Thursday, December 23, 2004


Blogging break

Due to holiday travel, blogging will be light to non-existent until 2005. If you really need new content in the meantime, try Thane Plambeck's Prison Break Story Generator. As for me, it will be good to take a break from the blog. I've been on the verge of starting to take my blog and my blogself a bit too seriously, to the point where blogging sometimes gets in the way of simply living. There's a cautionary tale for bloggers in the lede to this great article on jazz legend Wayne Shorter in the New York Times:
Talking about music objectively, while not listening to it, is to superimpose one form over another: it pits the literary or critical endeavor against the musical. Asking a creative musician pointed questions about his discography can be dull, and asking him about the implications of an interval that he has written, or a solo he has improvised, can be nearly rude: he didn't make it to talk about it, he made it to play it.
Likewise, blogging sometimes pits my literary or critical endeavors against living. Life isn't for blogging about, anymore than music is for talking about it. And the fact that I'm even typing something like that is evidence that I could use a week without the blog. I wish you goodwill, peace, and a happy New Year.


A barber's tale

When I woke up this morning, to unseasonably warm and rainy weather, I decided to have breakfast at Starbucks, where (I confess) I like to sit in the window and watch the passers-by. True, it is no different from countless other windows. It is located in an unremarkable shopping strip -- a grocery store, a liquor store, a barber shop (complete with the candy-striped lamp), a flower shop, a clothing store, all in a row. Perched in my chair, I look out at the parking spaces and watch the customers rush into the orange glow, hurrying to wait in line for their triple-shot lattes and no-foam caramel macchiatos. Their movements are so mysteriously patterned, predictable even though they are not predetermined. Each person follows a finite set of paths -- from the cars to the coffee, from the cars to the coffee, from the cars to the coffee. If each person held a flashlight, and I took a series of photographs, the composite picture would probably show a few thick streaks of light, winding their way out of the rain and into the store.

I see a barber step out onto the covered sidewalk, two doors down. He is pushing a customer in a wheelchair. They follow a direct line from the shop to the customer's car, but in a leisurely sort of way, casually chatting like old friends. Instead of following the sidewalk down to the ramp directly in front of my window, the barber pushes the chair straight over the curb. I swear I distinctly see the seated man clap his hands with glee, as though they have just popped a wheelie.

The barber carefully pushes the chair to the far side of the lot, unhurried, unconcerned by the rain. He helps the man into his car. He puts the chair into the back. He waves and walks back to his shop.

I suppose it was an "ordinary" act of kindness, if there is such a thing. In context, it seemed so un-ordinary. In this ordinary space, with people beating their ordered paths to their ordinary place, these men were like free radicals, uncontrolled by the invisible patterns behind the other people's orbits. Imagine my time-series photo again. Wouldn't the barber's light be an immediately identifiable ray? A lone vector across the bands of light that curved across the lot? Okay, maybe I simply had not had enough coffee yet, but ... that barber's path struck me with the force of a shooting star -- surprising, sudden, and irreproducibly strange.

The birth stories in the Christian gospels are also arrestingly strange. With a few carefully made brushstrokes, the tellers of the stories evoke an entire world of regularity and routine. Though ancient, it is like our world. It has its own patterned movements, its familiar human geography, its ordinary people carving out their grooves in space and time. The crowds file onto the roads on their way to be registered. The lodgers walk from their stables to their inns, the same way shoppers now walk from parking lots to stores. The shepherds make their habituated rounds -- around the sheep again, around the sheep again, around the sheep again. And then, into these mechanical routines, the stories introduce their own free radicals. New vectors shoot across the world's quotidian paths. A couple moves in reverse from an inn to a stable. Shepherds decide to take a road trip. Some wealthy travelers walk backwards along the trade routes that normally run from the West to the East. And then there's the story's most memorable body in motion -- that star.

Although the birth narratives occupy a relatively small place within the narrative sweep of the gospels, they are majestic introductions to a biography that is filled with strange movements. We too easily forget that the stories early Christians told about Jesus were exceedingly strange and subversive. They portray an ordinary figure (not a barber, but a carpenter) who is always popping wheelies over the curbs of social practice, the conventions that say, "Walk here, not there. Park between the lines. No stopping in the fire zone. No loitering. Do not enter. No vacancy." In one story not long after the stories of his birth, we find him staying behind in the temple instead of walking where he was supposed to, along with everyone else. There he is allowing a prostitute to enter the dining room. There he is retracing his steps to talk with a beggar that his friends have tried to shut up. There he is saying that the children could come up to him. There he is walking up to lepers. In other words, there he is in the places that would look in my time-series photographs like pools of darkness -- the negative spaces outlined by normal, pedestrian streaks of light. When he gathered behind him a crowd of followers, and began filling those negative spaces with more and more streaks of light, the authorities -- Builders of Roads, Pavers of Sidewalks, Policemen of the Ordinary Paths -- could not help but see these free radicals as threats to their atomized and cellular social order.

At Christmas, Christian stories are always in danger of becoming familiar, normal, routine. When that happens, their real edge, their real threat to society-as-usual, is blunted. Edginess has to be manufactured by complaints about political correctness. I'm hearing that many evangelical Christians in America have been making a hubbub about their right to say "Merry Christmas" whenever they want to whomever they want, to perform pageants and live nativity scenes in public schools. Has it come to this? Christians drawing the line in the sand over routines -- the choreographies of Christmas?

To my mind, the real power of the earliest stories about Jesus is in their utter defiance of routine. Their message is that individual compassion is more important than social choreography. If all the world is a stage, and most of our movements on it are blocked out by habit, then what an entrance this actor made! The stage was marked all over with spots of electrical tape, places where the script said he was supposed to stand. Yet he disregarded the stage directions, for the sake of extraordinary "ordinary" acts of kindness. That's what it really means for faith to intervene in public space.

