The Hidden Hand
THE HIDDEN HAND
Capitola Le Noir, also known as Cap Black, is undoubtedly the most engaging young heroine ever to escape from the busy pen of E. D. E. N (Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte) Southworth (1819–1899), prolific author of adventure and romance novels whose career from the mid- to the late nineteenth century spanned over forty-four years. A displaced wife turned writer, Southworth, by her own admission, wrote not just for the growing number of women readers who were drawn to her strong female characters and ambitious plots but for a heterogeneous "multitude" that included college professors, preachers, government leaders, "street gamins," adolescents—the refined and the not-so-refined. In Cap Black, Southworth found a feisty street gamine to give voice to the author's shoot-from-the-hip critique of middle-class presumptions and to throw open to question the issue of gender role expectations in nineteenth-century America.
Scrappy Capitola Black, "the Bowery b'hoy," was well beloved by several generations of New York Ledger readers, who followed her exploits in three serializations under the title of The Hidden Hand—1859, 1868–1869, and 1883—after which the Ledger's editor, Robert Bonner, purchased the copyright for $1,000. It was published in book form in 1888 and often reprinted in two volumes, The Hidden Hand and Capitola's Perils (modern editions appeared in 1988 and 1997). More than forty dramatic adaptations of The Hidden Hand played to sold-out audiences at major theaters all over the United States, giving Cap Black genuine icon status. Women wore Capitola clothes, Capitola hats, and Capitola boots. People could even go to the Capitola Hotel or travel to the town of Capitola, California. As the saucy prototype of an assembly line of tomboy characters that persists to this day in American fiction, Capitola Black the Bowery b'hoy presented a defiant challenge to the gender constraints that existed in Victorian America.
CAP BLACK, BOWERY B'HOYS, AND THE IDEOLOGIES OF MANHOOD
Drawing on the working-class, popular culture image of the scrappy Bowery b'hoy—the rowdy, pugnacious young street ruffian who prowled the streets of the Bowery in Manhattan, especially during the 1840s and 1850s—Southworth challenges the complex and competing ideologies of manhood that were fermenting in mid-nineteenth-century America. The disquieting question of the nature of manhood was the result of a fluid and dynamic American society in transition from the dominance of an agrarian, quasi-aristocratic economy—especially in Virginia, where most of the novel is set—to a competitive market economy where self-starter capitalist adventurers clashed with wage laborers. During the decades prior to the Civil War, America was a nation moving toward rapid urbanization. In 1820 only a handful of cities in the Northeast had populations above twenty-five thousand. By 1850, twenty-six cities had more than twenty-five thousand residents, and more than sixty cities had at least ten thousand residents. More and more people, primarily men, left farms to join the rising working class, doing wage work in factories, offices, or out on the street in some capacity.
A struggling wage laborer who never loses touch with her working-class role, Capitola the Bowery b'hoy acts, quite literally, as a foil for the conflicting notions of what it means to be an honorable man in the 1840s. But she does this in the body of a teenage woman. Though readers learn of her mystery-shrouded birth in Virginia in the opening chapters, they actually meet Cap Black for the first time as an insouciant, cross-dressing preadolescent of thirteen trying to survive in the streets of New York by peddling the penny press (cheap newspapers full of crime reports and human interest stories) and performing whatever manual labor she can to put food in her belly. Cap sleeps in broken-down public transportation vehicles, under ghetto brownstone steps, and behind discarded boxes out on the street, forced to masquerade as a boy to avoid being pursued by rapacious males. To Cap being a female means star vation and exploitation, so to avoid a lascivious and deadly environment, when other preadolescent young girls are reading guidebooks on how to behave like submissive young ladies, Cap assumes the role of a young man.
