White Mischief IV

Continued

But it would seem that many critics have been up to just such mischief as Mott makes in his essay. At another meeting of the American Literature Association, as part of a panel sponsored by the Wallace Stevens Society, Notre Dame’s Jacqueline Brogan offered to, as she put it at the time, redeem Stevens from charges of racism. Her primary challenge in the short version of her work that she presented that day was to comments registered by Adrienne Rich, but, replicating a tendency seen in Mott’s presentation, Brogan did not bother to look past Rich’s immediate commentary to the critical sources that Rich herself had identified. Even in the far more thoroughly documented version of her essay that appears as the final chapter of her book “The Violence Within/The Violence Without: Wallace Stevens and the Emergence of a Revolutionary Poetics,” despite the fact that it is published by the same press as the earlier critical work referenced by Rich, Brogan shows a remarkable disinclination to consult the broad corpus of extant critical work on race and discourse.  

In the preface to her book, Brogan speaks of critics who have “rejected” Stevens because of his purported racism, and opposes herself to those critics as one who has “described Stevens as an ethically responsible poet” (vii). In Brogan’s reading, Stevens is an evolving poet who, in his later years, offered “a critique of the unfortunate remnants and prevalence of actual racism in  American life, despite that earlier ‘violence’ in the form of the Civil War” (viii). We might pause to recall here that this is the poet who, in the gathering racist storm of Nazi and Fascist assault, wrote in one poem that the Fatal Ananke “sees the angel in the nigger’s mind / And hears the nigger’s prayers in motets,” the same poet who showed his level of ethical concern in a letter to Richard Latimer by writing that the Italians had “as much right to take Ethiopia from the coons as the coons had to take it from the boa-constrictors” (Letters 289-90).  As part of her redemption of Stevens in her public presentation of this work, Brogan had spoken dismissively of Rich’s remarks on the frequent appearance of the word “Nigger” in Stevens’s works, counting up the precise number of times the word appears in the published poetry and finding, apparently, that it doesn’t appear with enough frequency to justify Rich’s outrage. Contrary to Rich’s assertion that Stevens fell back upon the usage “compulsively,” Brogan finds that “he has done so not compulsively, but deliberately and with an ethical perspective” (148) that we should all finally recognize. This is an odd enough defense on its face, but it is odder still if one looks at the broader range not only of Stevens’s writings in both prose and verse, but the broader range of his racist epithets.  (Is “coon” not coupled with “nigger,” “darky” with “pickanine”?)  

In responding to Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s discussions of Stevens and Race in an essay that appeared in my edited collection Reading Race in American Poetry, Brogan takes DuPlessis to task for not having included in her exegesis on Stevens and Africa any discussion of the World War II era poem “The Greenest Continent,” which Brogan sees as evidencing, contra DuPlessis’s conclusions, the evolution of “a poetics increasingly open to ethical presentations of African Americans in poetry and in the actual world” (144), though it would seem, given the passage concerning Ananke that I have quoted above, that any such ethical openness was not to be extended to actual Africans.  Further, it is worthy of note that even when Brogan addresses herself to the passages of Stevens’s poem that treat of Ananke, she never quotes that passage or remarks upon it.  And it is after the war, after Stevens’s assumed evolution to a state of ethical openness to the actualities of African American life, that he writes in another letter that “to lose faith in the existence of the first rate would put one in the situation of the colored man at a church picnic losing his bottle of whiskey” (Letters 844).  Stevens, and presumably his interlocutor, have a faith in the first rate; in his version of an aesthetic meritocracy, the black American has faith in liquor.  What this indicates is that even in the later Stevens, there is a violence directed without, a violence precisely of unethical representation

Much as Mott felt compelled to acknowledge that there was at least something not quite right about the racial representations in The Enormous Room, Brogan is willing to concede that some might be troubled by the title of the much anthologized Stevens poem “Like Decorations in  a Nigger Cemetery,” though her concession winds up sounding much like those non-apology apologies we’ve grown used to hearing from politicians, or from Imus and Deen, which do not really apologize for the individual’s racism so much as apologize for the fact that someone might have been offended by it.  Brogan writes, “Admittedly, in the title of the 1935 poem ‘Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery,” the racist epithet seems problematic” (147, emphasis added).  She hastens to add that we must remember “that Stevens is comparing the spontaneously proffered ‘decorations’ there to his own seemingly unstructured series of poetic epigrams, which constitute the actual body of the poem” (147).  (As a side note, it is intriguing to track  the frequent references to the actual in this chapter; to the actual black people in an actual America; to the actual poem; all without confronting in any meaningful way the actual racial ideology of the poet.)  But this does little to unproblematize things; the “there” there, the site of the spontaneously proffered decorations, remains the unredeemed “nigger cemetery.” Further, even as Brogan is reminding readers of the critical context of the poem, she suppresses a part of that same critical context. In the same letter in which Stevens explains that he is comparing the cemetery to his collection of epigrams, he repeats the very problematic term Brogan wishes to cleanse, writing that the title “refers to the litter that one usually finds in a Nigger Cemetery” (Letters 272).  Brogan must suppress this extra-poetic explanation because it conflicts so baldly with her thesis. She rushes from the problematic title to the poem “Prelude to Objects,” arguing that there the “objectionable word once again is being criticized by Stevens for demonstrating the kind of unethical and monolithic thinking that accompanies war” (147). It is harder to argue that Stevens is deliberately using the word “nigger” to criticize unethical, monolithic thinking if, as in the case of cummings, he continues to use it unproblematically himself, even when explaining himself.

There is something ethically challenged about the very critique that Brogan brings to bear on her colleagues.  She is dismissive of some among DuPlessis’s interpretations, noting of herself that she does “not think that every instance of Stevens’s use of the words ‘dark’ and ‘black’ has racial (or racist) connotations” (178 n3), but neither does DuPlessis.  On the other hand, what does Brogan think has racist connotations?  She notes that in the poem “Contrary Theses (II)” Stevens writes “that the ‘negroes were playing football in the park’ with no more derision than he notes the ‘wide-moving swans’ or the ‘leaves’ that ‘were falling like notes from a piano’” (148).  We might in our turn note the lower case “n” in “negroes,” the subject of a long-standing campaign by DuBois, if not by cummings. We might note, too, that the “negroes” playing football are, as Brogan underscores without herself noticing, presented simply as a fact of nature like leaves and swans. All of this might well trouble the ethics of critics as well as general readers who are not bent on bending Stevens to a racial ethics he did not in fact profess. It is true that Stevens commented on the fact that millions of Americans had been able to contemplate actual  slavery without emotion, even as Uncle Tom’s Cabin brought tears to the eyes of millions; but it is also true that Stevens was able to have that realization without, so far as I can discover, ever concerning himself overmuch with the actually existing segregation of his own beloved Florida Keys.

This sort of rear-guard revisionism, this white mischief, has, I believe, an inevitable effect upon our critical engagements with race and modernism. Phenomena such as Tim Redman’s appearing on National Public Radio, insisting that while, yes, Ezra Pound did have some funny ideas about Jews, Pound cordoned off his work into separate spheres and kept the antisemitism away from the actual verse, phenomena such as these  can only make us shake our heads in sheer wonderment. But we need also to think about the fact that so fine a scholar otherwise as Redman appears unable to do what Melvin B. Tolson did, continue reading Pound, cummings and Stevens while contending in all honesty and contending ethically with those poets’ racism, in part, at least, for the very purpose of comprehending the vexed relationships between race and modernity.