A Companion to American Literary Studies



A Companion to American Literary Studies
A Companion to
American Literary Studies
Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture
This series offers comprehensive, newly written surveys of key periods and movements and certain major
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Edited by John T. Matthews
Edited by Jyotsna G. Singh
Edited by Keith Wilson
Edited by David E. Chinitz
Edited by S. E. Gontarski
Edited by David Seed
Edited by Kent Cartwright
Edited by Charles Rzepka and
Lee Horsley
Edited by Corinne Saunders
Edited by Michael Hattaway
Edited by Alfred Bendixen and
James Nagel
Edited by Paul Lauter
Edited by Gene Jarrett
Edited by Julia M. Wright
Edited by Charles Mahoney
Edited by Nicolas S. Witschi
Edited by Pamela K. Gilbert
Edited by Ali Behdad and
Dominic Thomas
Edited by Erik Martiny
Edited by Caroline F. Levander and
Robert S. Levine
A John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., Publication
This edition first published 2011
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
A companion to American literary studies / edited by Caroline F. Levander and Robert S. Levine.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-1-4051-9881-3 (cloth)
1. American literature–History and criticism. 2. Criticism–United States. I. Levander, Caroline
Field, 1964– II. Levine, Robert S. (Robert Steven), 1953–
PS25.C59 2011
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
This book is published in the following electronic formats: ePDFs 9781444343779;
Wiley Online Library 9781444343809; ePub 9781444343786; Mobi: 9781444343793
Set in 11/13 pt Garamond by Toppan Best-set Premedia Limited
In memory of George Dekker, Emory Elliott, and Jeffrey Richards
Notes on Contributors
Caroline F. Levander and Robert S. Levine
Part I.
Poetry, Prose, and the Politics of Literary Form
Russ Castronovo
The Critical Work of American Literature
Joel Pfister
Women’s Worlds in the Nineteenth-Century US Novel
Shirley Samuels
The Secularization Narrative and Nineteenth-Century
American Literature
Elizabeth Fenton
Literatures of Technology, Technologies of Literature
Paul Gilmore
Excluded Middles: Social Inequality in American Literature
Gavin Jones
Narrative Medicine, Biocultures, and the Visualization of
Health and Disease
Kirsten Ostherr
Performance Anxieties: The A-Literary Companions of
American Literary Studies
Catherine Gunther Kodat
Drama, Theatre, and Performance before O’Neill
Jeffrey H. Richards
10 Disliking It: American Poetry and American Literary Studies
Mary Loeffelholz
11 After the New Americanists: The Progress of Romance and
the Romance of Progress in American Literary Studies
Jennifer L. Fleissner
12 Mass Media and Literary Culture at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
Nancy Bentley
Part II.
13 Cabeza de Vaca, Lope de Oviedo, and Americas Exceptionalism
Anna Brickhouse
Worlding America: The Hemispheric Text-Network
Susan Gillman and Kirsten Silva Gruesz
Worlds of Color, Gender, Sexuality, and Labor in Early
American Literary History
Michelle Stephens
Transatlantic Returns
Elisa Tamarkin
17 American Literature in Transnational Perspective:
The Case of Mark Twain
Shelley Fisher Fishkin
Southern Literary Studies
John T. Matthews
19 New Regionalisms: US-Caribbean Literary Relations
Sean X. Goudie
20 American Literature as Ecosystem: The Examples of Euclides
da Cunha and Cormac McCarthy
George B. Handley
21 Settler States of Feeling: National Belonging and the Erasure
of Native American Presence
Mark Rifkin
Tribal Nations and the Other Territories of American
Indian Literary History
James H. Cox
Paul Giles
Part III.
24 Democratic Cultures and the First Century of US Literature
Dana D. Nelson
25 American Literature and Law
Brook Thomas
26 Sexuality and American Literary Studies
Christopher Looby
27 Exquisite Fragility: Human Being in the Aftermath of War
Priscilla Wald
28 The Posthuman Turn: Rewriting Species in Recent
American Literature
Ursula K. Heise
29 Narrative and Intellectual Disability
Michael Bérubé
30 Reading for Asian American Literature
Colleen Lye
Untangling Genealogy’s Tangled Skeins: Alexander Crummell,
James McCune Smith, and Nineteenth-Century
Black Literary Traditions
Carla L. Peterson
32 Speculative Realism and the Postrace Aesthetic in
Contemporary American Fiction
Ramón Saldívar
33 The New Life of the New Forms: American Literary Studies
and the Digital Humanities
Matt Cohen
Notes on Contributors
Nancy Bentley is professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania and the
author of The Ethnography of Manners (1995) and Frantic Panoramas: American Literature
and Mass Culture, 1870–1920 (2009). She is currently working on a study of kinship
and the novel in the Americas.
Michael Bérubé is the Paterno Family Professor in Literature and the director of the
Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University. His most
recent books are What’s Liberal about the Liberal Arts? (2006) and The Left at War
(2009). He is also the editor of The Aesthetics of Cultural Studies (2004).
Anna Brickhouse is associate professor of English and American studies at the
University of Virginia, and the author of Transamerican Literary Relations and the
Nineteenth-Century Public Sphere (2004). She is currently completing a book on stories
of failed translation and mistranslation in the Americas.
Russ Castronovo is the Dorothy Draheim Professor of English at the University of
Wisconsin–Madison. He is the author of Fathering the Nation (1995), Necro Citizenship
(2001), and Beautiful Democracy (2007), and the editor of several volumes, including
The Oxford Handbook to Nineteenth-Century American Literature (2011).
Matt Cohen is associate professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin. He
is a contributing editor at the Walt Whitman Archive and the author of The Networked
Universe: Communicating in Early New England (2009).
James H. Cox is associate professor of English and the director of the Indigenous
Studies Graduate Portfolio at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of
Muting White Noise: Native American and European American Novel Traditions (2006) and
Literary Revolutions: American Indian Writers and Indigenous Mexico, 1920–1960 (forthcoming). He is also the coeditor of the journal Studies in American Indian Literatures.
Notes on Contributors
Elizabeth Fenton is assistant professor of English at the University of Vermont. She
is the author of Religious Liberties: Anti-Catholicism and Liberal Democracy in NineteenthCentury U.S. Literature and Culture (2011).
Shelley Fisher Fishkin is the Joseph S. Atha Professor of Humanities, professor of
English, and director of American Studies at Stanford University. She is the author,
editor, or coeditor of over 40 books on American literature and culture, most recently
the Library of America’s The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Works
(2010). She is a founding editor of The Journal of Transnational American Studies.
Jennifer L. Fleissner is associate professor of English at Indiana University,
Bloomington. She is the author of Women, Compulsion, Modernity: The Moment of
American Naturalism (2004) and of essays in such journals as Critical Inquiry, ELH,
American Literary History, American Literature, and Novel.
Paul Giles is Challis Professor of English at the University of Sydney, Australia. His
most recent books are Transnationalism in Practice: Essays on American Studies, Literature
and Religion (2010) and The Global Remapping of American Literature (2011).
Susan Gillman teaches world literature and cultural studies at the University of
California, Santa Cruz. She is the author of Dark Twins: Imposture and Identity in Mark
Twain’s America (1989) and Blood Talk: American Race Melodrama and the Culture of the
Occult (2003), and coeditor (with Russ Castronovo) of States of Emergency: The Object of
American Studies (2009). She is currently completing a project on adaptation and
translation in the Americas context titled “Our Mediterranean: American Adaptations,
Paul Gilmore is professor of English at California State University, Long Beach, and
the author of The Genuine Article: Race, Mass Culture, and American Literary Manhood
(2001) and Aesthetic Materialism: Electricity and American Romanticism (2009). His articles have appeared in American Literature, ELH, MLQ, Early American Literature, and
other journals and books.
Sean X. Goudie is associate professor of English at Pennsylvania State University
and author of Creole America: The West Indies and the Formation of Literature and Culture
in the New Republic (2006), which was awarded the 2007 Modern Language Association
Prize for a First Book. His current book project examines how the “Caribbean
American region” became a primary locus for US empire building in the nineteenth
and twentieth centuries. Goudie is the director of Penn State’s Center for American
Literary Studies (CALS), which recently hosted the inaugural conference of C19: The
Society of Nineteenth-Century Americanists.
Kirsten Silva Gruesz is professor of literature at the University of California, Santa
Cruz. She is the author of Ambassadors of Culture: The Transamerican Origins of Latino
Writing (2001) and numerous essays on nineteenth-century print culture in English
and Spanish. She is currently completing a book on the cultural history of Spanish
usage in the United States.
Notes on Contributors
George B. Handley is professor of humanities at Brigham Young University. He is
the author of Postslavery Literatures in the Americas (2000) and New World Poetics (2007),
and coeditor of Caribbean Literature and the Environment (2006) and Postcolonial Ecologies
(2010). His articles have appeared in Modern Fiction Studies, Mississippi Quarterly,
Callaloo, American Literature, and other journals and volumes.
Ursula K. Heise is professor of English and director of the Program in Modern
Thought & Literature at Stanford University. Her major academic interests focus on
environmental culture, literature and art in the Americas and Western Europe, and
theories of modernization, postmodernization, and globalization. She is the author of
Chronoschisms: Time, Narrative, and Postmodernism (1997); Sense of Place and Sense of
Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global (2008); and Nach der Natur: Das
Artensterben und die moderne Kultur (2010). She is working on an English version of
Nach der Natur called Cultures of Extinction, and a new project provisionally titled “The
Avantgarde and the Forms of Nature.”
Gavin Jones is professor of English at Stanford University. His books include Strange
Talk: The Politics of Dialect Literature in Gilded Age America (1999); American Hungers:
The Problem of Poverty in U.S. Literature, 1840–1945 (2008); and an edition of Sylvester
Judd’s 1845 novel Margaret (2009).
Catherine Gunther Kodat is professor of English and American Studies at Hamilton
College. She has published widely on US literature, music, dance, and film in journals
such as American Literary History, American Quarterly, Boston Review, and Representations.
During the 1980s, she was the dance critic for The Baltimore Sun.
Caroline F. Levander is Carlson Professor of Humanities, professor of English, and
Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Initiatives at Rice University. She is the author of
Voices of the Nation: Women and Public Speech in Nineteenth-Century American Culture and
Literature (1998) and Cradle of Liberty: Race, the Child and National Belonging from
Thomas Jefferson to W.E.B. Du Bois (2006), and the coeditor of several volumes, including Teaching and Studying the Americas (2010).
Robert S. Levine is professor of English and Distinguished Scholar-Teacher at the
University of Maryland, College Park, where he is the director of the Center for
Literary and Comparative Studies. He is the author of Conspiracy and Romance (1989),
Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, and the Politics of Representative Identity (1997), and
Dislocating Race and Nation (2008), and the editor of a number of volumes, including
Hemispheric American Studies (coedited with Caroline F. Levander). He is the new
general editor of The Norton Anthology of American Literature.
Mary Loeffelholz is professor of English and vice provost for academic affairs at
Northeastern University. She is the author of Dickinson and the Boundaries of Feminist
Theory (1991) and From School to Salon: Reading Nineteenth-Century American Women’s
Poetry (2004); and her essays have appeared in American Literary History, English
Literary History, The New England Quarterly, The Yale Journal of Criticism, and Studies
Notes on Contributors
in Romanticism, among other venues. She edited Studies in American Fiction from 1991
to 2008, and she is currently the editor of The Norton Anthology of American Literature,
Volume D, 1914–1945.
Christopher Looby is professor of English at UCLA and president of C19: The
Society of Nineteenth-Century Americanists. The author of Voicing America: Language,
Literary Form, and the Origins of the United States (1996), he has also published The
Complete Civil War Journal and Selected Letters of Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1999) and
prepared an edition of Robert Montgomery Bird’s 1836 novel Sheppard Lee, Written by
Himself (2008). He is currently working on a book called “The Sentiment of Sex.”
Colleen Lye is associate professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley,
where she teaches courses in American literature, Asian American Studies, and Critical
Theory. She is the author of America’s Asia: Racial Form and American Literature,
1893–1945 (2005), and coeditor with Christopher Bush of Forms of Asia, a special
issue of Representations published in 2007.
John T. Matthews is professor of English at Boston University. He is the author of
The Play of Faulkner’s Language (1982), The Sound and the Fury: Faulkner and the Lost
Cause (1991), and William Faulkner: Seeing through the South (2009). He has written
essays on a variety of other topics in nineteenth- and twentieth-century American and
British literature, and is the editor of Wiley-Blackwell’s A Companion to the Modern
American Novel, 1900–1950 (2009).
Dana D. Nelson is the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English at
Vanderbilt University, where she teaches literature and American Studies. Her most
recent book is Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People
(2008). In her new book project, “Ugly Democracy,” she examines alternative democratic cultures and practices in the early nation, with an interest in their legacy and
the possibilities they provide to democratic practice today.
Kirsten Ostherr is associate professor of English at Rice University, where she teaches
courses in film and media studies and medical humanities. She is the author of
Cinematic Prophylaxis: Globalization and Contagion in the Discourse of World Health (2005)
and Medical Visions: Producing the Patient through Film, Television, and Imaging Technologies
(forthcoming), as well as articles on public health films, science fiction, animation,
and independent art cinema.
Carla L. Peterson is professor of English at the University of Maryland, and affiliate
faculty of the Departments of Women’s Studies, American Studies, and AfricanAmerican Studies. She is the author of The Determined Reader: Gender and Culture
in the Novel from Napoleon to Victoria (1986); “Doers of the Word”: African-American
Women Speakers and Writers in the North (1830–1880) (1995); and Black Gotham: A
Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City (2011). She has
published numerous essays on nineteenth-century African American literature and
Notes on Contributors
Joel Pfister is Kenan Professor of the Humanities and chair of the Department of
English at Wesleyan University. He has published six books, including The Production
of Personal Life: Class, Gender, and the Psychological in Hawthorne’s Fiction (1991); Critique
for What? Cultural Studies, American Studies, Left Studies (2006); and the coedited
Inventing the Psychological: Toward a Cultural History of Emotional Life in America (1997).
He is completing a book on American literature from Franklin to the modernists.
Jeffrey H. Richards (1948–2011) was for many years Old Dominion University
Eminent Professor of English. He is the author of Theater Enough: American Culture
and the Metaphor of the World Stage, 1607–1789 (1991), Mercy Otis Warren (1995), and
Drama, Theatre, and Identity in the American New Republic (2005), and the editor of the
forthcoming Oxford Handbook of American Drama.
Mark Rifkin is assistant professor of English at the University of North Carolina at
Greensboro. He is the author of Manifesting America: The Imperial Construction of U.S.
National Space (2009) and When Did Indians Become Straight? Kinship, the History of
Sexuality, and Native Sovereignty (2011). He also coedited Sexuality, Nationality,
Indigeneity: Rethinking the State at the Intersection of Native American and Queer Studies
(2010), a special issue of GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies.
Ramón Saldívar is the Hoagland Family Professor in Humanities and Sciences and
professor of English at Stanford University. He is the author of several books, including Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference (1990) and The Borderlands of Culture:
Américo Paredes and the Transnational Imaginary (2006), which won the Modern
Language Association Prize in 2007 for the best book in the area of US Latino/a and
Chicana/o studies. Among his current projects is a book-length study titled “The
TransAmerican Novel: Form, Race, and Narrative Theory in the Americas.”
Shirley Samuels is professor of English and American Studies at Cornell University.
She is the author of Romances of the Republic (1996) and Facing America: Iconography and
the Civil War (2004), and the editor of The Culture of Sentiment (1992) and Blackwell’s
A Companion to American Fiction, 1780–1865 (2004).
Michelle Stephens is associate professor of English at Rutgers University. She is the
author of Black Empire: The Masculine Global Imaginary of Caribbean Intellectuals in the
United States, 1914 to 1962 (2005) and a member of the Radical History Review
Editorial Collective. She is currently at work on a manuscript entitled “Skin Acts:
New World Black Male Performance and the Desire for Difference.” Her research and
teaching interests include American, African American, Caribbean, and New World
literatures; diaspora and cultural studies; black performance studies; and the intersections of race and psychoanalysis.
Elisa Tamarkin is associate professor of English at the University of California,
Berkeley, and the author of Anglophilia: Deference, Devotion, and Antebellum America
(2008). She is currently working on a book titled “Irrelevance,” on the culture of the
news and on ideas of relevant and irrelevant knowledge since 1830.
Notes on Contributors
Brook Thomas is Chancellor’s Professor of English at the University of California,
Irvine. He has published books on James Joyce and on the New Historicism, and
three on law and literature: Cross-Examinations of Law and Literature: Cooper, Hawthorne,
Stowe, and Melville (1987), American Literary Realism and the Failed Promise of Contract
(1997), and Civic Myths: A Law and Literature Approach to Citizenship (2007). He has
also edited a casebook on Plessy v. Ferguson (1997).
Priscilla Wald is professor of English and Women Studies at Duke University. She
is the author of Constituting Americans: Cultural Anxiety and Narrative Form (1995) and
Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative (2008), and coeditor (with
Michael Elliott) of The American Novel: 1870–1940 (2011), volume 6 of the Oxford
History of the Novel in English. She is currently at work on a book-length study
titled “Human Being after Genocide: Toward a Genomic Creation Myth.”
Caroline F. Levander and Robert S. Levine
Forms, spaces, practices – these are the key terms that this book adopts for conceptualizing the current state and future directions of American literary studies in the
twenty-first century. No longer organized exclusively by author, time period, genre,
or nation, American literary studies is developing new paradigms and models that
revise many of our standing assumptions about literary practice, literary categories,
literary production, and the field of inquiry itself. No longer viewing American literature as a canon to be curated or an archive to be recovered and preserved, Americanists
increasingly regard their object of study as a dynamic, multimedia, hybrid textual
corpus, deploying a wide array of interpretive strategies and methods that help us to
reconceive what we thought we knew about the study of American literature. It is
the very dynamism of the field at the present moment that the 33 essays comprising
this volume collectively represent.
In this way, A Companion to American Literary Studies offers a key and timely point
of departure from other recent American literary studies collections. A Companion to
American Literature and Culture (Lauter), for example, offers genealogical essays on the
history of the field, along with essays on the authors and subjects central to American
literary study. Rather than mapping out the various fields and subfields of American
literary studies (regionalism, ecocriticism, transcendentalism, and so on), our volume
focuses on critical work that is helping to transform the field itself. Accordingly, we
include in our Companion essays by newer and established scholars whose thinking
addresses the most provocative questions, subjects, and issues animating American
literary studies. The essays represent and respond to changes and reorientations in the
field, engage the increasingly diverse conceptions of American literary study, and
A Companion to American Literary Studies, First Edition. Edited by Caroline F. Levander,
Robert S. Levine.
© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2011 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Caroline F. Levander and Robert S. Levine
assess the unprecedented material changes occasioned by emerging digital, new media,
and visual technologies. As a group, the essays provide readers with the knowledge
and conceptual tools for understanding American literary studies as it is practiced
today; a number of the essays also chart new directions for the field, pointing to future
developments and possibilities. With its emphasis on a wide range of scholarly practices, the volume, we hope, can serve as an essential resource for anyone interested in
the current state of American literary studies, as well as for anyone interested in the
future of the field.
We undertake this collection because, at the present moment, the field of American
literary studies finds itself at an exciting and potentially revolutionary point of transformation. Gender, race, ethnic, and women’s studies helped to transform the canon
during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, and new developments in hemispheric, transatlantic, transnational, and postnational studies have raised questions about the very
viability of American literary studies (see, for example, Davidson and Hatcher; Kaplan
and Pease; Levander and Levine; Manning and Taylor; Rowe). Does it make sense to
continue to regard the literature of the US nation as constituting, in Richard Poirier’s
well-known formulation, “a world elsewhere”? Questions of race, gender, ethnicity,
and nation are at the center of many essays in this collection, as are essays that focus
on Native American literature, queer studies, disability studies, postcolonial reconceptions of “early American” literature, and the human sciences. There are surprises here,
such as an essay on medical imaging, which links up with other essays in the volume
on the increasing importance of biology, genetics, and machines to American literary
studies. The new digital studies poses pressing questions about textuality, audience,
and nation, as do various interdisciplinary approaches to American literature, whether
the focus is on law, history, religion, politics, disability, gender and sexuality, and/or
other intersecting disciplinary formations. Taken together, the essays in the volume
help us to see how American literary history might be told in the light of a number
of new approaches to the field. The essays also help us better understand the histories
and workings of the new approaches themselves.
But even as the essays point to the future, they are profoundly dialectical, showing
the continuing importance of the literary and the national to American literary
studies. In essays by Joel Pfister, Shirley Samuels, and many others, the literary itself
provides ways of thinking about critical method, or, to put this differently, the literary
is seen as a form of critical practice. Virtually all of the essays in the volume have
literary works at the center of their discussions, making it clear that even the newest
approaches tend to be inflected by an intense interest in the literary. There has been
much recent talk about a renewed interest in aesthetics in American literary and
cultural studies (Elliott, Caton, Rhyne), and this volume suggests that considerations
of literary complexity, artistry, and vision remain central to the challenge of doing
American literary studies. Similarly, though a number of essays in the volume raise
questions, implicitly or explicitly, about the limits of conceiving of American literary
studies solely in terms of the US nation (see, for example, the essays by George
Handley and by Susan Gillman and Kirsten Gruesz), the nation remains central to
numerous essays in our volume, ranging from Elizabeth Fenton’s consideration of
religion and American literature to the essays by Carla Peterson and Ramón Saldívar
on African American literature and race. All of our contributors have moved beyond
a literary-nationalist embrace of US exceptionalism, but that doesn’t mean that specific national histories – such as the role of millennialism in American thought, or
the practice of slavery, or attitudes toward poverty in a supposedly classless nation –
haven’t had an enormous impact on US literature. As the field of American literary
studies becomes more globalized and comparative, the nation continues to exert its
power (in all sorts of ways) as a category deserving of analysis. Essays in Part II of this
volume, however, ask us to think about the nation in larger hemispheric, transatlantic,
and global contexts.
We have organized the essays in A Companion to American Literary Studies around
forms, spaces, and practices because these conceptual groupings work against the
chronological and thematic analytic categories that often make up traditional literary
histories. The essays in Part I, “Forms,” address aesthetic issues in a variety of ways,
but generally take literary form as either their starting point or an integral concern;
the essays in Part II, “Spaces,” focus their attention on geographies and temporalities
in ways that raise questions about or revise our understanding of the national, or,
better yet, the “American” in American literary studies. The essays in these two
parts very centrally are also about literary practice; and the essays in “Spaces” in
particular are about new ways of practicing American literary studies. Nevertheless,
we have established a third grouping called “Practices” (Part III), guided by the idea
that reconceived notions of literary forms and national, geographical, and temporal
spaces are central to a number of what could be called the new and emerging subfields of American literary studies, such as law and literature, posthumanism, disability studies, and race studies. It is important to emphasize that our three conceptual
sections are meant to highlight or foreground what we regard as the main emphases
of the essays, and that we are well aware that our groupings are inevitably overlapping and palimpsestic. Even as we acknowledge that none of the essays can easily
be contained within a single conceptual category, we find these categories illustrative
of new perspectives in American literary scholarship on what constitutes the literary
past, what generates the literary present, and what is possible for the future of the
Because of these shared interests, many of the essays produce provocative cross-talk
between sections. Gender, for example, moves as a dynamic thread linking the
nineteenth-century US novel (Samuels, “Forms”) to the worlds of color that become
visible when we approach gender within a hemispheric system of meaning making
(Stephens, “Spaces”). Approached from a transnational perspective, the labor dimension of gender systems gains a new legibility that resonates with our understanding
of social inequality as represented in American literature (Jones, “Forms”). New mass
culture modes of literary expression offer another powerful through-line connecting
the three sections. Popular visualization techniques for disease (Ostherr, “Forms”), for
example, function like and resonate with the unorthodox but deeply meaningful
Caroline F. Levander and Robert S. Levine
transnational text networks that Gillman and Gruesz sketch in “Spaces.” Within the
larger context of these kinds of text networks – ranging across time, space, and narrative forms, and, as Bentley illustrates, being long consonant with mass media
(“Forms”) – digital humanities can be seen as both an emergent mass culture phenomenon and a natural next iteration of a longstanding popular engagement with the
disparate technologies of textual production (Cohen, “Practices”) and the disparate
textual productions of technology (Gilmore, “Forms”). We could also note that the
issues of performance that Kodat addresses in “Forms” resonate in virtually every essay
in the volume, whether on genre (Richards and Loeffelholz, “Forms”), new Caribbean
regionalisms (Goudie, “Spaces”), Native American studies (Rifkin and Cox, “Spaces”),
democratic cultures (Nelson, “Practices”), or gender and sexuality (Samuels, “Forms”;
Looby, “Practices”).
And yet, if the individual essays comprising the collection consistently resist, move
across, and synergize our three conceptual groups, each section nevertheless has an
internal cohesiveness and focus. In this respect, the essays in each section can be
regarded as thought-experiments in key concepts central to how many scholars currently envision, teach, and critically interpret American literature.
For example, the first section purposefully revisits questions of aesthetics that have
proven thorny over the years for Americanists. In his foundational and now somewhat
dated The American Renaissance (1941), F.O. Matthiessen studies at great length what
he terms “Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman,” while focusing
on a limited canon of writers who are presented as having little to do with politics
and popular culture. The essays grouped together in Part I, “Forms,” all share an
exciting sense of the rich possibilities for rethinking art and expression in the wake
of the canon expansion of the past several decades, which did much to unsettle fixed
notions of the literary. Recent developments in performance studies and media studies
have further expanded ideas of the literary, particularly in relation to form. Moreover,
in response to the New Historicism, which worked with increasingly predictable
models of subversion and containment, there has been a renewed interest in the power
of the literary as well as in the complex and often mutually constitutive interplay
between the literary and the cultural. Literary form has traditionally been thought of
in relation to genre, but in this section our contributors address not only literary
genres but also medical images, films, machines, and other extraliterary forms. In
their considerations of form in various literary and cultural contexts, some of our
contributors break down distinctions between the literary and social, exploring, for
example, the close connections between social formations and literary formations (see,
for example, Fenton on religion and Jones on class). Others insist on the sheer power
of the literary (see Pfister in particular). With their interests in such matters as
material culture, technology, popular culture, visual studies, and performance, the
contributors in Part I offer fresh ways of thinking about art and expression and about
the place of form, and form itself, in American literary studies. Overall, the essays in
Part I can be understood as having a foundational place in our volume, reminding us
of the importance of form, or art and expression, or the “literary” (however it is
understood) to any critical foray into how we might think about or reconceive
American literary studies.
Part I begins with Russ Castronovo on the politics of literary form. Focusing on
the propagandistic poems of the early national writer Philip Freneau, Castronovo
shows how difficult it is to separate form (and questions of aesthetics) from politics.
In the essay’s boldest move, Castronovo urges critics and readers to consider form as
content; and in crucial respects all of the essays in Part I exemplify and put into
practice the sort of literary-historical and critical work that Castronovo calls for.
Joel Pfister, for instance, reads Franklin, Hawthorne, and other American writers as
in effect doing their own historicist and critical work when writing about capitalism
and alienation. Thus, in a somewhat Emersonian mode, Pfister insists on the importance of creative reading to Americanist scholarship. Similarly, Shirley Samuels, in
her discussion of popular women’s novels of the mid-nineteenth century, illuminates
how the tropes, figures, and concerns of the sentimental novel, indeed the very form
of the sentimental novel, is the content, arguing that women writers of the time can
be viewed as the historians and theorists who laid the groundwork for the feminist
literary historians of the late twentieth century. The next three essays in Part I examine
the intimate connections between literary and cultural forms. Attending to the general
neglect of religion in American literary studies, Elizabeth Fenton discusses literary
and religious writings, including The Book of Mormon, that work with and against
what she terms a “secularization narrative.” Paul Gilmore recuperates what could be
termed a “technology narrative,” exploring interrelationships between technological
developments and literary expression in ways that challenge conventional notions of
the incompatibility of technology and art. Americanists have long affirmed the close
connections between democracy and US literary traditions, but in an essay that focuses
on what could be called a “poverty narrative,” Gavin Jones argues that class itself can
be understood as a formal component of the American novel, crucial to representations
of social space in works ranging from Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance to Thomas
Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49.
Genre, performance, and the visual are crucial to the next four essays in Part I.
Kirsten Ostherr discusses medical imaging as a genre of sorts – bounded in crucial
ways by the body and available technologies while opening up new ways of thinking
about the biocultural in a globalized US literature. Attending to the literary dimensions of such “extraliterary” forms as music and dance, Catherine Gunther Kodat
points to the crucial role of performance both within and across literary genres, focusing on poetry and also helping us to reimagine ballet and music as part of a more
expansive literary history in the twentieth-century United States. Jeffrey Richards and
Mary Loeffelholz address genre as more traditionally understood, though performance
remains crucial to their analyses as well. Richards’s study of theater from the colonial
through the modern period examines the interconnections between social and dramatic performances, emphasizing how both are dependent on the visual (spectatorship). Loeffelholz notes the irony that popular US poetry has always been about the
social and performative, but that poetry somehow continues to remain neglected by
Caroline F. Levander and Robert S. Levine
critics interested in cultural history. Why, she asks, is a poet like Longfellow, whose
work was so widely disseminated in the culture, and so clearly informed by (even as
it shaped) the culture, regularly neglected, along with a host of other popular poets?
Like Castronovo, Loeffelholz suggests that considerations of form as content may help
to revitalize the study of US poetry. The final two essays in Part I offer case histories
of the importance of form to literary and cultural expression during the late nineteenth
and early twentieth centuries. Fleissner takes up the American Romance, regarded
ever since Richard Chase’s The American Novel and Its Tradition (1957) as that which
defines the distinctiveness of American fiction. Engaging traditional and new theories
of American literary history, and in particular circling back to reconsider earlier critics’
insights into romance, she offers, through a close reading of Melville’s Billy Budd, a
theoretically reenergized reading of the historical, political, and psychological aspects
of the “genre” of romance – a reading that ultimately raises questions about “the
romance of progress” in American literary studies. Nancy Bentley’s historicist reading
of form during approximately the same period reveals how turn-of-the-twentiethcentury mass-media – such as newspapers, films, advertising, popular novels, and
sound recordings – had enormous consequences for literary culture. In the manner of
Ostherr, she identifies cognitive shifts brought about by the impact of mass media,
especially the visual, which call for new modes of literary analysis.
Even as the collection attends to the “forms” constituting the literary of American
literary studies, it simultaneously takes seriously the geographic designator “American.”
In the last few decades, scholars have become increasingly engaged by the geographic
containers that have historically been used to sort and make sense of seemingly disparate literary traditions. No longer used as an equivalent for the United States, the
term “American” has come to signify the complex and overlapping geopolitical
imperatives at work in a myriad of literary cultural formations. The spaces of the
American literary landscape, on the one hand, gesture to the entire Americas as networks of civic, social, racial, and political affiliations that link parts of the United
States with hemispheric partners like Cuba, Haiti, and Mexico and at times reach well
beyond the hemisphere to Asia and Africa. On the other hand, these same spaces refer
to the dense array of regional communities that constellate and often prove to be even
more powerful for their members than, what is for some, a hypothetical or intangible
affiliation with the US nation. The essays comprising Part II, “Spaces,” approach the
“American” of American literary studies from multiple perspectives and with divergent practices. Collectively illustrating that there are no simple answers to the question “Where is American literature?”, the essays in this section offer various ways of
addressing that misleadingly simple question.
Take, for example, Anna Brickhouse’s analysis of the relationship between
Cabeza de Vaca and the little-known Lope de Oviedo. Through careful elucidation of
the thus far unremarked relation between these two figures, Brickhouse charts a radical
alternative to the literary origins story that scholars have recently been telling about
the United States – an origins story that we have, as she points out, often with a
sense of self-congratulation revised to include the erased significance of a figure like
Cabeza de Vaca. Brickhouse challenges us to not simply add more texts to the canon
of US literary culture, but more fundamentally to revisit the methods and critical
assumptions we bring to the study of those texts. Gillman and Gruesz provide an
important case study of how such a reconsideration of our critical assumptions and
habits – our habituated impulse, for example, to read Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno
within a national or Americas rather than a transatlantic frame – might generate rich
new opportunities for understanding familiar texts like Melville’s novella of slave
revolt. Arguing for a text-network approach to the study of individual authors
and texts, Gillman and Gruesz relocate Melville’s novella within a framework that
circulates from Europe to the Americas to Africa and back again. Refusing to firmly
locate Benito Cereno within an American or US literary tradition, Gillman and Gruesz
illustrate, opens up new interpretive possibilities for reading the transnational resonances and dialogues of which Melville was a key part. Like Gillman and Gruesz,
Michelle Stephens reorients a founding fiction of American literary studies – in this
case, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter – around a transnational scaffolding, exploring the
worlds of color that become visible when we approach key themes of Hawthorne’s
novel (labor, gender, and race) with an eye to hemispheric echoes and Americas-wide
Just as Stephens takes up the full spectrum of geopolitical “spaces” with which a
familiar author is concerned, the large-scale significance of transatlantic and transpacific studies in and for American literary studies is the focus of essays by Elisa
Tamarkin and Shelley Fisher Fishkin. Tamarkin addresses the question of transatlanticism as a category of analysis, charting the myriad ways in which the fact of Atlantic
crossings shapes literature, cultural history, and national belongings. Fishkin brings
attention to the transpacific as well as hemispheric engagements of an author like
Mark Twain, showing how Twain resonates for Chinese writers and scholars as well
as for famous Cuban writers like José Martí. Further, she explores how this unacknowledged dimension of Twain’s literary significance reorients what we think we
know about a familiar literary figure – a figure that readers have historically equated
with US literary heritage and nation-based social commentaries.
While many of the essays in “Spaces” gesture beyond the boundaries of the US
nation, a number attend to the complex variations within the United States and
between US regions and other regions of the Americas. John Matthews provides a
nuanced and layered analysis of US Southern literary studies, at once acknowledging
the field’s longstanding focus on the US South as a distinctive region within the
United States and exploring Southern literary studies’ attentiveness to how this
region connects with its southern neighbors – how the US South is part of a transnational, even global southern community with a shared history of slave owning,
abolition, and colonialism, to name only a few examples. The interlocking literary
histories that embed US writers known for their regionally focused writing (like
Cormac McCarthy for the US-Mexico borderland or Sarah Orne Jewett for New
England local color) are the focus of Sean Goudie’s and George Handley’s contributions. Taking what we assume to be distinctive regional traditions within the United
Caroline F. Levander and Robert S. Levine
States, like the US-Mexico borderlands and New England, and illustrating their
dynamic engagement with places like the Caribbean and Mexico, both essays chart
powerful networks of literary production occurring across as well as within regional
and national spaces.
Relatedly, Mark Rifkin and James Cox ask us to think about the enduring presence
of Native American traditions and cultural imaginaries in American literary studies.
With an eye toward the complex affective legacy of Native American history for
American literary production, Rifkin analyzes such disparate materials as Henry
David Thoreau’s Walden and William Apess’s “Eulogy on King Philip,” suggesting
that they offer us compelling examples of how Anglo-Americans envision Native
peoples and settlement cultures. Cox asks us to approach tribal nation contexts from
the perspective of American Indian writers. Focusing on three twentieth-century
Cherokee Nation authors, Cox’s essay forms a dynamic dialogue with Rifkin’s, suggesting that regions within the United States have their own claims to nationhood
that operate in creative as well as in political, social, and cultural tension with the
US nation that surrounds them. Part II ends with a consideration, by Paul Giles, of
the meaning and value of globalization for American literary studies. Tracking
American literature’s longstanding engagement with globalization, Giles charts an
American literary tradition that has been, to varying degrees, always already engaged
in global thinking, perspectives, and concerns. From the nation’s origins stories to
the hemispheric, transnational, and global networks in which American authors
operate, the spaces of American literature, as the essays in this section suggest, are
varied, ever changing, and intricately webbed across multiple geopolitical divides.
The “how” is as important to A Companion to American Literary Studies as the “what”
and the “where” of the first two sections, respectively. And so the third section,
“Practices,” explores the integration and implications of those topics outlined in
“Forms” and “Spaces” with respect to how we undertake or do American literary
studies. To repeat what we noted earlier in our introduction: all of the essays in Parts
I and II are about practices as well, but the essays in Part III place an added emphasis
on understanding crucial disciplinary fields or subfields, or overarching topics, integral
to the larger project of American literary studies. Beginning this section is Dana
Nelson’s analysis of arguably the core of US liberal democratic nationhood – the
democratic practices that constitute federal order as well as the practices that contest
and resist that order. Showing how American literature of the early national period
emphasized the contention and disagreement dismissed by consensus narratives,
Nelson illustrates how the practice of American democracy and the literary materials
that helped to constitute, naturalize, and disseminate it to Americans were far from
uniform or universally agreed upon. Brook Thomas carries this interest in democratic
literary cultures into the realm of legal practices, charting American writers’ sustained
interest in the law and discussing the consequences of that interest on literary form.
