Monday, March 14, 2011

Heritage and heirloom

Ruth Wisse of Harvard has a problem: in 1988 she coined a nine-word phrase which turned out to be a work of literature.

Professor Wisse has not been happy with that development. In a memoir at

she hints (though she doesn't quite say) that the phrase was foisted on her by an editor, and she calls one critic "tacky" for quoting it back at her. She bitterly adds: ". . . Google tosses up this quotation as Sea World caretakers throw food to their fish. On the two occasions when I was being considered for a government assignment, this was the only action or statement of mine that I was asked to justify or explain."

From the point of view of literary history, such indignation seems strange. Few writers achieve immortality, after all, and you'd think the ones who do achieve it would be grateful for any portion they receive, even if it's only nine words' worth. Not many English majors now, I suppose, can tell you anything about the short-lived Victorian poet Ernest Dowson, yet two tiny phrases written by Dowson have reached immortal anonymity as the titles of famous movies: "days of wine and roses" and "gone with the wind." And that's enough, isn't it?

Well, Wisse's annoyance turns out to have a simple explanation. When she coined her phrase, Wisse thought she was writing politics, not language. It wasn't entirely her fault that she failed to think through the effect of connotation and the effect of rhyme when, in the reactionary Jewish magazine Commentary, she called the Arabs of Palestine "people who breed and bleed and advertise their misery." A professor of Yiddish literature, she was under no professional obligation to have heard of "A Modest Proposal." Nevertheless, the scorn she was trying to direct at the Palestinians ricocheted back at her cause and her.

The trajectory is easy to analyze. In English, the verb "breed" is ordinarily applied to animals, not people. When it's applied to people, it's ordinarily intended as a scornful metaphor. But there's nothing metaphoric about the misery of the Gaza Strip, and when blood is shed there it's the real thing. Thanks to the power of rhyme, however, Wisse's metaphor "breed" took control of her two non-metaphors, "bleed" and "misery," and reduced them to metaphors themselves. Ever since, the result has been that we perceive Wisse as a woman who thinks of Palestinian human beings only as words. In Wisse's language, the Palestinians are a mere political construction, and their life's blood is a mere red abstraction.

But what might happen when, in the fullness of historical time, an abstraction like that one reverts to its primitive, non-metaphorical sense?

Consider, for example, the word "heritage" as it occurs in the American conservative lexicon. It's a favorite there. An important conservative think tank, for instance, is the Heritage Foundation, and Southern conservatives in particular are fond of dressing up in Confederate gray and extolling their states' rights' heritage. But how would they react if that heritage were suddenly to appear before them in the form of a human being?

In the years before the Civil War, it could. In December 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, the Southern economist J. D. B. DeBow discussed the process this way in an essay called "The Non-Slaveholders of the South."

The non-slaveholder knows that as soon as his savings will admit, he can become a slaveholder, and thus relieve his wife from the necessities of the kitchen and the laundry, and his children from the labors of the field. This, with ordinary frugality, can, in general, be accomplished in a few years, and is a process continually going on. Perhaps twice the number of poor men at the South own a slave to what owned a slave ten years ago. The universal disposition is to purchase. It is the first use for savings, and the negro purchased is the last possession to be parted with. If a woman, her children become heir-looms, and make the nucleus of an estate. It is within my knowledge, that a plantation of fifty or sixty persons has been established, from the descendants of a single female, in the course of the lifetime of the original purchaser.  (93)

Of course there's a difference between a heritage and a warehouse full of heirlooms. An heirloom is a tangible, non-metaphoric thing, but a heritage is an idea. A heritage is to an inheritance approximately as a home is to a house. Still, that heritage represented by the antique hanging on the wall and the reenactor capering across his battlefield outside the picture window was once something living and suffering. In that stage it was what DeBow called an heirloom, but just now we're out of practice with the original sense of that word. To us an heirloom is a thing, but to DeBow and the men and women of his cause it had a more expansive meaning. In the days when their heritage held to that meaning, you could put your hand on your heirloom, feel its blood pulse, and then send it out to breed.

Work cited

DeBow, J. D. B. "The Non-Slaveholders of the South." 1860. The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It. Ed. Brooks D. Simpson, Stephen W. Sears, and Aaron Sheehan-Dean. New York: Library of America, 2011. 85-97.