Ghosts of Southern imperialism: Caribbean space, functions of fiction, and Thomas Nelson Page's "No Haid Pawn".
In the cases I am mentioning, such indications of slavery's terrors are little more than hints, shadows in an otherwise sunny overall portrait, but in one of these stories terror becomes explicit. The story is "No Haid Pawn," part of Page's 1887 collection In Ole Virginia. To observe that the story shows the dark side of slavery is to state a fact many scholars have acknowledged, but what has not been so much explored are the reasons it does so or the machinery and underpinnings of the story's critique. (3) The question of why Page includes this discordant story is not easy to answer because doing so requires probing into the tricky techniques and purposes of Page's compositional method. It also requires a careful investigation into the layering of time in the story, specifically the relationship between the present (post-Reconstruction time) and the past (the antebellum era).
In "No Haid Pawn," Page works out this temporal element through configurations of space in a specific kind of figure that can by its nature cross temporal borders--a ghost. Many of the other stories in Page's first collection strategically deal with the past, before the Civil War, to soften antebellum sins and allay reader qualms with a sanitized portrait of a bygone and now irrelevant institution. "No Haid Pawn," however, seeks to treat time and space so that both weave between a marked distance and an equally marked proximity. In other words, Page brings the antebellum past crashing into the story's present with a ghost as the bridging figure while simultaneously invoking spaces distant from the Virginia setting. (4) He does so in order to craft a horror story written in line with other horror stories by American writers before him. The specific kind of spatiality Page creates blends Virginia space with a Caribbean spatial model, and he particularly evokes the Haitian Revolution, a not uncommon move for white Southern writers (Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! is a famous later example). (5) Page uses long-standing fears of slave revolt to infuse his own historical moment with a horror that carries strong implications not only for the South and its history but also for the United States and its efforts to build an empire, which include acquiring Caribbean spaces and, as Page sees it, maintaining domination of the Southern states.
The resulting story can provide insight into the thinking of the post-Reconstruction moment, for in it Page fashions headless figures that reference another historical phenomenon with a fraught spatiality: the collection of projects and desires that can be grouped under the heading of "Southern imperialism." By the time Page wrote this story, the antebellum South's plantation economy-driven imperial efforts, both public and private, had died away with the failure of the Confederacy. Page can be seen as rendering those efforts collectively into the body of a conceptual ghost designed to evoke both nostalgia and terror concerning not only past imperialistic projects but also ones current with the story's composition and publication. Although it originates in a Confederate context, this ghost of Southern imperialism serves Page in critiquing United States imperial policies and efforts of the late nineteenth century. (6) In a strange paradox, the story manages to be simultaneously pro- and anti-imperialist in multiple and contradictory ways.
Since the story is not often read, I will begin with a brief plot summary. The first-person narrator, who is apparently a white aristocratic Virginian, begins and then spends the bulk of the story outlining the tortured history of a plantation named "No Head Pond," although it is always rendered, as per the title, in Page's conception of black Virginian dialect: "No Haid Pawn." The plantation is located in a horseshoe-shaped bend in a river that, when damned up by fallen trees and debris, washes across the part not normally river-bounded so that it is often "cut off from the rest of the country as if a sea had divided it" (163). A stranger to the area seeking isolation built his Big House as far as possible from easy access in what was essentially a swamp. The plantation received its name because in the center of the property there once was a stagnant pond created by slaves, who dug out soil and moved it to lift the land on which to build the Big House. This water-filled hole in the ground had no source--literally a pond with no head.
As the narrator outlines, however, the name also has several other, more ghastly, roots. There is a legend that one of the slaves building the house was decapitated when his head was caught between two of the foundation stones. A variation on this legend is that the man's head was cut off as a part of an occult ritual. Later, the plantation passed into the hands of another stranger, this time a man from the West Indies who was known for exceptionally ferocious cruelty to his slaves, which culminated in his hacking one of them to death, beheading the corpse, and standing it "up before the open window in his hall, in the full view of the terrified slaves" (170). The man was executed for this atrocity and, since his burial, has allegedly roamed the plantation, dragging behind him his headless victim. There are thus many headless elements connected with the land and contributing to its name.
In addition to a number of other similar legends of hauntings (including one that the dead paddle about in ghostly boats on what is left of the pond), several events in the plantation's history make it a place to be feared, especially by white slave owners. The ruined plantation has been the site of secret Abolitionist meetings and Underground Railway activity. Moreover, one of the slaves from a nearby plantation has disappeared into this haunted tract of land, a man brought from the lower Mississippi and described as "of a type rarely found among our negroes.... [being] of immense size, and [who possesses] the features and expression of a Congo desperado" (172). These latter elements imply the absence of a governmental head--a white aristocratic Southern slaveholder who can control these African American bodies, whether they be slaves fleeing to the North or a powerful single slave who lawlessly takes up residence, establishing himself in this formerly white-controlled space. In short, the space is emblematic of a political headlessness, which adds to the metaphorical layering of its title and the piece of ground to which it refers.
This metaphorical headlessness permeates the story and is racially coded. The narrator explains that his parents had explained away the existence of ghosts throughout his life, "the fathers [doing so] with much of ridicule and satire, the mothers giving sweet religious reasons for their argument" (164). As the narrator notes in a bracketed phrase, the "Bible was the standard, and all disputes were resolved into an appeal to that authority, the single question as to any point being simply, 'Is it in the Bible?"' (165). Where the narrator's parents discouraged belief in ghosts and hauntings, the black people around him advocated belief in them. It was the "old mammies and uncles who were our companions and comrades [who] believed in the existence of evil spirits," and they were the ones who "brought up" the narrator (164). They too invoked the Bible, but as Albert J. Raboteau has shown, African American religion differed significantly from the forms of Christianity embraced by white slaveholding Southerners, and the narrator explains that however central and stable the Bible may have been as a pillar of authority, the stories of these believing black people convinced their white "nephews" and "nieces," bringing about a "triumph of faith over reason, and the fixed belief, on our part, in the actual visible existence of the departed, in the sinister form of apparition known as 'evil sperits'" (165). "Faith" is black, while "reason" (in the story's context) is white, and in the narrator's biracial family, the black "relatives" succeed in usurping the epistemology of the white relatives by instilling in the narrator a sense of the heart over the head as the organ of knowing. (7) The implications of this "triumph" are significant, for the narrator speaks, as it were, for his generation being one in which slave owners were as indoctrinated in black values and perspectives as in white ones. Although the narrator may not consider it this way, the implication is that he has a certain "weakness" in the head, if the bodily-metaphorical logic of faith and reason is followed through to its end.
Having established all these elements of headlessness in the first part of the story, the narrator then unfolds the action that carries the narrative to its conclusion. The events the narrator relates are set in the decade just before that of the Civil War. Frustrated with failure while duck hunting and perceiving that the plantation is a virtual haven for that game, the narrator boldly ventures alone and without telling anyone into No Haid Pawn. The trek is arduous, not only because the narrator has never quite expiated his childhood fear of ghosts but also because the land itself has reverted back to swamp, its "dark waters" slowly washing up and reclaiming the land (167,186). After slogging through the gloomy place, he finally arrives at the Big House, at which point there comes a tremendous storm, and he seeks refuge in an upstairs bedroom. After spending several hours there through the night, he is awakened by a distant call and looks out the window in time to see, in the lightning glare, a boat out on the rising floodwater of the plantation with two figures in it--one standing and the other lying down. Shortly thereafter, the narrator hears another "halloo," this one much closer, and this sound is followed by another call itself followed by a thud downstairs in the house and footsteps on the stairs (183). The scene climaxes with the door being flung open by what appears to be the ghost of the West Indian man, who hurls the headless body of his victim to the floor as he laughs demoniacally. (8)
Following this event, the story closes in a very strange manner. The text is broken by a full line of asterisks and beneath that this paragraph:
When we could get there, nothing was left but the foundation. The haunted house, when struck, had literally burned to the water's edge. The changed current had washed its way close to the place, and in strange verification of the negroes' traditions. No Haid Pawn had reclaimed its own, and the spot with all its secrets lay buried under its dark waters. (186)
This denouement of sorts brings together the various aspects of headlessness in the story, for the white-coded Big House's being overwhelmed by the dark waters from below signifies white-coded reason's being usurped by black-coded faith. This racially-tinged usurpation is the horrifying end for white aristocrats. However, the conclusion also contains and controls that horror, for the hard break accompanied by the shift in narrative perspective from the lone narrator to the collective "we" that is presumably white and aristocratic confirms that whites and their reason have reasserted control. No Haid Pawn has been rendered radically other, a space of secrets inaccessible and distanced forever. A white post-Reconstruction reader (most particularly the imagined white Northerner) can rest calmly, delighted by the frightening action-packed antebellum South but assured that the world of that terror is safely located in the past.
At the same time, though, the conclusion raises certain questions that could actually leave a reader discomfited. These issues center on the narrator's situation--did he die in the house, burned in the lightning-struck edifice and washed away in the dark flood? If so, then why is the story set in the past tense and why does a space exist between the present time of narration and the time of the narrative as if he is alive to tell the story years later? Did the narrator survive that night, go on to fight in the Civil War, and then return to be part of a group of former slave owners who have gone to check on the house after another tremendous storm? These two different readings--the narrator dying versus the narrator living--carry different implications for the story, although even these are not entirely stable. It would seem that the former enhances its horror while the latter contains it, yet the shift implies a silence that is troublesome. Did the narrator go insane (lose his head) while sitting in the Big House that night, hard at work on his manuscript about his harrowing experience just after it had ended and after having had a chat and a smoke with the Congo desperado whom he recognized after the initial shock at thinking he had seen a ghost? Did the Congo desperado kill the narrator after patiently waiting for him to finish his clever ghost story, generously leaving it out on dry land for the search-party to find and publish with a coda added by a different hand?
What does that blank space mean?
Of course, it might be that Page was simply inept, trying for a certain effect and letting his logic slip in the process. Given the compositional style of Page's early stories, reading this story as flawed in such a manner is not terribly far-fetched. His writing technique early in his career was to tell his stories to friends, associates, and family members for weeks or even longer before writing them down, trying different versions in order to gauge his listeners' reactions and either preserving or jettisoning details and narrative structures accordingly. (9) The result of this approach was a distinctly oral story finely tuned to the kinds of ears Page sought to address but which also depends much more on effect than logic. Where a story written to be read rather than heard might rely on subtle symbol, Page's early stories offer a heavy-handed stacking of detail and forms designed to drive his points home through their repetition or vividness of effect rather than through a sound and consistent narrative thread and unified symbolism. In the case of "No Haid Pawn," the effectiveness of keeping what happens to the narrator secret by using this device of shifting the narrative time and utterance may simply have made the device too irresistible for Page to abandon, even if it clashed with the distancing in time that he also wanted to create (and which was a part of his general use of nostalgia). (10)
The ending is not the only vexed aspect of this story: another is Page's heavy-handed and arguably shoddily-assembled array of headless elements. It seems fairly obvious that one of the sources for his story, along with fellow Virginian Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher," is Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," in which Page could find both a model for a nostalgic treatment of the past and a headless ghost. But where Irving focuses his energy, nostalgic or otherwise, on the single headless specter to render a narrative that clearly and efficiently presents the humorous triumph of bodily virility over intellectualism while still leaving room for mystery and horror, Page instead saturates his story with as many elements of headlessness as he can. It is as if he believes that by creating a sort of headless anarchic orgy, the story will simply be more terrifying, just as Shakespeare might string together multiple negatives to make a more negative point rather than adhere to the logic of the double negative. This effective rather than logical approach can lead to awkwardness when, for instance, the narrator reports that "a horrible coincidence occurred" at the West Indian man's execution, "which furnished the text of many a sermon on retributive justice among the negroes" and also prompted tales of the West Indian's ghost being "seen any time of the day or night stalking headless about the place" (170). But the detail becomes lost, for by the story's end the narrator neither offers any intimation that the "ghost" he encounters is headless (that personage actually laughs) nor has he made any further mention of the West Indian's apparent beheading. It does not seem to bother Page that the excess of headless elements might dilute the story--if anything, this very saturation appears to be his goal. Rather than unity of narrative (Poe's wholeness of effect), Page seems to seek an avalanche of effects all metonymically related to the central horror element of headlessness, which is in its way a stylistic surrender of unified logic to plural effect.
The question remains, then, how are we to read this story--as the words of a careless hack or as something else? It may be a colossal and not altogether justifiable act of benevolence to argue on Page's behalf, but I assert that such reckless effective inconsistency aligns perfectly with the thematic and spatial design of "No Haid Pawn." That design is to depict the decay of logic (or white reason) in every detail as it is drowned by the black flooding waters of illogical faith. Just as the waters of No Haid Pawn wash away the Big House, so the very form of the story represents black banishment of white logic. The fact that the title itself is rendered in black dialect suggests that from the outset, black speech has dominated even the labeling of this ostensibly white text. A revolution has occurred--a black revolt--and the result is a spatial dispersion that abolishes the kind of centralized unity that a white head of leadership implies. In the vacuum left by the deposal of white power stands the unorganized and uncentralized existence of black power.
This revolt and the spatiality connected with it find precedent in two models that illustrate the proximity-distance tension at work in the story. On one hand, No Haid Pawn resembles Virginia's/North Carolina's Great Dismal Swamp, with its central body of water, Lake Drummond, a space to which slaves would escape and which figures prominently in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. Virginia's history included the Nat Turner revolt, which had incited great fear in the antebellum slaveholding class. The Great Dismal Swamp and the Turner Revolt constitute powerful local sources of fear for Page to draw upon. At the same time, though, Page takes great care to establish the nature of the space of the plantation as being representative of the other as opposed to the rest of the Virginia countryside, which is representative of the white aristocratic self. Where everything outside of No Haid Pawn is stable, ordered by the white aristocracy, the island-like plantation is unstable, indomitable--even the very "road that once ran through the swamp [having] long since been choked up" (163). (11) The idea that the plantation exists as an island evokes a Caribbean space and history--the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804. Metaphorically, the dark waters seeping up to reclaim the plantation and the white Big House suggest the slaves' rising up to overtake their masters, cutting off the plantation's authorial head. Page extends this "natural" metaphorical aspect to his description of the "black" clouds that form as the narrator makes his way deeper into the plantation (171, 177); these clouds eventually erupt into a terrific storm that the narrator actually refers to as "a hurricane" as night falls (182) (the term "hurricane" evokes the Caribbean at the same time that such storms are not unheard of in Virginia). The most explicit link to Haiti and to the Caribbean appears of course in Page's making one of the owners a West Indian, for he is well aware that the Haitian Revolution had powerfully entered the slaveholding aristocracy's imagination, just as Faulkner would be years later when writing his tale of Thomas Sutpen's coming from the West Indies to build his own isolated plantation and wrestle with his slaves. (12)
In addition to the frightening threat of slave revolt, the West Indies register a particular form of spatiality--a fragmentedness that informs the space of No Haid Pawn and Page's stylistic lack of unity. As scholars have noted, the Caribbean historically has represented a unique spatiality, being spread out over multiple islands rather than existing on a single chunk of land. (13) No Haid Pawn recreates just such a watery and fragmented domain that resists a central government or political vision. Evoking the West Indies and the Haitian Revolution also accentuates the distance-proximity tension that lies at the heart of the story, for No Haid Pawn is, by this association, distant (the foreign and exotic Caribbean) and yet frightening because of its disturbing proximity (plantation Virginia and the Caribbean being so culturally similar though geographically distant from one another). No Haid Pawn is a marsh, a jungle, where "no human foot ever trod" (164), and it is occupied by strangers: the original stranger-builder, the West Indian, Abolitionists, non-Virginian slaves, and even the current owners (presuming there are any), whom the narrator suggests are "aliens" (163). To enter that space is to enter an alien area characterized by uncontrollable blackness. Yet again, as far distant as that space may be, Antonio Benitez-Rojo has pointed out that "the" Caribbean isle, which he calls the "soup of signs" (2), repeats itself in places far flung, establishing a "meta-archipelago" that
flows outward past the limits of its own sea with a vengeance, and its ultima Thule may he found on the outskirts of Bombay, near the low and murmuring shores of Gambia, in a Cantonese tavern of circa 1850, at a Balinese temple, in an old Bristol pub, in a commercial warehouse in Bordeaux at the time of Colbert, in a windmill beside the Zuider Zee, at a cafe in a barrio of Manhattan, in the existential saudade of an old Portuguese lyric. (4)
And, I would add, in No Haid Pawn.
Indeed, the jungle-like No Haid Pawn is not only unstable but is also a liminal space in relation to the Caribbean. Jon Smith argues in "Hot Bodies and 'Barbaric Tropics': The US South and New World Natures" that the Mississippi Delta is in-between the global South and the global North and actually contains aspects similar to the Caribbean. (14) No Haid Pawn is also such a space, for at the same time that it is extremely isolated and seems absolutely cut off from the rest of the Virginia countryside, the plantation is described as having a "sobby boundary-line" (162). Moreover, as if to stress the liminal nature of this space, there is an uncanny element about the plantation and its Big House that it sits uneasily on the line between animate and inanimate. "The very name was uncanny" (165), the narrator says, adding that the closer his proximity to the Big House itself,
the more it arrested my attention, and the more weird and uncanny it looked. Canes and bushes grew up to the very door; the window-shutters hung from the hinges; the broken windows glared like eyeless sockets; the portico had fallen away from the wall, while the wide door stood slightly ajar, giving to the place a singularly ghastly appearance, somewhat akin to the color which sometimes lingers on the face of a corpse. (177)
Perhaps most emblematic of the liminality of this space is the way it registers the particular pseudofamilial dynamics the narrator presents. Again, his family is culturally (if not, history suggests, biologically) biracial; in fact, the black people are the only named ones in the story: Mam Celia, William, Cephas, Poliam, Twist-foot-Bob, and perhaps the most appropriately named of all in terms of the uncanny, Lazarus. The narrator's biological parents are not so named, and his connection with his black "family" suggests at least a cultural hybridity about himself. In other words, No Haid Pawn is spatially conflated with the narrator himself. The narrator may be white, but it is the testimony of his black "family" that holds sway in his imagination. In a paradoxical embracing and disavowal, the narrator lays claim to being both white and black while showing that his blackness is contained within domesticity, a move that Scott Romine has recognized in Page's writing in which the "good" slave and the "good" master are pitted against the "bad" slave and the "bad" master in a way that nostalgically recuperates slavery as a positive institutionalized relationship that produces a healthy familial relationship. (15) The narrator, however, is even more problematic: he is able to venture where even his black family members cannot, for, with the exception of the Congo desperado, even
the runaway slaves who occasionally left their homes and took to the swamps and woods, impelled by the cruelty of their overseers, or by a desire for a vain counterfeit of freedom, never tried this swamp, but preferred to be caught and returned home to invading its awful shades. (164)
But not the narrator, who boldly presses on and, by the story's end, has morphed into and become one with the plantation, especially if the ending is read as his having burned with the house, an event that could be thought of as blackening his body to the same hue as the black waters that have overtaken the land itself. In such a reading, the black person the narrator becomes in death is now alien. Yet the ultimate horror of the story is that the other always lurks in the self, for No Haid Pawn's black waters were present before there was any plantation culture. No Haid Pawn is the space of alienation only in respect to the established domesticity of Anglo slaveholding culture.
Yet there is something suspicious still about the story's ending. However close No Haid Pawn may be, and however disturbingly the self is merged with the other, the abrupt break of the closing paragraph both in form and content reasserts the early comment that the haunted plantation is as cut off "as if a sea had divided it." This distancing seems, within the deep logic of the story (a logic much more thoroughly ingrained far below the superficial lack of "logic"), to transform the space into an island, which when seen as "the" Caribbean island repeated stands as a colonizable space. Thus sounds the tone of an imperial discourse as contradictory as anything else in Page's writing. To be specific, we might read the narrator as leaving the United States South proper and venturing onto an island space, with its own fraught history of slavery and exploitation, and with his own imperial motives. Before the Civil War, the Southern states harbored filibusters who undertook private campaigns to attempt to seize control of Caribbean and Central and South American spaces. While they sought government support for their projects, the filibusters' motives were often either sectional or even personal, William Walker's establishing himself as President of Nicaragua in 1856 and into 1857 being an example. The narrator of "No Haid Pawn" could be thought of as resembling such a personage. Only two paragraphs after discussing the danger to whites "had [the slaves] risen" (174), the narrator explains that he "watched with envious eyes the wild duck rise up over the dense trees that surrounded" No Haid Pawn (175). The narrator, in his words, "penetrated" (175) the swamp in order to put down the uprising ducks, creatures who successfully fly to freedom in the space of No Haid Pawn. When the narrator comes to occupy the house, he reestablishes a white slave-holding presence on the plantation which is, in turn, overthrown once again from below. When the river's course changes, the border of No Haid Pawn changes as well, turning this space into its own sovereign region, possibly more cut off from the main land than ever before.
Again, the imperial discourse here is contradictory, vexed. With the story's being set in the antebellum moment we might read it as an allegory of white Southern aristocratic colonizing designs on the Caribbean and South America, including Cuba and Haiti. In this sense, the story could be seen as a tragedy that dramatizes the failure of the plantocracy and registers the constant threat remaining in the wake of that failure--African American revolt and rule. Such a reading might act as a kind of balm even to an ex-slaveholder readership that saw its imperial dreams dashed with the Confederacy's defeat. Certainly Page was interested in salving cultural wounds, and this device may be added to that of reconciliation romance in his medicine bag. More immediately, ex-Confederates who had migrated to the Caribbean or South America right after the war to carry on their old lifestyle might find in the story a nod to their general failure. Robert E. May notes that "In a sense the southern dream of a tropical slave empire survived even after the Confederate defeat. Following Lee's surrender, thousands of Confederates streamed into tropical counties, particularly Mexico and Brazil" (255). (16) The latter country welcomed the emigrants, and ex-Confederate colonies were established, but most of these failed, with many white Southerners abandoning them after less than a year.
In a different vein, the dubious ending of "No Haid Pawn" suggests an anti-imperial element. The flight of Confederados had been a colonizing project but not an expansion of the United States or even the Southern region per se. Joseph A. Fry writes that
In contrast to the 1850s, southerners no longer endorsed expansion into the tropics. With neither the augmentation of southern political influence nor the protection of slavery in the balance, racial concerns, potential economic competition, fear of enhanced federal power, and partisan politics prevailed. (118-19)
Page could in fact be an opponent of United States imperialism, an opposition that Romine and Walter Benn Michaels observe in his novel Red Rock. (17) A different reading of "No Haid Pawn" may posit the narrator as standing in for an expansionist United States, and a major target of this expansion was the Caribbean. (18) The narrator thus could be read as a metaphorical embodiment of a US invasion of, say, Cuba and/or Haiti. (19) In the manner that Michaels and Romine have shown, perhaps Page aligns the white South with a Caribbean space and equates Reconstruction with United States imperial invasion. All of that said, a major flaw presumably exists in such a reading, which is that the narrator is a white Southerner, and aligning such a person with Northern hegemony seems far from what he would seem to want to do. Jeremy Wells explains this paradox by writing that
such writers as Page are anti-imperialist, postcolonial, and imperialist simultaneously. That is, they object to white northern control over white southerners but propound white control over black southerners and develop narratives of national history in which the white South seems always to generate expansionist energies. (201)
Wells's point, however, depends on a reading of a later part of Page's career, as he writes that "by the 1890s, his views ... seemed consistent with a vision of the United States as an empire" so that in essence "Page's subject matter expanded from the local to the global as his nation's primary political preoccupations shifted away from the reconstruction of the South and toward the extension of U.S. power overseas" (122). In "No Haid Pawn," though, we can see that Page is already evoking a broader hemispherical plantation culture in this early story written and published before the shift Wells describes.
Which means that once again we are faced with the paradoxes of reading Page since this seemingly allegorical dimension of the story refuses to be consistent with any (to me) apparent reading that presents a stable identity for its constituent parts. The temptation to see allegory in this story is great, but cracking open that coconut frustratingly reveals either nothing or too much to handle. Alas, Page seems simply careless, sloppy--a writer with material but no idea of how best to deal with it. It seems that there is no way to escape the evident fact that, again, Page is nothing more nor less than a bad writer whose thin and shoddy constructions cannot outlast his momentary popularity. Worse yet, those contradictions and poor writing may have contributed to that fleeting popularity--certainly plenty of popular works find success by being packed with contradictory elements that can reach the greatest number of consumers, with their different and often conflicting desires and ideologies. Ultimately, "No Haid Pawn" offers the most vivid example of the problems of reading Page because it throws light on the extreme contrasts of his work. This story should be the one that saves him, should be the one scholars can point to and say, "See, he was complicated, tortured by divided loyalties. Those essays in The Old South were just a mistake." But arguably the story fails. Despite my earlier assertion to the contrary, I find myself facing the possibility that Page really was merely a hack.
Granting that Page may indeed be so unskilled (something I am still not totally comfortable with accepting), I want to close by pondering what strategies there could possibly be for reading and analyzing the work of a hack--this hack at least--and how they might be brought to bear on the dilemmas of "No Haid Pawn." To do so, I would evoke the strategies Christoph Irmscher enumerates for another nineteenth-century writer whose work, if not necessarily his politics, has suffered: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Like a Page scholar, a Longfellow expert too must forever apologize for work that seems to lack the kind of originality and artistic achievement of a Whitman or a Dickinson. But Irmscher provocatively argues that one must readjust one's own critical thinking to accommodate what Longfellow saw himself doing in order to make sense of his writing. One of the points Irmscher makes is that Longfellow, for various reasons that include a becoming humility, was suspicious of the notion that the artist could produce something new. For example, reading work from other countries in different languages, Longfellow encountered poems that uncannily resembled his own, even though these authors for one reason or another (simultaneity of publication, for instance) could not have known of Longfellow's poem. Such observations, along with his humility, contributed to his notion that his role as a writer was more that of public servant than of private artist. Irmscher argues that a scholar should consider this self-concept when discussing Longfellow's work. Page apparently saw himself serving the same kind of role; he explicitly stated that he wanted his work to be an olive branch of reconciliation between white Southerners and white Northerners. This aim could take such forms as the earlier-mentioned reconciliation romance or syrupy nostalgia meant to elicit reader sympathy with romanticized Old South/New South life. These elements, though, are largely lacking in "No Haid Pawn."
Nevertheless, I would like to apply this notion of the writer's role to the part of Page's story's title that I have not addressed: the word "pawn." The term seems overripe in signification. The story carries an implication that liberated slaves are literally pawns with no master to guide them, the logic of the endgame banished and anarchy holding sway. Such a notion typifies the attitude of many white Southerners toward black people whom they had seen as pawns pragmatically positioned by the victorious Northerners in Reconstruction governments. The term also carries an ecological implication--the imperial movements of humans must ultimately run up against what Faulkner calls the "passive recalcitrance of topography" (Unvanquished 3), which reduces them to (or makes more clear than ever their status as) pawns buffeted by natural forces always larger and stronger than themselves. From still a different perspective, in losing his head by yielding to faith instead of reason, to fear that renders him ineffectual, the narrator himself becomes a pawn, which so others him that a new narrative voice must take control by the end of the story. Once one has given oneself over to paradox and its defiance of "sound reasoning," perhaps one's head has been lost forever and allows for a proliferation of irrational modes of thought. The catch is, though, that "irrationality" itself puts that person in the camp of the other. Page may not necessarily have seen this in himself or recognized it even in this story that he himself wrote. But in this paradox and its spatial realizations we can perhaps find a key to reading the fundamental unconscious tension of Page and the world he depicted.
It may be that the ultimate pawn in the story, given its evocations of Caribbean space, is a more abstract thing: the ghost of Southern imperialism. This ghost is one of failure, its failure partly the result of terrible problems and obstacles in the space to be colonized, those problems being a dangerous and unconquerable fragmentedness and a slave population given to revolt. A fundamentally dead thing by Page's time, Southern imperialism could be seen as exemplifying an activity tragically flawed, and Page could use this ghost as a pawn in his own effective game aimed at readers of significantly differing desires and ideologies. With it, he could lament Southern white defeat in a unique way and condemn it at the same time while also writing against imperialism generally. Different readers would presumably latch on to readings corresponding with their own ideas, Southern whites remembering what was and could have been and Northern whites seeing the troubles that can come of acquiring a space scarred by plantation culture and that cannot be brought under control in conventional ways because of geographical factors. White Southerners could not succeed in taking over the Caribbean even with their similar cultures, so why would Northerners? And Page may have hoped Northerners could see also a futility in imposing their will too much on the United States South.
Whether readers actually recognized these imperial elements is suspect. It may reasonably be objected that the story's lack of reference to specific historical details on Southern and/or United States imperial efforts prevents reading such narratives as being present in the story at all, much less as submerged ones. Could readers really detect such things? Page's blending of entertainment and propaganda as his fictional goals makes for a murky soup of intentions. It may well be that these effect-efforts worked only on a subtle and even unconscious level for Page himself and could do so only on unconscious emotional ones for readers. Northern white readers would have had to be enlisted in sympathy with a distinctly Southern figure rendered as part of a white post-Reconstruction culture of commemoration and then would have to transfer the failure of the past to the efforts of their own moment. That is a lot to ask of a reader, especially the one Page implicitly targets--the "headless" emotional and/or uncritical reader who can be moved on unconscious levels and convinced by the power of fiction rather than be compelled by the detail of historical account.
Whether the reader connected all the historical dots or not, Page presumably succeeded if he could attach a sense of horror to expansionism and uncontrollable black bodies (an effective rather than a logical combination). The headless figures in "No Haid Pawn" specifically evoke white fears of black cultural uprising in a post-Reconstruction nation, which possessed collective consciousness, however strong or weak, of both the Haitian Revolution and of the Caribbean as an enticing space for expansion. Such horror could maybe keep harmful outsiders away from the South (the people who, as Fred Hobson notes, brought this horror of No Haid Pawn in the first place) and show the urgency of reestablishing white control over African Americans who could be dangerous as well as sweet. These are readers/people Page could conceive of as pawns. And if that effective appeal and manipulation of emotion succeeded, then so did Page, and the fictional ghost that is Page's South and the policies of the factual South of history were avenged. Such were the functions of fiction for Page, and insofar as the nation moved toward and soon codified segregation, at least some of Page's efforts succeeded to devastating effect.
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Chesnut, Mary Boykin. Mary Chesnut's Civil War. New Haven: Yale UP, 1981.
Cowan, William Tynes. The Slave in the Swamp: Disrupting the Plantation Narrative. New York: Routledge, 2005.
Cuenca, Carmen Manuel. "Thomas Nelson Page's 'No Haid Pawn': The Gothic Horror of the Southern Plantation." Revista Alicantina de Estudios Inglesesl (1994): 133-40.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. 1845. New York: Penguin, 1982.