Through considerations of authors ranging from Charles Brockden Brown to
William Faulkner, Thomas reveals that the relationship between the practice of law
and the practice of literature has been enduring as well as ever changing. Christopher
Looby’s essay takes us from the public realm of the courtroom to the more private
realm of sexuality, demonstrating that American writers have been engaged with
sexual as well as with legal or democratic issues. Focusing on Sarah Orne Jewett’s
“Martha’s Lady,” but addressing a number of other works as well, Looby persuasively
illustrates that passionate romantic friendships, erotic ties between same-sex partners,
and queer identities have been a constitutive rather than ancillary or secondary feature
of the practice of American literature. In other words, sexual practice is literary practice, and vice versa.
Priscilla Wald, Ursula Heise, and Michael Bérubé, in powerfully complementary
essays, observe the myriad ways in which the practices of literary production and
representation are biological and biomedical as well as social and geopolitical. Attentive
to interactions of living organisms and their physical environments, Wald charts how
the fields of both genetics and ecology in the post-World War II period informed
American authors’ depictions of the human condition. Human contingency and the
uncertain survival of the human species riveted the attention of science fiction writers
as well as bestselling novelists like Sloan Wilson, whose The Man in the Grey Flannel
Suit limns the close connections between fears of nuclear annihilation and the enhanced
cultural prominence of the nuclear family. Heise examines responses to the new technologies of the late twentieth- and early twenty-first centuries that disorder accepted
practices associated with being human. Observing that a posthuman imaginary
emerges out of surging interest in questions surrounding human life, Heise explores
how American literature grapples with the question of how and if we should practice
“humanism” – that is, whether we should continue to regard humans as a species
apart or if we should adopt posthuman perspectives that understand humans as
one of many animal species. Bérubé explores how narrative and intellectual disability
are mutually implicating forces in American literature, from William Faulkner to
Maxine Hong Kingston to much science fiction writing. Indeed it is the nation’s
commitment to transforming nineteenth-century European scientific studies of intellectual disability into a rationale for tracking the American people’s collective and
individual progress that makes American literature such a rich site for exploring the
challenges and opportunities that narrative affords disability studies. At stake in these
three essays is nothing less than the interlocking practices of being human and human
Similar issues are at stake in the three essays in Part III focusing on race. Given
the long history of slavery and white supremacy in the United States, it is not surprising that race and ethnicity remain absolutely key terms in American literary studies,
though crucial questions remain about how to approach these terms as categories of
analysis. For Colleen Lye, the transnationalization of frameworks for understanding
Asian American racial, ethnic, and literary identities reveals that Asian Americanness
has always been in crisis, existing as a sociohistorical construct much more than as an
identity defined by biological descent. Drawing on recent theoretical work in Asian
Caroline F. Levander and Robert S. Levine
American studies, Lye proposes a nonlinear approach to Asian American literary
history governed by fragmentation and disorderliness, and a clear-eyed skepticism
about the stability of Asian American identity. Carla Peterson proposes a different
sort of reorientation for nineteenth-century African American literary studies, urging
critics to return to the archives in order to develop a more complex understanding of
the historical genealogies of such concepts as race and diaspora. Challenging the binary
that privileges Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois as the leaders who identified the social significance of these concepts at the turn into the twentieth century,
Peterson underscores the importance of writings by the less well-known Alexander
Crummell and James McCune Smith on black community and race. Crucially, Peterson
identifies Smith as an intellectual who could be said, somewhat anachronistically, to
have “deconstructed” race as a social construct, pointing the way to the postracial.
Ramón Saldívar takes up what he calls “the postrace aesthetic” in recent writings by
African Americans, showing how these writers may be some of our best current critics
on matters of race. Saldívar’s essay, which speaks to the promises inherent in the election of Barack Obama to the presidency, begs the question of whether a postracial
perspective, with its often wildly funny deconstructions of race, can trump the ravages
of history and the persistence of whites’ antiblack racism.
The final essay of the collection comes full circle to questions of form and space
and asks us to envision literary production within the context of the digital technologies that are transforming how we write, read, sort, and script American literature
via the computer chip and Internet. From colonial writers to Walt Whitman to figures
like Loss Pequeño Glazier and Mary-Anne Breeze, American authors have been consistently and enduringly fascinated with codes and technologies of literary expression.
Challenging us to see digital modes of analysis and expression as part of a continuum,
Matt Cohen reminds us that writers have always worked with form within the context
of available technologies. Not an aesthetic pursuit separated from mass culture or
technological innovation, American writing, as the contributors to this volume show,
is built into the dense fabric of American life – its technologies, its playfulness, and
its production of new ways of communicating the vitality of lived experience both
within and beyond the nation.
We wish to express our warm thanks and appreciation to our editor at WileyBlackwell, Emma Bennett, who has been wonderfully helpful and supportive through
every stage of the project. We are also grateful for the assistance of Wiley-Blackwell
editors Bridget Jennings, Sue Leigh, and Cheryl Adam. We would also like to thank
the proofreader, Helen Kemp, and indexer, Tim Penton. We are happy to acknowledge
material assistance from the Departments of English at Rice University and the
University of Maryland; and most of all we would like to thank our contributors for
their engaging essays and collegiality.
Caroline F. Levander and Robert S. Levine
References and Further Reading
Chase, Richard. The American Novel and Its
Tradition. New York: Anchor Books, 1957.
Davidson, Cathy N., and Jessamyn Hatcher. Eds.
No More Separate Spheres! A Next Wave American
Studies Reader. Durham, NC: Duke University
Press, 2002.
Elliott, Emory, Louis Freitas Caton, and Jeffrey
Rhyne. Eds. Aesthetics in a Multicultural Age.
New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Kaplan, Amy, and Donald E. Pease. Eds. Cultures
of United States Imperialism. Durham, NC: Duke
University Press, 1993.
Lauter, Paul. Ed. A Companion to American Literature and Culture. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell,
Levander, Caroline F., and Robert S. Levine. Eds.
Hemispheric American Studies. New Brunswick,
NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008.
Manning, Susan, and Andrew Taylor. Eds.
Transatlantic Literary Studies: A Reader. Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.
Matthiessen, F.O. Art and Expression in the Age of
Emerson and Whitman. 1941. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1974.
Poirier, Richard. A World Elsewhere: The Place of
Style in American Literature. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1966.
Rowe, John Carlos. Ed. Post-Nationalist American
Studies. Berkeley: University of California Press,
Part I
Poetry, Prose, and the Politics of
Literary Form
Russ Castronovo
The Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, and Martin Luther King’s
Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech all exhibit poetic features in phrasing and cadence, but
none is poetry. They are prose documents and it seems unlikely that their authors ever
considered framing these great political statements as sonnets or sestinas. John Reed,
best known for his journalistic tour de force of the October Revolution in Russia,
wrote his fair share of sonnets, but few, if any, of his poems give off revolutionary
sparks, whether as a matter of content or as formal experimentation. It is not that
poetry is unsuited to politics – witness antislavery verse of the 1840s and 1850s or
the poetry of the cultural left of the 1930s – but neither are odes to specific pieces of
legislation common literary fare. And yet, when poetry does become outfitted for
political purposes, the most significant work may be done not in terms of content but
in terms of form.
This chapter seeks to unsettle such misleading oppositions about the supposedly
conventional nature of poetic form versus the socially relevant and political possibilities of prose. In no less a defining statement than What Is Literature? (1948),
Jean-Paul Sartre contrasted the prose writer, who uses words as tools for getting things
done in the world, with the poet whose abstruse relation to language makes for compositions whose usefulness is puzzling at best. “Poets are men who refuse to utilize
language,” writes Sartre (5). Poetry appears to Sartre an insular and reflexive métier,
one that makes it seem as if the poet “did not share the human condition” (6). In this
view, poetry – by its very nature – seems esoteric, removed from the public and collective settings that provide a necessary condition for politics. Although Theodor
Adorno would counter that this emphasis upon worldly engagement forces literature
A Companion to American Literary Studies, First Edition. Edited by Caroline F. Levander,
Robert S. Levine.
© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2011 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Russ Castronovo
into acceptance of the world as it is, the basic assumptions of Sartre’s view are reflected
in certain implicit tendencies within American literary studies. Ever since the cultural
turn in literary criticism emphasizing the historical and material contexts of writing,
the field has prioritized prose, especially the novel, over poetry as though verse were
somehow inadequate to representing political crisis. Never mind that writers as
diverse as Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frances Harper, Walt Whitman,
Claude McKay, and Margaret Atwood have taken up poetry and prose with equal
facility. Never mind that for much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, poetry
written by such luminaries as Philip Freneau, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and
Lydia Sigourney enjoyed a popularity that often rivaled, if not surpassed, that of
To make these points is not to intone a dirge for 1950s-style formalism or even for
poetry. Rather, it is to consider how aesthetic choices become political choices, how
opting for either poetry or prose itself constitutes a commentary on the social world
and its attendant conventions and forms. Of course, it would seem that in some situations there is no choice at all. Opinions on taxes or the treatment of prison inmates
demand everyday expression associated with prose. Philip Freneau, a poet of the
American Revolution, did not give into these demands, and such poems as his
“Occasioned by a Legislation Bill Proposing a Taxation upon Newspapers” and “On
a Legislative Act Prohibiting the Use of Spirituous Liquors to Prisons in Certain Jails
of the United States” would seem to test not only the distinctions between poetry
and prose but also the assumptions about the politics conveyed by each form. While
titles such as “The Wild Honey Suckle” or “To a Caty-Did” reveal that Freneau composed verses on traditional lyric subjects, he also wrote poems on a range of nonpoetic
subjects in order to express political views beyond the limits of prosaic wisdom. To
be sure, Freneau appears in most anthologies of American literature, but he does so
only as a poet. The effect of ignoring his prose is significant, not because his essays
and newspaper articles have any special significance themselves, but because Freneau’s
ability to work in both forms, in tandem with his lifelong indecision about, changing
attitudes toward, and strategic deployments of each, suggests something about the
nimbleness that political engagement requires. His occasional but sporadic reflections
on prose and poetry – What does it mean to frame an appeal in verse? Is prose
somehow more democratic than poetry? In the world of public opinion, is poetry an
inherently oppositional form? Is prose an accommodation to the world as it is? – offer
something like a theory of political form.
Examining the work of this revolutionary-era writer thus supplies much more than
a new perspective on the boundaries of eighteenth-century discourse; returning to this
“lost” American poet enables a broader consideration about forms of expression within
democratic public spheres. Or, as Freneau rhymed near the end of his life, “A poet
where there is no king / Is but a disregarded thing,” bemoaning that the imaginative,
creative qualities associated with poetics seemingly have no place in American democracy (Last Poems 31). His lament remains an instructive provocation to examine how
literary form – such as the choice of poetry or prose – engages the nature and meaning
Poetry, Prose, and the Politics of Literary Form
of politics at a vital level. This focus on form opens out into a reconsideration of the
relationship of literature to propaganda, of art to popular culture, and of aesthetics to
oppositional politics, and other issues central to American literary study in the
twenty-first century. If Freneau’s placement in anthologies suggests that he is a writer
who is supposed to help us make sense of national literary traditions, then this renewed
attention to the productive tensions between his poetry and prose offers a perspective
for reevaluating how form has played an often uncertain but no less determining role
in creating the political valences of American literature.
Before undertaking this investigation, a few remarks are necessary to set some
parameters about the terms prose, poetry, and politics, especially in their relationship to
one another. Rather than separating these terms, the next section suggests why discerning their overlap is crucial to understanding the politics of American literary form.
No matter how much contemporary culture shies away from explicit political discussion as a show of aggression or bad taste, politics are likely to spring up in unexpected
contexts from the dinner table to the office water cooler. But while politics have seemingly unlimited range and can appear just as easily in the private space of the bedroom
as the public setting of the classroom, politics are not naturally occurring phenomena
that simply appear. Thomas Hobbes and other social contract theorists stressed this
point by viewing the state of nature, with its unceasing violence and war, as a prepolitical setting lacking compacts, covenants, or other forms that give shape and
security to political life. This point might be elaborated in terms of the settings thus
far invoked – dinner tables (the domestic), bedrooms (the intimate), water coolers (the
economic), and classrooms (the institutional) – and by remarking that the communication of politics in each of these zones demands still more forms, from table manners
to scheduled coffee breaks. These forms are no guarantee that discussion will adhere
to a predictable pattern of style; politics in these settings can be avoided or directly
confronted, whispered or shouted, delivered as a confidence or as a rant.
In American literature, the forms for communicating politics are infinitely more
varied and complex, ranging from a story of whaling to a fanciful tale about a Kansas
farm girl in search of an emerald city. The first example is, of course, Moby-Dick
(1851), which, starting with readers in the 1960s, was often taken as a commentary
on the problem of slavery and the threat of national disunion. The second and equally
obvious example is The Wizard of Oz (1900), which in its depiction of yellow brick
roads, a blustering lion that behaves like a populist orator, and a magical city whose
name is the standard abbreviation for “ounce,” recalls the charged political debates
over the gold standard at the turn of the twentieth century. With little effort, we
might compile a list of novels and poems laden with political messages. In the wake
of ideological critique in general and New Historicism and cultural studies in particular, it would be difficult to attempt the opposite and name works that did not
communicate some political content. Nevertheless, in making claims about the politics of any poem or novel, we would just as quickly want to stipulate that any truly
creative work is more than a crude delivery system for an author’s political objectives.
Russ Castronovo
The choice of form is paramount not just in conveying content but also in shaping
it. To run back through our examples: Why not choose a series of cantos for a whaling
saga? Why not choose a realist novel – certainly there were plenty of examples around
when Baum was penning Dorothy’s story – to articulate a perspective upon currency
debates? Although we know that form matters, authors themselves provide little help
in figuring out why one situation calls for poetry and another for prose. Many have
speculated, but no one knows precisely why Melville, soon after the commercial failure
of Moby-Dick and his subsequent novels, turned to an arguably less popular form than
the novel by writing poetry in Battle-Pieces (1866). Is killing men in a bloody civil
war somehow a more poetic subject than killing whales?
In short, any effort to correlate form and political content must recognize the initial
conflict and tension that surround the unavoidable use of a particular form. Literature
necessarily begins with this gesture, which, however, is not the same thing as saying
that literature lacks form until it takes shape as a sestina, sonnet, or short story. As
Fredric Jameson points out, “[T]he essential characteristic of literary raw material or
latent content is precisely that it never really is initially formless.” Instead of being
purely organic, the building blocks of literature – sounds, words, and images – spring
from social considerations shot through with history and concrete material reality.
Literary raw materials are “meaningful from the outset, being neither more nor less
than the very components of our concrete social life itself” (Jameson 402–3). Whether
expression congeals as a poem, novel, or other form entails any number of considerations: the circulation of styles and conventions, the literary historical status of genres,
the institutions of print culture, patterns of reception, the specifics of the occasion,
popular tastes, an author’s talents or predilections, and so on. These aesthetic concerns
could be augmented with broader factors stemming from general economic conditions
or historical epochs. Since each of these considerations is likely in flux, conventions
or tastes are never fixed or static.
In American literary studies, particularly the literature of the early national period,
claims about the politics of form lend nuance to what people usually mean by “politics” at the time of the Revolution: the struggles of the Constitutional Congress,
diplomacy with France, the danger of factions, the rise of the Federalists, and the
opposition of Democrat-Republicans. Considerations of form expand the range of the
political. To speak about form and politics, as Jameson does, is not to suggest that
literature properly belongs in the domain of what historians or political scientists
consider political. Jameson is not asking that literature be classed with more empirically minded disciplines. The goal is not to change the look and feel of literature so
that it can appear as social science. Rather, the goal is to shift definitions of politics
so that matters like choosing to express one’s thoughts via a poem or a pamphlet are
themselves seen as a commentary on social content.
In other words, settling on a form is neither a matter of stylistic idiosyncrasy nor
a purely creative decision but is instead a political act par excellence. Jameson underscores this point by reversing the conventional wisdom about form and content. As
opposed to viewing form as something that sets the initial pattern to be filled by
Poetry, Prose, and the Politics of Literary Form
content as, say, when wine is decanted into a Grecian urn or words arranged into a
sonnet, we should see what happens if we consider form “as that with which we end
up, as but the final articulation of the deeper logic of the content itself” (Jameson
328–9). One might go farther still: form is a dynamic process, an ongoing adjustment
to and engagement with social and historical content. The choice of the sonnet is
itself political even if selecting one form over another seems primarily a question of
either functionality (“A sonnet is the best way to express my love”) or taste (“I just
like sonnets”) that can be easily put to rest. Just as it makes a difference whether talk
of politics at the water cooler or in the bedroom comes as a screed or as a supplication,
so too the most fundamental consideration for critical readers is whether literature’s
engagement with taxation, prisons (to allude once more to the somewhat mundane
range of Freneau’s poetic topics), love, or other issues takes shape as a poem or a
But in what ways do such choices make a difference? If the preference of one
form over another itself stands forth as an expression of social content, if the choice
of poetry over prose resonates with potential political significance, then what content
is being expressed and what sort of politics are being signified? These questions are
potentially rather incautious ones, leading to dubious but familiar assertions about
the reactionary nature of diatribes or the progressive nature of the avant-garde. Still,
such questions need to be asked lest criticism and interpretation seem mired in an
approach to form that proceeds on a case-by-case basis, much as New Criticism often
tended to fixate on a poem or New Historicism regularly zeroed in on the cultural
history of a novel without treating form as a matter of cultural history, too. In his
work on “the sociology of literary forms,” Franco Moretti has undertaken this task
by linking literary and social convention. Literature, for Moretti, seeks to “secure
consent” (Signs 27), and aesthetic forms are useful precisely in shaping and smoothing
conflicts and tensions striating the sociopolitical sphere. Form bends people to the
bitter facts of existence: it makes us contented, but with the important proviso that
since happiness “is increasingly hard to attain in everyday life, a ‘form’ becomes
necessary which can in some way guarantee its existence” (33). From this perspective, form is the afterimage of conflict that has been reconciled and managed; it
marks a social suture, indicating the “spot” where aesthetic techniques have been
called into the service of restoring an image of consensus. The overall thrust of this
argument is that literary form serves a generally conservative function, not by eliminating social tensions altogether, but by expressing them in ways that allow people
to adjust themselves to economic, political, social, or existential unpleasantness.
Literary form, in short, teaches us that everything is copasetic, and if we accept that
proposition then, we are more likely to be happy with the existing state of affairs
and our place within it.
Since advancing these claims, Moretti has approached literary form with more
nuance, no longer treating it as pure or unchanging to the point that all form fulfills
a more or less univocal political mission of exemplifying consensus. Seeking to understand the distinction between novelistic and poetic form, he poses a question so simple
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and fundamental that it is often left unasked: “Why are novels in prose?” (“The Novel”
111). He begins with some broad observations about the political and formal differences between poems and novels, which bear upon the politicized readings that are
so central to American literary study. Like Jameson, Moretti is not focusing on politics
at the level of legislation or other specific issues. Instead, he reads for the politics of
form, which in the case of poetry, guided by repeatable pattern and symmetry, seems
to line up with social interests that have a high stake in maintaining fixity and order.
“Symmetry always suggests permanence, that’s why monuments are symmetrical,” he
writes (“The Novel” 112). The architectural comparison is telling, as it suggests that
whatever order is implied by poetry, it is a triumphalist one. Verse is retrogressive,
its pattern and symmetry always returning expression back to the formal properties
with which it began. Prose, in contrast, is progressive because of its indifference to
symmetry. Prose is thus antimonumental: at a formal level, the progression of novelistic narrative has a political edge that enlists prose on the side of “im-permanence
and irreversibility” with an orientation that is “forward-looking” (“The Novel” 112).
If verse and prose were electoral candidates, verse would be the incumbent and prose
would be the voice of change and new ideas.
What to make of the political standoff between literary forms in light of the fact that
Philip Freneau, once a much-studied author of the early republic and now a figure
who has pretty much faded into critical obscurity, was dubbed both the “father of
American poetry” and the “father of American prose” (Clark “Poetry,” “Prose”)?
Although these sobriquets date from the 1920s, they still have resonance in making
us wonder how theoretically opposing forms, each with a different political valence,
could be engendered by the same figure. While people often act from ambivalent
motives, the formal divisions that striate Freneau’s work are especially germane
because his work, both as an essayist and as a poet, is so strongly identified with revolutionary politics. Acclaimed in his own day as the “Poet of the Revolution,” he has
since been called a “literary Minute-man” for his readiness to lend his creative talents
first to the cause of independence in 1776 and then later to radical republicanism, a
crusade he championed until his death in 1832 (Hustvedt 1). Did Freneau’s political
attachments fluctuate with the formal decisions that he made, as he selected from an
arsenal that included, on the one hand, satires in rhyme, Horatian odes, elegies, and
various types of newspaper verse, and, on the other, prose pieces that ran the range
from invective to essays voiced in popular vernacular? To what extent did his politics
dictate certain formal choices, and how did his use of poetry or prose commit him to
certain political positions? As we’ll see, such questions have resonance beyond Freneau
and his eighteenth-century moment.
These questions suggest a dialectical approach to the intersections between literary
form and political expression. Rather than adopting a unidirectional outlook that
would see literary form as determining the type of politics expressed (or vice versa),
the tougher challenge is to view both the limits and range of such formal choices as
emblematic of a deeper political concern for disseminating information and propagating opinions. Despite their differences, poetry and prose for Freneau each revolves
Poetry, Prose, and the Politics of Literary Form
around the question about how formal conventions respond to the often unpredictable
energies of democratic culture. Though Freneau’s reputation, in Robert Pinsky’s overview, has degenerated from that of a literary freedom fighter in the eighteenth century
to “a disreputable hack” in the nineteenth century and now to “an obscure footnote,
perhaps an object for that amused condescension the living accord minor writers” in
the late twentieth and now twenty-first centuries, his formal and political battles have
renewed significance for at least two reasons (10). First, the reaction and response to
Freneau, given his avuncular but neglected status, illuminates how American literary
history has been shaped by distinguishing literature from propaganda – a line that
Freneau repeatedly crossed. Second, and more broadly, Freneau offers new insight into
the concerns sketched at the outset of this chapter, namely, the literary forms in which
we experience political life today.
At first glance, the measured traditions of eighteenth-century poetry seem out of
step with the tempestuous demonstrations, impassioned crowds, and newspaper
tirades that were a feature of early American democracy. This irresolvable tension
between the medium of European court refinement and popular political culture
inspired Freneau to comment directly upon the formal inadequacies of poetry for
representing the swirls and upheavals of democratic passions. As the story goes,
Freneau simply accepted the defeat of his poetic ideals and redirected his energies
toward prose by editing a string of unsuccessful newspapers. To keep the revolutionary fires burning, he began editing the Freeman’s Journal in 1781, then moved on to
the National Gazette in 1791, which quickly “became the common clearing house
for democratic propaganda” and was just as quickly denounced by Federalists as a
Jacobin rag advocating lawless republicanism (Parrington 379). Other ventures
included editing and contributing to the Daily Advertiser, Jersey Chronicle, and TimePiece and Literary Companion, but no matter the venue his reputation as a partisan
political tool had been sealed by Federalists, who never missed the opportunity of
attacking him – and, to be fair, Freneau regularly invited these attacks – as a rabblerouser and second-rate maker of verses. “As a journalist engaged in propaganda,
Freneau deliberately turned his back on literary aspiration,” writes his biographer,
Lewis Leary, who, as the title of his book makes clear, considers Freneau’s career a
“failure” (99). The identification of Freneau as a propagandist relies on assumptions
about the political content of his formal choices: had he followed his instincts and
not wasted his talents upon party politics and newspaper verse, he might have
become the United States’ first Romantic poet, an honor that literary critics usually
bestow upon William Cullen Bryant, instead of a merely “useful poet,” as he was
dismissed in the nineteenth century (qtd. in Leary 329), or as the producer of
“applied poetry” as opposed to the creator of “pure poetry,” as he was judged in the
twentieth (Clark, “Poetry” 16).
To say that Freneau churned out propaganda is not to allege that he gave no thought
to form. Rather, it is to say that he gave too much thought to matters of form, specifically which forms would best spread a republican gospel of popular political rule
while warning against the rise of aristocratic social pretensions in the infant nation.
According to the Romantic ideal of the writer, an ideal that would not emerge until
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the last decades of Freneau’s life, a better, more intuitive poet would not have concerned himself with addressing the masses or adjusting expression to popular tastes.
A more accomplished poet would not have wasted precious creative energy considering how verse could be made useful or how poetry could be applied to social and
political situations. Only someone with the temperament of an apparatchik and the
meager talents of a hack would have devoted so much thought to form in an effort
to produce prose and poetry, including verses critical of George Washington, invented
satirical speeches spoken by kings, and bits of homespun vernacular calculated to
appeal to less genteel audiences. And so it is that Freneau’s work often seems calculating, formulated with an eye to what will prove most efficacious in promoting democratic virtue in the hope that Americans of all ranks and classes would join him in
asking, “Should we, just heaven, our blood and labour spent, / Be slaves and minions
to a parliament?” (Freneau, Poems 1:145).
Written for partisan purposes and laden with rather blatant messages, such verse
borders on propaganda or, more exactly, renders the distinction between poetry and
propaganda inconsequential. As Freneau put it in the “Advertisement” that prefaced
the 1809 edition of his work, “These poems were intended . . . to expose vice and
treason their own hideous deformity” while promoting “honour and patriotism in
their native beauty,” and it is not hard to see how lines contrasting brave American
military commanders with feckless British generals fulfilled this stated purpose (Poems
Written 1:3). Attention to form enabled Freneau to think about spreading this message
so that popular (in the political sense of issues relating to the public) matters would
be made popular (in the cultural sense of art and expression that appeal to the tastes
of ordinary people). Freneau’s use of the term advertisement in 1809 is thus perhaps
not that remote from contemporary usage that denotes a media spot intended to
publicize a product or service. Although the word propaganda was infrequently
employed before the twentieth century and certainly not with the negative connotations it has today, Freneau and his staff at the National Gazette were maligned “propagators of calumny” after the paper printed charges that members of Congress were
engaged in underhanded financial speculation (qtd. in Leary 204). What remains
unchanging is a concern with spreading messages and propagating information. It is
common to conceive of propaganda in terms of content, but Freneau shows that
propaganda just as importantly involves the formal strategies used to propel content
across the social landscape. Much like the advertiser whose job demands more attention to publicizing a product than the product itself, the eighteenth-century poet, if
he believes in democracy as both a political movement and a cultural ethos as fervently
as Freneau did, is charged with the mission of thinking about form, especially the
respective virtues of verse and prose. How best to get a message “out there” before
the public so that it will be truly popular? In taking up this challenge, Freneau discovered that the form of expression proved as significant as anything he might have
to say. Recalling the insight that form is not some pre-given pattern with which the
artist starts but rather a dynamic engagement with social content, Freneau’s work
often takes shape as a metacommentary on the possibilities and limitations of poetry
Poetry, Prose, and the Politics of Literary Form
and prose. Form, in these terms, is never merely a formal consideration but rather the
historical articulation of a democratic longing to engage people as widely and as fully
as possible.
Freneau “became a spokesman for the poor and oppressed and aimed many of his
works at the least sophisticated readers,” writes Emory Elliott (136). This aspect of
Freneau’s career has often been regretted by critics, leading to the conclusion that the
turn to prose assured the defeat of more refined literary aspirations. But the standards
important to an eighteenth-century propagandist are not the same as those upheld by
modern readers. Freneau’s criteria may today seem quaint and out of date, vestiges of
a time when political choices overruled formal concerns. What a more thorough view
reveals, however, is that formal concerns are political choices relevant to democracy,
not simply as a belief that the people should govern, but as a practice of spreading
that belief widely across diverse social strata.
Writing about a different revolutionary moment than Freneau’s, Kenneth Burke
in 1935 described the propagandist as a “spreader of doctrine” whose central concern
should be choosing symbols, vocabulary, and values that will popularize a cause. In
“Revolutionary Symbolism in America,” Burke seeks proletarian forms of expression
that will extend the writer’s “recruiting into ever widening areas”; the literary artist
necessarily becomes a propagandist because he or she propagates ideas and information. When the task is to make political beliefs align with “cultural awareness in the
large,” the writer’s duty is to employ language that promotes support for and identification with a particular viewpoint (91–3). As an example, Burke feels that because
the designation worker is too unromantic and constricted – who, after all, wants to
work in the industrial machine? – it needs to be replaced with the people, a term that
gives off a more inclusive aura. In contemplating which forms would enable the
propagation of democratic values and create “cultural awareness in the large,” Freneau
often found that the most inclusive aura lay in an odor of the vernacular, as when, in
a rebuke to the loyalist printer of the Royal Gazette, he rhymed “despot” with “pisspot”
(Poems 2:124). His wit ran toward New World accents, as when he imagined King
George raging like “Xantippe” in reaction to British “losses along Mississippi” (Poems
2:118). No matter how clever, though, these “jingling rhymes,” like “the monotony
of metre” and other poetic “trifles,” appeared to Freneau as remnants of a dying aristocratic cultural order (Prose 310). Poetic forms frequently struck him as too thoroughly steeped in rituals of deference and servility to supply the basis for democratic
critique. He worried that the aesthetic forms of the Anglo-American world were good
only for trumpeting pomp and circumstance as opposed to making a case for the
simple virtues of republicanism. Based on his reading of literary history, Freneau
predicted that poetry would be used to reinstall a culture of monarchical deference.
After the Revolution, when, as Freneau saw matters, a newly independent merchant
class was consolidating its authority and financial speculators were maximizing their
opportunities, poets who spent their time composing birthday verses for Washington
and extolling government officials were unequal to the task of safeguarding the public’s interests.
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In a mock advertisement addressed “To the Noblesse and Courtiers of the United
States,” Freneau invited applications for persons of poetic skill willing to sell their
talents to the government. Duties included composing verses praising “officers of the
government,” but care should be taken since the comparison of the president or anyone
in his administration to “any thing on this earth, would be an anti-hyperbole, unsuited
to the majesty of the subject.” Behind the irony lies Freneau’s disillusionment with
poetry as an antidemocratic form. Hopeful lackeys and aspiring bootlickers wishing
to increase their chances at becoming poet laureate would do well to bone up on “the
causes of decline of all the republics which have preceded us” so as to be ready to
rejoice in the appearance of any signs of decline hastening the end of American democracy. Poems are needed to exemplify how hierarchy and “certain monarchical prettinessses” such as state receptions, court functions, and official titles augur favorably for
“American prosperity” conceived, not in terms of political virtue, but as a crudely
financial calculus (Prose 294). The content of poetry seems incapable of overcoming
the retrogressive nature of its form: in a world where amateur versifiers find work as
professional flatterers, poetry fulfills an antipopular function in a double sense, first
by being poised against the interests of the people and, second, by appealing to themes
over their heads.
This advertisement ran in January 1793, and by August of that year Freneau was
writing poetry’s obituary as a “declining art” now that panegyrists and other flatterers
were no longer in demand. Then, sounding a more hopeful note, he predicted that
“real poetry . . . will one day have its resurrection; but its professors will no longer
be court sycophants” (Prose 310). This new, real poetry of the future would be guided
by “republican virtues,” initiating changes in content, tone, and form. After all, if
poetry were ever again to enjoy popularity, its producers had best remember that
Americans are a people of “too much cool reflection to be amused” or swayed by poetic
baubles dedicated to praising kings and other “crowned murderers” (Prose 310). In
short, the problem with poetry is no different than what Freneau that same year
decried as the royal trappings of the American theater: just as poetry seeks to amuse
rather than to instruct or educate, the stage proffers “alluring amusements, in order to
prevent the people from thinking” (Prose 295). By way of a broad social critique, these
reflections on poetry and theater stress the importance of popular culture in crafting
hegemony. In its capacity both to justify a political order and to forestall criticism or
dissent, popular culture regularly acts as a stabilizing mechanism, giving the people
bread and circuses in the shape of verse and drama, deflecting their legitimate political
concerns into pleasing but empty forms. Freneau, it might be said, scorns dramatic
entertainment and popular verse as features of an eighteenth-century “culture industry” that offers popular deception in the place of the people’s enlightenment. Although
Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer famously invoked the “culture industry” to
describe the total alignment of film and radio to capitalist individualism in the postWorld War II era, and although the United States in the 1790s certainly lacked the
mass media that created a “relentless unity” (Dialectic 96) of politics and culture
without alternatives or dissent, the comparison remains useful in spelling the scale of
Poetry, Prose, and the Politics of Literary Form
the counterrevolutionary threat that Freneau thought he faced from the very poetic
forms he had once employed as the poet of the Revolution (Elliott).
Unlike poetry that bewitched citizens, prose had an instructive and edifying capacity
crucial to sustaining republicanism. For Freneau, prose facilitates popular knowledge,
spreading colloquial definitions that enlighten instead of amuse. Such optimism led
him to conclude that “as the world advances towards universal republicanism the ideas
of mankind have become prosaic” (Prose 310).
The only complication to this story of republican prose is that Freneau repeatedly
voiced regret that poetry lacked popularity in his postrevolutionary world. Ambivalence
resounds in his statement about the “prosaic” nature of republicanism since the commentary on republican form also comes laden with the imputation that political ideas
expressed in this manner are dull and unimaginative. Counterbalancing the death of
poetry that Freneau predicted in his prose writings, his verse often laments the ascendancy of prose along with the fact that rhyme has no creditable place in a democratic
public sphere.
The most obvious barrier to poetry as public political expression extends beyond
its formal properties to the limitations of an audience, which, in Freneau’s view, seems
intent in employing its newly achieved independence and liberty to pursue only narrowly commercial interests that leave neither time nor inclination for more ennobling
artistic endeavors. Rhyme automatically dissents from the thinking that aligns the
pursuit of gain with the “pursuit of happiness”; the fact that Freneau is on the losing
side in this broader ideological war is an injury that he cherishes since the slights and
wounds to his aesthetic sensibility allow him to cultivate the air of a tragic and misunderstood visionary. His poetic persona often seems on the verge of giving up:
An age employ’d in pointing steel
Can no poetic raptures feel
The Muse of Love in no request.
I’ll try my fortune with the rest,
Which of the Nine shall I engage
To suit the humor of the age[?] (Poems 2:334).
In a day when Erato, the muse of lyric poetry, has no followers and there are no muses
specifically devoted to the prosaic business of trade, the poet realizes that his only
option is to beseech Melpomene for assistance in producing tragedy and melancholy.
For the tragic poet, poetry is itself the source of melancholia. In this new world, poetry
lacks creative or instructive power; it appears instead as a passive form shaped by the
current climate rather than as a force that can shape the priorities and beliefs of citizens. Still, such self-reflexive content reveals how poetic form registers social action.
Poetry, by the sheer nature of its form, is a declaration of opposition to the prevailing
consensus that prizes commercialism and limits the imagination to financial speculation. The growing irrelevance of the muses, the threatened obsolescence of verse, and
careless regard for lyricism in the early republic combined to make any use of poetic
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form a historical protest, somewhere between a sign of surrender and an act of desperation, against a prosaic age.
Poetry counters – which is precisely why it counts. This insight, discovered by
Freneau when he stood at the beginnings of a tradition that would later be called
American literature, has found echo in the work of contemporary poets. As Rosemarie
Waldrop states, “I love the way verse refuses to fill up all the available space of the
page so that each line acknowledges what is not” (260). While an entire history of
experimentation and the avant-garde lies between Freneau and Waldrop, there exists
a sort of convergence around the idea of poetry as an oppositional counterforce. To
adduce such an effect from form is not to declare that content is irrelevant: rather,
the “not” uttered by poetry becomes a way of acknowledging and engaging the content
of the world, but only as a matter of resistance.
This chapter offers no defense of the artistic worth of Freneau’s poetry. Instead, the
point is that for a writer like Freneau who was equally skilled in poetry and prose,
the choice of one medium over another, especially a form such as poetry that seemingly was becoming rapidly antiquated, constitutes an act of self-conscious political
decision. Poetry also has an imaginative power that enlivens the popular political
realm, potentially elevating citizens’ aspirations while widening the ambit of public
discourse. For Freneau, its form keeps republican virtue from flowing into the narrow
channels of profit and commercialism, and we might update this stance today with
small change by saying that poetic form serves people by refusing to accede to the
commonsense world. The paradox is that poetry, unlike prose, is no longer a popular
form, but this obsolescence is precisely what makes poetry oppositional and especially
conducive to minority viewpoints. With prose in ascendancy, poetry, by virtue of its
form, is especially suited to the losing side.