The best way to honor such a story, it seems to me, is not just by walking the same old easy route -- by angrily shouting "Merry Christmas" as if these words alone suffice to tell the story. To some Christians, that might seem like an act of resistance, but it's actually the path of least resistance, the verbal equivalent of walking from one's car into Starbucks. The more radical kind of thing would be to do the practical equivalent what the barber did. Help someone who needs help across a rainy parking lot. And pop a wheelie every now and then just to make him clap for joy like a child.

This post was revised at 3:45 P.M.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004


The lives of Douglass: Part II

As I explained in Part I, Frederick Douglass's Narrative marked the highpoint of his collaboration with the radical abolitionists who identified with William Lloyd Garrison, the fiery editor of the Liberator. Both Garrison and Wendell Phillips, another prominent white abolitionist, wrote glowing prefaces for the Narrative, which they rightly identified as a powerful new weapon in their armory of antislavery polemics. The Narrative also catapulted Douglass to fame, first as a Garrisonian lecturer but then as a celebrity in his own right. As James McCune Smith put it in the introduction to Douglass's second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, "It is not too much to say, that he formed a complement which [the Garrisonians] needed, and they were a complement equally necessary to his 'make-up.'"

Yet by the time My Bondage and My Freedom was published in 1855, both complements and compliments had given way to open conflict between Douglass and the Garrisonians. Part of the blame belongs to the persistence of racial prejudice among some white Garrisonians -- a condescension of which Douglass became acutely aware while he toured Great Britain in 1846. Yet prejudice alone does not explain the rift between Douglass and his former friends. Nor should we patronize Douglass with the condescension of posterity by assuming that he was but a passive victim, who played no active role in the rift. As McCune Smith also suggested in his foreword to My Bondage and My Freedom, one of Douglass's own personality traits may have been an extreme sensitivity to any hint of patronization -- a trait that certainly would have been understandable in a man with his history and in his circumstances. "The same strong self-hood," wrote Smith, "which led him to measure strength with Mr. Covey," (the slave driver immortalized by the famous fight scene in Douglass' Narrative) "and to wrench himself from the embrace of the Garrisonians, and which has borne him through many resistances to the personal indignities offered him as a colored man, sometimes becomes a hyper-sensitiveness to such assaults as men of his mark will meet with, on paper."

It may be impossible, however, to judge finally whether Garrisonians' insensitivity or Douglass's sensitiveness was most to blame for the complex personal friction between the two parties. What is clear is that the friction only encouraged Douglass's desire for independence. And however justified or understandable that desire might have been, it is also clear that Douglass framed his break with the Garrisonians in the most provocative of ways by publishing My Bondage and My Freedom. The title itself was edgy. It claimed Douglass's narrative, his life, as his own property: "My Bondage and My Freedom." In the introduction, Smith's implicit comparison between Covey and the Garrisonians also suggested that Douglass's "Freedom" from Southern "Bondage" would not be the book's only plot. The book would also conclude by framing Douglass's relationship with the Garrisonians as itself a kind of "Bondage," and his decision to found his own newspaper in Rochester as a new birth of "Freedom."

Sparks flew in the closing chapter of the book, when Douglass recounted the objections that many Garrisonians had to his newspaper. These objections were interpreted by Douglass as accusations that he was "ambitious and presumptuous." Such words certainly had not been unknown in Garrisonian circles when the subject of Douglass's new venture came up. Although he tried hard to convince his former allies that he knew what he was doing, Douglass wrote that he was "not sure that I was not under the influence of something like a slavish adoration of my Boston friends." Douglass knew that the Bostonians would be pricked by the word "slavish," no matter how carefully it was swaddled in awkward syntax (the double negative that began the sentence) and qualifications ("something like" ... "adoration" ... "friends"). The inflammatory word was "slavish." And in the years after 1855, Douglass fanned the flame. In 1857, he declared:
I know, my friends, that in some quarters the efforts of colored people meet with very little encouragement. We may fight, but we must fight like the Sepoys of India, under white officers. This class of Abolitionists don't like colored celebrations, they don't like colored conventions, they don't like colored Anti-Slavery fairs for the support of colored newspapers. They don't like any demonstrations whatever in which colored men take a leading part. They talk of the proud Anglo-Saxon blood, as flippantly as those who profess to believe in the natural inferiority of races. Your humble speaker has been branded as an ingrate, because he has ventured to stand up on his own right, and to plead our common cause as a colored man, rather than as a Garrisonian. I hold it to be no part of gratitude to allow our white friends to do all the work, while we merely hold their coats. Opposition of the sort now referred to, is partisan opposition, and we need not mind it. [From "West India Emancipation," in The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, ed. Philip S. Foner, vol. 2, pp. 436-37.]
Comparing Garrisonians to the colonial officers of the British empire? These were strong words indeed, especially when one considers that they were uttered in the year of the "Sepoy Mutiny" in India. (That quote was for you, Sepoy!) But Douglass's 1857 speech also brings us to a second important dimension of the Garrisonian rift, for it suggests that the break had to do not only with personal offense, but also with "partisan opposition." Douglass's break occurred at the same time that the antislavery movement as a whole was fracturing, and not just along faultlines dividing white and black reformers.

In the 1840s, many white abolitionists, like Gerrit Smith, James Birney, and Lewis Tappan, increasingly disagreed with the Garrisonians about major strategic and dogmatic issues, like the question of whether violence could be used in the service of antislavery goals. Many black abolitionists also broke with Garrisonians on precisely this issue. Another major disagreement revolved around the Garrisonians' opposition to forming political parties to run antislavery candidates for local and national offices. Some Garrisonians opposed politics because they were near-anarchists who believed that all human governments were sinfully coercive. A larger number opposed antislavery parties because they believed the Constitution itself was a proslavery document, a "covenant with death" as Garrison put it. Any political action within the existing framework -- even voting, according to some -- was corrupted before it began. Beginning in 1842, Garrison and many of his supporters carried this logic to its fullest extreme by calling for "disunion" between the North and the South.

