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.
Yet it is possible that the majority status of black prisoners may have more to do in explaining this situation than Franklin allows. In a recent thorough study of prisons and prisoners,1 Susan Sheehan reports that white prisoners now claim they are being discriminated against in matters large and small because the guards do not regard them as being numerically dangerous. These observations also raise the question whether Franklin may not be taking an unduly sunny view of the rise of interracial brotherhood in American prisons. Franklin thinks Jean Genet doesn’t understand George Jackson’s Soledad Brother when Genet describes Jackson as being antiwhite. Genet is not wrong—Franklin is just sentimental, unwilling to admit that Jackson was confused himself, and can be quoted on both sides of the question.
In his introduction Franklin states his confidence that his book “leads inevitably to a fundamental redefinition of American literature, its history, and the criteria appropriate to evaluating all literary works produced within the United States.” Although Franklin never makes himself entirely clear on what he expects the new aesthetic to be, some of its features become clearer late in the book than they have been made in earlier chapters. Although his praise is extravagant and not notably discriminating, it is plain that works giving evidence of collective authorship impress Franklin especially, as do those that conceive of society at large as a prison. Franklin admires most the works that envision society as divided between the oppressed and the oppressors, between those who labor (or refuse and are thrown in jail for it) and those who extract the proceeds of that labor through the capitalist system. This is the message, applied with a predictable moral condescension toward academic standards, presumed to be elitist.
Whether this aesthetic-cum-politics can help the reader decide what is beautiful emerging from the new prison literature is a question each reader will decide for himself. In light of his derision of academic formalist criticism, and in the absence of a direct approach to the problem of artistic evaluation, the reader is left to assume that the political message is the new aesthetic, for Professor Franklin.
The best example of Franklin’s way of applying his standard is his evaluation of Look for Me in the Whirlwind, the collective autobiography of the twenty-one New York Black Panthers who were indicted for conspiracy in 1969. Franklin lauds it as “one of the greatest achievements of the autobiographical mode.” He knows well that such a work can find little favor by current standards, for it is made up of snippets from the biographies of the individual Panthers, apparently cut up and reassembled under separate themes, illustrative of their troubles in childhood, their difficulties at school, pandemic poverty and prejudice. If the reader becomes interested in a single Panther, however, and wonders what happened to the particular boy who was hurt in the night by the leg braces of a little sister with whom he had to sleep, or the little girl who noted that her teacher made pets of the light-colored children, he is out of luck. He may not encounter another snippet from the life of this youngster for many pages, and will probably have forgotten his name. A strategic gap in the story of one writer leaves us guessing why he received an undesirable discharge from the army. This of course is all to the good, in Franklin’s judgment, for all we need to know is that the whole group are on their way to becoming “committed revolutionaries” as a consequence of an experience in life assumed to be much the same for all.
But there were some interesting distinctions in talent and opportunity among these young people and in their responses to their problems of childhood and adolescence. If psychological and cultural factors carry any weight, they were significant distinctions. This is the kind of social raw material Oscar Lewis turned into compassionate and moving literature. But Franklin is entirely correct in that his standard applied to such a work means “head-on conflict between the aesthetic dominant in the prison and the aesthetic dominant in the university….” What Franklin likes about Look for Me in the Whirlwind is that it
does not ask us to admire the creative genius of each individual artist, but to see each artist as merely representative of a collectivity. We are not to look for the unique and the original, for ambiguity and countless types of irony, for architectonic structure or the self-conscious solipsism of a Nabokov or a Borges. We are to look for what is common, clear, purposeful, useful. We are not supposed to sit around admiring the authors, but to get up and put their message into action.
A critic concerned with ambiguity and structure, however, would notice other things as well, unmentioned by Franklin. There are elements of internal contradiction in the experience of this group, conflicting ideas about white people and their possible future in the scheme of things, in the relationship of black men and women, even political differences. Such a critic might have something to say about the clarifying effects of economy in art, and he might observe redundancies in a biography of all for one and one for all.