In his more hopeful moments, Freneau believed that the United States would
produce distinctly democratic verse – even if this development eluded Freneau himself,
emerging perhaps not until Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. In a 1797 work later
recycled as the introduction to the second volume of his Poems (1809), Freneau
expressed the sentiment that the United States would one day encourage topics “such,
as no courtly poet ever saw.” Here, at last, was the promise for form to match political
function, but this possibility for public poetical discourse fades fast in a landscape
more suited to the language of business and practicality:
The coming age will be an age of prose:
When sordid cares will break the muses’ dream,
And Common Sense be ranked in seat supreme. (Poems 3:188)
Embedded in this familiar rant against an economic calculus lies an unexpected allusion to Tom Paine, author of Common Sense, who adopted that title as a pseudonym in
newspaper pieces attacking the British during the Revolution. In terms of political
sympathies, Freneau and Paine were very much on the same side, and each became
the subject of vitriolic attacks after finding fault with the Federalist consensus. On
Poetry, Prose, and the Politics of Literary Form
literary grounds, however, the two had gone their separate ways from the beginning.
In Freneau’s estimation, Paine’s success as a prose pamphleteer belies a deeper failure:
while the revolutionary politics of Common Sense are beyond reproach, its form is susceptible to hierarchies in which business sensibilities are king. An oppositional politics requires an oppositional form – and that form in a society prioritizing trade and
commerce is poetry, a mode of expression destined not only to be on the margin but
also to speak the interests of those on the margin.
Even though the situation of American literary study now seems far removed from
the poetry and prose in Freneau’s day, the revolutionary (and postrevolutionary)
moment has much to teach us about the social dynamics of form. Beyond offering
insight into the merely manifest content of politics, literary history and literary
analysis uncover something more profound, providing a view that is fundamental in
addressing how politics are shaped at the outset. By considering Freneau’s tense – and
often unsuccessful – negotiations of prose and poetry in the analog era of the late
eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, we may better equip ourselves to understand, engage, and use the digital forms of politics today. The political conflicts that
Freneau routed through the now seemingly archaic oppositions between prose and
poetry remain very much a pressing concern for American literary and cultural study
in the twenty-first century.
The politics of form attains renewed significance as American literary scholarship
explores new forms, and nowhere today is such a development more evident than in
graphic novels that are popping up in more and more classrooms. Whether it is the
2006 achievement of Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese (nominated for the
National Book Award for excellence in Young People’s Literature) or Toufic El Rassi’s
Arab in America (2007), the graphic novel reanimates Freneau’s concerns about spreading and propagating minority viewpoints. Of course, being a political minority in the
early republic is not the same thing as being an ethnic or racial minority in the post9/11 state, but the linkage between formal choices and public consumption returns
us to questions about poetry, prose, and, now, comic books. Why make literature
visual? Why graft minority viewpoints to a form that has such currency in popular
culture? If the mainstream appeal of visual form itself may be the answer, it is only
an ironic one. For Yang, the combination of a racial coming-of-age story and comic
panels provides a cunning counterpoint to the idea of a so-called invisible minority.
The irony of visual form is more bitter for El Rassi since Arab Americans often occupy
a space of hypervisibility and suspicion. Other examples of this burgeoning genre such
as Ex Machina (which makes explicit reference to September 11, 2001) or Y: The Last
Man (a catastrophic portrait of gender and sexuality) deeply politicize form by revealing how trauma is, in a word, graphic.
Returning to Freneau brings American literary scholarship forward – to the mixture
of poetry, slave narrative, and romance that make up the first African American novel,
William Wells Brown’s Clotel (1853); to the sonnets that e.e. cummings wrote about
wartime patriotism; to the bricolage of biography, newspaper reportage, and stream
of consciousness that typify John Dos Passos’s experiments in the U.S.A. Trilogy
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(1938). It may be just as (or more) significant to shift the axis of critical interpretation
to form so that the import of these works is not exclusively bound up with slavery,
jingoism, corporate capital, or other content. Examinations of form necessarily expand
politics beyond the domain of content to considerations of style, technique, genre,
and medium. Along this axis, the coordinates for critical interpretation extend to the
point where writers and readers decide for poetry, prose, or mixed media, which is
also precisely the point where politics begins.
References and Further Reading
Adorno, Theodor, and Max Horkheimer. Dialectic
of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Trans.
Edmund Jephcott. Stanford, CA: Stanford
University Press, 1997.
Burke, Kenneth. “Revolutionary Symbolism in
America.” In American Writers’ Congress (pp.
87–93). Ed. Henry Hart. New York:
International Publishers, 1935.
Clark, Harry Hayden. “What Made Freneau the
Father of American Poetry?” Studies in Philology
26 (January 1929): 1–22.
Clark, Harry Hayden. “What Made Freneau the
Father of American Prose?” Transactions of the
Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters 25
(1930): 39–50.
Elliott, Emory. Revolutionary Writers: Literature
and Authority in the New Republic, 1724–1810.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Freneau, Philip. The Last Poems of Philip Freneau.
Ed. Lewis Leary. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers
University Press, 1945.
Freneau, Philip. The Poems of Philip Freneau, Poet of
the Revolution. 3 vols. Ed. Fred Lewis Pattee.
Princeton, NJ: The University Library, 1902.
Freneau, Philip. Poems Written and Published during
the American Revolutionary War, and Now Published
from the Original Manuscripts; Interspersed with
Translations from the Ancients, and Other Pieces Not
Heretofore in Print. 3rd ed. 2 vols. Philadelphia:
Lydia R. Bailey, 1809.
Freneau, Philip. The Prose of Philip Freneau. Ed.
Philip Marsh. New Brunswick, NJ: Scarecrow
Press, 1955.
Hustvedt, S.B. “Philippic Freneau.” American
Speech 4 (October 1928): 1–18.
Jameson, Fredric. Marxism and Form: TwentiethCentury Dialectical Theories of Literature.
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,
Leary, Lewis. That Rascal Freneau: A Study in
Literary Failure. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers
University Press, 1941.
Moretti, Franco. “The Novel: History and Theory.”
New Left Review 52 (July–August 2008):
Moretti, Franco. Signs Taken for Wonders: Essays in
the Sociology of Literary Forms. Trans. Susan
Fischer, David Forgacs, and David Miller.
London: New Left Books, 1983.
Parrington, Vernon Louis. Main Currents in
American Thought. Volume 1: The Colonial Mind,
1620–1800. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1927.
Pinsky, Robert. “American Poetry and American
Life: Freneau, Whitman, William.” Shenandoah
37, no. 1 (1987): 76–84.
Sartre, John-Paul. What Is Literature? 1948. Trans.
Bernard Frechtman. London: Routledge, 2003.
Waldrop, Rosemarie. Dissonance (If You Are
Interested). Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama
Press, 2005.
The Critical Work of American
Joel Pfister
For my brother Jordan, who lived and loved the creative life.
For at least three decades, many scholars have approached American literature as a
training ground not just for textual analysis but also for thinking critically about
society, history, theory, and representation. The political movements of the 1960s,
President Richard Nixon’s Watergate disgrace, and President Ronald Reagan’s War
on the Poor, intertwined with the academic popularization of European contributions
to theory, advances in social and cultural as well as intellectual history, and greater
interest in interdisciplinary syntheses, fueled this impulse. Nowadays many graduate
students and undergraduates are routinely taught to bring history to literature in
order to become socially conscious “historicists” and cultural theory to literature to
become politically aware “theorists.” The turn toward what is commonly called
“politicizing,” “historicizing,” and “theorizing” literature has been coextensive with
a transnational expansion of the canon that seeks to include and value the literary
works of social groups that have fought against systematic exclusion from political,
economic, cultural, and literary power within and beyond US borders. My writing
and teaching have been shaped by these developments, which were a necessary corrective to the Cold War American literary studies that canonized a largely white
middle- to upper-class male “cavalcade” of American literature as “free world” proof
that the United States had achieved a distinctive culture.
At the same time, the postmodern interest in “politicizing,” “historicizing,” and
“theorizing” literature has been a catalyst for some curious critical trends. I will
A Companion to American Literary Studies, First Edition. Edited by Caroline F. Levander,
Robert S. Levine.
© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2011 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Joel Pfister
mention two. In 1991, the radical sociologist Stanley Aronowitz noted something he
found odd: he knew many scholars schooled in literary studies who had marginalized
or even written off literature in their work because they had come to consider literature
as symptomatic of or complicit with social contradictions. “I have been told by more
than one superbly trained literary critic that they rarely, if ever, read novels or poetry,”
he observed. “Poetry and mainstream fiction genres [have] become for them a suspicious form that partakes in processes of social and ideological reproduction” (qtd. in
Pfister, Critique 227–8). I still encounter this position. Also, beginning in the 1990s
critics such as Harold Bloom, Denis Donoghue, and Marjorie Perloff felt it exigent
to “defend” literary beauty and formalism against “cultural studies” or materialist
historicism, spearheading a return to aesthetics and more conventional approaches to
literary analysis. As Rita Felski, Michael Bérubé, and others have argued, numerous
critics in this group seem not well versed in the significance of form and aesthetics
in the history of cultural studies and materialist critique. I would add that such
“defenses” of literature risk obscuring the fact that social critique and cultural theory
were fundamental literary concerns hundreds of years before they became cultural
studies concerns (more anon). Fearing that radical critics were asking literature to do
too much, the “defense” group represented literature as doing too little. Many literary
authors, from ages past and in the present, might protest that both groups – one
dismissing literature, and the other one “defending” it – have shrunken literature’s
By contrast, over the past century a diverse array of progressive intellectuals and
scholars – outside as well as inside literary studies – have made a case for literature’s
cognitive value and critical utility. When Van Wyck Brooks coined the term “usable
past” in 1918, he argued that American literature – not history, as it was then written
– provided a “usable past” for those interested in rethinking what America was, is,
and could be. The nascent American studies movement made the “usable past” its
rallying cry. American studies founders such as Vernon Parrington, Constance Rourke,
and F.O. Matthiessen elaborated Brooks’s and Lewis Mumford’s “usable past” project.
In Knowledge for What? (1939), his radical critique of the social sciences, sociologist
Robert Lynd held that literature goes “beyond the cautious generalizations of social
science and open[s] up significant hypotheses for study” (178). More recently, community organizers Harry C. Boyte and Nancy N. Kari embraced Herman Melville,
Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ralph Ellison as a few of “the most
important thinkers about democratic action” (Building America 7) who have been
excised from typical listings of political theorists. Cultural historian George Lipsitz
maintains that America’s “most sophisticated cultural theorists . . . during the 1980s
were neither critics nor scholars, but rather artists” (American Studies 107), including
Toni Morrison, Leslie Marmon Silko, Rudolfo Anaya, and Maxine Hong Kingston.
Raymond Williams’s literary studies were a critical seedbed for his development of
cultural materialism. E.P. Thompson, the radical historian and political organizer,
relied on authors such as William Blake and William Morris, and would have found
the proposition that radical critics have good reason to read literary texts mainly as
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ideological mystifications (or shun them altogether) not just preposterous but also
politically unstrategic (see Pfister, Critique 122).
A variety of important American literary authors and critics have taken complementary approaches. In 1941 Kenneth Burke discussed literature in strategic terms
as offering “equipment for living” (304). Lionel Trilling’s “The Meaning of a Literary
Idea” (1949) asserted the value of literature as equipment for making ideas: “The very
form of a literary work, considered apart from its content, so far as that is possible,
is in itself an idea” (283). In “Power and Danger: Works of a Common Woman”
(1977), Adrienne Rich, the great feminist poet and critic, held that literature is a
“material resource” that can teach us to be “acutely, disturbingly aware of the language
we are using and that is using us” (274). Indeed, literature can help us “be acutely,
disturbingly aware” of the narratives, genres, and tropes that “we are using” – that
we are living – “and that are using us.” And in “The Function of the Literary in a
Time of Cultural Studies” (1998), Sacvan Bercovitch distinguished literature as a
complex form of knowledge production that other academic disciplines tend to
neglect (75–82). Literature’s play of language, form, and narrative detail helps show
us that “we are always already more than our culture tells us we are” (82) and “why
we are not bound to systems, including those we play by” (83). To counter being
“bound to systems,” one must first begin to see them. Often literature has helped
make “systems” visible because it has been part of them. I shall return to and elaborate
on this focus on “systems.”
All the perspectives, trends, disputes, and approaches I mention above intrigue me
because for the last few years I have been pondering the implications of the fact that
I have consistently returned in my thinking to American literary authors (not just
to cultural theorists) to further develop cultural theory, and have steadily returned to
these writers (not just to historians) for insight into various kinds of history and to
advance my understanding of the histories that still need to be formulated and
written. Why should this be surprising? Consider: literature investigated some areas
of American social and “personal” experience well before historians recognized and
researched these areas as “history,” and it explored key theoretical concerns long before
theorists formulated and abstracted such matters as “theory.” Does American literature, read with these stakes in mind, have the capacity to help readers progress as theorists and historians? And think about it: American literature was complexly
“interdisciplinary” and “postdisciplinary” generations before the academy had to
invent such terms and approaches to counter its own disciplinary fragmentations of
knowledge production. Literature is about life, and life, unlike the academy, is not
divided into disciplines. What do literary authors not write about? Literature is always
moving beyond conventional notions of the literary in form as well as subject. In the
1940s, Matthiessen recalled that until the 1920s, before critics fully resurrected
Melville as a Great American Author, the Yale library had catalogued Moby-Dick
(1851) under “cetology” (Heart 45; also see 23). American literature practiced versions
of American studies long before it became an academic field in the 1930s and cultural
studies well before it was academicized as a field in the 1960s.1
Joel Pfister
Yet if one can present evidence that American literature has been daringly theoretical, historical, interdisciplinary, and postdisciplinary in its scope and ambition, what
do we make of literature’s complicity with social contradiction? Recall that literature’s
ideological complicity troubled the scholars whom Aronowitz described. The critique
of literature’s complicity has an extensive literary history. American literary authors
made complicity – including literature’s complicity – a theme long before literary
historians elevated this into a critical preoccupation powerful enough to discredit
literature as ideologically suspect. In fact, literature offers many lessons in how to read
complicity (Pfister, Critique 121–41).
In the early and mid-1850s, for example, Melville published dialectical diptychs
– paired stories or sketches – that exemplify the kind of “historical materialism” that
Walter Benjamin almost a century later argued should reconnect the critic’s readings
of “cultural treasures” to the “anonymous forced labor” that made the creation of such
treasures possible.2 In “Poor Man’s Pudding and Rich Man’s Crumbs” (1854), Melville’s
narrator is the guest of the poet Blandmour, who uses language not just to sentimentalize poverty but also to make it palatable by referring to “poor man’s pudding” (a
watery gruel), “poor man’s manure” (rainwater), and so on (165–6). The curious narrator plays tourist and samples “poor man’s pudding” when he visits an impoverished,
yet hospitable, couple for a lunch they can ill afford to share. He finds that he has no
stomach for this “pudding” or the ideological appetite for the sort of well-fed literature
Blandmour writes that refuses to examine how the American system makes and keeps
people poor. In lieu of a tasty “pudding,” he finds a poor man’s exploitation and a
poor woman’s resignation. The struggling wife is visibly injured by the narrator’s use
of the adjective “poor man’s” (169), but cannot say as much. Melville suggests that
literary authors can be complicit in socializing middle-class readers to read poverty
as charming and scenic, and as a way of life that is merely different from rather than
produced by the ruling classes. Readers who find the idea of “poor man’s pudding”
quaint can feel good about themselves and feel good about poverty. Even worse, the
narrator observes that the American ideology of “equality” (172) can sometimes con
the poor into feeling ashamed of themselves for their condition rather than encourage
them to oppose the ideological, and occasionally literary, camouflage system that
romanticizes their unequal condition (poor man’s equality).
The “rich man’s crumbs” in the companion sketch are literally the charity “crumbs”
the rich leave for the poor – whom the narrator profiles as “a mob of cannibals”
(175) – after the annual Guildhall banquet in London. Melville hints that the American
and British class systems, notwithstanding America’s democratic disapproval of
putting on airs, may not be so different from one another. “Crumbs” make the rich
feel beneficent about subordinating the poor and, more insidiously, make some of the
poor grateful for this “crummy” treatment.
Melville prods readers to wonder which group is the real “mob of cannibals.” In
the early 1840s, Ralph Waldo Emerson contemplated whose blood he was consuming when he ingested sugar harvested by slaves in Cuba and asked self-critically if
he were “too protected a person.” Melville had no wish to write “too protected” a
The Critical Work of American Literature
literature. Nor did Richard Wright, who took up literary complicity in Black Boy
(1945). Young Richard is shocked when told that the adventure stories he loves,
published in the literary magazine of the Chicago newspaper he sells, are surrounded
by racist cartoons and articles in the news sections (143–6). He later reads works
by “Dreiser, Masters, Mencken, Anderson, and Lewis” as “defensively critical of
America. These writers seemed to feel that America could be shaped nearer to the
hearts of those who lived in it” (283). This mix of lessons makes him more, not
less, interested in literature. So complicity and literature’s complicity – in the writings of Emerson, Melville, Wright, and many others – was a theme long before it
became a postmodern critical preoccupation. Perhaps American literature – with its
theoretical insights, its understanding of what should be read as history, its wideranging interdisciplinary and postdisciplinary perspectives, and its scrutiny of complicity – could help radicalize the scholars who have focused skeptically on “the
politics of American literature.”
While I have learned much from the changes in American literary studies that I
sketched in my introductory paragraph, it seems to me that American literature is
often ambitious in manifold ways and offers much more than texts in need of historicizing, theorizing, and interdisciplinary rereadings (though these approaches are
crucial). My current work focuses on how one might give the critical work of canonical and noncanonical American literature the credit it deserves. Here I offer two brief
readings – of a passage in Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography and another in Nathaniel
Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter – that begin to illustrate the usefulness of this approach.
I should stress again that my aim is by no means to read American literature apart
from theory and history, but to read more productively so that each might better
advance our reading of the other. If theory, historical studies, and interdisciplinary
and postdisciplinary approaches can change literature – the way we read and value it
– perhaps literature can return the favor. Matthiessen’s dialectical formulation, adapted
from T.S. Eliot, remains pertinent: “The past is not what is dead, but what is already
living.” Thus, “the present is continually modifying the past, as the past conditions
the present” (Responsibilities 6).
Franklin’s Systemic Reading Lessons:
Capitalism as Cannibalism
D.H. Lawrence’s chapter on Benjamin Franklin in Studies in Classic American Literature
(1923) scrutinizes some of the more patent ways in which American literature is tied
to capitalism. Lawrence’s Franklin is manifestly capitalist, not just secular. He concocted a capitalist God for America to worship – “If Mr. Andrew Carnegie, or any
other millionaire, had wished to invent a God to suit his ends, he could not have done
better” (10) – and installed a capitalist soul for Americans to busy themselves with:
“Perfectibility of Man! . . . perfectibility of the Ford car!” (9). But Lawrence underestimated Franklin’s complexity, especially his self-irony.
Joel Pfister
Even in “The Way to Wealth” (1758), arguably the most influential incentivebuilding text in American literature, Franklin both parodies and fortifies his literary
power to offer secular, not religious, prescriptions for the way to work, maintaining
that they also show the way to wealth. Father Abraham, rather than giving a sermon,
delivers a secular jeremiad, a pep talk, comprised of hackneyed maxims – substitutes
for Bible verses – from a quarter century of Poor Richard’s Almanack. Yet the jingles
fly out of his mouth like products speeding along a conveyor belt: “There are no Gains,
without Pains”; “Have you somewhat to do tomorrow, do it today” (189). Therein
lies Franklin’s artfulness. Franklin’s tongue-in-cheek caricature of his bestselling
pitches has an ironic and unpretentious charm that upends the hard-sell strategy of
the Puritan work ethic (the harangue is laughable). His caricature announces that
although the “way to work” exhortation is a bit of a scam – it can guarantee neither
salvation nor wealth – it remains economically useful. Notwithstanding the secular
innovations Franklin made to the shaping of capitalist incentive, individuality, and
hegemony, he was also one of capitalism’s most canny whistleblowers. Franklin knew
what he was involved in producing and was unabashed about telling his more attentive readers that they were living in a system, and that if they wanted to swim – not
sink – in it, they had best learn how to read it.
An anecdote in Franklin’s Autobiography (this part written in England in 1771)
teaches this lesson. He recounts his first voyage from Boston to Philadelphia, where
he would commence his legendary career as a printer, author, inventor, and statesman.
Franklin recalls an epiphany he experienced en route, a symbolic vision of the mercantile capitalism he would help motivate and rationalize. When his ship is “becalm’d
off Block Island,” the young artisan watches his fellow passengers catch, cook, and
eat fish. “I consider’d with my Master Tryon, the taking of every fish as a kind of
unprovok’d Murder, since none of them had or ever could do us any Injury that might
justify the Slaughter” (87). Franklin’s allusion to Thomas Tryon, a popular English
self-help author, links his “Way to Wealth” to the fish fry. In The Way to Health (1683),
The Way to Save Wealth (1695), The Way to Get Wealth (c. 1701), and other books,
Tryon endorsed vegetarianism, temperance, frugality, self-control, and nonviolence.
In The Way to Get Wealth, Franklin probably read with ironic interest his master’s
tips on how to select good fish and prepare them, and how to make wine and beer
(96–100). He soon tosses Tryon’s “mastery” overboard off Block Island.
For it turns out that Franklin had once been a “great lover” – eater – “of Fish,”
and, he confesses, the fish “smelt admirably well.” His initial “reasoning” – that
because the fish did him no harm, why would he eat them – sounds humane, but
changes with his appetite. “When the Fish were opened, I saw smaller Fish taken out
of their Stomachs: Then, thought I, if you eat one another, I don’t see why we mayn’t
eat you.” Franklin consumes the cod, quipping, “So convenient a thing it is to be a
reasonable Creature, since it enables one to find or make a Reason for everything one
has a mind to do” (87–8). One need only seem “reasonable” and appear rational to
feel justified. Franklin expands the ideological repertoire – “reason,” not just “God”
The Critical Work of American Literature
– of useful American alibis. Not just hard work, but also the appetite to gobble up
small fries and deem it “reasonable,” may pave the way to wealth.
Franklin’s other important allusion is to Block Island itself, a site he did not have
to specify in his fish tale. Block Island’s historical significance, especially for a young
man fleeing Boston for Quaker City, is noteworthy. The final incident that sparked
the Puritan war against the Pequot occurred when Indians killed the prosperous
Indian trader John Oldham and several of his crew, hailing from Boston, off Block
Island on July 10, 1636. Although the history that led to this war is too detailed to
recount here, suffice to say that it resonates not only with the trope of big fish eating
smaller fish but also with the rationalization that “if you eat one another, I don’t see
why we mayn’t eat you.” New England had become a fish-eat-fish marketplace for all
its inhabitants by the 1630s, and the struggle between the Dutch and the English
for the fur trade with the Indians was matched by competition between the tribes.
By the early 1600s the Pequot had pushed into Niantic territory and severed that
tribe into Eastern and Western groups, and gradually posed the greatest threat to the
English. The Block Island Indians who killed Oldham may have been allies of the
Narragansett, who later sided with the Puritans. But the Puritans had bigger fish to
fry and made Oldham’s death a reason to wage genocidal war on the Pequot, who
traded with the Dutch. Most of the Pequot were massacred by the English (aided by
great numbers of the Narragansett and the Mohegan); some were enslaved in Bermuda
and the West Indies; the name Pequot was censored from the lexicon; and Pequot
land was redistributed to settlers and Indian allies, as if the tribe never existed. The
Puritans used the Block Island killing – one among many in this marketplace-driven
conflict – as a rationalization to devour the Pequot whole and profit from it. Block
Island, slashed and burned by Boston’s John Endicott and his troops in 1636, signified
the pretext for Puritan fish-eat-fish dominance using the old “onward Christian soldiers” rationalization (see Cave, Pequot War 69–167).
The secular fish eater sails on, though in the ship’s wake he has left behind something more complex than an anecdote about the human tendency to bracket idealism
in favor of self-gratification. His fishy parable is about how a system works: it blows
the whistle on a foundational pretext – utilizing “reason,” not just “God” – that
America would devise, with Franklin’s ingenious literary assistance, to authorize
conquest, colonization, and competition. For modern readers, the parable travels
backward and forward beyond its period. It sends postmodern readers back to Puritan
fish-eat-fish “God” rationalizations and to Max Weber’s 1905 thesis about the
Protestant work ethic and the spirit of capitalism. And it raises questions about the
unfolding of America’s capitalist and imperial history after Franklin. Almost two
centuries later, Louise Erdrich’s (Chippewa) Love Medicine (1984) would portray
exploited Indians who see themselves cannibalized in the way Franklin describes. “It’s
like I’m always stuck with the goddamn minnows,” King Kashpaw complains. “Every
time I work my way up – say I’m next in line for promotion – they shaft me. . . . I
move on. Entry level. Stuck down at the bottom with the minnows.” He swears, “One
Joel Pfister
day I’m gonna rise. They can’t keep down the Indians.” Kashpaw dreams of occupying
a better position in the capitalist “food chain,” despite his censure of “Indians that
got up there” who then forget “their own”: “The big fish eats the little fish and the
little fish eats the littler fish. The one with the biggest mouth eats any damn old fish
he wants” (252–3).
Erdrich doubtless appreciated that what Franklin terms “reason” still serves
Americans as a rationalization for satiating predatory appetite. It is true that if predation is to operate efficiently, it had best seem “reasonable” and really the fault of those
who are eaten (like Franklin’s fish or the Puritans’ Pequot). Franklin saw the fish,
smelled it, wanted it, and ate it. And this, his autobiographical advice book implies,
is what America is partly about: rationalizing what one wants to do as “reason”
and perhaps then feeling a trifle naughty (the morally inexpensive response)
rather than remorseful (the morally expensive response). Franklin’s fishy interlude
enables postmodern readers to wonder: might Tom Paine’s Age of Reason (1796),
written after Franklin died, be reconceived as the Age of Rationalization or even the
Age of Appetite?
What would a history of the cannibal theme look like? Its literary history would
include Cabeza de Vaca’s La Relacíon (1542). This memoir, written by a failed conquistador, proposes a safer and more self-gratifying way to digest natives. Cabeza de
Vaca inverts the imperial stereotype that natives are cannibals when he observes that
six “Christian” soldiers “came to the extremity of eating each other.” He lists their
names to underscore that the Spanish, not the natives, are cannibals. “The Indians
were so shocked at this cannibalism that, if they had seen it sometime earlier, they
surely would have killed every one of us” (60). He narrates a second incident, again
citing the Spanish names: “The living dried the flesh of those who died. The last to
die was Sotomayor. Esquivel, by feeding on the corpse, was able to stay alive” (74).
Spain’s hegemonic “cross,” the author advises, not the “crossbow,” “will best subdue”
(132, 97). Imperial Spain can best “feed on” natives in good conscience not by fighting but by colonizing them with Christianity. If Melville’s “Rich Man’s Crumbs”
implies that the rich may be the “mob of cannibals” (175) one has to look out for, his
Typee (1846) also hints that globalizing capitalism is in the cannibalism business. The
narrator is beset with stereotypical fears that the natives are “blood-thirsty cannibals”
(203), and this prompts him to distrust the “happiness” their culture nurtures. But
is the narrator’s real “sojourn among cannibals” (123) his unhappy sojourn through
his own culture? Are the missionaries and merchants who condemn Pacific islanders
to be “dumb brutes” who toil ceaselessly the real “cannibals” (196)? Despite its insipid
defenses of slavery, George Fitzhugh’s Cannibals All! (1857) mounts compelling
indictments of “free labor” (21–37) as well-disguised class cannibalism: Northern
capitalism’s wage slavery, like Southern capitalism’s chattel slavery, eats workers.
Franklin’s fish-eat-fish parable speaks to texts – and to social contradictions – across
periods from Cabeza de Vaca through Erdrich.
The fish-eat-fish passage does what other American authors do more elaborately:
Franklin uses literature to posit a latent self. Seventeenth-century Protestantism’s
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most significant interiority trope was the soul. The eighteenth-century Enlightenment’s
ruling interiority trope was reason. Nineteenth-century sentimentalism’s favored interiority trope was the heart. But does Franklin’s parable imply that if one wants to
understand America, and what makes Americans act, one must focus not just on what
Americans describe as their essence – “soul,” “heart,” or “reason” – but also on the
stomach that often drives them? In the ravenous world of mercantile and later industrial
capitalism, latent appetite would often pose as “reason” to rationalize and justify
businessman-eat-businessman capitalism. As candid as Franklin was about America’s
fish-eat-fish practices, in his lighthearted parable, it was not in his economic interest,
or what he considered the new republic’s economic interest, to discount them. His
Autobiography records that he eventually devoured the printing businesses of the two
City of Brotherly Love masters with whom he had apprenticed, Andrew Bradford and
Samuel Keimer. The parable invites readers to ask: is America’s economy a fish-eat-fish
sink-or-swim system whose ideological challenge is to make its Andrew Carnegie and
Wall Street cannibalism seem “reasonable” and the American way?
Even in the mid-eighteenth century, Franklin knew that Protestantized Americans,
driven by appetites, would prefer to think about themselves not just in terms of the
stomach to get back to the workplace. American workers, to be motivated, would
need to imagine selfhood more in terms of “souls,” “hearts,” “character,” and “reason”
(and later the “unconscious”) than of stomachs. It was as if Franklin counseled that
whatever Americans need to call themselves – “souls,” “hearts,” “character,” “reason”
– if you want to assess their motives, do not lose sight of their stomachs. Almost a
century later, Rebecca Harding Davis offered the same reading lesson in “Life in the
Iron Mills” (1861). Doctor May tours an inferno-like iron mill with several curious
gentlemen when his guide, the owner, boasts that he “wash[es]” his “hands” of any
responsibility for the workers he exploits. May’s selfish individualism is less overt. He
dispenses pseudo-sympathy to feel good about his moral abdication and complicity.
But Davis’s sarcasm exposes him, substituting “stomach” for soul: “The Doctor sighed,
– a good honest sigh, from the depths of his stomach” (326). In “What Life Means
to Me” (1906), Jack London, like Franklin and Davis, read American incentive as the
“incentive of the stomach.” He “look[ed] forward to a time when man shall progress
upon something worthier and higher than his stomach” (399).
Franklin nominated the stomach as the determinative American innerness in an
age when ideologies of the inherent provoked much debate and were used to qualify
or disqualify whole political and economic systems and privilege or disenfranchise
entire social groups. “The faculties of the mind itself,” James Madison acknowledged,
“have never yet been distinguished and defined, with satisfactory precision” (qtd. in
Curti 109). Yet many Founding Fathers, including Madison, feared that self-interest,
or what Franklin termed “appetite,” was capable of devouring “reason.” The
Constitutional Convention of 1787 adopted the system of checks and balances and
separation of powers specifically to prevent the members of any one branch of government from swallowing the others out of self-interest, ambition, passion, and self-love.
Some argued that reason and self-interest “rightly understood” could make democratic
Joel Pfister
self-governance possible. Others remained skeptical about mass “democracy” and
favored the “democratic” rule of elites. Still others held that inborn appetites made
equality impossible. “No lover of equality, at least since Adam’s fall, ever existed in
human nature,” John Adams averred, “any otherwise than as a desire for bringing
others down to our own level, which implies a desire of raising ourselves above them,
or depressing them below us” (qtd. in Curti 120). With this in mind, the Founding
Fathers ascribed inalienable “rights” – to life, liberty, property, the pursuit of happiness, and even rebellion – to humans, even as they countenanced slavery, the theft of
Indian land, severe legal constraints on women’s freedoms, and class divisions that on
occasion erupted into mini-rebellions.
Would an America that touted itself not just as a land of opportunity but also as
a stomach system have seemed too openly crass? Could one possibly recite the national
pledge by holding one’s hand over the stomach rather than the heart? The American
political system has justified its mission with an ennobling rhetoric: “reason,” “republic,” “democracy,” “liberty,” “equality,” “individuality,” and even “happiness.” But
does America’s economic and political history suggest that Franklin’s focus on appetite
and his association of capitalism with cannibalism were prescient? If so, did America
need more than the trope of “reason” to manage this? And if the provisional answer
to this question is “yes,” readers might ask what kind of a history does a reading of
Franklin as a historian and cultural theorist suggest still needs to be conceptualized
and written? One as-yet-unwritten history might be a study of the cross-period development of tropes – “God,” “civilization,” “reason,” “republic,” “democracy,” “individuality,” “equality,” “free labor,” “free enterprise,” “sentiment,” “progress,”
“modernization,” and “national interest” – that have been used as alibis or authorizations to colonize, conquer, and sometimes, as Melville saw it, cannibalize others in
various ways.
Did America, for instance, need to proliferate self-legitimizing discourses of hearts
and hearths – the Holy Trinity of individuality, gender, and the family – to compensate for and distract attention from insatiable appetites? And did such compensatory
discourses also whet appetites? By 1851, in The House of the Seven Gables, Nathaniel
Hawthorne probed the redemptive limits of a mid-nineteenth-century middle-class
domesticity haunted by a gothic Puritan past originating in predatory practices and
offered a chilling one-sentence sketch of fish-eat-fish, sink-or-swim America that still
describes the experience of millions of struggling Americans, like Erdrich’s King
Kashpaw, today: “In this republican country, amid the fluctuating waves of our social
life, somebody is always at the drowning point.”
Hawthorne’s Systemic Reading Lessons:
The Whole System of Society
The concept of “totalizing” has come under fire over the past few decades partly
because no master-narrative or master-analysis can “totalize” in a literal sense. From
The Critical Work of American Literature
what point of view or position would one presume to “totalize”? American culture is
composed of American cultures, and American literature is made up of American
literatures. In 1997 John Carlos Rowe even coined the word “untotalizable” (xii).
Every “totalizing” effort must exclude or marginalize something and someone.
Yet is it crucial to analyze not just the diverse events, people, ways of being, and
constructions of value that have been excluded from cultural representation or historical
memory, but also the system in which a multiplicity of groups, texts, and ideas have
been included? Sometimes the systemic contradictions that drive exclusion also drive
inclusion. Notwithstanding the difficulties and omissions involved, many committed
political intellectuals have underscored the importance of reading the system to the
extent this is possible.
For example, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, some British New Left intellectuals
took an interdisciplinary cultural turn not because they wanted to be in the vanguard
of academic innovations but because they needed to understand Cold War inventions
of power. Therefore, in May Day Manifesto (1968), Raymond Williams, E.P. Thompson,
and Stuart Hall argued that Britons had to overcome the “fragmentation” of knowledge and critique that was a symptom and strategy of capitalism. “All the issues –
industrial and political, international and domestic, economic and cultural,
humanitarian and radical – are deeply connected” (15). They focused their critical
gaze on mass culture and the distractions, fascinations, and self-definitions it popularized to discern why those who were exploited did not identify with one another as a
class and organize to change the world. “A new total description, however preliminary,” they were convinced, “is indispensable” (182–3). In short, they tried to read
what looked like a system.
Fredric Jameson made one of the most compelling arguments on behalf of developing a “system concept” in his seminal essay “Cognitive Mapping” (1981). “The conception of capital is admittedly a totalizing or system concept: no one has ever seen
or met the thing itself,” he acknowledged. But “anyone who believes that the profit
motive and the logic of capital accumulation are not the fundamental laws of this
world, who believes that these do not set absolute barriers and limits to social changes
and transformations undertaken in it – such a person is living in an alternative universe” (354). He concluded, “Without a conception of the social totality (and the
possibility of transforming a whole social system), no properly socialist politics is
possible” (355). Williams, Thompson, Hall, and Jameson, taken together, suggest the
following: a society that disables people, even knowledge producers, from perceiving
outlines of the system that reproduces them (including differences between them) can
better impede them from organizing to resist it.
