A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 161

Novelist Henry James and his philosopher brother William James.

Monday, October 19

An abundance of leisure time has allowed me to read lots of interesting stuff, so I am going to tell you about a bit of it.

I must admit that I fell way behind in my magazine reading and am only now catching up. In late-July, The New Yorker published a fascinating article that persuasively links all American policing to the reinforcement of slavery. 

“The Long Blue Line: Inventing the Police” by historian Jill Lepore tells how, before the mid-19th century, keeping public order was mostly left in the hands of the “watch”—everyday citizens who were required to put in time walking city wards and, if necessary, to raise the alarm. But slave societies went a step further. In such plantation economies as Cuba or Barbados, slave patrols were established in order to catch and punish runaways. In North America, the French city of New Orleans was distinctive in having wage-earning, armed city guards to carry out police work.

Then, in the 1830s, the city of Boston established a paid police force—largely in response to a series of mob attacks on abolitionists including William Lloyd Garrison. Other cities soon followed suit: New York in 1844 and Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Chicago, and Baltimore in the 1850s. Of course, population growth, widening inequality, and rise in such crimes as prostitution and burglary also played a role in the emergence of urban policing. 

By the early 20th century, military men entered the policing fray, adapting the tactics and weapons that had previously been used to subdue Native Americans and the colonized folks of such areas as the Philippines and Puerto Rico. Jim Crow-era laws virtually criminalized blackness, with, for example, a quarter of those arrested in Philadelphia being African-American. That group constituted only 7.4% of the city’s population. Over the decades, various branches of government each established its own police: In New York State, there are town and city police forces, state police, county sheriffs, private security forces, and federal police including the FBI, ICE, and the U.S. Border Patrol.  

But the failure of police forces—their proneness to violence and all-too-obvious racial bias, the stretching of their role to include social work, traffic enforcement, and even education—have led to public disenchantment. Today, Lepore says, “an overwhelming majority of Americans, of both parties, support major reforms in American policing.” Even many police officers believe change must come.

Whew! Time for some unreality.

Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw has received several cinematic treatments. The latest is now playing on Netflix as The Haunting of Bly Manor. Yes, this is the tale of the two orphaned kids, now supervised by a recently hired and young nanny, living in a weird, remote mansion. And something is going on with the kids—can it be that they commune with the dead? 

Henry James wrote several ghostly and supernatural tales, and Netflix’ Haunting seems to incorporate more than one of these. (I haven’t yet seen the whole production.) Anyway, its episodes carry the names of such James works as “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes” and “The Jolly Corner.” If you’d prefer to read these rather than view the cinematic adaptation, you can get no-cost, e-book versions at Project Gutenberg’s website.

Dinner: Picadillo, rice, and a green salad

Entertainment: The Haunting of Bly Manor on Netflix and All Creatures Great and Small on Britbox.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *