December 2015

Dan Froid


The Birth-mark: Essays by Susan Howe

The three epigraphs that open The Birth-mark indicate something of what Susan Howe is after. Between text from Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "The Birth-mark" and Herman Melville's Billy-Budd is a transcription of the third and last of the so-called "Master letters," Emily Dickinson's notes to an unknown addressee whom she identifies only as the "Master." It's not printed text but a scanned image of the transcription, complete with the crossed-out words and symbols that have made her oeuvre such a challenge for scholars, which I attempt to reproduce here:

Vesuvius dont talk -- Etna -- dont --
They said a syllable one of them
a thousand years ago, and
Pompeii heard it, and hid
forever -- She couldnt look the
world in the face -- afterward --
I suppose -- Bashful Pompeii!
Tell you of the want" -- you
know what a leech is, dont
you -- and remember that Daisy's arm is small --

The very act of typing this epigraph amounts to an argument about the poem's text: How to convey the handwritten punctuation? Is that a dash? Something else? Should I retain the crossed-out words? Are they integral to the meaning of the poem? Throughout much of this book Howe seeks to probe precisely this challenge and the ways editors have dealt with the work of Dickinson, which she understands as a form of violence. Stemming from the interpretation that Dickinson intended her works precisely as they are -- hand-written art objects, in which the visual is as meaningful as the text -- Howe criticizes editions that neglect or even erase the work's visual component. Dickinson's resistance to editorial interference, both in life and posthumously, as manifested in her oeuvre, opposes a kind of intrinsically American violence. The power dynamics of, the war waged over, Emily Dickinson's body of work is, in effect, a manifestation of a much larger American problem: colonization, captivity. "Behind the facade of Harvard University is a scaffold and a regicide. Under the ivy and civility there is the instinct for murder, erasure, and authoritarianism," Howe claims in an interview with Talisman magazine that closes this volume. To Howe, culture masks our beastly origins; American literature contains a violence at its core: of separation or division, of settlement or colonization.

In this book, first published in 1993 and reissued in December by New Directions, the central concern is editorial control -- its history, its effects -- of American literature by women. For Howe, this issue is as old as the nation:

The issue of editorial control is directly connected to the attempted erasure of antinomianism in our culture. Lawlessness seen as negligence is at first feminized and then restricted or banished. For me, the manuscripts of Emily Dickinson represent a contradiction to canonical social power, whose predominant purpose seems to have been to render isolate voices devoted to writing as a physical event of immediate revelation.

Antinomianism: The belief that salvation comes solely from the grace of God and faith in it. Antinomianism unbinds believers from moral law. It suggests that mere belief, not legislative compulsion, should motivate one to act. It has long posed a threat to conventional Christian discourse and practice. In a literal sense, the antinomian controversy in New England (1636-38) resulted in the banishment of the preacher and prophet Anne Hutchinson; she was excommunicated, her opinions compared to monstrous births. Howe understands various American women as, more figuratively, literary antinomians, Hutchinson's successors in resistance to orthodoxy. The lawlessness of Dickinson's oeuvre is evident in its form, which reflects the understanding of writing as "a physical event of immediate revelation." In other words, Dickinson scrawled her works on scraps of paper, she crossed out words and provided alternatives. Her poetry has a body of its own. Dickinson herself is unbound from the laws or conventions of literature. As a result, Howe suggests, scholars have sought to capture her work, to colonize it, to make it normative or more palatable.

Dickinson, along with Mary Rowlandson, is the book's primary subject. Rowlandson's work is a captivity narrative: The Soveraignty & of Goodness of god, Together, With the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed; Being a narrative Of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, Commended by her, to all that desires to know the Lords doings to, and dealings with Her (1682). Popular in its own right as well as responsible for popularizing the captivity narrative in late-seventeenth-century America, it is still among the best known of the genre. Howe identifies Rowlandson's work so: "Avatar of the only literary-mythological form indigenous to North America, this captivity narrative is both a microcosm of colonial imperialist history and a prophecy of our contemporary repudiation of alterity, anonymity, darkness." Despite that somewhat cringe-inducing dependent clause -- surely she means "the only literary-mythological form indigenous to white North Americans," aka the colonists -- this is a compelling claim.

Rowlandson's narrative is full of anger and anxiety, feelings that her religious convictions would prevent her, a woman, from expressing:

Rev. Joseph Rowlandson's wife knew that her ordeal might mark her as suspect; vulnerable to ambivalent charges ranging from pride (she had set a high price on her own head) to sexual promiscuity, even to sorcery. Perhaps she told her story to assure herself and her community that she was a woman who feared God and eschewed evil.

