Categories
Intellectual history

On The Pinkster King and the King of the Kongo: An Interview with Jeroen Dewulf

Interview conducted by editor Derek O’Leary

Jeroen Dewulf is the Queen Beatrix Professor in Dutch Studies and an Associate Professor of German Studies at UC Berkeley, where he also directs the Institute of European Studies. His new book, The Pinkster King and the King of Kongo: The Forgotten History of America’s Dutch-Owned Slaves (University Press of Mississippi, 2017), departs from a study of nineteenth-century Pinkster, which has generally been considered a syncretic Dutch-Afro performance clustered in the formerly Dutch colonial territories of New York. Through a careful excavation of these rituals, he resituates an apparently local story in a much broader and deeper Atlantic context. His study casts light on the origins of Pinkster in a very different syncretism–of Iberian and African cultures on African soil–and the crucial role of mutual-aid associations in its transmission and promotion. For students of the intellectual and cultural history of the Atlantic, it provides a compelling model for circum-Atlantic history (to borrow from David Armitage’s typology), while encouraging us to reconsider our understanding of syncretism.

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Derek: If we look at the longer trajectory of popular and scholarly impressions of New Netherlands and Dutch heritage in the US, there seems to be something especially malleable about how people have understood the Dutch. This ranges among the extremes of Washington Irving’s burlesque notions of the Dutch in the early nineteenth century, to Holland Mania later that century, to obliviousness at various times of the Dutch presence in North America. Your book takes as point of departure certain nineteenth-century misperceptions of Pinkster as an originally Dutch and African syncretic phenomenon that the Dutch gradually lost interest in. Such misperception seems due, in part, to the fact that the Dutch and their descendants rarely told their own history of the life in North America. Could you talk about why this is the case?

Jeroen: It is important to highlight the topic of language as such. Even within the Dutch community in America, preserving Dutch attachment to the language is an interesting topic, and you see as a general rule that as soon as people of Dutch descent achieved positions of power, their attachment to the language tended to disappear. And those who held on to Dutch were often farmers or rural inhabitants, which has consequences on the way the story is told.

On top of language, we have the matter of religion, another important element here. The Dutch had their own religion in a way: the Dutch Reformed Church. And having your own religion isolated the Dutch community from others. And then you also clearly see a division within the Dutch community, between those who abandon this history as soon as New Netherland becomes New York, and those who hold onto it. And those who hold onto it are not necessarily those who write. So, you have relatively few documents in which you hear a Dutch voice commenting on Dutch traditions in America.

As a result of this, the way we have told the history of New Netherlands is one heavily influenced by an Anglo-Saxon perspective, which would look at this Dutch heritage and make it correspond to a perception that they already had of it. It is also very important to keep in mind that there was no such thing as Dutch newspapers, so the voice of the media was an English voice.

Derek: Your study explores a sort of “double erasure” in this context, of both Dutch voices and members of the Afro-Dutch community.

Jeroen: Who is aware that in the mid-eighteenth century that about 10-15% of blacks in New York still spoke Dutch? The Dutch and African linguistic heritage of the region are similarly forgotten. Little attention has been given to the fact that African-American history is a multilingual history, and not just in the sense of bringing different languages from Africa.

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Middle panel of 1733 painting by John Heaton of Van Bergen farm near Albany, NY: One of the few images depicting African American slaves on a Dutch-owned farm at a time when about 10-15% of the slaves living in the states of New York and New Jersey spoke Dutch.

Derek: Ironically, then, the erasure of Dutch voices from the nineteenth-century record seems to contribute to the erasure of the African and Portuguese origins of Pinkster. Your book takes a phenomenon—Pinkster– that has also, like this Dutch-American history, been interpreted in a very malleable way, and pulls it from a local context into a much more complex Atlantic context. In the process, the long-imagined Dutch influence on this Afro-American phenomenon recedes, and it becomes much less a story of the Dutch legacy in America. Much of the past few decades of historiography on the Dutch colonies in the Western Hemisphere have sought to reinsert them into both US and Atlantic history, so in an interesting way your book departs from this—indeed, it distances Dutch influence from a circum-Atlantic phenomenon of Pinkster, and directs us to see its roots elsewhere.

Jeroen: The book didn’t take me in the direction I was planning to go, and in a certain sense the book wrote itself. Originally, I thought this would be about performance culture, but it ended up being much more about mutual aid and solidarity and community-building. I also expected it to be a much more Dutch book, which it did not turn out to be. That was a surprise to me in the sense that what became clear is that we are speaking about a time period when Dutch Atlantic history was starting, and as a newcomer you naturally don’t build things out of nowhere: You build on what is already there. Especially when it comes to the process of slavery, we see how strong the continuation of Iberian model was among those who took over from the Spanish and Portuguese in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. I felt that this element has been underestimated by people who write about Atlantic History.

pinkster in 1800We still have this assumption that scholars choose “their” nation, and then tend to give too much importance to the colonizer of a specific area: If you focus on New Netherland you focus on the Dutch, if you write about New England you focus on the English, etc. But especially when you focus on a field such as slavery, its Atlantic complexity forces you to use a perspective that tries to capture this vast area, and you realize that holding on to this one-nation perspective is just not providing you with the answers to the challenging questions that manuscripts raise. Pinkster is a good example of this. It has traditionally been reduced to a “syncretic Dutch-African” tradition, which is true in the sense that there certainly are Dutch and African elements to be found in the tradition, but to say that something is syncretic doesn’t mean much. In fact, Pinkster is so much more complex than just a “mixture of Dutch and African” elements.

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Jan Mosatert, Portrait of an African man, circa 1525-1530: An early connection between the traditional Pinkster (Pentecost) celebration in Dutch culture and Africa is this painting, depicting a unidentified black man from the sixteenth-century who wears in his hat a badge that indicates a visit to the Black Madonna of Halle, who is honored every Pentecost with a procession

Concerning Pinkster, I think we see this performance in New York, see Africans participating, and immediately jump to the explanation that it is a Dutch-African syncretic process. When it comes to African-American traditions, it is much too easy to remain superficial and assert the usual things (e.g. they are honoring their ancestors) while avoiding more challenging questions, such as how ancestor worship would vary by region, for instance. Also, when we think about syncretism, we make a mistake in limiting syncretism to the Americas and the Caribbean, and do not apply the notion to Africa.

Syncretism in a way can correct the traditional approach, whereby you would assume clear boundaries between cultures, as syncretism forces you to look at two cultures producing something new. But even that is too simple, because those two cultures are themselves full of syncretisms.

Derek: In the comparative study of empire in the Atlantic, though, I think that we are still inclined to see a certain Dutch exceptionalism–that it was basically different than the other European colonial projects there. Indeed, as you note, there may have been a particularly Dutch colonial capacity to adopt the techniques and technologies—and, as we see here, integrate the customs—of other colonial projects in the Atlantic. But your study is also intriguing because it suggests we can look around the Atlantic, within other colonial projects, and find more complicated stories of syncretism as well. Was there something about the Dutch Atlantic project that made it more open to such transmission of culture and ideas?

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King Charles Racing on Ice.
 “Artist’s conception of Charles, the Pinkster king, winning a nightly horse racing competition for his master Volkert Petrus Douw against General Philip Schuyler. In Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 62 (March 1881)” (Dewulf, 64).

Jeroen: There were definitely certain elements that the Dutch brought to the Atlantic that singled them out, including religion. When you see how the Dutch initiate slavery in their colonies, initially the way slavery is handled is similar to how it was handled by the Portuguese and Spanish, but soon you see that because of their different notions of religion, they start to change these practices. The example I give is baptism and the consequences of welcoming someone to your church, as the Dutch notion of Christianity and freedom was different than the Iberian notion, which led the Dutch to change their slave policy. In fact, the Dutch Reformed Church initially baptized slave children, similar to how the Iberian Catholic Church did, but stopped doing so after slave owners began to fear that once these children were admitted to the Church, they would no longer be able to sell      them as slaves.  Had this earlier process continued, I’m convinced that Pinkster would have disappeared, because the mutual-aid traditions out of which the African Pinkster celebrations developed would have been incompatible with Calvinist morality and mutual aid would have been provided within the context of the Church anyway. But it survived because at one point the church came under pressure from slave owners who opposed baptism, which gave those communities no other choice but to organize mutual aid on their own, for which they naturally used a brotherhood structure they were familiar with. Which also then explains the demise of the tradition, when the first black Christian churches come into existence in the nineteenth century and a Protestant morality becomes dominant within the African-American community. So, there was some form of Dutch exceptionalism in the Americas, but it developed only gradually, they had to learn to be an Atlantic power.

When people use the term “exceptionalism” and link it to the Dutch, there is a tendency to link it to pragmatism and tolerance. But what I’ve tried to highlight is that we would make a mistake if we assumed that the existence of Pinkster was solely there because the Dutch were so tolerant to allow it to happen. There clearly was within a slave community a strategy used to make the Dutch realize that it was in their own interest, so it appears as pragmatism, but it is not something that would have happened without pressure from the slave community.

 

Fête_de_Ste._Rosalie,_Patrone_des_négres_by_Johann_Moritz_Rugendas
Fête de Ste. Rosalie, Patrone des négres by Johann Moritz Rugendas: Pinkster is far from being the only example where members of the slave community elected and celebrated their ‘king’ with a procession; this illustration from Rugendas shows a slave king procession in 19th-century Brazil

 

King processions by brotherhoods still today exist in rural parts of Latin-America. This example comes from Pernambuco, Brazil.

You do find such examples of pragmatism, but I would be careful of explaining this as a natural Dutch instinct, as has been done in books about Dutch exceptionalism. But, as a general observation, you can state that compared to the Portuguese and Spanish, the Dutch were more focused on profit and reluctant to share their culture, language, religion and identity with Others. In this respect it was not a problem for the Dutch to have a large community around them who did not share their language and church, which was unthinkable for the Portuguese and Spanish. Indonesia is the clearest case of this, where the Dutch used a local language—Malay—as the lingua franca of their colony.

Derek: A common feature of many works of Atlantic History is that the Atlantic world—however we define it—forms a distinctive space in which innumerable hybrid identities are possible, rather than strictly national ones. Syncretism is crucial to this, and your book is a careful excavation of the syncretic process behind Pinkster. Though in our teaching and writing it can be easy to deploy this term rather casually. Has this study led to any general guidance or framework you would propose to other scholars seeking to understand syncretism in the Atlantic beyond the generalizations we tend to use about it?

Jeroen: Saying that something is syncretic is in a way saying nothing. Because, then what is it? You see this reflected in the way how we study black identity in the diaspora. In the old days, the nineteenth century, African elements were simply neglected. In the forties, you see a shift in which scholars become more interested in signs of African cultural “survivals,” which ultimately leads to a boom in the search for “Africanisms”—traces of African identity in the Americas. The important question I raise in this book is:  How African are such Africanisms? There has been a clear tendency to equalize Africanisms with indigenous African elements. What the book made me realize is that indigenous African element certainly were there, but I highlight the fact that it would be wrong not to realize that long before the first slaves arrived in North America, a syncretic process had already started on African soil. So, when you look at performance traditions, you see that in certain parts of Africa – such as the Kingdom of Kongo –  certain performances had already been influenced by European music, dance, musical instruments, clothing, etc. before coming to the Americas and the Caribbean.

To come back to Pinkster: Dutch elements were certainly in Pinkster performances, but ultimately they were less important than earlier Afro-Iberian ones. Obviously, we are forced to an extent to speculate on matters of African heritage. Mine is not the final word on Pinkster, but a new perspective that helps us rethink the history of this phenomenon. It is also another approach to the study of syncretic processes that is truly Atlantic in the sense that you avoid the mistake of looking at the powers – including African powers – of the Atlantic as pure entities with clear boundaries between them.

My suggestion when using the term syncretism, is not to see it as an answer to your question, but as a stepping stone to begin answering the question of what this syncretism consists of and how it came into being. After all, every cultural manifestation in syncretic in nature, so it would be wrong to limit the notion to the Americas and the Caribbean. I’m not the first one to do this; there are many other studies that raise such questions, but somehow in the field of performance studies there seems to be a reluctance to accept that some of the performance traditions enslaved Africans brought to the Americas were not indigenous in nature but rather characterized by inter-African and Afro-European syncretism. In the field of linguistics, for instance, there are plenty of studies that show us the important influence of Portuguese on the languages that enslaved Africans brought with them to the Americas. So, if language was influenced, why not dance, parades or certain musical instruments?  My only explanation for this is that many of those working in the field of performance studies are deeply influenced by the idea of black resistance against oppression that grew out of  the Civil Rights movement ideology, and are perhaps therefore reluctant to recognize that already in African, Africans voluntarily adopted certain elements of European culture and religion in their own cultural and religious traditions.

Derek: Importantly, you depict that the Afro-Catholic syncretism behind Pinkster took place at a moment when Africans and Europeans were on more equal terms in Africa, as compared to in the Americas.

Jeroen: Which makes me wonder if it makes sense to use the same term both in the context of colonial oppression and in an era when Africans were still firmly in control of the African continent. We call that syncretism in general. I do feel there is a difference. One thing is integrating elements of a foreign culture into your own when you are in a situation of power; one very different thing is you adopting foreign elements when you are a slave. Nevertheless we use the term syncretism for both.

Derek: You’ve mentioned brotherhoods and other voluntary organizations as a motive force in propelling this performance around the Atlantic and across centuries.

Jeroen: What this book taught me is that when you want to learn about matters of identity and culture, you need to ask how the community organized mutual aid. We as twenty-first-century people have perhaps forgotten this because we have all these services provided. This is a key question: how did a community organize mutual aid? This crucial question leads us to the fields of performance, but also language and religion. I often see in studies of religion a limitation to questions of spiritualism, and much less a focus on questions of material support and solidarity within the religious community. In fact, one of my most surprising conclusions in this book is that, originally, there was little difference between the way slaves in North America organized themselves from the way slaves in Latin-America did. Crucial differences only then start to develop when slaves in North America embrace Protestantism and begin to organize mutual aid as part of a community with (Afro-)Protestant norms and values.

Derek: How has this project influenced your research interests?

Jeroen: This led me to look at black performance traditions elsewhere in America, and naturally I became interested in the case of New Orleans. And to my surprise, I learned that all major contemporary performance traditions related to the black community in New Orleans can be traced back to mutual aid societies. I wrote an article about this for the Louisiana Historical Association (“From Moors to Indians: The Mardi Gras Indians and the Three Transformations of St. James”), which they selected as the best article of the year 2016. In the article I ask how we can link the dances in Congo Square in New Orleans to carnival traditions such as the Mardi Gras Indians, and I show that the missing link is the existence of black mutual aid societies in New Orleans. Societies that, unlike in the case of Pinkster where they disappeared in the context of the “Second Great Awakening”, are still there in New Orleans. I decided to expand it, which is now leading to a new book to be entitled From the Kingdom of Kongo to Congo Square, and to be published in the coming months by the University of Louisiana Press.

 

Categories
Think Piece

William Plumer and the Politics of History Writing

By guest contributor Emily Yankowitz

On December 30, 1806, on the inner cover of his first attempt at writing a historical work, the New Hampshire statesman William Plumer wrote, “An historian, like a witness, is bound to relate the truth, the whole truth, & nothing but the truth.” He would take up his project of writing a “History of North America” in November 1809 after three years of research. In what appears to be typical of Plumer’s personality, he intended to write a history of the United States government, but the project quickly expanding into “a general history of the United States” from its discovery by Europeans to his own time It was to include accounts of administrations, laws, presidents, heads of departments, members of Congress, judiciary, foreign relations, negotiations, relations with Indian tribes, purchases of lands, and commerce. Reaching even further into the past, he began with an overview of classical history, including the invention of hieroglyphics, and a detailed study of European political events, before arriving at the settlement of Jamestown in 1607 over 220 pages later. Yet having worked on the project for nine years and seeing little progress, Plumer unceremoniously put it aside, writing, “The undertaking I have abandoned” on the last page.

