The Birth-Mark

by Susan Howe

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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...

(This entire section contains 1886 words.)

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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, Matthiessen’s letters and journals indicate that he originally thought to include both women, but later he bowed to scholarly rules which did not, in the 1930’s and 1940’s, include women as part of the literary canon. Matthiessen also neglected, Howe contends, to include the American Civil War and its impact in his discussion. His personal enthusiasm for the poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley and the homosexual poems of Walt Whitman, revealed again in Matthiessen’s letters to his lover, was also squelched in order to follow “T. S. Eliot’s insistence on ’form’ and ’impersonality’ in poetry.” Howe records, “In 1941 the author of American Renaissance, under the influence of Eliot’s critical dismissal of Shelley, downplayed his influence on Melville and deplored it in Hawthorne.” A similar fate afflicted Elizabeth Hawthorne, who borrowed thousands of volumes for her brother from the Salem Athenaeum, knew what influenced his writing, what he actually read, and the marginalia he recorded as he read. Hawthorne’s biographer, James T. Fields, explored Elizabeth and Nathaniel’s relationship through a series of letters he elicited from Elizabeth but chose to ignore them in his composition. Other scholars, notably Perry Miller and Kenneth Murdock, discounted the importance of the antinomian controversy and the witchcraft trials, though Cotton Mather, Howe argues, “would not have agreed in 1700, the year he finished writing ’the Church History of this countrey,’” his Magnalia Christi Americana.

Through her wide reading of letters, journals, original texts, and later scholarship, Howe shows that many scholars rule out not only the feminine and female writers but also important spiritual and moral issues that were ineluctable influences on the development of a distinctive American literary voice. Home, politics, family, history, ideology, and art are inseparable in Howe’s view. What was the flaw in Billy Budd’s speech, Howe asks, the mark on Georgiana, that so possessed Captain Vere and Aylmer that they sought to destroy the persons as well as the flaw? Citing Charles Olson’s study of Melville, Call Me Ishmael (1947), Howe says in the Talisman interview that “the stutter is the plot.”

It’s the stutter in American literature that interests me. I hear the stutter as a sounding of uncertainty.

What is silenced or not quite silenced. All the broken dreams. Thomas Shepard writes them down as soon as 1637. And the rupture from Europe.… All that eccentricity.

“Eccentricity,” “lawlessness,” “antinomianism,” “the wilderness,” and “spiritual enthusiasm,” at times, become nearly synonymous in Howe’s text—key phrases reverberating around a central conflict of freedom and restraint, the core issue for emigrants to America during the Great Migration of the 1630’s. America was the great educator for these people, who were fleeing political, religious, and economic constraints in Europe yet faced a wilderness that demanded attention to issues of control if they were to survive. The Colonial captivity narratives and journals are, for Howe, bridges to the nineteenth century. In works such as the autobiographical writings and notebooks of Thomas Shepard, Howe finds evidence of antinomianism. His “T {My Birth & Life:} S” contains two halves, though editors have consistently ignored the eighty-six-page blank center and the reversed story contained in the “S” section. In his small reversible notebooks, Shepard, an accuser of Hutchinson, recorded the conversion experiences and religious testimonies of fifty-one men and women, mostly midwives, servants, and widows, whose names are indicated by masculine appropriation—for example, “Goodman Luxford His Wife.” Since the usual practice was for a male to speak for a woman before a congregation, these notebooks reveal that “although Shepard thought women should defer to their husbands in worldly matters, in his theology of conversion they were relatively independent.”

In Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, the paradox is found in the contrasts between her descriptions of horrendous violence, the killings of her children and relatives, and the scriptural passages interposed to serve as reminders that Providence is evident in these events—passages, Howe suggests, that were inserted by the Reverend Joseph Rowlandson, Mary’s husband, alter the first edition, of which no copy is known to exist. Again, where Mary Rowlandson found the Indian chief King Philip (Metacomet), her captor, at times kind, taking her hand to help her from the mud at one point, she conflicted with the authoritative view of the Indian leader as the devil incarnate, a savage killer. Like Rowlandson, Anne Bradstreet violated Puritan strictures, not so much by her views but by the very fact that she wrote in her own voice. Like Rowlandson, moreover, she was saved by her tone and the fact that her poems were first published by her brother-in-law, without her knowledge, in 1647.

Hawthorne and Melville too, according to Howe, reflect the stylistic idiosyncrasy found in the work of Cotton Mather through their combining “history, fiction, Scripture, and Elizabethan and baroque drama.” More directly, Hawthorne alludes to antinomianism in a number of his works, most notably in the opening passage of The Scarlet Letter (1850), which contains a reference to Anne Hutchinson. Books in the library of Herman Melville reveal underlined passages in Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales (1837, 1842) referring to antinomianism or antinomian characters. Dickinson’s poetry and letters also reveal a combining of ideas, a deliberate rejection of publication—which would require standardization of her poems—idiosyncratic line breaks, and variant word lists that indicate her experimentation with poetry as a visual form. All these writers found relevance for antinomian ideas in their literary texts and in their modes of expression.

Howe as well is highly idiosyncratic in sections of The Birth-mark. Her method is to amass numerous instances of antinomianism in subject, voice, and expression and to cite fragments of texts, often in random sequence, without interlinking passages except thematically or linguistically—that is, through word associations. A reference, for example, to one writer’s description of himself as a library cormorant might open to a passage from Noah Webster’s original An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) defining “strand,” since the cormorant is a strand bird. Lest the author be guilty of the same editorial sins she denounces in such editors as Thomas H. Johnson, whose The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (1951) Howe believes violated the integrity of Dickinson’s texts, she avoids telling the reader what to think through interpretation. Rather, she writes in response to the texts she duplicates through facsimile reproductions and citations. What ties her work together is her extensive introduction and the Talisman interview, which serves as a conclusion and reiterates her aims. Though a carefully reasoned and exceedingly well-supported argument, at times Howe’s work is frustrating, but it is well worth the effort for the insights and original thought it offers regarding American literary history. Though the style of The Birth-mark is turbulent, the book is a brilliant piece of scholarly investigation. Though it occasionally lapses into fragments, run-on sentences, and unreadable syntax, these deliberate breaks with convention illustrate precisely the thesis the author is arguing.

Source for Further Study

The Times Literary Supplement. December 3, 1993, p.12.