Golden Hill Roundtable: Courage and Cowardice?

This guest post is the third entry in our week-long roundtable on Francis Spufford’s novel, Golden Hill. Its author is Hannah Farber, an assistant professor at Columbia University. Her scholarship has appeared in the New England Quarterly, Early American Studies and the Journal of the Early Republic; she is at work on a monograph on marine insurance, tentatively titled Underwriters of the United States.

goldenhillWhat a pleasure it is to wander around mid-eighteenth-century New York City with Francis Spufford, admiring the city’s homes with their “stepped Dutchwork eaves” (17) and their “blue-gray pediment[s] of Connecticut pine” (11). What a pleasure, too, to join him in pawing through the humbler artifacts of daily life in the colonial city. Pap (1). Milk punch (42). A bog-wig (2). Every page of Golden Hill overflows with weird stuff like this, and it’s just great.

The plot of Golden Hill revolves around one particular artifact that—like pap, milk punch, or a bog-wig—was as ordinary in the eighteenth century as it is arcane today. That artifact is the bill of exchange, essentially a check written off a third party’s bank account. The bill of exchange, as Spufford rightly perceives, was fissile material in eighteenth century society, powerful and unstable. It demanded obedience (i.e., payment), but it provided little reassurance. Did the third party know this check has been written? Did he have the funds to cover the debt? What forms of payment might the bill’s bearer actually accept, and at what exchange rate? What personal obligations were smuggled inside this supposedly neutral “negotiable instrument,” and to what extent could it be, in the more vernacular sense, negotiated?  As a novelist, Spufford has the liberty to make up a limit case to investigate these questions, and the answers are highly instructive.

Spufford situates his investigation, too, in a New York City that is likely to stick with me for a long time. I have the sense that most early Americanists these days, influenced by imperial, Atlantic and global history, would teach eighteenth-century New York by placing it within broader stories of Anglo-American colonial growth and connection. They would talk about the rapid growth of Atlantic port cities, their increasingly sophisticated consumer culture, their swirls of Enlightenment ideas and beliefs, their commodity trading and slaving, and their deepening connections to the vast swaths of the American continent to which Great Britain laid claim. Francis Spufford, to my delight, offers a nearly opposite vision of New York, which, once presented, is obviously just as real. His New York is not a town defined by its embrace of the Atlantic and the continent. It is, rather, a place in permanent, cowering, reaction to these vast expanses. Spufford’s New York, in fact, is a toxic small town, defined by its petty dictators, its conspiracies and corruption, its xenophobia, mob violence, and open secrets. It’s a place where nobody says anything, but everyone knows.

New York was also a town full of slaves. And as Spufford observes, while the miseries of slavery were of course suffered primarily by the slaves themselves, the system of slavery hurt all of society, causing perpetual anxiety and paranoia, unleashing systemic cruelty and sexual violence, and making it harder even for “free” colonists to live dignified, honest human lives.

So far, so true.

And yet. (Those hoping to avoid any kind of spoiler should stop reading here.)

In Golden Hill‘s final pages, its original plot, a Stranger Comes To Town, becomes something more like a heist. To my surprise, I found that the ending annoyed me immensely. Our hero, the Englishman with a shady past, capers out of town, goals accomplished and morals intact, leaving New York more or less as he found it. He leaves behind his love interest, bound forever to her oppressive family and her poisonous town. In Spufford’s narrative, this initially courageous woman remains at home because she suddenly does not dare to leave. Our hero entreats her repeatedly, but she is too fearful. “‘I don’t know,’ she sa[ys] in a tiny voice” (286). He eventually gives up and departs. She spends the rest of her life mulling over her memories of him and writing history.

Dear reader: I did not care for this one bit. For of course, Spufford himself is the British adventurer, the stranger who has the privilege of dropping in on this peculiar place called America, telling us all about it like it has nothing to do with him, enjoying an adventure, and then waltzing away into his happy ending, never to be seen again. And of course, I am the American historian, the stick in the mud, the gloom-and-doom storyteller, the one left behind to chew forever on the bones of the American past.

Now, don’t get me wrong: as all Americans have been told since their childhoods, it’s a free country. Spufford is entirely at liberty to come to our shores, provide entertainment and pleasure to his readers, and make money in the process. I would only observe that to get his happy ending, Spufford’s hero really must depart New York, because to suggest that one man can drain the poisons of slavery and secrets out of even one toxic small town—let alone our entire Superfund site of a continent—is to strain the reader’s patience for the improbable. But is the choice to remain behind really such a cowardly one? I don’t know, she says in a tiny voice.



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