But the statement I have quoted is the closest Franklin comes to explaining his new aesthetic, and he actually makes some fairly conventional judgments about the works of authors he treats in the first three chapters, and about the novels of Himes and Braly. Franklin sounds the note of apology for applying “prevailing formal criteria”—which he more generally holds in contempt—in his exegesis of the works of Melville, and the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. He needn’t have, for these works are complex, full of layers of meaning beyond the reach of an aesthetic that merely describes hardship and advocates solidarity and revolution as a solution. There is a lot more here than “what is common, clear, purposeful, and useful,” and much of it contradicts the standard Franklin has applied to Look for Me in the Whirlwind.
One cannot help wishing some of these “prevailing” criteria had been applied to the poetry of the prison, to the beautiful work of the students in Celes Tisdale’s poetry workshop in Attica, collected in Betcha Ain’t,2 or to Etheridge Knight’s poems and anthology.3
The trouble is that no measure of value in Franklin’s book will stay in place very long except the one he applies to the collective biography of the Panther 21; and even this will not serve in the analysis of many of the slave songs Franklin mentions, products of a richly textured oral tradition that reflects the yearnings of a people for freedom, their sorrows, their religion, their work rhythms, and even their play. Like all folk traditions there are here elements of ambiguity, possibilities for diverse readings. Indeed these songs probably meant different things to different singers. In his recent excellent work Black Culture and Black Consciousness,4 Lawrence J. Levine provides an excellent warning: “the familiar urge to see in heroes only virtue and in villains only malice has an analogue in the desire to see in the oppressed only unrelieved suffering and impotence.”
Culture is much more complex, of course, and one cannot get from treatment provided by Franklin one-tenth of the subtlety and insight available in other studies appearing regularly over the past decade. Franklin’s choices to illustrate his meaning are more explicit than the more guarded (and more interesting) expressions of protest that are registered in most of the songs. Some of those songs that celebrate Christian brotherhood Franklin sees as reflecting a political consciousness, a point that needs more demonstration than a simple assertion.
The reader who has finished the relatively discrete essays that comprise Franklin’s book may notice that the unity of subject is more apparent than real. He may then be tempted to play musical chairs with the title, trying out “the Criminal as Victim and Artist,” and “the Artist as Victim and Criminal” as possible substitutions. The first substitution works well enough once the reader grasps that “criminal” and “victim” mean the same thing to Franklin. For him “criminal”, is an elastic category that includes slaves, taken individually and collectively, Herman Melville (who qualifies on the basis of having served before the mast), political prisoners like the New York 21, and others serving time for armed robbery. Their crimes, writes Franklin, are defined by society, and are
mostly those peculiar to the condition of poverty and forced labor: refusal to work; desertion and escape; mutiny and revolt; revolution. Their art expresses the experience of being legally kidnapped, plundered, raped, beaten, chained, and caged—and the understanding that results.
Few of his authors have experienced the full sweep of these evils, and several of his victims have done a little plundering and raping on their own. But “Artist” would never work as the subject of the title, because Franklin never explains the relationship between the experience and the artistic performance. What one reaches for in vain is some psychological understanding of the relationship between social rebellion and the creative impulse that produced the “art.” At bottom it is the relationship of art to experience, and the part talent might be expected to play, that baffles the reader in Franklin’s work. Perhaps an illustration from the visual arts may make the point.
In the late summer of last year visitors happening through the French department of Limousin may have stopped at a small hostelry in a town not far from Limoges, and seen in the lobby there a collection of garish semi-abstract paintings, shocking and violent in color, line, and subject, conducive neither to bon appetit nor a good night’s sleep. The pictures displayed no superior technique or construction, and the subjects, which seemed to be war and man’s inhumanity to man, are sadly commonplace in our own time. Clearly Picasso’s brush was not at work here, and there was no Guernica among these pictures. Yet for one visitor at that auberge these pictures will not be forgotten. The oddity of the place of their being shown, and a little desultory research in the postcard display clinched that.
Within a few kilometers of the spot lay the tragic village of Oradour-sur-Glane, where on June 10, 1944, the Nazis forced 500 women and children into the village church and machinegunned and burned them to death. Many men of the village met the same fate, suggested no doubt to their executioners by the Normandy invasions then taking place not far to the west. Any painter who had been as much as four years old in 1944, living in that region, would surely have been connected in some way with some victim of the flames. Were this painter and his paintings so connected with this historical horror? Even the thought that they might be would make them memorable. Or were these pictures perhaps “better” than they seemed at first? What is the worth of first-hand experience in evaluating the art derived from it? What are we to say of the great writer or painter for whom insight and wisdom and sheer talent serve better than actual experience serves others? Is being “memorable” the measure of greatness?
Professor Franklin is not very helpful on these questions, but they are at the heart of the task he has set himself. How are his readers, under the conviction that he has really found a new literature, to set about exploring it? Are all written works originating in human oppression equally valid? Is it possible that some works written by the oppressed are not art? Where would a reader with limited time begin? After roundly berating American academe, “the last bastion of European colonialism in the United States,” for its neglect of the literature he describes, its class-bound elitism, and ethnically determined aesthetic standards, Franklin suggests that we shall have to “change radically our critical methodologies, our criteria for literary excellence, and our canon of great literature.” The reader supposes that some guidelines will be forthcoming, but the closest Franklin comes is the paean to revolutionary utility expressed in praise of Look for Me in the Whirlwind.
That there will be standards is implied in his reassurance that there will be no need to lower them. That literal historical accuracy will not be a very important question is suggested by the fact that no question is raised concerning the veracity of a single description, or accuracy of any text discussed. That traditional standards of English usage will play no large part is suggested by the sport Franklin makes of teachers’ conscious efforts to inculcate grammatical expression. This may indeed be stultifying, but one can see well enough that the polar extreme of this tends toward the tower of Babel. Indeed clarity is not the particular strength of the literature of the prison. Franklin’s view seems to boil down to a conflation of experience and art so complete as to suggest that those pictures seen at Oradour are good if they derive from the painter’s own experience, and deficient to the degree they do not.
The problem is that Professor Franklin’s work is tied together not so much by its stated subject, the literature of oppression, as by his passionate hostility to the current practice of literary criticism which he associates with elitist conservatism, and his devotion to his own Marxist theory of literature. The latter has led Franklin to suppression of disagreeable evidence, and exaggerated claims. The first has led him to ad hominem arguments and inaccurate descriptions of the current state of appreciation of black literature in colleges. American Studies programs all over the country offer for serious study representative works of the kind Franklin describes, as a trip through any college bookstore would demonstrate. The version of the “New Criticism” he attacks has by now much declined in its influence. History courses pursue the cultural expressions and artistic contributions of minorities as important aspects of social history.
Nobody would claim there is no room for improvement, but it is also fair to remember that those who plan curricula have not always found it easy to please. If English departments have sometimes been remiss, it is but justice to recall that not long ago one prominent reaction to the neglect of Afro-American literature and history was to demand separate classes and/or even separate departments for Afro-American studies. Not very long ago a holdout for integration in American literature and history was as much in danger of being labeled racist, almost, as a holdout for segregated schools. The Victim as Criminal and Artist suffers from overstatement, selective evidence, and confusing contradictions. It is a shame a good idea has been so spoiled.
August 17, 1978
A Prison and a Prisoner, by Susan Sheehan (Houghton Mifflin, 1978). ↩
Betcha Ain’t: Poems from Attica, edited by Celes Tisdale (Broadside Press, Detroit, 1974). ↩
Poems from Prison (Broadside Press, 1968); Belly Song and Other Poems (Broadside Press, 1973); Black Voices from Prison, edited by Etheridge Knight (Pathfinder Press, 1970). ↩
Oxford University Press, 1977. ↩