Reading Between the Strike-Outs: Moments of Agency in Hannah Crafts’ Revisions

My favorite part of The Bondwoman’s Narrative are the fleeting glimpses of Hannah Crafts’ editing pen, the bold strikeouts of sentences she rearranges anew. Her occasional revisions to the text add another dimension, an extra layer of meaning to interpret. What Crafts presents to the reader is both the final draft and the draft in its initial stages all in one manuscript. The reader reads both of these versions simultaneously. What can be interpreted multiplies. That narrative is hauntingly beautiful and Crafts resides as much in the strikeouts and edits as she does in the revised words.

I always get the feeling that in addition to the narrative Crafts constructs, I’m also following a map of her mind and even her muse as she wrote the manuscript after escaping slavery. The narrative seems to live and breathe a little differently each time I read it. When I encounter a revised sentence, I read it once and then go back and reread it in its revised form.

I feel like there’s a certain integrity and raw honesty to finishing a manuscript and publishing it with its “flaws”. For me, each strikeout seems to represent another aspect of Crafts voice extending out of the two dimensional world of the paper page. Each strikeout is a small act of agency, a negotiation on the page between the arrangement of words and the writer’s intended meaning.

A particular revision that resonates with me is at the very beginning of Crafts’ narrative. The original sentence reads: “I said he came and went, that is he was only visible at times, and then you would see him leaning speechless against a pillar, or sitting silently in a corner perhaps leaning speechless against a pillar, or sitting silently in a corner”. The major revision of this sentence is the word ‘perhaps’. The word is significant, I think, because it reveals that Crafts is honing her personal voice. It is a stylistic choice, but one which strengthens the scene she recreates in this section of the narrative. This is all the more important considering The Bondwoman’s Narrative is the only known novel by a fugitive slave woman.

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The Liminality of Illness in The Blithedale Romance

I’m pretty sure this is my first time reading Hawthorne. Two summers ago I picked up The Scarlet Letter, folded the corner of the third page down into a triangle and abandoned it on my bookshelf back home by accident. What I find most fascinating about The Blithedale Romance is Hawthorne’s constant reference to illness and health.

The reader’s first encounter with issues surrounding health is Coverdale’s recounting of his own illness. As soon as Coverdale arrives in Blithedale, utopia rejects him: “the wintry blast of the preceding day, together with the general chill of our airy old farm-house, had got fairly into my heart and the marrow of my bones” (40). Utopia is not a sunny paradise, but a place of frost and chilly winds. Coverdale has to be reborn before he is accepted by this new community. The setting itself seems like one of Hawthorne’s characters, quietly residing in the background, a stagnant, but impressive and potentially destructive force.

Coverdale describes not only the physical chambers he resides in while ill, but also the chambers of his mind. Illness becomes a liminal place between health and death. For Coverdale his sensitivity to the characters of the people around him is sharpened: “but there is a species of intuition–either a spiritual lie, or the subtle recognition of fact–which comes to us in a reduced state of the corporeal system” (46). Through a breakdown of his physical bodily systems, he seems to reach various states of revelation, particularly about the nature of Hollingsworth and Zenobia. I wonder if this description of systems breaking down and being rebuilt again is connected to utopics and systems of oppression. Is it ever possible to reside in a world of neutrals, void of any sort of system? Is system breakdown the neutral Marin is referring to in Utopics?

Coverdale’s various states of heightened perception are defined as deleria by Hollingsworth and Zenobia, two of the giants in this small community. By this point it seems clear that Hawthorn is satirizing human desire to live in a utopia. These particular scenes regarding Coverdale’s illness also seem to point to a sense of productivity of the mind attached to being ill, as well as a sharpened sense of self-awareness. He reminisces “my fit of illness had been an avenue between two existences; the low-arched and darksome doorway, through which I crept out of a life of old conventionalisms, and gained admittance into the freer region thay lay beyond” (61). Illness in this utopia is a rite of passage, a necessary transformation of being in the world.

Coverdale describes in a very technical fashion the way a healthy constitution influences one’s perception. He explains “the spheres of our companions have, at such periods, a vastly greater influence upon our own, than when robust health gives us a repellent and self-defensive energy” (46). This image of spheres and spheres of influence is reminiscent of our class discussions about moods functioning the way clouds do. In good health it is easier to deflect outside spheres of influence, but in doing so it is also easier to deflect “truths” about the people those spheres of influence surround. Is Hawthorne making a connection between illness as a liminal space and illness as a space of “truth”?

