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  • “Everything in the World Has Its Own Color”: Detecting Race and Identity in Paul Auster’s Ghosts
  • Eric Berlatsky (bio)

‘Noble Thoughts about the Dignity of Man’

Throughout much of Paul Auster’s Ghosts, the protagonist detective, Blue, is metaphorically imprisoned in a small room, condemned to the monotony of watching another man, Black, and waiting for him to do something. Eventually, however, Blue begins to break from his routine, leaving his room on occasion because he feels so close to Black that he knows what his counterpart will do even when he is not being watched. Two of Blue’s early adventures expose a blind spot in Blue’s vision, however, a crucial problem for a man whose job it is to watch another. In the first such adventure: “Blue goes to the small grassy yard . . . studying the bronze statue of Henry Ward Beecher. Two slaves are holding on to Beecher’s legs, as though begging him to help them, to make them free at last, and in the brick wall behind there is a porcelain relief of Abraham Lincoln. Blue cannot but feel inspired by these images, and . . . his head fills with noble thoughts of the dignity of man” (189).

It is clear in this passage that Blue’s blind spot is race, or in some sense, “color,” despite his name. The statue depicts Beecher as the white hero of the abolitionist movement. The historical truth, however, is more ambivalent, with most accounts of Beecher portraying him not only as an abolitionist, but also as a racist and opportunist whose opposition to slavery was not accompanied by a belief in the social and essential equality of blacks and whites. Indeed, Beecher’s abolitionist [End Page 109] crusade often took the form of theatrical auctions of slaves into freedom, with light-skinned slaves nearly always chosen in order to gain the most sympathy from Beecher’s white constituency. Beecher’s son described these slaves as “’white and beautiful,’” suggesting that these two terms are inextricable (qtd. in McLoughlin 200). It is not surprising, however, that Beecher focuses on “white” slaves, given his own Social Darwinian view of racial difference. That is, while Beecher opposed slavery, he asserted the “African’s” inferiority to the white and offered that the best way to fight slavery was to improve the attitude and “humanity” of the former: “If you wish to work for the enfranchisement of the African, seek to make him a better man . . . an obedient servant and an honest, true, Christian man. These virtues are God’s step-stones to liberty. . . . Truth, honor, fidelity, manhood” (194).

While in this speech, and elsewhere, Beecher places the burden of teaching the former slaves on the white community, he also suggests that it is the African’s tendency to lack the qualities listed, making him easier to enslave. When Beecher says, “the more he is like an animal, the easier it will be to hold him in thrall and harness” (ibid.), he tacitly perpetuates the notion that the African is closer to the animal than the European, and that the slaves must be trained to be more “human” in order to be completely worthy of liberty.

Beecher’s opportunism and racism are hardly the point for Blue, however, who does not see the irony the sculpture carries in its historical references. For the reader, however, irony does pervade the scene, even if s/he knows little about Beecher. It is, after all, hardly a measure of “nobility” and “dignity” that African Americans, forced into a subjugated, inferior, and dependent position throughout American history, are placed in that same position in a statue that purportedly celebrates their freedom. In fact, yet another white figure, Lincoln, is given priority over the slaves who beg at Beecher’s feet. The fact that Blue sees this statue as reflective of the “dignity of man,” sheds more light on his own limited vision of humanity than it does on Beecher, slavery, or freedom.

It might be easy to pass this scene over as a mere racially-tinged interlude in a story that is predominantly about other things, except for the episode that immediately follows it, in which Blue takes...


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pp. 109-142
Launched on MUSE
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