What Jameson termed “the project of totalizing thought” (354) might be considered Hawthornian as well as Marxian. Hawthorne proved himself a brilliant cultural
theorist of how Americans are enticed, shamed, or bullied to encode themselves
within cultural systems of meaning. In the 1840s, he explored what Louis Althusser in
the 1960s conceptualized as “interpellation” (174–5) and what Michel Foucault
in the 1970s theorized as “incitement” (34). “The Birth-mark” (1843) features a
Joel Pfister
newlywed who is cajoled or interpellated by her husband to reread her facial birthmark
as a sign of “sin, sorrow, decay, and death.” The incitement she undergoes shames her
into believing that this pathology originates deep within her and must be excised not
just on her face but also in her inner self. By showing how the newlywed is allegorized
to death, Hawthorne clarifies one link between literary form and social form: culture
manages not just how one reads the social world but also how one allegorizes one’s self.
Even more subtly, it suggests that the concept of inner essence can render one susceptible to being defined, pathologized, and managed. Conceptually, Hawthorne
delved into the cultural histories of the body and of interiority formation before historians recognized these as historical fields. This tale of interpellation and incitement
challenges historians to write histories of the production of the limited ranges of selfdefinitions made culturally available to specific groups of Americans in particular
In The Blithedale Romance (1852), Hawthorne’s interest in the systemic production
of a limited register of self-conceptions is more explicit. Historically, he suggests, men
have played a managerial role in fabricating, or feminizing, humans called “women.”
Zenobia sizes up her more feminized half-sister as “the type of womanhood such as
man has spent centuries in making.” His tale and novel resonate with, and enrich,
social construction of gender theories that feminists developed in the 1970s and
Hawthorne’s “project of totalizing thought” was even more provocative two years
earlier. If only fleetingly, he gave Hester Prynne a vision of the large-scale social invention of gender difference in The Scarlet Letter (1850). Hester’s vision should provoke
readers to think systemically about how Americans and their world might be imagined otherwise. In her vision, Hawthorne’s cultural theorist speculates about the
purposes that the making of gender difference and hierarchy serve in social reproduction. Hester intimates that gender making and gender hierarchy are structurally
requisite in certain forms because they help insure the reproduction of power in particular ways. “Ancient prejudice” – specifically, the “ancient” subordination of women
– is somehow necessary to maintain a complex system built on “ancient principle.”
She predicts grimly that for women to “assume a fair and suitable position,” three
vast reconstructions must occur. “The whole system of society is to be torn down, and
built up anew”; men must modify the “hereditary habit” – the conventional molds
of masculinity – that has come to seem like “their nature” but is not their nature;
and women must undergo “a still mightier change” in their role, self-images, expectations, and feelings than men. She grasps that the binary classification of sex roles is
part of the operation of “the whole system of society” (economic, political, religious,
and cultural) and that any tinkering with seemingly “opposite” male-female gender
roles (any behavior or idea that contravenes the alleged naturalness of this “opposition”) may disrupt the reproductive powers of the “ancient” system. Here Hawthorne’s
cultural theorist begins to practice systemic self-understanding.
This type of alienation resurfaces like a symptom in literature written later by the
likes of Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Kate Chopin, Charlotte Perkins
The Critical Work of American Literature
Gilman, and Susan Glaspell. In Phelps’s “The Angel over the Right Shoulder” (1852),
Mrs. Mary James, who feels confined by the cultural self-definitions of “woman,”
“wife,” and “mother,” becomes “conscious of yearnings for a more earnest
life. . . . Unsatisfied longings for something which she had not attained, often clouded
what, otherwise, would have been a bright day to her; and yet the causes of these
feelings seemed to lie in a dim and misty region, which her eye could not penetrate”
(213). How can she name the problem, no less the cause, when the problem seems to
be everywhere and internalized by almost every woman and man in her white middleclass world and simply mislabeled “life”? Likewise, Chopin’s Edna Pontellier in The
Awakening (1899) suffers from an “indescribable oppression” that she cannot explain
and could not “have told why she was crying” (8). In Glaspell’s The Verge (1921),
Claire Archer struggles to sketch the effects of what Antonio Gramsci theorized
as hegemonic “common sense” a few years later: “Back here – the old pattern, done
again, again and again,” she explains. “So long done it doesn’t even know itself for a
pattern” (77).
A wide-ranging vision of what holds Hester and other women hostage would be
taken up in the 1970s and 1980s by theoretically minded feminist historians invested
in reimagining history. Nancy Cott’s The Bonds of Womanhood (1977) led her to develop
the implications of conduct books that instructed women to help “absorb, palliate,
and even to redeem the strain of social and economic transformation” (70). Countless
advice books on how to be a “true woman” confirmed this ideological function. In
their capacity as sentimental shock absorbers for middle-class men who competed in
the marketplace, women were held hostage not just to femininity but also to the
reproduction of “democratic” capitalism. The overwhelming mass-cultural emphasis
on gender identities downplayed the attention paid to “democratic” class formation
in what was touted as America’s equality system: “In the attempt to raise a democratic
culture almost all types of classification had to be rejected, except the ‘natural’ ones
such as sex (and race),” Cott observes. “The division of spheres supplied an acceptable
kind of social distinction. Sex, not class, was the basic category” (98). In this thesis
the reinforcement of gender inequality, what Hester’s terms “ancient prejudice,”
served the purpose of preventing class inequality from seeming significant and thereby
challenging the claims of “democracy” and “equality.” Emergent middle-class sentimental literary and conduct-book culture pushed gender, not class, as the dominant
cultural self-definition through which one would read one’s identity, meaningfulness,
and aspiration. Placing Hawthorne, Cott, and Jameson in dialogue, one might wonder:
were women in 1850 held hostage to an American capitalism-needs-gender-to-obfuscatethe-perception-of-class system?
Any effort to question the gender industry is dangerous because, like a domino
falling against other dominos, this questioning “threatens the entire system” that has
a stake in having humans encode, read, and allegorize themselves first and foremost
as “women” and “men” in a very limited “natural” repertoire of roles. The reproduction of certain kinds of gender roles, in other words, sustains reproductive operations
(class identity formation and worker formation) that seem to bear no relation to gender.
Joel Pfister
Hester’s relational thinking, if developed, would move toward exposing the reproductive operations of what Hawthorne calls “the whole system” – the domestic political,
class, racial, and economic system – of Hawthorne’s America. Cott, writing more than
a century and a quarter after Hawthorne invented Hester Prynne, also tried to map
interlocking roles within “the whole system.”
Hester’s vision of “the whole system of society” – like Cott’s post-1960s feminist
analysis – was pressured into being by history. Hawthorne had available to him
already in 1850 a tradition of iconoclastic thinking about some of these matters in
the work of Claude Adrien Helvétius, Mary Wollstonecraft, Frances Wright, Margaret
Fuller, and Sarah Grimké. In Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of
Women (1838), Grimké, schooled in the antislavery movement, questioned why her
culture made the “distinction between male and female” (42) so ideologically prominent and determinative. She insisted that “there is neither male nor female” (42)
and that “intellect is not sexed” (64). God, she contended, created woman as a
“companion” of man who is “in all respects his equal” and “like himself a free agent”
(32). The 1848 Seneca Falls Convention called the disenfranchisement of women a
glaring contradiction in America’s unequal “equality” system. Paulina Wright Davis,
editor of the women’s rights journal The Una (1850s), underscored that the women’s
movement was “intended from its inception to change the structure, the central
organization of society” (qtd. in Pfister, Production 135). Grimké, Davis, Hawthorne,
Cott, Williams, Thompson, Hall, and Jameson, read as a group, should challenge
literary studies to read the literary text within “the whole system of society” even
if imagining every area of “the whole system” is beyond cognition and
So how might Franklin’s fish-eat-fish parable and Hawthorne’s vision that there is
a “whole system” relate to one another? Why would a fish-eat-fish system require a
restricted set of gender roles to be constructed and made available? Did the nineteenth
century’s white middle-class “angels in the house” serve not only as palliative symbols
of order but also as sentimental worker-reproducers who were trained, rewarded, and
constrained to motivate men to reenter fish-eat-fish marketplace competition? This is
too complicated to resolve, but I offer some final speculations and questions. If the
Hester Prynnes of Hawthorne’s era, and perhaps later eras, refused to play their feminine roles in certain respects, did they jeopardize a dependency-making, incentivemaking, and alibi-making system that in sundry ways lubricated the machinery of
fish-eat-fish capitalism? Should we rethink US capitalism as not just an economic
system but also a subtle class system – that will seem mostly classless or mainly
“middle class” – heavily invested in gender, racial, familial, and emotional reproduction? Do we need a more dialectical history of how the production of personal life is tied
to the production of personnel life? From Franklin to the present, the expansion of America
– imperial, transnational, industrial, and corporate – was coextensive with the diversification of cultural and mass-cultural discourses of the personal and the proliferation
of cultural and mass-cultural means of socializing, motivating, and compensating
personnel. Can American literature’s socially grounded “subjective” concerns help
The Critical Work of American Literature
teach readers to advance history and advance cultural theory – the history and cultural
theory that readers bring to their readings of literature – more complexly?
A Note on the Creative Work of American Literature
I can pin down the arguments of Terry Eagleton’s theoretical works and Howard Zinn’s
historical contributions and learn from them. But sometimes literature’s playful
appeal and critical value are such that one cannot wholly catch its drifts. American
literature’s symptomatic, complicit, polyvalent, and indeterminate qualities add to
rather than diminish or compromise literature’s usefulness as a critical resource. Much
of the American literature I continually turn to, inside and outside the canon, does
what Melville described in Mardi (1849): it makes “creating the creative” (491) its
project. Literature’s readers – as well as literature’s texts – become “the creative.”
Diverse readers – in a multiplicity of interpretive contexts and changing social times
– “create” new readings of themselves and their culture as well as the texts. True,
some literary authors consciously wrote cultural theory before cultural theory was established as a field and consciously explored some areas of social life historically before
historians recognized these areas as historical. It is also true, however, that some literary texts exhibit insights into cultural theory and history that the authors of these
texts may never have intended, recognized, or valued as insights.3
In either case, it is as useful to bring our creative readings of literature to our
conceptualizations of history, cultural theory, and interdisciplinary approaches as it is
to bring history, cultural theory, and interdisciplinary approaches to our creative readings of literature. American literature – its mix of what authors seem to have intended
and what texts exhibit – offers lessons in thinking afresh about what constitutes a
usable literature, history, and cultural theory. Literature’s experiments with writing
America have much to teach us about reading America – and learning what is at stake
in changing it.
Ioan Davies observes, “The English, like any
other society, had forms of ‘cultural studies’
long before the term was coined” (5). On
American literature as American studies, see
Pfister, Critique, 17, 125–6.
2. From Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy
of History” 7 (1940), translated in part by
Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious, 281.
3. Derek Attridge – whose field is not American
literature and who does not mention Melville
in “Innovation, Literature, Ethics” – offers
ideas about literary creativity that resonate
with and, for me, help explicate Melville’s
“creating the creative.” For instance, “Creation
always takes place in a culture, not just in a
mind” (22); “What is foremost in the creative
mind is . . . the demand that justice be done
to thoughts that have not yet even been formulated as thoughts” (24); and “A creative
reading often moves to an articulation in
Joel Pfister
words as if the work being read demanded a
new work in response” (p. 25). He quotes from
Jean-Paul Sartre, What Is Literature? (1948):
literary reading is a “ ‘reinvention . . . as new
and as original an act as the first invention’”
(p. 30). Attridge’s more recent work on this
includes The Singularity of Literature and
Reading and Responsibility. Several ideas in my
concluding paragraph were influenced by an
exchange with my colleague Matthew Garrett,
who reads readers as “writers” of the literary
texts they are reading and literature as
“meaning more than it says.” I thank Garrett,
Robert Levine, and Caroline Levander for
reading and commenting on a draft of this
References and Further Reading
Althusser, Louis. Lenin and Philosophy, and Other
Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. London: New Left
Books, 1971.
Aronowitz, Stanley. Roll over Beethoven: The Return
of Cultural Strife. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan
University Press, 1993.
Attridge, Derek. “Innovation, Literature, Ethics:
Relating to the Other.” PMLA 114 (January
1999): 20–31.
Attridge, Derek. Reading and Responsibility:
Deconstruction’s Traces. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 2010.
Attridge, Derek. The Singularity of Literature. New
York: Routledge, 2004.
Bercovitch, Sacvan. “The Function of the Literary
in a Time of Cultural Studies.” In “Culture” and
Its Disciplines. Ed. John Carlos Rowe. New York:
Columbia University Press, 1998.
Bérubé, Michael. “Introduction: Engaging the
Aesthetic.” In The Aesthetics of Cultural Studies.
Ed. Michael Bérubé. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.
Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon: The Books and
School of the Ages. New York: Riverhead,
Boyte, Harry C., and Nancy N. Kari. Building
America: The Democratic Promise of Public Work.
Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.
Brooks, Van Wyck. Van Wyck Brooks: The Early
Years: A Selection from His Works, 1908–1921.
Ed. Claire Sprague. New York: Harper, 1968.
Burke, Kenneth. The Philosophy of Literary Form.
1941. Berkeley: University of California Press,
Cave, Alfred A. The Pequot War. Amherst:
University of Massachusetts Press, 1996.
Chopin, Edna. The Awakening. 1899. In The
Awakening and Selected Short Stories. New York:
Bantam, 1981.
Cott, Nancy. 1977. The Bonds of Womanhood:
“Woman’s Sphere” in New England, 1780–1835.
New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Curti, Merle. Human Nature in American Thought:
A History. Madison: University of Wisconsin
Press, 1980.
Davies, Ioan. Cultural Studies and Beyond: Fragments
of Empire. New York: Routledge, 1995.
Davis, Rebecca Harding. “Life in the Iron Mills.”
1861. In Provisions: A Reader from 19th-Century
American Women. Ed. Judith Fetterley.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.
Donoghue, Denis. Speaking of Beauty. New Haven,
CT: Yale University Press, 2003.
Edwards, Mary K. Bercaw. Cannibal Old Me: Spoken
Sources in Melville’s Early Works. Kent, OH: Kent
State University Press, 2009.
Erdrich, Louise. Love Medicine. 1984. New York:
Bantam, 1989.
Felski, Rita. “The Role of Aesthetics in Cultural
Studies.” In The Aesthetics of Cultural Studies. Ed.
Michael Bérubé. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.
Fitzhugh, George. Cannibals All! or Slaves without
Masters. 1857. Ed. C. Vann Woodward. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1960.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Volume
1: An Introduction. 1976. Trans. Robert Hurley.
New York: Vintage, 1980.
Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin
Franklin. New Haven, CT: Yale University
Press, 1979.
Franklin, Benjamin. “The Way to Wealth.” 1758.
In The Autobiography and Other Writings. Ed.
L. Jesse Lemisch. New York: Signet, 2001.
Glaspell, Susan. The Verge. 1921. In Plays by Susan
Glaspell. Ed. C. W. E. Bigsby. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1991.
The Critical Work of American Literature
Grimké, Sarah. Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and
the Condition of Women. 1838. New York: Burt
Franklin, 1970.
Jameson, Fredric. “Cognitive Mapping.” In
Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Ed. Cary
Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. Urbana:
University of Illinois Press, 1980.
Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious as a
Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca, NY: Cornell
University Press, 1980.
Lawrence, D.H. Studies in Classic American
Literature. 1923. New York: Viking, 1972.
Lipsitz, George. American Studies in a Moment of
Danger. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Press, 2001.
London, Jack. Jack London: American Rebel. Ed.
Philip S. Foner. New York: Citadel Press, 1947.
Lynd, Robert. Knowledge for What? The Place
of Social Science in American Culture. 1939.
New York: Grove Press, 1964.
Matthiessen, F.O. From the Heart of Europe.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1948.
Matthiessen, F.O. The Responsibilities of the Critic:
Essays and Reviews. New York: Oxford University
Press, 1952.
Melville, Herman. Mardi: And a Voyage Thither.
1849. New Haven, CT: College and University
Press, 1973.
Melville, Herman. “Poor Man’s Pudding and
Rich Man’s Crumbs.” 1854. In Great Short Works
of Herman Melville. Ed. Warner Berthoff.
New York: Harper, 1969.
Melville, Herman. Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life.
1846. New York: Penguin, 1996.
Perloff, Marjorie. “In Defense of Poetry: Put the
Literature Back into Literary Studies.” Boston
Review 24 (December 1999–January 2000):
Pfister, Joel. Critique for What? Cultural Studies,
American Studies, Left Studies. Boulder, CO:
Paradigm, 2006.
Pfister, Joel. The Production of Personal Life: Class,
Gender, and the Psychological in Hawthorne’s
Fiction. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press,
Phelps, Elizabeth Stuart. “The Angel over the
Right Shoulder.” 1852. In Provisions: A Reader
from 19th-Century American Women. Ed. Judith
Fetterley. Bloomington: Indiana University
Press, 1985.
Rich, Adrienne. “Power and Danger: Works of a
Common Woman.” 1977. In On Lies, Secrets, and
Silence: Selected Prose 1966–1978. New York:
Norton, 1979.
Rowe, John Carlos. At Emerson’s Tomb: The Politics
of Classic American Literature. New York:
Columbia University Press, 1997.
Sartre, John-Paul. What Is Literature? 1948. Trans.
Bernard Frechtman. London: Routledge, 2003.
Trilling, Lionel. The Liberal Imagination: Essays in
Literature and Society. 1949. New York: Viking,
Tryon, Thomas. The Way to Get Wealth. London:
G. Conyers, c. 1701.
Tryon, Thomas. The Way to Health, Long Life and
Happiness. London: Andrew Jowle, 1683.
Tryon, Thomas. The Way to Save Wealth. London:
G. Conyers, 1695.
Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of
Capitalism. 1905. New York: Scribners, 1958.
Williams, Raymond, E.P. Thompson, and Stuart
Hall. May Day Manifesto, 1968. Harmondsworth,
UK: Penguin, 1968.
Wright, Richard. Black Boy. 1945. New York:
Harper, 1966.
Women’s Worlds in the
Nineteenth-Century US Novel
Shirley Samuels
This chapter explores key motifs in novels by nineteenth-century US women writers—
fame, children, authorial personae, tutelage, danger, and labor—by analyzing details
from their lives as well as the plots of their fiction. Critical writing on women’s literary careers has steadily emerged since the crucial work of Mary Kelley, Nina Baym,
and many others in the 1980s. Biographies, anthologies, cultural histories, and celebrations of women’s literary productions have been preoccupied with the large and
still very compelling question of what it meant, during the nineteenth century, for
women to write novels. One way to address such a question is to look closely at the
novels that these women produced.
Rich and Famous – and Happy?
During a time when the option to labor for money was restricted for most women,
writing emerged as a significant route to fame and prestige. In an account of how she
became a writer, “Recollections of My Childhood,” published in the Youth’s Companion
in 1888, Louisa May Alcott recalled sitting under a tree at fifteen while the crows
cawed, and then shaking her fist at the sky and shouting, “I will do something byand-by. Don’t care what, teach, sew, act, write, anything to help the family; and I’ll
be rich and famous and happy before I die, see if I won’t!” The strong competitive
spirit revealed in this anecdote – where the nascent writer defies the sky as she laments
women’s uneven access to money and fame – alternates between work performed in
public and work performed at home. To teach and to act are public tasks performed
A Companion to American Literary Studies, First Edition. Edited by Caroline F. Levander,
Robert S. Levine.
© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2011 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Women’s Worlds
before an audience. The privacy of sewing and writing seem equivalently to support
a woman who remains at home, while her work leaves the home and enters the world
as an object of clothing or bound within stitched covers of a book. Indeed, for many
women writers, their work first appeared next to sewing patterns. Crucially, writing
was not only a possible route to money and fame for women, but also the most likely
to enable them to transcend class, race, and gender constrictions even as it allowed
them to critique the very conventions that might limit their futures.
Writing could also appear as a domestic task. During the nineteenth century, the
United States saw newspapers such as Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly and journals such
as Godey’s Ladies Book offer an earlier and more accessible staging ground for fiction
than the hallowed pages of The Atlantic Monthly, for much of the century the preeminent location for aspirants to literary distinction. Dress designs, fashion plates, crochet
patterns, and historical events crowd among the columns of fiction, bordering paragraphs with color-tinted fabrics and lithographed smiling babies. The overlap between
such commercial and domestic enterprises and the labor of words suggests the tension
between understanding women’s writing as fueled by the desire for gain and understanding it as engaged with the literary standards of high culture.
Writing can be produced at home, but it also brings the writer face-to-face with
the public. In “Recollections,” Alcott conveys her feeling about that public through
her sense of childhood fun: “No boy could be my friend till I had beaten him in a
race, and no girl if she refused to climb trees, leap fences and be a tomboy.” Peculiarly
juxtaposing the desire to race faster than boys and the wish to turn girls into
“tomboys” – a conversion that suggests not only a gender transgression but also a
muscular transfiguration – Alcott’s “Recollections” gestures toward a self that will
transcend gender. Her desire for a future self that will be “rich and famous and happy”
also provides a blueprint for the incipient young writer of 1888 to think about how
the last category, writing, had become the means to fame for women. Even as the
success of women writers led to their being attacked as “scribbling women,” the phrase
forever associated with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s envious denunciation of his bestselling
competitors, that model of possible fame was valuable not only for Alcott but also for
many women who became famous by writing novels, poems, and essays in the nineteenth century.
With limited opportunities for achieving fame, women writers often addressed the
relation of gender to domestic and public work, and to writing itself. Frequently
gender becomes the reason why the writer had to “race” faster than “boys” in producing fiction, and it is not surprising that women writers in their fiction often represented girls leaving home. Gender alliances that reach across lines of race and class
often affect the plots of novels written in the nineteenth-century United States. These
plots regularly present the world as a place separate from the home. Within that
rubric, where domestic ideas of housekeeping form part of the story of growing up,
the concept of the threshold acquired extraordinary power. What it might mean to
cross that threshold and leave home – or to return home – permeates this fiction. As
we will see, the sensation of loss of home, whether the character feels liberated or
Shirley Samuels
exiled, occurs in narratives ranging in settings from southern plantations to northern
farms to western cities.
What worlds do women find in the nineteenth-century novel? The worlds for which
they were once known – or to which they were once relegated – tended to be domestic.
Notably, women leave home as much as – or far more than – they enter kitchens.
Many women writers, as well as many of their characters, leave home for economic
reasons in addition to seeking forms of safety away from home. Such safety includes
the need to leave a condition of enslavement, whether one considers the legal restrictions in marriage or the system of legalized bondage endorsed by the United
States until 1865. The legal conventions concerning marriage were codified in
William Blackstone’s commentaries on the English law, adapted in various states in
the United States well into the nineteenth century. According to these commentaries,
a woman who enters into marriage became legally “dead,” and her status as a “femme
covert” meant that she was defined by her status as a married woman. As such, she
was denied rights to property, inheritance, wages, and even her own children, and
could enter into no legal contracts or even reap the rewards of her own writing, should
there happen to have been any. Such restrictions remained a persistent fact of all
women’s lives, no matter their class or race.
Many women experienced even more restrictions on their legal status. Some were
displaced persons, dispossessed by the territorial disputes with, for example, the
Cherokee or “los indios” in Texas or California during the border warfare that led to
the War of 1848, the so-called Mexican War. Such displaced women appear in fiction
by southern writers such as Augusta Evans (who wrote about Texas in Inez: A Tale of
the Alamo [1855]) or western writers such as Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton (writing
about California in The Squatter and the Don [1885]). Other women saw their bodies
claimed under a notoriously persistent scheme of enslaved labor whose traces endured
for more than a century after the Emancipation Proclamation. That racism permeates
women’s worlds of fiction should come as no surprise. That the exposure of racial
or ethnic prejudice can also have layers of racism might also come as no surprise.
The category of racism within reform-minded novels must include, for instance,
Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s The Squatter and the Don. In this novel, the author
exposes a hitherto little explored edge of the United States during national expansion
– the pressures against the southern border with Mexico exacerbated by the push west.
The fantastic work of railroad barons such as Leland Stanford and Henry E. Huntington
is here exposed not simply as an assault on the legal means of acquiring land but also,
crucially for the novel’s purposes, as a means of destroying an aristocratic culture of
land ownership in California. The assault on prejudice operates at once against the
former landowners, Spanish-speaking former citizens of Mexico, and also appears in
their indifferent attitudes toward “los indios” who inhabited the land before the
Mexican invasion.
The woman who sets out to write her way to fame and freedom presents at once a
reformation and a reformulation of the fate once ascribed to the madwoman in the
attic (Gilbert and Gubar). The fortunate result of such efforts – freedom – might be
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not only the certificate that announces legal freedom, as in Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents
in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), but also, in a definite substitution for the marriage
certificate, the certificate of bank stock, as in Fanny Fern’s Ruth Hall (1855). To purchase one’s freedom through writing suggests equivalence among these seemingly
different texts. As we shall see, the eponymous woman who wins fame through writing
in Ruth Hall does so after her attempts to survive through sewing and teaching have
failed. Her bank stock certificate appears reproduced in the novel as testimony to the
success of her words. The sense that freedom and fame might be aligned through
writing cannot appear as a complete solution to writing as an emancipatory strategy,
as Alcott’s 1888 “Recollections” suggests (see also Elbert; Karcher). But it does
present a beginning to the story that women writers tell.
Fiction written by women in the nineteenth-century United States sometimes displays
events that expose how, even when children are greatly wanted, the capacity to reproduce can present a limitation for female autonomy. Such a limitation may explain why
so many novels end with marriage. To end with marriage presents not only the satisfaction of the heterosexual romance plot but also (and crucially) the recognition that
a woman’s life alters so much when she becomes a mother that her very identity as a
character will be transformed. The repetition of such a cycle is enhanced in fiction
that opens with mothers saying goodbye to their daughters – or training them toward
a future repetition of the act of saying goodbye to daughters.
Children must and will be cared for, yet their very appearance can betray alternate
futures. Reproduction involves the at once ordinary and extraordinary production of
humans whose birth reveals (or betrays) the activity of the mother’s body. As mothers
watch their daughters cross the threshold, a strange vigilance exists in this fiction. In
spite of that vigilance, young women venture across many thresholds, from errands
into the wilderness to labor in the cities, from maddening vigils in the attic to voyages
across the Atlantic. The wilderness journey, for example, appears in Caroline Kirkland’s
portrayal of Michigan, the “frontier” of A New Home, Who’ll Follow? (1839). Work in
the city dominates Fanny Fern’s Ruth Hall. Vigils by girls or women left alone in the
attic feature prominently not only in Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents but also in Harriet E.
Wilson’s Our Nig (1859).
In contrast with the enclosed space of the attic, the open space of the ocean might
suggest a greater freedom of movement. The journey across the Atlantic Ocean from
England has taken firm hold on the mythology of the United States as a journey
toward freedom and away from the restrictions of a social order controlled by restrictions on class and religion. Such mythology does not pertain to women. Whether
enslaved or indentured or married, laboring women found themselves at the mercy of
not only the conditions enacted by contracts for their labor but also the condition
of being female. From Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) to the unnamed mother
Shirley Samuels
of Sethe in Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), setting foot on the soil of the United States
brought with it a condition of pregnancy.
The mother who survives the forced migration across the Atlantic Ocean in Beloved,
Toni Morrison’s twentieth-century novel about nineteenth-century life in the aftermath of slavery, has no name. Instead, she is marked. Taking advantage of a rare stolen
moment, the mother of Sethe reveals a brand beneath her breast and explains that by
such a mark she and her matrilineal generations might be identified. Later burned for
an unspecified offense, her body is indeed identified by Sethe, who rages against the
loss of maternal memory, a loss that the claiming practices of a name might have
helped her resist. What Sethe in turn endures, as she is punished for murdering her
“crawling already” baby, is not only bound up with the cruelest aspect of motherhood
in conditions of slavery – that her children are not recognized as “belonging” to her
– but also enhanced because the category of human beings as able to belong to one
another as members of a family is so helplessly deranged that she might be associated
with animals. Until she reacts to the goading from Paul D., who says accusingly that
she has “two feet, not four,” Sethe loses focus about the specific relation between
motherhood and conditions of slavery.
Crossing the Atlantic Ocean operates in a distinctly different way in Susannah
Rowson’s early bestselling novel Charlotte Temple (1791, 1794). In that novel, the
conniving Madame La Rue has presented the likelihood of a shipboard marriage as a
strong reason for running away from home with a naval officer. Seduced and impregnated, the teenaged Charlotte will find herself dying from the combined effects of
childbirth and a winter storm. The clarity with which that novel, like many to follow,
understands marriage as a woman’s primary access to food, clothing, and shelter
anticipated the nonfiction critique a century later in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s
Women and Economics (1898). Appalled that women had to depend on men’s labor for
their very survival, Gilman thought that if the raising of children were made into a
communal enterprise, women would be free to work. Women writers, from Harriet
Beecher Stowe to Julia Ward Howe, wrote and raised babies at once. Howe once wrote
to her editor, “I have written this letter in defiance of an encroaching Baby – pray
excuse its careless style” (October 9, 1853; Fields collection FI 2368, Huntington
Library). Women characters in this fiction could rarely write “in defiance of an
encroaching Baby.”
Names in Public
As the historian Mary Kelley noted many years ago, the question of what name to
use when appearing before the public preoccupied women authors in the nineteenthcentury United States. The more flamboyant they were, and the more provocative
their topics, the more likely they were to appear under pseudonyms. Women writers
from Harriet Jacobs (as Linda Brent) to Sara Payton Willis (Fanny Fern) to Susan B.
Warner (Elizabeth Wetherell) employed what sometimes may have appeared as a nom
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de guerre as they worked out controversial subjects, from cross-dressing to choosing
sex outside of marriage. In contrast, some women writers, such as Rose Terry Cooke,
seemed to have enjoyed the emergence into print. Writing to the publishing firm
Ticknor and Fields in 1860 about the contract for her poetry, she suggests, “If you
wish to put my name in full on the title page instead of the initials which are there
and over which most of the poems have been printed, I do not object” (July 21, 1860;
Fields Collection, Huntington Library). The shift from initials to a full name claims
at once a name and a gender. Perhaps more typically, the English writer we now know
as Dinah Mulock Craik insisted, “I have never put my name to my books – simply
‘the author of John Halifax.’ – If you can alter it to this, I shall be grateful” (October
28, 1864; Fields Collection, Huntington Library). In this case, the name of the author
exists in a secondary relation to the artifact with which she wishes to be identified, a
bestselling novel. After the Civil War, the writer we now know as Helen Hunt Jackson
presented a more mournful attachment to a naming practice. As she asserts to her
editor that she would “very much dislike seeing ‘Helen Hunt’ in print,” she adds, “I
understand that there is no help for it in this disagreeable but inevitable advertizing
but could it not be added ‘widow of the late Major Edward B. Hunt U.S. Engineering
Corps’?” (October 30, 1870; Fields Collection, Huntington Library).
The writer Lydia Maria Child was to publish novels, short stories, advice books,
and essays for 54 years, but her first novel, Hobomok (1824), appeared anonymously as
by “an American.” Her anxiety over how to appear in print shows up as she writes to
her publisher James T. Fields about the production of her postbellum novel of race
and reconciliation, A Romance of the Republic (1868). As she tells him, after seeing her
name in a long list of authors from Ticknor and Fields, she wants more prominence.
She especially does not want to be “at the foot of the ladder” of his authors when they
appear in an advertisement for the firm (May 15, 1867; Fields Collection, Huntington
Library). Child is certain her new book will sell well for its controversy, especially
about cross-racial desire. When she sends the manuscript to be published, she emphasizes the value and the irreplaceable labor of its production: “For pity’s sake, keep it
in a Safe” (March 30, 1867; Fields Collection, Huntington Library).
Child’s sense of the book’s value is political rather than nostalgic. That value accrues
to the title as much as to the author. Child presents Fields with two versions of the
title for the book:
I did at first think of a double title, thus:
Loves and Memories.
A Romance of the Republic.
But upon consideration, the first part seemed rather sentimental. Dont [sic] you think
the simple form is better?
What Child prefers here, in a move that she notes as a turn away from sentimentality,
is a title that emphasizes national rather then personal romance. To control what it
shall be named is also to control how it shall be interpreted. When Child writes to
Shirley Samuels
her publisher, it is to suggest that her name is a commodity that needs to be under
her control. Finding herself listed in an advertisement for the press when she has not
yet signed a contract, Child asks that her name not appear without her permission.
She says frostily, “I did not imagine that so polite a man as you are would make public
use of my name without saying, ‘By your leave’” (November 6, 1864; Fields Collection,
Huntington Library). Resisting the unauthorized public use of a name that has
become commodified, Child shows herself aware of the intersections of publication,
naming, and commercial value.
Of course, in this attention to the use of pseudonyms, I do not overlook such male
writers as Mark Twain and Ik Marvel (born Donald Grant Mitchell), whose public
personae merged sufficiently with the actual person that there remain many readers
who have never heard of Samuel Clemens. For these writers, the manipulation of a
persona served more purposes than to conceal gender or to provide an alternative
identity. Like Mark Twain, Fanny Fern and other women writers found that a fictional
identity came to subsume legal identities. They practically became these names.
The embrace of such alternate identities may blend with narrative personae so that
the mischief of Tom Sawyer or the reveries of a bachelor are scarcely to be separated
from the activities of their creators. Fern’s name was once such public property
and so widely visible that it was given to a Pullman train car. The identity of Sara
Parton Willis became fully merged with the persona of the author, the flamboyant
Fanny Fern.
Fiction written by women in the nineteenth-century United States often presents in
detailed terms the mirroring and mimetic relation of women writing about women
writing. Into what activity does the work of writing insert itself, or what activity does
it defer? A classic and indeed parodic example occurs in condensed form in Catharine
Sedgwick’s “Cacoethes Scribendi” (1830). In this short story, a tidy New England
town is overcome by a bout of writing madness. Daughters, wives, and mothers
abandon their domestic duties and turn to writing fiction. Since she was a daughter
and a sister, but never a wife or a mother, Sedgwick could afford to mock the very
engagement in a literary life that had already made her famous. To teach the lesson
of gender in her fiction, as in that of other women writers, is to teach a lesson at once
about the manners and habits associated with being female and about access to the
edges of those definitions.
Stories of tutelage, Nina Baym noted in Woman’s Fiction, frequently begin with the
story of a girl left to her own devices. The girl does not have to have been orphaned,
but she frequently lacks a mother. Ellen and Gertie, the girl heroines of The Wide,
Wide World and The Lamplighter, find access to learning as well as access to pathos
through their male mentors. In some novels, as I shall shortly discuss, the pressures
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of economic distress produce a girl in disguise as a boy, or a girl whose labor overlaps
with that of a boy.
Alcott described her hunger for writing as a form of tutelage that mixes a desire
for a calling with competition in childhood sports. For other writers, fictional and
autobiographical writing can simply represent access to an outcome not predicated
on marriage, sometimes occurring in the wake of a collapsed marriage, as for Fanny
Fern and E. D. E. N. Southworth. A classic scene of such a realization takes place in
Fern’s Ruth Hall, where the eponymous character, hungry and with a hungry daughter
before her, looks out the window of her tenement to what is clearly a house of prostitution and listens to the “whirr whirr” of some covert labor in the attic room above
her before choosing to take up her pen instead of the needle that has brought such
slim compensation. Over the weeks that follow, she learns to fight for the value of her
words. Publishing the sardonic truth – in telling newspaper commentaries that were
to make Fanny Fern the most highly paid columnist in the nineteenth-century United
States – the fictional Ruth Hall grapples with how to negotiate with editors and
finally outwits them.
In the postbellum novel by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, The Gates Ajar (1868), the
work of women in mourning becomes a way to keep the effect of the war within the
four walls of the home even as the novel posits a heavenly home for the retrieval of
heterosexual signifying. That is, because beloved men have died in battle, women
must not only have access to a heavenly home of Christian redemption but also give
access to an earthly home that they share with each other. To propose a world for
women, in other words, must mean to imagine them both as mothers and as women
happy alone, a proposal somewhat worked against by Macaria (1864) and St. Elmo
(1866), novels by the southern novelist Augusta Evans. In Macaria, subtitled the
“Altar of Sacrifice,” the national conflict becomes the altar on which the ennobled
Macaria lays her body, but at the same time, she can be joined by another woman in
a peculiar mingling of blood sacrifice and marriage.
The difference in Augusta Evans’s Macaria is that the heroine will not find marriage
as the resolution of the romantic crises of the novel. The simple reason, as suggested
by the plot, is that her lover Aubrey dies in her arms from wounds suffered in the
Civil War. Yet his discovery of her love for him, in that very scene, relies upon her
certainty that he will die. His imminent death frees her to speak words that would
otherwise bind her to him and that here, instead, release her.
St. Elmo presents a heroine with as much learning and as many survival skills as
the heroine of Macaria, but the novel’s epigraph makes it clear what her destiny must
be: “the true rule is – a true wife in her husband’s home is his servant, it is in his
heart that she is queen” (attributed to John Ruskin). From standing tall as a caryatid
at the base of the aptly named Lookout Mountain in the novel’s opening pages, the
heroine progresses through adventures that resemble those of Jo in Louisa May Alcott’s
Little Women. Unlike Jo, after moving to the city and finding success as a writer, Edna
Earl finds herself persuaded to abandon writing as she links herself to the St. Elmo
Shirley Samuels
of the title, who announces, as the novel’s last words, “Accomplish thou my manhood,
and thyself, / Lay thy sweet hands in mine and trust to me.” What might it mean for
Edna Earl to “accomplish the manhood” of St. Elmo? Since her hands have been taken
for the work of manhood rather than the work of writing, Edna Earl’s achievement
seems to some readers to have been squandered. Her new husband has proclaimed
himself able to “snap the fetters of your literary bondage,” in a clear allusion to the
concept that writing for money is simply a mercenary activity representing, as he
calls it, “inordinate ambition.” At the same time, and despite the erudition that
sprinkles every page with classical references, the novel presents as its victory the
vanquishing of sorrow in the sin-filled world of its hero by the sunny Christian resilience of Edna Earl.
Her hands have been freed from fetters, yet the suggestion that the work of writing
is bondage and that she will now be free seems suspiciously to be involved in an odd
absorption of her hands by his and, indeed, of her gendered identity by his in a novel
titled St. Elmo instead of Edna Earl. Edna Earl, in St. Elmo, shares with Augusta Evans’s
heroine in Macaria a wonderful intellect, but she is shamed through her ardent attention to intellectual pursuits, apparently because they expose her to the marketplace.
Her shaming reminds the reader that access to fame as a writer of sensation fiction
provided for Jo March a form of sexual shame as she is chastised by her Teutonic
“Bhaer” suitor. For Edna Earl, the need to profit from writing is an endeavor from
which she needs rescuing by the stalwart force of St. Elmo’s arms. The ambivalence
with which such decisions might have been greeted by readers can only be conjectured. The novel was a runaway bestseller.
Other bestselling fiction, such as Susan B. Warner’s The Wide, Wide World (1850)
and Maria Cummins’s The Lamplighter (1854), seems similarly to present redemptive
Christian benevolence in the face of sorrow and loss. Both novels open in an urban
setting full of dangers. In both novels, young girls find themselves at risk and discover
salvation through rural transplantation. The first words of The Lamplighter – “It was
growing dark in the city” – suggest the darkening aspect of its heroine’s prospects.
Within a few pages of that opening, her kitten has been thrown into a pot to be boiled
alive. As a grotesque imitation of cooking, the act of killing the kitten emphasizes
the parody of a nurturing hearth that this kitchen provides. In stark contrast to the
violence carried out in the darkness of the city, “in the open country it would be light
for half an hour or more.” Once Gerty manages the transition to the countryside and
learns to garden, she can anticipate more light in her life, yet that light is linked to
a redemptive Christianity that mediates the ending in marriage.
The Wide Wide World, however, shows that the country presents as many dangers
as the city. The novel opens with the young girl, Ellen Montgomery, sitting at the
window and looking out at the activity on a city street, as “Daylight gradually faded
away, and the street wore a more and more gloomy aspect.” Soon, however, “light
after light” appears in the distance as the lamplighter comes to do the laborious work
of producing light from oil lamps. In her own room, Ellen lights a fire as well. This
opening scene of a young girl watching for the appearance of light recalls the opening
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of The Lamplighter, where the young Gerty feels that “there was one thing, and one
only, which she found pleasure in.” It was the coming of “the old lamplighter,” who
can shed “a gleam of joy.” Yet her pursuit of the lamplighter places her at the foot of
his ladder and he knocks her down, spilling the milk she has been sent to fetch. His
hard contact with her leads to a beating at the hands of “Nan Grant,” the woman
who throws the kitten into the boiling pot.
Both Ellen and Gerty in their separate paths to Christian redemption move from
the city to engage in domestic duties in a pastoral setting. Later in The Wide, Wide
World, Ellen declares, “how pleasant it must be to live in the country!” But the labor
of the country is more difficult than and not nearly as satisfying as producing light
on a city street. Still quite a young girl, Ellen must learn hard physical labor as she
works in a dairy as well as doing laundry. And when she engages the possibility of
play, the elements of a rural landscape seem to conspire against her. The brook in the
countryside that runs by her Aunt Fortune’s house is “the crookest thing you ever
saw. It runs over there . . . and then it takes a turn and goes that way, and then it
comes round so, and then it shoots off in that way again. . . . I don’t suppose it could
run straight if it was to try to.” The symmetry of city streets is here supplanted by
uneven boundaries.
This same brook proves almost fatal as Ellen falls into it: “poor Ellen lost her
balance and went in head foremost. The water was deep enough to cover her completely as she lay, though not enough to prevent her getting up again. She was greatly
frightened, but managed to struggle up first to a sitting posture, and then to her feet,
and then to wade out to the shore; though, dizzy and sick, she came near falling back
again more than once.” The apparent willfulness of the stream that could not “run
straight if it was to try to” becomes an element in covering Ellen with at once the
wayward naughtiness of Nancy Vawse, who has pushed her into the water, and the
dangers of country life. “The water was very cold; and, thoroughly sobered, poor Ellen
felt chill enough in body and mind too.” The dizziness that supplements her disoriented baptism in this crooked stream leads to the first steps of her incorporation into
a different home as she is put to bed in a cottage nearby. The rescue mission slowly
metamorphoses into an adoption into a family headed by an alternative Christian
mother, Alice Humphreys, and her brother, a discipline-minded minister who focuses
tutelary efforts on Ellen. As in St. Elmo, the education of a willful girl will end in
Christian marriage.
The necessary morality of such fiction is more often bound up with class migration.
In E. D. E. N. Southworth, for example, women attempt to find their way in a world
that disenfranchises men as well as women. To present fiction as tutelage appears from
the classic novels of sexual humiliation of the 1790s such as Charlotte Temple, The
Coquette, and The Power of Sympathy, through to Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth
(1905). The lesson, repeatedly, appears to be that to leave home is to encounter danger.
In Charlotte Temple, Madame La Rue takes the eponymous heroine down a side street
where desire trumps virtue and the excursion kills her. These novels appear to teach
safety, but they also teach a form of reading that will enable a reader both to enter
Shirley Samuels
into the plight of the girl thrust out into the world – or cowering in the room – and
to keep from contact with that world.
The scandal-filled life of Capitola Black in E. D. E. N. Southworth’s serialized novel
The Hidden Hand (1859, 1868–9, and first published as a book in 1883) has given
readers pleasure for the past 150 years. Mothers once gave their baby daughters her
name, with what longings for her spirit or wishes for her fortune who can tell. Yet
the excitement about her adventures tends to overlook the grim story of her origins.
Born a twin, with some hint of her lost sibling in the birthmark remaining on her
hand (the hidden hand of the title doubling the hand that bears it), the baby girl is
smuggled out while a dead substitute brother remains to be displayed as proof that
the power to inherit the family fortune has been curtailed. As the missing legatee of
an uncertain fate, Capitola is rightly named. She is at once the head of the family and,
in a sort of pun, its capital. The mother left behind postpartum, to be confined
throughout most of the novel’s events, appears as a ghost to frighten her daughter
on a dark and stormy night that recalls the night of her birth. The helplessness that
keeps her mother imprisoned never attaches itself to Capitola except in the matter
of boredom. The simple addiction to adventure keeps her mobile and perversely protects her.
Capitola’s mother has been discarded. That her mother was married to her father
does not prevent her helplessness when Capitola’s villainous uncle locks her in the
attic. The crisis that reproduction poses to the chance that a woman can prosper on
her own is shown early on through Capitola’s change of gender. The description of
Capitola when she is first discovered by Old Hurricane, who finds her on the streets
of New York, shows a fair amount of gender confusion. “He was a handsome boy,” as
he seeks to carry bags for money. “Thick, clustering curls of jet-black hair fell in
tangled disorder around a forehead broad, white and smooth as that of a girl”; the
narrator continues, “[A] little turned-up nose, and red, pouting lips completed the
character of a countenance full of fun, frolic, spirit and courage.” The face as “smooth
as that of a girl” will, of course, turn into that of a girl when the “curls of jet-black
hair” fall loose and betray her. Hauled into a court for juvenile delinquents for her
gender transgression, Capitola tells the story of her decision.
Capitola’s picture of a Bowery boy childhood emerges swiftly. She explains that she
has been “[s]elling newspapers, carrying portmanteaus and packages, sweeping before
doors, clearing off snow, blacking boots and so on.” None of this employment is available to her as a girl. As a girl, “I was trying to get jobs every hour in the day”; still,
she has no luck. “Some of the good-natured landlords said if I was a boy, now, they
could keep me opening oysters; but as I was a girl they had no work for me.” In her
desperation, “I even went down to the ferry-boats and . . . offered to carry their carpetbags or portmanteaus; but some growled at me, and others laughed at me, and one
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old gentleman asked me if I thought he was a North American Indian to strut up
Broadway with a female behind him carrying his pack.” Dismayed, she continues,
“[W]hile all the ragged boys I knew could get little jobs to earn bread, I, because I
was a girl, was not allowed to carry a gentleman’s parcel or black his boots, or shovel
the snow off a shopkeeper’s pavement, or put in coal.” Certain of her skills, but denied
employment, “because I was a girl there seemed to be nothing but starvation or
beggary before me!”
The difficult life for a boy on the streets of New York, a life soon to emerge in
Horatio Alger novels, sits at the edge of this story, but the clear danger is that one
might fall off the edge simply by being female. As Capitola expresses it, she has been
tempted by “want, sir—and—and—danger, sir!” The want is hunger; the danger,
clearly, seduction. The suggested transformation into a “North American Indian”
imagines that she might be better off on the frontier, since “being always exposed,
sleeping outdoors, I was often in danger from bad boys and bad men.” Such danger
passes when she transforms gender. In a transition that resembles the happy ending
of Alger’s Ragged Dick (1868), she explains, “I went into that little back parlor a girl
and I came out a boy . . . with my hair cut short and a cap on my head!” The new
guise makes work available: “the only thing that made me feel sorry was to see what
a fool I had been not to turn to a boy before, when it was so easy! And from that day
forth I was happy and prosperous! I found plenty to do! I carried carpet-bags, held
horses, put in coal, cleaned sidewalks, blacked gentlemen’s boots and did everything
an honest lad could turn his hand to.”
The risk Capitola runs is not simply from “bad men,” but also from a replication
of her mother’s fate, pregnant at fourteen, giving birth to her daughter at fifteen. The
labor for impoverished adult women in a city, as we have seen, often oscillates between
sewing and prostitution. Even in the country, the remuneration of sewing is slim and
inadequate. The cast-off wife of Old Hurricane “was a very hard-working woman,
sewing all day long and knitting through the twilight, and then again resuming her
needle by candle-light and sewing until midnight.” Despite the constant labor, she
“made but a poor and precarious living for herself and son. Needlework, so ill-paid
in large cities, is even worse paid in the country towns, and, though the cottage hearth
was never cold, the widow’s meals were often scant.” Her ability to sew is not supplemented with writing, as in Ruth Hall, and yet she does learn to remake her family
through drawing others to her with her domestic skills. By contrast, neither Capitola
nor her confined mother ever seems to cook a meal. Their domestic tasks are performed
through slavery.
In The Hidden Hand, E. D. E. N. Southworth provides the absolute thrill that a
girl will ride on horseback up to a man who has insulted her, pull out a pistol, and
shoot him as he flees. The further thrill, making the first one a guilty pleasure, consists
of finding out that the gun was loaded with dried peas so that the effect of buckshot
on flesh becomes not only harmless but also a parody of women’s work in the kitchen.
There seems little reason to assume that Capitola knows how to cook – even that
those peas could ever find a home in a pot. That she can fire a gun to such good effect
Shirley Samuels
connects her act to the earlier hustling she did as a newsboy in New York City during
the novel’s opening scenes. Yet she also betrays extreme restlessness after she adapts
to her surroundings.
Quizzing herself about the change in her circumstances, Capitola muses that “the
little outcast of the city” has become “the heiress of a fine old country seat” with
“carriages and horses and servants.” “It’s just impossible!” she exclaims: “For, now I
think of it, the last thing I remember of my former life was being brought before the
recorder for wearing boy’s clothes. Now, I’m sure that it was upon that occasion that
I went suddenly mad with trouble, and all the rest is a lunatic’s fancy! This fine old
country seat of which I vainly think myself the mistress, is just the pauper madhouse
to which the magistrates have sent me.” In such an alternate world, “The servants
who come at my call are the keepers.”
Even as she uses her imaginative skills to rework her “fine old country seat” into
a “madhouse,” Capitola unwittingly alludes to her mother’s fate. Confined more than
once to a mansion that serves as a prison, her mother has come very close to insanity.
And Capitola, pampered with “servants,” can express what often seems to be an insane
amount of boredom with the very pampered life that she once craved. She complains
that she is “just decomposing above ground for want of having my blood stirred, and
I wish I was back in the Bowery! Something was always happening there! One day a
fire, next day a fight, another day a fire and a fight together.” Faced with the slow
pace of life in the country, she complains, “ ‘Oh! I wish the barns would catch on fire!
I wish thieves would break in and steal! . . . Ohyah!—oo!’ said Cap, opening her
mouth with a yawn wide enough to threaten the dislocation of her jaws.” The real
legacy that she is heir to is violent enough: “the landed estate, including the coal and
iron mines, the Hidden House and all the negroes, stock, furniture and other personal
property upon the premises.” Hidden in the Hidden House is her mother, who turns
out to be “the lonely survivor of a French revolutionary slaughter.” After “her father
and mother had both perished on the scaffold in the sacred cause of liberty; she was
thrown helpless, friendless and penniless upon the cold charity of the world.” The
pleasures of Capitola’s transformation from an indigent street boy to an heiress repeatedly fall asunder from reminders of revolutionary violence and the reduction of women
to insanity.
Conclusion: Our Nig and the Labor of Women’s Writing
It is difficult to summarize motifs that appear in US women’s writing in the nineteenth century, but as we have seen, women’s voice and labor are crucial to a number
of novels of the period. Harriet Wilson’s 1859 Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a
Free Black brings to focus what is at stake for many writers of the period in the creation of voice through the labor of writing. The novel presents a character who sometimes refers to herself in the third person as the claimed entity named in the title;
she is also known as Frado. Her first appearance in the novel is very much like that
Women’s Worlds
of Capitola Black: as “a beautiful mulatto, with long curly black hair, and handsome,
roguish eyes, sparkling with an exuberance of spirit almost beyond restraint.” The
“exuberance of spirit” displayed here is nearly beaten out of her when her mother, a
white woman whose marriage has resulted in the birth of two mixed-race children,
abandons her to a white woman inappropriately named Mrs. Bellmont. If she cries,
Mrs. Bellmont notices by “applying a rawhide, always at hand in the kitchen.”
What is on hand in the kitchen is violence and starvation rather than food or
comfort. Frado’s mother has abandoned her to this kitchen because she cannot feed
herself or her children on the small funds from the available labor. As she explains it,
“I washed for the Reeds, and did a small job for Mrs. Bellmont. I shall starve soon.”
With such a legacy, abandoned as a domestic drudge and then discarded when her
strength begins to fail her, what happens to Frado when she can no longer work? As
Lauren Berlant suggests about the female complaint, perhaps to lament her condition
also empowers her to have one. Frado’s dog, who acts as companion and audience, also
acts the role of the sympathetic reader. The dog, to paraphrase Wolfgang Iser, is the
implied reader, the reader in the text, mutely to be appealed to, helpless to provide
real comfort. Acquiring direct access to a self through sympathy with this animal,
Frado is portrayed “patting Fido . . . saying ‘you love me Fido, don’t you?’”
The dog’s sympathy works where human sympathy does not. Within Our Nig,
emphatically not a bestseller, to resolve the problem of survival through marriage
proves especially flawed. The sympathy extended to a man who presents himself on
the abolitionist lecture circuit as an escaped slave proves to be misguided. Frado’s
husband has deceived abolitionists; he abandons her and their child. Forced to find
other means to provide than the manual labor that has depleted her strength throughout her childhood, the persona behind Frado turns to writing, as many another female
character has done. As Harriet Wilson writes in the preface to her semiautobiographical story, “In offering to the public the following pages, the writer confesses her inability to minister to the refined and cultivated, the pleasure supplied by abler pens.”
Her need to present pages to the public comes from her need to survive: “Deserted
by kindred, disabled by failing health, I am forced to some experiment which shall
aid me in maintaining myself and child without extinguishing this feeble life.” To
write is to labor, and the labor does not always bring fame, yet it always gives the
woman writer a face with which to face the world.
References and Further Reading
Baym, Nina. Woman’s Fiction: A Guide to Novels by
and about Women in America, 1820–1870. Ithaca,
NY: Cornell University Press, 1978.
Berlant, Lauren. The Female Complaint: The
Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American
Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press,
Blackstone, William. Commentaries on the Laws of
England. 4 vols. Oxford: Clarendon,
Boyd, Anne. Writing for Immortality: Women and the
Emergence of High Literary Culture in America.
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press,
Shirley Samuels
Elbert, Sarah. A Hunger for Home: Louisa May
Alcott’s Place in American Culture. New Brunswick,
NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1984.
Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The
Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the
Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New
Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979.
Iser, Wolgang. The Implied Reader: Patterns in
Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to
Beckett. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University
Press, 1978.
Karcher, Carolyn. The First Woman in the Republic:
A Cultural Biography of Lydia Maria Child.
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994.
Kelley, Mary. Private Woman, Public Stage: Literary
Domesticity in Nineteenth-Century America. New
York: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Levander, Caroline F. Cradle of Liberty: Race, the
Child, and National Belonging from Thomas
Jefferson to W. E. B. Du Bois. Durham, NC: Duke
University Press, 2006.
Levander, Caroline F., and Carol J. Singley, eds. The
American Child: A Cultural Studies Reader. New
Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003.
Noble, Marianne. The Masochistic Pleasures of
Sentimental Literature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press, 2000.
Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural
Work of American Fiction. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1984.
Weinstein, Cindy. The Literature of Labor and the
Labors of Literature: Allegory in Nineteenth-Century
American Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1995.
The Secularization Narrative
and Nineteenth-Century
American Literature
Elizabeth Fenton
In the Custom-House where he finds the scarlet letter, the narrator of Nathaniel
Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) ponders his Puritan ancestry with some measure
of trepidation. “[H]e had all the Puritanic traits, both good and evil” the narrator
says of his early ancestor. “He was likewise a bitter persecutor. . . . His son, too,
inherited the persecuting spirit, and made himself so conspicuous in the martyrdom
of the witches, that their blood may be fairly said to have left a stain upon him” (27).
Religious fervor, indeed religious violence, is a formative component of the narrator’s
family stock. The narrator, however, is little like his “sable-cloaked and steeplecrowned progenitor,” who would be horrified to discover that “the old trunk of the
family tree, with so much venerable moss upon it, should have borne, at its topmost
bough, an idler like myself” (26–7). “A writer of story books!” the narrator imagines
the Puritans to proclaim. “What kind of business in life, – what mode of glorifying
God . . . may that be?” (27). Generations, it seems, have filtered out the family’s
religious commitments and replaced them with literary as well as practical concerns.
The narrator deems the scarlet letter an opportunity to jumpstart his “intellectual
machinery” in service of his bank account: “do this,” he fantasizes when pondering
The Scarlet Letter’s composition, “and the profit shall be all your own” (51, 44). He
thus appears to be a rational citizen, one who asserts that a “man of thought, fancy,
and sensibility . . . may, at any time, be a man of affairs” (39). Pragmatic, reasonable,
and thoughtful, Hawthorne’s narrator is a picture of modernity’s triumph over religious zeal. His idle creativity might mark a decline from the lofty pursuits of his
orthodox forebears, but at least he has never hanged a suspected witch (or affixed an
“A” to a lonely woman’s dress).
A Companion to American Literary Studies, First Edition. Edited by Caroline F. Levander,
Robert S. Levine.
© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2011 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Elizabeth Fenton
In its depiction of waning religious conviction, Hawthorne’s Custom-House preface
rehearses a narrative that resonates through much discourse about the history of US
religion and literature. That narrative, put simply, is one in which the nation gradually unburdens itself of religious zeal and in doing so embraces a modernity that
privileges reason over faith. This is the story of secularization, a story of US culture
shrugging off what Linell Cady terms the “yoke of religion” and assuming the mantle
of enlightenment (874). This configuring of secularism differs from the notion of a
separation of church and state in that it treats the secular as a broader and more diffuse
component of culture, one that pervades individual experience as well as institutions.
Until recently, much critical work on US literature has taken the secularization narrative for granted. Drawing on Perry Miller’s foundational essay, “From Edwards to
Emerson,” twentieth-century scholars charted a trajectory in which science, aesthetics,
and philosophy supplanted theology over the course of the nineteenth century. As
Joanna Brooks puts it,
Miller gave us the gentlest and most elegant way of telling the children that at some
point even the best and brightest Puritans could keep it up no longer, that they stopped
believing what their grandfathers believed, and that it was, finally, really, okay because
it gave us literature. (426)
The secularization narrative has taken many forms in criticism. In Ann Douglas’s
famous version, religion evolves into a “feminine” concern in the nineteenth century,
the purview of increasingly impotent clergymen and sentimental women. In many
studies of US literature, though, the secularization narrative operates simply as the
absence of attention to religion – an unarticulated positioning of religion as a concern
merely of the religious – and the framing of literature as somehow largely distinct
from religion and its concerns.
Of course, the story of religion’s departure from the literary realm becomes less
stable upon closer interrogation of what, precisely, constitutes the “secular” or the
“religious.” New scholarship on religion and literature has brought to light the fault
lines in the secularization narrative while also calling into question the very notion
of secularism. This work takes seriously Talal Asad’s assertions that “there is nothing
essentially religious” and that “the secular is neither singular in origin nor stable in
its historical identity” (25). Asad deploys a deconstructive methodology that is
common in literary studies of race and gender but remains an emerging effort in the
study of religion. The often unspoken reification of the “religious–secular” binary may
owe more, Michael Kaufmann suggests, to the status of religion within literary studies
as a discipline committed to its own story of secular progress than to literary works
themselves. The secularization narrative, he argues, has allowed literary studies “to
treat (or ignore) both the secular and the religious as if they were normative, fixed
categories” (609). As Vincent Pecora’s work on the fraught relationship between religion and academic criticism demonstrates, the secular has as rich and complex a
history as any other cultural category. Though critics often treat it as self-evident, the
Secularization and American Literature
term “secular” has referred, over centuries and across continents, to everything from
clerical worldliness, to anticlericalism, to empiricism, to religious disestablishment,
to humanism, to modernization, to even cosmopolitanism. Thus it does not merely
mark the absence that opposes religion’s presence. Rather, like religion, the secular is
composed of historically contingent and ever-evolving sets of beliefs, assumptions,
institutions, experiences, and modes.
This chapter explores three models for reconsidering the concepts of secularism and
secularization in early and nineteenth-century US literature. The first is to recognize
the ways in which literary productions of this era complicate both the secularization
narrative and the ostensible divide between the religious and the secular. To this end,
I examine Charles Brockden Brown’s early novel, Wieland, or, the Transformation: An
American Tale (1798), the horror of which emanates, I argue, from its refusal to discriminate between secular and religious epistemologies. Another possible model for
inquiry into this topic is a renewed attention to the literary investments of “sacred”
American texts. In this chapter’s second section, I read The Book of Mormon (1830) as
a set of narratives structured by a logic of prophesy that facilitates the sacralizing
(rather than the secularizing) of American history. Finally, a third model for reconsidering the relationship between religion and literature involves interrogating the
potentially religious assumptions that underscore literary analysis itself. This chapter’s
final section thus reads W.E.B. Du Bois’s rendering of African American literary
genealogies as a reflection of an ostensibly secular reading practice with religious roots.
In each of these sections, my aim is to demonstrate the contingent and mutually
constitutive tensions between not only the literary and the religious but also the
religious and the “not religious.” Though each approaches the question of secularization from a different perspective, these sections together explore an American literary
tradition in which faith and reason are indistinguishable, and the sacred merges with
the profane.
My particular area of study – Protestantism, Catholicism, and formulations of
democracy in the early United States – frames my approach to this topic, and this
chapter focuses on writers working from a range of perspectives at least loosely tied
to Christianity. But this is not to suggest that Christianity, or even some vaguely
construed “Judeo-Christian tradition,” is the only vantage point from which to consider questions of the secular. Secularism often appears as the gift Christianity has
given itself by becoming, in Marcel Gauchet’s words, “a religion for departing from
religion,” and thus “the most relevant religion in a post-religious society” (4). Even
Charles Taylor’s extensive study of the subject begins with the assertion that the “we”
who inhabit a “secular age” are “the ‘we’ who live in the West, or perhaps Northwest,
or otherwise put, the North Atlantic world” (1). Though his terminology is geographic, Taylor’s implication is religious: “we” are secular now, because we have been
Christian in the past. New studies of secularism by scholars such as Asad and Gil
Anidjar have begun to address Christianity’s unspoken centrality to philosophies of
the secular and to highlight the ways in which, as Michael Kiser puts it, “ostensibly
universal secular norms are in fact hypostasizations of particular Euro-Christian
Elizabeth Fenton
epistemologies and the imperial geopolitical aims that have accompanied them” (335).
The challenge facing scholars of American religion and literature is to develop more
lines of inquiry that address secularity’s relationship to traditions beyond Christianity
while also interrogating Christianity’s own claims of ownership over secularism. This
chapter analyzes texts that straddle the perceived divide between Christianity and
secularism to show how the two operate in tension and in tangent within US
Thirsting for Knowledge: Wieland and
the End of Epistemology
Brown’s first published novel, Wieland, opens with a brief tale of religious fervor and
spontaneous combustion. Theodore Wieland, Sr. – the sole member of a fundamentalist sect of his own design – falls into a depression upon failing to complete a task he
believes his god has demanded of him. “A command had been laid upon him,” his
daughter Clara, the novel’s narrator, explains, “which he had delayed to perform. . . . He
was no longer permitted to obey.” No one knows the terms the elder Wieland has
violated, and thus no one can console him as he spends his days “haunted by the belief
that the kind of death that await[s] him [will be] strange and terrible” (14). It is in
this unhappy state that the father retires to the temple he built in honor of his god,
and then suddenly and mysteriously bursts into flames. When his relatives find him,
he is “naked, the skin throughout the greater part of his body . . . scorched and
bruised” (18). They take him home, where he smolders for two hours before expiring.
Fast-forward two decades, and the Wieland children have not only inherited but also
transformed their father’s property. Clara informs readers that she and her brother
have converted their father’s temple into a kind of rustic salon. A bust of Cicero has
replaced the ultimate burnt offering, and the younger Wielands study, sing, converse,
and enjoy fine meals where their father once prayed. Theodore Wieland, Jr., Clara
explains, may have inherited their father’s intensity, but “the mind of the son was
enriched by science, and embellished with literature” (22). An “indefatigable student”
and committed deist, Wieland is not without religious commitments, but he feels
most affronted when “the divinity of Cicero [is] contested,” and his best friend, Pleyel,
“reject[s] all guidance but that of his reason” (26). Having turned away from religious
“fanaticism” and toward secular pursuits, the Wielands have achieved stability and
At first, Brown’s novel follows the secularization narrative that critics have long
assumed to structure early US literary productions. Educated, thoughtful, and moderate, the Wielands seem the kind of stock out of which Hawthorne’s Custom-House
narrator and his ilk will spring. Intellectualism has made the Wielands so liberal in
their attitudes that they even welcome a Catholic into their midst. Catholicism, of
course, appeared in much early US discourse as a menacing force, a bearer of despotic
Secularization and American Literature
superstition and violence (Fenton; Franchot; Fessenden Culture; Griffin AntiCatholicism). And yet, when the Wielands encounter Carwin, a Catholic convert wandering around their homes, they welcome him. “It was not easy to reconcile his
conversion to the Romish faith,” Clara admits, “with those proofs of knowledge and
capacity that were exhibited by him on different occasions” (65). Nonetheless, Carwin
appeals to the Wielands, not because he shares their theological commitments but
because he is both articulate and mysterious. “All topics were handled by him with
skill, and without pedantry or affectation,” Clara notes, but she also labels Carwin
“inscrutable” and professes an inability to determine “whether his fellowship tended
to good or evil” (68, 73). A desire to understand, not convert, motivates the Wielands’
interactions with Carwin. They thus work to devise a set of questions in service of
that aim. Religious difference precludes neither friendship nor intellectual engagement; it operates, rather, as a premise for discussion and exploration.
Though the Wielands initially offer a picture of secular contentment, Brown’s novel
violently collapses the distinction between faith and reason to suggest that the turn
away from religion is not necessarily a turn toward enlightened bliss. Clara’s brother
may possess a mind “enriched by science,” but when he hears a disembodied voice
demand the sacrifice of his wife and their children, he complies. Testifying at his own
murder trial, Wieland reveals zeal previously unknown to his family members. “God
is the object of my supreme passion,” he explains; “I have thirsted for the knowledge
of his will” (158). Her brother’s quest for knowledge, Clara learns, all along has been
a quest for access to the divine. Indeed, Wieland’s testimony calls into question the
very distinction between empirical and religious truths. He lists the case’s facts: “You
know that they are dead, and you know that they were killed by me.” But these truths,
Wieland asserts, are insignificant. Asserting that everyone knows “the soundness of
his integrity, and the unchangeableness of his principles,” Wieland asks, “Think ye
that malice could have urged me to this deed?” (157–8). The past operates as proof
of Wieland’s purity of his motive. When the voice commanded, “In proof of thy faith,
render me thy wife,” Wieland argues, he had no choice but to obey: “the decree had
gone forth, and nothing remained but to execute it’” (160). Here, the line between
empiricism and superstition blurs, as Wieland has ostensibly gathered sensory proof
– a voice in the night – of God’s design. Only epistemological certainty and clear
thinking, he insists, could explain such brutality.
Certainty, however, proves impossible in Brown’s novel. In its refusal to grant narrative closure, Wieland does not merely present religion as a dormant force ready to
spring forth from seemingly secular Americans. It instead renders the “religious” and
the “not religious” indistinguishable by rendering all epistemologies suspicious.
Wieland offers many explanations for Wieland’s phantom voice, but none proves definitive. The court believes Wieland’s account but interprets his testimony as evidence of
“sudden madness” and thereby designates his own dysfunctional interior as the source
of the voice (170). Clara assigns a different origin to the voice when she discovers
Carwin to be a ventriloquist. But though he admits to many ventriloqiual exploits,
Elizabeth Fenton
Carwin insists, “I am not this villain” (189). Wieland believes Clara but deems “the
being whom thou callest Carwin . . . the incarnation of a daemon” (215). And even
when she herself hears the voice, Clara’s account of it defies interpretation. Her insistence that “Carwin’s agency was here easily recognized” is undercut by her simultaneous assertion that the voice is “louder than human organs could produce, shriller than
language can depict” (219). The voice, it seems, is most certainly human and most
certainly beyond the realm of human capability. Empirical knowledge, then, appears
no more convincing than revealed religion.
Wieland ultimately offers no satisfying solution to its own riddle of religious violence. It’s not that religion somehow overpowers reason; it’s that reason itself cannot
bring order to the novel’s events. Did Wieland really hear a voice? Did it emanate
from within his own mind, or was the source external? Did Carwin produce it, or
could it have been the voice of God? And what did Clara hear? Was it the same voice,
or something else entirely? In the end, Brown’s novel suggests, the answers to these
questions are less important than the fact of the questions themselves. “I care not from
what source these disasters have flowed,” Clara concludes, “it suffices that they have
swallowed up our hopes and our existence” (223). No longer interested in pursuing
an authentic or factual account of her brother’s actions, Clara focuses only on their
effects. What began as a story of secular progress, then, ends as one in which empiricism fails to resolve narrative dilemmas and religion remains a salient force – one that
may hold the key to Wieland’s actions but may just as easily be the product of a brilliant sleight of tongue – despite all claims to the contrary.
Writing at the close of the eighteenth century, Brown was an Anglo-American
novelist whose work supposedly inaugurated an increasingly secular US literary tradition. But as early as 1798, Wieland evinces a deep suspicion about the progress narrative that many critics have embraced. The reasons for this are potentially numerous.
Brown’s suspicion may have been personal, owing partly to the fact that when he was
a child, the Continental Congress’ ad hoc Committee on Spies produced a list of people
it deemed dangerous, all of whom were Quakers and one of whom was Brown’s father.
Viewed as enemies of the emerging state because of their religious commitment to
pacifism and their refusal to take oaths of loyalty, these Quakers were forcibly exiled
to Pennsylvania by some of the same men who would produce the nation’s founding
documents – including future President John Adams. Peter Kafer’s study of the
Continental Congress’ terrorizing of Quakers suggests that Brown learned an early
lesson about the violent limits of supposedly moderate religion. And he suggests,
convincingly, that it is no accident that Brown sent a copy of Wieland to then Vice
President Thomas Jefferson, “a deist who designed his Monticello home as the
American epitome of classical proportion” (xi). Described thusly, Jefferson, architect
of the Declaration of Independence, sounds a lot like Wieland himself. Brown’s novel,
then, might be read as a warning to a nation quick to congratulate itself for its religious liberties while forgetting its past persecutions. But whatever Brown’s particular
motives, his novel presents secularization as a dangerous fantasy rather than an inevitable step along the path to modernity.
Secularization and American Literature
Prophecy and Sacred American History in The Book of Mormon
In 1830, Joseph Smith, Jr., convinced a printer in Palmyra, New York, to publish
what he alleged was a history of ancient civilizations that migrated from what is now
the Middle East to the Americas. A purported record of the first Americans, The Book
of Mormon centers on two main stories: that of the Jaredites, who fled west in the
aftermath of the destruction of the Tower of Babel, and that of the Nephites and
Lamanites, splinter sects of a tribe that departed from Jerusalem in 600 BCE. The
text, Smith claimed, was a translation of metal plates to which angels had led him in
upstate New York. Smith said that he spent years attempting to recover the plates,
but it was only in 1827 that God finally allowed him to unearth the stone box containing them and take them home. Though the plates were inscribed in an unfamiliar
language – “reformed Egyptian” – Smith asserted that he had deciphered them using
a “seer stone.” Like the Bible, the document etched into the plates was ostensibly
composed of writings by many authors working across centuries. Smith called his
translation The Book of Mormon, because, he said, the prophet-historian Mormon had
been the plates’ chief editor. The son of impoverished farmers, Smith had spent his
youth hoping to improve his lot by finding either buried treasures or religious enlightenment. The plates suggested that he had found both. The Book of Mormon sold slowly
at first, but by the time Smith died in 1844 (at the hands of an angry mob), he was
the founder of Mormonism, a new and growing American religion.
It is perhaps not surprising that when The Book of Mormon first appeared, it attracted
the ire of prominent Protestant clergymen. Alexander Campbell, founder of the
Churches of Christ and a central figure in the Second Great Awakening, published
Delusions: An Analysis of the Book of Mormon (1832), a volume intended to “notice the
most recent and the most impudent delusion which has appeared in our time” (6).
Campbell’s concerns were theological, to be sure, but they were also literary, as his
critique centers on the form of Smith’s text as much as its content. Summarizing The
Book of Mormon’s plot, Campbell begins, “This romance – but this is for it a name too
innocent – begins with the religious adventures of one Lehi” (6). Campbell’s implication is that Smith’s book cannot possibly be a sacred text, because, in its tales of daring
escapades in distant locales, it follows the conventions of the era’s popular fiction.
Smith’s Lehi, it seems, is little more than an Ivanhoe. Despite the fact that the Bible
itself includes many stories of adventure, Campbell assumes The Book of Mormon’s
generic traits to be proof of its profanity. He also takes issue with the book’s syntax.
“It is patched up and cemented,” he writes, “with ‘And it came to pass’ – ‘I saith unto
you’ – ‘He saith unto him’ – and all the King James’ haths, dids, and doths – in the
lowest imitation of the common version” (15). Here, again, it seems that Smith has
adhered too carefully to convention. The Book of Mormon’s English closely resembles
that of the King James Bible; Campbell thus suspects it to be a deliberate fraud.
Smith’s work, he argues, poses a threat to Protestant Christianity because its mastery
of the romance genre makes it appealing, while its deployment of “sacred” language
may fool undiscerning readers into thinking it authentic.
Elizabeth Fenton
Though nineteenth-century critics approached Smith’s text as a literary as well as
theological artifact, critics of our own age have all but ignored The Book of Mormon.