Real-life b'hoys, many of whom were Irish, were often violent, engaging in barroom brawls and picking territorial fights with other b'hoy gangs. Their swaggering presence and antiaristocratic bravado offered radical new possibilities for an alternative masculine ideal because, as a grassroots figure of the transforming industrial society, the b'hoy was an active participant in the bootstrap, individualist pragmatism toward which society was leaning. Like George Foster in New York By Gas-light (1850), Fanny Fern in Ruth Hall (1854), and Walt Whitman in "Song of Myself" (1855), Southworth rescues the violent Bowery b'hoy image and rehabilitates it in the compassionate Capitola. Southworth's reconfiguration of this image into a young female between childhood and womanhood has a twofold function. First, by using a familiar image from popular culture, she targets a receptive readership and elicits an already positive response to her radical heroine. Second, by quickly returning her b'hoy figure to her true place as female, she offers women readers the opportunity to witness a female character whose masquerade demonstrates that male and female deportment is not "natural"—derived as it is from an inherent grid of behaviors—but instead is in fact role-playing.
TRANSGRESSING THE CATEGORIES
In Capitola one sees a transgressive female survivor of boy and girl twins born on a blustery Halloween eve into a world of masks and disguises. Capitola's evil uncle, in an effort to steal his brother's (Capitola's father's) estate, murders him and arranges to kidnap Capitola's mother as she is about to give birth. The uncle's plan is to get rid of the baby, thereby putting himself in line for the inheritance. However, Capitola's mother delivers two babies, one a stillborn male and the other, of course, Capitola. After delivering the babies, a blindfolded midwife hides Capitola in the folds of her shawl and gives the kidnappers the dead male baby, whose death makes Capitola's survival possible. Having absorbed the energy of her fated twin brother, Capitola, by her very existence, flies in the face of patrician, patriarchal institutions that rigidify society's expectations of female behavior. Moreover, Capitola's clandestine transformation from displaced plantation heiress into independent Bowery b'hoy laborer is emblematic of the manifest change in population resulting from the rapid growth of larger cities such as New York during the 1830s and 1840s. The working class became a visible and threatening presence, and the Bowery b'hoy was a phenomenon of this complicated tangle of gender role definitions, which challenged the politics of gender categories by turning on issues of financial and class position. Southworth, herself not a stranger to financial hardship after her husband's abandonment four years after their 1840 marriage left her to fend for herself with two small children, gives the image her own spin by posing the question of how gender and status impact on one's ability to survive.
In the novel, for instance, the discovery of Capitola's masquerade and subsequent arrest by the police is attributed to the loss of part of her "ragged boy" costume: "the wind blowed off my cap and the policeman blowed on me!" (p. 41). When Major Warfield, who does not know who Capitola is, realizes that a thirteen-year-old girl is about to be sent to a juvenile detention hall for selling newspapers in boy's clothing, he intercedes on her behalf, spiriting her off to his plantation in Virginia, where he demands that "the creature" appear "in its proper dress." Used to the tension of the streets, Capitola does not enjoy her "rescued" life of a Virginia belle. Using Bowery slang, Capitola complains about the sheer boredom of being resigned to a spiritless life of sewing and managing personal servants and wishes she were back in the Bowery, where there were fires and gang fights—something to get her adrenaline pumping. To Cap, a return to the Virginia mountains is like "decomposing above ground," while role-playing as a boy on Broadway empowers her.
Cap's dismay is understandable, because the culture of young males during the antebellum period existed as a social sphere unto itself—separate from the public domain of men and the domestic scene of women, small children, and girls. In this liminal, or threshold, space, positioned between the irresponsibility of childhood and the maturity of adulthood, boys were accountable to neither parlor authority nor business and commercial demands. Back in Virginia, Capitola, though no longer dressing in rags and patches, still enjoys flouting the rules that keep her from maintaining her independence and rather enjoys taunting her guardian, Major Warfield, called "Old Hurricane," who continuously dares her to disobey him by issuing threats of dire consequences. In the never-never land of boys, the dare is an ever-present springboard to dangerous bravado, and Capitola cannot resist responding to Old Hurricane's attempts to constrain her by performing ever more dangerous stunts. For example, while speaking to a man who is really the infamous bandit Black Donald in disguise, Capitola admits that she would love to see this Black Donald in the flesh because she enjoys the thrill that heightened fear evokes. Black Donald warns her against wishing for something rash because she just might get that wish; however, Capitola comes back at him chanting three times, "I wish it." In true Halloween magic fashion, Capitola's incantation makes it so, as Black Donald unmasks and shows himself to her. After a brief moment of admiration and awe, she suddenly jumps on him "like a bundle of sin on the back of a Christian" in an effort to capture him all by her tomboy self. For a brief time she is literally his cross to bear, a foreshadowing of his redemption at her hands and an indication of Southworth's vision of herself as a moralist.
