University of Oviedo, Spain | Published: 15 March, 2016
ISSUE 11 | Pages: 172-183 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2016-5971
2016 by Lioba Simon Schuhmacher | This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
Race is at the centre of Russell Banks’s grand scale novel Cloudsplitter (1998) which traces John Brown’ struggle to abolish slavery in the years before the American Civil War. While Brown’s (and Banks’s) sympathy with Negro slaves is prevalent, the treatment of other social and ethnic groups, such as Native Americans and the Irish immigrants offers insight into the racial and cultural complexity of the United States. The essay identifies the three instances in which members of the Irish immigrant community in the aftermath of the Great Famine that drove them across the Atlantic play a role in this work, including: an extremely young prostitute, a “sad lot” of miners dwelling in shanties, and a gang of “Irish laddies” in Boston who beat up the narrator. It is suggested that these beings could be reminiscent of Jonathan Swift’s depiction of the Irish in A Modest Proposal, and the Struldbrugs and Yahoos in Gulliver’s Travels, in their circumstances, characterization, and actions.
La magistral novela de Russell Banks Cloudsplitter (1998) pivota sobre el tema racial al trazar la lucha de John Brown por la abolición de la esclavitud en los años previos a la Guerra Civil norteamericana. Mientras que la simpatía de Brown (y de Banks) por los esclavos negros es incuestionable, el tratamiento de otros grupos sociales y étnicos deja entrever la complejidad racial y cultural de las Estados Unidos. El ensayo traza las tres instancias en las que aparecen miembros de la comunidad de inmigrantes irlandeses en las postrimerías de la Gran Hambruna que los empujó a cruzar el Atlántico. Estas instancias incluyen: una jovencísima prostituta, un “triste hatajo” de mineros que malviven en un poblado de chabolas, y una banda de “chavales irlandeses” en Boston que le proporcionan una somera paliza al narrador. En lo que atañe a sus circunstancias, caracterización y acciones, se sugiere la posibilidad de que estas figuras contengan resonancias de las descripciones que hiciera Jonathan Swift de los irlandeses en Una modesta proposición, y de los Struldbrugs y Yahoos en los Viajes de Gulliver.
Cloudsplitter (Rompenubes); Russell Banks; inmigración irlandesa; raza; clase; América en el siglo XIX; Jonathan Swift; Una modesta Proposición; Los Viajes de Gulliver
Introducing Cloudsplitter, the novel
Race is at the centre of Cloudsplitter, Russell Banks’s award winning grand scale novel1 that tackles the issue of slavery in the troublesome years before the American Civil War. The life and strife of the abolitionist – hero or villain – John Brown constitutes the leitmotif of this epic narration, which spellbindingly reveals his religious and ethical motivations that eventually resulted in actual confrontation. As Anthony Hutchison states: “Aside from William Faulkner it is difficult to think of a white twentieth-century American writer who has negotiated the issue of race in as sustained, unflinching and intelligent a fashion as Russell Banks” (2007: 67). While the author is, indeed, fully sympathetic with the blacks as an oppressed and outcast community, and while his work pivots on them, the sometimes critical stance when dealing with other social and ethnic groups, such as American Indians and the Irish, offers insight into the racial and cultural complexity of the United States.
The historic figure of the radical abolitionist John Brown looms large throughout the 750 pages of this work, written in the mode of neo- or postmodernist realism.2 In response to the challenge the reader is confronted with at the blurred line between fiction and reality, Banks insists: “It’s a novel, not a trial transcript; and Brown is a fictional character in the novel, not a real person. I wasn’t trying to write his biography” (Faggen 1998: 50-88). In the narrative voice of Brown’s third son Owen, the story presents the protagonist’s and his family’s life between the 1830s and the 1850s, focusing on his character and motivations. Monomaniacal, obsessed with the idea to eradicate slavery, driven by what nowadays would be considered religious fundamentalism, not unlike Melville’s captain Ahab, John Brown’s “all-consuming idea, of course, is the destruction of the ‘white whale’ of slavery” (Hutchison 2007: 68). Owen had been his father’s right hand in the Kansas Wars of the 1850s, and was also involved in the raid on Harpers Ferry (1859), in which several of his brothers were killed. The failure of this action resulted moreover in his father’s execution, thus marking the beginning of the legend around his figure.