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William Plumer, engraving by Charles Balthazar Julien Fevret de Saint-Mémin (1806). Photo credit: Library of Congress

A Federalist senator in a Congress dominated by President Thomas Jefferson and the Republicans, Plumer had little hope of influencing politics. Watching his vision of the world collapse around him, Plumer recalled that with nearly every measure Jefferson proposed, he was reminded of the angel’s declaration to Ezekiel, “Turn, & thou shall behold yet greater abominations” (Plumer to Jeremiah Smith, January 27, 1803, quoted in Turner, “Thomas Jefferson,” 207). These “abominations” included the Louisiana Purchase, the Twelfth Amendment, and the impeachment of New Hampshire judge John Pickering. Frustrated and alarmed, Plumer helped to plan a scheme for New England secession in 1803–1804, hoping to create a “Northern confederacy.” But the project quickly fell apart, although intransigent Federalists would take up a similar plan at the 1814–1815 Hartford Convention.

 

Amid a career in jeopardy and anxieties about the future, Plumer found solace in historical pursuits. Overwhelmed by his country’s fast-paced development, history offered Plumer a method of “preserving facts & opinions” that were “rapidly hasting to oblivion” as a result of the “changes & revolution of time and parties” (May 2, 1805). Unlike other senators who indulged in horse racing and gambling, Plumer spent his free time hidden for hours in the Congressional Library, reading voraciously. This curiosity was one of Plumer’s most pronounced traits; the son of a farmer, Plumer received little formal schooling beyond elementary studies, and pursued much of his education through books.

Over time, Plumer’s intellectual interests expanded. Spotting a mound of scattered government documents in the damp, mildewed lumber room above the Senate chamber, he devoted himself to preserving them, methodically sorting through the soiled records. Through the next four years, Plumer collected journals of every Congress from 1774 to his own, enough to fill between four and five hundred bound volumes. He eventually came to possess one of the largest and most complete collections of public papers held by a private citizen, even after he donated a substantial amount to the Massachusetts Historical Society. This effort rescued valuable documents from destruction, and also provided Plumer with a substantial number of sources for his later historical works. According to his son, it was this collecting effort that inspired Plumer to write a history of the country (For more information, see Freeman, Affairs of Honor, 262-4).

1280px-Official_Presidential_portrait_of_Thomas_Jefferson_(by_Rembrandt_Peale,_1800)
President Thomas Jefferson, painted by Rembrandt Peale (1800)

With the end of his term approaching, Plumer set about preparing for this enormous task—consulting with government officers, copying private letters shown to him by friends, and corresponding with antiquarians and scholars. He conferred with Albert Gallatin, Secretary of the Treasury, who offered him any materials needed from the Treasury department. Not everyone was supportive—at least one friend advised Plumer to publish his history posthumously to avoid giving “mortal offence” to contemporaries (February 28, 1807). His meeting with President Jefferson showed how complex the publication of his history might be. Plumer observed that Jefferson’s “countenance […] repeatedly changed.” Jefferson expressed “uneasiness and embarrassment—at other [moments] he seemed pleased.” Seemingly affected by a range of emotions, Jefferson alternated between looking at Plumer and staring at the floor. Jefferson’s reaction perplexed Plumer, who reasoned that Jefferson must have been “embarrassed,” and “disapproved” of the project (February 4, 1807). But he also discussed Jefferson’s strange response with John Quincy Adams, who informed him that Jefferson “cannot be a lover of history,” as he did not want certain “prominent traits in his character” and “important actions in his life” to be outlined and communicated to posterity (February 9, 1807). Jefferson’s own actions appear to echo this sentiment. Out of a desire to control how he would be remembered, Jefferson later professed to have “no materials whatever” for Plumer’s project despite its usefulness to the country.

Plumer’s background and personality did not make him a particularly obvious candidate for the project. In his diary, he mulled over his doubts about his efforts, noting his personal shortcomings, the complications of his private life, and the magnitude of the project. He was not a “scholar” or a “master of the English grammar,” he noted, and could not read any foreign language or express his ideas quickly on paper. Regarding his personal life, his wife was often sick and he himself had a “weak & feeble constitution.” However, Plumer was also highly aware of the shortcomings of existing “historic performances,” namely state histories, which were written too quickly. They contained factual errors, had a “loose & slovenly” style, and “fall short of the true style & dignity of history.” He found Benjamin Trumbull’s Complete History of Connecticut to be “written in the style of a low dull Chronicle,” while James Sullivan’s History of the District of Maine was a “jumble of fact & fable” (July 22, 1806). Yet his task would take “indefatigable industry, & patient labour to render it useful to others and honorable to myself.” Virgil took twelve years to write the Aeneid, Plumer worried, while Edward Gibbon took twenty years to write The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Plumer would exceed both Virgil and Gibbon, ultimately devoting the remainder of his life to historical works that ultimately remained unpublished.

While Plumer believed the work would be useful for “future statesmen,” he also hoped to enhance his reputation. If he successfully produced the work, it would be an “imperishable monument that would perpetuate” his name. Highlighting the inextinguishable impact of history, Plumer noted that it would exist when “columns of marble are dissolved & crumbled to dust.” However, if he did not execute it well it would “tarnish & destroy” the little “fame” he had acquired (July 22, 1806). Thus, writing history had political as well as personal consequences.

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William Plumer, Jr., depicted in The Granite State Monthly (1889)

Plumer was not alone in using history to achieve a recognition he would never receive through politics. In fact, one of his sons, William Plumer Jr., would take up a similar project in 1830, after completing his term as a representative. Reflecting on the project, he noted that if “executed with any tolerable success, it would be a more important service rendered to the public than I can hope in any other way to perform” and he might be able to acquire a “reputation, however small” if the work was successfully produced (“Manuscript History of the United States”). While the boundaries of Plumer Jr.’s intended project were smaller (he planned to begin with Columbus’s voyage in 1492), he made little progress.

 

Unable to acquire national political fame, Plumer sought recognition through history, while also pursuing a political (though nonpartisan) agenda. Even after his formal political party had changed to the Republican position, Plumer retained much of his Federalist view of the world, in part because of his own distaste for partisanship and in part because he lived in Federalist-concentrated New England. In particular, much like the Federalists of the 1790s, Plumer never fully supported the existence of political parties, viewing them as agents of division that distracted men from effectively evaluating candidates based on their abilities. Just as Plumer disapproved of partisanship in politics, he also disapproved of it in historical writing. For example, he wrote that historians and biographers should have “no other object than faithfully narrate facts & justly delineate characters” for when they “stoop to the support of a party or a sect” their “facts are misstated and their reasoning is sophistry” (“May 25, 1808”). Plumer argued that a historian should be “of no party in politic’s [sic] … without prejudice, & have more judgement than fancy” (“October 1, 1807”). Thus, for Plumer, historians did a disservice not only to the integrity of their subject, but also to the influence of their work, if they espoused partisan views.

Looking a bit further into the nineteenth century, historians would divide over whether it was acceptable to combine history and politics. In particular, following the decline of the Federalist party and the rise of Andrew Jackson, New England historians attempted to use history as a mechanism of regaining the power and influence they had lost in politics. Some followed both paths, like George Bancroft, who pursued a political career while working on his History of the United States, while others such as William Prescott and Jared Sparks believed that the two disciplines were incompatible (Cheng, The Plain and Noble Garb of Truth, 36-41). However, many members of both groups believed that history could be used as a method of advancing political agendas.

In an attempt to save their party from destruction in the wake of the Hartford Convention, some Federalists wrote historical works that tried (largely unsuccessfully) to shape how posterity remembered the event. Prompted in part by the publication of Matthew Carey’s wildly successful The Olive Branch and the Nullification Crisis, Federalists turned to writing histories to justify their actions. These works included Theodore Lyman’s 1823 A Short Account of the Hartford Convention, Harrison Gray Otis’ 1824 Letters in Defence of the Hartford Convention, and the People of Massachusetts, and Theodore Dwight’s 1833 History of the Hartford Convention. However, these works were generally unsuccessful.

Eager to shape both policies and how they would be remembered, early American politicking occurred both in the halls of Congress and in the pages of books. Plumer hoped to play a central role in constructing the young nation’s emerging identity and its memories of the early figures of the founding era. Thus, his historical writings—which he would continue for decades after his failed “History,” but largely never publish—serve as a reminder that our very understanding of the past has often been shaped by the individuals in the moment who had the foresight to record it. Given how the historical discipline has changed over time, it is perhaps tempting to dismiss early historian’s writings. However, they nonetheless offer a useful perspective on how contemporaries perceived the world around them and how they wanted it to be remembered.

Emily Yankowitz recently graduated from Yale University and is an incoming M.Phil. student in American History at the University of Cambridge. She is interested in the intersection of politics, culture, and memory in the early American republic.

Categories
Intellectual history

Mystery Attracts Mystery: The Forgotten Partnership of H. P. Lovecraft and Harry Houdini

By Editor Spencer J. Weinreich

Pulp is one of the great unheralded archives of American cultural history. Ephemeral by its very nature, the pulp magazine or paperback brought millions of readers the derring-do of detectives and superheroes, the misadventures of doomed lovers, and the horrors of gruesome monsters. They were the birthplaces of Tarzan and Zorro, and published the work of such luminaries as Agatha Christie, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain, and Tennessee Williams.

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The cover of the May-June-July 1924 issue of Weird Tales

In 1924, readers of the fantasy and horror pulp Weird Tales found a more familiar figure alongside the usual crowd of ghouls, corpses, and scantily clad women. The cover story of the May–June–July issue was “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs,” by none other than Harry Houdini. The magician tells of his voyage to Egypt, where he is captured by nefarious locals and imprisoned beneath a pyramid, to be sacrificed to horrid monsters of untold age. With his trademark skills, Houdini frees himself and reaches the surface, insisting—despite his injuries—that it was nothing more than a dream.
Fans of horror fiction know this bizarre story under a different name and authorship: H. P. Lovecraft’s “Under the Pyramids.” Each in their own way icons of early twentieth-century America, Lovecraft and Houdini led strikingly different lives. The magician was an international celebrity, drawing rapturous crowds wherever he went. He performed for the Russian royal family. He amassed a personal fortune sufficient to purchase, among other things, a dress once worn by Queen Victoria (a gift for his mother) and a 1907 Voisin biplane (complete with mechanic). His funeral was attended by two thousand members of the public. By contrast, Lovecraft’s biographer S. T. Joshi holds that the writer “as he lay dying […] was envisioning the ultimate oblivion that would overtake his work.” All but one of his stories were unpublished or moldering away in back issues of pulp magazines. It was only posthumously that his writings found their audience, eventually attaining the cult status they enjoy today.

 

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H. P. Lovecraft in 1934 (photograph by Lucius B. Truesdell)

The original idea for “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” came from Houdini, whom the proprietor of Weird Tales, J. C. Henneberger, had retained as a columnist to boost flagging sales. Henneberger and Edwin Baird, the magazine’s editor, tapped Lovecraft to ghostwrite what Houdini was claiming to be a true story. “Lovecraft quickly discovered that the account was entirely fictitious, so he persuaded Henneberger to let him have as much imaginative leeway as he could in writing up the story” (Joshi, A Dreamer and a Visionary, 191).

“Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” was by no means Houdini’s only fictional exploit. As early as 1906, he had been making films of his tricks, and between 1918 and 1923 starred in and/or produced several silent movies. Though these films do not present themselves as Houdini’s own experiences, there was little attempt to hide the fact that the magician was their raison d’être and main selling-point. Their protagonists—given telling names like Harvey Hanford or Harry Harper—spend most of their time onscreen being straitjacketed, chained, thrown into rivers, suspended from airplanes or cliffs, or otherwise discomfited so as to give audience the greatest possible opportunity to see Houdini do what he did best.

 

Houdini Showing How To Escape Handcuffs
Harry Houdini in 1918

Lovecraft understood that readers wanted Houdini the escape artist, and he obliged. During a nocturnal visit to the Pyramids, “Houdini” is attacked, bound, and into the deep recesses of an underground temple. Our hero is undaunted.

The first step was to get free of my bonds, gag, and blindfold; and this I knew would be no great task, since subtler experts than these Arabs had tried every known species of fetter upon me during my long and varied career as an exponent of escape, yet had never succeeded in defeating my methods.

At the same time, the story bears all the hallmarks of Lovecraftian “cosmic horror”: ghastly and ancient things lurking beneath ordinary life, grotesque monsters compounded from all manner of anatomies and mythologies, the inability of the human mind to comprehend the awful truth, and his unique—to put it kindly—prose style.

It was the ecstasy of nightmare and the summation of the fiendish. The suddenness of it was apocalyptic and daemoniac—one moment I was plunging agonisingly down that narrow well of million-toothed torture, yet the next moment I was soaring on bat-wings in the gulfs of hell; swinging free and swoopingly through illimitable miles of boundless, musty space; rising dizzily to measureless pinnacles of chilling ether, then diving gaspingly to sucking nadirs of ravenous, nauseous lower vacua. . . . Thank God for the mercy that shut out in oblivion those clawing Furies of consciousness which half unhinged my faculties, and tore Harpy-like at my spirit! That one respite, short as it was, gave me the strength and sanity to endure those still greater sublimations of cosmic panic that lurked and gibbered on the road ahead.

Lovecraft’s reputation is rightly tarnished by his racism. Though “Under the Pyramids” is by no means the worst offender within his corpus, Egypt offered ample scope for his prejudices: “the crowding, yelling, and offensive Bedouins,” “squalid Arab settlement,” “filthy Bedouins.” The orientalist mode is out in force, as “Houdini” and his wife arrive in Cairo only to be disappointed that “amidst the perfect service of its restaurant, elevators, and generally Anglo-American luxuries the mysterious East and immemorial past seemed very far away.” Once they journey deeper into the city, they find what they are looking for—“in the winding ways and exotic skyline of Cairo, the Bagdad of Haroun-al-Raschid seemed to live again.” Lovecraft summons every trope of the orientalized Middle East: bazaars and camels, secret tombs and perfidious natives, the call of the muezzin and the scent of spice and incense. Egypt, “Houdini” is told by one of his captors, “is very old; and full of inner mysteries and antique powers.”

Khafra
Statue of Khafra, Egyptian Museum, Cairo (photograph by Juan R. Lazaro)

Within these fantasies, however, are a few kernels of genuine Egyptiana. The figureheads of “Houdini’s” Egypt, for instance, are the undead “King Khephren and his ghoul-queen Nitokris,” who reign over a legion of unnatural things. Denuded of Lovecraft’s nightmarish trappings, both are historical personages with unsavory reputations. “Khephren,” usually known as Khafra, was the builder of the second-largest pyramid at Giza and (probably) the Great Sphinx, but Herodotus and other ancient historians remember him as a cruel and heretical ruler who closed Egypt’s temples and plunged the land into misery (II.127–28). Nitocris is the subject of Egyptological debate: some scholars accept ancient accounts naming her as a pharaoh of the late Sixth Dynasty (2345–2181 B.C.E.), others deny her very existence. Describing his unease near even the smallest pyramid, “Houdini” explains, “was it not in this that they had buried Queen Nitokris alive in the Sixth Dynasty; subtle Queen Nitokris, who once invited all her enemies to a feast in a temple below the Nile, and drowned them by opening the water-gates?” An anecdote worthy of the horror writer, to be sure, but not his invention. Herodotus relates how Nitocris avenged herself on her brother’s killers:

She built a spacious underground chamber; then […] she gave a great feast, inviting to it those Egyptians whom she knew to have been most concerned in her brother’s murder; and while they feasted she let the river in upon them by a great and secret channel. This was all that the priests told of her, save that also when she had done this she cast herself into a chamber full of hot ashes, thereby to escape vengeance. (II.100, trans. A. D. Godley)

The association of Nitocris with the Pyramid of Menkaure, third and smallest of the Pyramids of Giza, comes from the priest-historian Manetho (early third century B.C.E.). He calls Nitocris “the noblest and loveliest of the women of her time, of fair complexion, the builder of the third pyramid” (The History of Egypt, 55).

