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Archive for February, 2006

Over My Shoulder #12: Michael Fellman (2002), The Making of Robert E. Lee

You know the rules. Here’s the quote. This is from Chapter 4 (Race and Slavery of Michael Fellman’s The Making of Robert E. Lee (2000). Of course I’ve written about this before, in GT 2005-01-03: Robert E. Lee owned slaves and defended slavery. I picked up Fellman’s book as another source to consult over the relevant sections of WikiPedia:Robert E. Lee. The passage contains some new material that I hadn’t been aware of before. It also contains a couple of minor factual errors; see below.

No historian has established how many slaves Lee actually owned before 1857, or how much income he derived from this source. The more general point is that to some extent he was personally involved in slave owning his whole adult life, as was the norm for better-off Southerners, even those who did not own plantations. Unlike many other slaveholders in Baltimore, for example, he did not manumit his personal slaves while he lived in that city and, indeed, recoiled at the thought of losing them. He carried them back with him when he returned to Virginia.

When his father-in-law died, late in 1857, Lee was left with the job of supervising Arlington and the various other Custis estates, perhaps as many as three others. Moreover, the Custis will specified that these slaves be freed by January 1, 1863 {sic—see below —RG}; therefore Lee had the dual tasks of managing these slaves in the interim and then freeing them, immersing him in the contradictions of owning, protecting, and exploiting people of a different and despised race. It was very likely that the Custis slaves knew that they were to be freed, which could have only made Lee’s efforts to succor, discipline, and extract labor from them in the meantime considerably more difficult.

Faced with this set of problems, Lee attempted to hire an overseer. He wrote to his cousin Edward C. Turner, I am no farmer myself & do not expect to be always here. I wish to get an energetic honest farmer, who while he will be considerate & kind to the negroes, will be firm & make them do their duty. Such help was difficult to find or to retain, and despite himself Lee had to take a leave of absence from the army for two years to become a slave manager himself, one who doubtless tried to combine kindness with firmness but whose experience was altogether unhappy. Any illusions he may have had about becoming a great planter, which apparently were at least intermittent, dissipated dramatically as he wrestled with workers who were far less submissive to his authority than were enlisted men in the army. The coordination and discipline central to Lee’s role in the army proved less compatible with his role as manager of slaves than he must have expected.

Sometimes, the carrot and the stick both worked ineffectively. On May 30, 1858, Lee wrote his son Rooney, I have had some trouble with some of the people. Reuben, Parks & Edward, in the beginning of the previous week, rebelled against my authority—refused to obey my orders, & said they were as free as I was, etc., etc.—I succeeded in capturing them & lodged them in jail. They resisted till overpowered & called upon the other people to rescue them. Enlightened masters in the upper South often sent their rebellious slaves to jail, where the sheriff would whip them, presumably dispassionately, rather than apply whippings themselves. Whatever happened in the Alexandria jail after this event, less than two months later Lee sent these three men down under lock and key to the Richmond slave trader William Overton Winston, with instructions to keep them in jail until Winston could hire them out to good & responsible men in Virginia, for a term lasting until December 31, 1862, by which time the Custis will stipulated that they be freed. Lee also noted to Winston, in a rather unusual fashion, I do not wish these men returned here during the usual holy days, but to be retained until called for. He hoped to quarantine his remaining slaves against these three men, to whom the deprivation of the customary Christmas visits would be a rather cruel exile, though well short, of course, of being sold to the cotton fields of the Deep South. At the same time, Lee sent along three women house slaves to Winston, adding, I cannot recommend them for honesty. Lee was packing off the worst malcontents. More generally, as he wrote in exasperation to Rooney, who was managing one of the other Custis estates at the time, so few of the Custis slaves had been broken to hard work in their youth that it would be accidental to fall in with a good one.

This sort of snide commentary about inherent slave dishonesty and laziness was the language with which Lee expressed his racism; anything more vituperative and crudely expressed would have diminished his gentlemanliness. Well-bred men expressed caste superiority with detached irony, not with brutal oaths about niggers.

The following summer, Lee conducted another housecleaning of recalcitrant slaves, hiring out six more to lower Virginia. Two, George Wesley and Mary Norris {sic—see below —RG}, had absconded that spring but had been recaptured in Maryland as they tried to reach freedom in Pennsylvania.

