Individualism and Affection
Not everyone in America has felt the surprise
of the hero of Moby Dick, who found himself bedded down
at a lodging house and squeezed by a massive stranger
named Quequeg, a completely tattooed harpooner of
Australoid race. Still, there must have been countless
anxious incidents. A custom shared by all races and cultures,
and to be found in America over a long period of time,
was sleeping together:
men and women, men and women and children,
women and children, men and children, men and men,
women and women, and children of one or both sexes.
Their relationship was usually of the nuclear family,
plus grandparents, but often included
other relatives, friends, and visitors. This, one
would think, should settle the problem of
intimate relations in America.
Body contact was ordinary unless a person sought to avoid it.
We may wonder at the incidence of perversion,
too much of a good thing, perhaps,
but there should have been no general problem with
physical love and affection.
Perhaps the Indians had as many versions of love as they had
cultures and sub-cultures, and since they were healthy individualists,
so far as we can tell, the squaws and braves of any given tribe may
have varied greatly in their conception and practice of love. When a
census of Cherokees was made in 1832, it appeared that about 150
Caucasian husbands and about sixty Caucasian wives were present
among the 15,000 or so people. Multiply this proportion by the
number of tribes and the considerable number ensuing would seem
to guarantee that we would have a certain volume of erotic
literature. Unfortunately such is not the case. One cannot make a
Colette out of a Puritan woman, randomly
fallen victim to strangers.
Much earlier, I alluded to the findings that colonial men and women
with Indian partners seem to have been sexually and socially
compatible. There is no reason to believe that conditions changed so
long as we speak of an intact social system; once the couple were
thrown into the outer world, prejudice, alcohol, loneliness, and
economic insecurity made interracial couples as incompatible or
more so than Caucasian couples. A lone Fox Indian in Des Moines,
Iowa, was not likely to stay fixed with his New England squaw,
much as she might wish to appease her
guilty conscience with his help.
Caucasian couples had from the beginning a high
rate of divorce and a much higher rate of abandonment than
were to be found in Catholic or Protestant Europe.
In the third biological generation, the second political generation,
we note the beginnings of disintegration of patriarchal family and
a heightened self-reliance in affairs of the heart
among young men and women, as reported by the
first memorial generation. Independent and individualistic behavior
increased in all four cultures of America, the fourth, the frontier,
acting as a tempting devil to the others.
The English idea was paternal:
treat the colonials and Indians as children,
whether it was the King trying to make his voice heard like
the Wizard of Oz from far off, or his officials seeking to sell the
Indians a bill of goods. The Indians were quick to appreciate the
phony quality of this appeal. Yet American officials
followed the English formula of authority for lack of better.
Perhaps, with all their experience of brotherhood,
they realized that they could not be brothers or big brother,
for that would give the Indians rights that only a father
could take away. They also felt that Indians were too uncivilized
to talk in terms of constitutions, natural rights, legality, or, again,
feared that the use of such concepts would backfire.
Notwithstanding the Iroquois confederation and a few others.
The Cherokees did adopt the symbolic equipment of republican
Enlightenment - alphabet, printing presses, constitution, etc. - they
even could say, "Look, we are like you, we have slaves too."
To no avail: they went out in a trail of blood and tears.
Every President from the beginning believed the country must be rid
of independent Indian nations. Andrew Jackson was especially
two-faced and treacherous, but Martin Van Buren, his hand-picked
President, will do here; he said,
"No State can achieve proper culture,
civilization, and progress... as long as Indians are
permitted to remain."
Besides: Indians made bad company:
disorders of the frontier were owing to Indians, whereas the
misbehavior of Whites came from emulating Indians.
They talked of Indians becoming civilized and even assimilated,
foreseeing every brave owning and cultivating a modest piece
of land like any poor White. Yet they had few illusions that
the Indians would put up with this solution. Nor did they. The White
"fathers" resorted to ridiculous language and rationalizations,
as frustrated fathers have a way of doing:
one favorite image reduced Indians to the status of infants.
As infants they could not be held responsible. They should be taken
into the custody of the father and relieved of all propensities for
harm. The final end of the idea and process of infantilization was
the Indian reservation, the small stipend, the strict controls and the
staff of the Indian administrations of State and Nation,
minding the children.
