AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
Susan Howe's most recent work, The Birth-mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History, overflows with a series of questions that beg to be turned back on Howe's own poetry. At the beginning of this text, Howe questions the reader and the figure of Anne Hutchinson whom she has reinhabited:
you. Fate flies home to the mark. Can any words restore to me how you felt?
you are straying, seeking, scattering. Was it you or is it me? Where is the stumbling block? Thoughts delivered by love are predestined to distortion by words. If experience forges conception, can quick particularities of calligraphic expression ever be converted to type? Are words children? What is the exchange value? Where does spirit go? Double yourself stammer stammer. Is there any way to proof it? Who or what survives the work? Where is the patron of the stamp?
This passage asks the reader to discover the ways that Howe's analysis of "who or what survives" in the work of past authors theorizes her own place in literary history. Two general questions emerge from this passage and provide the contextual framework for this essay: How does Susan Howe's use of Melville in Melville's Marginalia reveal literary history and history itself to be a series of choices that must be rethought and rewritten? What are these choices, and where do they leave Howe's work for posterity? After a brief overview of Howe's approach to history and literary posterity, I shall examine the formal characteristics and implications of her poetics of cultural intervention, her reading of "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street," and the larger ideological questions provoked by her poetics of recovery. Howe's "discovery" in Melville's Marginalia of James Clarence Mangan as the historical figure who purportedly was the source for Melville's Bartleby reveals a poetics of cultural intervention that desires to change the ways the present perceives and creates history, literature, and "lost" authors. Ultimately, I would like to suggest that Howe's poetics seeks to determine Howe's place in posterity by finding and writing Howe, the female poet, into the past and by removing the threat of historical erasure from that past.
Howe's work, in its adherence to margins and lost texts, reveals a central concern with canon formation and cultural currency. As a whole, the recuperation of lost voices in her poetry combats the notion of a fixed canon or of any canon at all. In her interview with Edward Foster, Howe remarks: "I am suspicious of the idea of a canon in the first place. Because to enter this canon a violation has usually been done to your work no matter what your gender may be. And besides, the more you go into something the more you see that the canon is only the surface, only the ghost's helmet. Not the face underneath the helmet" (28-29). In this statement, Howe clearly reveals her belief that canon formation occurs in the service of a cultural and personal ideology. For Howe there is always a figure behind the canon who wears a "helmet" and who is at war with the work itself. According to Howe, academic institutions require that an author's voice be violated and stolen, that her intentions be erased and repossessed by a figure desiring to establish its own authority.(1) Howe's conviction that canon formation forecasts the inevitable erasure of a poet's voice is thematized in Melville's Marginalia, appearing most forcefully in lines headed "THE LAUGHTERS":
La Bruyere Works
La Bruyere, Jean de. The Works
of M. De la Bruyere. In Two
Volumes. The Which is Added
the Characters of Theophrastus.
Also the Manner of Living with he
As this poem describes the "hardening" and reduction of La Bruyere's oeuvre into a line from a card catalog, Howe suggests that erasure will occur even if an author finds a place in history and in the canon. The underwriting and splicing of "La Bruyere, Jean de. The Works / of M. De la Bruyere" by "ridicule" points to the ways in which the idea of a canon demeans an author's words. It is, however, unclear in this poem who is laughing at whom. The vague, unauthored title "THE LAUGHTERS" intimates that it may, in fact, be the poets who are laughing at the critics from an autonomous space unconfined by cultural definition. THE LAUGHTERS" poses one of the central problems that Howe examines in Melville's Marginalia: how the poet can inscribe herself into history, into the canon, and
preserve an individual and autonomous voice, a laughter and a possession of language that refuses to allow culture to "harden" and overwrite her words.
"THE LAUGHTERS" reveals a paradoxical doubleness in Howe's relationship to literary history. At the same time that Howe deprecates the erasures inherent in canonization, she desires to find a place for her work in history. She wishes both to have the assurance of posterity promised by a place in the canon and to revise the loss of voice and the marginalization that are inherent in the idea of the canon itself. In "THE LAUGHTERS" and in her oeuvre as a whole, Howe invokes an ideal world where the plural intentions and voices of an author, not a reductive blanket line from a library catalog, are remembered by history. Howe displays her problematic relationship to the issue of her own posterity in her response to Janet Falon's question, "Do you want people to know your work?":
I did when I started. Sure I did. In fact, the desire for recognition is what
screwed me up in the first place. I wanted to be in the theatre and to me
that meant getting the best parts. I didn't become an actress for the right
reasons to say the very least. That's why I wasn't any good and very soon
fell by the wayside. Then I wanted my paintings to be shown. When I gave up
painting I started at square one and I was thirty-three. I was older and
wiser and although of course I sent out some poems most of them were rejected
and I soon stopped thinking about writing in terms of acceptance. But it
would be dishonest to claim that audience doesn't matter at all. These days
poets have almost no audience but if you have even six people who really
look at your work, that's a help. Now I have a couple of books in print;
they are hard to find, but they are in print. They exist. What if I had no
book? I wonder.
Howe's digression about her aspirations to become an actress curiously skirts the question of her place in history. In this passage, Howe states that she was unable to become an actress because she lacked the "right reasons" and the sense of a calling that would make her "good." If this logic is transferred to the idea of a literary career, Howe envisions a world where an author's conviction of her own literary merit and her refusal to search for an audience will result in "recognition." While this passage centers on Howe's relative anonymity, her adherence to internal standards of "goodness" distances the possibility that her work will be forgotten. The reader is returned, in this passage as in Melville's Marginalia as a whole, to the fact that Howe's words "are in print. They exist." They have achieved a foothold in history because we have looked at them and witnessed their very existence. Howe's concentration on an internally determined "goodness" increases the artist's control of the afterlife of her work and distances the random uncertainty of cultural transmission. Ultimately, when Howe raises the moot question, "What if I had no book? I wonder," she tells the reader that while a fear of erasure and an awareness of the larger social dynamics of canon formation underlie her work, her poetry works through solutions to this fear. By focusing on individual negotiations between authors and readers, it creates erasure as a past possibility that the poet can contain by having her reader accept her own version of literary history.
The title page of Melville's Marginalia announces the text's primary concern with eradicating the possibility of historical erasure. The title of the work is followed by an unattributed note:
March 20, 1639-40--buried
This opening page contains an implicit statement of the poetics of Melville's Marginalia. The reader is faced, in the blankness that surrounds Howe's title and this note, with the threat that words and literary stature can be reduced and written out of history. The placement of this note beneath Howe's own title implies that Howe's work is literally underwritten by the possibility that it, too, will become a "stranger" in history. The dialogue established between these two texts broaches the topic of Howe's own posterity. It suggests that Melville's Marginalia can be read as the poet's search through literary history to avert the potential of her own destruction. The anonymity surrounding this note, the absent citation of authorship, the question of who indeed Philip Massinger was, acts as an initial …