It is around fifty years later, towards the end of the nineteenth century, that Banks’s metafictional narrative unfolds in form of a supposed memoir. The now elderly Owen is urged by Katherine Mayo, a researcher for the editor of The Nation, Oswald Garrison Villard,3 to reveal his recollections and thus to help shed further light on his father’s character. Though initially adamant in his refusal, Owen eventually warms up to the project, seizing the opportunity to contribute to correcting the image biased by a blend of myth and imagination that has been built up around his father. However, this will also entail a tortuous process of introspection for Owen, as he tries to come to moral terms with his past. Emotionally distant and spiritually bereft, by then he considers himself rather a ghost of himself. Like Thoreau in Walden, Owen seeks solace in retirement, in his case in a cottage in an isolated area of California. In this self-imposed spiritual exile, the survivor not only of the Harpers Ferry debacle but also of the massive imprint of his father’s overpowering personality, spends his days tending a flock of sheep and a couple of cows. His new pastime consists in gathering his memories in form of letters, which are presented in linear narrative, intertwined with professions of his awe at his father, whom he loves and admires,4 but also detests, for his “rightness,” thus mirroring in his person the public opinion of this dichotomic figure. In Owen’s words:
…during his lifetime, like all abolitionists, Father was a much despised man, and that not just slaveholders hated him, but Whigs as much as Democrats; that he was hated by white people generally; and then, after Kansas and Harpers Ferry and during the Civil War years and beyond, even to today, that he was reviled by Southerners and Copperheads and even by many who had long supported the abolitionist cause, Republicans and the such. Nor, very probably, does it matter to you that he was also widely admired and even loved, loved passionately and almost universally by Negroes and by the more radical white abolitionists, and that he was celebrated and sung by all the most famous poets, writers, and philosophers here and abroad. What matters to you is that between those two extreme poles of opinion concerning John Brown, since December 12, 1859, every American man, woman and child has held an opinion of his own. So, yes, Miss Mayo, if greatness is merely great fame and is defined by an ability to arouse strong feelings of an entire people for many generations, then Father, like Caesar, like Napoleon and Lincoln, was indeed a great man (Banks 1999: I.4,102-103).
The real Owen Brown died in 1889, yet “for the purposes of storytelling”, Banks explains, “I let him live on till 1902, long enough to be interviewed by Miss Katherine Mayo and then to write the letters that make the novel” (Faggen 1998: 50-88).
Three passages featuring Irish immigrants in Russell Banks’ Cloudsplitter
In this mural epic about the struggle against slavery the author carefully weaves in three scenes which feature Irish immigrants or persons of immediate Irish descent, thus evidencing his connectedness with the wider context of the time, geographical area, and main topic of the narration. Yet while the novel seeks to convey sympathy towards the slaves throughout, the contrasting treatment of the Irish characters is striking. Hereafter it will be explored how Banks depicts Irish identity in Cloudsplitter. A closer look at the mode in which these characters and their circumstances are represented in the narration brings to mind narrative and pictorial representations of famine and dispossession associated to this national group around the time the story develops (in the mid nineteenth century), and in the century before.
More concretely, and from a literary point of view, it seems to reveal resemblances to Jonathan Swift’s depiction of the Irish in A Modest Proposal and the Yahoos in Gulliver’s Travels. At first it might strike forward to suggest this association, especially since there is neither external nor internal evidence of Banks making reference to Swift or to the philosophers and theorists that might have influenced him, and by extension himself. Yet Swift must have been a figure of significance to such a widely read author as Banks, as were other eighteenth century characters whose imprint on him can be more clearly traced. Thus, when Banks entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the 1960s, he cofounded a small literary publishing house and magazine named Lillabulero, doubtlessly in a reference to Uncle Toby’s whistling this air in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1769-67). Furthermore, Banks’s short story, “Indisposed”, (featuring in his collection of tales The New World, 1978) is a fictional account of the eighteenth century painter William Hogarth’s infidelity from the viewpoint of his long-suffering wife, Jane. Moreover, when asked if he had models of the epistolary novel in mind when writing Cloudsplitter, Banks replies with an explicit reference to the eighteenth century, and satire:
Not specifically. We’ve inherited the biblical epistles, of course, and the great eighteenth-century English epistolary novels that are based – even if satirically – on the classical writers’ use of it. Then they get based on each other, so that by our time it has become more than a literary form – it’s practically a genre. You almost don’t need models, you need a structure. My narrator, his psychology and the occasion of his telling, gave me that structure, but the form drops whole from the genre, the tradition of the epistolary novel (Faggen 1998: 50-88).
