Mechanization and Nationalism in "Chiefly about War Matters"
"'Chiefly About War Matters' and the Problem of Human Rights"
Dr. Arthur Riss
Salem State College, Salem MA
In this paper I will focus on "Chiefly About War Matters" to re-examine the kind
of questions we typically ask about Hawthorne's politics-in particular I want
to examine the way scholars tend to approach Hawthorne's conservative and from
our perspectivefailed understanding of race-based slavery.
What many have found particularly unsettling about Hawthorne's slavery politics
is not simply the politics themselves (that is, his suspicion of all attempts
to end slavery), but also how rarely he ever addresses the issue in his fiction.
This silence is quite conspicuous. Hawthorne explicitly and repeatedly refers
to many of the central human rights issues of the day-prison reform, temperance,
women's rights, utopianism, the rights of privacy and individuality-but he seems
singularly unengaged by the anti-slavery argument-the humanitarian reform movement
that-by all accounts-initiated and galvanized all the rest. How, it is often
asked, could the most significant human rights issue confronting
antebellum culture not preoccupy Hawthorne in some more sustained
and overt way.
Hawthorne's representation of race-based slavery, in short, does more than
make clear Hawthorne's conservatism-we see evidence of such conservatism in
numerous places-it testifies to the radical disconnect between Hawthorne's understanding
of human rights and ours. He is uninterested in the very question that interests
us most. (this disjunction becomes clear in that-despite this lacuna, we
nonetheless assume that race-based slavery must-on some level-have preoccupied
Hawthorne and thus critics have quite compellingly read through the manifest
content of his texts to identify race-based slavery as the implicit subtext
of his work, as the issue that lies underneath his fiction).
It is this distance that I want to explore and that, I think, "Chiefly About War Matters"-his only piece of journalism on the Civil War-most forcefully speaks to. This text offers an ideal occasion to explore what it means that Hawthorne's clear fascination with the human rights revolution sweeping antebellum society never extended to an interest in the rights of the Black slave. Although I certainly do not want to justify or apologize for Hawthorne's understanding of slavery, I do want to explore how we have failed to appreciate the challenge Hawthorne poses to our certainty about what counts as human rights.
I'll begin with the moment in "Chiefly About War Matters" that until recently was relatively unnoticed but now draws a considerable amount of critical attention. During the course of Hawthorne's strangely ambiguous fact-finding mission and in the liminal space between North and South, slave and free, Hawthorne comes across a band of fugitive slaves. As they head North, these fugitives incite Hawthorne to try to capture their uncanny meaning:
They were unlike the specimens of their race whom we are accustomed
to see at the North, and, in my judgment, were far more agreeable. So rudely
were they attired,-as if their garb had grown upon them spontaneously,-so picturesquely
natural in manners, and wearing such a crust of primeval simplicity (which is
quite polished away from the northern black man) they seem a kind of creature
by themselves, not altogether human, but perhaps quite as good, and akin
to the fauns and rustic deities of olden times.
This hyper-aesthetic flourish (made particularly conspicuous since Hawthorne's
last completed Romance was called The Marble Faun) at first
seems not only politically problematic (slaves are obviously not fauns) but generically
inappropriate. Hawthorne began "Chiefly About War Matters" by distinguishing this
piece from the "fantasies" he customarily writes and by calling it a kind of treason"
to continue to think such "idle thoughts" in "the dread time of civil war." Apparently,
despite Hawthorne's professed intentions-he cannot help but see the social problem
at the center of the Civil War in Romance terms-one is almost tempted to see the
image of the faun as a fugitive from the realm of the Romance now trying to enter
the literalist premises of Hawthorne's non-fiction.
Although this self-consciously aesthetic representation of fugitive slaves
may seem incongruous given the self-professed aims of Hawthorne's essay, when
put in the context of what we now see as Hawthorne's notorious insensitivity
to the historical problem of U.S. slavery, such aestheticizing
becomes not only comprehensible but almost expected as soon as it is put in
the context of Hawthorne's notorious slavery politics. It confirms the sense
that Hawthorne could not adequately confront the historical problem of race-based
slavery, a failing most clearly marked by his unwillingness
to represent slavery as anything but a metaphor for psychological bondage and
an image of the power relationships among white people (i.e. figural
rather than real slavery).
Hawthorne's impulse to aestheticize slavery has typically been approached in
one of two ways-Either as an unfortunate consequence of Hawthorne's
chronic inability to engage the "real world"- temperamentally detached from
his time, Hawthorne is more preoccupied with Puritans than Abolitionists, more
obsessed with the events of the 1650 than 1850-OR, as a deliberate
and insidiously conservative political strategy-Hawthorne intentionally constructed
texts to encourage despair about real political action. If the first line of
argument sees Hawthorne as a complex artist whose commitment to the aesthetic
blinded him from the political debates fracturing antebellum
culture, the second sees Hawthorne as deploying the aesthetic to blind
others to political realities and to the possibility of social reform. This
latter view, of course, is the one currently in vogue; Hawthorne is regularly
indicted for a "derealizing style," a mode of representation that incites a
relentless "indeterminacy" about the substance of politics and thus mystifies
the possibility of concrete action (Arac). To put this current critical consensus
most starkly: Where once Hawthorne had no politics, all he has now
is bad politics. Where once Hawthorne simply wanted to avoid the world, he is
now regarded in more insidious terms as seeking to misrepresent the real world.
