The Birth-Mark Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

A member of a group known since the 1970’s as the Language Poets (which also includes Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman, and others), Susan Howe has mapped a career protesting the ways in which editorial policies and traditional rules of syntax and form have stifled spiritual development and freedom of expression in poets. Detaching language from convention meant producing, at times, an unreadable text, but one that did not impose on either the writer’s or the reader’s freedom. In such collections of poetry as Articulation of Sound Forms in Time (1987) and Singularities (1990), as well as her critical work My Emily Dickinson (1985), Howe demonstrated this freedom in her own poems while arguing against the imposition of convention on the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Her The Birth-mark: unsettling the wilderness in American literary history marks a continuation of this argument. (Indeed, the argument begins with the very form of the title: In keeping with her challenge to intrusive editorial control, Howe herself deliberately does not use standard form for the subtitle, omitting capitalization.) Consisting of an extensive introduction, five essays, and a reprint of an interview with Howe from Talisman magazine (Spring 1990), The Birth-markargues that “the issue of editorial control is directly connected to the attempted erasure of antinomianism in our culture.” This thesis carries the reader through an eclectic, brilliant—at times unreadable—restructuring of American literary history.

Antinomy suggests conflict of authority as well as paradox. For Howe, the distinctive mark of the American literary voice is antinomianism, not primarily as a matter of religious belief (its usual understanding) but as a way of expression and a resistance to stricture in all of its forms: ecclesiastical, political, socioeconomic, and literary. Taking her title and one of her epigraphs from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1843 story “The Birth- mark,” Howe parallels the efforts of Aylmer, the husband in the tale, to remove his wife’s distinguishing mark with those of Colonial church officials to silence the spirited rebel Anne Hutchinson and those of later editors to create standardized texts at the expense of the authors’ creativity. In Hawthorne’s story, Aylmer’s attempts to remove what he sees as his wife Georgiana’s flaw leads to her death; so, in Howe’s view, the brilliance of prophets and the inventiveness of women writers in particular have been slain or, at least, disfigured by preemptive authority.

Supporting her arguments with extensive research into original manuscripts and facsimile editions, Howe unearths the distortions of several early American texts at the hands of editors. Included in her discussion are, most notably, the autobiographical writings of Thomas Shepard, the minister of the First Church of Cambridge from 1637 to 1645 and one of the accusers of Anne Hutchinson during the 1636 antinomian controversy; the journals of John Winthrop, minister and later governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony; the captivity narrative of Mary Rowlandson; and the poems and letters of the nineteenth century poet Emily Dickinson. Figures receiving less extensive discussion include Elizabeth Hawthorne, the sister of Nathaniel; Herman Melville; Sara Coleridge, daughter of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and a writer and editor; Mary Dyer, an associate of Anne Hutchinson and a midwife, who was later hanged; and Anne Bradstreet and her sister Sarah Dudley Keayne. The predominance of female figures here arises from Howe’s contention that, from its beginnings, antinomianism has been “feminized and then restricted or banished.” The wilderness alluded to in Howe’s subtitle is, then, both actual and metaphorical. Hutchinson suffered actual banishment because she chose to express her views; that which is free, spirited, and unsettling in literary expression, particularly in the work of women writers, is also banished to a wilderness of unpublished manuscripts or seen as undisciplined and wild, in need of taming.

Clearly a feminist text in its implications, Howe’s work also offers a broader context for discussion of American literature than is found in many standard scholarly works. As the author points out, F. O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941), considered by many a classic study of nineteenth century American literature, omits Margaret Fuller and Emily Dickinson. As Howe demonstrates,...

(The entire section is 1854 words.)