Then there is Coverdale’s description of Priscilla, who evolves from a sickly girl into a young outdoorsy, albeit clumsy, girl. She seems to bloom with the onset of spring in Blithedale. He doesn’t quite describe her as a woman, especially in relation to Zenobia. But Coverdale’s fascination with the sudden “robustness” of Priscilla’s health seems significant and even takes on an erotic tone: “after she had been a month or two at Blithedale, her animal spirits waxed high, and kepther pretty constantly in a state of bubble and germent, impelling her to far more bodily activity than she had yet strength to endure” (73). Coverdale seems at once bewitched and concerned about Priscilla’s wild, yet weak nature.

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Billiards and Utopics

When I am not in class or falling off my bike I am working behind the front desk of my residence hall as a desk attendant, as the liaison between residents and our supply of games. The pool sets are the items most checked out. Bursts of cheers and groans accompany the distinct sound of balls knocking into each other and creating new trajectories other players can exploit to win the game. Watching a group of people play pool is watching that space around the pool table become a site of a new reality teeming with energy, both at the center of the table and around the outskirts where the spectators hang around. Even from my removed vantage point behind the front desk, I feel the energy.

 Playing billiards reminds me in many ways of the journey a character in a Bildungsroman narrative endures. Phelan constructs an image of playing billiards that is akin to this prototype character’s trajectory. He writes of “the elated hope, the depressing fear, the sanguine exultation, the mortifying defeat—the philosophical resignation to fate, the indifference of success, and all the multiplied and manifold passions of the human mind, are variously depicted and easily discovered,”. There are a series of shifts, ups and down and change. In many ways it seems like an individual billiards game can function as a microcosm of historical moments of potential change such as the one Marin opens Utopics with. 

Marin begins chapter one of Utopics with the nationwide May 1968 protests in France. That specific historical moment is a time where words and bodies seemed positioned to overturn the laws and cultural norms which provided—up until that point—a framework for French society, much like the lineup of balls on a billiards table. Michael Phelan writes in Billiards Without a Master “in Billiards, who can tell what is the distance of the object to be played at, or what will be the position of the balls at the next stroke?” To me, this is the biggest connection I found between Phelan’s description of billiards and Marin’s discussion of utopia and utopics. Billiards is a game where the framework is constantly changing—there can be no “elite” until the next move is made. This is where strategy comes in. It provides an illustration of power as being suffused within a network, manifest and made visible in social relations. Whoever is up to cue so to speak has the power in that moment to upturn the framework of the game through tact and strategy. The framework of the game has to do with who occupies an advantageous position. The “laws” are constantly changing and this contributes I think to the high energy the game elicits from players and spectators alike.                                                           

I’m not sure if metafiction as a genre has any relation to utopics and utopia as we are currently studying it. In my Modern Culture and Media class we just finished reading Raising Stony Mayhall, a metafictional take on the zombie genre. The connection I think that can be made between metafiction and uptopics is the way both frameworks construct another place to exist in textually that is somehow tied to what we construct as reality. But reality in this sense does not just refer to one spatial-temporal thing; rather it is a multiplicity of these spaces.

What is the value of the imaginary? What is the significance of constructing the imaginary through the real—that is, through words—in order to negotiate and interrogate truths? What does this say about the constructed nature of reality?  Do games function the way literary genres do? Are there intersections between billiards and different literary genres? These are lingering questions I have regarding our class discussions.

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weeds vantage point

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Constructing Places of Agency: Melville’s “Benito Cereno” and Peter Coddle’s Trip to New York

There are a few disconnected threads floating around in my head after today’s class discussion, but I think there is a way to chart their intersections, the way beads resting on those places where thread meets thread on a dream catcher form patterns.  Here are the threads: Melville’s Benito Cereno, Peter Coddle’s Trip to New York and Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”.  In these three different texts—the first is a novella, the second a game and the third a conservative treatise of sorts on the anxiety associated with the way mechanical reproduction technology transforms art and who has access to art—something is being said about places, displacement and agency. 

I don’t know much about ships, let alone the ships used to transport slaves like cargo in their Middle Passage.  After reading the first half of Melville’s Benito Cereno (I have yet to finish it) words that were never part of my memory have suddenly thrown down anchors in my memory.  Bulwark.  Oakum.  Hemp.  Mast.  This technical language is what tripped me up as I started reading, but after today‘s discussion about places of pleasure, displacement and agency, it is a little clearer why Melville goes into such intimate detail of the physical structure of the slave ship at the core of the narrative. 

