Reaping Something New: African American Transformations of Victorian Literature

Reaping Something New: African American Transformations of Victorian Literature

by Daniel Hack


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Wednesday, February 27

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691169453
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 11/29/2016
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 657,606
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Daniel Hack is professor of English at the University of Michigan. He is the author of The Material Interests of the Victorian Novel.

Read an Excerpt

Reaping Something New

African American Transformations of Victorian Literature

By Daniel Hack


Copyright © 2017 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-8374-5



On October 1, 1851, in Syracuse, New York, a man named Jerry was arrested by federal marshals acting under the authority of the Fugitive Slave Act. Within hours, Jerry was freed by a crowd and, several days later, surreptitiously transported to Canada and freedom. Two years after these events, the defendants in what became known as the Jerry Rescue case still had not been tried. Protesting what it saw as "the indirect punishment of persons obnoxious to the Government, whom it does not hope to convict," the abolitionist paper The Liberator exclaimed, "Had we an American Dickens, this might afford a text for a new Bleak House, quite as suggestive as the Court of Chancery itself. But, le bon temps viendra! Better times will come." And so better times did come, indeed had already come, if better times mean new Bleak Houses, Americanized and even African Americanized Bleak Houses: antebellum African Americans and abolitionists seized upon Bleak House and put it to work in a surprising number of ways, from brief if suggestive references such as this one to reprintings of the novel in whole or in part, and from the literal reenactment of one of its events to an actual rewriting of the novel in something like the way The Liberator envisioned.

Attention to these antislavery afterlives of Bleak House alters our understanding of Dickens's novel. At the same time, though, a proper understanding of these afterlives themselves requires close attention to the text of Bleak House. As I argue in my introduction's discussion of "close reading at a distance," the methods of close reading and formal analysis, on the one hand, and of book history and reception studies, on the other, need to be combined if we are to grasp as fully as possible either a text's intrinsic features or its cultural impact, let alone the relationship between the two. In the present instance, we will find that the African Americanization of Bleak House makes newly visible and meaningful certain aspects of the novel even as it calls into question the power of such features to determine the cultural work the novel — and, by extension, any text — performs.

This doubly estranging dynamic will be particularly clear with regard to a cultural task that has come to be seen as one of the novel-form's most important: the cultivation of national identity, or what Benedict Anderson famously called the "imagined community" of the nation-state. As we shall see, Bleak House does not merely fail to imagine a community that includes Africans, African Americans, slaves, and people of color in general; rather, it consolidates the national community it does imagine by means of their exclusion. Paradoxically, however, this strategy becomes most conspicuous when it is least efficacious: engaging in their own forms of close reading at a distance, members of these groups and their advocates find in Dickens's novel a material and imaginative resource for their own efforts to tell the stories they want to tell and build the communities they seek to build.


"Devoted," in the words of its editor, proprietor, and namesake, "to the freedom of the slave, ... the moral and mental elevation of the free colored people," and "the cause of Human Rights, generally, at home and abroad," Frederick Douglass' Paper began publication in 1851 as the successor to Douglass's earlier North Star and continued through the decade. Douglass' Paper typically devoted the first three of its four pages to political news, with the last page given over to literary matter — poems, sketches, stories, and book reviews — along with advertisements. Many decisions concerning this literary content undoubtedly involved one of Douglass's main collaborators, Julia Griffiths, an Englishwoman who served as secretary of the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society and bore primary responsibility for the paper's Literary Notices column (which is often signed with her initials). Adopting an integrationist policy with obvious political significance, Douglass' Paper published original material by African American authors, including the poets J. C. Holly and James Whitfield, and by white Americans associated with the antislavery cause, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; in addition, it reprinted pieces by and sketches about leading British writers not closely identified with the paper's political stance, such as John Ruskin, Robert Browning, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Occasionally the paper serialized fiction, such as Douglass's own "The Heroic Slave," but not often and nothing very long. Or rather, almost nothing: from April 1852 to December 1853, Douglass' Paper printed Dickens's mammoth Bleak House in its entirety.