At the other end of the world was Australia. The Black aborigines
there were treated worse than the American Indian. The policy decided
upon was cultural genocide. It was felt that the greatest favor that
could be done to the natives was to stop
slaughtering and starving them, and change them into
civilized beings like oneself.
So, without notice or due process of law of any kind, squads
appeared before the native camps and seized thousands of children.
These were to be raised like White Australians,
so that when released at the age of fifteen they could
get a job and settle down. The results were a traumatized people,
general hostility, hopeless resistance, universal drunkenness, and few
dutiful young workers.
In Hispanic America, the policy was to baptize everyone within reach,
by hook or crook, and then to regard them all as backsliding sinners
for non-observance, with death-bed repentance to save them from
Hell. The Mestizo population continued to grow rapidly, and
cushioned the Indians against Caucasians emotionally and
to a degree materially.
What, then - to proceed with the American experience - would be
the state of affections among African-American slaves and freemen?
And among Blacks and Whites of both sexes? Despite all fear, hate,
and prejudice, the innumerable rapes of African-Americans by
Caucasians that patterned White-Black relations over a three-century
period, despite all the excuses offered by the offending male, to the
effect that "nothing was meant by it," was proof positive, a thousand
times over, that miscegenation is a normal behavior
between races and groups of the human species.
One estimate has the average American with 5% black genes.
Another poins out that the average American is an octoroon.
So much for averages.
But restrictive or permissive laws are also normal behavior.
"normal" we mean normally schizoid. In Louisiana,
that paradise of racial and ethnic mixing, the law
defined as black anyone who was one thirty-second of
black ancestry and refused to re-classify a woman of
three thirty-seconds in 1982. )
The whole system was set against lending permanence to
interracial liaisons. One result was the diminution of the
meaning of love and affection among both Whites and Blacks,
and as a corollary, the restriction of sex very often to
In the slave-free South, North and West,
as well as in the slave culture,
the separation of sex from affection was occurring
by the preaching of a Puritanical morality:
bodily lust was sinful and should be suppressed.
Of course it did not work much of the time
bodily; but it did work in the mind, where
affectional ties are arranged.
Further, the great mobility of Americans, boys and men especially,
and the lack of better occupation for women, led to a proliferation
of prostitution around the country, in cities and back of villages
certainly, but off in a cabin or on a barge. The railroad gangs that
sweated out a hundred thousand miles of track in a century's time
were in all cases followed faithfully, but at a reasonable distance for
propriety, by a caravan of prostitutes, their fancy-men, and the
gamblers; somewhere around, more of a loner,
would be the wagon and tent of a priest or minister
with the paraphernalia needed to save men's souls.
And to hitch them to women. For so few women were on the scene,
that a pimp could do double duty as a proxenete.
As Chicago became the world's greatest rail center,
it also became the world's greatest center of prostitution.
No country in the world imposed abstinence upon men like the
developing United States effected. The large population of
single immigrant men, the innumerable gangs at work upon the
infrastructure of the country distant from homes and families, the
troops of Indians and Indian-fighters chasing each other about, the
scarcity of lodging facilities everywhere for women and children,
the large percentage of jobs that required prolonged absences
from home - at sea, in the forests, wagoneering and barging
long distances: all this meant that sexual and other female
companionship had to be hasty, strange, risky,
frustrating, and mis-educative.
That a pleasant courtship technique - French literature of the 1700's
and 1800's provided many volumes of this, untranslated - would be
practically absent, and that sexual harassment would be a typical
American male's idea of courtship was to be expected.
Dreams and illusions of affectionate heterosexual
relationships were difficult to put to the test.
The minister and the priest performed usefully as
match-makers. American girls went more than half way to help
out, too, by contrast with their counterparts in Europe; they were
chaperoned less and more was forgiven them. Nowhere was "petting"
so widely practiced, to the point of being a substitute for sexual
intercourse. Joining a church group was always the more productive
way to meet the opposite sex; often the problem thereafter was how
to escape the church group with your prey.
Contraception was well-known, and may have been in
some small part responsible for a diminution of the
birth rate in the nineteenth century.
