Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Nineteenth-Century Female Novelists Incorporated Scientific, Philosophical, and Economic Concepts

I had a conversation with a friend who mentioned that she was having a hard time finding female intellectuals pre-20th century. 

It is not easy. If one looks at the dominant cultural structure (universities, Royal Societies, journals, presses), you just will not find them. There is always a smattering – most of whom led tortured lives. 

But, if you look at the so-called “popular” writers, who wrote novels and poetry, it is surprising how many deal directly with philosophical and scientific ideas, and even propose their own. The first two who come to mind are Elizabeth Gaskell and Mary Elizabeth Braddon. 

Elizabeth Gaskell wrote an industrial novel, North and South, that far surpasses Benjamin Disraeli’s Sybil: The Two Englands,  which is an effective depiction of the impact of industrialization on the populace of England, and a reminder of the fact that England was a nation of conquered and subjugated: the victorious invaders, the Normans, and the subjugated and dominated losers, the Anglo-Saxons. 

What were Elizabeth Gaskell’s deeper philosophical ideas?    

Utilitarian ideas reflected in the discussions about factory life and factory owners in the “North.” She also discusses at length the implications of religion and religious beliefs. 

One of my favorite books of Elizabeth Gaskell is My Lady Ludlow. Lady Ludlow is between generations, and reflects on French friends and relations she lost during the French Revolution, on the guillotine.  Her orientation and mindset is one of duty and honor; she contrasts that with the new ideas of the day, which seem to focus on libertinage (rather than liberty).  The novel is set in 1800, as reflections of a poor relation of Lady Ludlow. The poor relation, Miss Golindo, is a young woman, with chronic pain from a disfiguring accident, impoverished by her irresponsible father who gambled away the family’s wealth, now has few chances of marriage. Lady Ludlow gives her a home, covers her expenses, and shares her values. What develops is a deep regard and respect for the woman who, at first glance, seems to be a relict from the past, who resists change of all kinds.  Lady Ludlow’s son is a profligate and a deep disappointment.  I consider this book a philosophical novel of the first water, and I would like to re-read and revisit it. 

Mary Elizabeth Braddon is another intellectual consigned to a role as a popular novelist. Braddon’s works are chock-full of allusions to Greek mythology, and they incorporate and challenge the scientific notions of the day.  She was also subversive. Lady Audley threw her husband down a well so she could marry a wealthy man, and when she was found out, she explained it was not her fault. Her mother died in a madhouse, so she, herself was genetically doomed to homicidal madness.  The homicidal stepfathers and wastrel con men fathers do not get an easy out. They are not considered insane, although they are clearly psychopaths.  It is an ugly, sad moment of reckoning when the daughter realizes that her father murdered her mother in Thou Art the Man.  Likewise, it is an ugly moment when an heiress whose mother has fallen under the spell of an evil, domineering dentist, Philip Sheldon, in Birds of Prey and Charlotte’s Inheritance. The good doctor is slowly poisoning the young heiress, and, like any good “black widow” psychopath from The Forensic Files, he feigns concern and compassion. He’s a monster. 

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Who Really Paid for the Sun King's Versailles? A Look at Le Code Noir and France's Slave Trade

 If behind each gorgeously ornate Baroque cathedral in Mexico and throughout Latin America there is a blood-soaked history, is the same the case for Louis XIV, the self-appointed Sun King, and his stunning complex, Versailles?  

In a word, “yes.”  The sugar plantations and the slave trade between Africa and the Caribbean produced the vast wealth needed to supplement the draconian taxation system in place in rural France. The French were the third largest slave traders in the world, after the British and the Portuguese. The sugar and indigo plantations in the Caribbean included those in Haiti (Saint-Domingue), with 773,000 slaves, Martinique, with 217,200, and Guadeloupe, with 73,000 (Slavery and Remembrance, 2020).  There was also a significant French slave trade to North America through New Orleans. 

There was an ongoing high demand for slaves to work in the sugar plantations where crushed sugar cane was used for fuel, molasses, sugar, and the base for rum.  Work in the fields, as well as in the sugar cane processing plants, was dangerous and harsh, with long hours and few moments to rest. The plantation owners profited from the sale of their sugar cane-based products, but often the largest profits came from the slave trade itself. The slave ships and their voyages were financed by investors who often received enormous profits, although there could be risk, such as disease, shipwreck, or slave uprising, which give some indication of the horrific conditions during the “Middle Passage” – where the deeply unfortunate Africans were chained down in the lower decks of aging, borderline-unseaworthy boats. 

Le Code Noir in the Caribbean and in Louisiana

Called the most monstrous document of modern times (Sala-Molins, 2006), the Code Noir (Black Code) was passed in 1685 by Louis XIV in Versailles. Drafted by Controller General of Finance Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683),  Le Code Noir contained 60 articles that specifically addressed the way that slaves were to be treated. Immediately implemented, the document was used throughout the French colonial empire. 

A later version of it, applying specifically to Louisiana, was passed in 1724 after a large number of slaves were transported to New Orleans as a part of the disastrous “Mississippi Scheme” investment bubble, described at length in Charles Mackay’s book, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841).  Napoleon Bonaparte’s Code Civil (1803) incorporated it in response to the Haitian revolution that led to independence and the abolition of slavery in that country. 

The Code reflects Governor Bienville’s fear that the quickly growing population of slaves who were brought in to provide labor might overwhelm the non-slaves. He wanted to control a rapidly growing slave population. 

Le Code Noir (The Black Code)

Le Code Noir goes a long way in explaining the deeply implanted ideas, attitudes, and beliefs that still exist in the American South. After all, the Code was a Code of Law and as such, enforceable by pain of legal punishment.  It governed the way that whites and blacks must interact with each other and set out very rigid and explicit limits.  

Le Code Noir also helps us disavow ourselves of any illusions that slavery was anything but a cruel, dehumanizing practice.  It is common to hear the argument that slavery was tantamount to a paternalistic social welfare system.  If one has no contact with facts, it might be possible to believe that fairy tale.  But all one has to do is to read a few of the 60 articles to gain an appreciation of how nefariously cruel it was. Not only did it incorporate physical brutality into its law, it created and hardened toxic, inhuman ideas about fellow human beings. Those ideas persist into today’s world. 

A quick review of some of the sixty articles give us a sense of how all-encompassing they were and also how they reflected the values of the time and also set them in place for the future. 

Overview of the Articles in Le Code Noir

Articles I-VI:  This part of the Code Noir focuses on the Roman Catholic religion. The first article states that any Jews who may be living on the island must leave.  It does not say why, so we must enter into a bit of conjecture. No other religions except Roman Catholicism are allowed, and all slaves must be baptized and instructed into the faith. This edict provides insight into why and when the religious beliefs they carried from Africa would have been blended into and potentially disguised or cloaked by a veneer of Catholicism.  This seems very similar to what happened in Peru and other parts of Latin America, in a process of syncretism. 


The Moor’s Baptism.  Ludwig Emil Grimm (1841)

Articles VII – XIII: These articles rigidly control the relationships between slaves and non-slaves, and they set out complex rules and punishments for having relationships, attempting to marry, having children, and more.  These articles are profoundly dehumanizing and invasive of something that would ordinarily be considered to be very private and personal. 

Articles XIV – XXVII:  Slaves are not allowed to carry anything that could be used as a weapon. These articles describe the kinds of punishment to be meted out in response to different behaviors. They are incredibly cruel. Slaves are not allowed to engage in commerce or to have money. 

There are numerous articles that describe how and when a slave can be punishable by death.  Slaves could be put to death for something as harmless as slapping one in the face. It was also perfectly legal to beat slaves with straps whenever the master thought it was warranted. 

These are just a few of the sixty separate articles. Reading them makes the 21st century reader feel a sense of horrified astonishment, and it’s extremely hard to imagine how and why such behavior was justified. 

Louisiana’s Code Noir (1724) was based on Louis XIV’s law, and it made it illegal for blacks and whites to marry. Centuries of institutionalized racism, and the reinforcement through the judicial system, probably make people unaware of their own deep biases. 

The Person behind Le Code Noir

Jean-Baptiste Colbert is credited for designing and carrying out a program of economic reconstruction that made France the dominant power in Europe.  That economic reconstruction included increased tribute and taxation in the countryside, expanded slave trade, expanded commerce with the colonies, and an expansion into the Caribbean. The provisions in Le Code Noir are law, but they are also crimes against humanity. It is important to note that although Jean-Baptiste Colbert drafted the Code, he was by no means an outlier.  His views were widely held by individuals who owned the plantations, mills, and equipment. There is a sculpted bust of Jean-Baptiste Colbert in the Louvre Museum in Paris. 


Portrait of Jean-Baptist Colbert

Le Code Noir and Literature

The laws surrounding the treatment, conditions, and interactions of slaves permeated all aspects of southern life.  Many works of literature incorporated the code and depicted the impact on individuals who were living their lives. 

One contemporary example written in Louisiana while the impact of the Code.  Louisiana resident Kate Chopin’s “Desiree’s Baby,” a short story published in 1893, depicts the anguish of a woman of uncertain origin who has married one of the most prominent members of the parish. In the story, Armand Aubigny, the owner of L’Abri plantation, marries Desiree, who was foundling of unknown origin, who was raised by the compassionate Madame Valmont. In this story, the baby that Desiree has with her husband, is absolutely adored by both. 

However, one day, doubt is cast into the race of the baby.  Desiree is accused of being of mixed parentage.  Grief stricken, she leaves with her baby, possibly to never return.  Her husband watches her leave. Then he assembles all the old letters and other correspondence he can find. As he goes through the documents, he happens upon a letter from his mother to his father.  In it, she expresses gratitude to her husband and to the fact that their son will never know the fact that he has African blood.


Grimm, Ludwig Emil. Die Mohnrentaufe (The Moor’s baptism)

Mackay, C. (1841). Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Project Gutenberg.

Sala-Molins, Louis. (2006). Dark Side of the Light: Slavery and the French Enlightenment, translated by John Conteh-Morgan, University of Minnesota Press.

Slavery and Remembrance. (2020). The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Monday, June 29, 2020


Listen to the recording here (podcast)

This vast grey white slab was once an outlet mall before the May 3rd, 1999 tornado outbreak sucked it into its vortex of change and dismay.

It was your birthday and we were dining at On the Border, watching the monitors as electric lines and transformers flashed abeyance to the tornado’s raucous sojourn.

Now, the slab is there, a perfect congregating point for 10 or so flashy cars seeking new owners; an impromptu car lot replete with hopes and dreams and the ghost’s footsteps over the vestigial trace of walls now long gone more than 20 years.

My mind's eye reconstructs that once-proud outlet mall, an important employer for a small town halfway between Tulsa and Oklahoma City.

It purveyed its quirky treasures and extraordinary values for Turnpike travelers on an Oklahoma New Silk Road.

It was my lovely prairie caravanserai; I loved to sip on a cappuccino and watch the ebb and flow of human interaction shaped around the buying and selling and selecting of those consumables we now consider our life.

March 7, 2020
Norman, Oklahoma

Monday, June 22, 2020


Listen to the recording here: Podcast.

Footsteps clatter
fairy tales crossing
a wooden bridge
or the slow ascent
metal wheels, the rackety thrill

Flags fly high
over the original immersive idea
a theme park
a triggered memory
what a Boardwalk ought to be
sands slipping away with the offshore currents

You know what friendship is
tides, currents, water sliding by
and suddenly you have a point bar or a barrier island

a towering rollercoaster on shore
a soft smile in your mirror

March 6, 2020

Monday, June 15, 2020

A Strategy for Analyzing Joseph Wright of Derby's "Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump" (1768).

Joseph Wright of Derby is one of my favorite artists, and his explorations of science / natural philosophy tell us a great deal about life in the 18th century, and underlying beliefs.
Please watch my guide for analyzing Joseph Wright's "Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump" (1768).

Monday, June 01, 2020


Listen to the podcast. 

The sharp snap
of the sacred
the sugar, the will

bent, persuaded
by slow syrup drizzling
down from on high
your words whispered

A delicate demitasse
in a tiny tangle
napkins, ribbons

The crackle of the wrapper
a sense of a new beginning
words lying on their sides
on my outstretched palm

the structure of belief

March 6, 2020

Sunday, May 24, 2020


Listen to the podcast / poetry reading. 

Harsh buzz whine whir scream
blind illumination
You’re the perfect cicada
17 years of anticipation
a short sweet hot
moment of life
for life’s sake

I’m only here to breed
let’s get that straight
That’s why my hallmark sound is
of whip-sawed metal
and the concrete
you stroll down as though
summer would never die

If the night is sweet
the air damp and warm
the dog watering fountain splashy
with the sound of a collar and fur shaking
I may take a moment to stare into the stars
Imagine stardust under my incessantly vibrating wings

I saw you as you took that final fall
my pine needles will say nothing
As your wings turn to weeping
the night deepens
leaves not a mark

August 24, 2019