As Paul Gutjahr notes in his exceptional study of the book’s place within early US
print culture, “Where the book is studied, it is largely examined by those with some
connection to its religious tradition or by scholars of American religious history”
(276). A simple MLA search bears out Gutjahr’s point: “Joseph Smith” yields fiftyeight results, whereas “James Fenimore Cooper,” Smith’s close contemporary, yields
over a thousand. Despite the ever-widening definition of “text” in literary studies, and
despite the fact that The Book of Mormon gave rise to one of the most successful and
lasting “homegrown” US religions, Smith’s work remains a largely unexamined literary phenomenon. But The Book of Mormon, whatever else it may be, is a work of literature. Smith controlled many aspects of his book’s production, and, as Gutjahr shows,
he designed it to look like the bibles already on the shelves in people’s homes. Leatherbound and impressed with gold lettering on its spine, the book looked and felt significant. Produced during a period of debate over whether Christians should read
bibles that faithfully translated original documents or those that appeared in idiomatic
English, The Book of Mormon, Gutjahr argues, offered readers “a new sacred text translated directly from original source material” (284). As I will demonstrate through
analysis of its first two books, it also offered readers a narrative that infused the
American landscape with divine significance and thereby produced a history that
merges the sacred with the profane.
The Book of Mormon converts American history into Christian mythology mainly
through the mode of prophecy. Prophecy, as Paul Ricoeur has argued, is a complicated
form of narration, because “God is named in a double first person, as the voice of
another in my word” (225). Although The Book of Mormon opens with first-person
narration, as Nephi describes a series of revelations, the voice that speaks is often
configured as God’s voice through Nephi. Smith’s text uses this device to predict its
own nineteenth-century publication and reception. Nephi’s brother Joseph describes
his interaction with God in this way:
Thus saith the Lord unto me: a choice seer will I raise up out of the fruit of thy
loins. . . . And unto him will I give commandment, that he shall do a work for the fruit
of thy loins, his brethren, which shall be of great worth unto them, even of the bringing
of them to the knowledge of the covenants I have made with thy fathers. (66)
For readers uncertain of the seer’s identity, the text provides a pretty clear clue: “And
his name shall be called after me,” Joseph says, “and it shall be after the name of
his father” (67). Suddenly, the “Joseph” and the “Jr.” in “Joseph Smith, Jr.” take on
more than familial significance. The Book of Mormon also anticipates the criticism it
will face from people such as Campbell. “And because my words shall hiss forth,”
God tells Nephi, “many of the Gentiles shall say: A Bible, a Bible, we have got a
Bible, and there cannot be any more Bible” (115). Having foretold its own existence
and preemptively refuted its criticisms, The Book of Mormon lays claim to a truth
Secularization and American Literature
ostensibly as divine as it is tautological. Its very existence proves it to be divinely
Through prophetic narration, Smith presents the history of the Americas as a foregone and divinely inspired conclusion. In its initial books, Smith’s text is primarily
concerned with presenting indigenous Americans as the product of an ancient Israeli
migration. “And it came to pass that the Lord spake unto me,” Nephi writes of his
prophetic vision, saying, “Thou shalt construct a ship, after the manner which I shall
shew thee, that I may carry thy people across these waters” (42). Though Nephi narrates, God speaks. And what God decrees sets the stage for the Americas’ future:
Nephi and his family will form the genealogical foundation for the western hemisphere. The actual presence of Native Americans in Smith’s antebellum United States
might have suggested the text’s veracity – indigenous people become an effect imagined to prove a cause. This is what Ricoeur refers to as “the paradox of a prophecy
heard and received post eventum”: Nephi sees the future, but to Smith’s contemporaries
that future is a past that has produced their present (264n3). New research in genetics
suggests The Book of Mormon’s account to be implausible, as Native Americans’ lineages can be traced to Asia rather than the Middle East (see Southerton’s work for more
information on this topic). I would contend, though, that for literary critics it should
be less important to interrogate the book’s claim to authenticity than to explore its
construction and effects. As a composite work composed of several books supposedly
produced at different times, The Book of Mormon is able to narrate both predictions
and their fulfillments. The prophecy-as-narrative mode thus allows Smith’s text to
present the hemisphere’s history as teleology. Secularism plays no part in The Book of
Mormon’s lexicon; there is no distinction between the sacred and the profane in this
imagining of the Americas.
Although Smith was a contemporary of Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Ralph
Waldo Emerson – indeed, Smith and Emerson began their careers in the same decade
– he rarely appears in critical accounts of what F.O. Matthiessen famously dubbed the
“American Renaissance.” Donald Pease reminds us that the phrase “American Renaissance
designates a moment in the nation’s history when the ‘classics,’ works ‘original’
enough to lay claim to an ‘authentic’ beginning for America’s literary history, appeared”
(vii). Until very recently, Smith’s work has been absent from even the many revisions
of Matthiessen’s admittedly limited formulation, as The Book of Mormon’s overt religiosity has seemed to distinguish it from the emerging “canon” of US literature. But
as new efforts to contextualize Smith have demonstrated, his writing shares concerns
as well as narrative techniques with that of the era’s most recognizable literary figures
(Neilsen and Givens). Richard Brodhead, for example, shows that, although their aims
differ, Smith and Emerson share an investment in prophecy. Noting that Emerson’s
1838 “Address Delivered before the Senior Class” at Harvard Divinity School asserts
that “Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets,” Brodhead links Emerson’s
notion of individuality to the prophetic logic of God inhabiting and moving through
the self. Within Emerson’s work, Brodhead suggests, “Jesus’ claim to be the Christ
or the Messiah was never meant to be exclusionary,” and the role of the spiritual leader
Elizabeth Fenton
is to be “a proud enjoyer of access to the divine who awakens others to their own
comparable powers.” This view accounts for Emerson’s command to the divinity students to “cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity”
(Brodhead, 22–3). Discover the divine within, in other words, and you will be well
suited for ministering to others. Smith makes what Brodhead terms a “powerful
gesture of literalization” in his treatment of prophecy – after all, he purported to
“acquaint men at first hand” with actual holy texts – but The Book of Mormon nonetheless demonstrates the same kind of longing for prophetic privilege as Emerson’s
“Address.” It is thus possible to read The Book of Mormon as an expression of desire for
individual, unmediated contact with a divine source – a yearning not unlike that
found in the emerging transcendentalist tradition.
Although Smith’s work lays claim to divine revelation, it often evinces interest
in issues far more secular than those at play in Emerson’s Divinity School address.
The Book of Mormon’s early books primarily engage questions regarding the status of
Native Americans. Through Nephi’s revelations, European colonization and its effects
become evidence of God’s plan for the region. “And it came to pass that I beheld
the spirit of God, that it wrought upon other Gentiles,” Nephi writes, “and they
went forth out of captivity, upon the many waters” (29). Neither trade routes nor
international politics motivate the various colonial contingents. Rather, it is divine
inspiration, as is what happens next. “I beheld the wrath of God,” Nephi explains,
“that it was upon the seed of my brethren; and they were scattered before the Gentiles
and were smitten” (29). Here, the violence that Europeans and Anglo-Americans
enact upon indigenous Americans appears to be the fulfillment of a prophecy made
thousands of years ago about a divine fiat that predates time itself. Within this
interpretive framework, everything from Cortez’s destruction of the Aztecs, to the
Pequot Wars, to Jackson-era policies of Indian removal seems not only justifiable
but also unpreventable. God shows Nephi the wrath his brothers’ descendants will
incur before Nephi has even built the ship that will carry them west, but for antebellum readers Smith’s narrative confirms colonial history. Prophecy makes it possible
for Smith to present Native Americans as Milton’s Adam: always already destined
to fall.
As many prophecies do, Nephi’s plates not only describe what has happened, but
also predict what remains to come. Nephi declares that the Gentiles will eventually
“carry [The Book of Mormon] forth unto the remnant of our seed. And then shall the
remnant of our seed know concerning us, how that we came out from Jerusalem, and
that they are descendants of the Jews” (117). The basic premise of Smith’s work did
not shock many of his contemporaries. As Jared Farmer notes, “Theories about the
Hebraic peopling of the Americas – the result of the wandering of the Lost Tribes or
the Scattering of Babel – were prevalent and uncontroversial” in the 1830s (56).
Indeed, while Campbell complained that Smith too carefully copied the style of the
King James Bible, some critics lambasted The Book of Mormon for cribbing from this
common theory of indigenous genealogy. But Smith’s work differed from others of
the period, in that it posited a future in which Native Americans would assume their
Secularization and American Literature
place as God’s chosen people and build the New Jerusalem for Christ’s return. “Joseph
Smith reserved a paradoxical place for Indians,” Farmer writes, “They were cursed to
be inferior yet promised to be superior” (57). In Smith’s words, “their scales of darkness shall begin to fall from their eyes; and many generations shall not pass away
among them, save they shall be a white and delightsome people” (117). The ultimate
future Nephi prophesizes, then, is one in which God will eliminate racial difference
through revelation. The unfulfilled prophecy becomes as significant as those fulfilled
within The Book of Mormon, because it allows antebellum readers to justify, even
embrace, the status of the nation’s indigenous residents.
The Book of Mormon’s 1830 title page announces it to be proof of “the ETERNAL
GOD manifesting Himself unto all nations.” From its outset, then, Smith’s book
appears as a sacred artifact and a religious text. Despite its claims to universality and
timeless divinity, however, The Book of Mormon is deeply concerned with one nation
– the United States – and its narrative of an ostensibly sacred past resonates with
nineteenth-century politics. Smith’s book does not merely invite readers to interpret
American history through a biblical lens. Rather, it presents American history as a
Bible. Drawing on the language of the King James Bible and the trope of prophecy,
Smith offers a sacred account of the US landscape and places it within a divine teleology. That teleology, though, centers on the place of indigenous peoples within the
United States and offers a justification for the continued subjugation of Native
Americans. In this way, Smith’s text is arguably far more “secular” than Emerson’s
Divinity School address. Divinity may become a function of the individual in Emerson’s
work – “Obey thyself,” he writes, “That which shows God in me, fortifies me” (115)
– but his 1838 lecture is nonetheless primarily concerned with spiritual fulfillment.
“Faith makes us,” Emerson asserts, “and not we it” (126). Smith’s work, on the other
hand, purports to be the word of God while also bearing a striking investment in the
political and racial climates of the antebellum United States. Rather than standing as
distinct cultural positions, then, the sacred and the secular merge in The Book of
Mormon, as the US present becomes the product of a holy past, and the nation’s future
appears to bear political as well as spiritual import.
Begetting and Believing: Du Bois’s Genealogy
“You misjudge us because you do not know us,” W.E.B. Du Bois asserts in “The
Talented Tenth,” his contribution to Booker T. Washington’s 1903 work, The Negro
Problem (34). In what follows, Du Bois offers white readers a kind of introduction to
African Americans through brief descriptions of historical figures. Though his essay
begins with an assertion that the “Negro race is going to be saved . . . by its exceptional men” (33), Du Bois’s list of remarkable people begins with a woman. “In the
colonial days came Phillis Wheatley and Paul Cuffe,” he writes, “striving against the
bars of prejudice” (36). What follows is essentially a timeline measured with individuals rather than dates:
Elizabeth Fenton
Benjamin Banneker, the almanac maker . . . then came Dr. James Durham . . . and Lemuel
Haynes . . . there was Ira Aldridge . . . there was that Voice crying in the Wilderness,
David Walker . . . there was Purvis and Remond, Pennington and Highland Garnet,
Sojourner Truth and Alexander Crummel, and above all Frederick Douglass. (36–40)
And the list goes on. “Who are to-day guiding the work of the Negro people?”
Du Bois asks. His answer: “The ‘exceptions’ of course” (43). In making his case for
education as the means of improving conditions for black Americans, Du Bois lists
every renowned “exception” he can muster: “Langston, Bruce and Elliott, Greener,
Williams, and Payne” (42). One after another, Du Bois’s examples form a train of
resistance and triumph. Through his genealogy, readers encounter an American history
that privileges the slave who asked Thomas Jefferson to keep his revolutionary promises over Jefferson himself. Such history, Du Bois argues, forms the roadmap for the
future; as prominent individuals have led the way in the past, so will a new “aristocracy
of talent and character” elevate an entire community and, indeed, nation (45).
Although Du Bois’s aim in “The Talented Tenth” is ostensibly secular – his plan
for the advancement of black Americans is social and political, not necessarily spiritual – his genealogy has religious roots. In choosing Wheatley as his point of origin,
Du Bois conjures African American literary history, to be sure, but he also evokes
a theological tradition. The first African American woman to publish a volume of
poetry, Wheatley actively engaged with the New England clergymen of her day,
many of whom were abolitionists. For Wheatley, James Levernier reminds us, “politics and theology were inextricably intertwined” (23). Thus, Wheatley’s elegy to the
itinerant minister George Whitefield presents religious conversion as a means of
transcending racial difference. “Take him, ye Africans,” Wheatley’s speaker imagines
Whitefield to say, “he longs for you, / Impartial Savior is his title due” (22, emphasis
in original). The “he” in question is, of course, a Jesus who favors religious over
racial identity. “Wash’d in the fountains of redeeming blood,” the poem asserts, “Ye
shall be sons, and kings, and priests to God” (22). “Washing,” here, is baptism,
something Wheatley presents as a means of transcending racial difference throughout
her canon. Her perhaps most famous poem, “On Being Brought from Africa to
America,” concludes, “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, / May be
refin’d, and join th’angelic train” (17). With this, Wheatley both acknowledges and
undercuts a common, racist interpretation of the biblical story of Cain and Abel,
which configured blackness as divine retribution for the first fratricide. Playing on
the homophones “Cain” and “cane,” the poem presents conversion as a lightening
process similar to the refinement of sugar. Whiteness, then, becomes less a function
of racial identification than of devotion to God. Adélékè Adéèkò has convincingly
argued that religion offers Wheatley a means of critiquing slavery but “avoid[ing]
maledictory tropes as she articulates her desires not in opposition to her masters but
to untrue Christians” (2). As the point of origin for Du Bois’s genealogy, then,
Wheatley inaugurates a history of African America in which the social realm is
necessarily religious.
Secularization and American Literature
Christianity is not merely the starting point for Du Bois; it forms the backbone of
his survey. This is particularly evident in its positioning of Walker as “that Voice
crying in the Wilderness.” Du Bois’s characterization is actually a citation of a set of
citations. Each of the New Testament gospels refers to John the Baptist, the figure
who prefigures Jesus, as “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” (see Mark 1:3,
Matt. 3:3, Luke 3:4, and John 1:23). This phrasing reiterates that of the Hebrew
Bible’s book of Isaiah, which refers to “the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness,”
calling believers to “make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isaiah 40:3).
The repetition of Isaiah allows the gospels to fulfill the earlier book’s prophecy and
in turn imbues the story of John the Baptist with prophetic significance. If John is
the one of whom Isaiah speaks, then John’s own cry in the wilderness merits serious
attention. In Du Bois’s text, then, Walker takes the form of a nineteenth-century
prophet, but he predicts racial upheaval rather than religious revival. Du Bois reproduces a section of Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World (1829), which
demands of whites, “Is not God a God of justice to all his creatures . . . does not the
blood of our fathers and of us, their children, cry aloud to the Lord of Sabaoth against
you?” (Du Bois, 39). The voice that cries in this wilderness, then, is a harbinger of
divine vengeance. Thus, although Du Bois’s essay positions Walker as Wheatley’s
intellectual heir, it also positions him as one in a line of biblical types stretching back
through the gospels to Isaiah. This is a historical trajectory Walker himself might
have appreciated, since his own work combines sacred and profane history to assert
that “the condition of the Israelites was better under the Egyptians than ours is under
the whites” (12). For Walker as well as Du Bois, the history of African American
resistance to slavery is as hallowed as it is literary.
In assembling his genealogy, Du Bois highlights the interplay between African
American social justice movements and religious thought. He thus traces a historical
line that is not necessarily bound up in the secularization narrative. But perhaps even
more importantly, the genealogy itself – the very frame within which Du Bois situates
his argument – has religious significance. Susan Griffin recently has reminded us that
“the genealogy is, of course, deeply, typically biblical” (“Threshing” 454). The assumption that lineage matters, that there is interpretive payoff in knowing who came
before, lies at the heart of Christian interpretations of the Hebrew Bible as well as
the New Testament. Consider the opening verses of the Gospel of Matthew:
The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob . . . and Jesse begat David the king . . . and
Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.
(Matt. 1:1–16)
Genealogy forges the link between Genesis and Jesus in Matthew’s account; the book
tracks a history of bodies rather than events, and individuals form the nodes of a sacred
timeline. No wonder Smith was so concerned with charting ancestry in The Book of
Mormon – and no wonder Wieland focuses so heavily on the son’s inheritance of the
Elizabeth Fenton
father’s religious legacy. As Griffin notes, the discipline of literary studies, too, often
takes genealogy for granted as a matrix of meaning. From Miller’s “From Edwards to
Emerson,” to Brooks’s “From Edwards to Baldwin” – a genealogy in its own right –
literary analyses (including my own) have configured history as a chronology of
individuals. Griffin recommends not that we cease to think genealogically, but that
we “become more conscious” of the assumptions buried in our reading practices
(“Threshing” 454). This would make it possible also to see the religious forms and
frames at work in seemingly secular texts. In tracing a line from Wheatley to
Du Bois’s contemporaries, Du Bois does not merely highlight the long history of
racial oppression and resistance in the United States – he also produces a narrative
resonant with Christian significance. As Jesse begat David, so did Wheatley beget
Douglass, and so will Du Bois and his contemporaries beget a new “talented tenth.”
The texts I have assembled may appear to have little in common; not only are they
generically distinct, but also they serve different aesthetic and cultural aims. Wieland
does not purport to be a sacred text any more than The Book of Mormon proposes a
plan to improve the lives of African Americans. My goal, then, is not to trace out a
genealogy of my own from Brown, via Smith, to Du Bois. Indeed, the chronological
organization of this chapter is somewhat arbitrary, although I do wish to show that
sequence need not translate into the kind of progress narrative at the heart of traditional accounts of secularization. Smith produced his oeuvre after Brown, but that
fact alone does not make The Book of Mormon more (or, for that matter, less) “secular”
than Wieland. For all of their differences, however, each of these texts in its own way
highlights the perpetually shifting but always contingent relationship between the
“religious” and the “secular.” Wieland is a gothic novel that collapses the distinction
between empiricism and revelation. Smith’s text deploys familiar narrative techniques
and tropes in outlining its sacred history. And Du Bois’s genealogy evokes a biblical
interpretive frame in the service of a political argument. Read separately, these works
call into question the distinction between religious and nonreligious modes of writing.
Read in concert, they offer an opportunity to rethink critical narratives that position
secularism as that which follows after religion and progressively eliminates it from
US culture and its literary productions.
When considering the question of religion’s place in US literature, it is important
to remember that “religion,” like “secularism,” is a signifier often left to stand for
many things – experiences, beliefs, practices, institutions, and forms – some of which
never announce themselves as “religious.” So while it may be true that certain veins
of Anglo-American literature relinquish particular doctrinal claims over time, religion
as such does not simply fall away from or make room for literature in the nineteenthcentury United States. Neither, for that matter, does literature wholly turn away from
religion. Indeed, the line between religion and literature, as discursive modes, is often
murky at best. Even Hawthorne’s Custom-House narrator, so far removed from those
New England Puritans, experiences “a sensation not altogether physical, yet almost
so, as of burning heat” when he holds the scarlet letter (43). When we stop expecting
religion always to herald its own presence, we will be better equipped to recognize
Secularization and American Literature
its impact on and relationship to literary productions. In a similar vein, when we stop
expecting the secular to operate merely as the absence of religion, we will begin, in
Fessenden’s words, “seeing secularism,” recognizing its contingencies, its pressures, and
its function within narrative works (“The Secular” 634). The American literary landscape is not a space in which the religious and the nonreligious coexist; instead, it is
a space in which the boundary between religion and secularism is continually contested, renegotiated, and reimagined.
References and Further Reading
Adéèkò, Adélékè. “Writing Africa under the
Shadow of Slavery: Quaque, Wheatley, and
Crowther.” Research in African Literatures 40.4
(2009): 1–24.
Anidjar, Gil. Semites: Race, Religion, Literature.
Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007.
Asad, Talal. Formations of the Secular: Christianity,
Islam, Modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford
University Press, 2003.
Brodhead, Richard. “Prophets in America circa
1830: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nat Turner, and
Joseph Smith.” In Joseph Smith, Jr.: Reappraisals
after Two Centuries (pp. 13–30). Eds. Reid L.
Neilsen and Terryl L. Givens. Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2009.
Brooks, Joanna. “From Edwards to Baldwin:
Heterodoxy, Discontinuity, and New Narratives
of American Religious-literary History.” Early
American Literature 45.2 (2010): 425–40.
Brown, Charles Brockden. Wieland, or the Transformation: An American Tale, and Other Stories. Ed.
Caleb Crain. New York: The Modern Library,
Cady, Linell. “Secularism, Secularizing, and
Secularization: Reflections on Stout’s Democracy
and Tradition.” Journal of the American Academy of
Religion 73.3 (2005): 871–85.
Campbell, Alexander. Delusions: An Analysis of the
Book of Mormon. Boston: Benjamin H. Greene,
Douglas, Ann. The Feminization of American Culture.
New York: Knopf, 1977.
Du Bois, W.E.B. “The Talented Tenth.” In The
Negro Problem (pp. 31–76). Ed. Booker T.
Washington. New York: James Pott & Co.,
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “An Address Delivered
before the Senior Class in Divinity College,
Cambridge 1838.” In Ralph Waldo Emerson:
Selected Essays (pp. 107–28). Ed. Larzer Ziff.
New York: Penguin, 1982.
Farmer, Jared. On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians,
and the American Landscape. Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 2008.
Fenton, Elizabeth. Religious Liberties: AntiCatholicism and Liberal Democracy in NineteenthCentury US Literature and Culture. Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2011.
Fessenden, Tracy. Culture and Redemption: Religion,
the Secular, and American Literature. Princeton,
NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.
Fessenden, Tracy. “ ‘The Secular’ as Opposed to
What?” New Literary History 38.4 (2007):
Franchot, Jenny. Roads to Rome: The Antebellum
Protestant Encounter with Catholicism. Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1994.
Gauchet, Marcel. The Disenchantment of the World:
A Political History of Religion. Trans. Oscar
Burge. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Press, 1997.
Griffin, Susan. Anti-Catholicism and NineteenthCentury Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2004.
Griffin, Susan. “Threshing Floors: A Response to
Joanna Brooks.” American Literary History 22.2
(2010): 454–8.
Gutjahr, Paul. “The Golden Bible in the Bible’s
Golden Age: The Book of Mormon and Antebellum
Print Culture.” American Transcendental Quarterly
12.4 (1998): 275–93.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Ed. Ross
C. Murfin. Boston: Bedford St. Martin’s, 1991.
Kafer, Peter. Charles Brockden Brown’s Revolution and
the Birth of American Gothic. Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.
Elizabeth Fenton
Kaufmann, Michael. “The Religious, the Secular,
and Literary Studies: Rethinking the
Secularization Narrative in Histories of the
Profession.” New Literary History 38.4 (2007):
Kiser, Michael. “Emersonian Terrorism: John
Brown, Islam, and Postsecular Violence.”
American Literature 82.2 (2010): 333–60.
Levernier, James. “Phillis Wheatley and the New
England Clergy.” Early American Literature 26.1
(1991): 21–38.
Matthiessen, F.O. American Renaissance: Art and
Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1941.
Miller, Perry. “From Edwards to Emerson.” In
Errand into the Wilderness (pp. 184–203).
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,
Neilsen, Reid L., and Terryl L. Givens. Joseph
Smith, Jr.: Reappraisals after Two Centuries.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Pease, Donald. “Introduction.” In The American
Renaissance Reconsidered (pp. vii–ix). Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.
Pecora, Vincent. Secularization and Cultural
Criticism: Religion, Nation, and Modernity.
Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2006.
Ricoeur, Paul. Figuring the Sacred: Religion,
Literature, and Imagination. Minneapolis, MN:
Augsburg Fortress, 1995.
Smith, Joseph, Jr. The Book of Mormon: An Account
Written by the Hand of Mormon, upon Plates Taken
from the Plates of Nephi. Palmyra, NY: E.B.
Grandin, 1830.
Southerton, Simon G. Losing a Lost Tribe: Native
Americans, DNA, and the Mormon Church. Salt
Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 2004.
Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 2007.
Walker, David. Appeal, in Four Articles, Along with
a Preamble, to the Colored Citizens of the World, but
in Particular and Very Expressly to Those in the
United States. 3rd ed. Boston: David Walker,
Wheatley, Phillis. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious
and Moral. Denver, CO: W.H. Lawrence, 1887.
Literatures of Technology,
Technologies of Literature
Paul Gilmore
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, literature and technology often appear
fundamentally at odds with one another. The supposedly transcendent works of the
greatest writers to which we devote extended study and time can seem incomparable
to the ever new electronic gadgets speeding up the world, enabling us to work and
communicate more quickly and efficiently. Yet both terms in my title – “literature”
and “technology” – only took on their current meanings less than two hundred years
ago, and their parallel development reveals the continuing tensions between the two
areas of study and practice. The career and writings of Jacob Bigelow, whose Elements
of Technology (1829) is often cited as introducing the word “technology” into modern
usage, begin to suggest the deep interconnections and divergent paths of literature
and technology. Bigelow’s first publications were belletristic, consisting of a poem on
commencing his career as a physician (“A Poem on Professional Life” [1811]) and a
satiric “historical romance” attacking President Madison’s conduct of the War of 1812
(The War of the Gulls [1812]). Subsequently, most of his work focused either on medical
matters, specifically arguing for the need to let nature run its course with many diseases, or on American botany. Comprising a series of lectures that Bigelow delivered
as professor of material medica at Harvard, Elements of Technology epitomizes this eclecticism, as the lectures maintain the classic connection between the mechanical and
fine arts, including chapters on “Sculpture” and “Designing and Painting” alongside
those on “Arts of Locomotion” and “Elements of Machinery.” The useful and the fine
arts thus both come under his rubric of “technology” – that is, “the principles, processes, and nomenclatures of the more conspicuous arts, particularly those which
involve applications of science, and which may be considered useful by promoting the
benefit of society” (v).
A Companion to American Literary Studies, First Edition. Edited by Caroline F. Levander,
Robert S. Levine.
© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2011 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Paul Gilmore
By the time he delivered his Address on the Limits of Education at the still-new
Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1865, Bigelow seems to have accepted the
rift between the fine and useful arts that his earlier volume largely avoided and that
has become essential to modern conceptions of literature and technology. In particular,
he suggests, in a version of what David Nye has called the American technological
sublime, that technology has displaced art: “Poetry, art and fiction have sought for
the beautiful and sublime in creations which are imaginary and often untrue . . . in
the present age fact has overtaken fancy and passed beyond it,” as railroad trains, ocean
steamships, and electric telegraphs fulfill “the appetite for wonder” (22). Where technology and professional specialization in general have advanced human happiness,
technological developments in publishing have “inundate[d]” the world with more,
often useless information, including the “perishable” fictions – which Bigelow equates
with the “pseudo-sciences” – that now dominate “modern literature” (11–12). Elements
of Technology hints at this distinction between the fine and mechanical arts in terms
of historical progress. Classical Greece and Rome largely perfected the imitative arts,
“those which required only boldness and beauty of design, or perseverance in execution”; but now new technologies have enabled modern humans to “extend the dominion of mankind over nature” (3–4). While technology is progressive and materially
useful, art is natural and eternal. “A musical ear, an artistic eye and a poetic sense are
not to be created in any man” (Address 26), but are merely useful in allowing man to
“recreate himself” through “intercourse with congenial minds, and at times with the
ideal world” (27).
Bigelow’s comments in these two works nicely incorporate some of the central
themes and tensions running through accounts of technology and literature over the
past two centuries. From one perspective, technology and literature are linked, parallel
modes for the human remaking of the world, an idea captured in Martin Heidegger’s
attention to the shared etymology of techné and poiésis. Yet literature, like all art, seems
distinctly different from technology, for while literature, according to many accounts,
speaks to either an innate human nature or an ideal realm of imagination, technology
progressively transforms the physical world. As Bigelow’s comments on changes in
print technology hint, however, technological changes transform literature itself and
its production, circulation, and reading. It is only with those technological changes,
in fact, that a modern notion of the literary as a special province emerges. At the same
time, as Bigelow points out, “The arts of writing and printing, although comparatively simple in their processes, are superior to most other arts in the importance of
their consequences” (Elements 5). Arguably, the inventions of written language 5,000
years ago and of the printing press more than 500 years ago constitute the most significant technological breakthroughs in human history.
Literature, from this perspective, becomes another product of industrialized technology. But because of its special relationship to technology as (in effect) technology
par excellence, literature has the capacity to wrench open our understandings of technology in ways akin to Walter Benjamin’s account of film “burst[ing] this prisonworld asunder” (236) by revealing “new structural formations of the subject” (237).
Literatures of Technology
Literature and technology linked together thus have the capacity to generate new
forms of self-making, what Michel Foucault calls technologies of the self. In what
follows, I use Bigelow as a point of departure for illustrating the dynamic relationship
between technology and American literature. Focusing on the long nineteenth century,
I draw on Heidegger, Benjamin, and Foucault to explore how conceptions of technology as dehumanizing, empowering, and/or revolutionizing the self take on varying
degrees of prominence with the development of new technologies, their incorporation
into industrialized capitalism, and the coterminous transformation of literary production. I conclude by suggesting how these modes for understanding technology shaped
twentieth-century American literature and by reflecting on the current digital and
electronic reconfiguration of our sense of technology and literature.
Emerson’s Question Concerning Technology
Published less than a decade after Bigelow’s Elements of Technology, Ralph Waldo
Emerson’s Nature (1836) has often been read as heralding a truly American literature
based in the idea of the United States as, in Perry Miller’s phrase, “Nature’s nation.”
In many ways, Emerson echoes Thomas Carlyle’s romantic critique of the era as the
mechanical age. In “The American Scholar,” for example, he disparages the division
of labor, worrying that humans have become indistinguishable from their tools: “Man
is thus metamorphosed into a thing, into many things…. The priest becomes a form;
the attorney, a statute-book; the mechanic, a machine; the sailor, a rope of a ship”
(Essays 54). Yet despite his frequent questioning of material improvements, Emerson’s
antebellum oeuvre engages to a surprising extent and in surprisingly positive ways
with the new technologies of the era. Alongside a romantic distrust of technological
improvement as addressing the merely physical, Emerson also echoes a republican
faith in technology’s capacity to liberate the world and empower the self, while anticipating a modernist perspective oscillating between aesthetic withdrawal and the
recognition of the deep interconnection between modern technology and art.
Nature begins by articulating the essential and eternal condition of the self, the
relationship between “Me” and “Not Me” (8). Yet in the “Idealism” section, Emerson
invokes the railroad – the machine that epitomized the mechanical age – to describe
this relationship, declaring that traveling by train reveals “the difference between the
observer and the spectacle, – between man and nature. Hence arises a pleasure mixed
with awe; I may say, a low degree of the sublime is felt.” He continues by connecting
this sublime pleasure with the work of the poet: “In a higher manner, the poet communicates the same pleasure…. He unfixes the land and the sea . . . tosses the creation
like a bauble from hand to hand, and uses it to embody any caprice of thought” (34–5).
For Emerson, new technologies approximate the poet’s dominion over nature. Yet this
sublime pleasure derives not from the mind’s dominance over nature alone but from
both the ecstatic fusion of the self with nature and the revelation of the self ’s detachment (the Me) from nature (the Not Me), a paradox best rendered in the famous
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transparent eyeball passage from the first section of Nature: “I become a transparent
eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through
me; I am part or particle of God” (10). Even as the I becomes nothing but a vehicle
for the universal being or a part of God, the repetition of “I” insistently reiterates the
unceasing presence of that very I. By similarly disrupting our normal way of seeing,
by unfixing the world, technologies like the railroad forcefully materialize this
We can turn to Martin Heidegger to help clarify this ambivalence toward technology as both rendering the self a machine and exemplifying the human imaginative
capacity to reshape the world. Heidegger is often read as one of the most profound
philosophical critics of technology, yet he argues that the possible redemption from
technology derives from its essential and deep connection to art. In “The Question
Concerning Technology” (Basic Writings), Heidegger denounces the fact that “we
remain unfree and chained to technology” (287), but discounts descriptions of technology as merely instrumental. Instead, building on the connection in classical Greek
between techné and poiésis as modes for revealing truth, he concludes that techné “is
something poetic” (294), its essence lying not “in making and manipulating” but in
“revealing” (295). Both poetry and technology reveal a new truth about the world, a
new way of envisioning the human relationship to nature. But where poiésis reveals
by “bringing-forth” (296), by uncovering the human relationship to the world through
beauty, and by treating the world as other – the Not Me – modern technology treats
the world, including humans, as a “standing-reserve” to be regulated and ordered.
Heidegger denominates the chief danger of modern technology as “enframing,” by
which he means the predetermined engagement of the self with the world, for the
world “no longer stands over against us as object” (298), but only as a resource waiting
to be ordered and utilized (301–3). In poiésis, the human interacts with the world
through a creative process of give and take; conversely, modern technology attempts
simply to act on the world for its own ends. Yet the poetic encounter with the world
has a logical and temporal priority to modern technology’s will to dominate. The
world first presents itself as something to be determined by human consciousness (the
poet’s ability to toss the world like a bauble) before humans attempt to use technology
to render it merely instrumental to their own ends. This point leads to Heidegger’s
contention that the essence of technology is not technological, that it lies not in
making and manipulating but rather precedes technology and emerges directly from
the human confrontation with the world. Heidegger then locates a “saving power”
(314) in a realm “that is, on the one hand, akin to the essence of technology and, on
the other, fundamentally different from it,” the realm of art (317). This is because
art, like technology, uncovers the relationship between the self and the world through
the production of a truth; but without preordaining that truth’s use, it can act as a
counter to modern technology’s instrumental determinism, revealing technology’s
potential indeterminacy.
Even as he also distinguishes art and technology, Emerson similarly suggests that
art and technology emerge from a common human impulse to shape the world: “I
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love the music of the water-wheel; I value the railway. . . . There is in each of these
works an act of invention, an intellectual step, or short series of steps taken” (“The
Method of Nature” [1841], in Essays 115). Going further than Heidegger, Emerson
upholds the revolutionary potential of technology, when properly framed, to foster
the imagining and creation of a new, better reality. Thus, “Railroad iron” is “a magician’s rod”: “The habit of living in the presence of these inventions . . . combined
with the moral sentiment” has created a new spirit that has “interrogated every institution, usage, and law” (“The Young American” [1844], in Essays 213–4). Technology
unveils the fluidity of the world and humans’ potential to reshape it to their imaginative needs; it reveals, as Marx and Engels would say of capitalism, that “all that is
solid melts into air.” For Emerson, in fact, the danger of technology lies in it becoming merely a tool of capitalism: “Is not the selfish and even cruel aspect which belongs
to our great mechanical works, – to mills, railways, and machinery, – the effect of the
mercenary impulses which these works obey?” For Marx and Engels, those technological improvements are part of a historical march determined by class conflict; their
significance lies in their granting humans greater productive power. Conversely,
Emerson locates the power of technology in its correspondence with art. Thus, it is
art – and the spirit underlying art and placing humankind into “harmony with nature”
– that protects us against the dangers of technology, and that renders “the galvanic
battery, the electric jar,” the “mills, railways, and machinery” “noble” and “divine”
(“Art,” in Essays 439–40).
One reason Emerson, unlike Heidegger, still finds a great deal of potential within
technologies themselves is that he was working at a time when the production of
literature was not yet fully industrialized. As Michael Winship has noted, the technological improvements that would transform publishing – steam-powered rather
than hand-cranked printing presses, stereotype rather than individually composed
plates, and roll paper rather than sheets – while available by 1840, would not be
widely utilized until later in the nineteenth century. This lack of full industrialization parallels the uneven development of industrialized technology in the larger
economy and society and helps to explain why Emerson, as John Kasson has noted,
at times echoed the dominant view that “hailed the union of technology and republicanism and celebrated their fulfillment in an ever more prosperous and progressive
nation” (3).
For Emerson, republican technology comes to the fore in his antislavery writings.
