More disgrace than honor: the diminishment of paternal authority in the letters of Aaron Hart.

Author:Hoberman, Michael
Position:Essay
 
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When eighteenth century Canadian Jewish business magnate Aaron Hart wrote letters to his sons, he could not help but sound like a worried father--and with good reason. He was the father of eight grown children (four sons and four daughters) (1) and the proprietor of a "conglomerate of business interests in a variety of areas of real estate, fur, liquor, foodstuffs, and lumber" scattered throughout Quebec. (2) But while this wealth allowed him to provide generously for all of his progeny, he could hardly predict, let alone influence, his children's varied courses in life. "Like most aggressive men," writes Jacob Rader Marcus, "[Hart] kept a watchful and paternalistic eye on his family." (3) Hart's letters to and concerning his sons (especially those he wrote to his eldest son, Moses) bear eloquent witness both to the eagerness with which he attempted to guard their future and the frustrations he felt as a result of his inability to do so. As powerful as Hart was, his letters are fraught representations of the limits of paternal authority. Each of them brusquely announces its writer's intention of deploying his sons as agents and extensions of his own imperious reach. At the same time, the letters are poignant reminders of Hart's struggle to assert a control that he did not possess. The eagerness with which Hart's letters relayed his strong wishes for his sons' development as autonomous individuals and, at the same time, imparted firm guidance for their pursuit of family business interests, invites speculation with regard to a nascent Jewish American literary patrimony in which individual power rarely translated into communal authority. Hart's legacy typified that of several early American Jews; for all his commercial achievements, he would exercise little influence over his children's moral character or their future place in society.

Hart could not help but draw from his own experience as he presented fatherly counsel, but his Canadian-born sons, who would survive well into the nineteenth century, were not necessarily susceptible to that counsel. Born in 1724, the Yiddish-speaking son of Bavarian-born Ashkenazic Jewish parents, Aaron Hart was raised in London, but he left the Old World for New York around 1757. After a lucrative stint as a purveyor to the British military force that would eventually wrest sovereignty over Quebec from French control, he settled in Lower Canada in 1761. Hart made his way as a shopkeeper and fur trader in the town of Three Rivers. He acquired vast land holdings in Quebec and Nova Scotia, and he always hewed to the traditions and practices of the Jewish religion. His Jewish identity heightened the precariousness of his circumstances, especially in the context of a predominantly Francophone and Catholic district of Canada, where he was perceived as a quintessentially foreign agent of British power--"a shrewd and oversharp Jew," as one of his early critics put it. (4) His sons--Moses, Ezekiel, Benjamin and Alexander Hart--would certainly accept their financial inheritance from their father, but the halting words of advice that the old man dispensed in their behalf were of little use to them. They were living in a rapidly changing world in which the importance of familial ties and religious heritage was being eclipsed within an ideological climate that encouraged individual achievement and advocated cultural assimilation--if not to local French customs, then at least to British standards of gentlemanly demeanor. Hart himself was well aware that his authority had bounds, and his letters present profound literary evidence of the multiple anxieties he felt about that fact, as well as the evident insecurity he felt as a result of his family's isolation.

Though Jews comprised a tiny minority throughout North America, the great majority of them were able, nonetheless, to avoid isolation by living in close proximity to one another in the continent's larger seaport settlements. Moreover, even as colonial-era Jews often sought and found common cause with one another, both socially and economically, they often mingled freely with non-Jews and participated in the political affairs of their wider communities. Aaron Hart did not conform to either of these patterns. He had spent a brief period of time in New York, but from the early 1760s onward, he was a resident of Canada, where comparatively few Jews had settled, and with fewer still choosing, as he had, to live in the backcountry, nearly 100 miles distant from the closest Jewish congregation, in Montreal. In other words, in the interest of financial gain, he had chosen to go it alone, but in doing so, he must also have known that his isolation would not be easy to sustain over the long term. The advantage Hart had gained was his unusual proximity and access to the Indians who plied the fur trading areas of interior Quebec. For all of the lucrative prospects that his location afforded him in the present, he knew that his sons would find it difficult to sustain that trade, not to mention their separate identity as Jews--or even as Anglo-Canadians--past his own expiration.