In 1854, a year before My Bondage and My Freedom was published, Garrison dramatized the radicalism of these positions by publicly burning a copy of the Constitution at a Fourth of July picnic for abolitionists. Long before that act, however, Douglass had already dissociated himself from such incendiary views. Against the Garrisonians, he agreed with Gerrit Smith and others that the Constitution was not necessarily proslavery, but had only been made so by misinterpretation. He believed that political action was not only justified on behalf of abolition, but positively required if it could be effective. In My Bondage, Douglass spelled out his change of opinion on these subjects. Even after he had moved to Rochester to start his new paper, Douglass continued to be "on the anti-slavery question, a faithful disciple of William Lloyd Garrison, and fully committed to his doctrine touching the pro-slavery character of the United States, and the non-voting principle." But in 1851, following the passage of an even more stringent Fugitive Slave Law by Congress, Douglass "became convinced that there was no necessity for dissolving" the Union, and "that to abstain from voting, was to refuse to exercise a legitimate and powerful means for abolishing slavery." Douglass also concluded that the Constitution, far from being a pact with the devil, as Garrison called it, was "an anti-slavery instrument."

These conclusions placed Douglass firmly on the side of the Garrisonians' opponents within the antislavery movement, and they reopened the wounds of earlier schisms. Douglass's close friendship with McCune Smith and Gerrit Smith and his complicated relationship with John Brown (see this book) made the wound wider. By 1853, Garrison wrote to his friend, Samuel J. May, that "with Douglass, the die seems to be cast. I lament the schism, but it is unavoidable." It was made unavoidable partly by Douglass's commitment to positions on which Garrison could admit no compromise. And as the years wore on, the wounds only festered. By 1860 Garrison wrote in another letter to May that Douglass's plans to be at an upcoming meeting "powerfully repel me from attending. I regard him as thoroughly base and selfish, and I know that his hostility to the American Anti-Slavery Society and its leading advocates is unmitigated and unceasing. ... In fact, he reveals himself more and more to me as destitute of every principle of honor, ungrateful to the last degree, and malevolent in spirit. He is not worthy of respect, confidence, or countenance."

Garrison is notorious for his unflinching positions, and his tendency to impute false motives to anyone who disagreed with him. In that sense, he was an equal opportunity offender. His public reproaches of white enemies within the movement could be as harsh as those that he uttered privately against Douglass in 1860. So what should we make of such hard words? We might turn again to what Douglass made of them in the concluding pages of My Bondage and My Freedom.
Here was a radical change in my opinions, and in the action logically resulting from that change. To those with whom I had been in agreement and in sympathy, I was now in opposition. What they held to be a great and important truth, I now looked upon as a dangerous error. A very painful, and yet a very natural, thing now happened. Those who could not see any honest reasons for changing their views, as I had done, could not easily see any such reasons for my change, and the common punishment of apostates was mine.
How, then, should we settle the question of what caused the rift between Douglass and the Garrisonians? Were the causes as simple as racism among white abolitionists? Or did Garrisonians prove that they thought of Douglass as equal to their white opponents by dignifying him with "the common punishment" that they meted to all "apostates"? As I suggested before, these are the kinds of questions I want to raise and keep provisionally open in my classes.

Saturday, December 18, 2004


The examined life

The following is from "A Life of Learning," the Charles Homer Haskins Lecture for 1998, by Yi-Fu Tuan. I've read Tuan's Cosmos and Hearth: A Cosmopolite's Viewpoint, but this lecture made me want to read more. [Via wood s lot.]
As I enter my crepuscular years, I wonder about Socrates's famous dictum, "the unexamined life is not worth living." A scholar certainly examines. But what he or she examines is other people's lives—the world "out there," not his or her own life. I can devote an entire career studying desert landforms or traffic flows in congested cities without reflecting on who I am and what I have made of my existence. Indeed, paying attention to the world may be a way of escaping from the intractable dilemmas of selfhood. While this is a plausible outlook, it is also a central tenet of postmodernist thought that any serious and prolonged intellectual engagement with the world transmutes into a marriage of self and the other—so that, as with old married couples, the two may even begin to look alike. My own type of work, ostensibly about "people and environment," draws so much on the sort of person I am that I have wondered whether I have not written an unconscionably long autobiography. By tiny unmarked steps, examination turns into self-examination. Is it worth doing? Will it lead one to the good life? Or will it, as Saul Bellow believes, make one wish one were dead? I oscillate between the two possibilities. In the end, I come down on the side of Socrates, if only because the unexamined life is as prone to despair as the examined one; and if despair—occasional despair—is human, I would prefer to confront it with my eyes open, even convert it into spectacle, than submit to it blindly as though it were implacable fate.

Thursday, December 16, 2004


Bloggy goodness

Eureka! Thanks to Mixing Memory, I discovered this Blogger Hack for comments, written by one Ebenezer Orthodoxy. If it works well, I might also install his Recent Comments hack, Farrago. You should now be able to make comments much more easily at Mode for Caleb, without having to log into Blogger. You will also be able to leave your URL and email address. So there is no excuse for not letting me have a piece of your mind. Go ahead: give it a riff on this post. See what you think about letting more of us see what you think.

If you're looking for something to comment about, consider advising me about stat counters. Since starting this blog, I've been using StatCounter. I've been pleased with the service, but I've found that sometimes the server can be slow. So I've also been trying out SiteMeter, which seems to be a popular alternative. So far, though, I've been very disappointed with SiteMeter. It doesn't pick up referrals well at all, and the StatCounter display is much more intuitive and comprehensive. Am I doing something wrong? Is there a secret link in SiteMeter that will knock my socks off? If not, I'm coming to the conclusion that StatCounter is superior.