Rowlandson cannot be the hero of her own journey; she must couch her story carefully, littering it with self-deprecation as well as praise to God. This tension, too, is indicative of a particularly American cultural illness. Rowlandson is a member of a kind of corporatized religious community, to whose discourse she must conform even as the very fact of writing a captivity narrative emphasizes individual experience. Still, as Howe says later, "The trick of her text is its mix." Rowlandson succeeds -- sort of -- at both: the cause of her text's tension and weirdness. As a narrative, moreover, recounting the story of her "captivity and restoration," the text itself contains a similar tension. And one might say that all of Howe's subjects are caught up in an editorial process of captivity and restoration. Dickinson's editors could be said to hold captive the body of her work, which Howe seeks to restore. And what is much of literary criticism if not a process of "restoring" the apparently captive meaning of a text?

Howe finds all this tension in Rowlandson so edifying that she identifies her as "the mother of us all. American writers, I mean. Already in 1681, the first narrative written by a white Anglo-American woman is alive with rage and contradiction." An interesting suggestion, though it's one not exactly borne out by the text: the reader has to take Howe's word for it. Indeed, the text is full of such bold claims, including those I've noted above about Dickinson and Rowlandson. Howe rarely engages in close reading, of any of her subjects. So, yes, Howe's method as a critic can be haphazard. Her own prose is mixed with lengthy quotations from Thomas Hutchinson and Cotton Mather. A straightforward prose style routinely collapses into obfuscations. For example, in the text's mysterious center section, "Incloser," she writes:

"God bless Captain Vere!"
The time of the archangelic cry is almost dawn.
Morning in emblematical trim. Then Billy ascending. Common plea and common prayer; Baby Budd to the sepulcher of precedents.
Exhort. Spare my life. Object. Divorced from the law.
The Lamb of God is slain from the beginning. Reason will trample
on a force field of passionate enunciation. The lot falls on Jonah who is
sleeping. Quietism is apathy charged with sedition.
What is meant by judgment first.

This -- lucid observations juxtaposed with striking images -- is quite good poetry, even if frustrating as criticism, if that's what it is. But these passages are the book's greatest moments, which make it worth the trek through the extended quotations from Mather, the frustrating digressions. The trick of her text is its mix. And here, especially, one begins to get a sense of her argument. The bigger they come, the harder they fall. Unruly, passionate enunciation, especially from outsiders, especially from women -- the preacher Anne Hutchinson, banished; Emily Dickinson, her work unpublished, or published but her voice strangled -- such passion is trampled. In the name of reason.

All this is compelling, and yet. To ask for more careful exegesis would seem to be falling into the trap Howe wishes to expose. Still, her bold declarations practice a kind of exegesis of their own, don't they? I'm thinking of Rita Felski's discussion of the hermeneutics of suspicion, a term borrowed from Paul Ricoeur, in The Uses of Literature. (This is a subject Felski has further explored in this year's The Limits of Critique -- making this new edition of The Birth-mark a strange bedfellow.) As Felski says, suspicious reading, so common in literary criticism, is a practice of reading against the grain, a "quintessentially paranoid style of critical engagement." On the one hand, I hesitate to call The Birth-mark paranoid, which would reduce its subversive aims to an emotional impulse. Rather, I wish to point out that The Birth-mark is hermeneutically suspicious of decades or more of suspicious hermeneuts. In that way, the project is the same, though the methodology differs. Howe writes: "When we move through the positivism of literary canons and master narratives, we consign ourselves to the legitimation of power, chains of inertia, an apparatus of capture." She foregoes positivism, but not interpretation. Is this alternative liberating? It's hard to say. Is it passionate enunciation? Well, this book's irony is that it itself seeks to restore the captive by exposing others' attempts to do the same. Her claims are compelling, but she demands that we read as antinomians, unbinding ourselves from the laws of interpretation. This is a tall order, but at the very least The Birth-mark compels one to return to Dickinson, Rowlandson, et al. with fresh eyes.

For Howe, it seems that her method is potentially salvific. In the interview that closes this book, Howe more clearly articulates the ideology that underpins her work:

Where did the poison of racial hatred in America begin? Will it ever end? Why are we such a violent nation? Why do we have such contempt for powerlessness? I feel compelled in my work to go back, not to the Hittites but to the invasion or settling, or whatever current practice calls it, of this place. I am trying to understand what went wrong when the first Europeans stepped on shore here.

The violence in America is also, of course, the violence of America, its history the nation's. Thus this violence is not an epidemic, it's endemic, in culture as well as in discourse. Starting with poetry -- why not? -- Howe seeks to identify the ways it has manifested itself. If this book provides answers to Howe's questions, they are oblique in the extreme. Nonetheless, Howe, herself a poet, offers a kind of invitation to an encounter with that which has been made null. That is, with the antinomian. And that seems to be the ideal way to read The Birth-mark. The encounter matters, for she also says that with poetry, "You open yourself and let language enter, let it lead you somewhere." If The Birth-mark is frustrating, it is equally enlightening and energizing. Take this book for what it is, then, an invitation to a fresh encounter, full of strange and often beautiful poetry of its own. The destination is admittedly unclear. Still, let it lead you somewhere.

The Birth-mark by Susan Howe
New Directions
ISBN: 978-0811224659
208 pages