While the historical content of Hart's letters has been fairly thoroughly mined by historians of the Jewish presence in early North America, scant attention has been afforded these letters for their salient literary attributes. (5) The letters present a wealth of insight into the social and economic circumstances of colonial-era North American Jews. Hart's success as a merchant was quite likely a function of the care he evidently took in communicating financial instructions clearly and directly. Scholars interested in the mercantile activity of Atlantic-world Jews, whose trade spanned the distance not only between the North American seaboard and northwestern Europe, but also drew the Caribbean and the Iberian peninsula into its circuit, will find this information alone to be valuable. Ranging from approximately 200 to more than 1,000 words in length, Hart's letters have a less than tidy aspect in comparison to letters written by other merchants (Jewish and non-Jewish alike) who occupied a similarly elevated station in life. They look to have been written hastily, with minimal regard for elegance in penmanship and still less for correctness in grammar, syntax, diction or spelling. In fact, on first reading, the letters appear to contain little besides mere information. Despite the relative lack of sentimental diction found in them, however, Hart's letters, especially those he wrote to his eldest son, Moses, do comprise a telling record of a father's strained attempt to guide his sons' course in business affairs, social and family life, religious observation and even politics. Because little of Hart's written communication with his other eight children is extant, the letters to Moses constitute the most direct evidence we have of the father's rhetorical efforts to shape his sons' future. Letters that he wrote to two of his relatives on the subject of the care and education of his two youngest sons, Benjamin and Alexander, away from home (including two brief enclosures that Hart wrote directly to those sons) comprise the remaining portions of this correspondence. Because none of the letters of Hart's sons to their father survive, the record this essay examines is admittedly one-sided.

The language of Hart's letters constitutes a fraught testament of its own. The letters internalize the voice of their author's skeptical and presumably intransigent interlocutors. Whether or not Hart had just cause for his (implied) indictments of his sons' and others' shortfalls, his letters nearly always sound a strong note of haranguing expectancy. They continually exhort their recipients to act with resourceful expediency on some matter or another. Hart must have had sufficient confidence in his sons' competence to be advising and instructing them in the first place, but his myriad misgivings concerning the world they lived in consistently overshadowed that confidence. "I tould you in my last [letter]," he wrote Moses sometime in 1794, "to be Care full of what you do and do noting withaud Consedering well before you do it[.] Take care of ... Many that Present to be your Best frinds some times turn out the worst of Deceving." Nearly every sentence he wrote was an expression of worry and admonishment. On the few occasions when Hart sought to communicate more tender emotions toward his sons, his language is so affective and overwrought (and out of character with the rest of the letters' content) that an underlying despair comes across as its primary shaping influence.

Considering both their ubiquity and the fact that they have so often been dense indices of every species of human foible, the letters of "ordinary" (i.e., nonliterary) people like Aaron Hart receive relatively little of the attention they deserve to receive from literary critics. Yet, as William Decker Merrill writes, "the performative, Active, and textual dimensions of letter writing and the artifacticity" of epistolary correspondence warrants close attention. Readers sensitized to the myriad instabilities and unpredictable qualities of written discourse are certain to find an abundance of rough textured testaments to the fickleness of the human mind and spirit in private correspondence. It is, after all "the conditions of human isolation" that inspire people to write letters and that "generate such texts in the first place," and private letters are rife with indications of "the vulnerability, sorrow, folly, and crudity, as well as the invention, eloquence, and lyricism" that we commonly associate with literature. (6) That Hart was a powerful individual who was used to getting his way in most situations seems only to have fueled the bluster with which he sought to exercise his discursive will, as well as the concomitant plaintiveness that accompanied his every utterance. The exchange of letters with his...

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