LOOKING DOWN ON THE DRAFT RIOTS:
MATTIE GRIFFITH AND THE ELEVATED POINT OF VIEW IN “THE HOUSE-TOP”
Melville and Whitman each had his say about the New York City Draft Riots of July 1863, widely regarded as the worst civil uprising in U. S. history. In the year of the Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg, working-class whites, mostly Irish immigrants, feared increased competition for jobs and opposed the new Conscription Act with its $300 exemption for men of means. Anti-draft demonstrations yielded in subsequent days to extreme racist violence. Some rioters invaded homes, looted businesses, tortured and lynched African Americans, and burned down an orphanage. State militia and some federal troops were called in finally to quell the insurrection. Whitman wrote of the shocking violence as “the Devil’s own work.” Melville blamed some blend of devolution and depravity in “The House-top,” one of the better known Civil War poems from Battle-Pieces.
Neither Melville nor Whitman was in town that week in mid-July to personally see anything of the draft riots. Mattie Griffith (1828-1906) was. She gave her first-hand impressions in a letter to fellow abolitionist Mary Anne Estlin (1820-1902) of Bristol, England. I want to share part of Griffith’s account and compare her take with Melville’s. Besides identical subject matter, the particular relevance to “The House-top” concerns point of view, the question of who speaks. Is it Melville himself, as omniscient Bard (Helen Vendler)? Or Wordsworthian wanderer (Robert A. Duggan, Jr)? One influential line of criticism starts with the reading of the poem by Stanton Garner as the dramatic monologue of a radical Republican, contemptuous of the Irish rabble, aggressively patriotic as a member of the elite Union League Club and therefore glad for any military intervention that restores order. Others like Timothy Sweet in Traces of War and Gary Grieve-Carlson recognize one meditative speaker of several minds, hence the changing, unstable perspective. Cody Marrs likes the single “genteel witness” identified by Garner. Dennis Berthold also would accept one speaker, but one whose disdain for unruly mobs is close to Melville’s and therefore not so ironic as Garner supposed. Discerning multiple voices, David Devries and Hugh Egan argue against Garner’s lone spectator that the initial eyewitness perspective “dissolves into competing philosophical discourses” (31). Wyn Kelley similarly emphasizes the poem’s “contending views,” but locates them in one speaker with a ventriloquist’s ability to project different convictions about human nature and civil society (237). No critic thinks the speaker is a woman.
With that in mind as a possibility, let me excerpt part of what Mattie Griffith wrote Mary Anne Estlin from NY on July 27, 1863
My dear Miss E[stlin],
It is scarcely the time to write to you now, while I am so excited by the recent outrageous Irish mob which has just disgraced this city of the free North; you will, no doubt, have read accounts of it. For four days this entire city was under the rule of the most boisterous, noisy, riotous, murderous mob that ever disgraced barbaric, let alone civilized, times. The conscription was made the pretext, but really it was the outbreak of the sympathizers with the Southern rebellion. That I live to tell you the story is a marvel, for the mob threatened to burn our house, because the American Freedman’s Commission Office is under this roof, and we lived in momentary expectation of an attack. I can scarcely describe to you my feelings—they were not feelings, but a confused sense of half being. We had no police in the streets; they had all been detailed to the more immediate scenes of violence. Murder and arson stalked abroad. Men entered houses and demanded money from ladies at the point of the bayonet. The mob burnt any house they fancied; one telegraphic wire was destroyed; railway tracks torn up; the fire-engines were not allowed to work; plunder and murder went on by the wholesale. Through the bowed blinds of my windows I watched the strange, wretched, abandoned creatures that flocked out from their dens and lairs. They stood under my window, defied the Government, cursed the draft, and used all sorts of wicked language. I was heart-sick. The negroes—the poor negroes! They have been the worst sufferers—no one helped them. They were recklessly shot down, hanged, burned, roasted alive—every device and refinement of cruelty practiced upon them, and no one dared interpose in their behalf. God knows my heart bleeds when I attempt to recount the atrocities to which, in their friendless, helpless condition, they were forced to submit. A child of three years of age was thrown from a fourth story window and instantly killed. A woman one hour after her confinement was set upon and beaten with her tender babe in her arms, and driven, on peril