As if this were not problem enough, on June 24, 1859, the New York Tribune published two letters that accused Lee—while calling him heir to the Father of this free country—of cruelty to Wesley and Norris {sic—see below —RG}. They had not proceeded far [north] before their progress was intercepted by some brute in human form, who suspected them to be fugitives. They were transported back, taken in a barn, stripped, and the men [sic] received thirty and nine lashes each [sic], from the hands of the slave-whipper … when he refused to whip the girl … Mr. Lee himself administered the thirty and nine lashes to her. They were then sent to the Richmond jail. Lee did not deign to respond to this public calumny. All he said at that time was to Rooney: The N.Y. Tribune has attacked me for the treatment of your grandfather’s slaves, but I shall not reply. He has left me an unpleasant legacy. Remaining in dignified silence then, Lee continued to be agonized by this accusation for the rest of his life. Indeed, in 1866, when the Baltimore American reprinted this old story, Lee replied in a letter that might have been intended for publication, the statement is not true; but I have not thought proper to publish a contradiction, being unwilling to be drawn into a newspaper discussion, believing that those who know me would not credit it; and those who do not, would care nothing about it. With somewhat less aristocratic detachment, Lee wrote privately to E. S. Quirk of San Fransisco about this slander … There is not a word of truth in it. … No servant, soldier, or citizen that was ever employed by me can with truth charge me with bad treatment.

That Lee personally beat Mary Norris seems extremely unlikely, and yet slavery was so violent that it cast all masters in the roles of potential brutes. Stories such as this had been popularized earlier in the 1850s by Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and they stung even the most restrained of masters, who understood that kindness alone would have been too indulgent, and corporal punishment (for which Lee substituted the euphemism firmness) was an intrinsic and necessary part of slave discipline. Although it was supposed to be applied only in a calm and rational manner, overtly physical domination of slaves, unchecked by law, was always brutal and potentially savage.

— Michael Fellman (2000), The Making of Robert E. Lee. New York: Random House. 64–67

No servant, soldier, or citizen that was ever employed by Robert E. Lee could with truth charge him with bad treatment. Except for having enslaved them.

The letters to the Trib are online at Letter from A Citizen (dated June 21, 1859) and Some Facts That Should Come to Light (dated June 19, 1859). Wesley Norris told his own story in 1866 after the war; it was printed in the National Anti-Slavery Standard on April 14, 1866.

Although Lee acted as if the will provided for him to keep the slaves until the last day of 1862, what Custis’s will actually said was And upon the legacies to my four granddaughters being paid, and my estates that are required to pay the said legacies, being clear of debts, then I give freedom to my slaves, the said slaves to be emancipated by my executors in such manner as to my executors may seem most expedient and proper, the said emancipation to be accomplished in not exceeding five years from the time of my decease. (Meaning that at the very latest the slaves should have been manumitted by October 10, 1862, the fifth anniversary of Custis’s death.) Fellman also seems to have misread the primary sources, which state that three slaves tried to leave in 1859 — Wesley Norris, Mary Norris, and a cousin whose name I haven’t yet been able to find. Mary and Wesley were the children of Sally Norris. It’s possible that Fellman misread a reference to a George, on the one hand, and Wesley and Mary Norris, on the other; in which case the third might have been George Clarke or George Parks. I’ll let you know if I find out more later.

Further reading

Over My Shoulder #11: Andrea Dworkin, Preface to the 1995 edition of Intercourse

You know the rules. Here’s the quote. After last week’s entry I’m running the risk of seeming as if I intend to use this gimmick as an outlet for all the Andrea Dworkin quotes that I find particularly apropos at the end of the week. I already have a running feature for that, but the fact is that other than fiction and material that I’m already transcribing for the Fair Use Repository, Dworkin’s most of what I’ve been reading for the past two weeks — in part as a result of a sometimes rather combative editing process over at WikiPedia:Andrea Dworkin, and in part because the stuff is nearly impossible to put down for long once you start reading parts of it. So rather than break the rules by picking up some item just to read it at the last minute to pick out another quote in the name of avoiding repetition, here we have some bus reading from earlier this afternoon: a passage from the Preface to the 1995 edition of Intercourse (first edition 1987).