There was a widely read literature on sex, containing such works as
Chastity, by a food freak named Graham, the same as invented the
graham cracker that lucky American children ate with warm milk
before retiring. He foresaw the most destructive consequences
emerging from masturbation and frequent marital intercourse.
They were affronts to God as well as the human body,
or so he would admonish in his quasi-revivalist lectures.
A reading of the American classics on sex and affection is
disturbing. Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose "Scarlet Letter" gave
millions of young scholars a definition of adultery, gave them little
else, since the act took place well before the action of the book.
Hawthorne seems more concerned
to make a Protestant Virgin Mary out of Hester Prynne,
nursing her illegitimate baby with the finely
embroidered "A" for adulteress on her dress.
The male characters are hardly dreamboats, mainly
a stand-in for a severe father and a
milquetoast preacher as lover.
His evasion of genitality is fully common. Of the group that grew up
and therefore learned its mores between 1820 and 1850 - Bret Harte,
Mark Twain, William Howells, Henry James, James Russell Lowell,
Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson - life is portrayed very well but
without "normal" sexuality. (I do not deny - indeed, it should be
stressed -that Mark Twain had a hand in writing and
publishing pornography and scatology.)
Nor is one impressed in this regard by the earlier and first
generation of productive literati. The beginning of the century, the
end of the Federalist Period, witnessed Washington Irving, James
Fenimore Cooper, Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe, William Cullens
Bryant, James Whitleaf Whittier, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver
Wendell Holmes, Henry Thoreau, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Eros bows out of this group as well.
Edgar Allen Poe, the unique American writer who influenced high
literary circles in Europe, and who invented the detective story, was
sexually supine. He overtly subjected men to women in his stories. His
women are commanding, masculine, beautiful like hard jewels,
witchlike, tyrant mothers, approachable only when dead.
No guide to love and affection he.
Killed by alcoholism, he lay in an unmarked grave for many years
until the city of Baltimore scraped together the price of a tombstone,
at the unveiling of which the only literary personage present was
an all-loving homosexual, Walt Whitman.
Others speak of love, of course, Whitman and Melville, for
instance. Whitman makes a philosophy of love and democracy,
beginning by loving them both with an embarrassing sensuality
(considering that they are abstractions) and extending into a
grandiose lush love for everything in the world, culminating in what
experts in poetry read as masturbatory celebrations.
"The main purport of these States is to found a superb
friendship, exalted, previously unknown,
Because I perceive it waits, and has been
always waiting, latent in all men."
Whitman, a volunteer nurse in the Civil War,
got a job in Washington in 1865 as a clerk in the
Office of Indian Affairs of the Department of the Interior.
Secretary of the Department James Harlan peered
en passant into a copy of "Leaves of Grass" on
Whitman's desk, and fired him as a "free lover."
But then, everyone knows that Whitman's drive was homoerotic:
does that mean that only homosexuals can love everything, be
panerotic? Critic Harold Bloom wondered
"that our national poet should be an egotistical onanist,
who proclaimed his own divinity in a series of
untitled, unrhymed, apparently prosy verses.."
Whitman became unquestionably America's national poet.
At Camden, New Jersey, where he lived last and died,
a conclave in 1998 celebrated his "Many Cultures."
On Whitman as teacher and how to teach Whitman,
on Whitman as influence on poets of the world,
on religion, on photography, on journalism, on pragmatism,
on sexuality, on the city, on song, on publishing, on music,
on politics, on war, and on gender. One could concentrate upon
him because he had no family except all men,
which he nobly projected to all mankind.
He would have embraced the Internet, for its vastness and
its permissiveness, and the word-processor for he continually
altered his poems as time went by. Too,
he was an unabashed self-promoter and inscribed himself on
the roster of world-class authors publishing themselves, and
this would have made him a booster of desk-top publishing.
Herman Melville approaches the panerotic also,
with the Great (dreaded) Mother, "Moby Dick,"
his enthusiasm for the male figures of his book and
revulsion against the bad father, Captain Ahab,
"castrated" by the loss of a leg,
who lives only to kill Moby Dick.
His loving descriptions of the harpooners culminate in a
final book of his old age, Billy Budd,
portrait of the beautiful young Christ-figure
finally sacrificed for doing a good deed,
killing a wicked mate.