If you're still looking for something to comment about, I'm also thinking about starting a list of representative posts in my sidebar. If you have suggestions about posts that seem to represent the blog best, let me know. I'm not always the best judge of my self.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004


Good fear and bad

The Chronicle has unveiled more cases of plagiarism in the academy, and asks in its headline: "How Many More Are Out There?" The story implicitly speculates that there are many, many more, crawling underfoot "like cockroaches," in the memorable words of Peter Charles Hoffer, quoted in the article.

Where have all the exterminators gone? They are busy, short-handed, and slightly afraid, according to Henry at Crooked Timber: "The reluctance to take serious action against plagiarists isn’t a conspiracy -- it’s due to a combination of a lack of resources, a reluctance to get involved in controversy, and, perhaps, a feeling of 'there but for the grace of God …' (it’s every academic’s nightmare to be accused of plagiarism because of carelessness or sloppy footnoting)." Henry's right, I think, and the nightmare only grows more vivid every day. (Witness Ralph Luker's recent impulse to footnote himself, for fear of being strung up with other "hapless historians.") As cases multiply and careers are ruined, all before the leering eyes of an academic public, is it necessarily true that the incentive to report plagiarism increases? It puts the fear of God in academics, to be sure, but that might also sharpen the feeling that "there but for the grace of God go I."

I once discovered what I seriously believed to be a case of plagiarism by a professor (whom I still respect). There were a few paragraphs in a journal article that seemed to be copied, with minimal editing, from a book that I had been assigned in a course taught by this professor. The book was also cited in the article. There could be no question, then, that he or she was aware of the original text: the only question was whether the copying was a result of malicious intent or of sloppiness in taking notes. Armed with my overactive conscience (I once called the cable company twice to tell them that I was receiving free cable; go on, wag your head, point and laugh), I took the case confidentially to another professor (whom I still respect). The advice I received was that it might not be worth the trouble and controversy of reporting the case. Scholars have a certain tolerance for such honest mistakes, I was told, because they know from their own experience how easily they can happen. I did not report.

Perhaps some would say that this professor failed in his or her obligation to police plagiarism, and that I made the wrong decision by sitting on what I had found. At the time, I still had my doubts. But if I'm honest, the longer I have been a scholar, the more I have understood where that advice was coming from. Does a fear that I might make the same mistake now hamper my sensitivity to the mistake in others?

I'm not sure. I'm not suggesting that I don't know plagiarism to be morally wrong, or that I worry I will somehow accidentally do something like steal another person's dissertation. Those things don't "just happen." But if I'm honest, I'm silently worried about accidents that do happen, for fear that an academy hopping mad about malignant forms of plagiarism will turn its ire on me. Some of that fear, no doubt, is a good thing. It's one of the internal controls that helps prevent the outright cases of intellectual theft from happening. And it makes us more careful in the archives. As Elliot J. Gorn wrote in the March 2004 Journal of American History:
... there is the haunting feeling that more shoes might drop, even our own. Puritan-like, we look into our hearts: "Was I really as assiduous, as careful in the archives as I should have been? Did I fail, O God of Documents, in my slothfulness or my overweening pride, to put everything in quotes, to cite all sources accurately, to represent the evidence fairly?" Such uneasiness keeps us honest. We search for the blackness within because self-scrutiny is the scholar-pilgrim's high road to salvation. What begins as neurosis ends in a reasonable approximation of integrity. At least most of the time.
Am I alone in having prayed this prayer to the God of Documents? It could be that the jeremiads against plagiarism that continue to pour forth from the academy are slowly turning us all into sinners in the hands of that angry God. We come to feel that all of us are "always exposed," as Jonathan Edwards warned his congregants, "to sudden unexpected destruction." True, this may have the effect of making us more conscientious scholars, "Puritan-like" in fact. But the same fear that produced the starchy moral rectitude of the Puritans also produced their witch hunts. How do we draw the line between the good fear and the bad?

I say all this merely to wonder aloud about the best way of dealing with the rash of plagiarism -- the best method of "pest control," if you will. Is it to make sure that we increase reportage, that we expose every sinner to sudden destruction, "shock and awe"? Or do such fiery sermons actually have the opposite effect? Do they make us the more afraid of pointing our fingers at suspected sinners for fear that we are guilty too? Is constant fear and trembling the best medicine, or does it inspire good scholars like my former professor simply to fall back on an antinomian doctrine of supervenient grace? All I know is that I am appropriately afraid of plagiarizing. I'm practically shaking in my boots. ("Have mercy, O God of Documents ...") But I don't know how far the boundaries of the good fear extend.

Monday, December 13, 2004


Houston is worth it

A few of you may have been around Mode for Caleb long enough to remember this early post on whether Houston is worth it. If so, you'll appreciate this travel review in the New York Times: "Saying a Spirited 'Nay' to Houston's Naysayers." As a sometime naysayer of Houston, I stand nay-ed. I learned something I never knew about the city: there is a cool-looking Rothko Chapel on Sul Ross Boulevard, which contains 14 abstract paintings by Mark Rothko and has been visited by the likes of Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama. How is that for a jolt to your red-state expectations? Perhaps I'll be able to visit the Chapel while we're visiting Houston for the holidays. And by the way, what the review says about Houston's restaurant scene is all true.


The lives of Douglass: Part I

Revised 14 December 2004

Many Americans are familiar with the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, published in 1845; it is certainly the most famous personal narrative of slavery ever written. (Two years ago, the City of Baltimore sponsored a city-wide reading of the Narrative, which the mayor lauded as an "example of perseverance and determination.") But fewer readers are aware that Douglass wrote another autobiography in 1855, entitled My Bondage and My Freedom. Probably even fewer are aware that a third autobiography was published in 1881, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.