Much of Melville’s narrative is still murky and ambiguous, but I think the ship is the site, the place of some sort of destabilization and disorder as Captain Amasa Delano would call it.  The hierarchy of the ship seems to be warped and this at the very least unsettles Delano, if not destabilizes his confidence in being able to restore his definition of “order”.  Indeed, Delano is described as the unwavering white captain, the portrait of rational thought and a benevolent soul who makes some pretty racist observations about “elderly grizzled negroes” with “heads like black, doddered willow tops”.  There is an underlying anxiety of Delano that those on board the ship are not fitting into the boxes assigned to them by their supposed nationality.  There is a sense of agency of the slaves which seems to at once titillate and terrify Delano and displace him from his own position of privilege.

It is easy to lose one’s footing in Melville’s words, but for me, certain passages or sentences led me back, much like the wind which has so much control over the slave ship’s path in the narrative.  The slave ship suffers from decay described by Melville as grand, the ship’s “tenantless balconies hung over the sea as if it were the grand Venetian canal”.  The ship itself materializes from a space of ambiguity: the open sea, another destabilizing factor.  Things and people which materialize from spaces of the unknown are defined by our larger social machine as rogue, as dangerous. 

 Playing Peter Coddle’s Trip to New York—an early version of Mad Libs—constructed similar spaces of agency, however momentary.  The blank spaces, the gaps between words which distinguish Peter Coddle’s Trip to New York and other games are places of possible “glitches” in the social machine which disciplines and governs behavior.  What amounts is the construction of another reality almost, a new social reality where the nonsensical becomes poetry.  Before playing the game I found myself arranging my cards so that the more absurd phrases were nearer to the top, phrases like “a stack of fat lobsters”, “a dancing master” and “a snapping turtle”.  This was, of course, to create a space for a new round of laughter.  The act of laughing—at an absurd, but poetic phrase (“running like a bad cold”), or at a sexually suggestive one (“he had a cucumber in the leg of his trousers”)—displaces the players from the social machine which defines these phrases as “undignified” or “vulgar” and, instead, creates a space where not only can these sentences be uttered, they can be laughed at and remembered by the group of people who share the joke.  Inside jokes have the ability to create places of belonging, as well as feelings of displacement. 

 In one of my other English courses my class discussed Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”.  Benjamin is writing during a time of technological innovation, specifically 1936.  The production of works of art at this time is radically changed by technology, such as the printing press, which rapidly reproduce objects.  According the Benjamin’s conservative view this is the death of the “aura” of art.  But it is also the death of art being accessible to a privileged elite, but that is beside the point.   The reason I bring it up is because it reminded me of the social machine concept brought up in class and the idea of the continuous mass replication of aspects of our Self and identity.  Could these pieces of technology be sites of agency or are we just mass replicating what the larger social machine tells us to?

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Constructing the Intimate: Places of Pleasure in “Songs of Myself” and Venus in Boston

The idea of place, in both the abstract and physical sense of the word, has been at the forefront of our class discussions.  It also seems to be the connecting thread between Walt Whitman’s “Songs of Myself” and George Thompson’s Venus in Boston: and Other Tales of Nineteenth-Century City Life.  In my previous blog post I write about what I perceive as Whitman constructing a place to simultaneously construct and deconstruct the Self, a place where the fragmented Self is constructed and performed.

In class we discussed another angle of place that Whitman seems to be interrogating.  The section we looked at, 61, emphasizes place and then transitions to pleasure in 62.  Prof. Guerra posed this question: how can we locate pleasure?

In Thompson’s stories pleasure is located in the “darkness” of one’s interior Self.  His association with “darkness” as dangerous is another blog post in itself, a biased/racist trope which continues to color our media and perceptions of other people and places.  During our class discussion we seemed fixated on the idea of feelings of disgust as a means of displacement.  The displacement readers feel seems to occur at those constructed places of intimacy.  The effect of this is the linking of constructed places of intimacy as danger zones which must be patrolled.

While Venus in Boston is both racist and sexist, it functions as sort of a microcosm (or it attempts to create a microcosm) of the culture and society it is being written in, much like all art.  These microcosms either continue a particular discourse or challenge or resist a discourse.

The pornography industry provides an interesting site for a broader public to construct, at the least, an external place to project and engage in spectacles deemed debased by the moral codes of the larger society.  I would argue that Venus in Boston is itself a sort of proto-porn.  Certain prototypes are played up—Fanny’s angelic blue eyes and her state of poverty are romanticized an amplified.

