Shadows Uplifted

I've been reading Frances Harper's 1892 novel Iola Leroy, or, Shadows Uplifted. Harper lived from 1825 to 1911, and her only published novel (she was the successful author of books of poetry, theology, and social criticism) encompasses the Civil War and the early days of Reconstruction, as told from the point of view of African-American slaves. Sort of.

Iola Leroy is a light-skinned woman who was raised as the privileged daughter of a white Southern plantation master; at the outbreak of the Civil War, Iola's black ancestry is revealed and she is sold into slavery and probably raped by a series of men who sell her on. When Iola is rescued by the Union Army, she refuses to pass as white even though it means enduring the prejudice of white culture (Harper, a free black woman who was raised in the slave state of Maryland, points out repeatedly that despite a hatred of the institution of slavery, Northern abolitionists generally had no more love for black people than did Southern slave owners). A white physician falls in love with Iola and, after having learned of her ancestry, offers his hand in marriage (with the caveat that Iola must keep secret from his family the fact of her black grandmother). Iola, beautiful and intelligent, is after all any New England gentleman's idea of the perfect wife. I wondered, as I read this novel, why a black writer, in a novel about slavery and the Civil War, creates a protagonist who looks like a white woman, was raised and educated as a white woman, but who is--according to the ideas of the day--a black woman, and therefore not allowed the rights and privileges of white America? Why doesn't Frances Harper write the story of a black slave woman instead?

For the longest time I thought that Harper had merely accepted the aesthetic prejudices of white America, that white skin and northern European features are the epitome of beauty, and that Harper considered the struggles of a woman who was otherwise indistinguishable from a northern European to be more compelling and important than the struggles of a woman with black skin. After all, Tom Anderson (a black-skinned slave who yearns for Iola) lists her white skin, blue eyes, straight black hair and delicate soft hands as signs of beauty. Another slave, Robert Johnson (the son of a black slave raped by a white man), has white skin and European features; when he escapes a Mississippi plantation and joins the Union army, he declines a post with a white unit despite being told that no one would ever take him for a black man, which is intended as a compliment and is not presented ironically by Harper. The adoption by a black author of white ideas of beauty, I thought, was an interesting if disturbing historical/cultural aspect of Harper's novel. But I have come to realize that I'm wrong about all of that.

I thank Elizabeth Young* for the idea that Iola Leroy (whose physical presence--her body--is more closely described than that of any other character in this book) represents not slaves, nor African Americans, but America itself: an ostensibly "pure" white body that contains within it black blood that it cannot deny forever, that it must come to terms with, live with, accept as part of itself. For America to despise the freed slaves is for America to despise itself; to debase and dehumanize black citizens is to debase and dehumanize America itself, because it is all of a piece. Pretty strong stuff for 1892. This metaphor is neatly disguised by a domestic novel, a search for missing family, and a marriage plot.


*Young, Elizabeth. "Warring Fictions: Iola Leroy and the Color of Gender." American Literature 64, no. 2 (1992): 273-97. doi:10.2307/2927836.

a ravel of light

Silence

by D.H. Lawence

Since I lost you I am silence-haunted,
  Sounds wave their little wings
A moment, then in weariness settle
  On the flood that soundless swings.

Whether the people in the street
  Like pattering ripples go by,
Or whether the theatre sighs and sighs
  With a loud, hoarse sigh:

Or the wind shakes a ravel of light
  Over the dead-black river,
Or night’s last echoing
  Makes the daybreak shiver:

I feel the silence waiting
  To take them all up again
In its vast completeness, enfolding
  The sound of men.

Good Friday

Cherry trees in blossom on campus.

The cherry trees on campus are all abloomin', a sure sign of the season of rebirth. We have a healthy crop of daffodils in our garden and a few tulips have even opened in a couple of window boxes. This morning I saw a gang of four swallows darting about above the treetops. It's cold and muggy and will rain soon, but this corner (at least) of sleepy old Earth wakes again.

a bold move


The game, as Vladimir called it, should have been easy to win. The object was plain enough: to assemble a story of a page or two at most, concerning a writer very much like Antosha Chekhonte; the story was to be a confection of unadorned Chekhontian prose, with Vladimir restricting himself to character groupings and lovingly selected details rather than working with his typical armature of seductive language and formal prestidigitation. The completed story would be shown to nobody, not even to Vera. It was nothing more than a private contest, an amusing bit of small-time gymnastics, an exercise in minimalist aesthetics. It was difficult and frustrating. There was a maddening possibility, Vladimir had begun to think, that winning this game was beyond him.
       I cannot write in such a diminutive manner, he thought, growing angry. Chekhonte we may look to as the patron saint of the Russian heart, but my devotions will never extend to his prose, his gray words laid upon gray ideas. Perhaps we Russians have been trained to overestimate the alleged gifts of the poet of the peasants, Vladimir continued, his head aching. Certainly I owe the doctor nothing at all as a writer, though countless forgettable scribblers stand clearly in his debt. Perhaps Chekhonte shall be struck from the syllabus of my lectures on Russian literature when the term begins. What a bold move that would be.