The anomalous decision to publish Dickens's novel is not well documented. However, we can be sure that it was made with very limited knowledge of the novel's contents, since only the first of Bleak House's nineteen monthly parts had appeared in London and New York (where it was serialized in Harper's New Monthly Magazine) when Douglass' Paper began running it. The paper's brief notice announcing its intention to "treat our readers to this celebrated Story" offers little explanation, but it does note that it is "following in the wake of the Boston Commonwealth." As this phrase suggests, quick as it was to reprint Bleak House, Douglass' Paper was not the first antislavery paper to do so. The free-soil Commonwealth, a four-page daily edited at the time by the well-known abolitionist Elizur Wright, began publication of Bleak House in March 1852, immediately after the first part's initial publication ("36 hours after the appearance of the Harper edition," according to a gloating notice). Announcing somewhat defensively that "we think [our readers] will not only forgive us but thank us when they have read it," the Commonwealth dedicated its entire first page and most of its fourth to the first installment of the novel.

The Commonwealth's reasons for offering Bleak House are suggested by a piece from the New York Times it had reprinted the previous day, an article that summarizes the opening of Bleak House and states that the novel "will seek to turn the swelling tide of public contempt, ridicule, indignation, and hatred against that great engine of oppression, made sacred by ages of abuse, and venerable in the eyes of all who live to adore the past [i.e., the Court of Chancery]. It will be a most interesting and powerful book [with] a clear, practical purpose — the demolition of abuses and the reform of institutions which impede the progress and crush the energies of the race." A biographical sketch also published in the Commonwealth and reprinted in Douglass' Paper the day it began running the novel similarly emphasizes Dickens's status as a reformer. Surprisingly, no reference is made in either of these pieces to Dickens's criticism of slavery in his American Notes, published a decade earlier. Nonetheless, it is fair to assume that this notorious work contributed to the sense of ideological compatibility. Douglass himself was familiar with American Notes, referring to it in speeches at least as early as 1846.

Beginning, however, with the last chapter of that first monthly number which Douglass and Griffiths may or may not have read before deciding to run Bleak House, there is good reason to question the fit of novel to journal. This chapter introduces Mrs. Jellyby, an activist working to send white settlers to "Borrioboola-Gha, on the left bank of the Niger," where they are to cultivate the coffee and educate the natives. So consumed is Mrs. Jellyby by her efforts on behalf of "the Brotherhood of Humanity" (BH, p. 41) that she scandalously neglects her duties as a wife and mother. This satire of what Dickens famously and damningly calls "telescopic philanthropy" (BH, p. 34) clashes directly with Douglass's advocacy of transatlantic political activism and his close collaboration with British and female abolitionists such as Griffiths. As the novel proceeds, moreover, this initial criticism of Mrs. Jellyby and her "African project" (BH, p. 38) proves no isolated incident. On the contrary, such criticism recurs throughout Bleak House to support what emerges as the novel's implicitly British project of promoting a localism that begins with concern for those "immediately about [one]" and extends at best to the nation's borders; the governing image here is Esther Summerson's "gradually and naturally" expanding "circle of duty" (BH, p. 96). This stance is directly opposed to what Douglass, in his famous speech on "The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro," celebrates as "the obvious tendencies of the age":

No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. ... Oceans no longer divide, but link nations together. From Boston to London is now a holiday excursion. Space is comparatively annihilated. — Thoughts expressed on one side of the Atlantic are distinctly heard on the other.

This speech appeared in Douglass' Paper only a few weeks after Esther's anti-Jellyby credo.

The presence of Dickens's novel in the paper is all the more jarring because the novel's treatment of place is at the same time a treatment of race: Bleak House consistently opposes its ethics of proximity to an interest in what we would now call people of color. Thus, the rough handling of Mrs. Jellyby is complemented by the novel's moving depiction of the dispossessed London street sweep Jo, whose neglect is used to indict those who concern themselves instead with "the spiritual destitution of a coral reef in the Pacific" (BH, p. 199). Most striking of all, in the context of Douglass' Paper, is the novel's one direct reference to American slavery, which again contrasts attention to darker-skinned people with the fulfillment of one's domestic (in both senses) responsibilities. Describing what he calls his "cosmopolitan ... sympathy" with "enterprise and effort," the dilettante Harold Skimpole says, "Take an extreme case. Take the case of the Slaves on American plantations. I dare say they are worked hard, I dare say they don't altogether like it, I dare say theirs is an unpleasant experience on the whole; but they people the landscape for me, they give it a poetry for me, and perhaps that is one of the pleasanter objects of their existence. I am very sensible of it, if it be, and I shouldn't wonder if it were!" (BH, p. 227). Skimpole is of course meant to be seen as a moral monster. However, the essence of this monstrousness is captured by Esther's response, which makes clear the racial exclusion upon which the novel's moral order rests: "I always wondered on these occasions whether he ever thought of Mrs. Skimpole and the children, and in what point of view they presented themselves to his cosmopolitan mind. So far as I could understand, they rarely presented themselves at all" (BH, p. 227). In other words, Skimpole's moral deficiency consists not in the point of view in which American slaves present themselves to his mind, as one might imagine, but rather in the very fact that he thinks about them. Through moments such as this, Bleak House emerges as a remarkably incongruous choice for the former slave Douglass to people his own landscape with, and give it a poetry.

