May 7, 2014

Put in charge of shoveling the hill of manure.

"[T]he campaign biography is an American tradition dating as far back as 1852, when Nathaniel Hawthorne put aside his nobler duties to produce a piece of unfortunate hackwork dedicated to spreading the gospel of Franklin Pierce."
(Hawthorne had known the candidate since their days together at Bowdoin College in the 1820's and was thus able to look beyond Pierce's spectacular weaknesses -- his unwillingness to oppose slavery, notably -- and produce a work of gaseous flattery.)

We've come a long way, baby. No self-respecting writer would deliver such a polemic today....
"Today" was March 2000. I'm quoting a NYT review of some damned book about Al Gore (which the reviewer informs us is "evenhanded"). Who cares about a 2000 book about Al Gore? I'm interested in
this news about Nathaniel Hawthorne and Franklin Pierce. I stumbled into the 2000 book review because I was looking at Site Meter to see what searches had brought people to my blog, and one was the question "What the contribution hullary in solike grammar." What does that even mean?

Who knows, but the top hit on that search is a 2007 post of mine titled "Hillary affects a (ridiculous) southern accent." The second hit is the NYT reprint of the first chapter of "Inventing Al Gore" — "The unforgiving environment fostered a hard-edged independence and wariness of outsiders among those who coaxed a living from the land, and it left young Albert with firm, often inflexible, beliefs about right and wrong." — and a link to that book review.

From the book review:
Law school and elective office, the course expected of him, would wait; divinity studies at Vanderbilt and a career as a reporter at The Nashville Tennessean, where he insisted he not be given a political beat lest sources be intimidated by his name, would come first. He surprised a group that had set up a commune outside Nashville by not filing a story that described them as a bunch of kooks but engaging them in colloquy and saying to one of them, ''I assume you people are trying to discover the pure state.'' 
Is "pure state" a technical term in divinity studies? Googling, the hits go to physics, not to religion and religion substitutes. I add "religion" to the search, and I get a New Testament line from James: "Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world." But Gore was visiting not an orphanage or a home for widows but a hippie commune, and I'm interested in communes, because I've been reading "The Blithedale Romance," Nathaniel Hawthorne's novelization of his experience in the transcendentalist Utopian community called Brook Farm, back in 1841, where he went "not because he agreed with the experiment..." 
... but because it helped him save money to marry Sophia. He paid a $1,000 deposit and was put in charge of shoveling the hill of manure referred to as "the Gold Mine."
Shoveling the hill of manure... If you knew that phrase was going to appear in a post about Al Gore, I'll bet you'd never have guessed — not with 1,000 guesses — that it would refer to Nathaniel Hawthorne's chore at Brook Farm. It seems to have more to do with political bullshit, and in fact, I'm writing all of this because that's my focus of interest, political bullshit, as I somehow feel the internet — invented by Al Gore! — has put me in charge of shoveling the hill of manure that is American political speech. Pursuant to this task, I find that the 19th century writer I'm reading now, someone I venerate, was a pioneer in the prime bullshit that is the American campaign biography! The hell!

"The Blithedale Romance" was written in the same year as "The Life of Franklin Pierce." It was 1852:
Horace Mann said, "If he makes out Pierce to be a great man or a brave man, it will be the greatest work of fiction he ever wrote." In the biography, Hawthorne depicted Pierce as a statesman and soldier who had accomplished no great feats because of his need to make "little noise" and so "withdrew into the background." He also left out Pierce's drinking habits despite rumors of his alcoholism and emphasized Pierce's belief that slavery could not "be remedied by human contrivances" but would, over time, "vanish like a dream." 
"The Life of Franklin Pierce." I am putting that in my Kindle right now. This is absolutely known to be ludicrous bullshit, it helped get a man elected President, and it was written by one of the greatest writers in American history. It could be a good lesson in understanding bullshit, which is to me the greatest challenge in following American politics, and it is only the interestingness of that challenge that keeps me from giving in to my natural urge to leave politics to the people who naturally love politics and keep myself unstained by the world.

32 comments:

Expat(ish) said...

A very ahistorical view of Pierce and slavery - and he forgot westward expansion, etc.

Wonder if the author would refer to Obama's pre-same sex marriage biographer in the same manner?

_XC

Krumhorn said...

Meaning no disrespect, Ann, but your thought process is exhausting. How does one bear up in the field density of all that electrical activity?

- Krumhorn

Ignorance is Bliss said...

Is "pure state" a technical term in divinity studies?

I'm pretty sure it has something to do with releasing chakras.

rhhardin said...

You'll be wanting a manure fork, not a shovel.

Buying guide: Get as few tines as possible, the limit being set by how many you need to keep your particular manure from falling through.

A surprisingly few tines works.

The same principle applies to grass cuttings.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

I posted my previous link without reading it. Having now read it, I see that is links to one of the Professor's posts.

Small world ( wide web )

wildswan said...

The House of Seven Gables which was written 1850-1851 also has a political theme. The reason the villain wants money is so that he can run for Governor of Massachusetts for the pro slavery party. The house itself was built on land which one settler stole from another. Hawthorne really asks how social sins are passed down - is it like property, is it a choice, is it a grudge, will going crazy free us? will losing all our money free us? will anarchism free us? It's quite interesting and I was certain Hawthorne must have written the House of Seven Gables after his biography of Franklin Pierce but no, he wrote the great novel first.

Hagar said...

Bullshit isn't so bad, comparatively.
I once cleared about 3 feet of chickenshit out of a small and cramped chicken coop in Nebraska, and now that might be more symbolic of present day political puffery.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Hawthorne died in Pierce's arms on May 19, 1864. Gore Vidal has conjectured that "it may not have been the first time Hawthorne had been in that proximity" (Philosopedia), and John Updike mentions the theory that Hawthorne, a young man whose “androgynous beauty” often excited admiration, “was sexually molested by his uncle Robert Manning, with whom he shared, for a time, a bed in the overflowing Manning household.” Herman Meville, Hawthorne's great friend of later life, became Hawthorne's "closest emotional attraction, to Mrs. Hawthorne’s dismay." Mrs. Hawthorne also said that her husband "hates to be touched more than anyone I ever knew.”

Hawthorne's son Julian "was convinced 'Hawthorne had all his life concealed some great secret, which would, were it known, explain all the mysteries of his career.' Biographer Philip Young claims that the secret was incest between Hawthorne and his sister Elizabeth."

Ah, Puritanism!

Ann Althouse said...

From "The Life of Franklin Pierce":

"It was while in the lower house of Congress that Franklin Pierce took that stand on the slavery question from which he has never since swerved a hair’s breadth. He fully recognized, by his votes and by his voice, the rights pledged to the South by the Constitution. This, at the period when he so declared himself, was comparatively an easy thing to do. But when it became more difficult, when the first imperceptible movement of agitation had grown to be almost a convulsion, his course was still the same. Nor did he ever shun the obloquy that sometimes threatened to pursue the northern man who dared to love that great and sacred reality — his whole, united, native country — better than the mistiness of a philanthropic theory."

So… he took what was an easy position and then he rigidly stuck to it, which took some nerve and resolve.

"the mistiness of a philanthropic theory"… that's some prime bullshit!

Ann Althouse said...

More:

"At an early period of his congressional service he had made known, with the perfect frankness of his character, those opinions upon the slavery question which he has never since seen occasion to change in the slightest degree. There is an unbroken consistency in his action with regard to this matter. It is entirely of a piece, from his first entrance upon public life until the moment when he came forward, while many were faltering, to throw the great weight of his character and influence into the scale in favor of those measures through which it was intended to redeem the pledges of the Constitution, and to preserve and renew the old love and harmony among the sisterhood of States."

Hawthorne, Nathaniel (2012-12-08). The Life of Franklin Pierce (Kindle Locations 806-810). . Kindle Edition.

Ann Althouse said...

And:

"With his view of the whole subject, whether looking at it through the medium of his conscience, his feelings, or his intellect, it was impossible for him not to take his stand as the unshaken advocate of Union, and of the mutual steps of compromise which that great object unquestionably demanded. The fiercest, the least scrupulous, and the most consistent of those who battle against slavery recognize the same fact that he does. They see that merely human wisdom and human efforts cannot subvert it, except by tearing to pieces the Constitution, breaking the pledges which it sanctions, and severing into distracted fragments that common country which Providence brought into one nation, through a continued miracle of almost two hundred years, from the first settlement of the American wilderness until the Revolution. In the days when, a young member of Congress, he first raised his voice against agitation, Pierce saw these perils and their consequences. He considered, too, that the evil would be certain, while the good was, at best, a contingency, and (to the clear, practical foresight with which he looked into the future) scarcely so much as that, attended as the movement was and must be during its progress, with the aggravated injury of those whose condition it aimed to ameliorate, and terminating, in its possible triumph,— if such possibility there were,— with the ruin of two races which now dwelt together in greater peace and affection, it is not too much to say, than had ever elsewhere existed between the taskmaster and the serf."

Hawthorne, Nathaniel (2012-12-08). The Life of Franklin Pierce (Kindle Locations 812-820). . Kindle Edition.

Ann Althouse said...

That's dangerous prose, allowing you to feel exalted as you support something that normal human thought should make you ashamed even to try to believe.

It will be tearing the Constitution up!

People still make the argument that this or that change will be tearing up the Constitution.

Hagar said...

By itself "the mistiness of a philanthropic theory"… is hardly bullshit, not prime anyway, but applying it to abolition in 1852 Massachusetts was certainly otherworldly. Those guys were getting ready to fight.

rhhardin said...

The economic justification of slavery (to the victor go the spoils, and enslaving the enemy is better than killing him) became invalid after the industrial revolution.

You get more benefit out of a slave if he's free to follow his own interest, in a free market.

In place of the economic argument, which was in its time correct, the racial inferiority argument was tried ("naturally subjugated"), to continue the cultural practice, but it was doomed to fail from the start.

Moral revulsion at slavery is a modern conceit living off the benefits of the industrial revolution.

Richard Dolan said...

You may be the first, non-PhD candidate to read Hawthorne's bit of hack work for Pierce in a long time.

Having grown up in Salem, I have a particular interest in Hawthorne. But not enough to bother with his bio of Pierce.

Richard Dolan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Skeptical Voter said...

Well political bullshit and Al Gore go together like a horse and carriage.

Hagar said...

All people I know of have practised slavery in the past, or still do. Even us exalted Norwegians. (The word thrall comes from Old Norse.)
Treating your slaves badly has been generally frowned upon, in literature anyway - Cato the elder was severely criticized for that - but slavery itself was part of normal, daily life.
Cf. the story of how Pope Gregory the Great came to send St. Augustine to Britain.

Hagar said...

At that, I believe the criticism of Cato was based, not so much on the actual treatment of his slaves, as that he was a gentleman of an old and well-respected family, and thus such behavior should have been beneath him.
A class thing, so to speak.

David said...

We are told today that the great evil in politics is unwillingness to compromise, especially by the right. Pierce was a born compromiser, and always seeking some kind of elusive consensus. So maybe compromise and consensus is not always the best path?

On the other hand, you can argue that Pierce (and later Buchanan) were crucial agents of the Union victory in the Civil War. Without the compromises that are so hated today, secession could have come sooner, as early as 1850.

Many of the military advantages the North had in the war which began in 1861 would have been less powerful earlier. The north's industrial base was not nearly as strong as 10 years later. The north's great advantage in railroad transportation had not yet developed. The north's population advantage was less, particularly in the west. Europe was in turmoil, and perhaps England, France or some other power might have been more willing to assist the south than they were in the 1860's.

You can't wish for one major change in history, and then assume that the conflicts engendered would have worked out the same way except for the item you wish to change. It can never be proven, but there is a reasonable chance that the "incompetence" of Pierce and Buchanan made it more likely that the north would prevail.

Of course maybe the whole slavery thing could have been resolved without fighting. Certainly that is true. But likely that resolution would have been more disadvantageous to black Americans (and whites over time) than the very imperfect results of the Civil War.

David said...

We are told today that the great evil in politics is unwillingness to compromise, especially by the right. Pierce was a born compromiser, and always seeking some kind of elusive consensus. So maybe compromise and consensus is not always the best path?

On the other hand, you can argue that Pierce (and later Buchanan) were crucial agents of the Union victory in the Civil War. Without the compromises that are so hated today, secession could have come sooner, as early as 1850.

Many of the military advantages the North had in the war which began in 1861 would have been less powerful earlier. The north's industrial base was not nearly as strong as 10 years later. The north's great advantage in railroad transportation had not yet developed. The north's population advantage was less, particularly in the west. Europe was in turmoil, and perhaps England, France or some other power might have been more willing to assist the south than they were in the 1860's.

You can't wish for one major change in history, and then assume that the conflicts engendered would have worked out the same way except for the item you wish to change. It can never be proven, but there is a reasonable chance that the "incompetence" of Pierce and Buchanan made it more likely that the north would prevail.

Of course maybe the whole slavery thing could have been resolved without fighting. Certainly that is true. But likely that resolution would have been more disadvantageous to black Americans (and whites over time) than the very imperfect results of the Civil War.

buwaya said...

Hackwork it is, but also perfectly accurate prophecy.

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John Lawton said...

It seems the Theme of the Day is "stained"...

Danno said...

rhhardin said...
You'll be wanting a manure fork, not a shovel.

If Althouse had a pitchfork, she'd be all ready for the march on DC at some future date, when the citizens rebel against the gub'mint!

William said...

You can parse it, but it's very difficult to make a case in favor of those who were pro slavery or even those who were in favor of the pro slavery faction. Slavery was patently a great evil....A lot of the people who were considered on the left were pro slavery: Jefferson and Jackson for example. Hamilton and Adams were abolitionists but were condemned as royalists when that epithet had the sting of fascist today..... In Europe, Napoleon was considered an egalitarian, but he never thought to free the slaves on his wife's plantation or in Egypt or the serfs in Russia. Wellington was truly a royalist, but he was also an abolitionist who was responsible for the freeing of the slaves on Josiphine's plantations.......The left has their fervent causes but those causes have not always aligned with the best interests of humanity. The abolition movement was never a cause that attracted much interest among artists and intellectuals of the left.

kcom said...

Honestly, having scanned down the page and come to this post directly from the Seinfeldian (and perhaps Clintonian) one above, a completely different mental picture leapt to mind when reading the phrase "Hill of manure". It's a perfect description of a certain potential presidential candidate and the muck she's been slopping about in for most of her married and political life. Hill(ary) of manure, indeed.

Ann Althouse said...

"It seems the Theme of the Day is "stained"…"

True!!

Smilin' Jack said...

That's dangerous prose, allowing you to feel exalted as you support something that normal human thought should make you ashamed even to try to believe.

It's pretty much what Lincoln believed, until he stopped believing it and killed a million Americans.

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wildswan said...

"Hackwork it is, but also perfectly accurate prophecy."

I like Hawthorne so I read the biography after the post mentioned it. And it is "perfectly accurate prophecy" predicting that Pierce will try to compromise so as to leave slavery in place as it was left in place by the Revolutionary War generation which included his father. The bio points out that Pierce was a follower selected because greater men could no longer command a majority; Pierce could be counted on to carry out the wishes of the great men of his party. Disaster followed because the country no longer accepted the basic compromise on slavery and Pierce had no ability to develop any other plan. He was made leader because he was a follower. The times didn't allow him to be merely obscure as followers usually are. Instead his inadequacy stretched out into monumental stupidity and even became evil, (as in the Fugitive Slave Act) and became a cause of the Civil War.
The moral of the story is: don't lead from behind when the horse is full of manure.

Mitch H. said...

William, it's not really a good idea to impose contemporary left/right, conservative/liberal political distinctions on antebellum politicians and political parties. Despite two generations of partisan Democratic historians doing their best to impose a whiggish narrative of progress, the Democratic Party has wove all over the ideological map in its two centuries and change. Modern-day conservatives tend to embrace Jeffersonian Democratic-Republican "limited government" principles and Jacksonian populism, and are inclined to be hostile to Federalist-style proto-corporatism and Whiggish moralizing, big-bankery, and "big project" governance.

Which is not to say that modern-day Democrats are rebadged Whigs, nor are today's Republicans Jacksonian Democrats, either.