Though Houdini is (justifiably) remembered more fondly than Lovecraft, his career was by no means free from discomfiting racial politics. John F. Kasson links Houdini to Tarzan, early bodybuilders like Eugen Sandow, and others, as focal points of anxiety about the white body. In this and in many other respects, the superstar magician and the obscure writer had more in common than might be suspected. Both cultivated a supernatural mystique—in which neither believed—personas that took on lives of their own. Both sought to satisfy an early twentieth-century hunger for excitement. Certainly, the two men got on well: Houdini asked Lovecraft to write a now-lost article about astrology and tried (unsuccessfully) to help the young writer secure employment with a newspaper. They were planning to collaborate, with Lovecraft’s friend and fellow pulp author C. M. Eddy, on an anti-spiritualist book, The Cancer of Superstition, when Houdini died on October 31, 1926. Only Lovecraft’s outline and thirty-odd pages of Eddy’s manuscript survive—together with “Under the Pyramids” the only witness to the strange partnership of the magician and the horror writer.

Categories
Interview

Failure and Fantasy on the Banks of the Ohio

A Conversation with Benjamin Hoffmann, Assistant Professor of Early Modern French Studies at The Ohio State University and editor of a new edition of the Letters Written from the Banks of the Ohio by Claude-François-Adrien de Lezay-Marnésia (Pennsylvania State University Press, translated by Alan J. Singerman, 2017)

In 1790, Claude-François-Adrien de Lezay-Marnésia left France to found a colony on the Scioto River, a tributary of the Ohio in the Northwest Territory. Yet by 1792, he had fled, his fortune squandered and his grandiose plans for an aristocratic utopia unrealized. This new edition of his letters, penned in 1790 and 1791, reveals a man purposefully, somewhat pathetically, imagining a pastoral idyll in the Old Northwest as the realities of the Ohio Country increasingly resisted his vision.Image 1 Book cover

His letters, as Benjamin Hoffmann explains, can be read as a bridge between two very
well-known French texts about North America: Crèvecœur’s 1789 Letters from an America Farmer and Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835-1840). Together, they trace a literary evolution of the United States in French thought from a clean slate of possibility to an uncivilized, capitalist, and deeply flawed republic.

What follows is part of my conversation with Hoffmann on the themes of Lezay-Marnésia as a tragic figure, fantasy and colonization, and competing imaginaries of the Ohio Valley.

 

Julia: What made you want to edit and re-publish this volume?

Benjamin: This project started in 2011, as I was undertaking my doctoral dissertation at Yale. Being French in the United States, I wanted to investigate the representations of America in French Literature during the eighteenth century. The problem I immediately encountered was the extreme abundance of materials: dozens of travel narratives were written by French people about North America during the age of the enlightenment. Unfortunately, in too many cases, they are not very artfully written, and they present at best a documentary interest. Consequently, while it was easy to find texts fitting in the category of “French representations of America written between 1700 and 1800”, few writers transformed their experience in the New World into a genuine work of art. The Lettres écrites des rives de l’Ohio struck me because they are an exception to this rule. First, they are the work of a mature writer, a man who was in his late fifties when he published them, after spending most of his adult life reading the work of fellow philosophers and building his own œuvre. Indeed, Lezay-Marnésia was a talented polygraph, the author of philosophical essays, poems, short-stories, translations, even works on mineralogy. In 1790, when he traveled to the United States, he had already a long intellectual career behind him. Moreover, his Letters Written from the Banks of the Ohio pursue a dialogue with Montesquieu, Fénelon, Saint-Pierre, and Rousseau by making numerous references to their works and asking a question they all spent a great deal of time meditating: what makes a perfect society and how can you create one in the real world rather than just imagining it? This intellectual dialogue plays a major part in the literary and philosophical richness of Lezay-Marnésia’s volume, which is a late reinterpretation of some of the major preoccupations of the French enlightenment. A question immediately comes to mind after reading the story of Lezay-Marnésia’s emigration to the Northwest territory: his journey was a complete failure, a true disaster, he lost most of his fortune, two years of his life, and finally decided to go back to France at the most dangerous moment for an aristocrat, just before the terreur. And yet, despite all his hardships, Lezay-Marnésia keeps describing the Scioto region and western Pennsylvania as a true paradise, a sort of lost Eden he deeply regrets having left.

Julia: Why did French émigrés like Lezay-Marnésia choose the Northwest Territory instead of culturally “French” places in North America, like Spanish Louisiana or British Quebec?

Benjamin: Lezay-Marnésia and his compatriots chose the Northwest Territory based on false assumptions. The most important one was the assumption that it was an empty space. Indeed, we have to realize that the Northwest Territory had just been surveyed, and that very little was known about it in Europe. When Lezay-Marnésia bought lands in this region, he only knew what the Scioto Company told him about it, and most of the information he received turned out to be misleading at best, and at times completely dishonest. For example, the Scioto Company failed to mention the presence of Native American tribes in the region: in the several documents provided by the Scioto Company to its clients, Amerindians are not mentioned a single time, whereas they turned out to be the biggest challenge French settlers were going to meet in their attempt to create a colony. Consequently, the Scioto Company slyly conveyed the idea that the Northwest Territory was a clean slate where its clients would be able to organize themselves the way they wanted to, by adopting the rules and the social organization they desired. That was especially appealing for Lezay-Marnésia and his partners of the Society of the Twenty-Four, who thought an ideal French society could be realized in this isolated space: a society that would retain some of the basic structural elements of the Old Regime (especially, a strong hierarchical divide between social classes), while creating a new kind of social contract, based on philanthropy. That’s why the Scioto region had advantages over other potential spaces of emigration, such as Spanish Louisiana and British Quebec: it was more than just a space to temporarily settle and wait until the end of the Revolution before going back to France; it was seen as a permanent settlement, close enough to trade with the United States, but far away enough to create an independent society on a territory that was not yet an official part of the Union. Moreover, the land was quite affordable for French people, and a lot was for sale: if the least well-off buyers acquired only several acres, the richest ones bought thousands (Lezay-Marnésia acquired no less than twenty thousand acres!). Very astutely, the Scioto Company played with the fears of French people who were witnessing the first events of the Revolution, while offering them at an extremely competitive price a quantity of land none of them would have been able to buy in their homeland.

Image 2 Map

A map of the Federal Territory from the western boundary of Pennsylvania to the Scioto River, Manasseh Cutler, 1788. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division. This 1788 map shows imagined townships and township subdivisions between the Ohio and Scioto Rivers, where the Ohio Company had purchased pre-emption rights. Lezay-Marnésia and his associates in France bought parts of these pre-emption rights under the false impression that they were complete ownership rights.

Julia: Lezay-Marnésia’s vision for his Scioto colony is one in which hardworking settlers are “careful to include Indians among them” (69). His pointed insistence on their inclusion – based on an imagined racial hierarchy and an expectation that Native Americans would adopt European customs – strikes me as bittersweetly naïve, especially given the incredible violence between whites and Native Americans in the Ohio Country in this era. Do you read Lezay-Marnésia’s inclusion of Native Americans as a response to this cultural climate (however impractical), or does it just further betray his disconnection from reality on the ground?