I have finished this round of revisions to the manuscript I'm calling Antosha a collection of linked stories based loosely on the life and work of Anton Chekhov. It seems like a pretty good book to me. It ends strongly, which one likes to discover. The above snippet is from the final story, in which a character something like Nabokov thinks about the influence of writers like Chekhov. Anyway, next week I'll start entering the revisions into the digital version of the novel and this summer I'll be sending queries out to literary agents, asking them to represent my brave little book to America's publishing industry. I am curious what will happen, but I expect nothing from it.

for the feast of St Lazarus

An Epistle Containing the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish, the Arab Physician
by Robert Browning
 
Karshish, the picker-up of learning's crumbs,
The not-incurious in God's handiwork
(This man's-flesh he hath admirably made,
Blown like a bubble, kneaded like a paste,
To coop up and keep down on earth a space
That puff of vapour from his mouth, man's soul)
—To Abib, all-sagacious in our art,
Breeder in me of what poor skill I boast,
Like me inquisitive how pricks and cracks
Befall the flesh through too much stress and strain,
Whereby the wily vapour fain would slip
Back and rejoin its source before the term,—
And aptest in contrivance (under God)
To baffle it by deftly stopping such:—
The vagrant Scholar to his Sage at home
Sends greeting (health and knowledge, fame with peace)
Three samples of true snakestone—rarer still,
One of the other sort, the melon-shaped,
(But fitter, pounded fine, for charms than drugs)
And writeth now the twenty-second time.

My journeyings were brought to Jericho;
Thus I resume. Who studious in our art
Shall count a little labour unrepaid?
I have shed sweat enough, left flesh and bone
On many a flinty furlong of this land.
Also, the country-side is all on fire
With rumours of a marching hitherward:
Some say Vespasian cometh, some, his son.
A black lynx snarled and pricked a tufted ear;
Lust of my blood inflamed his yellow balls:
I cried and threw my staff and he was gone.
Twice have the robbers stripped and beaten me,
And once a town declared me for a spy;
But at the end, I reach Jerusalem,
Since this poor covert where I pass the night,
This Bethany, lies scarce the distance thence
A man with plague-sores at the third degree
Runs till he drops down dead. Thou laughest here!
'Sooth, it elates me, thus reposed and safe,
To void the stuffing of my travel-scrip
And share with thee whatever Jewry yields
A viscid choler is observable
In tertians, I was nearly bold to say;
And falling-sickness hath a happier cure
Than our school wots of: there's a spider here
Weaves no web, watches on the ledge of tombs,
Sprinkled with mottles on an ash-grey back;
Take five and drop them . . . but who knows his mind,
The Syrian runagate I trust this to?
His service payeth me a sublimate
Blown up his nose to help the ailing eye.
Best wait: I reach Jerusalem at morn,
There set in order my experiences,
Gather what most deserves, and give thee all—
Or I might add, Judea's gum-tragacanth
Scales off in purer flakes, shines clearer-grained,
Cracks 'twixt the pestle and the porphyry,
In fine exceeds our produce. Scalp-disease
Confounds me, crossing so with leprosy—
Thou hadst admired one sort I gained at Zoar—
But zeal outruns discretion. Here I end.

Yet stay: my Syrian blinketh gratefully,
Protesteth his devotion is my price—
Suppose I write what harms not, though he steal?
I half resolve to tell thee, yet I blush,
What set me off a-writing first of all.
An itch I had, a sting to write, a tang!
For, be it this town's barrenness—or else
The Man had something in the look of him—
His case has struck me far more than 'tis worth.
So, pardon if—(lest presently I lose
In the great press of novelty at hand
The care and pains this somehow stole from me)
I bid thee take the thing while fresh in mind,
Almost in sight—for, wilt thou have the truth?
The very man is gone from me but now,
Whose ailment is the subject of discourse.
Thus then, and let thy better wit help all!