In any event, when representing the Irish in this novel, Banks obviously referred to common Irish stereotypes as present in Jonathan Swift and other authors, such as Sydney Owenson or George Bernard Shaw, who, in turn, might have been harkening back to Swift.
The three fictional scenes in which Irish characters appear in Cloudsplitter are likely to be placed after 1848, and well before 1859 (the year of Harpers Ferry), deducing from other references in the text and some historic coincidences. This means precisely the years around and after the Great Famine, or the Potato Famine, which struck Ireland between 1845 and 1852 and drove hundreds of thousands over the Atlantic.5 The burden brought with them across the sea, aggravated by hunger and the social marginalization they had already suffered at home, can be clearly perceived in those accounts. A second glance may incline the reader to hesitate over the dream of equality, not only with regard to race. Here one feels that the nation was divided not only racially between blacks and whites, but also socially between the poorer and the better-offs.
1. The young Irish prostitute
The first instance in which a person of Irish descent is depicted in Cloudsplitter is in book I, chapter 4. On an April evening before the family depart from Springfield for their new home in the Adirondacks, 24-year-old Owen goes for a last, solitary walk, “determined tonight not to leave this river town without learning at least something of what I would miss afterwards – for the remainder of my life, as it seemed.” On his stroll he sees several women, though averting their gaze, until along comes one who calls out, “Hullo, Red! Would y’ be needin’ company tonight?” Banks then goes on to recreate her through Owen’s eyes:
She was a girl, practically, I had glimpsed that much, and red-haired herself, perhaps fourteen or fifteen years old, with bright white powder all over her face and a broad slash of painted lips and smudge-blackened eyes. She wore erratic scraps of cloth elaborately draped across her shoulders, wrapped, sashed, and pinned so as to suggest an exotic gown, although it was more a child’s motley costume than a woman’s dress.
I stopped and turned back to her, and she said, with a curl to her voice and a pronunciation that was noticeably Irish, “You’re a big feller, ain’t you now” (Banks 1999: I.4, 128-129).
Considering the moment, place, and socio-economic circumstances, would it come as a surprise to the reader that this strikingly young “wench”, turned into a prostitute, happens to be Irish? Her red hair and “noticeably Irish” accent are telling. Owen then describes the lonely, dark, and dangerous place “in the shadows of a high stone wall,” and in more detail the girl, who is small and extremely thin (“the thickness of her wrist seemed not much greater than that of my thumb, and her waist was smaller than the circumference of my right arm”, Banks 1999: I.4, 129), with her powdered and painted face. Owen is struck by a sense of guilt: “And so here I was, where my father and brothers would never be, soliciting a prostitute” (Banks 1999: I.4, 130).
In “A Modest Proposal” Jonathan Swift satirizes the situation of the Irish by displaying not only their poverty but also suggesting their moral degradation as a consequence of the former. Though not explicitly stated by Swift, it can easily be inferred that turning into a prostitute is an equivalent fate for the females to that of the male infants, “who as they grow up either turn thieves for want of work, or leave their dear native country to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbadoes” (Swift 1729: #1). Extremely thin, sick and poor, this Irish prostitute moreover matches the image Swift had drawn of Irish females some 270 years before Banks,6 the mothers in the opening lines of his Modest Proposal:
It is a melancholy object to those who walk through this great town or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads, and cabin doors, crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags and importuning every passenger for an alms. These mothers, instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in strolling to beg sustenance for their helpless infants… (Swift 1729: #1).
The reader is not told if this nameless Irish girl in Cloudsplitter is, in spite of her youth, a mother herself, having to provide for a child (or possibly more than one), if she has to contribute to her parents’ and siblings’ sustenance, or if she merely – though not simply – has to survive herself. The reader contemplates her through Owen’s eyes as a girl who, hardly able to disguise her childishness, “had costumed herself as a grown woman in order to keep from starving or freezing to death” (Banks 1999: I.4, 130).