Benjamin: I believe it betrays his disconnection from reality. Indeed, Lezay-Marnésia knew very little about America before deciding to emigrate to the Scioto region, and the little he knew was taken from his reading of the Lettres d’un cultivateur américain by Saint-John de Crèvecœur, a work very much influenced by Rousseau, where Native American are depicted as “bons sauvages”, living in perfect harmony with white settlers. I think it’s difficult to overestimate the influence of the concepts of “noble savages” and “state of nature” on the writings of eighteenth-century novelists and philosophers such as Crèvecœur, Lezay-Marnésia, but also Brissot, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, and so many others. Rousseau used these concepts as thought experiments, as theoretical artifacts, in order to imagine what happened before the creation of complex human societies. But these concepts became so wildly popular that they ceased to be used the way Rousseau intended to employ them: they were taken more and more literally, as if they were describing real people, living at a prelapsarian state that one could still witness outside Europe, something believed by Bougainville and other French explorers. Lezay-Marnésia is a striking example of these disciples of Rousseau who outlived their master and saw the world through the mediation of his works. What fascinates me is the fact he did not try to communicate this troubling experience of alterity, but insisted on representing Native Americans the way he imagined them when he was still in France. Traveling, in a way, was completely useless: in his case, it did not change who he was or what he thought he knew, he even had to forget about it to repeat what he would have said if he had stayed at home. I read this phenomenon as one of the many indications of the therapeutic nature of his literary work: representing things and people as you wish they were, instead of the way you know they are, is a way to come to terms with the almost unbearable disappointments you can experiment. It also proves the outstanding power of literature, that becomes a tool to create an alternative reality corresponding to your wishes and hopes. But when you drop the quill, you have to face reality: that’s why the third of the Letters Written from the Banks of the Ohio is so long, because Lezay-Marnésia cannot bear to stop writing, which would break the spell, so he keeps describing these quite absurd (and at the same time, quite beautiful) scenes of rural banquets, where Native Americans, rich and poor settlers alike, all share a moment of common happiness, enjoying together the beauty of nature and the prosperity of their colony. Of course, this is a pure fantasy, where the point of view of the Amerindians is absolutely not taken into consideration. Lezay-Marnésia just assumes they will be kind and obedient subjects. But I think it’s an illusion he cultivated while he was writing, because it was just too hard for him to accept that he had spent nearly the totality of his once gigantic fortune, risked his life, left at home his wife and two of his children, and spent so much energy, before heading back to France, ruined and bitter. Consequently, this disconnection from reality is in a way self-induced: it’s not madness, or stupidity, it has more to do with finding a way to grieve a world he did not manage to create.

Julia: In addition to a white settler fantasy in which Native Americans had been exterminated, Lezay-Marnésia’s Ohio utopia made me think of the Native American prophets Neolin (Lenape), and later, Tenskwatawa (Shawnee), who also imagined a possible world in the Ohio Country, in which Native Americans would achieve a purified unity through their rejection of European culture and lifeways. Unlike Lezay-Marnésia’s, theirs were distinctively exclusive visions in which settlers and Native Americans could not and would not co-exist. What does it mean to consider Lezay-Marnésia’s utopian Aigle-Lys not just as part of a genre of French visions of the U.S., but as one of several competing imaginaries about the same place? His certainly co-existed in the Ohio Country with a white settler fantasy in which Native Americans have been exterminated, and a prophetic Native American vision in which whites have been expelled and their culture rejected. We might want to explain Lezay-Marnésia’s penchant for fantasy as a result of his being a distant émigré, but what if those much closer to the ground also saw Scioto as an imaginary space?

Benjamin: Not only can we read Lezay-Marnésia’s utopia as part of several competing imaginary appropriations of this land, but also as one of many competing geopolitical projects. Indeed, the vast territory where he wanted to build Aigle-Lys was coveted by several super-powers at the end of the eighteenth century. Great Britain still held several key military positions in the region; Native American tribes fought to keep the control on their ancestral lands, in particular the Miamis and the Shawnees; the American government was planning the westward expansion of the United States; even the French government had views on this place, since the Girondins aimed to create sister-republics in the region, sharing political and commercial interests with France. So, there was a fierce competition, not only of imaginaries as you observed, but also of power and political projects. To comment on this phenomenon, I would venture two possible explanations. The obvious one has to do with a sense of opportunity: the political status of this region was still uncertain, and to ambitious powers, it looked as a place free for the taking. Let’s not forget that France, just a few years later, when it got back Louisiana from Spain thanks to the treaty of San Ildefonso (1800), for a moment imagined to recreate its empire in North America. We know how things turned out – the purchase of Louisiana in 1801 definitely put an end to this dream – but for the contemporaries, there was still the sense that what we know would become part of the United States, could still belong to a European power. But there is another explanation that has to do with the specificity of the landscape, I think. This region, especially Ohio, is very flat: in a way, it is a sort of natural embodiment of the concept of the “clean slate”, a vast space, where anything is possible, where utopias can freely flourish. It has an idyllic aspect in many places, and, precisely, the comparison between the Ohio region and the garden of Eden was repeated by several French writers, including Crèvecœur and Lezay-Marnésia. It is as if the Ohio landscape was a kind of canvas where the boldest imaginations of the human mind could be projected while simultaneously leading to an association with very ancient fantasies, such as the dream of recreating the golden age. For Lezay-Marnésia, there was certainly no limit to what he thought possible: he imagined Aigle-Lys – even if he never articulates the political relation of this growing colony with the American government – as the center of a future empire, an empire he compares to a hive sending its swarms to colonize the almost boundless American space…

Image 3 Portrait.jpg
Tenskwatawa (The Prophet) 1768-1837, by Henry Inman (1801-1846), after Charles Bird King, c. 1830-1833. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Julia: By way of concluding, I’d like to push this final point on the inclusion of Native American visions of the Ohio Valley a bit further. As Gregory Dowd demonstrates so well in A Spirited Resistance, broadly accepted ideas for Native self-determination and resistance—often based in theories of separate creation between Euro-Americans and Native Americans—proliferated throughout the Old Northwest from the 1760s on ( Gregory E. Dowd, “Thinking and Believing: Nativism and Unity in the Ages of Pontiac and Tecumseh,” American Indian Quarterly 16, no. 3 (1992): 309–350). Spiritual theories fused with political action in the form of, for example, the Shawnee prophet Tenskwatawa’s 1806 invitation to all Indian peoples to join him in settling the town of Greenville, Ohio. This imagined community forms an intriguing counterpoint to Lezay-Marnésia’s own planned town (ibid., 312). In reading Dowd’s writing about Tenskwatawa and his brother Tecumseh’s visions for the Ohio Country, I found that your characterization of it as a place that feels both ancient and full of potential possibility seems to fit very appropriately into what they hoped for and preached of. More generally, I’d also propose that including Native Americans as visionaries may allow a broader and more complex picture of these connections between fantasy, politics, and place to emerge. It frames Native Americans as more than reactive defenders of ancestral territories who didn’t have the power or luxury to transcend pragmatism.

The third competing imaginary for the Old Northwest during this era was, of course, the United States project of imposing the Public Lands Survey System grid. The Ohio Valley was the first place that the U.S. tried out this attempt at regular, linear township squares, and they often appeared on maps long before they appeared on the ground. Thus, the 1788 map of neatly delineated townships squares represented an imagined future, not a present reality.

In an important sense, all three projects—Lezay-Marnésia’s Aigle-Lys, Tenskwatawa’s Greenville, and the PLSS.—these were all imaginative projects involving an element of fantasy, but they also represented very real geo-political designs. Lezay-Marnésia’s might seem the most fantastical because it failed so spectacularly, but even though the United States project of imposing the PLSS succeeded didn’t make it necessarily less imaginary in its nascent stage. For Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa, whose visions of the Old Northwest also met with failure, the power of fantasy and the reality of defending and protecting land were intimately intertwined. Can we ever draw clean conceptual lines between geopolitical contests and imaginative visions?

Julia Lewandoski is a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley. Her dissertation considers the impact of imperial transitions on indigenous landholding in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Quebec, Louisiana, and California.

Categories
Think Piece

The Other Samuel Johnson: African-American Labor in the Vicinity of the Early U.S. Book Trade

by guest contributor John Garcia

Much of the pleasure of studying the economics of book publishing comes from the various minor personages who appear and disappear before the historians gaze. Sometimes patterns emerge from these fragmented discoveries, perhaps not enough for an article, but worth sharing as a provocation for others tilling similar ground. The anecdotes and interpretations supplied below represent a book historians contribution to recovery work in early African-American print culture. The study of early black print has benefited from new archival discoveries and interpretations, led in part by Cohen and Steins 2012 edited collection Early African American Print Culture. Rather than seek forgotten black authors or readers, or under-appreciated connections between print and racialization, I ask a set of questions that focus on the labors behind book culture in the early American republic: What happens in the vicinity of book production and consumption? Is there a black presence in the mundane life of making books (as opposed to writing, printing, or reading them)? How did African-Americans contribute to the various activities that support a printing operation or bookstore?

Focusing on activities occurring in the vicinityof book production directs attention to the still-unknown history of African-American labor, both free and enslaved, in relation to the early national book trade. Could indentured labor in a print shop allow enslaved persons a pathway to freedom? Was working for the book trade particularly amenable to emancipated African-Americans, even if they were illiterate?

Not long ago, while studying letters exchanged between Mathew Carey and his traveling agent Mason Locke Weemsthe most successful American publisher prior to 1830 and the early republics most successful book marketer, respectivelyI was given pause by the following query written by Weems in 1797:

If you see my Sam (freed Negro) be so good as to tell him I want to employ him.

This note was the first tantalizing clue I had ever seen about the presence of African-American workers in the print shops and publishing houses of Careys Philadelphia.

Samuel Johnson was a slave Weems had inherited as part of his fathers Maryland estate. Sams unusually literary name immediately brings to mind the famous English writer and biographer, and Weems may have personally chosen this name, given his own reputation as biographer and hagiographer of George Washington and others. Weems deserves credit for having freed Johnsonhe elsewhere boasts to Carey of being an early Liberator of my Slaves”—and he seems to have taken special care to ingratiate the ex-slave into the community of Philadelphia printers and publishers. Four years after receiving that first note from Weems, Carey paid Johnson twenty dollars on Weemss account. Throughout the rest of the decade, Samuel Johnson appears in the financial records of Philadelphia publishers as a paid laborer, usually in the form of receipts bearing his mark. Johnson was illiterate.

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Receipt of payment from Mathew Carey to Samuel Johson, Nov. 26, 1801. (Account #6710, Matthew Carey Papers, American Antiquarian Society)

 

Although sometimes portrayed as an ideologist of slavery and nationalismhere Im thinking particularly of François Furstenbergs compelling reading of Weems in In the Name of the Father (2006)surviving evidence of the relationship between Weems and Johnson suggests that the former went out of his way to treat his ex-slave as an independent agent in the world of print.

Further evidence comes from a letter Weems wrote to the Philadelphia publisher C.P. Wayne:Dr Sir. Of the little monies of mine now in your hand, please pay my Freed Man, Samuel Johnson Esq., sixty dollars & forever oblige two of your very obt servts. Poor Sam & his Quondam Sovereign, M.L. Weems.

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Receipt of C.P. Wayne, Oct. 17, 1804 bearing Samuel Johnson’s mark (American Antiquarian Society)

On the verso of this letter, Wayne had Johnson sign his mark to acknowledge receipt of the sixty dollars. This large sum of money was for services Johnson performed in relation to Waynes publication of John Marshalls five-volume Life of George Washington (1804-07), one of the most ambitious publication events of the decade. More evidence of Johnsons labor can be found in the records of the female printer Lydia Bailey. In 1808, Bailey paid Sam $1.50 for additional paveing in the yard in north alley(Lydia R. Bailey Receipt Book, 1808-1824. American Antiquarian Society). This small sum, and the kind of labor expended to earn it, demonstrates that Weems was not exaggerating in calling his friend Poor Sam.Johnson undoubtedly took on the most menial, unskilled jobs from his Philadelphia employers.

Taken together, these documents give oblique information about the book trades reliance upon African-American labor. As early as 1797, Johnson seems to have frequently hung around the vicinity of Careys business. Johnsons continued usefulness to Philadelphias printers is proven by the range of years (1801-1808) represented by the receipts. Illiterate men could perform valuable work in early U.S. print shops, binderies, bookstores, and paper mills, down to the mundane (but still necessary) work of building maintenance. These peripheral activities remind us that book historians should always consider the non-textual labors behind print culture that dont end up on the page. Personal connections mattered as well, since its clear that Weemss extensive contacts enabled Johnson to find employment and to be eventually paid. The men and women of the Philadelphia book trade comprised a close-knit community, as Rosalind Remer discusses in her 1996 book Printers and Men of Capital, and all three of Johnsons employers had longstanding ties with Weems and with one other. This networkof booksellers and printers kept Johnson involved, even though he couldnt read the very books that his work helped to produce.

Samuel Johnson was likely an anomaly as a free African-American worker in the trade. My second example offers a glimpse into slave labor in a New York printing establishment. The records of the printer Samuel Campbell reveal 1790s New York as a city of print still rooted in the craft relations of the hand-press period. Campbell employed numerous apprentices, a practice documented by extant indentureship papers such as one contracted with a white boy named Alexander McLeod, aged fifteen, to learn the art of bookbinding. Also among Campbells papers is another indentureship for Charles a negro man,aged thirty-eight, to serve after the manner of a servant.Both contracts, for McLeod in 1791 and for Charles in 1793, reveal the different modalities of unfree labor used in early U.S. printing establishments.

How did Charles come to work for Campbell? A separate sheet of paper mounted to his indenture bears the signature of a previous owner, Casper Springsteen, who transferred the right to bargain, sell, and dispose ofthe slave to a relative David Springsteen, of Long Island, New York. On November 9, 1793, David Springsteen signed the papers that made Charles a servant of Samuel Campbell. The verso of the contract has a further note from David Springsteen directing Campbell to no longer consider Charles as the property of the Springsteen family after the expiration of seven years: Provided the said Charles within named shall & do well and truly fulfill the written Indenture I do hereby remiss release and for ever quit claim unto the said negro slave & forgo any right of property over him.Could this mean that Charles became a free man after termination of the indentureship? Unfortunately, the trail of evidence ends here, and I have not seen further mention of Charles in Samuel Campbells papers.

Campbell saw fit to use the same printed form for a black slave that he used for his white apprentices, even as the manuscript annotations and alterations made to Charless papers display his liminal status. As the property of another, slaves couldnt legally bind themselves to an indenture, and yet his previous owner, David Springsteen, seems to have purposely inserted language endowing Charles with a provisional right to fulfill the written Indentureand work his way to freedom after a stated number of years. The difference between the contracts signed by Alexander McLeod and Charles, therefore, resides in different degrees of being bound to a master, with racial difference (in the case of Charles) calling for contractual finesse that was both emancipatory, in one sense, while also barring enslaved laborers from specialized training.

Alexander McLeod also reminds us that free and enslaved labor existed in a continuum that included indentured white workers as well. McLeod was specifically assigned the craft of bookbinding, and successful completion of his apprenticeship would have prepared him for work in New Yorks thriving book industry. Charles, on the other hand, had no specialized assignment in the world of print. That said, given Campbells extensive business (which included a New Jersey paper mill), its likely that Charles may have performed the kinds of odd jobs undertaken by PoorSamuel Johnson.

Does paving the sidewalk outside a printers shop merit inclusion in early African-American print culture? Emphatically yes, so long as we understand print cultureas a cluster of practices and mediations that are not divorced from human labor. As Robert Darnton once argued in his essay “The Forgotten Middlemen of Literature,” the historical analysis of literate culture must be expanded to include all the agentseven illiterate onesresponsible for the book as a cultural artifact. The two African-Americans described in this essay teach us that the making of books could potentially set one man free or help another ex-slave maintain a livelihood, however meager. Both men worked in the vicinity of the early U.S. book trade, even though they were likely unable to read the printed matter that was the end goal of the businesses for which they worked.

John Garcia teaches humanities courses at Boston University. His research in early American book history has been supported by the Ford Foundation, the Library Company of Philadelphia, and the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship in Critical Bibliography.

Categories
Think Piece

“A Reform Which Has Stifled All Other Reforms:” Islam in the Nineteenth Century American Black Press

by guest contributor Daniel Joslyn

In recent years, a number of political movements have sought to forge a connection between black Americans and Middle-Eastern Arabs, particularly in relation to the oppression of the Palestinian people in Israel and Palestine and the oppression of African-Americans in the United States. A small body of scholarly literature has recently developed which links African-Americans and Arabs in the nineteenth century. Few scholars, however, have noted the strong currents of anti-Islamic thinking in nineteenth-century African-American public discourse. African historian Teshale Tibebu has even gone so far as to attribute “Islamophobia” to nineteenth-century African-American Protestants. When seeking to find common ground among historically oppressed groups today, many scholars and activists see such groups as being naturally aligned by virtue of their status as “others” to the West. The treatment of Islam in nineteenth-century African-American writing should lead us to question that assumption. It highlights the constructed nature of these alliances. More importantly, it reminds us that oppressed communities have often identified with identities other than their oppression.