Farmer, Paul Farmer. AIDS and Accusation: Haiti and the Geography of Blame. Berkeley: U of California P, 1992.
Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! 1936. The Corrected Text. New York: Vintage International, 1990.
--. The Unvanquished. 1938. The Corrected Text. New York: Vintage International, 1991.
Fry, Joseph A. Dixie Looks Abroad: The South and U.S. Foreign Relations, 1789-1973. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2002.
Glissant, Edouard. Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays. Trans. Michael J. Dash. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1989.
--. Poetics of Relation. Trans. Betsy Wing. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1997.
Guterl, Matthew Pratt. "Refugee Planters: Henry Watkins Allen and the Hemispheric South." American Literary History 23 (2011): 724-50.
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Florida Atlantic University
(1) I want to thank Barbara Ladd, John Lowe, and Kirstin Squint for the SSSL panel this paper originated in. Thanks to my colleagues who offered prescient feedback, including Eric Berlatsky and Papatya Bucak. Thank you to Susan Donaldson and the anonymous reader for Mississippi Quarterly for their tremendously helpful comments.
(2) Frederick Douglass had pointed out this doubleness of rhetoric a good four decades before Page when he noted that for fear of spies sent by masters onto plantations, slaves invariably reported that they led happy lives when asked by white people about their living and working conditions.
(3) For treatments of this story, see Cuenca, Cowan, and Rubin. Fred Hobson extensively investigates Page's oeuvre for critiques of slavery as a system inflicted on white Southerners "beneficial for the Negro but detrimental for the Southern white" (141). In Page's thinking, while race-based slavery may have held back the white South economically and culturally, its ordering of race relations was a positive thing. "No Haid Pawn," Hobson points out, illustrates Page's tendency to blame interracial conflicts on the agitation of outsiders just as outsiders, according to Page, inflicted slavery on Southerners.
(4) In the sense that Page saw the New South as the Old South channeled through new lines, he often established the proximity of past to present. But in the ghost Page finds a vestige of the past "living in" the present.
(5) See Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!. For comment on the Caribbean in United States Southern literature generally, see Loichot; Lowe, "Reconstruction Revisited"; and the essays in Adams, Bibler, and Accilien.
(6) This essay will engage recent works on Page's relation to United States imperialism, differing from and adding to them by considering his engagement with imperialism at an early rather than a middle or late stage of his career.
(7) On the biracial plantation family, see Lowe, "Re-creating a Public for the Plantation," and Handley.
(8) As Cowan notes, the nonsupernatural explanation for this moment is that the visitor is actually the Congo desperado dragging a sack of belongings back home, a claim supported by the narrator's earlier observation that a fire had recently been built in one of the Big House fireplaces.
(9) See Holman for a description of this process.
(10) Interestingly, subsequent editions of In Ole Virginia (for example, the 1893, 1896, and 1904 editions, although not the 1895 one) included an extra one-sentence paragraph after the break: "I have never been able to bring myself to give a description of the manner in which I escaped from the fearful spot." It might be conjectured that Page offered this revision in response to readers' confusion, continuing his reader-oriented compositional process. The addition suggests that Page did not intend ambiguity about the narrator, yet the addition proves a poor patch for the still-problematic issues of time and authorial positioning in the story's final paragraph.
(11) The contrast in fact evokes that between Enlightenment order and something approaching the "tropical sublime" Lowe describes in "Nineteenth-Century Writers and the Tropical Sublime."
(12) In addition to Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, see Chesnut for manifestation of the fear of the Haitian Revolution in the white Southern aristocratic imagination.
(13) See, for example, Benitez-Rojo and Glissant.
(14) Smith's essay is one of many works published in the past decade that explore the similarities and connections between the United States South and the Caribbean in their shared history of plantation culture with its race-based slavery; it is now commonplace to note those similarities (see, for example, the works cited in note 5).
(15) See Romine's The Narrative Forms of Southern Community.
(16) On the history of imperial efforts of white Southerners, including the filibusters before the Civil War and ex-Confederates after, see also Fry, Guterl, and Rolle.
(17) See Romine, "Things Falling Apart," and Michaels.
(18) As Greeson has noted, United States expansionism conceived of spatiality in ways fraught by the same distance-proximity issues Page's story displays, "expansionism" differing from a euro-centered "imperialism" in considering its target a semi- or pseudo-domestic space (321).
(19) On US military actions in Haiti, see Farmer and Renda.
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|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2013|
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