BLACK DONALD AS DOUBLE
Of the many doubles linked with Capitola, "Cap'n" Black Donald is a worthy opponent for Cap Black as he too resorts to disguise to accommodate his evil purposes, often presenting the precise image that his victims expect to see in order to exploit them. Described as "stately," Black Donald is a towering figure standing at six feet, eight inches with "fine aquiline features" and "strong, steady dark eyes," looks that would have broken the hearts of society debs or "made his own fortune in any city of America as a French Count or a German baron" (p. 147). His handsome and imposing appearance links him with a sophisticated, wealthy, and influential socioeconomic class that manipulates and relies upon appearances to sustain its power. Black Donald uses his looks, his intelligence, his command of the language, and his manipulative skills to take advantage of those, such as Mrs. Condiment, Old Hurricane's revival-attending maid, who are too unworldly to detect con artistry. Clearly he is no Virginia country hayseed gone wrong. Another clue to Black Donald's association with classist values is the description of his outlaws' lair. Ironically, even though the men of Black Donald's posse have evil names like "Stealthy" Steve and "Demon" Dick," their operations room where they plan their evil doings is a kitchen parlor—a space associated more with domesticity than with rowdyism. In giving the gangster Black Donald an elitist appearance and a domestic thieves' den, Southworth provides another level at which Capitola, as antiaristocratic b'hoy, is his antithesis. Even the language Black Donald uses to rouse his gang—"Your castle is stormed. The enemy is at your throats with drawn swords"—alludes to royalty defending itself against certain death. He goes on to include references to the potential fall of an industrial empire: "The ship's sinking; the cars have run off the track, the boiler's burst" (p. 188). These images represent economic progress—the manufacture and transportation of goods—run amok. Without the skills of the working class in the manufacturing and transportation arenas, the owner class will lose all. Black Donald's fight with Capitola, therefore, illustrates the antagonism between the classes and also suggests the threat of a working-class reclamation of power in the figure of Capitola.
Cap's primary task is to match wits with Black Donald to combat his daunting physicality and his overpowering personality, and she does so with more role-playing. In a climactic scene, Black Donald, attracted to her while also badly underestimating her, menacingly invades her bedroom at Hurricane Hall. Cap realizes that Black Donald's preconception of her "womanly ways" is part of what attracts him to her and that she must outwit him if she is to escape from his attack. If Black Donald is, as Alfred Habegger suggests, "the most untamed and virile man of all," Capitola must be "man" enough to escape from his clutches while playing his own game against him. Giving herself a pep talk, Capitola tells herself, as Black Donald advances rapaciously toward her, to "be a man" but then corrects herself by saying "be a woman"—or even "the devil and Doctor Faust, if necessary" (p. 345). In the face of dangerous manhood, the only recourse is to manipulate appearances and come in for the kill; "nearly all girls are clever imitators," Southworth reminds readers (p. 276). Flirting coyly, Capitola pretends first to be a femme fatale to emotionally disarm him and to feed his ego and second to be a moral reformer in order to prevail on his better nature. However, neither of these roles daunt Black Donald because these are the behaviors he expects from a woman. It is not until Capitola takes on the role of a nongendered, superior, almost godlike being that she is able to thwart his lustful designs. She calls him simply "Man" and tells him to take pity on himself, offering him one last chance to walk away from his sin. Southworth reiterates in this exchange that Black Donald is just a man, a fallen man, and in a theatrically appropriate metaphor, Capitola releases the trapdoor under the carpet in her bedroom, and he falls into the black hole he deserves. He goes to prison, and Cap, feeling sorry for him, tries to get him released legally. Failing that, she helps him escape to become a better, redeemed man.