In an earlier post, I alluded to the value of teaching the Narrative and My Bondage and My Freedom side by side. By email, a reader asked for some elaboration on the two texts. So I offer this, even at the risk of it being a boon for online cheaters in history classes. (Don't cheat. If you used Google to get here, your professor can easily do the same.)

The most notable feature of the second autobiography is that by 1855, Douglass had more "bio" to "graph." Seventeen years had passed since his escape from slavery in Maryland, and ten years separated him from the book that made him a celebrity. In that decade, he had established himself as a lecturer on the antislavery circuit, toured Great Britain to much acclaim, received funds from British friends to purchase his freedom, and founded his own newspaper in upstate New York. My Bondage and My Freedom covers these new events as well as most of the same episodes that were in the Narrative. But these episodes in Douglass's life as an enslaved Marylander are almost always embellished with greater detail in his second book. More detail was partly a retort to skeptics who doubted the authenticity of the Narrative. But the richer detail of the second book is even more important as an example of Douglass's incisive and innovative thinking about the problem of slavery.

The Narrative had a mostly propagandistic function: it was intended as an exposé of slavery’s brutality. My Bondage more directly exposed Douglass’s inner experience in slavery. And it illuminated the connections between that experience and his thought. If the narrative logic of the first book assumed that readers would infer antislavery conclusions from the episodes it related, the second book complicated and multiplied the possible conclusions that a reader could reach. For one thing, it corrected what some readers might have perceived in the Narrative as an antislavery argument based primarily on the poor treatment of particular slaves. My Bondage and My Freedom made more explicit what the Narrative had implied: that it was not just cruel treatment, but the idea of slavery itself that repulsed Douglass and provoked his desire to escape.

In the second book, for example, when discussing the kindness of Mrs. Auld, a Baltimore mistress who helped teach him how to read until rebuffed by her husband, Douglass emphasizes that the slave-master relationship corrupted whatever kind feelings existed between him and Auld. (Compare this and this.) Her treatment of Douglass was incidental to the problem of slavery. “Nature had made us friends,” he wrote in My Bondage, “slavery made us enemies. ... It was slavery -- not its mere incidents -- that I hated. I had been cheated. ... The feeding and clothing me well, could not atone for taking my liberty from me.” In the first place, then, My Bondage and My Freedom contains subtle but significant differences in Douglass’s recounting of his experience in “bondage.” This book was not a litany of “mere incidents” -- it was a meditation on “slavery” and why Douglass hated it.

The second autobiography also extends the story of Douglass’s “bondage” into the story of his “freedom.” Douglass’s life as an abolitionist after 1845 goes a long way towards explaining why he felt a second book was needed by 1855. Today, My Bondage and My Freedom interests antislavery historians mainly for what it tells us about Douglass’s conflictual relationship with radical white abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips.

Garrison and his allies -- usually known as the Garrisonians -- played a crucial role in launching Douglass’s career as a professional abolitionist. Conversely, Douglass's fame as a speaker and moral authority as a fugitive lent credibility to the Garrisonians as antislavery leaders. As Douglass recounted in both the Narrative and My Bondage and My Freedom, he was introduced to the world of Northern antislavery in the late summer of 1841, while living in New Bedford, Massachusetts and working as a day laborer. In August, at an abolitionist meeting in Nantucket, Douglass delivered a rousing speech that greatly impressed Garrison. Soon afterwards, Douglass was hired by the Garrisonian American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS) as a lecturer, and it was this association that also helped bring the Narrative into print.

Both Garrison and Phillips wrote introductory letters to the 1845 edition, vouching for its author's credibility as well as associating themselves with this powerful new voice. And when the Narrative attracted attention and seemed likely to endanger Douglass, the Garrisonians’ contacts with British abolitionists gave Douglass an entrée into the United Kingdom, where he toured throughout 1846 addressing large audiences. But it was during this trip abroad that Douglass’s relationship with the Garrisonians began to fray around the edges, a strain that worsened in 1847 after Douglass returned home, now a legally free man who was intent on becoming his own editor.

The reasons for strain between Douglass and the Garrisonians were both personal and ideological. On a personal level, Douglass sensed a patronizing tone among many of his patrons, a mistrust of him that in many cases bordered on or crossed over into a malicious bigotry. While touring in Britain, for instance, Douglass learned that Maria Weston Chapman, a leading Boston Garrisonian, had corresponded with some of Garrison's friends in Ireland and warned them to keep an eye on Douglass's management of his money. Incensed by this and other letters, Douglass reacted vehemently in a letter to Chapman that foreshadowed his eventual break with the AASS. But those personal conflicts cannot be separated from the ideological disagreements that increasingly divided Douglass from the Garrisonians -- disagreements about the wisdom of "buying" slaves in order to free them, for instance, or about the position of the Constitution on the issue of slavery. At any rate, by the early 1850s, both faultlines -- the personal as well as the principled -- had opened into a complete fracture, with both parties sniping at each other and crying foul. Douglass repudiated the Garrisonians; the Garrisonians likewise repudiated Douglass. These new circumstances, in Douglass's mind, called for a new autobiography, and My Bondage and My Freedom was the result.

Many scholars blame this fracture primarily on the persistence of racial prejudice among white Garrisonians, which explains why some of them (like Chapman) treated Douglass with a condescending paternalism. Many Garrisonians failed to see past “Douglass the Fugitive” to Frederick Douglass himself. For example, in My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass recalled that at the Nantucket meeting, Garrison followed Douglass’s speech with one of his own, “taking me as his text.” This was a revealing aside. In the early years of their acquaintance, white Garrisonians often referred to Douglass as if he were mainly a Walking Counterexample, a living rebuttal to the argument that black people were degraded by nature. And his life was first and foremost a “text” to which they could turn for proof that former slaves could “rise," just as the Narrative was a text they could use to prove the cruelty of Southern bondage.

This was a strategy whose intention was to combat Northern racial prejudice rather than to condone it. But it was understandable when Douglass lost patience with constantly being gestured at, rather than being freed to gesture in whatever direction he chose. Moreover, in driving the point home that Douglass had risen from degradation to dignity, the Garrisonians often lingered a little too long on the degradation and not as long on the dignity. In early 1842, while introducing Douglass to an antislavery meeting at Faneuil Hall in Boston, Garrison said, “It is recorded in holy writ, that a beast once spoke. A greater miracle is here to-night. A chattel becomes a man.”

Such analogies -- which seem to suggest that Douglass's transformation from slave into orator was as miraculous as Balaam's donkey learning to speak -- are rightly galling to our ears. But it is possible to exaggerate the extent to which they were galling then, even to some black abolitionists. In his early years as an abolitionist, Douglass also used himself as an example of the extraordinary transformation from chattel-hood to manhood that only freedom could effect. In My Bondage and My Freedom, he excerpted a letter that he wrote to Garrison shortly after he set foot on British soil, where legal proscriptions and social discrimination against free blacks were less pronounced than in the Northern states. "I breathe," Douglass exulted, "and lo! the chattel becomes a man."

Douglass and many other black abolitionists used such masculine language to imagine the passage from slavery to freedom as a passage from childishness and ignorance into manliness and respectability. Statements like theirs and Garrison's were rhetorically strategic: they confronted the terrible fact that Southern slaves were legally bought and sold as if they were beasts of burden. In antebellum newspapers, advertisements announcing rewards for the return of fugitive slaves were routinely printed directly adjacent to advertisements that announced rewards for the return of runaway horses. Given such pervasive visual iconography, it was radically subversive to suggest that Douglass had been changed from a "chattel" to a "man."

In short, Douglass's breach with the Garrisonians had less to do than one might think with the fact that they viewed black abolitionists as respectable and black slaves as degraded. Douglass himself held the same view. Rather, what bothered Douglass was the way that Garrisonians expected Douglass to play the role of the degraded slave, to straddle the chasm they both saw between bondage and freedom. For example, white Garrisonians often advised Douglass not to be quite so eloquent, fearing that Douglass's excellence on the platform would give ammunition to skeptics who doubted that he had ever been a slave. And since they viewed Douglass's life as a propagandistic "text," they encouraged him to stick to the story. In My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass singled out this kind of advice as insulting, constraining, and above all, boring:
During the first three or four months, my speeches were almost exclusively made up of narrations of my own personal experience as a slave. 'Let us have the facts,' said the people. So also said Friend George Foster, who always wished to pin me down to my simple narrative. 'Give us the facts,' said Collins, 'we will take care of the philosophy.' Just here arose some embarrassment. It was impossible for me to repeat the same old story month after month, and to keep up my interest in it. It was new to the people, it is true, but it was an old story to me; and to go through with it night after nights, was a task altogether too mechanical for my nature. 'Tell your story, Frederick,' would whisper my then revered friend, William Lloyd Garrison, as I stepped upon the platform. I could not always obey, for I was now reading and thinking. New views of the subject were presented to my mind. It did not entirely satisfy me to narrate wrongs; I felt like denouncing them.
That last line can be read as a thinly veiled critique of the Narrative itself and an apologia for its sequel. It was also an indictment of the Garrisonians' attempts to direct his life story in the way they saw fit. There certainly were elements of racial prejudice in some of these efforts to "pin" Douglass to his Narrative. (But there is still much ambiguity on this point. Since many freed people took new surnames as signs of their independence -- Douglass changed his from "Bailey" to "Douglass" -- we may be meant to see Garrison's whispering to him as "Frederick" as an insult. But it might equally be seen as evidence of the real intimacy and friendship that existed between Garrison and Douglass prior to their parting of the ways.)

Racial prejudice, at least, was the interpretation offered by James McCune Smith, the black abolitionist and medical doctor who wrote the preface to My Bondage and My Freedom, assuming the role that Garrison and Phillips had claimed in the Narrative. Such gentlemen, Smith said,
although proud of Frederick Douglass, failed to fathom, and bring out to the light of day, the highest qualities of his mind; the force of their own education stood in their own way: they did not delve into the mind of a colored man for capacities which the pride of race led them to believe to be restricted to their own Saxon blood. Bitter and vindictive sarcasm, irresistible mimicry, and a pathetic narrative of his own experiences of slavery, were the intellectual manifestations which they encouraged him to exhibit on the platform or in the lecture desk.
It is also accurate to say, however, that Douglass's growing dissatisfaction with the white Garrisonians had as much to do with his pride in respectability as it did with their "pride of race." As Douglass read and thought, he understood himself to be moving farther and farther away from his former life on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. The white abolitionists' advice to adopt the persona of Frederick Bailey seemed like an attempt to deprive him of what he understood as "freedom" -- the freedom not to act in what he perceived to be a "slavish" way. In short, although race was at issue in the breach between Douglass and the Garrisonians, so was respectability: Douglass did not disagree that "freedom" meant the education and uplift of black Americans. He too believed, with them, that escaping slavery meant elevating oneself from a degraded state. What he disliked was the way they encouraged him to mimic that former state.

Personal conflict with white Garrisonians, then, was one seed of which the fruit was Douglass's second book. The roots of that personal conflict were entangled with weeds of racial prejudice that sprung up even in the soil of radical white abolitionism. But there were other seeds of discontent sown between Douglass and his former friends, and their eventual rift also had to do with severe doctrinal disagreements. I'll save those disagreements for a second post.

Thursday, December 09, 2004


Brief blogging

On tap for today: many hours in front of a microfilming machine, and grading final exams. I also plan later this afternoon or evening to elaborate a bit on the questions I raised about Frederick Douglass in my post on teaching, in response to a reader request for more information.

For now, though, I've been putting off linking to some very good posts because I have not had time to comment on them at length. I'll leave you to comment on your own. You should definitely read Timothy Burke's post on academic groupthink and Jason Kuznicki's recent post on Posner's cost-benefit justification for war. I also liked and learned from Rachel's recent post at Velveteen Rabbi on Chanukah, which links to her related post from last year.

Tuesday night, I found myself in a Wal-Mart, the "corporate behemoth that everyone loves to hate." It had been a long while since I had braved the aisles, and my expectations were already pretty low. Imagine my surprise, then, when I managed to be surprised by something I saw. I was strolling through the toy section, looking for a particular gift for what Rachel calls the Christmas "potlatch extravaganza." Yes, there I was, perusing Dr. Seuss books and toddler toys with blinking lights, when what to my wondering eyes should appear but a wall of hunting rifles for shooting deer. That's right, our friendly neighborhood Wal-Mart has placed its "Guns and Ammo" (the sign actually says "ammo") department directly adjacent to the toy section. There were some kids pleading with their dad for a toy while standing in front of some camo hunting jackets and .22s.

Whatever one's position on gun control, and however much one may believe in the unfettered market that Wal-Mart epitomizes, can we at least agree that guns and toys should not be displayed side by side? Might that confuse some impressionable youngsters? Can we at least call on the new Goliath of Christian retail to rethink that particular layout decision? Okay, that's enough shrill disbelief ... for now.

UPDATE, 7:12 P.M.
The last two paragraphs of this post are examples of what I don't like about brief blogging, and why I try not to do it often. Even now, as I read them only about twelve hours after writing them, they strike me as instances of knee-jerk outrage. There's nothing wrong with knee-jerk outrage in and of itself: sometimes it can be a good test of one's mental or emotional reflexes. Perhaps it is not wrong to see guns next to toys and reflexively think: bad.

But outrage devoid of context does little good. I find it useful to listen to my reflexes, but I also think it is important to reflect on them. Sometimes that reflection reveals that I am outraged by things without even really knowing why -- either because it conforms to some societal expectation or because it comes from some deeply rooted conviction that I am barely aware of. In these cases, if not even I can give an explanation for the outrage, then I should think twice about voicing it.

Other times, reflection reveals that I do understand my outrage, but that it is connected to very particular beliefs of mine, without which the outrage is free-floating and inexplicable. In these cases, too, I should think twice about voicing the outrage without a fuller explanation of what I mean. It is the worst kind of condescension to take for granted that someone else will be outraged by something just because I am.

In this case, I think my outrage at Wal-Mart is more of the second variety: it coheres with larger networks of personal belief. But that's why brief blogging is not a good way to express outrage of this kind -- it begs for further explanation. And if I don't have time to give that kind of explanation (which I still don't right now), then I should reserve my outrage for a later time.

Monday, December 06, 2004


Notes for a Philosophy of Teaching

As the semester draws to a close, here are some ideas I've been waving in the general direction of a personal teaching philosophy.

1. My goal as a teacher of history is not just to provide information, but to model inquisitiveness about the past. This is an important distinction to make, because it is impossible to cover all the material on any subject during a semester. I do want my students to walk away from my classes with knowledge that they did not have before. But I've failed as a teacher if they leave my class with a dead mass of knowledge that will never grow. I have succeeded only if they walk away with the desire to know more. I aim to teach my students how to keep asking questions, how to keep posing provisional answers, and then how to raise questions again, long after a particular semester has ended. In short, I believe successful teaching has a more powerful effect on the character of a mind than on its content.

2. This philosophy about teaching grows directly out of my philosophy about history. I believe that the semester is an inherently limited container of historical knowledge, for the same reason that I believe there is no container of history -- an article, a book, an encyclopedia, a memorial -- that is ever big enough. The past's complexity also constantly spills over the categories into which we try to confine it -- class, gender, race, nation, economics, politics, culture. History is an ongoing argument about a constantly proliferating subject. The case is never closed. On a practical level, this means that I prefer to structure syllabi around the discussion of primary sources. As an historian, I don't want students to sit at my feet; I want them to see what it is like to sit in my seat.

3. I also prefer to use very recent examples of historical practice, because students engage most eagerly with scholarly readings that explicitly address one another. For example, in a course I recently taught on the history of American activists abroad, I assigned an essay on transnational history by David Thelen, along with an essay by David Hollinger that directly criticized Thelen's article. During another week, I assigned an op-ed by Richard Rorty on patriotism, a direct response to Rorty by Martha Nussbaum, and then a direct response to Nussbaum by Kwame Anthony Appiah. This kind of active reading encouraged my students to enter the debates themselves. Once they turned to Hollinger, they knew enough about Thelen to believe that they too could participate in the arguments at hand. By reading both the critic and the criticized, they were naturally forced to become critics themselves and to articulate their own critique, whether in defense of one author, both, or neither.

4. By reading historians in conversation with one another, students also learn a valuable lesson about history itself. If I assign only one piece of historical scholarship, it misleads students to believe that this piece is authoritative. But when I assign several pieces of scholarship whose authors are in dialogue with each other, they learn to see one text in the context of others. My goal is ultimately to help them approach the primal stuff of history in the same way -- to think of individual texts or artifacts from the past as parts of a larger whole. Understanding them requires shuttling back and forth from the particular to the general, realizing that to stop at either pole would be to risk misunderstanding.

5. For instance, in a course on abolitionists, I would assign not just the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), but also Douglass's later autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). Understanding why the texts are different requires seeing each one in the context of the other: What were the circumstances under which each book was produced? Why would Douglass want to write a separate book, after the spectacular success of the first? Why are the introductions to each book written by different abolitionists -- in the first case, by white reformer William Lloyd Garrison, and in the second case, by the African American doctor James McCune Smith? And how should those questions be placed in the larger contexts of the antislavery movement and Douglass's life? History is an ongoing argument precisely because these interpretive processes must always keep going. I've succeeded as a history teacher if students learn this.