My colleagues, of course, had been right; but their advice offended me. I have never written for a cowardly or passive or stupid reader, the precise characteristics of most reviewers—overeducated but functionally illiterate, members of a gang, a pack, who do their drive-by shootings in print and experience what they call the street at cocktail parties. I heard it onthe street, they say, meaning a penthouse closer to heaven. It is no accident that most of the books published in the last few years about the decline and fall of Anglo-European culture because of the polluting effect of women of all races and some men of color—and there are a slew of such books—have been written by white-boy journalists. Abandoning the J-school ethic of who, what, where, when, how and the discipline of Hemingway’s lean, masculine prose, they now try to answer why. That decline and fall, they say, is because talentless, uppity women infest literature; or because militant feminists are an obstacle to the prorape, prodominance art of talented living or dead men; or because the multicultural reader—likely to be female and/or not white—values Alice Walker and Toni Morrison above Aristotle and the Marquis de Sade. Hallelujah, I say.

Intercourse is a book that moves through the sexed world of dominance and submission. It moves in descending circles, not in a straight line, and as in a vortex each spiral goes down deeper. Its formal model is Dante’s Inferno; its lyrical debt is to Rimbaud; the equality it envisions is rooted in the dreams of women, silent generations, pioneer voices, lone rebels, and masses who agitated, demanded, cried out, broke laws, and even begged. The begging was a substitute for retaliatory violence: doing bodily harm back to those who use or injure you. I want women to be done with begging.

The public censure of women as if we are rabid because we speak without apology about the world in which we live is a strategy of threat that usually works. Men often react to women’s words—speaking and writing—as if they were acts of violence; sometimes men react to women’s words with violence. So we lower our voices. Women whisper. Women apologize. Women shut up. Women trivialize what we know. Women shrink. Women pull back. Most women have experienced enough dominance from men—control, violence, insult, contempt—that no threat seems empty.

Intercourse does not say, forgive me and love me. It does not say, I forgive you, I love you. For a woman writer to thrive (or, arguably, to survive) in these current hard times, forgiveness and love must be subtext. No. I say no.

Can a man read Intercourse? Can a man read a book written by a woman in which she uses language without its ever becoming decorative or pretty? Can a man read a book written by a woman in which she, the author, has a direct relationship to experience, ideas, literature, life, including fucking, without mediation—such that what she says and how she says it are not determined by boundaries men have set for her? Can a man read a woman’s work if it does not say what he already knows? Can a man let in a challenge not just to his dominance but to his cognition? And, specifically, am I saying that I know more than men about fucking? Yes, I am. Not just different: more and better, deeper and wider, the way anyone used knows the user.

Intercourse does not narrate my experience to measure it against Norman Mailer’s or D. H. Lawrence’s. The first-person is embedded in the way the book is built. I use Tolstoy, Kobo Abe, James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Flaubert not as authorities but as examples. I use them; I cut and slie into them in order to exhibit them; but the authority behind the book—behind each and every choice—is mine. In formal terms, then, Intercourse is arrogant, cold, and remorseless. You, the reader, will not be looking at me, the girl; you will be looking at them. In Intercourse I created an intellectual and imaginative environment in which you can see them. The very fact that I usurp their place—make them my characters—lessens the unexamined authority that goes not with their art but with their gender. I love the literature these men created; but I will not live my life as if they are real and I am not. Nor will I tolerate the continuing assumption that they know more about women than we know about ourselves. And I do not believe that they know more about intercourse. Habits of deference can be broken, and it is up to writers to break them. Submission can be refused; and I refuse it.

Of course, men have read and do read Intercourse. Many like it and understand it. Some few have been thrilled by it—it suggests to them a new possibility of freedom, a new sexual ethic: and they do not want to be users. Some men respond to the radicalism of Intercourse: the ideas, the prose, the structure, the questions that both underlie and intentionally subvert meaning. But if one’s sexual experience has always and without exception been based on dominance—not only overt acts but also metaphysical and ontological assumptions—how can one read this book? The end of male dominance would mean—in the understanding of such a man—the end of sex. If one has eroticized a differential in power that allows for force as a natural and inevitable part of intercourse, how could one understand that this book does not say that all men are rapists or that all intercourse is rape? Equality in the realm of sex is an antisexual idea if sex requires dominance in order to register as sensation. As said as I am to say it, the limits of the old Adam—and the material power he still has, especially in publishing and media—have set limits on the public discourse (by both men and women) about this book.

