The Book of the New World–some preliminary comments

To begin with, this passage from George Washington Cable’s The Grandissimes (1880):

Resolved, in other words, without being [Joseph] Frowenfeld the studious, to begin at once the perusal of this newly found book, the Community of New Orleans. True, he knew he should find it a difficult task–not only that much of it was in a strange tongue, but that it was a volume whose displaced leaves would have to be lifted tenderly, blown free of much dust, re-arranged, some torn fragments laid together again with much painstaking, and even the purport of some pages guessed out. (103)

Passages such as this occur with some frequency in miscegenation narratives: references to literal or, in this case, figurative books the understanding of whose contents demand patience and care on the part of the reader. In Go Down, Moses, there are the McCaslin plantation ledgers that Ike must come to terms with; in Jorge Amado’s Tent of Miracles, a main character writes a genealogy of Bahian families in part to demonstrate just how miscegenated ostensibly “white” Brazilian families in fact are; etc., etc. At one level, there’s no need to push this too hard. Such scenes occur in novels from throughout the Americas that have little or nothing to do with the theme of interracial relationships; I have mentioned here before that Roberto González Echevarría’s Myth and Archive: A Theory of Latin American Literature could, with a bit of tinkering, serve as a useful way of thinking about the origins of the literature of the United States as well. But at another level, there’s a difference to be gotten at. Whereas González Echevarría’s book argues that the literature of the Americas has its origins in the imaginative rewriting of colonial-era records and histories of the region and therefore is an early version of (to appropriate a title) the empire writing back, in the case of narratives of miscegenation these Books either contain or cause a resistance to comprehending them even as they seek to serve as recordings, however oblique, of the facts of miscegenation.

Sorry for quoting myself, but: I tried to say something like this within the context of a post on casta paintings:

Given that these series of paintings are intended to be part dictionary of racial types, part social code, and part visual cabinet of curiosities, I tend to think that their audiences, if they thought about the correspondences between the paintings and the realities of New Spain, could not escape the uneasy feeling that a social order founded on racial difference would eventually become untenable–especially given that part of these paintings’ very point (and whether this point was intended or not is difficult to determine) is that those differences were becoming ever harder to discern in real life. These paintings end up implicitly depicting their own inadequacy to depict the very thing they’re intended to depict–another version of something I was trying to get at in this post with regard to American literature.

It can be discomfiting to talk about the emergence of a new people, especially when they are the by-product of an institution about which there was already considerable discomfort and when they serve, in the eyes of many, as an implicit condemnation of that same institution. Yet, those new people are the the subject of this particular Book of the New World.

More on this, sooner rather than later (I hope).

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Culture and historical “forgetting”

Should a culture have a memory faithful to history? What role can/should legend and myth play in such a culture?

These are questions that the post-Encounter culture(s) of the Western Hemisphere must of necessity be concerned with. Over at my other blog I’ve put up a brief post that wonders aloud about these issues. I hope you’ll have a look over there and leave your comments either here or there.

Black people in Faulkner’s world: Some passages from Faulkner, Mississippi

William Faulkner at Rowan Oak, his home outside Oxford, Mississippi, 1962. Photograph by Martin C. Dain. Image found here.

I’ve just finished having a look at Edouard Glissant’s book, Faulkner, Mississippi (you can find some preliminary comments over at my other blog). Short review: I don’t know if he’s right (see below), but he’s a thoughtful and provocative reader of Faulkner.

Back in a 1992 summer institute at LSU, I had the privilege of hearing Glissant, so his notion of Faulkner as a Caribbean writer–within the context of Glissant’s trope of the Plantation–which he explores in Faulkner, Mississippi, was not entirely new to me. But what I didn’t remember him discussing at LSU is his take on the place of black people in Faulkner’s vision of the South. What follows, then, are some passages that I hope will serve as a fair summation of that view.

For what it’s worth: Glissant genuinely admires Faulkner’s refusal to look away from his central theme of “the human heart in conflict with itself” as that theme applies to the South’s tragedy; even so, I think he also makes clear why many African-American readers have real troubles with Faulkner’s depictions of black people–though not, perhaps, for the reason(s) they or Faulkner’s white readers would offer by way of explanation for their ambivalence toward him.

In this hidden inquiry into origins (of the county and its maledictions), to which his works always give (or rather propose) answers that are postponed (into the infinity of Time and Death), Blacks are and represent the unsurpassable point of reference, those who remain and who assume.

Here, we find that the extended African family has no claim to constitute a family lineage. So it never meets with failure [. . . .] On Faulkner’s agenda, the only means of change for Blacks would be miscegenation: the advent of hte mulatto, some sort of genetic and cultural Snopes. That, at least, is what we read between the lines. (59-60)

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