For the few loose copper coins Owen can offer her, “enough for a single loaf of bread, no more” (Banks 1999: I.4, 131), he won’t get more than a quick masturbation (“Before I could fully register what was happening, it was over”, Banks 1999: I.4, 131), and a piece of advice: “Come back when you get your wages.” (Banks 1999: I.4, 132). Not happy with it, he presses the girl to grant him a look at her: “Look at me? What do you mean? My bubbies y’want to see?” “Yes, and the other.” “The other? Naw, you’re daft, mister. You’re making me scared” (Banks 1999: I.4, 132). Eventually the girl briefly displays “a bony pink chest with tiny breasts. The fragile body of a child” (Banks 1999: I.4, 133). Overawed, Owen suddenly feels as ashamed of himself as sorry for her, and, in a kind of Biblical gesture, he falls down on his knees in front of that fallen woman to beg her pardon, yet only triggers off the following reaction in her: “Well, you’re a crack-brained cull, mister,” the girl says, before he can hear “her footsteps clack against the stone as she made her escape” (Banks 1999: I.4, 133). For hours after that incident, Owen rambles ruminating:
…aimless, confused, frightened by the appalling knowledge I had obtained – not knowledge of women in general or of the particular poor, nameless Irish girl, but knowledge of myself. I knew myself now to be vile, a beast. On my own like this, away from Father and the rest of the family, cut loose from their moral and intellectual clarity, from the virtue generated, sustained and perfected among them, I was but a sack of contradictions and unpredictable impulses: I was a boy locked inside a man’s body, my childish innocence contaminated now, not merely by longing and self-abuse, but by sexual contact of the most disgusting sort. I had inflicted myself upon a poor, pathetic street urchin, a whore, yes, but a person who, compared to me, was honest, was virtuous – was innocent. (…) It should be she, not I, who could freely return to a warm household filled with a loving, upright family; she, not I, who was able to stand alongside her father and mother and brothers and sisters in church and public meetings to walk freely about the town in the daylight glow of respect from the citizenry, she, not I, who performed honest labor and received for it shelter, food, clothing; she, not I, whose father, guide and protector was the good man John Brown (Banks 1999: I.4, 133-4).
It is noteworthy that this “pathetic street urchin, a whore” remains nameless, and that Owen considers her morally superior to himself: honest, virtuous and innocent. Thus she appears a victim of her circumstances, which, though not explicitly mentioned, imply having escaped, most probably with her family, from hunger and oppression in Ireland in the 1840s.
2. The Irish miners in the shanties
The second scene featuring persons of Irish descent, likewise in appalling conditions, is that of a group of miners. On their way north when helping a couple of fugitive slaves to escape to Canada, the group of the Underground Railroad7 led by John Brown stops at Mr. Wilkinson’s, the supervisor of a mine with mostly Irish workers, who is to become involved with their cause.
The dullness of the impressions they convey reminds one of the pictures in black and white taken by the Brazilian social documentary photojournalist Sebastião Salgado in the second half of the twentieth century, of the post-apocalyptic horror drama The Walking Dead, or the Struldbrugs in Book III of Gulliver’s Travels. The scenario is heavily gothic:
It was nearly dawn, and the moon had long since set behind us, when we finally exited from the woods south of Indian Pass and approached the mines and furnaces of Tawahus and the settlement that surrounded them. We were making our way down a long, rock-strewn slope that appeared to have been burned in recent years. Hovering over the marshes and stream below us, a pale haze reflected back the morning light, with the dark, pointed tips of tall pines poking through. The village was an encampment, made up mostly of shanties for the Irish miners which, in their sad disarray and impoverishment, reminded me of the shanties of Timbuctoo, and as we passed by, we could see the miners emerging from their cold, damp hovels – gaunt, grim, gray-faced men and boys rising to begin their long day’s work in the darkness of the earth (Banks 1999: II.7, 211-2).
Another typical feature in Swift’s critical writings appears here: the animalization of humans.8 E.g. a “hovel’ is a shed, sometimes also used for livestock, and the miners disappearing “in the darkness of the earth” remind us of moles. So much for the men. And now to the women:
Behind them, standing at the door or hauling water or building an outdoor cookfire, were their brittle-looking women, downtrodden creatures in shabby sack frocks who looked too old to have given birth to the babies they carried on their bony hips. They barely looked up at us as we passed, so borne down by their labors were they (Banks 1999: II.7, 212).