In general women get to say yea or nay to intercourse, which is taken to be a synonym for sex, echt sex. In this reductive brave new world, women like sex or we do not. We are loyal to sex or we are not. The range of emotions and ideas expressed by Tolstoy et al. is literally forbidden to contemporary women. Remorse, sadness, despair, alienation, obsession, fear, greed, hate—all of which men, especially male artists, express—are simple no votes for women. Compliance means yes; a simplistic rah-rah means yes; affirming the implicit right of men to get laid regardless of the consequences to women is a yes. Reacting against force or exploitation means no; affirming pornography and prostitution means yes. I like it is the standard for citizenship, and I want it pretty much exhausts the First Amendment’s meaning for women. Critical thought or deep feeling puts one into the Puritan camp, that hallucinated place of exile where women with complaints are dumped, after which we can be abandoned. Why—socially speaking—feed a woman you can’t fuck? Why fuck a woman who might ask questions let alone have a complex emotional life or a political idea? I refuse to tolerate this loyalty-oath approach to women and intercourse or women and sexuality or, more to the point, women and men. …

—Andrea Dworkin (1995), Preface to the 1995 edition of Intercourse, pp. vii-x.

This may help to shed some light, from a few different directions, on long-standing discussions on this site and elsewhere.

Over My Shoulder #10: Andrea Dworkin’s Preface to the British Edition of Right-wing Women

You know the rules. Here’s the quote. This is from Andrea Dworkin’s Preface to the British edition of Right-wing Women (1983). It’s reprinted for American readers in Letters from a War Zone, pp. 185-194. I re-read the essay (along with a great deal of Andrea Dworkin’s stuff) in the process of following citations and culling material for expansions to WikiPedia: Andrea Dworkin — partly on its own merits, and partly because I’ve had to spend some time on it dealing with crusading anti-Dworkin editor / vandals. This is unrelated to anything that was under discussion in the article, but it caught my eye as I was flipping through, so I slowed down to re-read it in full:

The political concepts of Right and Left could not have originated in England or the United States; they come out of the specificity of the French experience. They were born in the chaos of the first fully modern revolution, the French Revolution, in reaction to which all Europe subsequently redefined itself. As a direct result of the French Revolution, the political face of Europe changed and so did the political discourse of Europeans. One fundamental change was the formal division of values, parties, and programs into Right and Left—modern alliances and allegiances emerged, heralded by new, modern categories of organized political thought. What had started in France’s National Assembly as perhaps an expedient seating arrangement from right to left became a nearly metaphysical political construction that swept Western political consciousness and practice.

In part this astonishing development was accomplished through the extreme reaction against the French Revolution embodied especially in vitriolic denunciations of it by politicians in England and elsewhere committed to monarchy, the class system, and the values implicit in feudalism. Their arguments against the French Revolution and in behalf of monarchy form the basis for modern right-wing politics, or conservatism. The principles of organized conservatism, in social, economic, and moral values, were enunciated in a great body of reactionary polemic, most instrumentally in the English Whig Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. Written in 1789 before the ascendancy of the Jacobins—and therefore not in response to the Terror or to Jacobin ideological absolutism—Burke’s Reflections is suffused with fury at the audacity of the Revolution itself because this revolution uniquely insisted that political freedom required some measure of civil, economic, and social equality. The linking of freedom with equality philosophically or programmatically remains anathema to conservatives today. Freedom, according to Burke, required hierarchy and order. That was his enduring theme.

I flatter myself, Burke wrote, that I love a manly, moral, regulated liberty. Manly liberty is bold, not effeminate or timorous (following a dictionary definition of the adjective manly). Manly liberty (following Burke) has a king. Manly liberty is authoritarian: the authority of the king—his sovereignty—presumably guarantees the liberty of everyone else by arcane analogy. Moral liberty is the worship of God and property, especially as they merge in the institutional church. Moral liberty means respect for the authority of God and king, especially as it manifests in feudal hierarchy. Regulated liberty is limited liberty: whateveri s left over once the king is obeyed, God is worshipped, property is respected, hierarchy is honored, and the taxes or tributes that support all these institutions are paid. The liberty Burke loved particularly depended on the willingness of persons not just to accept but to love the social circumstances into which they were born: To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and mankind. The French rabble had noticeably violated this first principle of public affections.

To Burke, history showed that monarchy and the rights of Englishmen were completely intertwined so that the one required the other. Because certain rights had been exercised under monarchy, Burke held that monarchy was essential to the exercise of those rights. England had no proof, according to Burke, that rights could exist and be exercised without monarchy. Burke indicted political theorists who claimed that there were natural rights of men that superseded in importance the rights of existing governments. These theorists have wrought under-ground a mine that will blow up, at one grand explosion, all examples of antiquity, all precedents, charters, and acts of parliament. They have rights of men. Against these there can be no prescription… I have nothing to say to the clumsy subtility of their political metaphysicks. In Burke’s more agile metaphysics, hereditary rights were transmitted through a hereditary crown because they had been before and so would continue to be. Burke provided no basis for evaluating the quality or fairness of the rights of the little platoon we belong to in society as opposed to the rights of other little platoons: to admit such a necessity would not be loving our little platoon enough. The hereditary crown, Burke suggests, restrains dictatorship because it gives the king obeisance without making him fight for it. It also inhibits civil conflict over who the ruler will be. This is as close as Burke gets to a substantive explanation of why rights and monarchy are inextricably linked.

—Andrea Dworkin (1983), Preface to the British Edition of Right-wing Women, reprinted in Letters from a War Zone, 187—189.

For some similar points, partly influenced by Dworkin’s comments here and elsewhere in the preface, see GT 2005-02-03: By George, I think he’s got it!

Over My Shoulder #9: Arthur C. Danto’s Staring at the Sea

You know the rules. Here’s the quote. This is from Staring at the Sea, Arthur C. Danto’s review of an exhibition of Édouard Manet’s marine paintings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in one of my piled-up back issues of The Nation, from April 2004 (pp. 34—37). (I note in passing that The Nation is one of the few establishment leftist rags worth keeping around for nearly two years; mainly because most issues have one or two reviews like this one.)

Toward the end of January, I received an invitation to a press opening for Manet and the Sea, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It reproduced a painting of people on a beach, taking the sea air. The scene was as fresh as the air itself, bringing a virtual whiff of saltwater, a feeling of sunshine and physical happiness, and of the freedom and adventure the mere thought of the ocean awakens. In part because of the harsh cold we had all been enduring, in part because of the surge of pleasure French painting of that era always induces, I simply forgave the phrase in the press release (The artist and 8 contemporaries chart a new course toward pure painting) and resolved to fuir là-bas—flee down there, to cite Mallarmé’s great poem Sea Breeze—even if là-bas was Philadelphia in February rather than Boulogne-sur-Mer in August.

The chief problem of the press description is that it invites us to view the show as pointing the way to pure painting, whatever that is, instead of situating the works in the art world of their time. Manet’s 1868 Beach at Boulogne, with the lightness, the clarity, the sense of life at its best, conveyed by the loosely sketched disjunction of holidaymakers surrendering to simple summer enjoyments more than a century ago—promenading under parasols, peering at seashells, wading, gazing at the passing boats, riding a docile donkey, playing in the sand—is a wonderful work in itself. It is not a finished tableau but preserves the quality of a sketch, however intensely Manet may have worked on it; it is clear, just from looking at it, that he transcribed onto the canvas pictorial notations from his sketchbooks, drawn on the spot. It resembles a horizontal scroll, with the kind of spontaneously drawn figures the Japanese master Hokusai distributed across a sheet for one of his booklets. The figures have little to do with one another, without that implying, as a wall text suggests, a proposition regarding the loneliness of modern life. Who really cares what in the twentieth century it heralds? Who really cares about pure painting when one stands in front of it?

Writing of one of Manet’s masterpieces, Déjeuner sur l’herbe, a hostile critic once observed that his paintings had the quality of rebuses. A rebus is a kind of puzzle in which pictures are juxtaposed that have nothing obvious to do with one another. One solves a rebus by pronouncing the names of the objects the pictures show, producing a coherent message. Freud thought the images in a dream have the apparent dislogic of a rebus, and there is a sense in which The Beach at Boulogne has the quality of a dream, with the difference that there is no organizing interpretation to seek. The beach and the sea beyond it have an essential emptiness, with people dotted here and there on the one and boats dashed here and there on the other. It is not a Salon picture, like most of the paintings most of us know by Manet. It feels as if it were made for pleasure and to give pleasure, rather than for the heroic purpose of creating Modernism.

—Arthur C. Danto, Staring at the Sea, in The Nation, 19 April 2004, p. 34.