 174-175) dangled in monarchically funded ventures into unknown regions for the prospect of advancing national and personal fortunes:

The Monkey King, having no luck in his search for the way of the Immortals,

and having spent eight or nine years in vain, suddenly came to the great

Western Ocean…then he got on a raft as before, and sailed as far as the

borders of the Western continent, where he landed and searched for a long

time. (Weng’en 7)

Monkey’s maritime journey West, first through the Waterfall of Heaven and then by sea on a handmade raft, can be compared to “any sixteenth-century Spanish tale, especially as regards the prospect of [the picaro’s] finding a better life across the Atlantic” (Ardila 174), a category I contend includes the nonfictional accounts of the conquistadors and their female counterparts, conquistadoras or picariscas, Catalina de Erauso and Ines Suarez.

Ignoring his Master’s warning that “danger does not come from Heaven, nor from man, but from one’s own passions” (15), Monkey returns to the Mountain Garden and accepts the worship of the “Ten thousand monkeys, great and small” awaiting him. He does not correct the monkeys’ marveling at him that the “Master has taught you how to perform many wonders” (19) and uses his magic as frivolous entertainment:

They replied, “Show us some of your wonderful arts.” The Seeker said, “Tell me

what you want and I will try.” They said, “Change yourself into a pine tree.” The

Seeker of Secrets recited an incantation, shook his body and was transformed

instantly into a pine tree.

In punishment for his indiscretion and braggadocio, the master expels Monkey, threatening to flay him alive if he credits him as his teacher. In an ironic response to his “constant mischief-making” (Adams 3) in becoming a tree, he is made Stud Master, a glorified stable boy position he perceives as a promotion until his subordinates inform him the position is “the lowest” (Cheng’en 39), an empty post the gods only bestowed in order to surveil him and keep him out of trouble:

How dare they invite me here to merely look after their horses? Is this the way

they should behave towards me? I will not stand it! I will not stand it! I am

going!” In an instant he pushed over, with great noise, the table at which public

justice was administered, pulled out his precious weapon… (Cheng’en 39)

Monkey, as “quick to be offended” in moments of perceived injustice as he is “penetrating in mind and vision” at the prospect of inter-realm travel and adventure, again turns the metaphorical tables by rushing “out through the gate of the Imperial Horse Yamen” and “in no time” (39) returns to the Mountain Garden. Monkey’s quickness to respond to offense, coupled with his ability to wield an arsenal of magic utterances and weapons, and his quixotic nature leads to the picaro’s often violent “metaphorical and literal journey” (Adams 2-3) or bildungsroman filled with embarrassment and conflict, reflecting the earnest but naive alien’s frustration with false establishmentarian promises and arbitrarily erected socieconomic barriers.

As a soteriological journey – one concerned with attainment of salvation – Monkey’s pilgrimage is a manifestation of “a journey to a Chinese monastery or temple” representing “a progression from the outer to the inner…karmic impoverishment to karmic wealth” (Walsh 37) that is central to Buddhist theology. Using the Jungian cosmic dancer’s liminal nature through mastery of magic, Monkey is not only the picaro counted among a “certain class of young men whose occupation was confined to running errands” (Cuneo 125) in the national interest, but he is the “agent of liberation and ally of new creations” (Moore Introduction) able to defy mortal boundaries and facilitate the passage of others for the same purpose. He repeatedly demonstrates to his ordinary compatriots through verbal gymnastics on par with his physical feats, that he can vanquish the forces of evil such as the Demon King and Disturber of the World’s Peace, who “with no weapons” but only a Perraultian dandy’s “red gown and yellow girdle and black boots” and “crowd of little demons” is forever “assaulting [Monkey’s] children” (Cheng’en 18). While as monarch he is believed by his monkey subjects to be an emissary of God, to competing powers he is the picaresque interloper whose “satirical view of the public sphere from ground up” and predictably unpredictable adventures and run-ins with authority provide a “comic break from decorum and normalcy with no long-term repercussions” (Ardila 76) as he undertakes his search for the holy writings “needed to release countless souls trapped in hell” (Chua para 5).

To Wisdom’s inquiry of Monkey as to what he has “been learning all this time,” Monkey boasts that he has “mastered the study of the spiritual nature” (15). But his Master informs the disciple he names Seeker of Secrets that there are still dangers that threaten his spiritual journey – those which Cuneo says for the picaro “len[d] themselves admirably to the carrying out of his exploits” in the quest to obtain the liberating palimpsest only hinted at in the Book of Changes and Wordless Scriptures – the latter which Plaks calls the novel’s “final irony” and “rather transparent joke” (9) at Monkey’s name which means “Aware of Emptiness” (Cheng’en 219). Such irony throughout the novel affirms Kane’s assertion that Monkey’s journey to India “is an allegory…for the individual seeking enlightenment” who must first battle “innumerable demons and monsters” (xiii), ones his Master tells him need to be conquered before he is worthy to liberate his nation:

What I teach you is not an ordinary doctrine, for it controls the forces of Heaven

and Earth and the secrets of the sun, moon and stars. When one has arrived at this

stage, then one is superior to the evil spirits and the ordinary gods. Still after a

time there will come a thunderclap to try your soul and spirit. If unmoved and

unshaken in the deluge, you will be like Heaven itself. If you doubt, then you

perish. (Cheng’en 15)

The immature Monkey King’s ironic, titan-child hybridity manifests itself to the Master’s equally hybrid delight and frustration, such that the teacher in the space of a few moments beats his disciple “three times on the head” and retires to his chamber in consternation. Monkey comically misinterprets the three strikes on the head as an invitation to wait a short time and then resume his pestering for a blessing he hasn’t earned (Chen’en 14). Sun Wukong’s ignorance of his own ignorance, like that of the immature picaro “passing from master to master” without measurable increases in wisdom, reflects “the protean nature” of the early picaresque genre itself (Katona).

Making landfall after his journey to the Southern Continent on a self-made raft, with the aid of his magical staff Monkey assumes whatever identity or form necessary, as both usurper and deliverer of a race casting far and wide but finding no end in their directionless pursuit of redemption:

There on the beach he saw some men fishing…He went up to them and took

the form and motions of a tiger, and so frightened the people that they ran away

in all directions, leaving behind their baskets and their nets. Finding one who was

unable to run away, he stripped him of his clothes, and put them on as men did,

and walked with dignity across the country. (Cheng’en 7).

By scattering those with able bodies, and denuding the invalid among the company and stealing his clothes, Monkey opportunistically robs those without the benefit of his magic whom he previously judged for seeking after “Food and raiment without work” and not “desiring to repent” (7) of selfishness and sin, while professing himself to seek the hero’s objective of “great intellectual independence” (Cuneo 127) and mankind’s betterment.

Monkey is also able to conquer the antagonistic elements of the supernatural realm to protect his subjects. By chewing one of the “84,000 hairs on his body” that can be transformed into a horde of small monkeys, he overtakes the Demon King and Disturber of the World’s Peace intending to leave “not one demon alive” (19). Monkey’s mastery of “the secret forces of nature,” while wearing the purloined clothes of men and learning “how to become human” (20), and abuse of power for the sake of admiration and self-gratification conjoins the picaro’s romanticism and “the inherent anomie of his world also overlaps with the chaos that underpins the picaresque” (Perez Fernandez 11).

Monkey, “not certain of the degree of his rank” bequeaths himself a number of grand titles, including Equal of Heaven and Old Sun in order to address other rulers “all as equals” (Cheng’en 48). But he “cannot shake off the burden of his lineage” – in his case that of the “low class, fatherless lad” whose lack of a pedigree disallows guaranteed succession so that it appears “upward mobility is not an option” (Ardila 75-76). Haunted by the same specter of social determinism dominating Baroque thinking regarding the poor and working classes, Monkey’s entitlement and impulsivity are formidable obstacles to internal transformation and his “expertise as a deceiver increases with age, as do his audacity and the degree of intricacy and the degree of difficulty of his hoaxes” (76). Lacking the moral compass satirized by the magic needle he keeps behind his ear and uses to make his “loins…as great as mountain ridges” and “his eyes like lightning” (Cheng’en 27), he exasperates authorities attempting to assign a fixed occupation that will cure his aimlessness:

One day he went to the East, another day to the West, mounting on the clouds

without any fixed purpose. Then one day at the morning audience of the Jade

Emperor, an official said, “That so called Equal of Heaven is daily wandering

without anything to do. It is to be feared that some day trouble will arises. It will

be better to give him some work to do.” (Cheng’en 48)

In spite of the vain ranks and titles Monkey bestows upon himself, he is less the sage or god he believes himself to be than the “psychological picaro, one very much concerned with his soul” (Katona 6-7) but lacking in spiritual and moral discipline. Because he views his earthly containment as a form of poverty or imprisonment to be fled, and status something to be grasped at all costs, his aimlessness is symptomatic of the picaro’s “existence without any certainty or truth…full of hypocrisy and instability” painting “a fragmented but valid and realistic picture” of Medieval China as “a society in change” (Katona).

That Monkey is a walking paradox – decisive but impulsive, fleet of foot but wayward of mind and heart – can be seen in Guanyin’s deployment of the golden headband, commanded by Xuanzang as a sort of sword of Damocles should “Aware of Emptiness” become full of himself as he crisscrosses the heavens in the cloud-walking shoes given to him by the Dragon King. Like the proto-picaresque figures Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, symbolizing the dis-integrated hidalgo or Spanish gentleman who is “daring, master of himself” and “capable of enduring the greatest privations,” and the “timorous, discreet, clever, and perspicacious” picaro (Cuneo 127), romanticizing Spanish Baroque conceptions of masculinity, “Restless, rebellious Monkey” (Cheng’en xxvii) possesses a divided nature which “questions authority” (Gasta 38) and “mirrors with his poverty and his adventures, his humor and his sufferings, the spirit” (Cuneo 127) of his time, while also pursuing “the higher aspirations of the soul” of enlightenment and immortality (Cheng’en xxvii).

Though he is not the promiscuous character of Byron’s Don Juan, there is a great deal of symbolism and humor along Monkey’s journey that the picaresque lover would appreciate. The occupation the Jade Emperor gives rogue-hero Monkey in an attempt to fill his idle days is that of tending the Queen of Heaven’s peach orchard in anticipation of her birthday banquet. It is the first instance in the text that female sensuality appears directly, but Monkey as self-styled Great Sage and Equal of Heaven disrespects her feminine dominion and hospitality and seeks to coopt all the longevity and creativity her feminine form represents. Of her peaches he eats all “the ripe ones,” leaving only some “partly eaten remnants” and a few with the suspiciously testicular description of being “hairy and green” (Cheng’en 51). Her narratively imposed silence during such a ravishing pokes fun at his earlier vows to “put off all thoughts of evil lust” (Cheng’en 15), at her expense as he gorges on the plump and blushing fruits meant for her birthday feast. Neither her effeminate fairies or her ineffectual husband are unable to punish Monkey for eating the groves of peaches representing the picaro’s flitting “from one sexual partner to another” (Dudley 101) in pursuit of sensual pleasure:

The Great Sage then pronounced a spell towards the fairies and said, “Stop,

Stop, Stop,” and in this way fixed the body of each of the beautifully robed

fairies. They turned the whites of their eyes and stood transfixed in the peach

orchard. The Great Sage then mounted a cloud and came out of the orchard

and directed his course toward the celestial lake. (Cheng’en 52)

Even after his “climactic battle with the giant of lust in the inn” metaphorized by the Queen’s domain, the “divine provenance of heroes” (Dudley 101) seems to inoculate Monkey-xote against consequences for his penetrations. His flight heaps further scorn on “the false plumage of bestowed honours” and “charitable giving designed merely to keep up appearances” (Ardil 146) contained in the Jade Emperor’s and Queen of Heaven’s assignments and invitations.

Because Monkey “rejoiced exceedingly” (Cheng’en 49) at the queen’s absence and dismissed her loyal workers and his own servants, gorged on the “the ripest peaches” meant for her banquet, miniaturized himself and stripped naked to sleep off his excesses in the trees, and later “drank till he became tipsy” from her wine jars, his defiling of her castle reveals an allegorical fictional landscape intended as the same sort of scathing commentary on “the hypocritical, materialistic standards” (Katona) toward women, labor and the poor that imperial China has in common with the picaro’s Baroque Spanish elite. While comical and transgressive to great reader delight, his ongoing “hilarious tricks” at the expense of leader after leader through locale after locale were likely “not intended to be amusing” at all (Katona), but rather to function as cleverly crafted excoriations of political and royal elites, as revealed in the ease with which he commits and then builds upon his offenses with impunity.

Though Monkey’s escapades appear to be adventures for their own sake, his one undeniable need is to attain the Tripitaka or Buddhist scriptures embodied in the monk Xuanzang, for he and the monk are “two parts of a whole” without which Monkey is “incapable of reaching…the unity of the two selves” (Adams 3) that is the heart of the would-be hidalgo‘s quest. As the picaresque novel is representative of the upwardly grasping scugnizzi or orphaned street youth of the Spanish and Neapolitan lower classes, Tripitaka and Monkey mirror “the metaphorical and literal journey” of the spiritual child or “caricature of a monk” (Adams 2) beset by earthly privations and “defenseless and unprotected against the wickedness of the world” (Katona), who nevertheless remains “committed to Buddhism and dedicated to the journey” (Adams 2) toward enlightenment.

Adams attributes Sun Wukong’s hubris to his “inanimate nature,” having no earthly parents. He argues that this “frees him from attachments and fears” (3), emotions which inform national and tribal myths exalting conformity and blind obedience over individual advancement. Monkey is empowered but also at times stymied by the mini-monkeys of his own creation representing the xin or monkey mind, the internal chaotic state native to the trickster archetype inhabiting national epics from Gilgamesh and The Odyssey, to those of the Pearl Poet and Chretien de Troyes whose Anglo-Saxon grail romances drew deeply from the well of Celtic myth, and whose cycles of repetition and “episodic format…with a chronological sequence” lent themselves purposely to “performed reading in court” (Dudley 62). Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Cervantes’ Don Quixote employed the same metafictional juxtaposition of the courtly masquerade with the religious pilgrimage found in Journey to the West’s entourage of miniature monkeys, oppositional demon armies, and indignant fairies. These various mobs arising throughout Journey to the West alternately demand and impede Sun Wukong’s improvement “from his birth to his maturity” (62), attempting through the dialogism of their collective voices to suppress Monkey’s anti-dogmatic and epicurean urges and adjudicate the ‘international incidents’ and skirmishes caused by his enumerated courtly crimes:

You foolhardy monkey, are you not afraid of death? You have committed ten

crimes. First, you stole the peaches, then you stole the imperial wine, and here

you are enjoying these things. Are you not aware that you have committed crime

upon crime?” (Cheng’en 58)

]At that time the Great Sage was drinking wine with his four great generals.

Though he heard these words, he paid no attention to them and said, “This

morning we have wine and we take our fill, and never mind what is outside.”

(58)

Monkey King responds to the chastisement of the angry “gods of straw” (58) by transforming three hairs on his head into “a hundred thousand Great Sages” and then recalling “the scattered hair” (59) back again in the cheeky, in-your-face defiance that is the trickster’s stock in trade. That his victorious generals return to him “weeping and laughing” (58) at the same time following his desecration of the divine couples’ home, illustrates that while Sun Wukong wields significant Apollonian administrative and strategic intellect, he also maintains a fragile state of detente over his Dionysian nature seeking pleasure first and then constantly scrambling to turn unraveling circumstances back to his advantage.

McCarthy’s Blood Meridian chronicles a graphically violent, darkly satirical existential journey carnivalizing the romantic myth of the Wild, Wild West. Told through the eyes of the kid, Blood Meridian is on the surface a Western stylization of the scugnizzi or Neapolitan street orphan’s tale bearing “important structural similarities to the Bildungsroman.” It traces the main character’s “moments of self-realization and enlightenment,” “valuable lesson[s] in observation and self-reliance,” and survival by “manipulating or breaking the rules” (Grigsby 26) of institutions of authority under “the ostensibly swaying flag of a colonial manifest destiny” (Holmberg 141). From his birth during the Leonid meteor showers of 1833, and his father’s Miltonic references to the night of his birth as one of “blackness” and “holes in the heavens”(McCarthy 3), his tale suggests a process of initiation into an apocalyptic cosmological landscape through which McCarthy speaks “the discourse of catastrophe and the trope of picaresque survival head-on” (Bartosch 11), specifically that of “a centuries-long campaign of government-sponsored genocide against indigenous peoples” (Alber 8) by both the Mexican and American governments.

In opposition to Monkey’s dramatic birth from a stone egg atop a mountain in the sight of both dragons and gods, McCarthy’s ‘kid’ is 14 years old and “pale and thin,” wears “a thin ragged linen shirt,” and lives in servility to a loveless widower father who “lies in drink” and sees his son as a monster “incubated in [his mother’s] own bosom…who would carry her off” to death in childbirth. The inverse of Monkey’s emergence as a sort of demigod with innate sentience and desire for knowledge, the boy’s father “has been a schoolmaster” who quotes allusions to Miltonic verse, but the kid embodies an obscured historiographic palimpsest in that he “can neither read nor write” and has a face the impassive narrator describes as containing “All history present” and the misdirected scugnizzi‘s “taste for mindless violence” (McCarthy 3). With his face is still “curiously untouched by scars” and his “eyes oddly innocent,” the kid’s flight from home at 14 sets off a succession of disastrous events that prefigure an early and potentially dishonorable demise. As a “solitary migrant upon the flat and pastoral landscape” (4) in the direction of St. Louis, he exemplifies the traditional picaresque adventurer or postwar orphan for whom “there is no home” (Dahlstrom 31) and the unshakeable burden of an ambiguous familial history including a sister that for reasons unknown “he will not see again” (McCarthy 4). He is as yet a “resilient rogue but not a criminal…of low birth or uncertain parentage” moving “from innocence to experience” (Katona) along the bildungsroman or path to maturity.

Among the sea of human faces in St. Louis “whose speech sounds like the grunting of apes,” and siren-like prostitutes – the “whoreson wenches” scorned by Sancho Panza” (Don Quixote XXV) – calling “from the dark like souls in want” (McCarthy 5), he is shot in the back and “again just below the heart” (4) by a grotesquely imagined Maltese boatswain revealing the “refractions of earlier picaresque-like traits appear[ing]” in Homer’s Odyssey as well as Lazarillo de Tormes (Dahlstrom 14). The obliquely sexual ministrations of his wounds and carrying out of “his slops” (4-5) by a tavernkeeper’s androgynous wife are suggestive of the “mean and lecherous hostess of an inn” (Ardila 147) who served Guzman and his companions, and his ensuing boatride to Texas “among other pilgrims” (McCarthy 4-5) are a shadowy promise of the new beginnings the landlocked picaro often seeks “outside his national borders” (Bayliss 388) in order to shrug off the pilgrim’s burdens of generational, familial and national trauma.

Atop a desert signifying the wide ocean upon which the picaresque adventurer might sail, the flawed, formative hero straddles the liminal threshold between subsistence through “petty crime and moral rebellion” for sheer survival, and “striving for self-development accompanied by a quest for a suitable vocation and role in the community” (Golban 130), a theme central to the picaro’s itinerant existence:

He works in a sawmill, he works in a diphtheria pesthouse. He takes as pay from

a farmer an aged mule and aback this animal in the spring of the year eighteen and

forty-nine he rides through the latterday republic of Freedonia into the town of

Nacogdoches. (McCarthy 5)

At this early phase of the picaresque journey, the kid’s dreams appear to be “finally coming true” (Lazarillo VI) as his hard work, “common sense and Castilian sobriety” earn him a “croup of a donkey” (Cuneo 128), a staple beast in picaresque literature. Lazarillo’s cleric employer had also “put [him] in charge of a donkey, four jugs, and a whip,” a swaybacked beast he rode until he could save “enough to buy…a good secondhand suit of clothes” and return the beast of burden in a symbolic act of refusal “to do that kind of work anymore” (Lazarillo).

After the slaughter of the filibusters by Comanches – a carnivalesque horde “half naked and clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream in animal skins and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners” (55) – the kid takes up with the Glanton Gang, genocidal “banded apes” (154) and self-styled Rough Riders collecting human scalps for bounty as they travel the ostensibly postwar “brimstone land of christian reckoning” (55). McCarthy’s purposeful use of the lower case for both “christian” and “brimstone” place heaven and hell on equal and desecrated ground, indicting as well the Captain’s equating his squadron’s extramilitary campaign of ethnic cleansing with a form of “First Crusade…incit[ing] heroic comparisons to Spain’s ‘holy war’ in the New World” (Ardila 233). Themes of bodily fluids, especially blood, indict through the microcosmic pilgrim party’s actions, American militarism and imperialism culminating in the attempted erasure of the American West landscape of those rejected by its hegemonic vision. Grotesque Orientalist referents of postmortem desecration through sodomy, castration, and scalping present a hyperbolic, sadomasochistic backdrop exposing the “disordered, disintegrating world” (Katona) of the American West during the Mexican-American War:

Some by their beards were men but yet wore strange menstrual wounds

between their legs and no man’s parts for these had been cut away and hung

dark and strange from out their grinning mouths. In their wigs of dried blood

they lay gazing up with apes’ eyes at brother sun now rising in the east. (159)

Scenes of such graphic slaughter throughout the novel expose the fallacy of the picaro as romantic wild man possessed of supreme free will, or even the Don Juan-esque “Baroque son of a bitch” playing a “part in the epic struggle to save man’s belief in free will.” Rather, the kid is himself the “postcivilized savage” resulting from “society’s mismanagement of human potential,” who by virtue of genealogy remains uncultured, uneducated, and undisciplined so that he “shares a common ground outside of the pale society with the savage” (Dudley and Novak 115) rather than superseding it. The perverse resourcefulness inhabiting the kid’s “sawed down and rebored” (McCarthy 45) rifle beside the Captain’s Spanish dragoon pistols, also resides in the Comanche warrior’s appropriating of “the armor of a Spanish conquistador,” “riding down the unhorsed Saxons” and holding aloft “great handfuls of viscera, genitals” and “blood wigs” (56). By the end of Blood Meridian, the Western soil vomits forth violence from which the young picaro can never be washed, imperialist ground “soaked with blood and with urine from the voided bladders” of animals; the same soil from which springs a tree strung with a garland of babies threaded through their jaws, mirroring the desensitized national body “stained and stinking like some reeking issue of the incarnate dam of the war itself” (58).

Following the massacre of the filibusters and seeing Captain White’s “drowned and sightless eyes” displayed floating in a jar (McCarthy 73), he disavows connection to his decapitated former employer and accepts employment with Judge Holden, “a richly composed portrait of human evil” (Cusher 223) who brings him on as a scalp hunter. The judge, like Milton’s Satan, wields an arsenal of linguistic and psychological and even metaphysical manipulations to establish his own dominion in the place of God in the forsaken garden of the southwestern wastes, preemptively eliminating anyone he sees as competition for the hearts and minds of the gullible unwashed masses he seeks to control. In the revival tent scene early in the novel, his twisting of religious doctrine prefigures a time when he will challenge the kid’s moral integrity in a desert showdown mirroring that of the historical Christ over whom he exalts himself:

Ladies and gentleman, I feel it my duty to inform you that the man holding this

revival is an imposter. He holds no papers of divinity from any institution

recognized or improvised. He is altogether devoid of the least qualification to the

office he has usurped and has only committed to memory a few passages…

(McCarthy 7)

The judge claims like the fornicating archpriest of Lazarillo de Tormes to be saving the people of “the good book” from the preacher’s “false piety,” and charges the man with raping “a girl of eleven years…while actually clothed in the very livery of his God” and “having congress with a goat” – the very nature of sexual perversion of which he “the devil” is guilty (McCarthy 7). The judge as a towering figure stands as the oppositional force to “didactic and dogmatic monolith” of the early picaresque novel, and the reverend as a remnant of “Jews or converted Jews” and other religious “outsiders to the mainstream of Spanish society” marginalized by the “vengeful, hypocritical, self-serving moral degenerate [hiding] behind the pious rhetoric of institutionalized religion” (Katona).

The redemption of the kid – of the picaro who perhaps loses a measure of his honor as Guzman did in marrying the archpriest’s mistress – will not be through obtaining “a secure job as a town crier” (Gasta para 2) who announces to post-picaresque posterity in the fashion of Browning’s Pippa that “God’s in His heaven – All’s right with the world!” The irony of such an impossibility is foreshadowed in an ironic serenade “through the narrow walled streets toward the gates” of a Mexican camp by a “watchman at his rounds [who] passed them with his lantern calling softly the hour” (McCarthy 109). In fact unlike Lazarillo, for whom “competition over food” with a priest “likens itself to a religious battle,” there is no clear “illuminative experience” (Lazarillo) before the ex-priest Tobin in which he renounces the scalper’s grotesque occupation. It is in a rare but recognizable moment of mercy when he refuses to shoot the Delaware Shelby in the desert after he “had his hip shattered by a ball,” even though he knows Glanton will likely kill him for it. It is in the next moment when he gives the dying man water, and only rides off when he is “staring up at the sky” (McCarthy 216) in death or resignation to it. Such moments as these in which sparing of a wounded comerade – one arguably doomed to a fate worse than death at the hands of encircling enemies – in their poignancy fuel the pathos by which the reader sympathizes and perhaps even defends the picaro’s actions.

The theme of the palimpsest – described by de Groote as “a trope for memory and absolute origins that can not remember its origins” (110) – arises out of “the haze of history” loosely fictionalized throughout Blood Meridian, in the sacred cipher the kid carries into the wilderness confrontation with the judge prefigured at the novel’s beginning:

By now he’d come by a horse and a revolver, the rudiments of an outfit. He

worked at different trades. He had a bible that he’d found at the mining camps

and he carried this book with him no word which he could read. In his dark

frugal clothes some took him for a sort of preacher but he was no witness to

them. (McCarthy 325)

Though the kid is illiterate, his friendship with the ex-priest Tobin (not unlike Monkey’s with Tripitaka), his father’s knowledge of astronomy and eschatological poetry, and his mother and sister’s grief-shrouded “disappearance[s] into time” (de Groot 116) have actually imprinted upon his suffering-seared consciousness the palimpsestic potential for “a perspective on time and memory” replacing the profane with the sacred; one which “in effect amounts to a second possible reading of the palimpsest” of his previous history and “an alternative configuration for remembrance” (122) located in a hopeful world beyond the picaro’s tragically brief and marginal existence.

Blood Meridian’s kid is the violent mirror of America’s romanticized rugged individualist, the neo-picaro who as both agent and casualty of the opening of the West, represents the “post-civilized savage, the result of society’s mismanagement of human potential” (Dudley 115) for its unquenchable internal and external imperialist ambitions. His rape and murder by the piglike Judge Holden outside a saloon and brothel could easily be called a fitting end for the “antisocial force” and walking “confrontation with the problem of savagery” (116) that is the picaro’s darker milieu, or just makes him the inevitable victim-mirror taking into himself in the most dehumanizing fashion “the full force of the trauma inherent in Southwestern history” (Alber 8).

But there is also the possibility that something in the sacred palimpsest found in the mining camp, or in Tobin’s coarse proselytizing, or even his father’s cryptic poetics sublimates the picaro’s “anguish and despair” (Katona) into hope beyond death. For Monkey, the irrepressible national forerunner to Neo-Confucian China, his journey west for the Buddhist scriptures leads to his repentance and deliverance “out of prison” (Cheng’en 19) and into “glory indescribable” (224) in Buddha’s presence.

Their very different outcomes notwithstanding, both protagonists evidence traits of the picaro demonstrating his defiance of both literary and geopolitical limitations. Monkey, who “feared death” and “rejoiced and clapped” to think he could “escape the net of reincarnation by transmigration” (Cheng’en 6), and the kid born amid the heavenly cataclysm who could not kill a man repeatedly calling him a “son of a bitch” (McCarthy 217), both exemplify the picaro for whom “to be alive was the essential principle” (Cuneo 125). Monkey’s lonely raft trip west, and alienated travels between earth and sky, and the kid’s journey through the American Southwest first on mule and then horseback, both reflect the picaresque wanderer’s desire to transcend the limits of human society locked in “a constant state of chaos, war and misery” (Cheng’en Introduction), through resourcefulness and tenacity seizing whatever means available to achieve “Renaissance mobility” (Katona) in pursuit of freedom and existential meaning. The complex national dynamic resulting from the tensions between China’s Taoist and Neo-Confucian traditions, and lingering political feudalism seeking to control both sects, facilitated an intellectual and artistic national rebirthing metaphorized in Monkey’s metaphysical journey through restlessness and worldly insecurity toward enlightenment – the heroic quest to reach the Immortals and rejoin humanity and rescue the conjoined twin virtues of reason and free will amid China’s “synthetic stage of her social-geographical development” toward the “national union….as much territorial as spiritual” (Cuneo 125). Like Lazarillo de Tormes and Guzman de Alfarache, both overcome obstacles and vanquish enemies mirroring their own inner conflicts, and also achieve individual national notoriety en route to fulfilling their culturally heterogeneous conception of the romantic quest. Both are the picaro, a recurring ‘typo humano generico’” (quoted by Willis) owing no allegiance to national, cultural or temporal boundaries.

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“A Shadowed Agony in the Garden”: The Anti-Pastoral Eden of the American West in Crane’s “The Blue Hotel” and McCarthy’s Blood Meridian

©Mary Crockford June 11, 2017

If the American West can claim a process of creation, it would not be the narrativized “romantic heroic life of the Plains” or rediscovered Garden of Eden portrayed in colorist art and literature of the turn-of-the-century United States. Rather, it could be described as a precipitous and painful labor characterized by pangs of “crisis of representation” (Lewis 109) denounced by Naturalist authors of the period as birthing a false and even bastardized national identity. Though separated by decades and elements of literary style, Stephen Crane’s “The Blue Hotel” and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian as historiographic metafiction subvert the pathetic fallacy behind the romanticized frontier narrative, and unmask an amoral and even godless culture of ethnocentricity, sexism and violence underneath.

Specifically Crane’s Scully and the Swede, and McCarthy’s Judge Holden and the Kid, personify the progressive arc of prejudice and war, the “attraction-repulsion relationship” (Sepich 1) between rugged individualism and interests of governing authority, and ambivalence toward the redrawing of social and geographic borders under Manifest Destiny’s quest for a masculine national identity. Through these characters and the destructive consequences on the communities and landscapes encountered while enacting their vision of Western dominion, McCarthy and Crane reject the appropriation of the Romantic pastoral idyll to justify hegemonic masculinity’s conquest of the ‘primitive’ – especially the Indian, Mexican, black, and immigrant “of ethnic dispositions” (Zanger 160) – and of Nature itself in the taming of the putatively Edenic West.

In “The Blue Hotel,” an immigrant introduced as “a shaky and quick-eyed Swede” is mesmerized by the artificially bright blue facade of the Palace Hotel, which “no traveler could pass…without looking at it” since its proprietor, Scully, “had proved himself a master at choosing paints” (Crane 484). Scully, while appearing to be a “nimble and merry and kindly” good Samaritan, presides as “both a devil and priest” (Juan-Navarro 44) over a literal hell-hole capitalizing on wayfarers’ wish not to offend thus “practically making them prisoners” (485). On the surface, he appears to have rescued the travelers from the sort of violent winter storm that frequently strands in Fort Romper those making the pilgrimage West by train:

At last, Scully, elaborately, with boisterous hospitality, conducted them through

the portals of the blue hotel. The room which they entered was small. It seemed

to be merely a proper temple for an enormous stove, which, in the center, was

humming with godlike violence. (485).

The storm symbolizes the naturalist author’s view of the universe not as breathlessly awaiting godlike male domination and activation, but as hostile and governed by “deterministic forces…over which [men] have no control” (Sorrentino 104). The roaring stove, “luminous and glow[ing] yellow from the heat” (Crane 485) represents the same philosophy’s view of a mechanical, impersonal god who is at best ineffectual, and at worst capriciously endorsing of the violence brewing below the superficial courtly manners of the West.

The “badly frightened” Swede’s bravado and “furtive estimates of each man in the room” reveal the the alien’s horror at discovering not the “glowing commonplace” (485) of a masculine haven which would edify and enlarge the heroic individualist, but a community of men reflecting back upon him a conventionally tropic but directionless masculinity:

Beside the stove Scully’s son Johnnie was playing High-Five with an old

farmer who had whiskers both gray and sandy. They were quarreling.

Frequently the old farmer turned his face toward a box of sawdust–

colored brown with tobacco juice—that was behind the stove, and spat

with an air of great impatience and irritation. With a loud flourish of words

Scully destroyed the game of cards, and bustled his son upstairs with part of

the baggage of the new guests. (Crane 485)

The Swede’s commingled shock and disappointment at the “radical ordinariness” (Trotter 47) behind the Wild West facade, is magnified inside the dimly lit hotel with its deceptively bright exterior symbolizing the commodification “through tourism and touring spectacles” and other false representations of hospitality and nostalgia in the “selling of the West” (Lewis 111).

Scully’s “officious clamor” (Crane 485) toward his daughters and heaping of the emasculating “burden of grievance” on his shiftless son Johnnie (488) while fawning over the provocative and demanding Swede, critiques the monotony and marginalization of women as servants compared to the ‘working men’ in the room, indicative of “the damaging manifestation of the patriarchal tradition” (Lewis 153) behind the mirage of hospitality in the rapidly commercializing West.

Having internalized the glorified Wild West myth marketed by publishers and advertisers in America and abroad, the Swede does not flee the atmosphere of simmering rage which Scully harbors toward guests and even his own children. Rather, he subjugates his intellect and survival instincts and partakes in rituals obliquely parodying the Eucharist and the Last Supper – face washing and drinking from Scully’s hidden stash of whiskey – which foreshadow his death. As “Crane’s paranoid martyr” (Juan-Navarro 4) he mocks the image of the cowboy as an Arthur-type Christ figure, repeatedly prophesies his own murder, insisting that the small collective of male stereotypes gathered in the hotel – a cowboy bound for the iconically ‘rugged’ Dakota Territories, an aloof East Coast intellectual, a grizzled old farmer, and Scully’s sole male heir (Crane 489), Johnnie – agree with his prophesy of a violent death as the only logical outcome of their interaction:

[Johnnie] began to shuffle the cards, fluttering them together with an

angry snap… “He says a good many men have been killed in this room, or

something like that. And he says he’s goin’ to be killed here too. I don’t know

what ails him. He’s crazy, I shouldn’t wonder.” (Crane 488)

The confused transplant’s “inexplicable excitement in spite of believing his life imperiled, and the foursome’s leery “silence of experienced men who tread carefully amid new people” (Crane 485, 487) in light of his increasingly irascible behavior, recall the refusal of Christ’s disciples to accept the inevitability of his crucifixion, and in the case of Johnnie, Peter’s three denials of Jesus, relocated by Crane to a melodramatic scenario grounded in “popular nostalgia and dime-novel fantasy” (Lewis 111) of the West.

The Swede’s acquiescence to his own constructed vision of the West is a response to media “from commercial design and advertising to literature” (Lewis 4) encouraging immigration and investment in the young West:

“And,” said Scully, “there’s a new railroad goin’ to be built down from Broken

Arm to here. Not to mintion the four churches and the smashin’ brick

schoolhouse….Why, in two years Romper’ll be a met-tro-pol-is.” (Crane 490) Such exchanges between Scully and the Swede also illustrate the coopting of Judeo-Christian “illusions of innocence” (Lewis 4) and Kingdom manifestation inspiring would-be Adams to populate a domain proffered as a New Jerusalem – the burgeoning entrepreneurial Utopia of the West.

Cormac McCarthy’s postmodern novel Blood Meridian is an even more brutal departure from the dime-store novel than those of Crane and other forerunners aiming for “the greater verisimilitude of the realists of the late nineteenth century.” McCarthy violently inverts the local colorist’s “lively sketch” endowing cowboys and outlaws alike with “hearts of gold and pure motives beneath their rough and crude exteriors.” Through multiple modes of literary subversion designed to overturn prospects of Western authorship in a “Real West [that] did not exist” (Lewis 111), including intensely graphic violence ranging massacres of women and children to rape and necrophilia, McCarthy rejects altogether the concerns of his turn-of-the-century Realist predecessors having “no wish to affront eastern drawing room and editorial sensibilities” (Etulain 22) when addressing fallacious narratives of American Western Expansion.

Like The Blue Hotel’s Johnnie, McCarthy’s the Kid is an ironic subversion of the Arthur-Christ conqueror of the plains, who at fourteen already has “a taste for mindless violence” whetted by a schoolmaster father who “lies in drink” and “quotes from poets” (McCarthy 3). From the beginning of the novel, women are marginalized within the text, pointing to the interests of male hegemony in frontier expansion, from a sister “he will not see again” to his mother dying in childbearing with a name his father “never speaks” (3). Thus he associates his very existence with abandonment and death, and his individuality and masculinity lack any concrete referent beyond that of his father who likens his birth to the casting out of Lucifer from heaven, in which “stars did fall” leaving “blackness” and “holes in the heavens.” The father’s cruel characterization of his son’s birth as a cataclysmic rending of the heavens – and reference to the year “Thirty-three” (3) suggesting Christ’s age at crucifixion – foreshadow his premature death at perhaps the same age (though in the epilogue he is only called “the man”), as well as Judge Holden’s Gnostic pontifications and blasphemous claims of bringer of divine justice and retribution throughout the novel.

McCarthy’s anti-pastoral inversion of the Edenic West is set during the Mexican-American War, in a post-apocalyptic landscape whose “true geology was not stone but fear” (49). Largely abandoned except by mobs of Mexicans, Indians and other reputed “degenerates” and “heathen hordes…looting and killing with impunity” (36), the “blue and barren…demon kingdom” (49) becomes the site of war for dominion over the Purgatorial wastes of the Darwinian West:

There’s no government in Mexico. Hell, there’s no God in Mexico. Never will be.

We are dealing with a people manifestly incapable of governing themselves. And

do you now what happens with people who cannot govern themselves? That’s right.

Others come in to govern for them. (36)

Though addressing Mexicans in particular, including “[e]nlightened Mexicans” (36) ostensibly supporting secession from Mexico, Captain White’s view as leader of the filibusters espouses not only his own preference for white male hegemony in governing the West, but that of the Naturalist’s view that man is inherently amoral, violent and ungovernable.

In joining the Filibusters and then the Glanton Gang, the Kid subconsciously seeks communion and even the precarious protection from “the perils and accidents of life” (Rockforth) membership affords, dangers from emasculation by sexual molestation, or murder and postmortem sodomy by the same “ignorant heathen savage” (McCarthy 148) that he and the Glanton Gang brutalize through the “unapologetic randomness” of “massacres…shootings, rape” (Jillett 118) and bodily desecration after death:

Then [the judge] ripped open the man’s drawers with his knife. Tied alongside

the dark genitals was a small skin bag and this the judge cut away…he seized

the dark locks and swept them up from the sand and cut away the scalp. Then

they rose and returned, leaving him to scrutinize with his drying eyes the

calamitous advance of the sun. (117)

For the Glanton Gang, scalping of ‘savages’ (a label which includes ethnic females), is not only lucrative, but fulfills the subversive rugged individualist’s desire for male camaraderie and “bully sport” (Rockforth). In the historical American West, a scalp served as “proof of the Indian’s death, given the lengths to which an Indian would go to protect his[/her] body from this disfigurement” (Sepich 7). Upon capturing and scalping an Indian, who believed that loss of the scalp prevented entry into eternity after death, the taking of the scalp served a double purpose of white ‘warrior’ legitimization, and the ‘savage’s’ physical and spiritual emasculation.

On a deeper level, McCarthy’s Kid seeks significance in “the existential abyss” (Schimpf 11) mirrored in the convulsing ecosystems of the American Plains, the Edenic wasteland in whose emptiness he nonetheless still scans “for some guidance” (McCarthy 70) and meaning. But his spiritual blindness finds no remedy riding among the “ordained agents” dividing the Plains’ spoils, but mocks him in the “the drowned and sightless eyes” (73) of Captain White’s severed head floating in a jar of mescal, and from the lacerated eyes of Sproule, who as a dejected Lazarus “would not rise” from the blood-soaked ground (70).

Like Crane’s Scully in “The Blue Hotel,” Judge Holden is a master of language and manipulator of perception, who controls the subversive band of apostles he gathers around him by appealing to primal urges of male dominance, competition and survival. His use of Tarot frames a dangerous brand of gnosticism in which “war is the truest form of divination” and “no line of conduct of [man’s] own can avail him for good or evil” (Schimpf 115) in his quest to dominate man and nature. He is the pale and hairless serpent in the Garden of Eden who rejects scripture and performs acts of ritualistic violence resembling baptism and resurrection of the dead:

[He] stepped into the river and seized up the drowning idiot, snatching it aloft

by the heels like a great midwife and slapping it on the back to let the water

out. A birth scene or a baptism or some ritual not yet inaugurated into any

canon. He twisted the water from its hair and he gathered the naked and sobbing

fool into his arms and carried it up into the camp and restored it among its

fellows. (270)

Such scenes throughout the novel establish the judge as Lucifer who “among the gods has the ascendancy over” all men, and with it power over life and death. Cast from heaven but granted dominion over the earth represented in the anti-pastoral West, his power is usurped from a God whose “wrath lies sleeping” (43) while he carries his “war of a madman’s making onto [the] foreign land” of the Southwestern desert (43).

Throughout the novel, the judge strips women, orphans, and physical or mental deficients of gender legitimacy by referring to them by terms such as “whore” and “it.” In the novel’s beginning he divines the lack of individual masculine identity within the dispossessed teenager, who in a mock representation of Christ’s triumphal entry to Jerusalem, rides past a burning hotel and falls under the judge’s perversely pedagogical gaze:

A few men sat horseback watching the flames and one of these was the judge.

As the kid rode past the judge turned and watched him. He turned the horse, as if

he’d have the animal watch too. When the kid looked back the judge smiled.

(McCarthy 15)

As Scully did with Crane’s homeless Swede, the Judge capitalizes on the directionless vision and “longing for that unknown frontier” (Rockforth) residing in the soul of McCarthy’s Kid, and claims the mantle of mythic masculinity behind the forging of the white man’s West.

With his watchful gaze and smile, the Judge also becomes the archetypal reference point of pedagogic evil – a Pied Piper who recruits the orphaned Kid to enact his satanic vision of the West’s degeneration into a self-styled hell on Earth. His apparent power over the cosmos and nature compels both the awe and fear of his men, though the Kid demonstrates independent thought and occasional sympathy for the gang’s victims, unlike the rest who are both captivated and terrified by the Judge’s depravity and schoolmaster powers of persuasion:

The expriest turned and looked at the kid. And that was the judge the first ever I

saw him. Aye. He’s the thing to study.

The kid looked at Tobin. What’s he a judge of? he said.

What’s he a judge of?

What’s he a judge of?

Tobin glanced off across the fire. Ah, lad, he said. Hush now. The man will hear

ya. He’s ears like a fox. (McCarthy 141)

Such moments of questioning of the judge’s authority foreshadow the Kid’s doom because he does not fully succumb to the Judge’s offering of “universal fascination of utopian speculations of both the apocalyptic and demonic sort” (Dudley and Novak 30) and power over the cosmos, nature, and human will.

The Judge does not simply profess manhood, but claims the mantel of godhood. Described as “a ponderous djinn” (McCarthy101), he is bald and covered with “folds of hairless skin” (97). But the “cunning old malabarista” (100) is a master of sleight of hand and claims knowledge of truths “that no man’s mind can compass” (256). His philosophy of life echoes the philosophy of social Darwinism, but even more so the fallen angel presiding over the West’s “whited regions where [men have] gone to hide from God” (46), demanding worship for himself:

Man’s vanity may well approach the infinite in capacity but his knowledge

remains imperfect and howevermuch he comes to value his judgements

ultimately he must submit them to a higher court. Here there can be no special

pleading. Here are considerations of equity and rectitude and moral right

rendered void and without warrant and here are the views of the litigants

despised (261).

The Judge justifies his barbarism as a matter of righteousness, claiming “War is the ultimate game…a forcing of the unity of existence” and that “War is god” (261). He is the ironic shadow of the Wild West sheriff whose deputies maintain order in a virginal and lawless West, the demonic mirror of the angel guarding the Garden of Eden whose flaming sword prevents reentry of sinful humanity.

The kid, as a rebellious disciple of the Judge’s, openly challenges him when he is condemned to die for the Judge’s “[E]ventuating in the massacre at the ford” (318). Though not innocent of his own amorality and violence as a member of the gang, he refuses to accept the the version of events the Judge recites through the bars of his jail cell as he waits to be hanged:

You came forward, he said, to take part in the work. But you were a witness

against yourself. You sat in judgement on your own deeds. You put your own

allowances and you broke with the body of which you were pledged a part and

poisoned it in all its enterprise. (319)

To the Judge, humanity is a collective of “vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing,” enacting “separate wills thereby made manifest” (261), yet subject to a moral law under which he is always guilty and condemned.

If the bulk of Blood Meridian’s narrative is grotesque, its ending is genuinely carnivalesque. Through an aura of hallucination and nightmare, he fulfills the role of scapegoat or “dumb animal” cast into the wilderness, or “down into the darkness” (345) of hell, for sins not his own. The serenade by a company of a dancing, bullet-riddled bear, a fiddler, and whores “calling drunkenly for the music” while wearing “men’s drawers” and other “trophies” scavenged off the bodies of slain soldiers (348), echoes the the novel’s beginning in which he first slaked his thirst for violence in the “small and perilous garden” with its trickle of unholy water, and bush “hung with dead babies” (60).

The Kid not only challenges the adequacy of the romantic conceits of heroism and individuation found in early Western novels, but he is a type of Adam violently expelled from Eden, and arguably an blasphemous inversion of Christ raped and murdered in Gethsemane, thus prevented from redeeming America from its collective warring and capitalist sins. In his dizzying graduation from orphaned child to serial murderer, he tortuously tests the view of Zola’s insistence that “naturalism is but a form of romanticism after all” (Dorson 126).

As literary casualties of postmodern brutality and violence, the deaths of both Crane’s Swede and McCarthy’s Kid are self-fulfilling prophesy facilitated by their own decisions to join their fates with men of godlessness and violence. One part prisoner to the exigencies of survival in the West, and one part willful participants in its violent manifestation, their stories function marginally as “constructed…captivity narratives” (Lewis 111) defying the utopian vision of the West that both Crane and McCarthy reject.

The Swede’s infuriating attachment to this imaginary vision of the West, and the effectuation of his trumpeted death “alone in the saloon” with his “eyes fixed upon a dreadful legend” above the establishment’s cash register (Crane 506) is an ironic surrendering his own individual authenticity on the altar of New West commerce. The Kid’s refusal of the Judge’s “string in a maze” vision of the “order of creation” (McCarthy 245), and his rape in view of “squadrons of whores” (345) is the grotesque “gesture of the martyr” (Crane 488) and a horrifying symbol of the crisis of confidence of “postbellum America[n] …anxiety and insecurity” regarding literary authenticity in a West still under imaginative and actual construction.

Both men are symbolic Adams, cast out of a false Eden founded on flawed conceptions of individualism and masculinity, and complicated by “the epistemological problem of man’s inability to interpret [a] universe” (Juan-Navarro 37). In the ‘universe’ of the romanticized West, embodied in the dangerously duplicitous Scully and Judge Holden, Crane’s and McCarthy’s problematic but visionary protagonists learn too late that “the same object can possess two different natures or essences” and that “some dreams are better pursued than realized” (Dirda 41-42).

Works Cited

Boguta-Marchel, Hanna. The Evil, the Fated, the Biblical the Latent Metaphysics of Cormac McCarthy. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2012. Print.

Crane, Stephen. Complete Short Stories and Sketches of Stephen Crane. Book Club ed. New York: Doubleday, 1963. 484-506. Print.

Dirda, Michael. “Stephen Crane’s Strange Singing.” The New Criterion (2011): 40-45. Shapiro Library. Web. 14 Apr. 2017.

Dorson, James. “Demystifying the Judge: Law and Mythical Violence in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.Journal of Modern Literature 36.2 (2013): 105-120. Shapiro Library. Web. 19 Apr. 2017.

Dudley, Edward, and Maximillian E. Novak, eds. TheWild Man Within: An Image in Western Thought from the Renaissance to Romanticism. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh, 1972. Print.

Elbert, Monika M., and Wendy Ryden. Haunting Realities: Naturalist Gothic and American Realism. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama, 2017. Print.

Etulain, Richard W. “Prologue: Imaging a Pioneer American West.” Re-imagining the Modern American West: A Century of Fiction, History, and Art. Tucson: U of Arizona, 1996. N. pag. University of Arizona Press. University of Arizona Regents, 1996. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.

Juan-Navarro, Santiago. “Reading Reality: The Tortuous Path to Perception in Stephen Crane’s ‘The Open Boat’ and ‘The Blue Hotel’.” Revista canaria de estudios ingleses 19-20 (1989-1990): 37-50. Shapiro Library. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.

Jillett, Louise. Cormac McCarthy’s Borders and Landscapes. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. Print.

Lewis, Nathaniel. Unsettling the Literary West: Authenticity and Authorship. Lincoln, Neb.: U of Nebraska, 2008. Print.

McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West. 25th Anniversary ed. New York: First Vintage International, 1985. Print.

Rothfork, John. “Language & the Dance of Time in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.” Southwestern American Literature 30.1 (2004): 23-36. NAU English. Web. 14 May 2017.

Schimpf, Shane. A Reader’s Guide to Blood Meridian. Shoreline: BonMot Publ., 2011. Print.

Sepich, John. Notes on Blood Meridian: Revised and Expanded Edition. Austin, TX: U of Texas, 2008. Print.

Sorrentino, Paul. Student Companion to Stephen Crane. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2006. Print.

Trotter, David. “Naturalism’s Phobic Picturesque.” Critical Quarterly 51.1 (2009): 33-58. Shapiro Library. Web. 14 May 2017.

Walonen, Michael. “Old Nick Crossed the Mississippi: The Figure of the Devil in Late Cold War Era Novels of the American West.” European Journal of American Studies 9.2 (2014): 1-21. Shapiro Library. Web. 19 Apr. 2017.

Zanger, Jules. “Stephen Crane: Author in Transition.” Great Plains Quarterly 611 (1991): 157-65. University of Nebraska Digital Commons. Web. 19 Apr. 2017.

Romancing the Repulsive: Gothic Resistance in Selected Readings from Stephen Crane’s The Black Riders and Other Lines

©Mary Crockford March 26, 2017

Themes of ambivalence and depersonalization, and experimentation with form are all characteristics of literary naturalism. Spare prose, dark symbolism and frank sexual and violent language in particular revealed practitioners’ disillusionment with urban landscapes encouraging pernicious ethnic, gender and socioeconomic segregation. Traditional religion and psychology clashed with the humanist philosophies of social Darwinism and Freudian theory, highlighting the perceived inadequacy of the Romantic mode to ameliorate the horrors of industrialism and warfare, or soothe the fin de siècle artist’s despair over human disengagement from fellow man and the natural world. But for iconoclastic author Stephen Crane, Romanticism was less a failed mode of expression than an incomplete answer to old problems requiring new methods of illumination, especially those accompanying urban blight which strained the limitations of conventional poetics’ sanguine linguistic, symbolic and metrical structures. Crane did not reject Romanticism entirely, however, but rather co-opted elements of the movement including the heroic cycle, classicism and Gothic motifs, and through experimentation with meter, symbolism, and psychology of perception adapted those conventions to express poetically the naturalist’s ambivalence and antipathy toward distressing conditions he observed around him.

To the surface observer, Crane’s career as a fiction writer eclipses that of poet, with stories like The Red Badge of Courage and Maggie, A Girl of the Streets earning him a position as a founding father of American literary naturalism for his stories written in sparse prose and subject matter rooted in the “preoccupation with the lived realities of everyday life” (Fer et al. 254). Crane’s descriptions of Civil War battles and the lives of streetwalkers bore such “photographic fidelity” (Scofield 1) to real life that readers assumed he had fought in the war and had kept company with prostitutes – the latter denied by friends and colleagues who called him “a fellow of remarkably clean mind and speech” and “gentlemanly, even chivalrous behavior” (Sorrentino 135). A quiet man described by F.M. Ford as “an Apollo with starry eyes,” and armed with “a satirical sting” (Silverman par. 3-4), his storied reputation adds context to his deft bridging of realist spartanism with Romanticism’s “theatricality and melodrama…in connection with his preoccupation with heroism” (Scofield 1) to locate heroic sympathies in characters that in reality society would have overlooked or shunned. Soldier Henry Fleming’s encounter with the spectral Jim Conklin in The Red Badge of Courage mirrors that of Browning’s adolescent Childe Roland, who along the “darkening path” (Browning 104) toward the Dark Tower encounters a “hoary cripple, with malicious eye” (2) whose “suppression of glee” (5) ghoulishly mocks his fate. Maggie, “a girl of the painted cohorts” (Crane 27) of New York City’s Bowery, is Hugo’s bohemian waif scorned by Enlightenment society, the grisette de la roman noir who “descends from the splendor of brightly lit avenues to the darkness of the river” (Wertheim 213) flowing through the subterranean labyrinths of post-war Paris. To view Crane as simply a realist who “insisted that his fiction approximate reality,” or purely a naturalist tending toward the cynic’s retreat from human connection and driving social consciousness, is to succumb to what Gandal called an “impoverished notion of creative genius” (41) in the modal equilibrium between the quotidian and fantastic running through his body of work.

Such generalizations are even more ill-suited to a sensitive reading of Crane’s poetry, as one risks overlooking the influence of Romantic poets like Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, and “dramatists like Shakespeare and Aristophanes,” all of whom Crane is known to have “read widely” (Sorrentino 24). Edgar Allan Poe, highly influenced by French Symbolists like Mallarmé and Rimbaud, appears also to have influenced Crane’s poetic style. In The Black Riders and Other Lines, which Silverman calls a “volume of murderously sorrowful free verse” (par. 4), Crane versified much as Poe did, using obliquely dualistic objects, short lines and “an astringent tone” to shock readers into proximity with ideas of profound significance lurking within and between each letter and word and line. In the case of “In the Desert,” a vaguely conceptualized creature is the focus of structural elements including sound and symbolism that create a poem impressionistic in nature. The result is a twinge of subconscious familiarity on the reader’s part with the man-beast of Menippean satire, a favored vehicle of Gothic authors and artists which also suited the globetrotting romantic’s desire for escapism by cleverly masking the horrors of a life lived under urbanism’s shroud of scrutiny and separateness:

In the desert

I saw a creature, naked, bestial,

Who, squatting upon the ground… (1-3)

As an impressionist Crane suggests only what is necessary of the creature’s appearance to hearken to an experience or idea cloaked in the historical and literary past, “blurring the lines between fact and fiction as he incorporates folklore and legend” into the poem’s narrative (Sorrentino 35) with a reporter’s dissociative detachment. The creature is constructed as a mystery because it is mostly and purposely undescribed. encoding in a hybrid body “the dialogic relation of the Menippean to the traditional Platonic line” (Musgrave 190) so suited to the satirist. But like Shelley’s hulking, decapitated Ozymandias urging “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and Despair!” (11), the hunched creature marginally recalls the titan of Orphic mythos or the barbarian giant of German Nationalist fairy tale who waits to bite the heads off unsuspecting mortals. By its inertia, the reader can’t be certain if it is made of stone or flesh, metal or sand, or something else altogether. Whether it is indeed towering or dwarfish, even what it encodes structurally is less important than that it inhabits the same liminal space and moment as the speaker and possesses the Manichean potential for good or evil. We only know for certain what Crane chooses to tell us – that like the gargoyle or harpie, the creature is bestial, it is naked, and it squats. It is what comes next that shows Crane’s remarkable impressionist and symbolist facility for evincing shock with the addition of the sparest splash of melodrama onto his otherwise austere literary canvas. The creature:

Held his heart in his hands/And ate of it. (4-5)

The half-ling that only moments before had crouched mute and still, is now capable of action and expression, and shifts its gaze like Fuseli’s incubus atop sheets of sand, holding in not one hand but two, its own heart. Transfixed, it consumes the life-giving organ, reincorporating at least part of it back into itself in an act of futility and monstrosity. As strange as the creature’s behavior is, though, the speaker’s question is stranger still:

I said, “Is it good, friend,”… (6)

The speaker’s affective neutrality in politely inquiring of the creature whether its own bloody heart is good and calling it friend, is trademark Crane use of irony because the rational documentarian – the Nietzschean Apollonian mind – recoils in horror, recognizing there could be nothing normative or good in the removal and consumption of a beating heart, even if that heart is one’s own. But the unrestrained Dionysian artist embraces the commingling of mind and flesh with the violent, pounding rhythms of primitive Nature, unfazed by the “eating of his own heart in the desert” (Benoit) symbolizing the ultimate illusion or mirage for the naturalist – consciousness. The creature’s answer illustrates the naturalist’s consternation over the futile repetition of history and man’s mindless predilection for sating even the most existentially unsatisfying drives: “It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;” (7). It would be tempting to interpret the creature’s self-cannibalizing cardiophagia as a glib-tongued rendering of the phrase eat your heart out, were it not for its answer when the speaker inquires of its thoughts in a voice the mind’s ear interprets along the tonal spectrum of blasé to mutely horrified.

Crane’s liminal speaker’s question also highlights the diversity of effect that resides within the Gothic mode even without the structural schemes characterizing Goethian and Stokerian works traditionally labeled as Gothic. He responds to the self-immolating creature with the rhetorician’s succinct logocentric questioning, burying the ambivalent romanticist’s “sentimental emotions which are binding him to the real world” (Benoit) and noting the creature’s absurd and disgusting behavior with curiosity. An almost tender tone imbues the creature’s answer with the quality of rhetorical defense as it considers and reconsiders, and perhaps evinces its own surprise as it hears itself defending its behavior:

“But I like it

Because it is bitter,

And because it is my heart.” (8-10)

Crane compounds his dark irony through alliteration and epizeuxis of “bitter-bitter” (7) then “bitter” (9) once more in short succession, while the “louder! louder! louder!” beat of the creature’s “hideous heart” (Poe) demands acknowledgment. Cavitch describes these lines and the sensation they produce as “a cognitive stutter” that “might be perceived as deliberative or defensive” (40). I would add that the speaker’s and creature’s voices, along with the creature’s “cognitive stutter” produces a form of Bakhtinian dialogism called polyphony, or multiple voices competing within the brief poem. I would further posit that a fourth voice echoes in the final line recalling Descartes’ existential defense of reason, “I think, therefore I am” (Philosopy & Philosophers). The monster’s grotesque, open form embodies the “spiritual, epistemological, and ontological anxieties” and “creaturely subordination” (Cavitch 40) of man to outer and inner nature frustrating the romantic hero’s quest for self-liberating identity and control, and cries “I destroy myself, because I can.”

In the book’s titular poem “Black riders,” Crane uses the same blending of prosody and paradox as in “In the desert” to create a gothically impressionistic scene of irrationality, violence and terror. Like the biblical four horsemen of the apocalypse, an unspecified number of riders are raised up for war from the classic metaphor for primordial life and mystery, the sea:

Black riders came from the sea. (1)

That the reaper-like riders come “from the sea” but not “out of the sea” is noteworthy. The picture Crane paints could be one of horses galloping atop the water’s surface. Crane as the ambivalent son and grandson of ministers, does not necessarily mock Christ’s walk upon the Sea of Galilee, but as the war correspondent he may be expressing cynicism toward justification of war as a righteous act in defense of God and nation. The line ends with a period, emblematic of Crane’s belief that for man, manacled by history and his own behavior, the arrival of the riders bearing violence and death signals not just a commencing battle, but the romantic artist’s fate in the naturalist’s world where “the life of man” is “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short” (Hobbes Leviathan XIII).

As in “In the Desert,” man and beast merge in the black riders, not in the static form of one heart-munching hunchback, but of an unspecified number – perhaps uncountable – of men of war riding as many horses. Through alliteration, epizeuxis and onomatopoeia, the reader hears the sound of sword and shield, then through the blending of boot with bit and beast, soldier and steed become one, and man and mane are indistinguishable:

There was clang and clang of spear and shield,

And clash and clash of hoof and heel,… (2-3)

In his poetry as in his prose, Crane’s characters mirrored his experience of war correspondent, writer and romantic adventurer, embodying his ambivalence by occupying multiple perspectives as he “searches for his place in the war machine” (Ficiello 5). His masculinely powerful, marginally dehumanized riders and the speaker’s detached tone, together with the subtle use of assonance and rhyme, create a particularly eerie effect upon the reader as Crane uses identification with beast and nature to depict the hypnotic and numbing power of rapid sociopolitical change to inure a culture to its own inexorable saturation in decadence and division.

Crane’s riders are not only unified with the powerful beasts they ride, but are also able to harness the power of Nature itself in the cause of conquest “In the rush upon the wind” (5). These horsemen of war represent much more than simple soldiers riding toward conquest or defense of some vaguely identified national border:

Thus the ride of sin. (6)

The black riders embody more than some accidental or adopted animalistic nature. For Crane the naturalist, they are human nature itself, fallen mankind separated from God and from creation in Darwin’s universe where man is little more than a beast himself. They represent the defeat of the romantic individualist’s aspirations by his own conquering demons.

In Gilded Age America as in Romantic-era Britain, political affairs domestically and abroad resulted in an ethos of violence and war which had “penetrated all elements of American culture” (Ficiello 5). As P.B. Shelley had in The Mask of Anarchy written following the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, the social conscience exhibited by literary realists like Jacob Riis and Stephen Crane used the imagery and psychology of the urban Gothic aimed at “exposing, disarming, and disabling the Old Order” (Bainbridge 136) instituting oppression, through art as a medium of subversive but passive resistance. Dispensing with the ornate architecture and classical representations of wild nature that characterized Romantic poetics, Crane uses the barest reference to landscape and an atmosphere of confusion and terror to convey the ugliness of urban life:

Lands turned black and bare; (2)

Through use of the sparse naturalist style of writing, Crane enhances the depersonalized, materialist experience by creating a landscape existing outside of delimiting boundaries of time and place. For the naturalist as for the Gothic artist, the line between corruption and destruction of the natural world, and of the hero’s vulnerability to the elements of time and nature is often invisible until it is tragically and irreversibly crossed.

In “Black riders,” Crane the romantic individualist inverts Shelley’s “violence of form” (Reno 80) in The Mask of Anarchy, as well as Nietzsche’s Übermensch, multiplying him and “Meeting a row of upturned faces” (Kershner 139) whose spectral gazes force the reader to acknowledge the blood of women and children rising from the sin-soaked ground of Cainian urban anarchy and violence:

Women wept;

Babes ran, wondering. (3-4)

In turning his journalistic lens to women and children, while alliterating “women,” “wept” and “wondering,” Crane rejects age and gender preference in order to humanize the meekest victims of war. In the next line, he attempts to mediate violence by documenting poetically events that to the rational mind, even with the elucidation or explanation and detail, can not make sense of the slaughter of innocents:

There came one who understood not these things.

He said, “Why is this?”

Whereupon a million strove to answer him. (5-8)

Crane this time applies Bakhtinian dialogism through the chaotic polyphony not only of the mass weeping and frightened cries of children, but via the narrator’s naive, vocalized assumption that the million who “strove to answer him” can indeed ever do so:

There was such intricate clamour of tongues,

That still the reason was not. (9)

Like Shelley’s after the Peterloo Massacre and the seemingly innumerable campaigns of the Napoleonic wars, Crane’s grief remained unanswered by the gibbering, determined cacophony of philosophers and philosophies of past and present still persisting in their justification of oppression of the weak and poor.

In “Land of the Farther Suns,” Crane presents a world of Darwinian decadence in which humanity is not only animalistic but thoroughly de-evolved, and insentient beasts have returned to their sun-baked primeval jungles of origin:

Behold, from the land of the farther suns I returned.

And I was in a reptile-swarming place,

Peopled, otherwise, with grimaces,

Shrouded above in impenetrable blackness. (1-4)

The “impenetrable blackness,” the smut-soaked smog belching from urban factories and burned and blood-soaked battlefields, acts as the sealing lid of fate over mankind, whose greed and indifference to oppression and suffering has turned them into creatures lower than mammals on the Darwinian ladder. As metaphors for irrationality and self-destruction, the primitive monsters are chimeras reflecting back the unmediated impossibility for the romantic individualist to escape the artistic and intellectual claustrophobia and chaos of turn-of-the-century materialism.

The snarling, wordless grimaces of the reptilian beast-men resemble those of Miltonic fallen angels, their self-destructive hubris hearkening back to Crane’s literary and personal rejection of orthodox religion and to a great extent, conventional human wisdom:

I shrank, loathing,

Sick with it.

And I said to him,

“What is this?”

He made answer slowly,… (5-9)

Once again Crane uses the disembodied, incompletely omniscient narrator to express the dejection of the pathetic “traveller” whose pursuit of the pale “shadow” and “phantom” of “truth” fails in the fallen kingdom of the world (“Truth, said a Traveller” 8). His opposing self in the poem appears to mock him, summing up the decadence and death that is man’s fate in warring Apollonian/Dionysian determinist’s universe: “Spirit, this is a world./This was your home” (10-11).

An infrequent example of architectural allusion in Crane’s verse occurs in “Two or Three Angels,” in which Crane’s ambivalence toward institutionalized Christianity finds expression in

a favorite subject of Romantic poets from Shelley to Wordsworth: eternity and memory, and remembrance of loved ones past. But as is the tendency in the Gothic vein, what is treated tenderly and reverently by the metaphysically minded Romantic poets is haloed in dark characterizations and imagery by the naturalist. Heaven itself seems confused by what it witnesses on the earth below as it looks down upon a congregation of worshippers. The throng personifies the bloat and sin-sickness of a church bearing the stains of institutionalized corruption, crusade and imperialist expansionism:

Two or three angels

Came near to the earth.

They saw a fat church.

Little black streams of people

Came and went in continually. (1-5)

The goblinesque promenade of the prayerful “streams” live a river of boiling ichor emitting not from the Romantics’ beloved emblem of the sublime, the Medieval or Renaissance cathedral, but from the bowels of the earth itself. The naturalist’s and Gothicist’s abjection is joined by the angels, who are perplexed by the once virginal bride now drained of life and hiding, asleep and comforted only when interred away from the world it was once charged to show action and mercy: “And the angels were puzzled/To know why the people went thus,/And why they stayed so long within” (6-8). The voiceless consternation of the angels contains the subversive ring of dialogism found in many of Crane’s poems, as the quelling of many voices while the deist’s indifferent God turns his back in disappointment on the adulterous woman in white below.

An ironic juxtaposition of Arthurian legend and outlaw literature occurs in Crane’s poem, “A Youth in Apparel that Glittered.” In this poem betrayal and death take place in a setting part Black Forest fairy tale and part inverted grail legend. Like the claustrophobic landscape of madness through which Childe Roland marched to the Dark Tower, or an earnestly naive reporter happening upon the herbaceous tangle surrounding Dracula’s Transylvanian manor, a forest opens and closes behind the naive Romantic hero chasing promises of glory and consciousness but meeting instead a shrouded prefiguration of death:

A youth in apparel that glittered

Went to walk in a grim forest.

There he met an assassin

Attired all in garb of old days; (1-4)

The young knight, clothed in the youthful beauty and optimism of Romanticism, is oblivious to the evil dwelling in the heart of the false deliverer he encounters, who masquerades as truth but whose mask hides a deceptive, brutal countenance: “He, scowling through the thickets,/

And dagger poised quivering,/Rushed upon the youth” (5-7). The youth, believing the assassin to be the instrument of heroic liberation from the poet-prophet’s “mundane shell” (Blake) to consciousness and individuation, is unaware of the assassin’s motivating blood thirst. The assassin is institutionalized warfare and religion personified, the mocking tyrant of tradition capitalizing on the innocent hubris of youth which believes itself impervious to time and death:

“Sir,” said this latter,

“I am enchanted, believe me,

To die thus,

In this medieval fashion,

According to the best legends;

Ah, what joy!” (8-13)

Crane does not comment on the state of the murdered knight’s soul, employing no Romantic language of sublimation, demi-godhood or transcendence. There is none of the alliteration or epizeuxis which lends authorial power or mythical impact to the observer. There is only the reporter’s documenting of spare, utilitarian detail – until the poem’s almost imperceptibly oppositional closing word: “Then he took the wound, smiling,/And died, content”(14-15, emphasis mine). With the word “content,” Crane heaves a Donne-ian melodramatic sigh in the face of what the war reporter saw as senseless tragedy. In the assassin’s plunging dagger and the soldier’s dreamlike smile, there is both violence and delusion. There is the murderous masquerade and the imperialist rationale, sacrificing the would-be Arthur who welcomes an untimely death for a nation who will mythologize and then replace him. It is only Crane’s anachronistic romantic heart which allows the sublime emotional and psychological state in which the tragic hero will die.

Whether it was the domestic or transatlantic battlefield, or nightmare setting of Maggie’s New York Bowery, or the impenetrable dream state of the human psyche trying to make sense of both, Crane’s poetry treated each arena on the world stage similarly: He seized upon and conquered poetic ground previously considered the territory of the metaphysical and Romantic poets, including adaptation of Gothic structures to the alienated citizen’s mind and body. In doing so he was able to “poetize the grotesque for its own effect…to offer an image which is vivid and achieves the effect of horror and repulsion” (Benoit) for readers across physical, temporal and literal boundaries. He poetized the naturalist philosophy as he fictionalized the realist news. As a poet he was part modern-day Shelley urging a response to marginalization and massacre through passive resistance, and part Byronic adventurer whose own soul’s whims evaded capture during his brief life. Ultimately, as the naturalist who saw no discontinuity between the romantic and real, the grandiose and the grotesque, the mundane and the morbid – Black Riders and Other Lines is a timeless testimony to the internal tension of the mortal for whom the world was the artist’s horror, but whose art was the hero’s milieu.

Works Cited:

Bainbridge, Simon A. “Reviewed Works: War at a Distance: Romanticism and the Making of Modern Wartime by Mary A. Favret.” Keats-Shelley Journal 60 (2011): 136-38. JSTOR. Web. 18 Mar. 2017.

Benoit, Daniel. “In the Desert Analysis.” Blog post. A Mirror Floating On Water. TheLiterature Network, 11 Sept. 2009. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.

Blake, William. “Selections from Milton.” The Poetical Works of William Blake. London: n.p., 1908. N. pag. Print.

Browning, Robert. Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came. Ed. Edmund Clarence Stedman. N.p.: n.p., 1855. Bartleby.com. Web. 22 Mar. 2017.

Cavitch, Max. “Stephen Crane’s Refrain.” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance54.1-4 (2008): 33-54. Shapiro LIbrary. Washington State University. Web. 24 Feb. 2017.

Crane, Stephen. The Black Riders and Other Lines. New York: Copeland and Day, 1895. Washington State University. Web. 25 Feb. 2017.

“Descartes: I Think Therefore I Am.” Philosophy & Philosophers. N.p., 15 July 2016. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.

Fer, Briony, David Batchelor, and Paul Wood. Realism, Rationalism, Surrealism: Art between the Wars. New Haven: Yale UP, in Association with the Open U, 1994. Google Books. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.

Ficiello, Robert. “Crane’s Episode Among Episodes in American War Discourse.” War,Literature & the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities (2013): 1-17. Shapiro. Web. 24 Mar. 2017.

Gandal, Keith. “A Spiritual Autopsy of Stephen Crane.” Nineteenth-Century Literature.March 51.4 (1997): 500-30. JSTOR. University of California Press. Web. 24 Feb. 2017.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. London: n.p., 1651. University of Oregon Scholars Bank. Web. 24 Mar. 2017.

Kershner, R. B. Joyce, Bakhtin, and Popular Literature Chronicles of Disorder. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina, 2014. Print.

Musgrave, David. Grotesque Anatomies: Menippean Satire since the Renaissance. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishers 2014. Print.

Pizer, Donald. Twentieth-Century American Literary Naturalism: An Interpretation. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1983. Print.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The Works of Edgar Allan Poe – The Raven Edition. Vol. II. N.p.: Pioneer, 1843. N. pag. Gutenberg.org. Web. 24 Mar. 2017.

Reno, Seth T. “The Violence of Form in Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy.” Keats-Shelley Journal 62 (2014): 80-98. JSTOR. Keats-Shelley Association of America. Web.24 Feb. 2017.

Scofield, Martin. “Theatricality, Melodrama and Irony in Stephen Crane’s Short Fiction.”Journal of the Short Story in English – Les Cahiers De La Nouvelle Autumn(2008): n. pag. Belmont University. Web. 24 Feb. 2017.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. The Mask of Anarchy. London: n.p., 1819. Project Gutenberg.Gutenberg.org. Web. 24 Feb. 2017.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Ozymandias. London: London Examiner, 1818. Poetry Foundation. Web. 22 Mar. 2017.

Silverman, Kenneth. “The Man Who Loved War: A Biography of Stephen Crane, a Writer Who Found Inspiration in the Sights and Sounds of Battle.” New York Times Books. The New York Times, 23 Aug. 1998. Web. 27 Mar. 2017.

Sorrentino, Paul. Stephen Crane: A Life of Fire. Cambridge, Mss.: Belknap of HarvardUP, 2014. Print.

Wertheim, Stanley. A Stephen Crane Encyclopedia. Westport: Greenwood, 1997. Google Books. Google. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.

Mad Love: Science and Surveillance in Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” and Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”

©Mary Crockford November 13, 2016

The sensation novel, with its madwoman in the attic and other “sensational themes and devices,” is reflexively associated with the British Victorian novel as popularized by Wilkie Collins’ Woman in White and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Nevertheless, the form has American Nationalist-Romantic precursors in numerous ghost and other “domestic gothic” (Anolik 49) stories such as Washington Irving’s “The Spectre Bridegroom,” Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark.” Themes of female alienation and madness can also be found in modern works as diverse as Faulkner’s Southern Gothic “A Rose for Emily” and Charlotte Perkins-Gilman’s feminist-realist “The Yellow Wallpaper.” For the purposes of this paper, I will focus upon Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” and Gilman’s “Yellow Wallpaper” as representative within their authors’ respective Romantic and Realist movements of the patriarchal nature of two foundational institutions of society – marriage and the medical establishment – which systematically limited mobility of women, both personally and professionally, based on a conception of the ‘fairer sex’ as physically and emotionally fragile and even mentally unstable. By excluding women from the intellectual sphere through methods of surveillance and confinement, and denial of substantive autonomy even within the ‘woman’s world’ of the home, it is apparent that the archaic sexual bias against feminine agency persisted into the so-called modern era regarding popular conceptions of societal and domestic cohesion. In particular I will give attention to the role of Foucauldian panopticism as a means of psychic control, conspiratorial recruitment of family relations and domestic ‘help’ in the cause of isolation, and Faustian elevation of science over empathy and fidelity in promoting masculine dominance within these institutions, to the detriment of wives ostensibly chosen as emotional, psychological and sexual partners.

Both “The Birthmark” and “The Yellow Wallpaper” employ gothic tropes of the naive and vulnerable female, and the egoistic “mad scientist” against a backdrop of “the conventional social structure of the upper-class institution of marriage” and domesticity (Richetti 209). For Dr. Aylmer, a “man of science” and “eminent proficient in every branch of natural philosophy,” and his wife Georgiana – unidimensionally described as a “beautiful woman” – romance early on becomes “second passion” to his dedication “too unreservedly to scientific studies” (Hawthorne 5). The tale’s omniscient narrator admits freely that for the Enlightenment man of science, it is “not unusual for the love of science to rival the love of woman in its depth and absorbing energy,” so that Aylmer’s love for his wife “might prove the stronger of the two…only by intertwining itself with his love of science, and uniting the strength of the latter to his own [emphasis mine].” In the same breath he confesses the alchemist’s overarching desire to “lay his hand on the secret of creative force and perhaps make new worlds for himself,” so that his own “higher intellect…imagination…spirit” and “heart might all find their congenial aliment in pursuits” within the laboratory to which he denies his wife access. The erasure of what Aylmer perceives as a flaw in his otherwise “beautiful wife” – a hand-shaped birthmark upon her cheek, “the semblance of a flaw” which converts his “specimen of ideal loveliness” and “Eve of Powers to a monster” – is his stated aim, so he makes a cynical allowance for his wife’s participation: “Georgiana,” said he, “has it never occurred to you that the mark upon your cheek might be removed?” (5-6).

          Georgiana, in stereotypical feminine naivete believes her husband to be joking, but then “perceiving the seriousness of his manner,” blushes with shock that he should be repelled by what other “lovers” had since “the hour of her birth…so often called a charm.” In light of her husband’s purportedly superior intellect, she laments that she must throughout her life have been “simple enough to have imagined” the mark as one of individual beauty – “a token of magic endowments that were to give her sway over all hearts” (6). Aylmer psychologically grooms his wife to be the object of experimentation sacrificed on the altar of “man’s ultimate control over Nature” and desire to “ascend from one step of powerful intelligence to another” (5). Through one side of his mouth he professes that “Envy’s self could have found aught to sneer at” in her physical beauty, while he obsesses inwardly over removing “the prettiness of the mimic hand…stealing forth again and glimmering to and fro with every pulse of emotion that throbbed within her heart” (6). Thus it is not “his own blood” but Georgiana’s with which the Faustian Dr. Aylmer “seals a pact with the devil” of irreligious science to facilitate his “supernatural journey” (Mulvey-Roberts 30) to remove the birthmark connected to her very essence, but which he sees as making her only “nearly perfect from the hand of Nature” (Hawthorne 5).

          Unlike Georgiana’s lovers who “contented themselves with wishing it away” (6), Dr. Aylmer comes to see his love as “fantastic and monstrous,” a feminine “spectacle” of “frightening difference” (Anolik 48) marred by “the visible mark of earthly imperfection.” Interestingly, his jaded view is one he shares with others of “exclusively… her own sex” who find her “countenance even hideous” (Hawthorne 6). Having such a response in common with her jealous female counterparts calls into question Aylmer’s fragile Adamic masculinity as effeminate, as his transgressive Eve’s cheek becomes the subject of his every waking thought:

In this manner, selecting it as the symbol of his wife’s liability to sin,

sorrow, decay, and death, Aylmer’s sombre imagination was not long in

rendering the birthmark a frightful object, causing him more trouble and

horror than ever Georgiana’s beauty, whether of soul or sense, had given

him delight. (Hawthorne 6)

How and to what degree Georgiana’s birthmark symbolizes imperfection is the subject of debate. Possibilities range from her being a subtler version of “seventeenth-century Puritan heretic” Hester Prynne who “rebels against patriarchal authority” (Persons 23), to a symbol of the barren and “deformed idealism” of Transcendentalism that Hawthorne found “too dreamy and optimistic” (21) and criticized in “Rappaccini’s Daughter.”

          Georgiana is without child and thus unrealized for purposes of an heir, and appears aimless, with too little to occupy her as the lady of the manor. Like Du Maurier’s Rebecca, Hawthorne’s Georgiana “demonstrate[s] a delicacy of representation of otherness” and her “otherness is implied, rather than delineated in horrifying, shocking detail.” The birthmark – representative of the seat of her emotions, the heart – in connection with her blood and femininity becomes the femme fatale’s “cipher for her otherness” (Anolik 182) from “fastidious members” of her own gender and the husband seeing her as bearing “the fatal flaw of humanity” and her “liability” to sin and “sorrow, decay, and death” (6-7). Georgiana’s seductiveness unrealized by reproduction may connote to Aylmer the intrusive “stranger or monster” who lurks “behind [her] attractive, comfortingly maternal and therefore heimlich [uncanny] interior” (Anolik 182) so that in “soul or sense” (Hawthorne 7) she is all but invisible. While Hawthorne is silent on any medical root, infertile females have traditionally offended culturally ingrained aesthetics of the female body as the source of sex and heirs, with each monthly “triumphant rush of blood” and “crimson stain upon the snow” (6) of the once virginal bride’s menstrual blood. Having subverted “the solidity of the family institution and the safeguarding of society” by remaining childless, Georgiana’s sexuality would become a manner of toleration to be “controlled and regularized” by her husband until her “reproductive functions” are “legitimized…and sensuality approved through maternal definition” (27). Like Beatrice of “Dr. Rappaccini’s Daughter” and other “Gothic tales in the medico-science tradition” (Mulvey-Roberts 32), this otherness based on gender and reproductive potential and/or failure embodied something “Hawthorne understood,” that being the discomfiting effect of the burgeoning feminist movement’s “radical women” seeking sexual and intellectual autonomy in rapidly morphing Romantic-industrialist society (Person 23).

          Like Beatrice Rappaccini, Georgiana attempts to inject her intellectual curiosity and creative powers in the scientific domain, while still expressing her Romantic desire for love and elevation to man’s helpmeet in spite of her growing awareness that she risks self-destruction. She becomes the sympathetic heroine bearing “the signifier of woman’s embodied being” (Person 23), the Puritan’s “properly submissive wife” (Zanger 366) turned wayward Eve escaping Adam’s control and momentarily transgressing in the Garden of Eden which is the husband-scientist’s professional domain. Acts of feminine agency by innocents like Georgiana and Beatrice, and their destruction by the myopic mad scientists charged with their care, lead to “explorations of the guilty psyches” of men like Aylmer and Rappaccini, so Hawthorne’s tales also function as “subtle allegories of American’s own, troubled, revolutionary ‘coming of age’” in the vein of English and German “Gothic tales in the medico-scientific tradition” (Mulvey-Roberts 32), which strongly influenced Romantic New England’s philosophical, intellectual and artistic landscape in the late 19th century.

          Themes of surveillance and discipline turn “The Birthmark” into not merely a Gothic tale of domestic confinement, but “a more complicated and nuanced tale” from a sociopolitical standpoint “than many literal and even historical readings would suggest.” In Foucauldian terms, the tale becomes a medium for illustrating “a historically situated political and social ideology” expressing “a pragmatics of social control and resistance” (Simon 2) in which Dr. Aylmer as representative of the intellectual “paternal figure” who “polices the boundaries of legitimacy” in the home and abroad. When she expresses the gothic heroine’s “intellectual frustration” (Mulvey-Roberts 183) at being excluded from Aylmer’s work, Georgiana briefly challenges her husband’s violent wrath:

“Why do you come hither? Have you no trust in your husband?” cried he,

impetuously. “Would you throw the blight of that fatal birthmark over

my labors? It is not well done. Go, prying woman, go!”

“Nay, Aylmer,” said Georgiana with the firmness of which she

possessed no stinted endowment, “it is not you that have a right to

complain. You mistrust your wife;” (Hawthorne 16)

In response to Georgiana’s challenge to his authority, Aylmer epitomizes “Foucault’s rendering” of the patriarch’s “role of division and decision” as “God, father, teacher, priest” through “acts of imposture” (Hogle 282) designed to instill fear and shame in his disobedient bride. His “peculiar expression” and the scowl of his “innumerable trains of thought” from “morning to twilight” daily fall upon “the stain of the poor wife’s cheek,” so she becomes conditioned to “shudder” under her husband’s panoptic, disciplinary gaze (Hawthorne 7). Conditioned by the “tyrannizing influence acquired by one idea over his mind” regarding aesthetic perfection, Georgiana is convinced by her husband “of the perfect practicability” of removing her “cureless deformity” (10) by pseudoscientific means on an almost “equally fantastic scale” as that of Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein (Hogle 283) and Igor, the “lunatic assistant” (216) mirrored in Aminadab. As emblematic of “the failure of the male inventor to produce a compliant female subject,” the barren, mechanized Georgiana embodies “the inward turn and spectacular implosion of utopian optimism,” becoming the “hollowed out symbol” of the 19th-century social scientist’s “fantasy of pleasurable ordering” (Sipe 185). She submits instead behind “the door of the boudoir” (Hawthorne10) to Aylmer and Aminadab, the doctor’s “unimaginative assistant and subordinate intellectual” who typifies “the earthy, gross side of man’s nature” about whom the “serenely confident” Aylmer is “scornful.” The hunchback-like symbol of scorned Romantic consciousness and “religion subverted to the ends of science,” “is in no position to assault the bastion of science which Aylmer represents,” so “stoops and drudges” and “answers the beck and call of the imperious new man” Aylmer, whose “star is ascendant” while his is “in decline” (Thompson 4 14). He assists Dr. Aylmer in infusing the bedchamber with an atmosphere of pagan magic as the Faustian doctor extols the “virtuous potency” of the concoction he will apply to his wife’s “stained” cheek:

Airy figures, absolutely bodiless ideas, and forms of insubstantial beauty came and danced before her, imprinting their momentary footsteps on beams of light….the illusion was almost perfect enough to warrant the belief that her husband possessed sway over the spiritual world. (Hawthorne 11)

In submitting to herself bodily to her husband-scientist upon the marriage bed, under Aminadab’s voyeuristic gaze, “through her sexuality” Georgiana “enters into the hidden side of the working class” (Elbert 26), accepting “the bourgeois appropriation of woman’s body” which Hawthorne observed as “the locus of public scrutiny” (Elbert 27). Like many of Hawthorne’s fictionalized females “yet unredeemed by maternity,” her “sexuality is alarming” (Elbert 27) and must be erased with the bloody birthmark on her cheek. Aylmer carries on with his “abortive experiment” (11) until the “hateful mark” is faint “upon the marble paleness of [her] cheek (18), and she dies lamenting that her husband has “rejected the best the earth could offer” by his discontent with her love and body. In erasing the birthmark running “as deep as life itself” (8), he has “flung away the happiness which would have woven his mortal life of the selfsame texture of the celestial” (19), wishing “through the boundless realms of invention” to perfect “the completeness of the higher state” that Georgiana’s innocence and beauty already represented (19).

In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman also portrays a female protagonist surveilled and controlled by her physician husband John, extending conceits of confinement and alienation to criticize what were “Hawthorne’s apprehensions concerning the budding brave new world of the nineteenth century” and the lingering “conflict between science and authoritarian religion” (Thompson 414) justifying relegation of women to primarily reproductive and domestic figures. Gilman’s tale more overtly exposed the professional and creative alienation of women than Hawthorne’s did—and obliquely suggested culpability in their own cultural marginalization in the late 19th century. Gilman’s story is representative of the literary movement of Realism, mirroring her own experience with Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell’s popular “rest cure” for women suffering from postpartum depression, neurasthenia or “hysteria,” and other “nervous disorders” (Monteiro 43) seen as predominantly female in nature. This reflects the still lingering view of the period “condoned by a spectral yet powerful medical establishment” (Davison 48) of women as sexually and psychologically threatening, and thus a threat to male domestic and professional control. Like Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark,” Puritanical ideas of femininity and post-Enlightenment scientific gender ideals made “The Yellow Wallpaper” an alchemic psychosocial critique of the surveilling state’s reinforcement of traditional absolutes of gender superiority. While consistent with the Realist nature of the period, Gilman’s tale is told using Gothic elements through its unnamed “distraught heroine” trapped in “a forbidden mansion” with a “powerfully repressive male antagonist.” Her story “adroitly and at times parodically employs Gothic conventions to present an allegory of literary imagination unbinding the social, domestic, and psychological confinements of a nineteenth-century woman writer”living in “a world full of Johns” (Davison 47-48) – an interesting turn of phrase given the sexual partitioning of women and the prevailing madonna-whore binary presenting woman as either the virginal Ophelia of “tragic innocence” and “tender madness” (Hogle 111), or a “horrifying spectacle of female power, agency and subversion” (116) through sex, in either case meriting physical confinement and intellectual or creative repression. Gilman’s view of domesticity in the period, in which women were prescribed acceptable labors such as gardening and childrearing, is conveyed through the distorted and jaundiced psyche of a postpartum narrator denied by her husband and brother, both doctors, any occupation but rest and seclusion in an attic room. The room takes on hellish character and proportions beginning with the “sprawling flamboyant patterns” of its “sickly sulphur” wallpaper:

It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to

constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame

uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide—

plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of

contradictions. (Gilman)

The narrator’s isolation is not simply physical, but also social and psychological as her husband responds with “stern, reproachful look[s]” and insistence “I am a doctor” to her pleas for movement about the grounds. Her alienation and dismissal are reinforced by family members who echo her husband’s placations that she is improving in spite of what she knows is her deepening depression, her paranoia at his increasingly “queer” behavior toward her, and his refusal to let her “write a word” in her author’s notebook (Gilman). She begins seeing a woman imprisoned inside the yellow wallpaper representing her domestic and professional captivity. Her husband’s “concerted repression of her natural authorial instincts,” and the “apparent collusion” by “the domestic ideal” Jennie as well as her brother, represent the “policed religious heresy” of nascent turn-of-the-century feminism (Davison 60) advanced by female artist. For the constrained woman and writer embodied in the narrator, her husband and brother as medical patriarchs are “policeman for, the constraining ideology of femininity” (Davison 60) and its own conflicts with “individual autonomy and identity” of transgressive persons including “America’s women in general” (59). Jennie, “John’s sister” and “perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper” who “sees everything” (Gilman) functions within the Foucauldian panopticon which renders his wife alienated and paranoid in the isolated country home. She therefore fears not only punishment, but her gender’s own complicity in engineering the “terrifying periods of isolation…sense of foreboding, claustrophobia and/or entrapment; and horrifying treatments” that are “powerful tool[s]” in the authoritarian “quest to destabilize influential prevailing fears” (McAllister and Brien 75) and coerce obedience. Objects in the room like barred windows, “rings and things in the walls” and the locked “beautiful door” (Gilman) are frightening fixtures of “the socio-material template for institutional orders…ranging from prisons, to schools, to factories, to hospitals” (Simon 2) which forced “the social body as a whole, and virtually all of its individuals to place themselves under surveillance” (Foucault 116). As a result of the cloistered environment of her home and attic room, Gilman’s narrator is worse off medically for the enforced isolation in the name of her health, and Jennie a co-conspiratorial, feminine Aminadab desiring “no better profession” than to keep house with her brother, and a marginally incestuous “sly thing” who also “wants to sleep” with her (Gilman). Gilman is mute on the unsettling question of Jennie’s sexuality, or her awareness of the seriousness of the narrator’s predicament. In any case Jennie replaces the narrator as lady of the house, and possibly elevated in John’s affections as seen in the nearness of her bedroom to John’s. With the narrator’s brother who is “also a physician,” the trio cooperate to minimize the depth of the woman’s suffering as her postpartum mind and body deteriorate as “the site upon which the battle of the classes [is] fought” (Elbert 23) in Gilman’s gender-conflicted America:

And I heard him ask Jennie a lot of professional questions about me.

She had a very good report to give. (Gilman)

Jennie’s laughter and statements that she also “wouldn’t mind” removing the wallpaper and freeing the woman trapped within it, while ignoring the “fairly gnawed” bedstead of her sister-in-law’s bed, confirms her complicity in the narrator’s coddled but dangerous captivity. Her “good reports” along with John’s “all sorts of questions” and troubling “look in his eyes” leaves the narrator guilt-ridden that the members of what should be her household “are secretly affected” by her descent into madness, while they do nothing to free her from the room driving her “to do something desperate” like “jump out the window” or hang herself with the rope hidden beneath her mattress (Gilman).

Unlike Hawthorne’s Georgiana, Gilman’s narrator’s body is “aligned with bourgeois ideals of maternity” in having given birth to a son, so one would be tempted to see this “fallen woman” as having found “redemption…through her maternity”; but Gilman is well known her views that “even maternity has its limitations” (Elbert 24), having relinquished child-raising to her former husband and his new wife, in favor of her writing and speaking career. Thus Jennie, who is dismissive of her mistress’s obvious suffering and is “so good with the baby,” becomes a benign variation of the “wicked stepmother” of German Nationalist fairy tales who is “an alien in the home, an outsider” (Snyder 220) who becomes the domestic surrogate for the princess banished to the tower. The “madwoman in the attic” must be constrained within the Foucauldian panopticon of the isolated rural manor so her alienating husband may watch her, and recruit others to manage her while he “pronounce[s] judgments in superior tones” (Elbert 28), calling her “little girl” and “blessed little goose” while refusing to let her “write a word” or sleep beside him downstairs, insisting she is getting “all better” right where she is.

“Better in body, perhaps–” I began, and stopped short, for he sat

straight up and looked at me with such a stern, reproachful look

that I could not say another word.” (Gilman)

Under his disciplinary gaze and characterization of her thoughts as “false and foolish fancy” and “dangerous,” John extends her imprisonment within the room with the hallucinatory roommate imprisoned in the wallpaper visible from every angle of the gnawed, “nailed down” bed. Her postpartum depression, exacerbated by her husband’s efforts to remove from society the wife he has “become terrified of…shortly after marriage,” is the invisible birthmark of her traumatized psyche and emotions, “an imperfection in his wife and in nature that must be tampered with and eradicated” by the clinical “scientist husband” (Elbert 28) who see – and is content with – her descent from “slight mental derangement to raving lunacy” (Monteiro 42).

The narrator’s story ends with the reader suspended as if from the room’s “rings and things on the walls” (Gilman), consigned to her hallucinations of “strangled heads and bulbous eyes” shrieking “with derision” as they “commit suicide” within the wallpaper, and Gilman’s suggestion that the narrator will hang herself with a rope “that even Jennie did not find.” Her husband finally bursts into the room with an ax and faints while his infantilized wife “creep[s] over him” like a small child, then retreating like a Kafkaesque cockroach unable to break free of her hopelessly claustrophobic “path by the wall” (Gilman). Reflecting what she saw as the ongoing struggle for female autonomy in the male-dominated field of writing as well as the home, Gilman does not reveal to the reader if the narrator ever escapes her “dark and perhaps final madness” (Monteiro 42) to return to functional mental or physical health, or even if she survives to reenter society.

Through the male protagonists of “The Birthmark” and “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Hawthorne and Gilman both address issues of fetishization, surveillance, and isolation of women in the authors’ respective periods, and the dangers of post-Enlightenment “faith in man’s ultimate control over Nature” through over-reliance on conventional scientific “truths” at the expense of egalitarianism in marriage and society. Aylmer, as both husband and doctor objectifies and marginalizes the woman he professes to love by “elevating his wife into a scientific problem to be solved” (Zanger 366). He subjects her to surveillance and experimentation in their manor turned intellectual “premises of panoptic egotism” (Brand 105), and discipline in the bedchamber turned “completely visible panoptic cubicle” (119) in which “the female body” failing its purpose of “conception, pregnancy, and childbirth” is destroyed (Benziman 381). Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” expresses its author’s concerns about “the destabilization of the self and the questioning of the progressive quality of the scientific project at large” affecting both the medical and social community. In portraying women surveilled and destroyed by brilliant but reckless father figures, Hawthorne obliquely critiqued the surveillance and rejection by patriarchal institutions of marginal classes, especially women, as individuals seeking inclusion and mobility beyond the “feminine” spheres of the home and bedroom.

Hawthorne’s Romantic-era concerns became “more acute in” stories “written toward the end of the century” by authors such as Gilman (Benziman 376). Both Georgiana and Gilman’s anonymous narrator critique archaic religious conceptions of women as prone to disobedience and unreason, and primarily vessels of reproduction requiring curtailment from “activity and work, especially anything involving the intellect” (Monteiro 43) to guard their reproductive function. Gilman’s narrator, having produced a male heir but questioning the efficacy of the Weir-Mitchell rest cure, still loses her sanity to the hallucinatory Poesque “catacomb or crypt” of the room and its patterned wallpaper, and enacts a desperate final “victory of the madwoman over the man of reason” to whom she is married (Monteiro 45) by way of a nervous breakdown. Both authors espoused to varying degrees the inclusion of women by society and men in the prevailingly patriarchal institutions of marriage and medicine still viewing women as emotionally and intellectually flawed, sexually utilitarian, and dangerous when exercising – or even expressing the desire for – equal and individual agency.

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The Harrow and the Sword: Anger, Apocalypse and Calls for Revolution in Blake’s “Milton” and Shelley’s “The Mask of Anarchy”

©Mary Crockford July 31, 2016

Use of “mythic modes or mythopoeic strategies” in art in order to make “ethical and emotional appeals” regarding political and moral issues was not exclusive to the Romantics (Hopper 11), but the introduction of Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful inspired poets and artists to adopt unprecedentedly hyperbolic “motifs of transport, surrender, ‘voluptuous panic,’ and self-alienation” to explicate perceived societal ills. Through symbolic replication of the “masquerade spectacle” popular in 18th-century Britain, numerous poets and authors adapted carnival’s “seething, grotesque, and paranormal forms” such devils, reapers, and quasi-human monsters to achieve in verse a “condensed phantasmagoria, a bounded dreamscape” (Castle, Masquerade 53) “shifting between the uncanny…and the comic” (Bardascino par. 6) to symbolically critique institutionalized corruption and oppression. William Blake’s Milton and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy: Written on the Occasion of the Massacre at Manchester are two such works exposing British urban society as “a world of dizzying transformation,” one in need of such radical reorientation that the artist must “destroy the stability of perception and inflict a kind of voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind” (Castle, Masquerade 53) to impart their vision of revolution to readers.

Blake not only read Burke, but “endorsed [his] thesis in which ‘terror’ is converted “into an aesthetic system” where it “is…the ruling principle of the sublime.” His “preoccupation with generation and death,” the “God of Dread Majesty” (Miner 22) and Spectre, and apocalypse as transfiguration were favorite dichotomies comprising his aesthetic of the profane and divine coexisting in human form. In his Preface to Milton, Blake invokes Jesus as “the holy Lamb of God” and “the Countenance Divine” (Preface:21-23) traveling in a pastoral English paradise, before rapidly moving to symbols of death and apocalypse to converge sins of greed, mechanization and militarism with future annihilation and purification of “Four-fold London,” and “Albion’s four Forests” (P4:1-3) as the nexus of degradation of patriarchal Christianity “into Druidism” with “its dark forests and darker sacrifices,” extending to “Christ’s crucifixion and the doctrine of atonement” (Eaves 261). He portrays both conditions as existing simultaneously, outside his reviled construct of Newtonian conceptions of time and space: “And was Jerusalem builded here/Among these dark Satanic Mills?” (Preface:25-26). “These Satanic Mills” have been interpreted by scholars to represent the Albion flour mills, factories manufacturing materials of warfare, universities espousing “Newton’s materialist model of the universe” (Gourlay), an oppressive press, and various other aspects of modernity and “industrialization that Blake saw as corroding English culture” (Zuber 40).

As in much of his art and poetry, Blake populates Milton’s liminal world with symbols and language of the grotesque, through which “archetypal figures may be seen as acting within the psyche of Blake…personifications of parts of his psyche” and his “politics as an acting out of mental strife” (Sutherland 142). This ambience of striving in Milton represents “directly and literally…events within Blake’s own mind at a time of personal crisis,” as former protege and estranged “companion of William Hayley” (Pierce 165), radical with dashed “hopes for the pseudo-revolutionary, Napoleon” (Sutherland 146), and libertarian experiencing political repression. Using exquisite anatomical detail recalling “the bloody nervous tissues of the human foetus…composed in the secret darkness of the womb” (Miner 23), Blake’s body becomes the site of the transgressive poet-prophet’s ceaseless “Mental Fight” (Preface 31) and descent through dark “Realms/Of terror and mild moony lustre,” to beseech the “Daughters of Beulah! Muses who inspire the Poet’s Song” (P-3:1-4) to endow him with poetic inspiration:

Come into my hand

By your mild power; descending down the Nerves of my right arm

From out the portals of my brain, where by your ministry

The Eternal Great Humanity Divine planted his Paradise.

And in it caused the Spectres of the Dead to take sweet form

In likeness of himself. (P-3:5-10)

This scene of “surrender” of his body and “otherwise lucid mind” to “voluptuous panic” before the Muses is just the kind spoken of by Castle (Masquerade 53) as evocative of masquerade, and precedes Blake’s summoning of the spirit of Milton from heaven with “A Bard’s prophetic Song” (P-3:22) so that he may give him bodily form. Blake’s openness to incursion and stupefaction for the sake of psychological and artistic catharsis is an embodiment of Burke’s aesthetic of the sublime and terrible, in which “torments…are much greater in their effect on the body and mind, than any pleasures,” that “death is in general a much more affecting idea than pain,” even as “pain is…an emissary of this king of terrors” (36).

The “Spectres of the Dead” Blake refers to are less religious symbols than bearers of falsehood and insecurity generated from “the self-hood of the divided man” operating in “self-rationalization” and “in opposition to emanation” or the poetic spirit (Gourlay). Here Blake’s work takes on distinct elements of the Gothic with regard to the artist’s unconscious fragmentation, with the unnamed spectres functioning, like Milton, as an “uncanny…metaphor of haunted consciousness…in which the dead haunt the minds of the living who become [sic] thus become living spectres…alive as [Blake’s] own zombie or other” (Castle “Spectralization” 250). Radcliffe, DeQuincey and other pioneers of the Gothic tale experienced the disorienting effects of this liminality “in which the boundaries between inside and outside, life and death, the spectral and the real, the illusory and the rational, disarmingly fade” (Bridgwater 119). The “Bard’s Song” of Milton reflects this sense of disarming and disorientation as it is “a very unintelligible” warning of “the attempt of evil to usurp power over good” (Pierce 165) on Earth, meaning for Blake the evils of artistic constraint and religious falsehood including the Satan who parades as hero through the narrative of Milton’s Paradise Lost. It is this unwitting portrayal, idealized beside the distant and capricious tyrant God, that Blake summons Milton to correct, having accused the revered bard of being “of the devil’s party without knowing it,” and “writing in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God and at liberty when of Devils and Hell” (Blake ix). It is Satan, Blake’s ultimate Spectre, who is the agent of deception behind “the False Tongue!” (P3:10) or “mistaken ideas about God and Christ” (Rudd) planted by Milton’s pen while he lived beneath Beulah’s “land of shadows” in the “vegetated” or mundane world. For Blake, it is the Druidic “sacrifices, and…offerings” of corrupted religion to Satan for which “Jesus…the image of the Invisible God,/Became…prey; a curse, an offering and an atonement/For Death Eternal” (P3:12-14). He calls on Milton to, like Christ, “go into the deep her to redeem & himself perish” (P3:20), correcting his theological errors and imparting to men a “true gospel about art and ethics…that does not wholly agree with what the world had supposed that he had taught in his writings while alive” (165). To this end he appropriates the persona of Milton:

With thunders loud and terrible, so Milton’s shadow fell

Precipitant loud thundering into the Sea of Time & Space.

Then first I saw him in the Zenith as a falling star,

Descending perpendicular, swift as the swallow or swift:

And on my left foot falling on the tarsus, enter’d there… (12:45-49)

Milton’s cataclysmic fall from heaven, first as a shadow and then a falling star, is a parody of Satan’s fall from Heaven in the Bible and Paradise Lost; and as a barb at Milton’s legendary characterization of pamphleteering as writings from his left hand (though he himself had engaged in the medium), Blake has him enter his left foot. In a subtle extension of this left-sided conceit, he later has Los remove “his left sandal,” place it “on his head” as a “signal of solemn mourning” (P6:11) over Palamabron’s sin, fabricated by Satan for the purpose of seizing the Plow and Harrow.

With his Bard’s Song, Blake begins narrating “the relationship of Los the eternal prophet, his sons Rintrah and Palamabron, and Satan” the accuser, as Satan attempts “to take over the instruments of prophecy, the Plow and Harrow” (Fallon 2). Blake’s home becomes a Hell-ish scene reminiscent of the fiery bowels of Mt. Aetna in Greek myth, where Los, the Hephaestus-like spirit of imagination and revolution among Blake’s Four Zoas, wields the hammer and bellows in his forge to form “poetry with creative beating” (Gourlay). Here, Los labors to forge the instruments/Of Harvest: The Plow and the Harrow to pass over the Nations” (P4:12-13) with his sons, who personify Blake’s conflicting wrathful revolutionary and “mild and piteous” (Gourlay) poetic responses to oppression and human sacrifice through war, censorship, and industry, and he calls for spiritual and national transfiguration:

The Surrey Hills glow like the clinkers of the furnace: Lambeth’s vale

Where Jerusalem’s foundations began; where they were laid in ruins,

where they were laid in ruins from every Nation & Oak Groves rooted;

Dark gleams before the Furnace-mouth a heap of burning ashes.

When shall Jerusalem return and overspread all the Nations?

Return, return to Lambeth’s Vale, O building of human souls! (P4:14-18)

Here Blake demonstrates his fondness for the sublime and terrible in his coupling of calls for the transfiguration of the wasted landscape of England with symbols of apocalypse and renewal which make England the site of the new holy city; such a transfiguration would transform London from a site of artistic and economic coercion to a land of liberty for Blake, whose own four-fold body would be a living Temple. By crying out for the return of the “building of human souls,” then immediately evoking images of human sacrifice in “Oak Groves” and “stony Druid Temples,” and mourning among “Jerusalem’s ruins” (P4:20-21), Blake again conjoins images of the sacred and profane – Satanic worship and establishment of a sanctified New Earth. At the very site of his strenuous wrestling for the Romantic poet’s moral sublime, Jerusalem’s “walls of salvation” embrace England and cleanse her of the bloody legacy of centuries when “The Spectre of Albion frown’d over the Nations in glory & war./All things begin & end in Albion’s ancient Druid rocky shore” (P4:24-25).

Blake did not see Satan as the sole agonist of his own internal division, as Palamabron represents his artist’s imagination and revolutionary’s passion, and is “the strongest of Demons” (P5:46) among the Zoas. An atmosphere of anguish and anger permeates Los’ forge as a wheedling, mewling Satan weeps and goes “before Los accusing Palamabron:/exculpating with mildest speech” for Los’ favor and control of the Harrow which is Palamabron’s birthright (P5:35). Sympathetic but grotesque creatures surround Palamabron, their contorted forms echoing his grief and fury as Los urges no “false pity” or “officious brotherhood,” and believing “Satan’s blandishments,” capitulates to his manipulations:

Mean time Palamabron’s horses

Rag’d with thick flames redundant, & the Harrow madden’d with fury.

Trembling Palamabron stood, the strongest of Demons trembled:

Curbing his living creatures; many of the strongest Gnomes

They bit in their wild fury, who also madden’d like wildest beasts.

(P5:44-48).

For Sutherland, Palamabron’s Harrow “in the Bard’s song seems to represent the artist’s engraving tool” though he points out that “the Bard himself” – Milton – who is “clearly a less fragmented artist than Palamabron” (146) employs a plow: “And man, unmans: follow me with my Plow: this mournful day…” (P6:20). Both are the artist’s tools, “forged by all four of the basic sons of Los (or by the reintegrated Los/Blake) in London” (146). If the Harrow indeed represents Blake’s engraving tool, the “energetic wrath…the fiery furnace of hatred…the energy that is his eternal delight” (Stauffer 138) through his doppelganger Palamabron is doubly understandable as his means of artistic expression is ransomed by Satan – Rose’s “phantom of our own Self, whose intimate relationship with, and deep effect upon our spirit casts us into hell or transports us into Heaven” (127).

Milton’s Shadow” (37:6) like Blake’s arm awaiting the Muses’ inspiration “down the Nerves of [his] right arm/From out the portals of [his] brain” (P3:5-6), embodies the Burkean sublime and terrible in the foetal body of Satan. Still captive to what Blake sees as his corrupted Christian doctrine, Milton “in his corporeal fleshly configuration” descends “as a re-born mortal entity from Eden” (Miner 26) and condenses “all his Fibres/Into a strength impregnable of majesty and beauty infinite…the Covering Cherub” (Blake 37:6-8), “Blake’s Burkean context” of “’dreadful majesty and beauty…outside’” but “moralizing Self-hood” beneath “bloody foetal nerves” (Miner 26). Outward beauty masks the trickster Satan, who remains the “guardian at the gate of Paradise who prevents exiled humanity from reentering” (Eaves 156). To Blake, he is lord of “The Monstrous Churches of Beulah, the Gods of Ulro dark,/Twelve monstrous dishumanized terrors./Synagogues of Satan” disseminating the doctrine of atonement and “other dangerous false versions of the divine, especially those calling for human sacrifice” (Gourlay).

Stauffer characterizes both “Blake and Shelley” as poets who “imagine anger as a remover of masks and the despoiler of illusions that constitute an unacceptable status quo” (141). While Blake’s Milton uses overarching themes of the sublime and terrible in response to a constellation of episodes and agonists of oppression, Shelley wrote his “Mask of Anarchy” in direct response to an event that would become emblematic of militarized oppression by English monarchy. In what came to be known as the Peterloo Massacre of August 16, 1819, a gathering at Manchester’s St. Peter’s Field of “peaceful campaigners for parliamentary reform,” including women and children, was “broken up by the Manchester Yeomanry” and “between 10 and 20 people killed and more injured” (Mather par. 1). “Despite the seriousness of the event” it had begun with the festive air of masquerade, “a party atmosphere…men, women and children, dressed in their best Sunday clothes” as “the procession was accompanied by bands playing music and people dancing alongside” (par. 5). The procession with its hopes to effect change on behalf of the oppressed and impoverished working classes, had all the markings of the “carnival spirit, with its freedom, its utopian character oriented toward the future” (Bakhtin 33) in Manchester’s “melting pot of social and political anxieties, including famine, unemployment, poverty, poor living conditions, a general lack of suffrage, and misrepresentation by Parliament” (Hopper 134).

Like Blake’s Milton, Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy portrays a host of spectral characters reminiscent of the Gothic undead other, whose “masks figure evil’s dependence on disguise, a false of state of affairs foisted on humanity as truth” (Stauffer 141) for the sake of elite powers of consanguine religion and state. Shelley conveys a pathos of frustration and ineffectuality regarding the Peterloo event, speaking almost as a disembodied narrator who “lay asleep in Italy” and was only notified by “a voice from over the sea,” denying him any means but “visions of Poesy” (1:1-4) ) to address the tragedy. Like Blake, Shelley appears also have been influenced by Milton, whose Masque Presented at Ludlow Castle was “an important guide…as quite probably were Jonson’s various masques” by which “anger begins with satire and ends as antimasque” (Stauffer 155). With his grotesque parade of characters, Shelley paints a scene of Gothic terror in his own “theatre of warfare and desolation” in which soldiers of the monarchy become the “hordes of banditti, lurking in the fastness of mountain, or in the recesses of forest, ready to pour down upon the weak and unguarded” (Castle, Masquerade 139). The first wayfarer he meets, “Murder,” wears “a mask like Castlereagh” and is flanked by “seven bloodhounds” he fattens with human hearts (Shelley 2:5-8). This spectre is just the first in the poem’s “mythography” populated with “images and sources of evil” he masks “to reveal rather than disguise” (Stauffer 156). Unlike Blake’s spectre Satan, Murder adopts Castlereagh’s “mask not to fool the English people, but to publicize the allegiance of Castlereagh as his right-hand man” (157). “Always politically-minded, Shelley “enacts” his “particularly intense version of the Romantic struggle with anger” over the massacre as yet another failed attempt at “promised revolution and revelation” which “brought forth reaction and Terror instead” (Stauffer 139). His allegorical voyage back to Britain becomes the a carnivalesque Canterbury Road “O’er fields and towns,/from sea to sea” back “to London town” (Shelley 13:50-54), the symbolic battlefield on which he will wield his weapon of warfare against institutionalized deception and violence, Ingpen’s “Satire upon Satire” wielded as many “small knives” (Stauffer 383) through the poet’s pen:

Next came Fraud, and he had on,

Like Eldon, an ermined gown;

his big tears, for he wept well,

Turned to mill-stones as they fell.

And the little children, who

Round his feet played to and fro,

Thinking every tear a gem,

Had their brains knocked out by them. (Shelley 4:14-5:21)

Shelley, “a firm pacifist” esteeming satiric invective over violence or vengeance, “often attacked the blood lust and servility of soldiers…made blind to their blue collar backgrounds by illusions of power” (Veleski 5). In the Peterloo Massacre, Murder has been allowed to quell an otherwise peaceful revolution through the collusion of Fraud wearing the mask of Eldon, beside Sidmouth as Hypocrisy, who “Clothed with the Bible, as with light,/And the shadows of the night,” cries gem-like crocodile tears which turn to millstones and crush children’s heads “as they fell” (Shelley 4:15-5:24). These millstones are the very encumbrances Christ warned must not be placed around the necks of those seeking him, being alchemically transfigured to instruments of crushing power out of symbols of obscene wealth. Among the members of The Mask of Anarchy‘s “ghastly masquerade, Shelley calls out “Bishops, lawyers, peers, and spies” (7:27-29), all actually preceding Anarchy as “figures of deception and vice” and “corruption hiding beneath the mask of virtue” (Stauffer 141). As with Blake, false religion, death and apocalypse were central to his enactment of “falsehood….redefined as a grotesque and destructive indulgence to be expelled from the poet’s ultimate vision, but which may operate in the plot” (Stauffer 155).

Just as generation and transmutation are symbolized in The Bard’s and Satan’s “bloody foetal Nerves” in Milton (Miner 26), Shelley too invokes images of the terrible and sublime in blood, anxiety, and transforming fire. In The Mask of Anarchy, pharisaical legalism and religiosity commingle incestuously with the spirit of Anarchy, who “Clothed in arms like blood and flame,/hired murderers, who did sing/Thou are God, and Law, and King” (15:58-61). Using the “pomp” of nationalism and mindless ritualism, his “Lawyers and priests, a motley crowd” bow “To the earth their pale brows” in worship to “Anarchy, the Skeleton.” These Satanic worshipers “seize upon the Bank and Tower,” enslaving mankind for the interests of Parliament, King, and monarchical posterity.

Like Blake, for Shelley the restraints of Newtonian time and space were failed constructs for poetic expression. Shelley’s “father Time is weak and gray” and like Palamabron trembling before Satan’s accusations before Los, “idiot-like…stands,/ Fumbling with his palsied hands” while daughter Hope, behind the skewed mask of Despair, lays “down in the street,/Right before the horses’ feet” (25:98-9). Like Los’ temporarily rejected heir to the Harrow, Time’s daughter waits to be trampled along with the vanquished, mortal revolutionaries at Peterloo. Anarchy, like Milton’s Shadow cloaked in bloody tissue and the deceptive penumbra of Satan, descending in a cloud before Blake, armored Yeoman descend on Peterloo in clouds and lightening “like the vapour of a vale” (26:105), swelling into a dragon-like swarm and spilling blood in “a shower of crimson dew” (29:116).

While Anarchy has his way with the ineffectual crowd, Venus, Shelley’s own mythical but passive “Starry-One” (Blake 35:30), remains distant and disinterested in the “prostrate multitude” and figure of Hope/Despair standing “ankle-deep in blood” (32:26-27). England’s “own indignant Earth,” depicted as a womb “shuddering with the mother’s throe” (35:139-142) howls, bereft of her children. Shelley, whose “skepticism” and “image of the failed Revolution” in France undergirded “his visionary poetics” (Porello 82) calls upon the “Men of England, heirs of Glory” and “Nurslings” of their “one mighty Mother” (37:147-149). Like the subject of Blake’s “The Chimney Sweep” they must shake off their own “mind-forg’d manacles” (71) and “Rise like Lions after slumber” to “Shake [the] chains” (Shelley 38:51-53) of enslavement “to the earth like dew” (38:153). They must reclaim their own “otherwise lucid mind” (Castle, Masquerade 53) and reject the false virtues of the corrupt church and state ransoming he workers’ “Loom, and plough, and sword, and spade” for “their defence and nourishment,” while their own posterity fall to poverty, war, disease, and famine when “the winter winds are bleak” (41:165-42:171).

Shelley, in a startling “prophetic revelation,” the kind which “both attracted and horrified the poet” and student of myth and fable (Stauffer 143), in Orwellian prefiguration likens the collective tolerating their own bondage to farm animals: “Asses, swine” who “have litter spread/And with fitting food are fed,” and with “savage mean” and “wild beasts within a den” (50:201-206). He then invokes Burkean images of enclosure and nightmare – of “Vacuity, Darkness, Solitude, and Silence” (Burke 65) to convey his conflicted pathos of anger and grief for the lower classes’ “bodily representations of experiences,” their “tortured faces” and “faces in love” (xi) too frightened to rise “from their living graves.” In the zombies’ nightmare thrall of “superstition…echoing from the cave of Fame” (53:215-16), they are unable to rouse and “demand—tyrants would flee/Like a dream’s dim imagery” (52:210-212).

Like Blake, Shelley viewed constraint as akin to death, and false knowledge as madness. He called upon England’s downtrodden to cease being “clothes, and fire, and food/For the trampled multitude” (55:21-22) – to clothe themselves instead in the raiments of “Justice, “Wisdom” and “Peace,” waking from their nightmare of fear that “God will damn for ever..who think those things untrue/Of which Priests make such ado” to seek the face of “Liberty” (57:230-60:244) . He anticipates the resurrection of “the great Assembly…fearless and free” to “witness the solemnity” (65:262-269) Blakean Spectres of the Dead who stain England’s visionary landscape with “blood and treasure wasted” (59:39), who are the shades of those who thought themselves “following Christ” by giving “their substance to the free” (61:247-248). The Gothic undead still suffer in “the workhouse and the prison,” standing “pale as corpses newly risen” (68:275-6) over the bones of those crushed beneath the mill-stone and “the tramp of horses’ heels,” and rivers of “English blood” flowing from vampiric “horsemen’s scimitars” into “a sea of death and mourning” (76:310-78:315). At the poems’ close, “the bold, true warriors/Who have hugged Danger in wars…turn to those who would be free” and away from the “such base company” (88:356-359) as those refusing Liberty. Like flames licking at Los’ forge, the blood of the valorous dead “steam[s] up” from Shelley’s pen “like inspiration,/Eloquent, oracular,” from “A volcano heard afar” (89:361). In a call hard to discern between a trumpet call and whisper, he pleads over “Oppression’s thundered doom,” like Los’ hammer blows “Heard again—again–again” (90:365-67) to “Rise like Lions after slumber…Shake your chains to earth like dew,” for “Ye are many, they are few” (91:368-72).

Both Blake and Shelley “hated falsehood and hypocrisy” (Stauffer 143) and were “deeply ambivalent” pacifists writing “in the highly-charged Romantic era of revolution and reaction, negotiating the claims of politics and art…to gather, process and distribute outrage” (161) at the status quo through the nonviolent means of poetry. Shelley’s reputation was one of meekness and indefatigable good humor personally, but a man of “rebellious courage” for whom “the basis of [his] satire,” as an extension of his politics, was “violence rather than laughter” (138-9). He acknowledged “the importance of anger as a revolutionary emotion but [saw] revenge as a ‘pernicious mistake” (Shelley, Prose 232). Blake was decidedly more irascible and “almost universally judged to be a madman” by contemporaries, but modern critics and scholars consider him “our most revolutionary visionary” and “our greatest modern prophet” (Sutherland 142). His techniques of “subversion and negation of Christian moral, ecclesiastical, and theological traditions” set him at odds with both the church and monarchy of his day, in spite of being a deeply religious man whose life and art was “profoundly centered on Jesus.” He saw his “great task” as an artist to open the “eye of imagination,” embodying and expressing outwardly his view of “the Eternal worlds” (142) as an inseparable component of a universe in which love and revolution, beauty and terror exist coequally as expressions of the moral sublime.

Both Milton and The Mask of Anarchy reflect the complex minds and emotions of their Romantic authors. Each contains images and language of the sublime and terrible, Milton an epic in blank verse form fashioned after its namesake’s Paradise Lost whose Milton and Palamabron strive against Blake’s spectre and shadow self, Satan, in so strenuously that their bodies endure immeasurable pain and suffering, rendering them the open, grotesque body until released in a state of exquisite completion in the classic closed body of a still-alienated but vindicated William Blake. The Mask of Anarchy, a rhyming sonnet of four-line stanzas written in iambic tetrameter, is equally reflective of its author’s “particularly intense version of of the Romantic struggle with anger” and “revolutionary outrage” (Stauffer 139). Just as Blake may have satirized the likes Hayley, Napoleon and Cromwell to make a political and artistic statement, Shelley’s response to the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 was to transform “specific, historical figures of Castlereagh, Eldon, and Sidmouth into abstract figures” (Hopper 138) in hopes of fomenting peaceful revolution through sublime terror. The Mask could as well have been written by Polidori or DeQuincey (or even Mary Shelley) as Spenser or Shakespeare, with its terrifying carnivalesque imagery and inexorably building, emotionally charged atmosphere ending in a stanza one cannot distinguish from a Light Brigade charge order or a Phantom’s operatic unmasking. Both Blake’s and Shelley’s employ “exaggeration, hyperbolism, excessiveness…considered fundamental to the grotesque style” (Bakhtin 303). Both used conceits of masquerade and monstrosity for their “metaphorical and double-edged significances,” highlighting the nightmarishly surreal nature of real events and ideas, through anxiety and suffering in “the body” as the site of “arising of the grotesque effect” (Bardascino par. 3). Both are quintessentially Romantic works which reestablish and confirm their authors’s genius and humanity, the era’s fulsomeness as a time of political, artistic and personal revolution, and for their passionate insistence on preserving all these things, elevating Romantic poets as in Shelley’s own words, “the unacknowledged legislators of the World” (A Defence of Poetry 768).

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Shelley, Percy Bysshe. The Mask of Anarchy. Comp. Joseph C. Black. The Broadview

Anthology of British Literature. 2nd ed. Vol. 4. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2010. 752-759. Print.

Stauffer, Andrew M. “Celestial Temper: Shelley and The Masks of Anger.” Keats-

Shelley Journal 49 (2000): 138-61. JSTOR. Web. 29 July 2016.

Sutherland, John H. “Blake’s Milton: The Bard’s Song.” Colby Quarterly 13.2 (1977): 142-57. Digital Commons. Web. 26 July 2016.

Veleski, Stefan. The Significanc of Percy Bysshe Shelley as a Social and Religious Critic. Thesis. Masaryk University, n.d. Brno: n.p., 2015. Academia. Web. 21 July 2016.

Zuber, Devin. “Satanic Mills And Jerusalem Redeemed: William Blake’s Urban Ecopoetics.” Green Letters 10.1 (2009): 39-49. Taylor and Francis. Web. 24 July 2016.

Two Voices, One Purpose: The Slave Narratives of Mary Prince and Olaudah Equiano

© July 25, 2016 Mary Crockford

The slave narrative has become an important genre in the British Romantic literature canon. The narratives of Mary Prince and Olaudah Equiano have many aspects in common, as well as compelling differences. Both provide “rich details…about various aspects of enslavement” of West Indian and African blacks (Maddison-MacFadyen 653). Each chronicles the individual slave’s quest for manumission, and challenge “the myth of the ‘contented slave’ and made make clear the fact that every slave wished to be free” (Alonzo 118). Each was “a deep, personal reflection on the institution of slavery” and “a great success” which “gave rise to considerable controversy” (Black 586) amid the rising tide of anti-slavery sentiment in colonial Britain. The differences in the narratives are varied, sometimes subtle, and largely stylistic, reflecting differences in background, psychology, education, religion, and gender of the author.

Mary Prince “was not illiterate when she approached London’s Anti-Slavery Society” in 1831, but “she spoke a ‘peculiar phraseology’ that would have been difficult for the average London citizen to understand,” so “Susanna Strickland, a young abolitionist and skilled writer…composed her story” with the endorsement of Thomas Pringle (McFAdyen 654). Many major aspects of her story have been verified through historical documents including “Slave Registers of Former British Overseas Territories, minutes from abolitionists’ meetings and remnants of human-built structures associated with” her enslavement, which “add further credibility to the narrative’s validity” (MacFadyen 655). The History of Mary Prince chronicles experiences of a female born into slavery in Bermuda, whose “mother was a household slave” and father “was a sawyer belonging to Mr. Trimmingham, a shipbuilder at Crow-Lane” (Prince 587). Her quest for manumission became a lifelong one through numerous episodes of sale:

“I had scarcely reached my twelfth year when my mistress became too

poor to keep so many of us at home; and she hired me out…I cried bitterly

at the parting with my dear mistress and Miss Betsey, and when I kissed

my mother and brothers and sisters, I thought my young heart would

break, it pained me so. But there was no help I was forced to go.” (588)

Prince’s account of being publicly sold for the first time is told in the simple but poignant language of shame and pain, as she is offered like chattel to “strange men, who examined and handled [her] in the same manner that a butcher would a calf or lamb he was about to purchase” (590). Toiling in salt ponds, she suffered many times “the smart of the rope, the cart-whip, and the cow-skin…applied to” her and other slaves’ “naked skin” (591), long days up to her knees in salt water which would leave her with boils and rheumatism, and sexual exploitation. Mary saw “no end to [her] toils” which caused her to “weep, weep, weep” (591). In t is here that readers get their first glimpse of the role which religion would play later in Prince’s slave journey. She writes, “the hand of God whom then I knew not, was stretched over me” when fleeing her cruel taskmaster Mr. D, and subsequent purchase by a Mr. Wood with whom she would travel to London. “Ill of the rheumatism” and “forced to walk with a stick,” she endured illness and hunger while forced to sleep “in a little old out-house…swarming with bugs and vermin” (596), though she was nursed to relative health by a fellow slave. She used the ensuing years of her employment to secretly trade and sell goods for extra money, saving in hopes of buying her freedom:

“Sometimes I bought a hog cheap on board ship, and sold it for double

the money on shore; and I also earned a good deal by selling coffee. By

this means I by degrees acquired a little cash.” (597)

Mary’s petitions for freedom were continually rebuffed and the Woods whose “hearts were hard”—too hard to consent” to her pleas that “To be free is very sweet.” Instead they continued to take “good care to keep [her] as a slave” (598). It was during this time that she was “led by [her] spirit to the Moravian Church” and followed “the church earnestly at every opportunity” in secret (597). Her marriage to Daniel James, a freed slave, was not honored in Britain, nor by Mr. Wood who “flew into a great rage” and his wife who “could not forgive” her salve for marrying:

“She did not lick me herself, but she got her husband to do it for her,

whilst she fretted the flesh off my bones. Yet for all this she would

not sell me.” (598)

Even in marriage to her “dear husband” Daniel, Mary would have “not much happiness in marriage” due to continued beatings, one “false report” after another of her impending freedom, and threats to return her to Antigua for any act of disobedience. Knowing she “was a free woman in England” (600), she fled the Woods for the last time, and while illness and unsteady employment remained a problem, relief from Quaker women and the Abolition office in London led to her employment with the Pringles. She learned to read the Bible, converted to Christianity, and in “great sorrow” continued to argue against the untruth that “slaves do not need better usage, and do not want to be free” (601). Through “Miss S” she made the case that British who owned slaves showed “no modesty or decency” and acted in “a beastly manner” in which “they forget God and all feeling of shame…that they can see and do such things” (602-603). Mary never gave up her identification with, or role as spokeswoman for her fellow slaves, and she was not able to achieve legal emancipation in her lifetime.

In contrast to Mary Prince, the veracity of some details of Olaudah Equiano’s slave narrative are the subject of current debate. Equiano claims in his Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself, to have been born the free son of an aristocrat in the Republic of Benin. But Caretta claims he was in fact “born in South Carolina, albeit as a slave” (Paul 851). His slave narrative is thus seen by some as “therefore not just a memoir or a diary of his personal recollections—but an argument” (Catapano par. 2), in partially fictionalized form indicating a “condition of psychological dualism” as Equiano attempts a “radical reinvention of himself as a freed Black slave in a racist society” (Paul 849).

Like Prince, Equiano’s autobiography contains “a testimony of personal endurance and a powerful indictment of the evils of the slave trade” (849), and describes the “hellish treatment of slaves” with what Mary Wollstonecraft described as “truth and simplicity” (850). Both contain “vivid description[s] of the violence or slavery,” “separation of family and disregard for slave marriages,” slave owners’ reneged promises of freedom, and slaves’ “desire for freedom and education” (Lloyd par. 4). His powerful rhetorical style in describing boarding a slave ship as a youth, has been compared in scope and eloquence to the writings of such notable individuals as Benjamin Franklin and Frederick Douglass:

Indeed, such were the horrors of my views and fears at the moment, that,

if ten thousand worlds had been my own, I would have freely parted with

them all to have exchanged my position with that of the meanest slave

in my own country. (Ch. 2)

His descriptions of his ocean voyage depict a young man’s confusion, fear he had “got into a world of bad spirits,” and despair in which he “wished for the last friend, Death, to relieve [him]” from suffering at the hands of crewmen who forced the sick slaves to eat, whipping them if they would not. It was “the white people” watching over them who behaved “in so savage a manner,” with “brutal cruelty” including the flogging of a fellow slave “so unmercifully with a large rope…that he died in consequence of it.” He describes his voyage below deck through the Middle Passage as a Dante-esque “scene of horror almost inconceivable” with “the loathsome smells…brought on by the sickness of slaves” and “the groans of the dying,” including children. He counted the fate of those thrown or falling overboard into “the deep much more happy than myself” (Ch. 2).

Where Mary Prince had not converted to Christianity until late in her autobiography, Equiano’s call for “the renovation of liberty and justice” is suffused with Christian language and ideas through much of his account. In Chapter 12, he asks that “the blessings of the Lord be upon the heads of all those who commiserated the cases of the oppressed negroes,” comparing them to Job who wept “for him that was in trouble” and whose soul “grieved for the poor.” He “asks the audience to think about the horrors of slavery both as Christians and people with families and friends.” This “dual appeal” of a former slave who “relies on his Christianity to give him strength to survive his ordeal” (par. 5) and expresses indebtedness to “whites who practiced Christian kindness and helped him to learn valuable skills” (par. 6), is a powerful combination for readers expecting the black man who at one point “whitened [his] face” (Ch. 10), engaged in “exploitation of African’s human and natural resources” himself (Paul 856), and integrated into white society to have become inured to the cause of black slaves:

Our vessel being ready to sail for the Musquito shore, I went with the

Doctor on board a Guinea-man, to purchase some slaves to carry with

us, and cultivate a plantation; and I chose them all my own

countrymen. (Ch. 11)

Equiano’s contribution to the cause of abolition is all the more remarkable in light of this time “in a state of emotional denial…over such shameful dealings with other Blacks” (857). Paul states that in spite of Equiano’s creative license in calling himself “the African,” his later advocacy had “not so much to do with with any genuine sense of pride in his native roots” than his process of “becoming an English author, a man of economic means, and a true Christian” (859). Whatever his motivations—and perhaps they are as multifaceted and complex as Equiano himself—his is a fascinating tale of contradictions and contrasts, from perhaps allegorical descriptions of “idyllic tribal life,” “projection of himself as a lapsed African aristocrat,” to his very real “deportation on a slave ship” (Paul 852) and years of captivity prior to manumission.

Redeemed but never freed in her lifetime, Mary Prince ends her equally compelling narrative with a plea to British citizens to “never leave off to pray to God, and call loud the King of England, till all the poor blacks be given free, and slavery done up for evermore” (602). Equiano called upon his Creator and England’s king as a “most dutiful and devoted servant” carrying the prospect of “the heartfelt pleasure of procuring happiness to millions” of captives (Ch. 11). Through their similar experiences, in highly individual but equally compelling voices, both Prince and Equiano sounded the same clarion call of conscience, and their stories resound today as testimonies to the indomitability of the human spirit in the face of suffering, and the unquenchable desire for freedom.

Works Cited

Alonzo, Andrea Starr. “A Study of Two Women’s Slave Narratives: “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” and “The History of Mary Prince”” Women’s Studies Quarterly 17.3/4 (1989): 118-22. JSTOR. The Feminist Press and the City University of New York. Web. 22 July 2016.

Black, Joseph. “Mary Prince.” The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Age of Romanticism. 2nd ed. Vol. 4. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Pr, 2010. 587-602. Print.

Catapano, P. “Olaudah Equiano, Or, Gustavus Vassa, the African.” City University of New York. Web. 23 July 2016.

Lloyd, W. D. “Lecture Notes for Olaudah Equiano.” North Carolina State University. 24 July 2016. Lecture.

Maddison-Macfadyen, Margot. “Mary Prince, Grand Turk, and Antigua.” Slavery & Abolition 34.4 (2013): 653-62. Shapiro Library. Web. 25 July 2016.

Equiano, Olaudah. “The Interesting Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African: Written By Himself.” Internet Archive. Ed. Suzann Shell and Diane Monico. Archive.org. 17 Mar. 2005. Web. 23 July 2016.

Paul, R. “”I Whitened My Face, That They Might Not Know Me”: Race and Identity in Olaudah Equiano’s Slave Narrative.” Journal of Black Studies 39.6 (2007): 848-64. Shapiro Library. Web. 22 July 2016.

Prince, Mary. “The History of Mary Prince A West Indian Slave Related by Herself.” Comp. Joseph L. Black. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Age of Romanticism. 2nd ed. Vol. 4. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Pr, 2010. 587-602. Print.

Sheltering and Space in Dorothy Wordsworth’s “The Grasmere Journal” and “Grasmere–A Fragment”

Dorothy Wordsworth’s writings and life have too often been viewed in the shadow of those of her brother, William. But far from being the other Wordsworth or simply “William’s satellite” (Brownstein, 48), her observations and experiences preserved in The Grasmere Journal and “Grasmere—A Fragment” reveal a woman whose intellect and grasp of the poetics of space are more than equal to her more famous sibling’s. While she was clearly “devoted to his ambition” and recorded events and scenes as one of her “labors of love” (Comitini 317) so he would “gain profit as well as pleasure” from them, Britain’s poet laureate also “valued her perceptions” (Brownstein 49) and agency while constructing a “domestic space out of what they [found] in nature” together around their Lake County home. Through her “narrative structure” and “careful delineation of details” of Nature and daily life, and her “metonymic association of those details with herself” (Levin 21), The Grasmere Journal stands as a vivid example of Romantic-era sensibilities regarding mankind’s vulnerability and kinship to Nature.

Dorothy Wordsworth’s creative impulses were epitomized in her efforts to harmonize wild and cultivated spaces “peopled by animated flora, wind-blown banks of trees, and flocks of sheep” (Weiger 657). Constructed upon her desire for “place-making” amid the “immediate topography” of Lake County, her determination to facilitate but not violate Nature was “guided by her homemaking impulse” and view of outdoor spaces as extensions of home – spaces to be enjoyed and enhanced, but never intruded upon. She respected and found comfort in their innate beauty and simplicity. Upon arrival in Grasmere following William’s marriage to Mary Hutchinson, Dorothy only superficially addressed her own or “dear Mary’s feelings,” instead defaulting to intimate relationship in taking “candlelight into the garden” where the women were “astonished at the growth of the brooms” and “Portugal laurels” on the property (354). In daylight a neighboring “tuft of trees” amid the countryside’s “beautiful…cottages” (Grasmere—A Fragment, 2-4) and outbuildings symbolized comfort and home for both the “joyful heart” and “feeble frame” of the sometimes lonely and ailing woman:

Many and beautiful they are;

But there is one that I love best,

A lowly shed, in truth, it is,

A brother of the rest.

Yet when I sit on rock or hill,

Down looking on the valley fair,

That cottage with its clustering trees

Summons my heart; it settles there. (Grasmere– A Fragment, 5-12)

The humble mediations of cottages and sheds, nestled among the trees which were Nature’s provided shelter, were welcoming landmarks during Wordsworth’s country wanderings, and where inadequate native cover from the elements existed, Nature graciously tolerated the addition of the unobtrusive home she returned to to prepare “baked bread” and engage in other domestic activities she held dear.

A morning walk in Rydale vale provides another glimpse into Dorothy’s remarkable attention to detail as she chronicled her sensory experiences within and around Grasmere:

Rydale vale was full of life and motion. The wind blew briskly

and the lake was covered all over with bright silver waves that

were there each the twinkling of an eye, then others rose up and

took their place as fast as they went away. (Wordsworth 347)

Wordsworth’s musings about her surroundings are more than “alternating flat and excited fragments” of observation of random trees and buildings and bodies of water, but demonstrate her “impulse to find unity and coherence” in both the natural and manmade elements of her environment (Brownstein 51).

Wordsworth’s gardening aesthetic reveals a subtly feminist rebellion against the prevailing Romantic-era philosophy regarding female domesticity. She was keenly “interested in both the beauty and utility of her garden, as well as their spiritual significance,” and not content with the stylistic norm of women’s gardens “emphasizing ornamental rather than useful plants,” and as a “limiting” and only slightly “more liberating…arena of independence” (Page 20). Wordsworth also employed “graduated forms of mediation” such as “adjudicated landscape architecture” and “promiscuously…tangled” edible and ornamental cultivars such as beans and roses as “constructed products of her imagination and work” in the garden (20). Alexander suggests Dorothy’s garden may indicate an independent “sense of her own body” and thus indicative of “how gender might be constitutive of what she saw” (208). In light of these possibilities, Wordsworth’s garden may be emblematic of the evolving nature of the Romantic female body politic.

In spite of – or perhaps because of – her “rather ordinary, chatty” style (Brownstein 50) and “spare descriptive passages” (Weiger 657), Dorothy Wordsworth’s writing is accessible and charmingly appropriate to her well read but contentedly rural roots. The plentiful and detailed observations of Nature, and intimate if emotionally muted narratives on relationships and experiences of The Grasmere Journal and “Grasmere—A Fragment,” reveal the natural world as more than a backdrop for the domestic woman’s “regulated…ebb and flow of activities” (Comitini 314). They reveal the imagination and techniques of a writer and poet in her own right, a Romantic wordsmith’s notebook from which images and experiences spring actively even today, sensorily and emotionally alive, and of lasting instructive value.

Works Cited

Alexander, Meena. “Dorothy Wordsworth: The Grounds of Writing.” Women’s Studies 14.3 (1987): 195-210. Web. 2 July 2016.

Brownstein, R. M. “The Private Life Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journals.” Modern Language Quarterly 34.1 (1973): 48-63. Shapiro Library. Web. 2 July 2016.

Comitini, Patricia. “”More Than Half a Poet”: Vocational Philanthropy and Dorothy Wordsworth’S Grasmere Journals.” European Romantic Review 14.3 (2003): 307-22. Taylor & Francis. Web. 2 July 2016.

Page, Judith W. “Dorothy Wordsworth’s “gratitude to insensate things”: Gardening in the Grasmere Journals.” Wordsworth Circle Winter/Spring 39.1/2 (2008): 19-23. Shapiro Library. Web. 2 July 2016.

Weiger, Sarah. ““A Love for Things That Have No Feeling”: Dorothy Wordsworth’s Significant Others.” European Romantic Review 23.6 (2012): 651-69. Web. 1 July 2016.

Wordsworth, Dorothy. “Grasmere—A Fragment.” Broadview Anthology of British Literature: Age of Romanticism. Ed. Joseph Black. 2nd ed. Vol. 4. S.l.: Broadview, 2010. 354-355. Print.

Wordsworth, Dorothy. “The Grasmere Journal.” Broadview Anthology of British Literature: Age of Romanticism. Ed. Joseph Black. 2nd ed. Vol. 4. S.l.: Broadview, 2010. 342-56. Print.