Tuesday, October 7, 2014

MONSTER OF ALL HE SURVEYED By ROSELLEN BROWN re: James Henry Hammond

MONSTER OF ALL HE SURVEYED By ROSELLEN BROWN; Rosellen Brown is the author of the novel ''Civil Wars'' and a book of poems, ''Cora Fry.'' Published: January 29, 1989 SECRET AND SACRED The Diaries of James Henry Hammond, a Southern Slaveholder. Edited by Carol Bleser. 342 pp. New York: Oxford University Press. $22.95. ''I am a sick man . . . I am a spiteful man. No, I am not a pleasant man at all. I believe there is something wrong with my liver . . . well, let it damn well hurt - the more it hurts the better.'' The voice is Dostoyevsky, the book ''Notes From Underground.'' Perhaps the type is so common - dyspeptic, angry, self-justifying, passive-aggressive - that it shouldn't be surprising when it crops up in very dissimilar cultures. James Henry Hammond, a South Carolina slaveholder who became both governor of his state and a United States senator before the Civil War, kept diaries he called ''secret and sacred'' in which, despite his public achievements, he tirelessly sounded a note in the same plaintive key: ''sinking of the soul and body . . . has been my companion from my earliest recollection.'' ''My God! What have I done or omitted to do to deserve this fate?'' Only occasionally did he step back from his self-pity and admit that his ''follies [ arose ] mainly from sensibility and passion.'' Follies he certainly committed, and he had passion abounding; his sensibility is more often questionable. In his foreword to ''Secret and Sacred: The Diaries of James Henry Hammond, a Southern Slaveholder,'' Louis D. Rubin Jr., a Southern scholar, calls Hammond ''nothing less than a monster'' and quotes his editor, Carol Bleser, who, in an earlier book on the Hammonds, skewers him for ''a tough-minded son of a bitch.'' Hammond gives one little reason to disagree. He was the son of Elisha Hammond, a New Englander who came south at the beginning of the 19th century. Elisha pinned his financial hopes on the estate of his wife's rich bachelor uncle. Although Uncle John Fox had, in Elisha's words, attempted ''to destroy the chastity'' of one of his daughters, so eager was Elisha to ingratiate himself with the old man that the couple named a child after him. But the uncle would not be cozened and willed his money elsewhere. Perhaps his father's example inspired the young James: he found himself a 17-year old wife who was unattractive and shy, hence exceedingly dependent, and overcame her family's justifiable suspicions that he was after her considerable dowry. Thus Hammond secured the financial independence that had eluded his father - he ultimately became proprietor of 22 square miles, a number of plantation homes and possessor of more than 300 slaves. His holdings also put him in position to seek political office and hence the ''immortality'' he was not too shy to suggest could be his. To perpetuate the family wisdom, he wrote to his son that he expected a large dower for him as well; ''I never could bear poor girls [ even ] when pretty and pure spirited. . . . Even the sweetest pill of that kind should be gilded.'' But, however repugnant, marrying money rather than a particular woman is a familiar kind of connivery. The more rarefied habit James Hammond learned to forgive at his father's knee actually compromised his hard-won political career when it became public. Not content to lust after other women he happened upon casually, he made it his habit to inflict bold ''familiarities'' upon four teen-age nieces. His descriptions of these quite intimate ''dalliances'' over the course of two years are forthright and unembarrassed; he ends by blaming the seductiveness of the ''extremely affectionate'' young women. Then, when the girls' father sacrifices their reputations to make public his salacious behavior, Hammond whimpers that he is suffering in the world's eyes for the ''coarse sensibilities'' of his enemies. (Undoubtedly Hammond saw his outrage justified: none of the four girls ever married.) Finally Hammond jeopardized his own marriage by taking an 18-year-old slave for a mistress; when the only child she seems to have had by anyone besides Hammond turned 12, he took her for his own as well. His long-suffering wife - ''a purer, more high minded and devoted woman never lived'' - left him for a few years, taking their children with her. (Whereupon, not surprisingly, he denounced her for her ''arrogance and violence'' and her family for its insolence: ''they . . . think they [ have ] purchased me.'') Hammond's political life, of course, was preoccupied with an assortment of controversies over the best way to maintain the South's way of life. To Hammond personally, his slaves appeared to have been one more burden to be borne; they were a fragile piece of property, like his mules and horses, whose horrifically high death rate was a perpetual mystery to him, and a bad reflection on his efficiency as reigning master. In 1841 he suffered the 78th death of a slave in less than 10 years. Surely the man from Dostoyevsky's ''Underground'' would have laid the blame on himself more readily than Hammond, who lived in a world of men guilty of ''grossness, malignancy, and poltroonery. . . . candidate [ s ] for nothing but the servile flattery of lick-spittles, bon vivants and jockeys.'' He has scarcely a single associate whom he does not revile, nor a single fault of his own he doesn't forgive by some querulous rationalization. Similarly, his fainting and failing, at which he does as good a job as any of the famous 19th-century female neurasthenics, after a while begins to seem justification for a profound failure of will. Although His political service tends to show up here as a victory over conspiracy or in the kind of testimonial better left to others (''My friends say the 4th July was celebrated this year solely to toast me''), the man had loyal supporters; apparently he also had some political skill. Still, for all his clamoring after immortality, beyond a famous bit of oratory in which he coined the phrase ''Cotton is king,'' and his unheeded warning that the South was not sufficiently cohesive to seek secession, his major accomplishments as statesman seem to have been of the tiniest magnitude. It takes a long time to penetrate, let alone care about, the obsessive details in the manic-depressive landscape of James Hammond's mind, and for its first quarter or so, ''Secret and Sacred'' seems of scholarly interest alone. But the voice of the diarist, especially when it is out of control, scattering impressions the writer clearly did not intend or calculate, will always exert a fascination close to voyeurism. We are forced to ask how much of Hammond's wanton insensitivity, and his bathetic habits of self-exoneration and self-pity, came with the unquestioned power to own and command - slaves, wives, children. How much responsibility should go to his father, whose moral sensibilities seem to have been less than refined? The questions lead us backward down the long, barely lighted corridor in which character and circumstance, generations of it, mysteriously collide. (For the curious, Ms. Bleser's earlier volume of family letters, ''The Hammonds of Redcliffe,'' widened the context to that of an entire plantation family unselfconsciously going about their work, courtship, deaths.) Ultimately, John Hammond's unpitiable yet pathetic monologue is best approached as Dostoyevskian (or perhaps Faulknerian) fiction. By 1861, when we hear him, on his deathbed, instruct his son ''with thrilling earnestness . . . 'if we [ the South ] are subjugated, run a plow over my grave,' '' we see that he is more than emblematic of a class and a time and a particularly embattled place. His voice is his own, and all too real.