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Democratic Vistas

The Victim as Criminal and Artist: Literature from the American Prison

by H. Bruce Franklin
Oxford University Press, 337 pp., $13.95

The most familiar tradition of literary criticism in America assigns the special features of our writing to the experience of abundance, individualism, and Adam’s release from complicity in past history. Professor Bruce Franklin’s new book challenges this tradition on all points, by concentrating exclusively on oppression in America and its victims, as individuals and collectively. Franklin’s only Adam of Innocence is Billy Budd, who would be hard to miss, and the Handsome Sailor here is seen as a symbolic sacrifice to the massed power of the capitalist state in the person of Captain Vere, “the bland advocate and moral philosopher whose own hands remain spotlessly white while he sanctions the killing of the most innocent among the oppressed.” The illusions of innocence of other American authors’ heroes are out on the periphery of Franklin’s concern, for the heroes of the underside of American history are presumed to have no illusions.

The volume and matter of the vast literature pouring from American penitentiaries is by turns depressing and infuriating, and, like the victims who have written it, the reader on the outside may feel some of the despair pandemic on the inside. He will feel some of the prisoners’ anger at conditions of brutality and human waste, where time drags on, in the words of William Coons in Attica Diary, “like an agony of chains, each day a link in the seemingly endless forced march of time.” This reader may also be surprised to discover how much like the general run of mankind the prison writers are in their judgments of their fellow prisoners and in their assessments of themselves, and in the creative purpose to which their experience is turned. Some are overtly autobiographical, others are not; some see in themselves and others the will to fail outside, and others see in themselves and others such a raging defiance inside as to herald a revolution in the making, outside as well as inside. Political prisoners, or prisoners who have become politicized in jail, see in the prison experience only an intensified version of life outside, which is also a prison. They are, therefore, content to describe their experience, and seldom propose specific ameliorative measures.

Professor Franklin sees in this literature, for all its variety, a continuing tradition. He takes his subject to be the “literature created by those members of the oppressed classes who have become artists with words through their experience of being defined by the state as criminals.” For Franklin this experience is “close to the center of American history,” and he appears to agree with his author-victims that “America is itself a prison,” and that American literature reflects that fact. The two features that set American experience apart from that of other lands he takes to be, first, the conquest of the continent and the virtual extinction of the indigenous population, and second, the enslavement of Africans to plantation labor.

That the overrunning of one people and the enslavement of another are not unique to British North America any college sophomore out of the most old-fashioned World Civilization course could readily explain. Yet Franklin’s conclusion that the culture of Afro-Americans has been central to American culture in general, reflected in our most original contributions, would find small opposition today, although it sounds extreme to put it thus: “Insofar as American literature is in fact a unique body of creative work, what defines its identity most unequivocally is the historical and cultural experience of the Afro-American people.” There are several aspects of the American experience that distinguish it from that of other nations, in the New World and the Old—yes, “unequivocally”—and that of the Afro-American triumph and cultural survival in the face of oppression is second to none, but not alone. It is Professor Franklin’s penchant toward the exaggerated statement of some otherwise reasonable proposition that prevents his book on a fascinating subject from being a convincing work of scholarsip.

There is also great difficulty in drawing together under one umbrella of class oppression such diverse victims as slaves, convicts, and peons, prisoners of conscience and felons convicted for crimes against the persons of fellow human beings as well as their property. The sufferings of these “victims” show considerable variety in style, duration, and consequence. The results for imaginative writing show tremendous variation, which puts much stress on Franklin’s objective to show a continuous tradition.

It is easier to show a tradition of consistent oppression in America on grounds of race than class, which is cause for regret that Franklin’s early chapters on the literature of slavery, the fugitive narratives and songs, are so weak. Aside from his analysis of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, there is little in the first three chapters that has not been said much better in the many books appearing on black culture and the plantation in the last decade, but there is much that raises a suspicion that the author is hustling his reader over important questions so fast that he will not have time to think.