Slavery and technology often were interlinked in antebellum American thought. On
the one hand, writers frequently cited technological wonders such as the telegraph as
evidence of Anglo-Saxon superiority and of the ever-spreading dominion of the
European mind over the natural world and the bodies of supposedly more natural
people. Reversing the logic, abolitionists would contend, as Frederick Douglass did
in his second autobiography, that slavery attempted to “reduce man to a mere machine”
(Autobiographies 421). On the other hand, however, technology evidenced the progressive march of humanity, leading to greater freedom and power for all. Writing against
the Fugitive Slave Law in 1851, Emerson insists that he “cannot accept the railroad
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and telegraph in exchange for reason and charity,” but then gestures to such technological wonders as proof of the certainty of emancipation: “Nothing is impracticable
to this nation…. By new arts the earth is subdued, roaded, tunneled, telegraphed,
gas-lighted; vast amounts of old labor disused; the sinews of man being relieved by
the sinews of steam. We are on the brink of more wonders” (Antislavery Writings 56,
69). Emerson reserves praise for technology in and of itself, but applauds technology’s
materialization of the human capacity to transform the world as evidence of the
potential for a democratic United States.
By 1851, this progressive republican view of technology was already under assault
by the grim realities of industrialization and the dimming prospects of new technologies like the telegraph radically transforming the world. Yet a similar utopian vision
of technology’s democratizing potential frequently resurfaces up to the present day.
To understand this view’s continuing saliency, we need to turn back to the formation
of the American republic and its citizenry in technological terms, a formation best
represented in the persona and works of Benjamin Franklin.
Franklin’s Technology of the Self
D.H. Lawrence famously cited Franklin’s technological self as the root of almost everything that was wrong with American culture, asserting that Franklin’s “automaton,
of a pattern American” has led to “America, tangled in her own barbed wire, and
mastered by her own machines . . . shut up fast in her own ‘productive’ machines like
millions of squirrels running in millions of cages” (30–1). Franklin clearly sets himself
up as a model through presenting his life story as a book, describing “the conducing
means” that led to fame and felicity as “fit to be imitated” (1307). And he pursues
his project for moral perfection from a technological framework, intending to publish
his method as “ ‘The Art of Virtue,’ because it would have shown the means and
manner of obtaining virtue” (1392). Art here, as in Elements of Technology, refers to all
techniques for manipulating the material world. Franklin develops his account-book
method of self-examination in order to overcome “natural inclination, custom, or
company” (1384), just as he develops methods for cleaning streets or lighting cities
or organizing libraries to overcome dirt, darkness, or a dearth of books, through a
combination of reading, rational hypothesizing, and experimental testing. As with
his stove – for which he rejects a patent because “we should be glad of an opportunity
to serve others by an invention of ours” (1418) – he seeks to share his moral program
through Poor Richard’s Almanac, which he conceived of as a “proper Vehicle for conveying Instruction among the common People” (1397). In these ways, Franklin parallels
Benjamin Rush’s contemporaneous idea that the purpose of education in a republic
is to render citizens “republican machines,” so that they can “perform their parts
properly, in the great machine of the government of the state” (14–15). For Franklin
and Rush, mechanical technologies become models for the shaping of the human self.
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This image of the human as machine, as automaton, appears from the eighteenth
century onward, usually with increasingly dark implications. But the technological
context here suggests a less deterministic pattern than that which Lawrence projects.
Michel Foucault’s work on technologies of the self helps elucidate this distinction.
Foucault outlines four different types of “ ‘technologies,’ each a matrix of practical
reason” – technologies of production, technologies of sign systems, technologies of
power, and technologies of the self – “which permit individuals to effect their own
means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies
and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order
to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality” (18).
Unlike his work on technologies of power and sign systems, Foucault emphasizes at
least a limited form of individual volition. Doing so, he traces the movement from
classical Greek ideals “for social and personal conduct and for the art of life” (19) to
a Christian asceticism, which “always refers to a certain renunciation of the self and
of reality” (35). He then demarcates “a decisive break” in the eighteenth century when
“the techniques of verbalization have been reinserted in a different context by the
so-called human sciences in order to use them without renunciation of the self but to
constitute, positively, a new self” (49). This shift in the importance of giving an
account of one’s self, of verbalizing if not writing the self into a new state, distinguishes Franklin’s Autobiography from his Puritan ancestors’ personal narratives and
begins to suggest the connection between technologies of the self and technologies of
production and sign systems.
While Poor Richard’s Almanac works as a vehicle of instruction to inculcate virtues
essential to an ascetic Protestantism, it features some of Franklin’s most belletristic
and humorous works, culminating in “The Way to Wealth,” where he satirizes the
fact that most people will not fully heed his advice and instruction. This sense of
human fallibility comes to the fore in his attempt at moral perfection, where he
recounts his failures with false braggadocio, as in the speckled axe parable, and in his
enumeration of his various errata over the course of his life. The errata importantly
return us to the printing context and conceit of the Autobiography. Producing his own
life as a book for others, he suggests they will have the ability to reproduce his life
without those errors, or errata. Yet Franklin was writing at a time when printing
presses were little more advanced than that which Gutenberg had used in the fifteenth
century. In this context, Franklin’s printing metaphor hints that his readers will not
reproduce his life exactly, as in a highly industrialized, mechanized system, but as
new creations altogether. Stereotype plates that preserved the text for future printing
lay decades in the future, and in conceiving of his life as a book fit to be imitated by
others, to be republished in corrected form by others, Franklin gestures to the necessity of recomposing each sheet from the pile of type. This idea of flexible imitation
appears in his own imitation of the Spectator, where in examining his recomposition
of the essays he “sometimes had the pleasure of fancying that, in certain particulars
of small import, I had been lucky enough to improve the method of the language”
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(1320). Franklin’s use of the word “imitate” further indicates a more fluid mode.
Where we might read “imitate” as denoting an attempt at exact replication (the
second definition in the OED), the technological context of Franklin’s print metaphors
hints that he has the older, first definition in mind, “to do or try to do after the manner
of.” This potentially more flexible model relates to a more intricate articulation of art
and technology, to an emphasis on art, like technology, involving the reformulation
or reshaping of the self – either the writing or reading self, in the case of literature
– and the world.
Writers such as Olaudah Equiano further reveal the simultaneously disciplinary
and emancipatory potentials of such technological figurations. Where technology has
often been posited as the domain of white men, either as evidence of their unique
capacity to transform the world and its less capable people (then) or as a key instrument in their oppression of others (now), it has also long been celebrated for overcoming all natural limitations, including limitations ascribed to essentialized categories
of race and gender. Equiano opens his Interesting Narrative by contrasting the Edenic
Africa of his childhood with the European manufactured goods that figure as the snake
in the garden, as Africans “were incited” to enslave one another “by those traders who
brought the European goods” (25). Equiano is first mystified and terrified by the slave
ship and nautical instruments such as the quadrant, and his technological ignorance
ironically enables him to connect the new disciplinary powers he faces when, in
Virginia, he encounters a slave woman encumbered by an iron muzzle, a portrait, and
a ticking watch (44).
Up to this point, Equiano’s encounter with Europeans and their technology
largely follows the account offered by European explorers and colonists such as
Thomas Hariot. In his rendering of one of the key tropes of colonialist literature,
Hariot’s Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1588) reports that
the native Indians will have “cause both to feare and to love us” (50), largely due to
technological differences: they are so amazed by the Englishmen’s mathematical
instruments, guns, books, and clocks “that they thought they were rather the works
of gods then of men” (57). But Hariot himself is somewhat discomfited when this
amazement and worship are afforded the material Bible rather than its spiritual
essence: “although I told them the booke materially & of it self was not of any such
vertue, as I thought they did conceive, but onely the doctrine therein contained; yet
would many be glad to touch it, to embrace it, to kisse it, to hold it to their brests
and heades, and stroke over all their bodie with it” (58). This apparent fetishization
of the book, of the product of print technology, reappears in Equiano’s account of his
“great curiosity to talk to the books” as the Europeans did (48). But Equiano learns
to read and write as well as to become an adept sailor, mastering the very technologies
– ocean-going vessels and nautical instruments such as the quadrant, as well as print
– that had once been used to subjugate him. Through a technological process of
demystification, he is able to utilize technologies that had once physically and emotionally enslaved him to achieve his freedom and to become one of the most important
early advocates for abolition. Over the course of his Narrative, then, technology is
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transmuted from an instrument of slavery to an instrument of emancipation through
the production of the self as a free subject.
Similar dynamics appear in early accounts of women’s relationships with manufacturing technologies. In his 1791 Report on Manufactures, then Secretary of the Treasury
Alexander Hamilton called for the development of industrial manufacturing in part
because “women and Children are rendered more useful, and the latter more early
useful by manufacturing establishments, than they would otherwise be” (131).
Through the Civil War, factories in the United States relied to a significant extent on
women’s labor, exploiting ideas about women’s innate tractability, their need for
less pay, and their essential dependence on patriarchal authority. Yet works such as
Sarah Savage’s The Factory Girl (1814), often cited as the first American industrial
novel, and The Lowell Offering, a magazine written and published by women factory
workers from 1840 to 1845, extol the possibilities afforded women by industrial
These works overcome objections to women entering the economic realm by
connecting their work and the new technologies they use to older domestic craft.
Mary Burnam, Savage’s heroine, attempts “to describe the complicated machinery of
the factory” in response to “her grandmother’s curiosity . . . [about] what facilitated
so much the art of spinning, in which, in early life, it had been her ambition to excel”
(14). Mary’s grandmother exemplifies a distinctly domestic technological spirit, as
“no one was more pleased to examine and observe the effects of the machines and
instruments, that were used in the country business to which she was accustomed;
particularly if they were new inventions, or old ones improved” (15). Carrying on her
grandmother’s interest in and use of new technologies for old tasks, Mary finds that
factory work allows her time for self-improvement and expansion of her ability to
help others. In particular, after one of the proprietors of the cotton factory denounces
child labor (blaming the “thoughtless parents” who “deprive their offspring of the
advantages of education” [37]), Mary establishes a Sunday school for the younger
workers. The Factory Girl pictures the industrialization of cloth manufacturing as a
continuation of the domestic sphere, as an expansion of the possibilities of feminine
self-development and selfless service, an expansion implicitly linked to the newer
publishing and reading possibilities enabled by similar manufacturing and technological changes in the print industry.
The Lowell Offering frequently echoed this sense of empowerment, linking it to
technology’s potential to stimulate the mind: “all the powers of the mind are made
active by our animating exercise,” for “Who can closely examine all the movements
of the complicated, curious machinery, and not be led to the reflection, that the
mind is boundless, and is destined to rise higher and still higher[?]” (63–4). As with
The Factory Girl, the sketches and tales in The Lowell Offering envision the selfimprovement enabled by factory life – through increased opportunities for moral
and intellectual improvement – as the continuation of one’s family duties. Unlike
The Factory Girl, some selections from The Lowell Offering begin to suggest that the
workers themselves simply become part of the machinery of production. Contributors
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regularly narrate dialogues in which women complain about being “obliged to rise so
early in the morning . . . dragged about by the ringing of a bell . . . [and] confined
in a noisy room from morning till night” (160), “just as though we were so many
living machines . . . [or] white slave[s]” (161). Other writers reflect on the need to
imagine a world elsewhere “not of the crowded, clattering mill, nor of the noisy tenement which is her home, nor of the thronged and busy street which she may sometime
tread, – but of the still and lovely scenes which, in by-gone hours, have sent their
pure and elevating influence” (138).
These intertwining logics – equating factory work to slavery or becoming a
machine, and positing nature as an escape or solace – underwrite Herman Melville’s
account of a paper factory in “The Tartarus of Maids,” where the women “did not so
much seem accessory wheels to the general machinery as mere cogs to the wheels”
(328). Through its diptych other, “The Paradise of Bachelors,” Melville links the
dehumanization and suffering of the female factory workers with the literary production and camaraderie of a masculine coterie. Literature and technology are decoupled,
as factory work and the technological developments used there no longer open imaginative, political, or psychological possibilities but detach life from nature, foreclosing
all possibilities of an authentic existence.
The Work of Art in the Age of Iron Mills and the Dynamo
As noted at the outset, Jacob Bigelow’s lecture at MIT helps to gauge the extent of
this disconnection between art and technology as the nation moved into the latter
half of the nineteenth century. While techno-utopian visions would become even more
prominent in the decades to come, the utopian impulse of aesthetic production was
increasingly distinguished from the realities of industrialized technology. Rebecca
Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron-Mills (1861) provides one of the best early examples
of such thinking. Hugh Wolfe’s suicide near the end of the novella, his self-unmaking
with a piece of “tin, not fit to cut korl with” (69), figures the obverse of Franklin’s
self-making through technology. In the realm of the industrial factory, Wolfe, his
talents, and his humanity are only so many natural resources to be used up and cast
aside, like the korl (“the refuse from the ore after the pig-metal is run” [48]) from
which he creates his sculptures. Despite this proto-realist (or naturalist) depiction of
industrial life, the conclusion of the story moves between an aestheticism suggestive
of modernism – via the korl figure’s ability to represent the unspeakable, to stand
outside the realm of technological industrialization as a by-product of its processes
– and the utopian possibility of recuperating the human potential obscured by
industrial processes through “long years of sunshine, and fresh air, and slow, patient
Christ-love” (73). Life in the Iron-Mills thus hints at three of the most predominant
(and interrelated) tropes of viewing technology and literature over the last century
and a half: the mechanization and denigration of human life itself; the utopian possibility or dystopian impossibility of escaping a technologized system; or, along
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the lines of Heidegger, the mutually constitutive yet antagonistic relationship between
different kinds of human production.
The initial publication of Life in the Iron-Mills in The Atlantic Monthly is suggestive
of how these different conceptions of technology corresponded with the changing
production of literature itself. As noted earlier, the modern mechanical printing
methods that defined publication throughout most of the twentieth century – stereotype printing using machine-powered presses and rolled paper – only became standard in the second half of the nineteenth century. The Atlantic Monthly was perhaps the
most important of a number of magazines founded in the middle of the nineteenth
century that would play an increasingly important role in delineating a more elite
literary culture against the ever-expanding reaches of mass literature and, by the end
of the century, mass cultural forms such as film. The Atlantic Monthly and similar
publications as well as the novels and books they championed thus emerged from the
expansion of print technologies and new forms of mechanical reproduction even as
they attempted to define themselves against these very innovations. Davis’s conception
of art, through the korl woman, as existing outside, yet within, an industrialized
framework, and as allowing readers insight into “a secret . . . that has lain dumb” and
that she “dare [not] make” any “clearer” (41), speaks to what would become the
Atlantic’s declared position of carving out a niche for true literary art amidst the
industrial production of culture.
At the same time, through the Quaker woman’s salvation of Deborah at the conclusion of the novella, Davis locates the solution to the horrors of industrialization outside
of an industrial economy, literally displaced from the urban setting of the iron mills,
in a realm where human relationships can be constituted on a basis of “Christ-love”
rather than along class lines and economic contractualism. This displacement becomes
central to much of the utopian fiction produced over the next century and a half, as
would, to a surprising extent, its concomitant rejection of technological progress as
the foundation for social change. In works such as Pauline Hopkins’s Of One Blood
(1902–3), which imagine a secret, enduring Ethiopian community as an alternative
to the racial landscape of the United States, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland
(1915), which describes a South American society devoid of men, the utopian communities either combine more primitive technologies with supernatural capacities (Of
One Blood) or match the advances of western production while depending on new forms
of biological reproduction (Herland). Even in temporally dislocated utopias such as
Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1887), where the technological innovations of
the nineteenth century loom large in preparing the way for “a golden future” (65),
the central transformations distinguishing the society of 2000 from that of 1887 have
less to do with technological improvements, as essential as they are, than with restructuring “the organization of society” (68). Many of the “labor-saving inventions in all
sorts of industry” appear as “the logical outcome of the operation of human nature
under rational conditions” (101–2) rather than as the causes of those rational conditions. In Bellamy’s account, the rationalization of society leads to the emancipation
and empowering of human nature, a process we’ve already seen at work in Franklin.
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But with the full development of industrial capitalism and the expansion of technologies into every sector of human life – from reproduction and sexuality to forms of
cultural representation and mental life – such rationalization often seemed less like
an expansion of human nature than its denial.
Life in the Iron-Mills begins to suggest this notion of mechanized life – and its
utopian and dystopian possibilities – in Kirby’s comment that he wishes the workers
were “machines, – nothing more,” for “taste, reason” are nothing but “nerves to sting
them to pain” (54). This conception of life as mechanical was central to what the
literary historian Mark Seltzer calls “the naturalist machine” (25). More broadly,
Seltzer contends, “the links between the body and the machine have focused the
American cultural imagination since the later nineteenth century” (4) in three distinct
ways: “the notion that machines replace bodies and persons,” “the notion that persons
are already machines,” and “the notion that technologies make bodies and persons”
(12–13). No work from the early part of the twentieth century so fully reveals the
ambivalence surrounding these different conceptions as The Education of Henry Adams
(1907). While the most famous chapter of the book, “The Dynamo and the Virgin,”
is often cited as a diatribe against the technological displacement of human life – the
dissolution of a more natural, sacred, and artistic manner of living (the virgin) by
dehumanized technological force (the dynamo) – Adams embraces a mechanized
worldview alongside his distinct nostalgia. Adams equates the virgin – the religious,
sexual power manifest in medieval cathedrals – with the dynamo, for “both energies
acted as interchangeable force on man, and by action on man all known force may be
measured” (1074). From the perspective of Adams’s dynamic theory of history, the
universe becomes a “chaos of anarchic and purposeless forces”; society “becomes fantastic, a vision of pantomime with a mechanical motion” (983); and public education
becomes “a sort of dynamo machine for polarizing the popular mind” (792), for the
mind itself is a “machine” (754). The mechanical organization of society and the
individual’s mind at first seems to distinguish mind and society from nature, but
Adams reveals them to be mirroring nature’s own mechanistic, if finally chaotic,
forces. Adams, in this way, realizes Seltzer’s three tropes, as the dynamo replaces the
virgin, but then the self is revealed to be only a machine itself, as the virgin similarly
appears to be only the product of a greater chaos machine, Nature.
Occasionally read as the first modernist American work, Adams’s Education provides
a bridge between the naturalist machine and a more distinctly modernist engagement
with technology. In particular, through the contrast he sets up between the virgin and
the dynamo and the way the dynamo desacralizes the virgin, rendering her (and art,
sex, and religion) merely another force acting on humanity and the world, Adams
hints at something like Walter Benjamin’s account of the technological denigration
of aura, which is “never entirely separated from its ritual function” (224). For Benjamin,
this dissolution of aura accompanies film’s ability both to shock its audiences and to
foster a kind of distracted viewership, as art no longer absorbs the viewer through a
mode of contemplation, but like the technologies of modern life itself pierces the
normal sense of the self even as it becomes part of a quotidian, if chaotic, reality.
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Unlike Adams, the self-defined conservative Christian anarchist and detached historian, Benjamin distinguishes two political outcomes to the modern technologization
of art: the fascistic aestheticization of politics, war, and destruction, and a communist
politicization of aesthetics. His hope resides in the expansion and democratization of
art, in everyone possibly becoming an author (232), penetrating, as the camera does,
“deeply into [the] web” of reality, creating a picture of “multiple fragments which
are assembled under a new law” (233–4).
Benjamin’s wary optimism about the democratic potentials of technologized art
offers a Marxist and modernist update of Franklin’s technological republican selfmaking and Emerson’s romantic theorization of technology paralleling poetry and
emancipation. While the kind of technological self-making Franklin exemplifies
seems impossible for Adams, stuck as he describes himself as being in the eighteenth
century, he foresees a new kind of American, “the child of incalculable coal-power,
chemical power, electrical power, and radiating energy, as well as of new forces yet
undetermined,” who “would need to think in contradictions” and “would know how
to control unlimited power” (1174–5). In modernist works by writers such as William
Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, Marianne Moore, Ernest Hemingway, Ralph Ellison,
and John Dos Passos, the alienated modernist artist represents the new American that
Adams predicts will be able to draw on technology’s apocalyptic force as a model of
aesthetic discipline and withdrawal from the technologized, mechanical world. For
example, Williams defines a poem as “a small (or large) machine made of
words. . . . there can be no part, as in any other machine, that is redundant” (54);
throughout his oeuvre, he was drawn to the precision, speed, and new perspectives
enabled by modern technology, echoing Adams in Spring and All (1923) by arguing
that “the imagination is an actual force comparable to electricity or steam” (207). At
the same time, Williams, like Adams, recognized the destruction of newer technologies, describing, in Spring and All, how “[t]houghtless of evil we crush out the marrow
of those about us with our heavy cars as we go happily from place to place. . . . Children
laughingly fling themselves under the wheels of the street cars, airplanes crash gaily
to the earth,” before concluding with the line “Someone has written a poem” (180).
The poem, as in Heidegger, is both aligned with and contrasted against technology,
as the machine represents both technological society’s enslavement and a model for
the poet “to liberate the man to act in whatever direction his disposition leads” (235).
Williams, like Adams and later American modernists, will not go as far as Benjamin’s
call for a specific kind of politicization of aesthetics through technology. Yet he hopefully and suggestively gestures, as Emerson before him, to the politically liberatory
potentials of the intersection of literature and technology.
Epilogue: The Digital Future
In the latter half of the twentieth century, in numerous dystopian and postmodern
works, the emancipatory potential of technology seems to all but disappear as the
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lines between the technological and the natural no longer hold and the question of
whether the machine controls humankind or individuals have any control over themselves and their machinery remains unanswered and unresolvable. In the last couple
of decades, however, the emergence of new digital technologies has brought a resurgence of the kind of thinking we have seen represented by Franklin and Foucault,
Emerson and Heidegger, and Adams and Benjamin. Utopian rhetoric surrounds the
political and artistic potential of the Internet and the ever-expanding power of computers. Much attention in the public has focused on the transmutation of print literature into digital forms, whether in the form of academic databases, Google’s attempt
to digitalize the world’s books, or new reading devices such as Amazon’s Kindle or
Apple’s iPad. Undoubtedly reading itself and the content, themes, and forms of literature will change as more and more people gather news and information from
computer screens or scan poems, stories, plays, and novels from electronic databases
or via digital interfaces. More compelling, however, and potentially more transformative of literature are new electronic literary forms, works that mutate old print and
oral genres by interfusing them with the aural and visual effects made possible by
computer technologies.
As Katherine Hayles has pointed out, the emergence of electronic literature – and
the possibilities for literature in a digital age – parallels the transformation of literature brought about by the printing press. Even an extended treatment of electronic
literature can only begin to enumerate the different forms it is taking, and I can only
gesture to a few ways these trends portend even greater transformations to literature
than those fostered by the printing press. Perhaps best known are hypertext works,
poems, memoirs, and novels that allow a kind of citation and layering through clickable links. More recent developments incorporate elements recalling video art forms,
using flash technology as well as three-dimensional representations to enhance and
destabilize the reading process, rendering texts more indeterminate by allowing for
various different iterations of words, images, and sounds. Artists and writers have
begun exploring the social-networking possibilities of the Internet to create communally created works, fictions whose different pieces are produced by writers from
around the world, while others have incorporated new technologies such as global
positioning systems to create literary forms that interact with the real world. Some
interactive fictions begin to approach the qualities of gaming narratives, while other
interactive forms simply allow users to manipulate how, when, and where different
elements of texts (and often images) are combined.
Many of these experimental forms, as Jessica Pressman has argued, recall modernist
aesthetics. But they also recapitulate many of the features of the narrative on literature
and technology I have attempted to construct. While the overall tone of these works
tends to be much darker, more cynical, and more ironic than Enlightenment or
Romantic era accounts, many implicitly and explicitly celebrate the potential of new
media literary forms to model a kind of dynamic postmodern self-construction.
Celebrations of the democratizing potentials of the Internet more broadly and of
Internet publishing and circulation of literary materials in particular often echo the
Literatures of Technology
techno-utopian logics of an earlier era, specifically the idea that new technologies will
enable individuals to create themselves more freely and fully while simultaneously
bringing together a more harmonious world community. The past two hundred years
should make us wary of any such claims, yet the future of technological innovations,
the uses they will be put to, and the literary forms they will transform and generate
remain indeterminate. And thus, much recent work critically engages with new
digital technologies in attempts at counteracting the economic and political ends for
which they are typically deployed, seizing, in Benjaminian fashion, on their potential
to fracture and trouble our normal sense of ourselves and our liberal capitalist worldview. The future of literature, as was true of its past, will largely be defined by its
interaction with – its critique of, its dependence on, and its exploitation of –
References and Further Reading
Adams, Henry. Novels, Mont Saint Michel, The
Education. New York: Library of America, 1984.
Bellamy, Edward. Looking Backward, 2000–1887.
New York: Penguin, 1982.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age
of Mechanical Reproduction.” In Illuminations:
Essays and Reflections (pp. 217–51). Ed. Hannah
Arendt. New York: Schocken, 1969.
Bigelow, Jacob. An Address on the Limits of Education.
Boston: E.P. Dutton, 1865.
Bigelow, Jacob. Elements of Technology. Boston:
Hillard, Gray, Little, and Wilkins, 1829.
Davis, Rebecca Harding. Life in the Iron-Mills.
Boston: Bedford Books, 1998.
Douglass, Frederick. Autobiographies. New York:
Library of America, 1994.
Eisler, Benita, ed. The Lowell Offering: Writings by
New England Mill Women (1840–1845). New
York: Harper and Row, 1980.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Emerson’s Antislavery
Writings. New Haven, CT: Yale University
Press, 1995.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays and Lectures. New
York: Library of America, 1983.
Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the
Life of Olaudah Equiano. New York: W. W.
Norton and Company, 2001.
Foucault, Michel. “Technologies of the Self.” In
Technologies of the Self (pp. 16–49). Eds. Luther
H. Martin, Huck Gutman, and Patrick H.
Hutton. Amherst: University of Massachusetts
Press, 1988.
Franklin, Benjamin. Writings. New York: Library
of America, 1987.
Hamilton, Alexander. “Report on Manufactures,
December 5, 1791.” In The Reports of Alexander
Hamilton (pp. 115–205). Ed. Jacob E. Cooke.
New York: Harper and Row, 1964.
Hariot, Thomas. A Briefe and True Report of the New
Found Land of Virginia. London: n.p., 1900.
Hayles, N. Katherine. Electronic Literature: New
Horizons for the Literary. South Bend, IN:
University of Notre Dame Press, 2008.
Heidegger, Martin. Basic Writings. New York:
Harper and Row, 1977.
Kasson, John F. Civilizing the Machine: Technology
and Republican Values in America, 1776–1900.
New York: Penguin Books, 1977.
Lawrence, D.H. Studies in Classic American
Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2003.
Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden: Technology
and the Pastoral Ideal in America. New York:
Oxford University Press, 1964.
Melville, Herman. The Piazza Tales and Other Prose
Pieces, 1839–1860. Evanston, IL: Northwestern
University Press, 1987.
Nye, David E. American Technological Sublime.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994.
Rush, Benjamin. Essays, Literary, Moral and
Philosophical. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: Thomas and
William Bradford, 1806.
Savage, Sarah. The Factory Girl. Boston: Munroe,
Francis & Parker, 1814.
Paul Gilmore
Seltzer, Mark. Bodies and Machines. New York:
Routledge, 1992.
Williams, William Carlos. The Collected Poems of
William Carlos Williams. 2 vols. New York: New
Directions, 1986–1988.
Winship, Michael. “Manufacturing and Book
Production.” In A History of the Book in America.
Volume 3: The Industrial Book, 1840–1880 (pp.
40–69). Eds. Scott E. Casper, Jeffrey D. Groves,
Stephen W. Nissenbaum, and Michael Winship.
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press,
Excluded Middles: Social Inequality
in American Literature
Gavin Jones
“She had heard all about excluded middles; they were bad shit, to be avoided; and
how had it ever happened here, with the chances once so good for diversity?” These
are the thoughts of Oedipa Maas, the protagonist in Thomas Pynchon’s 1966 novel
The Crying of Lot 49 (150). Oedipa has spent most of the novel attempting to solve
the riddle of the Tristero: does a huge conspiracy lie behind Western history, a battle
between the empowered and the disempowered waged through competing systems of
postal service? Is the nation’s underclass communicating through a secret mail system
known as WASTE? Oedipa never knows for sure, but the question she confronts is
profoundly significant to our understanding of the nation’s narrative encounter with
the problem of social class. Have the horizontal equalizations of democracy, the constant shifts between diverse cultural groups and lifestyles, been ousted by a vertical
and binary division of society into the powerful and the disinherited, with an excluded
and uncertain middle class in between? This chapter offers a brief history of American
narrative that not only confirms Oedipa’s fears but also suggests that the chances for
diversity were perhaps never very good to begin with.
The influence of Marxist thought on critical analysis has helped to establish the
importance of the novel to the emergence of bourgeois subjectivity in the United
States. The historical romance and sentimental domestic fiction of the antebellum era,
the realism and naturalism of the later nineteenth century, and the modernist tradition
that emerges in the works of Henry James have all been convincingly positioned
within developing middle-class attitudes and ideologies. Yet, as Leslie Fiedler famously
observed, many of American literature’s central characters actively flee this “civilized”
life. The horror of feminized domesticity or the attractions of interracial male intimacy
may be motivations, as Fiedler suggests, though this urge to run also speaks to the
A Companion to American Literary Studies, First Edition. Edited by Caroline F. Levander,
Robert S. Levine.
© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2011 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Gavin Jones
curious instability of a bourgeois center that fails to hold. I uncover in the analysis
that follows a persistent narrative interest in the extremes of social inequality, whereby
the middle-class space is anything but coherent and secure. Awareness of this literature
of the excluded middle tells a significant story about the formation of the United
States as a nation of profound disequilibrium where those in the social middle are
gripped by status anxiety and the fear of falling. My chapter also offers a history of
literary development because this confrontation with the irony of social inequality
amid political ideologies of equality disrupts the bourgeois realm in which the novel
should be most at home, hence creating moments of ethical and formal shock that set
narrative on surprising paths. From this excluded middle emerge formal experiments
with first-person narrative in the antebellum romance, with plot in Gilded Age
realism, with character in modernism, and with mediation in the literature of postmodernism. By the time we return to Pynchon, the problem is eerily the same – the
problem of inequality – but the way of understanding it has shifted. Subjective
responses to class difference and the threat it poses to the promise of democracy eventually give way to a more fundamental difficulty: accessing a condition of disadvantage
that seems both permanent and structured into the primary modes of viewing the
social world.
Working against exceptionalistic denials of class conflict in an American context
and against powerful traditions of individualism, historians have charted the emergence of a socioeconomic idea of class relations in the United States. If we return to
the origins of this class discourse, then we discover not only an inherent instability
in definitions of class but also a predominant sense of binary opposition not between
capitalists and workers but, more basically, between rich and poor. In Orestes
Brownson’s essay “The Laboring Classes” (1840), for example, we glimpse a nation
essentially bisected along lines of wealth and property, as Michael Burke has argued.
One of the most powerful forces in US class discourse, as I have suggested elsewhere,
was the growing awareness of the problem of poverty and what seemed like a permanently poor class. The idea of poverty meshed easily with the national tendency to
moralize questions of social position and worth. Against the familiar history of the
rise of middle-class forms of identity and consciousness, we discover a class discourse
that is curiously obsessed with radical forms of inequality dividing the nation into
“Its Upper Ten and Lower Million,” as George Lippard phrased it in the subtitle of
his sensationalistic novel New York (1854). By the 1840s, this awareness of inequality
and the association of lower-class status with severe social suffering primed the ground
for the utopian socialist movements that swept the land in a ferment of reform. A
political language of class polarity had emerged, and literature was ready to represent
the encounter with a socialist solution on American soil.
During the 1840s, Nathaniel Hawthorne participated briefly in the utopian socialist commune of Brook Farm in Massachusetts, and used his experience as the basis
for his novel The Blithedale Romance (1852). In his preface, Hawthorne seeks to distance
the primary importance of the socialist context, arguing instead that “his present
concern with the Socialist Community is merely to establish a theatre, a little removed
Social Inequality in American Literature
from the highway of ordinary travel, where the creatures of his brain may play their
phantasmagorical antics, without exposing them to too close a comparison with the
actual events of real lives” (3). Yet Blithedale differs radically from Hawthorne’s other
romances in its refusal to mix the real with the kind of alternate romantic space that
the Puritan past offers in The Scarlet Letter (1850), or that the supernatural offers in
The House of the Seven Gables (1851). The “phantasmagorical antics” of Blithedale
emerge from a dialectic internal to the mind of Miles Coverdale, our first-person narrator. I turn to this dialectic as the first stage in an American literature of inequality
notable for the vacuum it creates at the social center. This vanishing middle is most
discernible, I argue, in writers who are less marked by the minority cultural identities
and the excluded social locations that have inspired such a radical revision of the canon
in recent decades. Hawthorne is a writer very much in and of the middle – a white,
male, middle-class writer who became quickly institutionalized as an important representative of the American literary tradition. Ironically, Hawthorne’s centrist position
enables a counterintuitive view of the bourgeois ideology then becoming dominant
in the era’s more popular kinds of domestic, sentimental, and melodramatic writing.
Foreshadowing the other writers who occupy us here, Hawthorne’s literary effort to
represent rather than to subvert or sanction the social center brings him face-to-face
with a crucial contradiction in American history: the nation’s early investment in
fundamental structures of social inequality.
It is no coincidence that Hawthorne’s foray into the implications of socialism
should take the form of a first-person narrative – indeed, Blithedale is Hawthorne’s
only novel in this particular mode. Recognition of the problems that social stratification presented to the nation’s ideologies of freedom and equality worked to upset the
personal perspectives of a number of Hawthorne’s peers. At the heart of his essay
“Self-Reliance” (1841), Ralph Waldo Emerson responds in a self-centered outburst to
a friend’s suggestion that he has a responsibility to the poor: “Are they my poor? I tell
thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give
to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong” (22). The logic
of self-reliance breaks down into enraged, first-person revulsion from any recognition
that needs make rights. In Walden (1854), Henry David Thoreau meets an impoverished Irishman residing in his idealized landscape, and subsequently disturbs the
woods with his nativist tirade against imported “shiftlessness” (166). The genteel
narrator of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853) sees his entire system
of values come crashing down when he confronts an indigent individual who refuses
to work, just as the narrator of Melville’s “Cock-a-Doodle-Doo!” (1853) can only crow
madly like a cockerel after confronting the destructive poverty of a rural family. The
narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839) runs in fright
and confusion from a scene of social and structural collapse in a gothic tale of downward mobility following the destructive Panic of 1837. Blithedale is less dramatic in
the story it tells of our narrator’s residence in a utopian commune, though even here
the genteel Coverdale’s confrontation with another form of social organization unravels
rapidly as Coverdale contracts a fever that throws him into mental delirium.
Gavin Jones
Hawthorne’s novel spreads this initial collapse into a more subtle and pervasive tonal
irregularity – at heart a narrative unreliability – that comes to mediate an imbalanced
social structure.
Around halfway through the novel, after escaping from the social reformer
Hollingsworth’s monomaniacal efforts to convert him to his philanthropic mission of
prison reform, Coverdale leaves the commune and returns to conventional society,
taking a hotel room that overlooks a row of fashionable buildings inhabited by families
of office workers – a prototypical middle class:
One long, united roof, with its thousands of slates glittering in the rain, extended over
the whole. After the distinctness of separate characters to which I had recently been
accustomed, it perplexed and annoyed me not to be able to resolve this combination of
human interests into well-defined elements. It seemed hardly worth while for more than
one of those families to be in existence, since they all had the same glimpse of the sky,
all looked into the same area, all received just their equal share of sunshine through the
front windows, and all listened to precisely the same noises of the street on which they
boarded. Men are so much alike in their nature, that they grow intolerable unless varied
by their circumstances. (123–4)
Ironically, the equality Coverdale sought in the socialist community is more present
in the middle-class Americans he confronts from afar. If upper-class Coverdale cannot
fit into the socialist community, then neither is he part of the bourgeois life that
opposes it. Recent critics have described Blithedale as Hawthorne’s attempt to work
out literature’s new middle-class situation: as part of a public entertainment system
that addressed private class needs through represented life, according to Richard
Brodhead, or as a fantasy of masculine power that uses the feminine to construct possessive individualism, according to Lori Merish. Yet this middle class is exactly the
problem in Hawthorne’s novel. There is no coherent middle-class space from which
to narrate. Indeed, such is the crisis of representation when confronted by an incoherent middle class that Coverdale recoils in frustration, and is left with a desire for
varied circumstances – for inequality, in effect.