Negative views of Islam can first be seen in some of the first major African-American radical newspapers. A September 8, 1838 article in the Colored American (a major African-American newspaper founded by abolitionists Philip Bell, Samuel Cornish and Charles Ray), entitled “Why always harping at the Church?,” offers a glimpse at attitudes towards Muslims and Islam during this period. In the article, the editors rhetorically ask why abolitionists attacked pro-slavery churches. They did so, they explained, because no true Christian would ever hold slaves: “Slavery is A GREAT SIN, A NATIONAL DISGRACE to any people or government who upholds it. This is acknowledged by all. If it is a sin and a shame for a Turk to hold his fellow in bondage, it is a hundred fold more sinful for a Christian minister.” According to these authors, the system of slavery in the United States was not morally worse than that in the Ottoman Empire because of any difference in how the enslaved were treated (though such a difference did exist). It was worse because of the moral condition of the country: less was to be expected of an empire so far from God as the Ottomans’. But for the United States, which had found and espoused the “true” religion of Christianity, to hold people in bondage was an abomination in the eyes of the Lord.

After the Civil War, distaste for Muslims and Islam became a more common trope in the African-American press, reflecting emerging ideas about race and empire among both black and white thinkers. One paper that espoused such notions of Islam was the Christian Recorder, which from 1848 served as the organ of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the second-largest black denomination at that time. By the Civil War, the paper was, in the words of historian Mitch Kachun, “a vital cornerstone of the denomination, the black press, and widespread African American communities.” After the war, members of the African-American community relied on the newspaper for news, correspondence, and debates, as well as in helping people find their newly-freed family members.

Writers in the Christian Recorder generally disparaged Islam and “Mohametans.” An 1878 article titled “Can Turkey Be Reformed?,” for example, argued that the Turkish people could never successfully achieve westernizing reforms. Published in the October 19 edition of the paper, this article was excerpted from an article in the Penn Monthly, a respectable periodical which devoted itself to “Literature, Art, Science and Politics.” The author compares the Ottoman Tanzimat reforms to a (pacifist) Quaker attempting to reform an army. The author declares that “to reform an institution or a system of government means to bring it into a closer conformity with its own normative idea”—to distill a system to its essence. However, the Ottoman reforms—in which the government sought to allow Christians equal rights with Muslims and to establish non-sectarian schools—represented “the introduction of principles utterly alien to its very normative idea.” Islam, the author argued, was inherently un-Christian and uncivilized.

Even articles in the Recorder that were ostensibly complimentary toward Muslims reflected the notion that Islam was an inferior religion. In an article titled “Remarkable Negro Muslims,” published on December 16, 1875, the unnamed author briefly describes various well-known black Muslims, and discusses the achievements of Sheikh Omaru Al Hajj, an educated Muslim leader from modern-day Mali. Describing his conquests and conversions of surrounding tribes, the author goes on to note that “To the Mohammedans of Negro land… the struggle for the ascendancy of Islam is… a struggle between light and darkness, between knowledge and ignorance, between good and evil.” This praise of Islam is, however, tempered with criticism. While their intentions are good, the article goes on to qualify, these African Muslims do not realize that “their faith makes them utterly indifferent to the sufferings of any who stand in the way of the dissemination of the truth, and patient of any evils they may have to endure in order to insure the triumph of their cause.” The article thus depicts these Muslims as being made into zealots by their faith, as lesser people in need of Christianity.

Captain Edward Wilmot Blyden was a rare proponent of a more positive view of Islam in the nineteenth century black American press.

Characteristically brazen, Edward Wilmot Blyden, a scholar, emigrationist, and early pan-Africanist, is the only defender of Islam I have been able to find in the major nineteenth-century black presses of America. Even he, however, saw African Islam as merely paving the way for the inevitable conversion of Africa to Christianity. Before becoming a renowned scholar, professor of Arabic and one of the major designers of the University of Liberia’s curriculum, Blyden first came to Liberia as part of the over four hundred African-American missionaries to Africa in the nineteenth century. Like other black intellectuals at the time, Blyden, as Tibebu points out, felt a “black man’s burden” to “civilize” Africa. In 1878, Blyden lamented that “men whose character, position and literary ability make them the guide of thousands” kept attacking Muslims and Islam. He argued that Protestant writers’ contention that Islam was “a reform which has stifled all other reforms” was mere prejudice. Rather, he maintained, the prejudice of white missionaries towards African peoples was the reason Christianity had not yet taken over all of Africa. The “Arab Missionary,” Blyden wrote, “often of the very complexion of his hearer,” did not have the same troubles getting used to Africans. Arabs, according to Blyden, held no prejudice against color. The notion of Arabs as “color-blind” was another nineteenth-century trope in both white and black literature, which does not quite hold up to the historian’s gaze. According to Blyden, American missionaries and African-Americans did not understand that “whatever it may be in other lands, in Africa the work of Islam is preliminary and preparatory.” Out of Arab Islam would soon flower American Protestantism. More so than any other people on the continent, “African Mohammedans” were most “willing to have Christian schools in their towns, to have the Christian Scriptures circulated among them, and to share with Christians the work of reclaiming the pagan.”

This relatively muted support of Islam as a natural precursor to Christianity led many to attack Blyden in the press. For years after publishing this article, Blyden remained a controversial figure—mentioned in the paper over two hundred times—often with the intention of questioning his Christian convictions. In a characteristic January 12, 1888 piece, a Sierra Leonese missionary even wondered, “Has Dr. Blyden Gone Over to Mo[ha]met?” In response, Blyden and his few supporters kept repeating their mantra: they did not hate Christianity, nor had they given up on it. Islam would soon give way to American Protestant advances, for theirs was the purest form of Christianity, which held—in the words of a supporter of Blyden’s writing in the Recorder on December 7, 1887—“that God is no respector [sic] of persons, and that which teaches, ‘That whatsoever ye would, that men should do unto you, do ye even so to them.’” Blyden’s God did not care about a person’s race, or the circumstances into which they were born, but about their actions and their beliefs. Even with these many assurances, however, the Christian Recorder and the larger African-American community found Blyden, and his lukewarm support of Islam, hard to swallow.

Historians often overlook the impact that religions have on how people view the world. Historians of African-Americans are no different, as Laurie Maffly-Capp discusses in her most recent book, Setting Down the Sacred Past. Some African-Americans sought to take part in American Protestant empire-building in the late nineteenth century, and many supported the basis of that empire: the superiority of American Protestantism to all other religions. Although they were a part of an oppressed community in the United States, many African-Americans may have identified less with the labels placed upon them by the society in which they lived—“colored,” “black,” “Negro”—than with the labels they chose for themselves, such as “Methodist,” “Christian,” “civilized.” Indeed, many nineteenth-century AME preachers saw their immense suffering, and that of their ancestors, as suggesting that African-Americans were the truest Christians, placed on earth to spread the Gospel and rid the world of heathenism. Such ideologies explain why African-American Christians so often supported both missionary and British colonial ventures into Africa. It was these self- directed identifications, rather than imposed labels such as “oppressed,” that often carried the most weight for and were most decisive for the decision-making of nineteenth-century black Americans. Looking at historical actors’ genuinely held beliefs about ethics, goodness, and the divine can help us as historians better understand and explain why they advocate or have advocated enacting violence on others.

Daniel Joslyn is a PhD student studying History at New York University. He is currently interested in histories of joy and emancipation in the United States, and the Ottoman Empire (though he’s figuring that one out slowly). He completed his B.A. at Hampshire College studying “Frederick Douglass’s Poetry, Prophesy and Reform: 1880-1895.” He holds that good history is good philosophy and good philosophy teaches us how to live.