I will argue below that Douglass and Griffiths takes various steps to downplay this incongruousness. In this particular instance, though, editorial decisions have the opposite effect: the weekly installment containing Skimpole's troubling musings and Esther's equally troubling response breaks off mid-chapter, right after this very passage (ending with "... rarely presented themselves at all"), thereby heightening its prominence. Moreover, the installment is immediately — and mischievously? — followed, in the same column, by an item titled "Why Slaves Escape."

Additional aspects of Bleak House also threaten to become more salient and more troubling when framed by Douglass' Paper. In particular, there is John Jarndyce's ostensibly benevolent trafficking in women: when Jarndyce hires Charley Neckett to be Esther's maid, Charley announces this to Esther by saying, in what are clearly Jarndyce's words, "If you please, miss, I'm a present to you, with Mr. Jarndyce's love" (BH, p. 299); and at the end of the novel, Jarndyce releases Esther from her promise to marry him and hands her over to Allan Woodcourt, saying, "take from me, a willing gift" (BH, p. 753). The language of gift-exchange here registers, even as it seeks to prettify, profound disparities in agency and power. Present in the text but muted, this discordant note resonates more loudly and to different effect when sounded in a newspaper dedicated to ending the treatment of persons as possessions.

In making these claims about the framing effect of Douglass' Paper, I recognize that we must take care not to assume that what seems clear now would have seemed clear in the past. Readers must be tuned to the right frequency to hear these notes. It is likely that Dickens's earlier antislavery stance and continued reputation as a reformer did prevent some antislavery activists from registering Bleak House's problematic politics; the reference in the Liberator article I opened with suggests as much. Similarly, after publishing the first monthly part of Bleak House, the Commonwealth went so far as to defend itself against criticism for underselling Harper's (which it reports as having paid $2,000 for advance sheets of the novel) by joking, "If we make one hundredth part as much money on it as the Harpers have made on pirated English literature, we will give a hundred dollars for the education of Mrs. Jellyby's daughter, or some other charitable object." Nonetheless, we know that it does not require hindsight to see the trouble with Bleak House, and we know it the only way we can with any certainty: through the recorded reactions of contemporary readers. Before the novel had finished publication, even finished being written, a prominent British abolitionist publicly denounced Dickens's depiction of Mrs. Jellyby as implicitly proslavery: in a series of articles quickly reprinted as a pamphlet, Lord Denman charged Dickens with "do[ing] his best to replunge the world into the most barbarous abuse that ever afflicted it." "We do not say that he actually defends slavery or the slave trade," Denman explains, "but he takes pains to discourage, by ridicule, the effort now making to put them down." The ridicule of Mrs. Jellyby prompts him to demand, "Who but the slave traders can gain by this course of argument?"

In a letter to Denman's daughter responding to this attack, Dickens claimed that "No kind of reference to Slavery is made or intended" in his depiction of Mrs. Jellyby. Whether or not Lord Denman's daughter was convinced by this claim, Mrs. Jellyby's daughter clearly is not: "Talk of Africa! I couldn't be worse off if I was a what-'s-his-name — man and a brother!" (BH, p. 166), says Caddy, invoking the famous abolitionist slogan. And in fact Denman's concern over the use to which Dickens's satire could be put was well founded: two weeks before Dickens wrote his letter, a letter to the Times of London criticized an antislavery petition signed by thousands of British women by saying that efforts should not be made to "regenerate Borrioboola Gha" when there is so much work to be done "within a stone's throw of our own dwellings." Dickens may resist this application of his novel, but the novel itself does not.


Excerpted from Reaping Something New by Daniel Hack. Copyright © 2017 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction The African Americanization of Victorian Literature 1

1 Close Reading Bleak House at a Distance 23

2 (Re-) Racializing “The Charge of the Light Brigade” 45

3 Affiliating with George Eliot 76

4 Racial Mixing and Textual Remixing: Charles Chesnutt 102

5 Cultural Transmission and Transgression: Pauline Hopkins 135

6 The Citational Soul of Black Folk: W.E.B. Du Bois 176

Afterword After Du Bois 205

Notes 213

Bibliography 259

Index 273

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews