July 3, 2018

Founding Fathers, Founding Authors: Making Shakespearean Sense of the State of the Nation

By Stuart Mitchner

Ten years after signing the Declaration of Independence, two future American presidents made a pilgrimage to the one-time “mother country” Nathaniel Hawthorne called “our old home.” Their goal was Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon. When they got there, Thomas Jefferson “fell upon the ground and kissed it,” while John Adams “cut a relic from a chair claimed to have belonged to Shakespeare himself.” The witness was Abigail Adams, quoted in James Shapiro’s collection, Shakespeare in America (Library of America 2013). The two founding fathers eventually become political enemies, then friends once more before sharing their last day on earth, July 4, 1826. Not knowing Jefferson had died five hours before him at Monticello, Adams’s last words were “Jefferson still survives.”

Jefferson was president when Nathaniel Hawthorne, one of the founding fathers of American literature, was born on July 4, 1804. There’s additional cause for literary fireworks on the Glorious Fourth, that being the day in 1845 when Thoreau began his sojurn at Walden Pond and the day ten years later when Walt Whitman published, at his own expense, the first edition of Leaves of Grass.

A Nation Embattled

Now here we are, July 4, Independence Day 2018, and I’m trying to imagine what Adams and Jefferson would have to say about this perilously divided nation. You get some inkling in the 1805 letter from President Adams to his son, future president John Quincy Adams, also quoted in Shakespeare in America. After being “uncommonly engaged and interested” in rereading the history plays, Adams notes that between the reigns of King John and Henry VIII “the Magna Carta was a mere Piece of Parchment which every triumphant Faction neglected or violated at its pleasure, even much more than our national and state Constitutions are disregarded at this day.” That was less than 30 years after July 4, 1776.

Adams goes on: “Those Plays of the great Poet if they are read by anyone with a view to the Struggles between the Red Rose and the White Rose, that is to the Treachery Perfidy Treason Murder Cruelty Sedition and Rebellions of rival and unballanced factions, if he can keep his Gravity and his attention from being diverted by the Gaiety and Drollery of Falstaff … and the rest of those Rakes & Bullies, he will find one of the most instructive Examples for the perusal of this Country. Hitherto we have gone no further than a few Duels, in actual Violence. In Slander we have gone as far as any nation and for any thing I know as human nature in its depravity can go.”

Sometimes I wish we could restore the capitalization of significant nouns. For example, the way the current president uses all-caps to express the incesssant Perfidy and Slander of his Tweets.

In Love With Night

In times as deranged as the present, we need the lodestar of Shakespeare and the words and thoughts of writers like Hawthorne and Melville who loved and learned from his work. With hate on the rise here and all around the world, I’ve been reading Romeo and Juliet, the play G.E. Lessing called “the only tragedy which Love himself had assisted to compose.” The first of the plays produced in America, in New York City in 1730, it was providing the respite I needed until Juliet’s Act III soliloquy (“Come, gentle night, come, loving, black-brow’d night,/Give me my Romeo”) transported me from Capulet’s orchard to the tumultuous summer of 1968 by virtue of one of the most beautiful images in all of Shakespeare. It’s all the more striking because at that  point in the play there’s no reason for Juliet to be imagining a cosmic postmortem tribute to Romeo — “and when he shall die,/Take him and cut him out in little stars,/And he will make the face of heaven so fine/That all the world will be in love with night/And pay no worship to the garish sun.”

Maybe you need to have lived through the Kennedy-King assassinations, urban riots, LBJ, Vietnam, and the freakish ascension of Nixon, to find Shakespeare’s timeless language reviving the moment Bobby Kennedy eulogized his slain brother at the 1964 Democratic convention. So emotionally potent was the impact of Shakespeare’s imagery that the address to this day is known as the Stars Speech.

Hamlet in His Heart

My enjoyment of Romeo and Juliet was enhanced by the source, which was the same 1836 edition of the Plays that Melville read and annotated prior to the creation of Moby Dick. “Dolt & ass that I am,” he wrote to a friend in Feb. 1849, “I have lived more than 29 years, & until a few days ago, never made acquaintance with the divine William …. I am mad to think how minute a cause has prevented me hitherto from reading Shakespeare. But until now, any copy that was come-atable to me, happened to be in a vile small print, unendurable to my eyes, which are tender as young sparrows. But chancing to fall in with this glorious edition, I now exult over it, page after page.”

Melville’s contributions to Shakespeare in America include an essay on the Shakespearean dimensions of Hawthorne and a poem, “The Coming Storm,” Melville titled after an 1863 painting owned by John Wilkes Booth’s actor brother Edwin, best known for his acclaimed performance as Hamlet. The poem suggests that the “Hamlet in his heart” enabled Booth to see through the painting’s shadowy imagery to a dim “presage” of the national tragedy his assassin brother would create two years later. The poem’s moral is, “No utter surprise can come to him/Who reaches Shakespeare’s core;/That which we seek and shun is there —/Man’s final lore.”

Rebuking the Xenophobes

Just as a passage from Romeo and Juliet surprised me with its evocation of a moment in mid-20th-century American history, I happened on another one in Andrew Delbanco’s biography of Melville that brought to mind Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policy and one of the president’s most devoted enablers, retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan.

Discussing Redburn: His First Voyage, Delbanco refers to the novel’s “unflinching rendition” of the plight of hundreds of Irish emigrants “packed in steerage as if in ‘dog-kennels.’ While struggling to stay alive on bits of sea biscuit, they were tormented by rumors that they were going to be sold en route as slaves in Barbary.” Many of these “newest New Yorkers” had been “coaxed aboard by traffickers who, after renting storage space aboard ship, made big profits by charging as much as twenty-five dollars each; and those who survived the extortion and shipboard conditions were met at the New York pier by slumlord runners who brought them under threat to boardinghouses where they were forced to pay exorbitant rents.”

Calling Redburn a rebuke to the xenophobes, Delbanco quotes Melville’s impassioned declaration: “Let us waive that agitated national topic as to whether such multitudes of foreign poor should be landed on our American shores; let us waive it, with the one only thought, that if they can get here, they have God’s right to come; though they bring all Ireland and her miseries with them.”

One of the immigrants in flight from the Great Famine was James Ryan, Paul Ryan’s great-great grandfather, who arrived in the United States in 1851 aboard a ship in circumstances like those described two years previously in Redburn. According to an article about the Speaker’s Irish roots at Irishcentral.com, Ryan has a Kilkenny jersey and a hurling stick in his office, “presented to him by the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform when he was their breakfast speaker a few years ago. At that breakfast, he took out a Famine document from the 1850s and spoke movingly about his ancestor’s trek across the Atlantic.” An online check shows that in the recent past Ryan received a zero percent rating from FAIR, the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

July 4, 1853

On this date, according to Jay Leyda’s Melville Log, Herman Melville attended the Independence Day celebration in the Public Square in Pittsfield, Mass., where a story in the Pittsfield Sun reports his “allusion to the fact that in revolutionary history his ancestor was one of the celebrated party who threw overboard the tea into Boston harbor.”

wonder what Melville and Hawthorne, not to mention Thoreau and Whitman, would make of the state of the nation on July 4, 2018. Right now politicians on either side of the great divide may be looking for a passage from Shakespeare to help make sense of — or take political advantage of — the damage this administration is doing to the American dream.