Theirs are great achievements, wonderful to watch,
and bear in mind as we seek love and affection
in ordinary Americans of this age.
A clue is to be found in the concept of brotherly love - the French
revolutionaries put it hopefully in their motto of
"Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité" - that goes back
to early Christianity and is incorporated into the
friars, fraternities, monasteries of the intervening ages and then
enters the radical Protestant sects, like the Quakers. All belong and all
are capable of being saved, including for the man moving along the
highways and byways of America, "Brother, are you going my way?"
and "Brother, can you spare a dime?"
The concept of brotherly love fits well into egalitarian republicanism
as well, and especially among groups of truculent men the notion of
brotherhood is soothing, whereas that of superiority or strangeness
or patronage is offensive.
Two large expressions of American ideas of fraternal love were the
outbursts of fraternal orders and humanitarian movements. The
Masonic Order was most formidable, but before the Civil War every
major occupational and social segment of society had its
brotherhood, containing a little of religion, a little life insurance,
many social gatherings, and ego-aggrandizing
Free Africans, and after emancipation, African-Americans
generally, founded similar groups. The fraternal lodge reached into
the remote rural recesses of the land. Founded in the 1790's,
Charleston's Brown Fellowship Society limited membership to free
mulattoes, whereupon an exclusive Society of Free Dark Men of Color
was also organized. Some say that such fraternal societies
reached back to African roots, but every region of the world had its
fraternal society, from the Masons to the Chinese Tong and German
Bund, and generally the societies sought international affiliations. As
American society specialized into more and more components, each
of these gave rise to associated fraternities. Collegiate fraternities
were no more than a superficial variant of the sociological tintype.
We may wonder whether the changing character of immigration
from Europe and Asia over the generations has altered much the
kinds of affectionate relations discoverable in the population.
Did the increase in Catholic immigration weaken the position of
women in families, change the way children were treated, stress
authority over persuasion in the family and schools? Yes, on all
counts. Did sexuality become more exploitative even as it was more
restricted in expression? Yes. Did not Catholics of different national
origins have rather differing systems of affection? Yes.
But, besides Roman Catholics, there were Greek and
Armenian Orthodox, and besides these were Jews and Asians,
non-Christian. Perhaps ignorance rather than insight rules this area,
but it might be correct to say that Mediterranean origins were likely
to signify more passionate family and sexual relations than the
average, Asian systems of intimacy more on family, less on sex.
And the whole society of systems - Protestant and regional and
occupational, and ethno-racial all together - was moving the other
way, even while protesting to pursue the oldest values, the other
way being toward a loving partnership as the norm at best, and an
indifference and promiscuity of affection otherwise.
The best way for Protestant sects to go in accommodating sex
relations was the fraternal idea of partners. Over several generations
they made great progress away from the unusable or at least difficult
patriarchal relationship, toward the notion of man and woman, and
men or women together, for that matter, finding in one another an
affectionate partnership, with a de-emphasis of brute power and
maleness worship. Even the Catholic Church to whom such an idea
was foreign - but which had gone surprisingly far in getting their men
and women in America back into the traditional household mold - was
heavily impressed by the partnership notion.
Partnership also was a most helpful concept, indeed a necessary tool,
for portraying the situation of an increasing number of families toward
the end of the nineteenth century, when both husband and wife went to
work outside of the home.
The conception had, however, two major problems. Sex in natural
biology seems to have been so universally a exercise in which the
male plays a dominating and aggressive role with respect to the
female - cases like the praying mantis aside - that a "normal"
majority, or ecstatic minority of people may feel progressively
deprived by the concept of partnership.
In such cases, the concept of individualism may intervene, pushing
aside the partnership: the man and the women, the husband and wife,
are independent persons who are together because they match well,
and as long as they do, and each finds satisfaction and
fulfillment in her or his chosen spheres, then the relationship is one
of love and affection, sexually more exciting.
This type of relationship is a minor third to the masterful and the
partnership, but has been making headway in recent years, and with
a history that goes back to the heavy individualist ideology, with the
need that it presents, to find one's way in life by oneself, in so
lonely and mobile a society.