This depiction of those Irish mothers may contain carefully encoded allusions to the opening lines of Swift’s Modest Proposal, mentioned above (when dealing with the young prostitute): “downtrodden”, “shabby”, “borne down”, incapable of reacting to a stranger, “carrying babies on their bony hips”. It is moreover reminiscent of the second paragraph in Swift’s essay A Modest Proposal: “this prodigious number of children in the arms, or on the backs, or at the heels of their mothers…” (Swift 1729: #2). Banks proceeds thus:
As we passed close to the open door of one of the shacks, Father touched the brim of his palm-leaf hat and nodded to a woman who stood there and seemed to be watching us, her round Irish face impassive, expressionless, all but dead to us. “Good morning, ma’am”, Father said in a soft voice. She made no response. Her eyes were pale green and glowed coldly in the dim light of the dawn but seemed to see nothing. She looked like a woman who had been cast off and left like trash by an invading army (Banks 1999: II.7, 212).
Together with the following, this passage moreover bears a noteworthy resemblance to those in which the immortal Struldbrugs in Gulliver’s Travels are described. These imaginary creatures were used by Swift to crush the prevailing human dream of eternal life. Gulliver, the visitor, keen to learn more about the Struldbrugs, is informed by his host:
neither are they able, (…), to hold any conversation (farther than by a few general words) with their neighbours the mortals; and thus they lie under the disadvantage of living like foreigners in their own country.
- PEN/Faulkner Award finalist, as well as Pulitzer Prize for Fiction Finalist, and New York Times Best Fiction Books. [↩]
- Likewise this mode had been applied in some of his previous works (such as: Trailerpark, Continental Drift, Affliction, and Rule of the Bone), as pointed out in Collado 1998: 24. [↩]
- Oswald Garrison Villard (1872-1949) was a journalist who championed civil liberties, rights, and anti-imperialism, editor of the weekly periodical The Nation, and author of John Brown 1800-1859: A Biography Fifty Years After (1910), in which he portrays the abolitionist as an inspiring American hero. Garrison was the grandson of William Lloyd Garrison, who plays a (minor) role in Banks’s novel. Katherine Mayo, likewise, existed. [↩]
- When referring to him as “Father”, the capital initial letter is consistently used, as if referring to God. The remoteness of this figure is enhanced by generally avoiding personal pronouns (such as “my” or “our”) in connection with the noun. [↩]
- There is a myriad of works published on the Irish Famine and its effects, especially on emigration. E.g. Kissane 1995: 153, commenting on trans-Atlantic emigration: “By 1847, as the starvation and its attendant diseases intensified, the sense of urgency took an aspect of hysteria. Between 1845 and 1851 the number amounted to 1.2 million; by 1855 another .9 million had departed, giving a total of 2.1 million for the period 1845-55”. [↩]
- A Modest Proposal was published in 1729. The events of Banks’s narrative took place about 1848. The story is recounted by Owen, a participant, about 1899. Cloudsplitter was published in 1998. [↩]
- The “Underground Railroad” was a network of secret routes and safe lodgings used by the slaves to escape to the free states in the North and to Canada. They were escorted by abolitionists and aided by allies sympathetic to their cause. [↩]
- Animalization is a typical, yet not exclusive, feature in Swift. E.g. George Orwell deployed it even more famously and pervasively. [↩]
- William Lloyd Garrison, a most radical and articulate opponent of slavery. He was the grandfather of Oswald Garrison Villard, editor of The Nation, (as mentioned in an earlier footnote), who tangentially appears in the novel. [↩]
- The passages in italics are meant to highlight the statement and are from the author of this essay. Translated into English these Latin phrases imply that the human being is not a ‘rational animal’, but merely an ‘animal capable of reason’. [↩]
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Hutchison, Anthony. 2007. “Representative Man: John Brown and the Politics of Redemption in Russell Banks’s Cloudsplitter”, Journal of American Studies 41.01, 67-82.
Kissane, Noel (ed.). 1995. The Irish famine: a documentary history, Dublin: National Library of Ireland
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Rawson, Claude. 2012. “Gulliver, Travel, and Empire”. CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 14.5.
Swift, Jonathan. 1729. A Modest Proposal For Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland From Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and For Making Them Beneficial to The Public.
Swift, Jonathan. 2005 (1726). Gulliver’s Travels. Claude Rawson and Ian Higgins (ed.) Oxford: Oxford University Press
Swift, Jonathan. 1999 (1725). “From a letter of Swift to Alexander Pope, 29 September 1725”, David Woolley (ed.) Correspondence of Jonathan Swift. 5 Vols. Bern: Peter Lang
Torchiana, Donald T. 1975. “Jonathan Swift, the Irish, and the Yahoos: The Case Reconsidered”, Philological Quarterly 54.1, 195-212.