It does not do, for instance, to dismiss the question raised by one of Franklin’s students, concerning the authorship of Linda Brent’s narrative, with the bland assurance that all authors have editors. Harriet Brent Jacobs probably wrote her own story, and her editor, the abolitionist Lydia Maria Child, was, we may assume with some confidence, telling the truth in minimizing her role in the work. But editors aren’t usually on the flyleaf, and the language of the writing does indeed sound more like the genteel Bluestocking than one might expect of a woman whose life was shaped by slavery. A fair and accurate answer to this student’s reasonable objection would have acknowledged the special interest committed abolitionists had in aiding fugitive slaves get their life stories in print. Most of these men and women who served as editors were persons of integrity who had something to lose in reputation for truth, but there are a few known frauds. In the case of Linda Brent there is small difficulty, for she lived until she was twelve with a benevolent owner who taught her many things, including how to read and write. She benefited as well from the influence and teaching of a powerful and highly respected grandmother, and had lived in the North for seventeen years between her experience of slavery and the writing of her book.

In handling Frederick Douglass’s Narrative Franklin does well to treat Douglass’s violent resistance to the slave-breaker Covey as a regenerative one, but he misses the opportunity to explore the complexities of his brilliant subject on the theory and action of violent resistance. Douglass’s views seem to have changed according to the desperation of the political picture, and became more radical after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, but he did not join John Brown in the end, even though he was fully informed of the plot that led to Harper’s Ferry. Over and over Franklin ignores conflicts and ambiguities in his writers and does not try to strike for a deeper meaning through a sincere effort to reconcile them.

Casting Herman Melville as champion of the proletariat works, up to a point, and the chapter on him contains fascinating readings of “Bartleby the Scrivener,” The Confidence Man, and the stories “The Paradise of Bachelors” and “The Tartarus of Maids.” But compressing Melville’s vision into so narrow a range necessitates considerable suppression of evidence. One quickly learns to distrust Franklin’s single-minded reading. Melville showed great sensitivity to suffering, and provides moving tributes to brotherly solidarity across the color line, in Moby Dick and elsewhere. Few have done this better. But few prominent Northern writers of his time had more sympathy for the slaveholder, whom Melville (right or wrong) regarded as being in something of a trap too. Certain realities must be faced if Melville is to be cast as champion of racial equality and a denouncer of capitalism. He admired Nathaniel Hawthorne (whom Franklin denounces regularly for his racism) more than any other friend, and accepted his advice in matters large and small. It is true that Melville hated slavery, but he didn’t condemn slaveholders as we’d expect a good revolutionary to do, and in White Jacket he has his sailors assessing the “Lieutenants from the Southern States, the descendants of the old Virginians, as [being] much less severe, and more gentle and gentlemanly in command than the Northern officers, as a class‌.” Melville dedicated Typee to Lemuel Shaw, an establishment figure indeed, the chief justice of Massachusetts and about to become the author’s father-in-law. Judge Shaw became famous for his decisions in commercial law, and infamous with some citizens for his decisions upholding the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.

Franklin emphasizes that the first poem in Melville’s Battle Pieces was to John Brown, whose execution was a “portent” of war; he neglects to mention that there is also a moving poem about Robert E. Lee in the same collection, and that the “Supplement” of Battle Pieces is in fact one long plea for a cautious reconstruction policy that would be “revisionary” and “adaptive” and not revolutionary, because renewing the bonds of brotherhood with Southern whites, “nearer to us in nature,” should be the first objective. Freedmen’s status could wait. As Lincoln had been, Melville was concerned with the problems of a biracial society, and referred to the necessity to coexist as “a great evil.” It is positively misleading to lay emphasis on Melville’s observation in the Supplement that slavery was ended by violence and suggest that the remark fits into any revolutionary political philosophy on the writer’s part. The context is simply a warning that the North was entitled to no claims of surpassing virtue on account of emancipation.

The most original part of Franklin’s study is clearly the last half, which includes a historical overview of prison writing, a chapter on the novels of Malcolm Braly and Chester Himes, and a final chapter on the great mass of such literature appearing in the Sixties and Seventies; it is entitled “From Malcolm X to Attica and Beyond.” Franklin’s long bibliography of convict literature gives an idea of its dimensions, and is sure to be useful for other scholars who will plough the same terrain to better effect in the future.

Franklin, however, is not entirely convincing in his insistence that “this is a coherent body of literature, not just works by individual criminals and prisoners,” although he has sheer volume on his side of the argument, which is not the case in the earlier chapters. One of the best insights in Franklin’s book is in his discussion of the difference between the attitude of the black prisoner who finds himself in closer identification with his race and people when in jail, and the white prisoner who has been inclined, at least until recent times, to find himself alienated and alone, cut off from his culture.

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