'Tis but a case of mania—subinduced
By epilepsy, at the turning-point
Of trance prolonged unduly some three days:
When, by the exhibition of some drug
Or spell, exorcization, stroke of art
Unknown to me and which 'twere well to know,
The evil thing out-breaking all at once
Left the man whole and sound of body indeed,—
But, flinging (so to speak) life's gates too wide,
Making a clear house of it too suddenly,
The first conceit that entered might inscribe
Whatever it was minded on the wall
So plainly at that vantage, as it were,
(First come, first served) that nothing subsequent
Attaineth to erase those fancy-scrawls
The just-returned and new-established soul
Hath gotten now so thoroughly by heart
That henceforth she will read or these or none.
And first—the man's own firm conviction rests
That he was dead (in fact they buried him)
—That he was dead and then restored to life
By a Nazarene physician of his tribe:
—'Sayeth, the same bade "Rise," and he did rise.
"Such cases are diurnal," thou wilt cry.
Not so this figment!—not, that such a fume,
Instead of giving way to time and health,
Should eat itself into the life of life,
As saffron tingeth flesh, blood, bones and all!
For see, how he takes up the after-life.
The man—it is one Lazarus a Jew,
Sanguine, proportioned, fifty years of age,
The body's habit wholly laudable,
As much, indeed, beyond the common health
As he were made and put aside to show.
Think, could we penetrate by any drug
And bathe the wearied soul and worried flesh,
And bring it clear and fair, by three days' sleep!
Whence has the man the balm that brightens all?
This grown man eyes the world now like a child.
Some elders of his tribe, I should premise,
Led in their friend, obedient as a sheep,
To bear my inquisition. While they spoke,
Now sharply, now with sorrow,—told the case,—
He listened not except I spoke to him,
But folded his two hands and let them talk,
Watching the flies that buzzed: and yet no fool.
And that's a sample how his years must go.
Look, if a beggar, in fixed middle-life,
Should find a treasure,—can he use the same
With straitened habits and with tastes starved small,
And take at once to his impoverished brain
The sudden element that changes things,
That sets the undreamed-of rapture at his hand
And puts the cheap old joy in the scorned dust?
Is he not such an one as moves to mirth—
Warily parsimonious, when no need,
Wasteful as drunkenness at undue times?
All prudent counsel as to what befits
The golden mean, is lost on such an one
The man's fantastic will is the man's law.
So here—we call the treasure knowledge, say,
Increased beyond the fleshly faculty—
Heaven opened to a soul while yet on earth,
Earth forced on a soul's use while seeing heaven:
The man is witless of the size, the sum,
The value in proportion of all things,
Or whether it be little or be much.
Discourse to him of prodigious armaments
Assembled to besiege his city now,
And of the passing of a mule with gourds—
'Tis one! Then take it on the other side,
Speak of some trifling fact—he will gaze rapt
With stupor at its very littleness,
(Far as I see) as if in that indeed
He caught prodigious import, whole results;
And so will turn to us the bystanders
In ever the same stupor (note this point)
That we too see not with his opened eyes.
Wonder and doubt come wrongly into play,
Preposterously, at cross purposes.
Should his child sicken unto death,—why, look
For scarce abatement of his cheerfulness,
Or pretermission of the daily craft!
While a word, gesture, glance, from that same child
At play or in the school or laid asleep,
Will startle him to an agony of fear,
Exasperation, just as like. Demand
The reason why—" tis but a word," object—
"A gesture"—he regards thee as our lord
Who lived there in the pyramid alone
Looked at us (dost thou mind?) when, being young,
We both would unadvisedly recite
Some charm's beginning, from that book of his,
Able to bid the sun throb wide and burst
All into stars, as suns grown old are wont.
Thou and the child have each a veil alike
Thrown o'er your heads, from under which ye both
Stretch your blind hands and trifle with a match
Over a mine of Greek fire, did ye know!
He holds on firmly to some thread of life—
(It is the life to lead perforcedly)
Which runs across some vast distracting orb
Of glory on either side that meagre thread,
Which, conscious of, he must not enter yet—
The spiritual life around the earthly life:
The law of that is known to him as this,
His heart and brain move there, his feet stay here.
So is the man perplext with impulses
Sudden to start off crosswise, not straight on,
Proclaiming what is right and wrong across,
And not along, this black thread through the blaze—
"It should be" baulked by "here it cannot be."
And oft the man's soul springs into his face
As if he saw again and heard again
His sage that bade him "Rise" and he did rise.
Something, a word, a tick of the blood within
Admonishes: then back he sinks at once
To ashes, who was very fire before,
In sedulous recurrence to his trade
Whereby he earneth him the daily bread;
And studiously the humbler for that pride,
Professedly the faultier that he knows
God's secret, while he holds the thread of life.
Indeed the especial marking of the man
Is prone submission to the heavenly will—
Seeing it, what it is, and why it is.
'Sayeth, he will wait patient to the last
For that same death which must restore his being
To equilibrium, body loosening soul
Divorced even now by premature full growth:
He will live, nay, it pleaseth him to live
So long as God please, and just how God please.
He even seeketh not to please God more
(Which meaneth, otherwise) than as God please.
Hence, I perceive not he affects to preach
The doctrine of his sect whate'er it be,
Make proselytes as madmen thirst to do:
How can he give his neighbour the real ground,
His own conviction? Ardent as he is—
Call his great truth a lie, why, still the old
"Be it as God please" reassureth him.
I probed the sore as thy disciple should:
"How, beast," said I, "this stolid carelessness
Sufficeth thee, when Rome is on her march
To stamp out like a little spark thy town,
Thy tribe, thy crazy tale and thee at once?"
He merely looked with his large eyes on me.
The man is apathetic, you deduce?
Contrariwise, he loves both old and young,
Able and weak, affects the very brutes
And birds—how say I? flowers of the field—
As a wise workman recognizes tools
In a master's workshop, loving what they make.
Thus is the man as harmless as a lamb:
Only impatient, let him do his best,
At ignorance and carelessness and sin—
An indignation which is promptly curbed:
As when in certain travels I have feigned
To be an ignoramus in our art
According to some preconceived design,
And happed to hear the land's practitioners,
Steeped in conceit sublimed by ignorance,
Prattle fantastically on disease,
Its cause and cure—and I must hold my peace!

Thou wilt object—why have I not ere this
Sought out the sage himself, the Nazarene
Who wrought this cure, inquiring at the source,
Conferring with the frankness that befits?
Alas! it grieveth me, the learned leech
Perished in a tumult many years ago,
Accused,—our learning's fate,—of wizardry,
Rebellion, to the setting up a rule
And creed prodigious as described to me.
His death, which happened when the earthquake fell
(Prefiguring, as soon appeared, the loss
To occult learning in our lord the sage
Who lived there in the pyramid alone)
Was wrought by the mad people—that's their wont!
On vain recourse, as I conjecture it,
To his tried virtue, for miraculous help—
How could he stop the earthquake? That's their way!
The other imputations must be lies:
But take one, though I loathe to give it thee,
In mere respect for any good man's fame.
(And after all, our patient Lazarus
Is stark mad; should we count on what he says?
Perhaps not: though in writing to a leech
'Tis well to keep back nothing of a case.)
This man so cured regards the curer, then
As—God forgive me! who but God himself,
Creator and sustainer of the world,
That came and dwelt in flesh on 't awhile!
—'Sayeth that such an one was born and lived,
Taught, healed the sick, broke bread at his own house,
Then died, with Lazarus by, for aught I know,
And yet was . . . what I said nor choose repeat,
And must have so avouched himself, in fact,
In hearing of this very Lazarus
Who saith—but why all this of what he saith?
Why write of trivial matters, things of price
Calling at every moment for remark?
I noticed on the margin of a pool
Blue-flowering borage, the Aleppo sort,
Aboundeth, very nitrous. It is strange!

Thy pardon for this long and tedious case,
Which, now that I review it, needs must seem
Unduly dwelt on, prolixly set forth!
Nor I myself discern in what is writ
Good cause for the peculiar interest
And awe indeed this man has touched me with.
Perhaps the journey's end, the weariness
Had wrought upon me first. I met him thus:
I crossed a ridge of short sharp broken hills
Like an old lion's cheek teeth. Out there came
A moon made like a face with certain spots
Multiform, manifold, and menacing:
Then a wind rose behind me. So we met
In this old sleepy town at unaware,
The man and I. I send thee what is writ.
Regard it as a chance, a matter risked
To this ambiguous Syrian—he may lose,
Or steal, or give it thee with equal good.
Jerusalem's repose shall make amends
For time this letter wastes, thy time and mine;
Till when, once more thy pardon and farewell!

The very God! think, Abib; dost thou think?
So, the All-Great, were the All-Loving too—
So, through the thunder comes a human voice
Saying, "O heart I made, a heart beats here!
Face, my hands fashioned, see it in myself!
Thou hast no power nor mayst conceive of mine,
But love I gave thee, with myself to love,
And thou must love me who have died for thee!"
The madman saith He said so: it is strange.