6. Learning this -- that historical judgments are seldom settled -- can be unsettling for students. Part of being a successful teacher is thus to model how to be okay with that. It is much like teaching someone how to ride a bicycle -- you'll never learn how to ride until you accept that the imbalance which feels so precarious is the right feeling to have. It may be hard to convince some students that this is better than just being told who, what, when, where, and why. But simply giving pat answers to those questions is like letting them continue to use training wheels. It simply delays the inevitable realization that asking complicated questions with complicated answers is part of what it means to be a human being. In fact, that is the ultimate lesson my students can learn about history: that its agents --including themselves -- will always be trying to figure out where they came from and why that matters. My philosophy of teaching is to raise those kinds of questions, with respect both for the questions and for the questioners, and in such a way that students will keep raising them after they walk through the door.

Thursday, December 02, 2004


Good Writing Contest

[This post is a call for nominations for a Good Writing Contest. Details are provided below.]

It is surprising that the humanities are not already extinct, given that they have been on so many endangered lists in the last two centuries. For the positivists of both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it was science that doomed the humanities to death. Nowadays, it is apparently "bad writing" that signals the tolling of the bell.

A few years ago, the journal Philosophy and Literature held a Bad Writing Contest, poking fun at the turgid prose produced by academics. Nominations -- which consisted of brief excerpts from academic books and journals -- were solicited on the Internet, and the contest provoked much hand-wringing about the declining state of the humanities. The same hand-wringing has subsequently produced satires like The Postmodernism Generator.

While bemusing to academics and undergraduates alike, neither the Generator nor the Bad Writing Contest are totally in jest. The "winners" of the BWC tended to be poststructuralists, and the implication was that these inaccessible writers were ruining their disciplines, walling themselves off from the public sphere and hyphenating words on a w-him. The winner of the fourth annual contest, for instance, was Judith Butler, a usual suspect in jeremiads against the crouching sins of poststructuralism. In countless whodunnits about the murder of the humanities, the answer was often that the ... well, you can take it from there.

The issue of bad writing in the humanities has recently been revived in a book review by Mark Bauerlein. (Via locussolus and Cliopatria.) The book under review is Just Being Difficult? Academic Writing in the Public Arena (2003), which defends at least some "bad" academic writers from the charge of willful obfuscation. According to Bauerlein's review, the contributors answer that they are not just being difficult by writing difficult sentences. Difficult writing, they argue, can provoke fresh thinking. A hyphen, when used deliberately, can make the familiar unfamiliar again, disrupting the intuitions of readers in a constructive way. Their defense is one that should make sense to any child of the 1980s, fan of Michael Jackson, or devotee of Isaac Hayes -- being "bad" is "good."

Bauerlein is unconvinced. In fact, he slips at the end of the review into an oracular mode, and predicts that although "the Bad Writing Contest ran its course ... other undignifying stories will arrive in turn." After thus expressing a rather fatalistic pessimism about the future of academic writing, Bauerlein resorts to metaphors of the seeping, creeping, spreading, crawling onslaught of what the review amorphously calls "the theorists":
This is the worst consequence of efforts like Just Being Difficult? They defend an endeavor that profits only theorists and that only theorists esteem. In crude terms, if these theorists win, the humanities lose. The more their practices spread among graduate students and junior faculty, the more irreverence creeps in among science faculty, university administrators, the media, and the interested public. Theorists may preserve their own standing among their colleagues, but what about tomorrow's needs?
And Erin O'Connor echoes these oracles of Cassandra in her comment on Bauerlein's "smoking essay":
... Bauerlein knows whereof he speaks. He may know, too, that the "theorists" who most need to hear him are precisely those most likely to dismiss him. But so be it: When the academic humanities are finally, definitively destroyed by the studied, self-important irrelevance of theorists' dogmatically inaccessible progressivist stance, no one will be able to complain that there were not cogent warnings of what was to come.
And so here we are again, at a juncture where to be an authentic devotee of the humanities, one must believe in their imminent demise. The hordes are coming, with their hyphens and parentheses, to destroy the Good City and the republic of letters. If and when "the theorists" win, the victory will be Pyrrhic.

Although I have not read Just Being Difficult?, I found Bauerlein's review to be well argued and finely written. But isn't that the point? Here is an English professor who writes well, and surely he is not the only one. Then why are the humanities doomed? Is it because of the "self-important irrelevance" of "the theorists"? It is more likely that both "the theorists" and their critics exaggerate the importance and the relevance of the Other. Heated exchanges about academic writing have the flavor of a family feud: both sides claim to have the family's best interests at heart, and indeed, both sides may be right. The poststructuralists got their start trying to save the humanities from one of their former stalkers -- scientistic structuralism. What happens when one takes off the sheep's clothing to expose a wolf, and finds another sheep inside?

Call me an optimist, but I suspect the humanities are more hearty and hale as disciplines than many of their disciples seem to think. I boldly predict that something like the humanities will exist as long as humanity does. And I further modestly propose that for every sentence of "bad writing" one can point to in a journal of the humanities, someone else could produce countless counterexamples of "good writing."

To test this hunch, I hereby declare, without any authority vested in me, the First Annual Good Writing Contest. (I am not aware if this has already been done, but it cannot hurt to do it again.) Spread the word, all ye humanities bloggers. Nominations can be submitted either in the comments to this post, or by emailing me at the address in my sidebar. They should include one or two "good" sentences from an academic journal or book in history, literary criticism, philosophy, or a related humanities field, published in 2004. I'll gather nominations for about a month and then post again on the results.

Don't ask me what constitutes "good," since I'm not sure what constitutes "bad" either, and the organizers of the BWC do not seem to have specified their terms. And besides, the exercise is mainly for fun. Maybe it will also edify those who worry that the humanities are dying on account of some malpractice. After all, if one sentence can doom the humanities, then one sentence can also be their reprieve.

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