As Hawthorne's politics have come to the foreground, this fauning
of Black slaves has come to stand as merely the most egregious example of the
primary ideological failing of Hawthorne's writing and thought: his use of the
aesthetic to excuse, contain, or conceal the political problem of race-based
But there is a problem with framing Hawthorne's understanding of slavery as
a simple misunderstanding. By placing the aesthetic in competition with the
real, by seeing Hawthorne as deploying the aesthetic to disavow or distort the
reality of slavery, we are assuming that Hawthorne is perversely refusing or
repressing knowledge about the humanity of the slave. And by treating this knowledge
as self-evident, we erase how it was precisely the question of whether a Negro
is fully human that was being fiercely disputed during the
That is, although it may now seem innocent enough to claim
that slaves are obviously human, the question of whether the Negro deserved
the inalienable rights that this nation promised "all men" was the subject of
intense debate in antebellum political, religious, philosophical, legal, and,
as Hawthorne makes clear, aesthetic discourse.
The Lincoln/Douglass debates, the arguments of Chief Justice Taney in the Dred
Scot case (when he wrote that the phrase "all men are created equal" clearly
did not apply to the Negro), American School of Ethnology's success in offering
empirical proof that the Negro race was a separate species produced in a separate
moment of Creations, and the numerous religious scholars who
found clear Biblical proof that God marked the Negro race as essentially different
and permanently inferior can stand as a kind of shorthand for how profoundly
the antebellum debate over slavery ultimately hinged on the question of whether
the Negro is a human being.
Indeed, at a moment when the question of who counts as a "man" is being put
under terrible pressure, one cannot simply disregard Hawthorne's analogizing
slaves and fauns as some form of aesthetic escapism.
But to the extent to understand what Hawthorne is doing as
obviously misrepresenting what a slave is, WE, in essence, treat our understanding
of the human as always already in effect and take it as the unproblematic starting
point for interpretation. By dismissing how knowledge about the humanity of
the slave was ever in dispute (indeed, it can never really
be in dispute, it can only be distorted, blocked, disowned, or repressed), we
render the foundational category of human rights beyond politics and outside
of context at the very moment we are ostensibly exploring its history. Indeed,
if we did not, we would see NO point in discussing how Hawthorne
is making a fundamental mistake about what slaves really are (i.e. they not
fauns) but rather would investigate how knowledge about the
human is historically produced. The assertion that Hawthorne was seeking to
avoid or mystify "reality"-would be replaced by an exploration of how the notion
of the human being is contextually contested-an identity that cannot in and
of itself function as the ultimate trump card because it is itself embedded
in not above politics.
Of course, it makes sense that we have allowed our certainty
about human rights to replace the debate that characterized
antebellum culture and that we have used our certainty to retroactively read
Human rights discourse has asked us to hold onto the conceptual category of
the human being as the self-evident point of departure for emancipatory thought.
Human rights are imagined as belonging to the human being in and of itself.
And it is assumed that we can simply look at our transparent humanity and literally
read off from it our inviolate human rights.
The problem, however, as Hawthorne demonstrates, is that when human rights
are themselves in dispute, it is the ostensible foundation of human rights discourse-the
notion of the human being-that lies at the center of dispute. Rather than resolving
all debate, it crystallizes it.
Given the circular logic of human right discourse, I would suggest that it
is only because the question of the humanity of the Black slave is no longer
a political question for us-because, in other words, Hawthorne's understanding
slaves has been thoroughly superceded-that we so quickly dismiss the possibility
that Hawthorne is arguing about rather than distorting human
rights. Our certainty has, in essence, incited us to anachronistically redescribe
the historical distance between antebellum and modern debates over the human
as an absolute difference between understanding and misunderstanding, between
mystification and demystification.
If in contrast, one approaches the conceptual category of the human being as continually under construction rather than one that always already pre-exists, then Hawthorne is not repressing or disowning obvious knowledge about the humanity of the slave but articulating a competing (and now indefensible) notion of humanity. And we are never simply offering a literal (as opposed to an aesthetic) reading but also offering a contextual one. It is perhaps not surprising that Hawthorne undermines any effort to claim that human rights can simply be invoked.
Hawthorne's challenge to human rights discourse is perhaps most clearly summed up in the fact that he self-consciously foregrounds the contingency of the human rights of the slave. By situating these fugitive slaves in the liminal space between slavery and freedom, North and South-and ostentatiously locating them in the liminal space of the Romance, Hawthorne asks us to confront the question of what it means to be made into a human being. These slaves are represented at a moment of becoming human-they are a constituency immersed in the struggle to gain social recognition and acceptance as citizens (indeed, as Hawthorne was writing Chiefly About War Matters, slavery was being declared illegal in the District of Columbia). By representing these figures on the threshold of human-ness (not simply legally, but ontologically), Hawthorne undermines the very assumption that conventionally grounds human rights discourse: he asks us to take responsibility for making human beings, to see humanity as a historical struggle rather than an inevitable conclusion.
The challenge that Hawthorne poses to human rights discourse, in other words, is not that he holds an account of human rights that we want to oppose but how he compels us to confront how and why we legitimate our account of human rights.