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Jail Journal by John Mitchel is the best book written by an Irish man or woman in the Nineteenth Century.

July 18, 2015


If Roland Barthes was right when he declared that “literature is what gets taught”, the Jail Journal, for all its extraordinary qualities – is not literature.  This book is almost impossible to teach – which is why I’m going to try it.

John Mitchel was horrifically wrong about a great many things.  He was keen on slavery.  He believed hanging criminals rather than trying to rehabilitate them.  Reading Mitchel’s work has not (I’m anxious to say) seduced me on these points in the slightest.  Mitchel became become a fire-eating celebrant of the slave owning Confederacy, in large part because he hated the century into which he had been born.  He hated Britain, not merely (“merely”?) because of its tyrannical and murderous misrule of Ireland during the Great Hunger of the 1840s, but because Britain’s cruelty represented the epitome of the nineteenth-century in action.  In exile in the USA in the 1850s, he came to feel that the northern United States represented a kind of Britain on steroids – even more horrifically nineteenth century than the empire he’d devoted his life to fighting.  Mitchel imagined for himself in the South, a kind of agrarian republicanism.

Whenever Mitchel uses words like “enlightened” or “reforming” it’s with a bitter ironic twist.  Philosophically, Mitchel was very cognate with a tradition leading from Thomas Carlyle to Friedrich Nietzsche.  At times he even anticipates Michel Foucault insofar as he believes that a “modern” reformative agenda offers a far more systematic exhibition of hegemonic tyranny than the more theatrical exhibitions of state violence that preceded the nineteenth-century.

Originally an Ulster protestant, Mitchel believed in an extension of the most generous aspects of what was called “Ulster custom” -involving tenants with security of tenure – along with resident owner occupying farmers.  As an unapologetic racist, Mitchel fell hook line and sinker for the idea that people of African descent were better treated by the noblesse oblige of their benevolent owners than were factory workers under terms of so-called “free” labour.  As a classical scholar of some note, ubiquity of slavery in the republics of ancient Rome and Greece would have reinforced his sense that do-gooder anti-slavery types had no sense of history.

The Jail Journal or Five Years in British Prisons, published in New York in 1854 is as I say, the best book written by an Irish man or woman in the nineteenth century.  It is many things.  It is an adventure story, a thriller, a political polemic, a psychological monodrama, a travel narrative and it contains some of the most extraordinary passages of natural description you’ll ever read.  It begins by explaining the political background to the decision of the Young Irelanders to embrace separatist revolt, provoked by the Famine, and inspired by revolutionary movements spreading across Europe.  Following Mitchel’s sentence of exile (pronounced by Justice Lefroy – Jane Austen’s old boyfriend) – Mitchel is sent first to Bermuda – where he learns of the abortive rising of his erstwhile comrades from belated newspapers.  His life-threatening illness results in him being transferred to a ship going to a penal colony in South Africa.  But in Cape Town a major political commotion is brewing as the colonists assert their right to refuse any more convicts.  The beginnings of a major colonial conflict are in motion and Mitchel comments approvingly on South African assertions of self government.  His ship is, eventually sent on to Tasmania – where he settles for a while before escaping across the pacific the the USA, having completed one of the more extraordinary circumnavigations you’ll ever read.

All the while he is treated rather genteelly, which goads him no end.  Execution he could respect.  Being chained to an oar would have classical precedents.  But the politeness with which Britain imposes its imperial justice on him has a peculiar cruelty all of its own.

Mitchel is aware that he is odd.  That his cocktail of revolutionary and feudal attitudes have no place in the nineteenth century. At one point he even constructs a kind of rational superego to engage John Mitchel in a strange kind of dialogue on this question.  The Superego gives up without much of a struggle.  Part of the genius of the book is the creation of a strange character called John Mitchel – a masterpiece of regulated passion, of anger focused and choreographed in elaborate and confusing ways.

When students, under the crushing burden of assessment pressure, read politicised literature, often their first impulse is – “tell me what to think about this guy or gal”?  This is what will make Mitchel such an enjoyable challenge from a teaching point of view.  He will trouble them.  He troubles me.

The controlled emotion in Jail Journal makes it a technical masterpiece.  The sheer discipline, elegance, yet pressure of the prose is remarkable.  As an exercise in fine writing (and fine writing for its own sake is never to be underestimated), it deserves a place on every shelf.  But this very rhetorical triumph is also a remarkable story of a man who refused and refuses appropriation.  At this moment when Atticus Finch has risen from the dead to reject liberal appropriation Mitchel’s significance will never be greater.

I don’t like John Mitchel.  He doesn’t want or need me to like him.  He is hideously wrong about important things.  But why do we read?  Do we read so as to flatter a pre-existing left/liberal agenda?  So we can feel better about ourselves?  Mitchel will not do that for us.

Do we read so that we can think harder about our beliefs.  Too much of a sincere patriot to be given a smugly consistent negative reading – too much of an unreconstructed racist to apologise for  – John Mitchel’s writings will make us feel harder about how and why people believe the things they believe.

It’s a testing book.  And if you read it at a stretch, you’ll find yourself walking funny for a while.  Which is no bad thing.


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One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on conradbrunstrom and commented:

    John Mitchel is 200 years old today.

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