Role-playing defines Capitola's interaction with many of the characters in the novel and is instrumental in saving not only herself but also another of her foils, Clara Day, daughter of the good Dr. Day and the kidnapped bride-victim of Craven Le Noir, Capitola's evil uncle. Clara is the typical heroine figure that nineteenth-century readers would recognize but that Capitola's character is, in effect, rewriting. After teaching Clara to throw her head back and swagger like a Bowery b'hoy to evade discovery by Craven Le Noir's household, Capitola successfully impersonates Clara as the sobbing, helpless, abductee during the marriage ceremony. Just as the disguised Capitola is required to say "I do," she throws off her disguise and mockingly calls attention to the charade before the confused assembly and introduces herself as the "principal performer," enjoying her curtain calls "amid the applause of the audience" (pp. 282–283). Lifting the curtain and striking the sets, Capitola returns to her Bowery b'hoy persona once more. She subsequently receives the highest praise Old Hurricane can muster for saving Clara: he tells her she should have been a man. Thus, by being a girl behaving like a boy pretending to be a girl, Capitola becomes a man, which is to say an adult, with all an adult's rights and privileges.
Capitola's performance as b'hoy recalls the subversive nature of the minstrel performer. Her sly humor and predisposal to pranks, along with her early history of finding sanctuary with a mulatto woman, links her with the blacked-up figures that traipsed across the stage of the Bowery theater. An avid play-goer, Southworth may have seen a two-act burletta titled The Two B'hoys; or, The Beulah Spa by Charles Dance, which was performed in theaters in major cities such as Philadelphia and New York in 1832. One of the four main characters in the cast that performed at Mitchell's Olympic Theater in New York was played by Frank Chanfrau, the actor who became the literal personification of Mose, the Bowery b'hoy in Benjamin Baker's production A Glance at New York (1848). This minor comedy also features a woman dressed as a male minstrel singer. In this production, however, Chanfrau did not play a rowdy but rather a dandy who initiates a duel under false pretenses while attending a party at a resortlike plantation. Although the meaning of the term "b'hoys" is more ironic than apparent in the reading of the play, one can only assume that the physical appearance of the particular actors provided a clue to the play's topsy-turvy confusion of identities. In other words, who are the eponymous "b'hoys" if they are removed from their Bowery context, and does a b'hoy have to be a boy? Southworth thought not. Ironically the term "Bowery," which in the 1840s referred to a section of New York City where all ethnicities of working-class citizens came together, is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an adaptation of the Dutch word Bouwery, which means barn or plantation. It is impossible to know if Southworth knew of the rural origin of the word; however, the irony of Capitola the Bowery b'hoy returning to a Virginia Bouwery, a move that solidifies her identity and conflates her performance with her birthright as heiress of "forests and fields, iron and coal mines, water power, steam mills, furnaces and foundries" (p. 185) is difficult to miss. It is not a coincidence that the penultimate chapter of The Hidden Hand is titled "Capitola, a Capitalist."
By novel's end, southern elitist culture has been outstripped by egalitarian, working-class culture, so much so that Cap's entry into middle-class life, although inevitable, through her marriage to the tender and quiet Herbert Greyson seems almost contrived. Even Southworth suggests, tongue in cheek, that the happily-ever-after theme is as much a myth image as those of the sharp-tongued shrewish wife and the tyrannized husband, roles that Southworth intimates the couple will assume.
Southworth's depiction of Capitola, actress and champion of the exploited who never relinquishes her Bowery personality, calls into question gender borders and performance, class expectations, and cultural sociopolitics in mid-nineteenth-century American society. It is not surprising that The Hidden Hand has risen to the surface of a sea of women's popular novels published during that era. Its sly humor and outrageous plotlines continue to seduce new readers, who cannot help but laugh with and root for Cap, American literature's first and cleverest tomboy.
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"The Hidden Hand." American History Through Literature 1820-1870. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/hidden-hand
"The Hidden Hand." American History Through Literature 1820-1870. . Retrieved May 20, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/hidden-hand
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