The class found that intimacy is treated in two different ways in Thompson’s narrative.  As the reader is confronted with more and more confined spaces, the intimacy level increases.  As we get more intimate, the more disgusting and grotesque the narration becomes.  This is where the patrolling function of the text is most obvious.  In my ENG220 class we are analyzing monsters and their patrolling function in the cultures they originate from.  In many ways our conversation reminded me of Jeffrey Cohen’s “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” and the way the grotesque often function as a patrolling body in culture.

Why would pleasure and intimacy be constructed as places of danger?  I think part of the reason is it involves our most internal mechanisms—it originates within a space which is heavily influenced by society and other outside actors (as Foucault would say, we are disciplined and our bodies are controlled by even inanimate objects which are infused with authority), but which we ultimately construct and patrol.

How exactly are places of pleasure/intimacy constructed within one’s Self?

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Song of My Self-Destruction

Whitman’s “Song of Myself” creates an imaginary, a space, perhaps a liminal space, of being. A space to examine and interrogate the fragments of ‘Self’—not sure if the ‘s’ should be capitalized—that come from within and which are projected onto our beings from the outside. What creates this space are the rhythms of everyday life that he evokes:

The smoke of my own breath,
Echoes, ripples, and buzzed whispers….loveroot, silkthread, crotch and vine,
My respiration and inspiration…the beating of my heart
The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and darkcolored sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn

The structure of the free verse lines—the ellipses and the sense that the text is breathing in and out—evokes a sense of wonder at the natural world and our own natural processes, such as breathing. In many ways the divisions between body and environment and between physicality and interiority are blurred, I think, in Whitman’s ambiguous, but sensual verses. Instead of a fence or border around the body, his words make me think of one’s spirits transcending that border and perhaps merging with the spirit of nature and animals. But Whitman does not sound like a pretentious hipster hippy, rather there seems to be a genuine involvement in the fragmented, fluid and, maybe, fragile nature of Self.

He is everything and everything at the same time that he is not everything and everything is not him. The contradictions which create a thread throughout the sections of his poems may be a metaphor for the conflicted nature of Self.
We live in a culture where we are advertised the myth of the ‘whole’ Self. That if we travel we can “find” our Self and then document that process into photos that are edited on Instagram, posted on Facebook and blogged on Tumblr. Then, after the first commodification of Self, we can further parcel up our whole Self into a minted memoir and become a best-selling author. But identity construction and the idea of Self are messy and complicated. If the idea of a united Self is a myth, should we still strive for it? Is it possible? What does it say about the cultural moment we are a part of if value is placed on obtaining a “whole” Self?

‘Self’ is a word that continues to lurk beneath the surface of our class discussions. In Poe’s work, we envisioned and discussed an image of the self as a house with many rooms. In Whitman’s work it seems to be something much more fluid, much more susceptible to other forces.

What constitutes as a fragment of Self? Some of the lines of Whitman’s poems reminded me of the “poetry” of the text of the posted bills which create and re-create a new “skin” of the urban interiority of New York City.

I was born and raised in Queens, New York City. What remains as a stubborn stamp on my memory is the amount of text which bombarded my senses on my sojourn into Lower Manhattan every morning when I was still in high school via the subway. Poetry in Motion ads, the ads for for-profit colleges, ads to learn and teach English, graffiti tags etched on to the windows, spray painted graffiti on the platforms outside, the occasional arty and hipster-like stickers, the pervasive and Big Brother-esque slogan of the subway: IF YOU SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING manifesting itself in all corners of the train, on ads plastered against the tiled walls of the stations, even on the steps leading outside for those commuters who keep their eyes trained on the grounds. Who are these ads for? They are made with a specific audience in mind, multiple replications of a Self that the ad is trying to get to.

If we think of Self as a sort of repertoire where one adds and takes away fragments of ideas, emotions, likes, dislikes, ideologies, beliefs, etc. then what we have is not a whole, organic thing that functions like a machine. Instead it seems to be a combination of a mechanism which functions on logic and something more complex and messy, more attune to natural processes and emotions that we cannot explain.

Is text, or specifically poetry, the liason between these two perceptions of Self?

Jackson Heights, Queens, Winter 2013

Jackson Heights, Queens, Winter 2013

Jackson Heights, Queens, 2013

The Bowery, Manhattan, Winter 2013

Chinatown, Manhattan, Summer 2012

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