of her life, to the woods, where she remained during a pelting storm, and was found dead next morning. Children were torn from their mothers’ embrace, and their brains blown out in the very face of the afflicted mothers. Men were burnt by slow fires,—mutilated,—arms, limbs cut off, and they forced to meet death in this slow manner! All sorts of barbarities were practiced for four long bloody days, each one of us silently waiting our own call. You see our “Copperhead” governor [Horatio Seymour] had most artfully denuded the city of the military, by ordering off the regiments to Pennsylvania under pretext of whipping the rebel invaders of that state.Most obvious among similarities is the physically elevated viewpoint. Melville’s speaker looks down from the house-top or roof. Mattie Griffith looked down “through the bowed blinds of my windows” on real rioters from above her workplace. Melville’s reference to Sirius, the dog-star that sets in the southwest, situates the House-top somewhere uptown, north and east of visible fires—possibly in Mattie Griffith’s vicinity in the present East Village, at the corner of Second Avenue and East 9th Street. Both use arson as trope to get at the evil behind the setting of fires. Griffith personifies arson sensationally, as one of two roving criminals: “Murder and arson stalked abroad.” Melville’s “red Arson” with a capital A “balefully glares,” demonically, like Milton’s Satan or a medieval monster—say Grendel. In Mardi, the phrase baleful glare occurs in allegories of slavery and rebellion, connecting Calhoun as a southern zombie and the European revolutions of 1848.
It makes my blood boil to think of all these outrages....
[Courtesy of the Trustees of the Boston Public Library / Rare Books
MS. A. 9. 2. 31 p. 74]
My sincere thanks go to librarian Sean Casey of the Rare Books Department, Boston Public Library for expert help in locating this printed copy of Mattie Griffith's letter to Mary Anne Estlin at BPL.
Looking down involves for both writers an attitude of moral and cultural superiority, beyond physical elevation. Both employ animal imagery to describe the scene of the riots. Griffith views rioters as subhuman denizens of the jungle: “strange, wretched, abandoned creatures that flocked out from their dens and lairs.” Melville’s speaker belittles working-class rioters as common pests: ”The town is taken by its rats.” Melville’s “ship rats” and wharf rats are inescapably Irish rats with ancestors in fairy tale and Elizabethan folklore. Figuring Law and Religion as metaphorical charms and spells does not betray contempt for Law and Religion, necessarily. As the Pied Piper teaches, that’s how you get rid of rats. Rhyme them to death with song, perhaps incantatory blank verse, or as one old playwright has it, “satire steeped in vinegar.”
Besides all the rats, Melville’s animal imagery includes references to dogs (the dog-star Sirius; plus dog-like cynics) and tigers. It’s the dog-days and the summer heat agitates New Yorkers like tropical heat agitates “tawny tigers” in “matted shades.” It’s tempting to equate the overheated tigers with rioters, but that would soon lead us to confuse cats and rats. The tiger symbolizes wild, strong forces, menacing in destructive capability. One hundred and fifty years ago next month, broadsides all over the city proclaimed: “DON’T UNCHAIN THE TIGER” with evident reference to the threat of violence by working-class gangs. But conservative Democrats overtly read the tiger as a symbol of the radical wartime agenda, exhibited in the unlawful suspension of constitutional rights and the Emancipation Proclamation. As the Pittsfield, Massachusetts Sun (still Melville’s local newspaper, though not for long) editorialized on August 27, 1863, the tiger of “mob spirit” was preceded by the more dangerous “abolition tiger” of radical anti-slavery who
“began his ravages when fanatics and partisans obtained a prepondering influence in the administration of public affairs.”Unleashed by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the “abolition tiger” represents for the Sun and like-minded readers the bigger enemy to freedom and national unity, more powerful and menacing than the tiger of “mob spirit.” If the speaker in “The House-top” is a Republican and abolitionist, Melville’s image of “tawny tigers” would seem all the more ironic and self-revealing in the way of dramatic monologues. To Pittsfield conservatives, Abolition tigers were less manageable than Irish rats, more to be feared as influential agents of political agitation and unrest. With vexed, overheated blood Melville’s tigers are “apt for ravage,” recalling the perceived “ravages” of abolition tigers. Not only that, they pace in their “matted shades,” almost daring you to imagine Mattie Griffith the abolitionist, looking down behind her bowed blinds, with her blood understandably boiling.
Besides the similar use of animal imagery, Griffith and Melville both characterize the actions of rioters as chronological regression. Griffith describes the rioters as a collective disgrace to the Stone Age. In the same spirit Melville goes even further. Unwilling to grant human status to roaming torturers and killers, Melville registers their moral devolution in geological rather than historical time: “man rebounds whole æons back in nature.” With aeons Melville generously ascribes unspeakable deeds to prehistoric creatures with the morality of protozoa. Folk-tale imagery of rats and magic no longer suffices.
If any lines of “The House-top” are “steeped in vinegar” to ward off rats, those would be the lines that expressly, imperially “hail” Draco, as everyone recognizes the embodiment of uncompromising, intolerably harsh justice. The State as Draco brings disproportionate military force but arrives “late,” in other words too late to stop the horrifying attacks by rioters. Draco’s refusal to parley, to confer or negotiate with militant crowds, necessarily multiplies the casualties, as reported July 23, 1863 in the Pittsfield Sun:
“Upwards of 500 persons, including women and children, are believed to have fallen under the fire of the military and police.”Lynch mobs slander human nature. “Wise Draco” defies the Constitution. The bloody spectacle of both on the streets of New York argues for misanthropy and the virtues of monarchy: as Mortmain will aver in Clarel: “Man’s vicious: snaffle him with kings.”
The part of “the Town” most grateful for military intervention—eager for more in the form of martial law (never enacted, by the way)—consisted of Republicans, especially Union Leaguers opposed to conservative Democrats. “Being thankful,” as Melville’s rooftop commentator has it, and remaining firmly in power, pro-Union elites need not be bothered by the hole in their democratic principles, which amount after all to a kind of faith. Melville is still enough of a believer to affirm that faith, if only by the magic spell of song. Leaving us with the ancient thought that Man “is Nature’s Roman, never to be scourged,” the last verse nobly affirms inalienable human rights and dignity—against experience, against the reality of evil, against the poet’s own strong impulses toward misanthropy, in spite of the grime.
Is Mattie Griffith then the one Republican and Union Leaguer that Garner detected on Melville’s imagined Manhattan housetop? Well, she can't be the Union Leaguer that Garner sees, being triply ineligible for the elite Union League Club as a woman and southerner with no regular income. Nevertheless, she boasted the very best pro-Union and anti-slavery credentials. Her letter to Mary Estlin goes on to recount her solicitude for black victims of violence, a prominent concern of the Union League Club, and her activism as a member of the Ladies’ Loyal League to endorse the Emancipation Proclamation. Eminent abolitionists quickly embraced her anti-slavery fiction and her real life story. Lydia Maria Child, Garrison, Phillips all cheered and promoted her. Harriet Martineau commended her as “the Southern heiress who saw so much of slavery in her childhood that when she came of age (being an orphan) she freed all her slaves.”
Somehow everybody knew or knew about Mattie Griffith. Nathaniel Hawthorne heard about her through the proselytizing of his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, who exasperated the Hawthornes by trying to send their daughter Una excerpts from Mattie Griffith’s new book. Shocked by the graphic depiction of a slave auction, Sophia Hawthorne resented her sister’s direct and to Sophia’s mind unbelievably sensationalized appeals to her daughter:
“It is not necessary she should arrive at the idea of the beauty of holiness by means of knowing about Mattie Griffith.” (As quoted in Bruce A. Ronda, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody at 264)Emerson stole his notorious remark that John Brown’s hanging would “make the gallows glorious like the cross” from Mattie Griffith. In England, Bulwer-Lytton hosted her at Knebworth House. When Bulwer prophesied the inevitable breakup of the Union, a fellow-guest witnessed Mattie Griffith “dancing a wild Indian war dance” behind his back.
At the time of her letter to Mary Estlin, Griffith was much in the company of Robert Dale Owen, a former member of Congress and now colleague of Union Leaguer James McKaye, on the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission. Owen was also credited with a major role in convincing Lincoln to make the Emancipation Proclamation. In October 1862, Frances Dana Barker Gage reported conversing with them “morn, noon and eve of the war, of slavery, of American affairs generally”:
Opposite me, at Mr. Owen’s right hand, sits Mattie Griffith, the little Kentucky poetess, once such a favorite of the Louisville Journal and the Missouri Republican, known now more generally in the free States as the Emancipator of her slaves, and the author of sundry books and tales on slavery, among them, Autobiography of a Female Slave….”After the war Griffith immediately began working for equal voting rights for women and blacks, with colleagues now including Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucy Stone. At American National Biography Online, Joe Lockard continues Griffith’s story through her marriage to lawyer/banker Albert Gallatin Browne and their first move to Boston, where “Neighbors remembered Griffith as an independent spirit who liked to appear in Harvard Square dressed entirely in red, including red gloves.” Back in Boston after a New York interlude, only her death in 1906 could stop Mattie Griffith’s admirable career of social activism.
(The Liberator, November 21, 1862)
IN CONCLUSION. Switch the gender and Garner’s notion of one radical speaker in “The House-top” holds up surprisingly well in light of the parallel attitudes and imagery in Mattie Griffith’s letter on the draft riots. Not to mention the tantalizing whisper of Mattie in “matted shades.” The original letter is in London, but the Boston Public Library holds a printed version among papers of the Weston Sisters that was published alongside Deborah Webb's poem on John Brown in some yet unidentified piece of ephemera, possibly an anti-slavery newsletter or circular. The printed format increases the chances that Melville ever saw it from zero to possibly, at least.
One suggestion for further study. In late 1852, eight years before Melville tried and failed to get his first book of poems accepted for publication, the New York house of D. Appleton & Company came out with Poems by Mattie Griffith. For a little book Griffith’s volume (dressed in red, see!) is fearless in exploring powerful feelings of rejection and abandonment. Emotionally intense verses from poems like “Thou Lovest Me No More” and “The Orphan” and “The Orphan Dreams of Fame” conceivably might have appealed to Melville and moved him, more personally and more deeply than her later prose or politics. [deleted: Hawthorne had left the year before; then and after Melville began to interest himself in writing creatively about heroic loneliness and endurance of longsuffering women, from the real Agatha Hatch, loved and left by her bigamist sailor husband, to the fictional Chola widow in “The Encantadas.” Griffith’s spurned lover in “The Deserted” sounds a lot like Urania in “After the Pleasure Party”; her “Student” apparently transferred to the first canto of Clarel. Along with the lonely student, hermit, and lover, the orphan figures repeatedly in these early verses. For her part, Griffith did not need to read Moby-Dick to the end to know what Ishmael felt like as “only another orphan.” When she speaks in verses “To Mother” of “the lonely orphan wanderer,” she means herself.]
Adding some links, I find the Boston Public library also has a printed copy or rather extract of another, different letter from Mattie Griffith to Mary Anne Estlin, this one describing and reflecting on the assassination of President Lincoln. Mattie Griffith's letter on the assassination of Lincoln was published May 26, 1865 in some unidentified newspaper under the title "THE POPULAR FEELING IN AMERICA." Further research may eventually identify the newspapers and other periodicals that were publishing Mattie Griffith's letters to Mary Anne Estlin.