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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Avrom Fleishman the Superlative Judge of Mansfield Park

In response to a post in Austen L correctly flagging two errors in the 1967 article by Avrom Fleishman about Mansfield Park, I responded by acknowledging that these were indeed obvious errors, but I then went on as follow.

What's been overlooked, however, is that Fleishman's article was a major milestone in Austen scholarship about Mansfield Park. Here is the text of what i wrote as part of a proposed article 5 years ago that never did get published, where I sum up what I see as the huge importance of Fleishman's article:

" The pioneer who first publishes an explicit claim of slavery subtext in Mansfield Park is Avrom Fleishman. His 1967 article ends the 153-year dead silence, and initiates the process of finally answering Fanny’s question. He begins by placing Mansfield Park in the historical context of a “crisis” or “turning point in the gentry’s fortunes.” Per Fleishman, Mansfield Park depends on Antiguan income, and Sir Thomas is Antiguan. Fleishman then writes: “And if a question about off-stage action may be admitted, what does Sir Thomas do in Antigua to make secure the sources of his income?” Fleishman goes on to provide economic history and claims that Antigua was an exception to the rule of absentee ownership that prevailed elsewhere in the British West Indies, but that it had just been adversely impacted by the abolition of the slave trade. He wonders whether it is economic necessity that drives Sir Thomas “to improve conditions for the slaves,” and he believes that the “strange business. . .in America” that Tom mentions to Dr. Grant is a reference to Sir Thomas’s crisis in Antigua. Fleishman combines the best ideas of Smith, Stern and Chapman when he points out the importance of Austen’s familiarity with Clarkson’s The Abolition of the African Slave Trade. He then takes the step that Chapman did not, arguing that the Evangelically-driven abolitionist movement must have been very much in Austen’s awareness as she wrote this novel. Regarding Sir Thomas’s startling display of affection for Fanny, Fleishman writes that “it is inescapably significant that she is the only member of the family interested in hearing from him about the slave trade.” Fleishman thus presents persuasive and unequivocal advocacy for Sir Thomas as absentee plantation owner, and for Clarkson’s abolitionism on Austen’s radar screen. However, as valuable as these explicit insights are, his indirect implications are even better. His approach implies that there can be offstage, unreported action in an Austen novel worthy of serious thematic consideration. There is enormous power in this approach, and, so energized, he goes on to achieve what seem to me to be four distinct insights:

1. Sir Thomas’s “bullying” of Fanny—this is the first conceptualization, however indistinct, of the allegory of Fanny as slave and Sir Thomas as master, which Kirkham will make explicit in 1983, and is fundamental to much thinking ever since about Austen’s slavery references.
2. Sir Thomas’s children as “bitter fruit”. This is a prescient grasping of the pervasive allusive import of Paradise Lost in the novel, the image of bitter fruit being specifically and ironically tagged by Dr. Grant’s deriding Mrs. Norris’s Moor Park apricots as “insipid” and inedible.
3. “The large and airy rooms” of Mansfield Park-- the central symbolism of the magical power of English air stated in the slave-freeing 1772 Mansfield Judgment.
4. Fleishman’s quoting D.W. Harding, who in turn is clearly riffing on Mary, about Austen’s intentions as a writer: “Her object is not missionary”. Mary’s mocking portrayals of Edmund as a missionary comprise one instance among many in Austen’s novels in which Austen ventriloquistically uses a character as a mouthpiece for her reflections, in this case on her own role as a writer in morally sick Regency Era England. Does Mary speak of Austen? Harding thinks not, but others like Smith and Stern might disagree.Fleishman’s article fertilizes the examination of slavery subtext in Mansfield Park, but its gestation will be long and difficult. Despite the wealth of his radically new ideas about slavery in the novel, no commentator will, until 1982, respond positively to him....." END OF MY OWN 2006 EXCERPT

So, I suggest to you that while ordinarily mistakes such as those which were just caught would be fatal indicia of a general lack of care and insight, there are rare exceptions, and I say that Fleishman's article is one of those rare exceptions. It is a far far better thing for Austen scholarship that Fleishman published his article, even with the mistakes you caught, than that he never wrote it at all, because HE was the one who blazed the trail to the broad understanding of the slavery subtext of Mansfield Park which exists today, 44 years later. It's a darned good thing that his work was picked up and repeated, and I would bet that the errors you cited disappeared without a trace.

I am strongly reminded of the Taoist allegory told by Buddy to Zooey in JD Salinger's Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenter, about Chiu-fang Kao who is sent by the Duke to buy him a superlative horse, and then returns with the news that he has found a superlative dun-colored mare. The Duke is dismayed when he sees the horse in the flesh and sees it is really a coal black stallion, but the Duke's advisor has the opposite reaction:

"Has he really got as far as that?....Ah, then, he is worth ten thousand of me put together. There is no comparison between us. What Kao keeps in view is the spiritual mechanism. In making sure of the essential, he forgets the homely details; intent on the inward qualities, he loses sight of the external. He sees what he wants to see, and not what he does not want to see. He looks at the things he ought to look at, and neglects those that need not be looked at. So clever a judge of horses is Kao, that he has it in him to judge something better than horses."

Cheers, ARNIE

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