The unstable narrative structure of Hawthorne’s novel as a whole emerges from
this failure to occupy a middle space of equanimity. Throughout, Coverdale feels that
he is either facing a conspiracy, as Robert Levine has argued, or projecting the monster
of his own fears. Coverdale’s paranoia, that is, mirrors instabilities of scale. Either he
is too small in comparison to a large system that he does not understand, or else he
is so large that he has created intrigue through his voyeuristic interest in the romantic
lives of his Blithedale companions Hollingsworth, the wealthy Zenobia, and the
impoverished young Priscilla, who joins the commune in mysterious circumstances.
Coverdale’s social movement, from his conservative upper-class location to his communitarian contact with the low and with radical forms of social thought, sets into
play this inherent instability, this movement between error and exaggeration. Hence
Coverdale suffers at various times from depression, from an inability to analyze his
own mind, and from a proneness to the influence of the bogus. Yet at other moments
Social Inequality in American Literature
he falls into the delusion that God has impelled him to use his “delicate intuitions”
to learn the hidden secrets of others and to judge as he sees fit (132). Coverdale’s
unreliability, his vacillation between reality and fantasy, mediates a dynamic of inequality. His failure to command a central and stable ideological location compels him
to move between grandeur and abjection.
At the end of the novel, the utopian experiment fails after the haughty and wealthy
Zenobia drowns herself, apparently dying of a broken heart when Hollingsworth
rejects her for the destitute and delicate Priscilla. Blithedale gets occupied by the
town paupers – a class of the permanently poor – and our narrator retreats to his
wealthy life of ease. Polar inequality has reestablished itself against the attempt at
fruitful class contact and socialist reform. Yet Coverdale, who finally abandons his
only labor as a poet, still seems inherently anxious about his situation, fearing that
his life is all emptiness, having established no separate interest in his own narrative.
Hence we have the novel’s infamous ending, Coverdale’s confession of something
“essential to the full understanding of my story,” that “I – I myself – was in love –
with – PRISCILLA!” (203). He attempts to justify his inactive years, his unsatisfied
past and listless future, by instantly generating mystery and depth. Far from establishing a middle-class location or consciousness, this ending resorts to the kind of shiftiness and unreliability we have experienced throughout. Coverdale’s desire to occupy
a high location as the holder of special knowledge confronts the debasement of his
narrative art, a degeneration into melodrama – a failure in the quality of the narrative
itself. Social insecurity brings narrative instability that responds to the novel’s radical
inequality: its inability to picture a coherent ideological location between the high
and the low. What Blithedale registers at the level of tone and voice is a social incoherence whose psychological focus would become even more confused in the shift from
romance to realism’s encounter with the ever-widening structures of the world of
“It is usually indigent literature which presents itself with these imaginative
demands, and I think usually fictionists of the romantic school. I do not know but it
would be well for me as a man of principle to confine my benefactions to destitute
realists: I am sure it would be cheaper.” These lines, from William Dean Howells’s
1895 essay “Tribulations of a Cheerful Giver” (125), suggest the degree to which
changes in literary form and genre were entwined with the problems of social inequality then becoming increasingly visible on the streets of New York and other large
cities. Howells is describing his practice of offering street beggars only half of what
they request, hence giving himself the illusion of making money, though he moves
seamlessly from the social to the literary as he describes the demands placed on the
imagination by this kind of transaction. According to Howells’s theories of realism
at least, the realist text should exhibit fidelity to experience and probability of motive,
hence bringing into play a series of epistemological questions that naturally found
their correlative in this contact between strangers from opposite ends of the social
spectrum. In a genre that purported to replace the coincidences of plot with the commonalities of character, and hence to read and make intelligible the world of social
Gavin Jones
appearances, the confessed needs of strangers placed primary demands on the imagination to step into the profound uncertainty opened by the chasm of social inequality.
Yet when Howells discovers a destitute “realist” on the streets of New York – an
educated man with the potential to do a “perfectly fresh thing in literature” by
describing experiences that “mostly happened to the inarticulate classes” (125) – his
ability to read the details of character collapses. Despite paying the man to write his
story, no narrative appears. The desire to believe a character and hence to access a new
and authentic kind of experience is defeated by the epistemological problems of
uncertainty within the structure of experience. In effect, Howells wants to trust character, but in the process he becomes victim of a plot. Something is going on that he
does not understand and cannot access – a kind of conspiracy that lies beyond the
bounds of realistic knowledge. “I am quite sure he was at heart a romanticist” (126),
Howells concludes of the beggar, moving like Coverdale uneasily between a desire for
reality and a realization of delusion.
Howells theorized realism as a middling formation that rejected the inherited
intellectual property of the elite classes while also rejecting the “low” world of popular
dime novels and sentimental romances, which Howells described as symptoms of
bankrupt taste. Yet if we turn to Howells’s The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), often
described as the nation’s first novel to describe the rise of a culture of business that
cuts across the traditional lines of class affiliation, then we confront again the strange
absence of the very middle-class culture that the realist text should naturally embrace.
The novel makes the clear distinction between an elite, cosmopolitan class (the Coreys)
and a rustic, folksy class (the Laphams). The former are insecure financially (the Corey
son, Tom, goes to work in Lapham’s paint business), while the latter are insecure
culturally, as their financial rise places them in a world “above” their lowly values. As
with Blithedale, anything like a middle-class sphere lies beyond the realms of representation, as becomes clear when Tom Corey and Silas Lapham take the ferry to
Nantasket and confront a crowd of “people who were going down to the beach for
the fun or the relief of it, and they were able to afford it” (80). Rather than a moment
of common experience that embodies the egalitarian ideals of the realist form, the
scene throws narrative into crisis. The stress on the commonplace erases the kind of
“distinction” (80) that enables these characters to be seen individually. Far from transcending class division with the uniqueness of character, the novel presents instead
the opacity of class, and a relationship between Tom and Lapham that is dominated
by the tension between class as a cultural and an economic force. The financial rise of
Lapham places him in the same social sphere as characters with very different – and
seemingly absolute – ideas of cultivation, which creates the novel’s predominant
tension that explodes in the famous dinner scene at the Corey home, where the
Laphams’ social inexperience ends in Lapham getting drunk and making a fool of
himself by haranguing the dinner guests about his Civil War experiences.
Class conflict lies at the heart of the novel’s narrative tensions, and it becomes the
force that generates interiority, as seen in Tom’s long interior monologue following
the dinner, in which he quivers in resentment at Lapham’s “vulgar, braggart, uncouth
Social Inequality in American Literature
nature,” and recognizes “his own allegiance to the exclusiveness to which he was born
and bred” (211). What rises at this point in the novel is the possibility of a humorous,
ironic point of view – embodied in the voice of Penelope Lapham, whom Tom will
eventually marry – to offer a way out of the absoluteness of class difference by promising a middling set of cultural values that can sympathize with both forms of class
consciousness: the high and the low. The marriage of Tom and Penelope is the one
place of harmony between the two families, yet even this hope is finally dashed by a
narrator, who is explicitly and disturbingly sympathetic to the Coreys’ belief that the
marriage of Tom to the lower-class Penelope meant “the end of their son and brother
to them” (361). So severe are the differences in “manners and customs” (361) between
classes that the young couple must travel to Mexico, where Penelope believes she will
not feel as strange as she does among her Brahmin in-laws. In a realist genre that
allegedly valued common experience and the nonintervening narrator, here we have
a moment of narrative intervention that confirms and condones the absoluteness of
class inequality.
Like Blithedale, Silas Lapham is thus structured by the failure of middling values
to hold sway. The novel returns characters to their original situations, and indeed
denies anything like growth or development to the extent that “character” itself gets
partly emptied of moral content, being influenced instead by environmental location
and by the determination of unseen forces. This becomes clear in the chapter that
culminates with Lapham’s business failure, right after the Laphams lose the house
they are building on the Back Bay, which burns to the ground coincidentally just
one week after the insurance policy expires. By this point, Lapham is dominated by
a paranoid suspicion that he is becoming victim to a conspiracy. He discovers that
a West Virginia company now has superior paint that will force him out of business,
yet a final opportunity offers itself: Lapham could invest in the West Virginia
company, which would require him to sell a milling property he bought from his
former business partner, Milton Rogers – a property whose value becomes doubtful
when its adjacent railroad is purchased by a new railroad company, which effectively
gains control over the property by controlling its transportation link. Rogers introduces Lapham to some Englishmen who – in a gesture back to the concerns of
Blithedale – claim to be agents for a group of English utopian reformers looking to
establish a community on American soil. This potential transaction is dominated by
uncertainty about the motivations of the parties involved, and uncertainty about
who knows what:
Something in the eyes of these men, something that lurked at an infinite depth below
their speech, and was not really in their eyes when Lapham looked again, had flashed
through him a sense of treachery in them. He had thought them the dupes of Rogers;
but in that brief instant he had seen them – or thought he had seen them – his accomplices, ready to betray the interests of which they went on to speak with a certain
comfortable jocosity, and a certain incredulous slight of his show of integrity. It was a
deeper game than Lapham was used to. (324)
Gavin Jones
In a novel where the narrator jumps to judgment throughout, this is a rare moment
of undecidability. It seems that the choice here is between the modern values of business, “which regards common property as common prey” (325), and the traditional
moral codes that would prevent Lapham from selling property he knows could become
valueless owing to the intervention of the railroad. The links between causes and
effects are extremely difficult to comprehend, and indeed become more so when
Rogers offers to intervene and to buy the mills himself, arguing that the intentions
of the railroad are as yet unknown, hence absolving Lapham of responsibility. The
complication of the plot suggests how these individuals are wired into structures they
do not understand – a confusion mirrored for readers in a hermeneutic dilemma. Is
there a “plot,” a conspiracy, or not? Lapham cannot simply unmask Rogers; he cannot
just walk away from this situation as he would “from the plays at the theater” (325).
There are no recourses to melodrama – the solution of Coverdale in Hawthorne’s novel.
Something different is happening here. Traditional moral codes are not just confused:
they fail to operate altogether. Insecurity is introduced as a narrative dynamic, one
that confuses the moral grounds on which choice can be made. “It was for him alone
to commit this rascality – if it was a rascality – or not” (326; emphasis added). The
confusion in the decision becomes a structure of doubt whereby judgment is moot
because the relations of cause and effect are so uncertain.
Rather than stressing the significance of individual character over the power of
social class or the movements and coincidences of plot, as Howells theorized realism,
Silas Lapham suggests – like Blithedale – a radically unequal social world divided
between the low and the high. Many of the novel’s tensions depend on this disjunction between economic and social questions of class, and on the failure of a middle
space that might hold them together. But Howells does not leave it there. The book
takes essentialized ideas of character, based on class and cultivation, and subjects them
to a structure of events (the plot) that belies the moral categories of responsibility on
which these ideas of character would seem to depend. We do not know in the end
which way Lapham intends to act concerning the mills, though in all likelihood he
looks set to do the “right” thing and to hold out against Rogers and the (potential)
conspiracy. But the final point of this key chapter is that Lapham does not really act
at all. He is acted on, by outside forces, when he receives a letter from the railroad,
a letter that presumably (we never know for sure) contains their offer for the mills,
which they now effectively control. The problem here is not – as it was for Hawthorne
– with narrative voice because radical inequality is no longer a moral problem that
creates shock. The problem is one of plot, which effectively destroys the value and
agency of character, as individuals get situated within a determining social structure
that lies beyond coherence or comprehension.
In this respect, Howells’s novel reflects formally a historical shift in the economic
conditions of American modernity. The situation of panic, with its stress on isolated
commercial crises and their destabilizing influence on the individual subject, gave
way to a deeper situation of depression marked by the economic instability and financial turmoil that came to seem endemic during the final three decades of the nine-
Social Inequality in American Literature
teenth century. Numerous critics have noted realism’s fascination with this fluctuating
world of finance; according to New Historicists at least, the very possibility of subjectivity came during this period to seem inevitably constituted by the money
economy. Howells’s interest in the complexities of plot thus marks a wider concern
with the subject’s determination by economic forces that often seemed distant and
dimly understood. Take, for instance, Kate Chopin’s “Elizabeth Stock’s One Story”
(1898), a tale about a village postmistress and failed writer who “never could think
of a plot” (274) but who stumbles into a plot of a different kind when she pries into
mail intended for a local businessman. Like Howells’s novel, Chopin’s story again
pivots on a potential conspiracy, this time between government and business – a
conspiracy that remains fundamentally offstage and uncertain, yet nevertheless loses
Stock her job and eventually leads to her death. Naturalism’s “plot of decline” is
another example of this combined interest in the power of plot over human agency
and in the inevitable fall from a tenuous and insecure middle class. Howells’s interest
in a polarized social world gets reflected again in the character of Lily Bart in Edith
Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905), a character who from the outset is paradoxically
both “horribly poor – and very expensive” (31). Lily crashes down from high to low,
unable to exist in a middle class that seems like failure. What makes Howells’s novel
stand out from these broader concerns is the absolute degree of its structured world
of inequality. There is no movement from high to low, merely a return to a seemingly
natural and static state of social bifurcation. There is no theoretical “republic of the
spirit” in Silas Lapham, no realm between the anxiety of poverty and the ease of wealth
that Lawrence Selden describes in The House of Mirth – an exclusively male realm on
which Wharton grounds her feminist critique. Lacking this gendered perspective,
Silas Lapham turns its gaze solely to an absent center that undermines the middling
values on which realism was founded. Realism’s promises of character collapse beneath
the complexities of plot. Once more, the excluded middle creates a contradiction with
important formal consequences – a contradiction to which the literature of modernism
would return and react.
On May Day 1919, a party at the New York socialist newspaper, The Call, was
stormed by a mob of soldiers and sailors who smashed the newspaper’s offices and sent
seven of its staff to hospital. The culmination of rising tensions between troops returning from the Great War and an increasingly vociferous socialist movement, this
episode is central to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novella, May Day (1920). In its theme and
tone, the novella looks back to realist and naturalist novels such as Theodore Dreiser’s
Sister Carrie (1900). Both works end with the suicide of a weak male character who
gets involved in a love affair that destroys him. Yet gone in Fitzgerald are the moments
of obvious plotting or the antiplotting of coincidence that we saw in Silas Lapham
and that mark, say, the moment when the safe door inexplicably swings shut in Sister
Carrie, leaving George Hurstwood with $10,000 in his hand. Instead, we have what
we would perhaps expect from a modernist work: a decentered narrative that seems
at the outset radically uncertain over whether it depicts “several – or perhaps one” of
many adventures (26). What emerges from this episodic structure is a problem not
Gavin Jones
of narrative reliability or of plot but a problem of characterization – both a difficulty
representing a protagonist that we can identify or sympathize with, and a deep essentialization of character based on a profound inequality of social power.
May Day introduces us initially to two characters: Philip Dean, a figure of success,
wealth, health, physical strength, and fitness, and Gordon Sterrett, a figure of poverty,
failure, and sickness. The identity of these characters is dominated not by their relation to a social position or to a class habitus but entirely by personal, embodied power.
The turn of the twentieth century saw the rise of the scientific philanthropy movement, which sought to analyze the causes of poverty and to reform the poor through
well-aimed charity and institutional care. This was a time when dominant power
groups came to control cultural images of the poor. Environmental explanations
battled with hereditary explanations of apparent differences in social power, but by
the 1910s the pseudoscience of eugenics held sway. Differences in identity and social
power were reduced more consistently to heredity alone. If Dreiser’s Sister Carrie
reveals a conflict between environment and heredity, as Hurstwood gradually weakens
in a dynamic process, then by the time we get to May Day anything like environmental development has curiously ceased. For Fitzgerald’s characters, there is no
progression or movement of plot. Dean and Sterrett are trapped at their social levels,
whose determining conditions have become naturalized, internal, and melodramatically extreme, with no middle ground between wealth and poverty. Character has
effectively come to practice a social logic, sanctioning a eugenic ideology that divides
the world into the weak and the strong.
There is much in May Day that seems reflective of its surrounding ideologies.
The urban crowd, for example, seems very different from the crowd on the ferry
boat in Silas Lapham. There is no crisis of representation or poverty of exteriority
here. The crowd glitters with signifiers: it is all too readable. The crowd has become
“the masses,” defined not by their relation to the means of production but by their
lifestyle choices and their power to consume (32). This is part of the modernism of
May Day. Yet the fluid model Fitzgerald adopts, his decentralized narrative, is confronted repeatedly by a problematic intractability of characterization, which becomes
pronounced when we confront two members of the crowd, Carrol Key and Gus Rose,
returning troops from the war. “They were ugly, ill-nourished, devoid of all except
the very lowest form of intelligence, and without even that animal exuberance that
in itself brings color into life; they were lately vermin-ridden, cold, and hungry in
a dirty town of a strange land; they were poor, friendless; tossed as driftwood from
their births, they would be tossed as driftwood to their deaths” (35). Clearly we are
at the heart of eugenic ideology here. These characters are poor because they lack
intelligence, and they lack intelligence because they are physically inferior. A signifying chain of causal forces makes them victims not of the social order but of their
own inherent weakness. Indeed, these characters are only kept alive by the institution, which allows this devolution to occur. The remarkable point is less the eugenic
logic than the absolute nature of their inferiority. Not only are these characters stupid
and animalistic to the extreme, but also the construction of character itself suggests
Social Inequality in American Literature
a lack of subtlety, as the narrator cannot help blurting out the characters’ impending
The different worlds of Fitzgerald’s story collide when a mob of soldiers storms the
offices of The Call, as seen from the perspective of Edith Bradin, whose brother is one
of the socialists:
Then the room was a riot. She realized that the soldiers were surging forward, glimpsed
the fat man swinging a chair over his head – instantly the lights went out and she felt
the push of warm bodies under rough cloth, and her ears were full of shouting and
trampling and hard breathing.
A figure flashed by her out of nowhere, tottered, was edged sideways, and of a sudden
disappeared helplessly out through the open window with a frightened, fragmentary cry
that died staccato on the bosom of the clamor. By the faint light streaming from the
building backing on the area Edith had a quick impression that it had been the tall
soldier with the weak chin. (62)
The figure (presumably Carrol Key) emerges “out of nowhere” and is urged to his
death in a strangely passive way. Rather than pushed by an assignable cause, he “was
edged sideways” – but edged sideways by what exactly? It is tempting to read this
passage in light of the socially Darwinian logic that underscores naturalist fiction, or
in light of the eugenic logic then blossoming in the era’s influential “rural family
studies”: pseudosociological accounts of allegedly degenerate and dangerous families
who have seemingly rejected the moral norms of capitalist society. Nicole Rafter has
argued that these narratives would use literary devices such as melodramatic plots and
dense symbolism to construct negative images of the poor, which in turn became a
means for the newly professionalized, lower-middle-class “sociologist” to construct his
or her own sense of status entitlement. A similar argument could be made for
Fitzgerald’s narrative. Perhaps Fitzgerald is throwing his own weak side (one of his
middle names was Key) out of the story in the ultimate attempt to assuage ongoing
anxieties about his own personal weakness. Yet this is too neat an argument about a
narrative that lacks a center structurally. We are not presented with any focal moment
of conspiracy or coincidence, no moment of unseen plotting, as in Silas Lapham; there
is no moment of confrontation with a shady set of connections that determines action
by forestalling decision. Here, in Fitzgerald’s decentered narrative, there is no social
force that drives action and event. We are left with a much more abstract, unrooted
dynamic of power. Either some almighty force shunts a character out of the story in
an ultimate moment of intervention, or else this character is so colossally weak that
he virtually implodes, taking himself dramatically out of the narrative (he “killed
hisself,” says a policeman later [63]). Like Gordon Sterrett, who also takes his own
life at the end of the story, Carrol Key is so empty and undynamic as a character,
constructed to preclude development, that he simply ceases to exist.
Either way, May Day presents again an extreme inequality of power that divides
the world into the weak and the strong, the poor and the rich, with nothing in
between. Distributing its energy among several characters, the story establishes no
Gavin Jones
solid hero for us to identify with. There is no coherent middle class, nor any moral
center to the narrative. The upper class is not marked by higher intelligence or greater
cultural capital. Dean is successful but not intelligent or attractive, nor even really
self-made (his wealth is hereditary). There is an upper- and a lower-class variety of
speech, yet each is insincere, clichéd, and bankrupt in its own way. Even the socialists
share the eugenic beliefs of the capitalist class. There is thus no opportunity for the
moral conflict we saw in Silas Lapham, where the vernacular values of character are
upset by the indeterminacies of plot. We are left instead with a radically unequal
world with nothing to explain differences in power but power itself. Hence the novella
features in its penultimate episode the absurd, drunken exploits of Mr. In and Mr.
Out, described not as characters but as “vivid personalities” (68). As Warren Susman
has argued, the shift in the twentieth century from a culture of character to a culture
of personality brought new emphasis not on inherent moral values but on the affective
power to gain status by moving others. May Day enacts this power binary as a structural problem of characterization in which a failure of depth and development, across
the social scale, turns individuals into items of luxury or waste in a social system that
seems increasingly arbitrary in its power to determine the stark alternatives of wealth
or poverty. In this turn from class to power, May Day gestures toward a postmodernist
politics in which the forms of mediation come to supplant social substance
In 1965, Thomas Pynchon published “A Journey into the Mind of Watts” in the
New York Times Magazine – a look at the smoldering unrest in the largely black Los
Angeles neighborhood, following the full-scale riots of the previous year. The essay
is a barometer of changing conceptions of class in the 1950s and 1960s, marking a
growing recognition of a racialized, largely black “underclass” that suffers in special
ways from what the sociologist William Julius Wilson would call “social isolation”:
structural forces segregating and impoverishing a black lower class. Pynchon’s essay
points to the growing racialization of class dynamics, while marking the new importance of mass media to the understanding of social inequality. Of course, the question
of mediation was nothing new: the language used to describe lower social classes, and
the methods used to access them, have always had a profound impact on how the poor
are judged. But for Pynchon, this question of mediation is now of primary importance
because the reality of whites, particularly in Los Angeles, has become a wholly mediated phenomenon. Reality has become a fantasy, existing merely on a TV screen.
Questions of class thus become defined by access – access not to resources but to
information and to knowledge – while communication becomes a primary motivating
force in the perpetuation of inequality. Pynchon’s essay ends with an image of a Watts
sculpture made in the Simon Rodia tradition: “In one corner was this old, busted,
hollow TV set with a rabbit-ears antenna on top; inside where its picture tube should
have been, gazing out with scorched wiring threaded like electronic ivy among its
crevices and sockets, was a human skull. The name of the piece was ‘The Late, Late,
Late Show’ ” (84). At once an image of the violence of poverty and an image of the
centrality of media to this problem, Pynchon leaves us with a ray of hope in a world
Social Inequality in American Literature
whose middle class has become a delusional void: an image of the vernacular recycling
of waste into a kind of social critique.
Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49 grows from this mid-1960s moment, though
it expands the consideration of inequality away from the neighborhood of Watts
toward what may be a global network of disinherited individuals, communicating
through an underground postal service run by the Tristero, an organization whose
“constant theme” was “disinheritance” (132). Like Blithedale, Crying treats the theme
of class tangentially. Indeed, Oedipa never knows for sure whether there is a vast
conspiracy, a power structure in place that keeps the wealthy rich and the poor
dispossessed – a system that seeks to maintain hegemony by neutralizing any threat
of dissent through media opiates and illusions of consumer choice. Echoing the
position of Miles Coverdale, Oedipa may be facing a conspiracy or she may be simply
projecting a paranoid fantasy by misinterpreting a series of coincidences. Oedipa is
in an excluded middle logically – either conspiracy or paranoia – and also socially,
occupying a space between the extremely wealthy and the disinherited she encounters
on the edges of her world. If Oedipa can never track down the full legacy and business dealings of the wealthy Pierce Inverarity (Oedipa’s erstwhile lover, who dies
leaving Oedipa to execute his will), then neither can she easily discover the poor or
fix them as an object of study. The dispossessed are defined not by a lack of participation and integration in larger institutions, nor by their silence or inherent resistance to description. On the contrary, they may well be fully integrated into their
own organized institution, though one to which Oedipa lacks access. The social
problems of inequality in Pynchon’s novel look back to the disoriented social middles
we have already encountered, though here the problems are not psychological, moral,
or material as they were for Hawthorne, Howells, and Fitzgerald. Oedipa’s social
position, in the excluded middle, gets defined not by her access to the means of
production or consumption, and not even by her access to literacy, education, or
cultural capital. Rather, she lacks access to the means of communication, to the
particular media through which rich and poor may be relating to their own social
strata. Oedipa becomes trapped not between different social classes, traditionally
understood, but between different systems of communication in a world of pure
If May Day resonates with the eugenic view of the poor as a form of social waste,
then Crying ties this theme directly to the question of communication. The Tristero’s
mail system is known as WASTE, of course, and it suggests the possibility that the
system of liberal democracy has essentially failed in its promises of inclusion, and has
hence necessitated the creation of an antibureaucratic communication system among
the disinherited. This link between the structure of society and the system of information is centralized in the novel’s repeated references to the thought experiment known
as Maxwell’s Demon – an experiment created by the Scots physicist James Clerk
Maxwell (1831–79) in an effort to disprove theoretically the Second Law of
Thermodynamics. In the words of Stanley Koteks, the engineer whom Oedipa encounters around the middle of the novel:
Gavin Jones
The Demon could sit in a box among air molecules that were moving at all different
random speeds, and sort out the fast molecules from the slow ones. Fast molecules have
more energy than slow ones. Concentrate enough of them in one place and you have a
region of high temperature. You can then use the difference in temperature between
this hot region of the box and any cooler region, to drive a heat engine. Since the Demon
only sat and sorted, you wouldn’t have put any real work into the system. So you would
be violating the Second Law of Thermodynamics, getting something for nothing,
causing perpetual motion. (68)
The thought experiment combines two ideas of entropy. The first is thermodynamic:
the tendency of systems to produce waste, which cannot be recycled to improve efficiency. The second idea of entropy is informational: the measure of uncertainty in a
system. The thought experiment cannot work, Oedipa discovers later, because of all
of the sorting that needs to happen – sorting that involves informational work and
hence increases the total entropy of the system. Maxwell’s Demon thus poses a key
question that gets to the heart of the novel’s tenuous grip on the social: what is the
link between the structure of a system, which through its tendency to natural disorder
produces waste, and the world of information, with its tendency toward incoherence
or “noise,” that surrounds it? Is the link simply metaphorical? Is it just a coincidence
that these two ideas of entropy happen to look alike? Or is there a more radical connection in which structural and systemic differences depend entirely on the communication of information?
From a reading of “A Journey into the Mind of Watts,” Pynchon’s answer to this
last question would appear to be a resounding “yes.” Yet Pynchon’s novel resists
reductive conclusions by suggesting but finally refusing to resolve this problem of
connection. In so doing, Crying exposes greater problems of connection and a bigger
disequilibrium, not least in the relationship between the novel’s discourse – its ironic,
postmodernist technique – and the subject matter of its story. To a large extent, what
remains convincing about this novel is the excluded middle with all its paranoia and
anxiety. What comes to life is the media-saturated world of popular culture, the
alienation amid fabricated images, and the discursive world of hypermediation. Less
clear, however, is the world of the story: the events, or possible structure of events,
which of course may not be a story at all but simply a paranoid fantasy. In this way,
Pynchon’s novel shifts questions of representation away from the epistemological
grounds exposed in Blithedale and Silas Lapham, which both return to the problem
that a middle-class space cannot be known and depicted, unlike the opposed worlds
of the wealthy and the poor. Like May Day, Crying is concerned with power, not
knowledge, as society recedes altogether as a force determining the unequal positions
of the novel’s characters.
With postmodernist irony, Crying questions its own seriousness as an effort to
represent the real. Hence it raises not epistemological but ontological questions about
what literature is as a system of representation, and whether there is any “real” that
is not constructed, or ultimately assimilable into an image. Crying raises this classic
postmodernist question. Yet it is also curiously in sync with American literature of
Social Inequality in American Literature
the excluded middle, effectively combining the concerns of the media age with a
critique of late capitalism. For Pynchon, inequality becomes essentially informational,
and gets structured into the narrative not as a destabilized narrative voice, a plot
explosion, or a character implosion but as part of the discursive system itself – part
of the nature of its relation to the real and to us as readers. Rather than a retreat from
social politics, Pynchon finally fills the gap implied by the works of Hawthorne,
Howells, and Fitzgerald. He gives us a narrative that mediates the incoherence of a
middle class reeling in paranoid doubt from the shocking recognition that the United
States has structured extreme social inequality into the primary ways that the world
is seen, understood, and communicated.
References and Further Reading
Brodhead, Richard H. Cultures of Letters: Scenes of
Reading and Writing in Nineteenth-Century
America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
Burke, Martin J. The Conundrum of Class: Public
Discourse on the Social Order in America. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1995.
Chopin, Kate. “Elizabeth Stock’s One Story.” In
The Awakening and Selected Stories (pp. 274–80).
New York: Penguin, 2003.
Dreiser, Theodore. Sister Carrie. New York:
Doubleday, 1900.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance.” In SelfReliance and Other Essays. Mineola, NY: Dover,
Fiedler, Leslie. Love and Death in the American Novel.
1960. Rev. ed. New York: Stein and Day, 1966.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. May Day. In Babylon Revisited
and Other Stories. New York: Scribner, 1996.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Blithedale Romance.
London: J.M. Dent, 1993.
Howells, William Dean. The Rise of Silas Lapham.
Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1986.
Howells, William Dean. “Tribulations of a
Cheerful Giver.” In Impressions and Experiences.
New York: Harper, 1909.
Jones, Gavin. American Hungers: The Problem of
Poverty in U.S. Literature, 1840–1945. Princeton,
NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008.
Levine, Robert S. Conspiracy and Romance: Studies in
Brockden Brown, Cooper, Hawthorne, and Melville.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
Merish, Lori. Sentimental Materialism: Gender,
Commodity Culture, and Nineteenth-Century
American Literature. Durham, NC: Duke
University Press, 2000.
Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. New York:
Harper Perennial, 2006.
Pynchon, Thomas. “A Journey into the Mind of
Watts.” New York Times Magazine, June 12,
1966, 34–35, 78, 80–82, 84.
Rafter, Nicole Hahn. White Trash: The Eugenic
Family Studies, 1877–1919. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988.
Susman, Warren I. Culture as History: The
Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth
Century. New York: Pantheon, 1984.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. London: J.M.
Dent, 1995.
Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. Boston:
Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1994.
Wilson, William Julius. The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public
Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
Narrative Medicine, Biocultures,
and the Visualization of Health
and Disease
Kirsten Ostherr
For decades now, scholars and university administrators have described a “crisis in the
humanities” (Harpham 21–36). Citing the increasing interconnections between the
sciences and corporate investment as evidence of the comparative isolation of humanities disciplines from these fields, these critics often note that the major problem facing
the humanities is their seeming lack of relevance to business, government, and the
general public. While the causes and features of this crisis have been discussed extensively, and various solutions proposed, one field of humanities scholarship has been
repeatedly identified as an exemplary exception to the perceived problem of relevance:
the field of medical humanities. Just as the “applicability” of laboratory research findings to bedside medical care often justifies the investment of resources in bioengineering, the “applicability” of insights from medical humanities to a doctor’s bedside
manner is frequently highlighted as evidence of the “real-world” impact of humanistic
practices of critical inquiry, reflection, and sustained in-depth analysis of texts.
As taught in many medical schools, undergraduate institutions, and hospitals,
medical humanities is composed of a diverse array of practices designed to foster
empathy, compassion, altruism, and caring in the doctor-patient relationship, often
based in coursework on medicine and society, creative writing, and ethics case conferences.1 The faculty at one prominent program describe their work as follows: “Drawing
on literature, religion, ethics, philosophy of medicine, film, history, social and cultural
anthropology, and jurisprudence, humanities education is designed to foster habits of
discourse on social and moral issues in medicine” (Montgomery et al. 958–9). The
most commonly recurring practice within the field of medical humanities is training
in “narrative medicine” (also called “narrative competence” or “narrative ethics”). The
A Companion to American Literary Studies, First Edition. Edited by Caroline F. Levander,
Robert S. Levine.
© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2011 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Narrative Medicine and Biocultures
methodologies employed in the practice of narrative medicine are those of literary
study, and indeed, many of the prominent scholars in this field have PhDs in English
and American literature (some have earned MDs as well). As a form of literary study
that might cynically be seen as offering clear dividends to corporate systems of valuation (improving doctors’ communication skills improves patient satisfaction, which
improves hospital profits), narrative medicine also seems to offer a powerful solution
to the “crisis in the humanities,” or at least the crisis within the particular field of
the humanities known as literary studies.
However, much as the application of humanities methods to real-world medical
problems might seem to provide a valuable sense of purpose to its practitioners and
to the outside world, a related scholarly movement, called “biocultures” (or biocultural
studies), has critiqued the production of knowledge within the medical humanities
as serving the interests of biomedicine without fully analyzing its complicity in
reproducing biomedical epistemologies. Like medical humanities, the field of biocultures is also engaged with the intersections of humanistic and scientific practice, but
in the latter case, the scope of inquiry is not limited to clinical medicine, instead
encompassing a wide array of practices that intermingle the biological and the cultural, such as research on race and the new genomics, in vitro fertilization (IVF) and
stem cell research, nanotechnology, and neurobiology, to name just a few (Project
Biocultures; BIOS). Although these projects may not seem obviously connected to
literary study, the foundational critical reference for “bioculture” is the work on
“biopower” by French theorist Michel Foucault (The History of Sexuality and The Birth
of Biopolitics), whose influence on American literary scholarship, especially that focused
on gender and sexuality, has been extensive for the past several decades. Moreover,
biocultures scholarship engages with a wide range of texts; for example, essays in a
2007 special issue of New Literary History on “Biocultures” deal with healing in classical literature, literary adaptation and evolutionary adaptation, a global health video
series, representations of breastfeeding in mass media, policy documents, scholarly
criticism, the rhetoric of medical racism, tropical medicine in eighteenth-century
British travel literature, and the impact of Victorian literature on health policy of that
era. This list of contents alone indicates the extent to which the biocultures paradigm
expands our notion of the literary and the national to encompass nonfiction and visual
texts that can tell us a great deal about the world outside of the university, as well as
the world outside of the hospital.
As two thriving movements in literary studies that directly engage the question
of the relationship between humanities and the sciences, narrative medicine and the
growing movement toward biocultures will form the focus of this chapter. After
providing a critical genealogy of these terms emphasizing their engagement with the
rhetoric of relevance, the chapter will then argue for a broader understanding of narrative textuality that includes the multiple, heterogeneous sites and media through
which patients collectively produce meanings about their own health and disease. A
central element of this methodology involves paying attention to the flow and transformation of meaning as medical images and texts move through the seemingly
Kirsten Ostherr
different interpretive frameworks of science and popular culture. Emphasizing this
flow across boundaries of genre, production, and consumption also entails a challenge
to notions of spatial boundaries. While bioculture works differently in different geopolitical contexts, it is defined through operations of power that undermine the
concept of national specificity in favor of transnational movements of bodies, technologies, and media. The transnational qualities of biomedicine shape the practices of
doctors who train outside their nation of origin, the pharmaceutical industry that tests
drugs in strategically selected national markets for use in other markets, the bodies
of patients engaged in medical tourism, and so forth. Biotextuality thus challenges
– and provides new opportunities for – American literary studies by questioning the
significance of national borders, and noting the often contradictory ways that these
borders signify as sites of bodily surveillance and regulation even as they become
increasingly porous at the level of culture. This chapter will thus expand our conception of textuality to include the ways that medical images shape patients’ subjectivity
both in conjunction with and in opposition to the meanings generated by national
literary histories.
From Narrative Medicine to Biocultures
The field of literature and medicine has been taught in US medical schools since
1972, and was founded by scholars including Joanne Trautmann Banks, Julia Connelly,
Anne Hunsaker Hawkins, Kathryn Montgomery Hunter, Anne Hudson Jones,
Martha Montello, and Suzanne Poirier, but Rita Charon has arguably done more to
establish and advocate for the field than any other scholar. (Interestingly, although
some English departments have taught courses in literature and medicine since the
mid-1990s, the practice of narrative medicine is still almost exclusively taught within
medical schools, not literature departments.) Charon began teaching at Columbia
University College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1982, and while teaching in the
medical school, she completed an MA in English in 1990 and a PhD in 1999
(National Library of Medicine). Charon first published in the as-yet-unnamed field of
narrative medicine in 1989, and founded the Program in Humanities and Medicine
in the Department of Medicine at Columbia University in 1996 (Program in Narrative
Medicine). In 2000, the program was renamed the Program in Narrative Medicine.
After more than a decade of publishing articles and teaching on narrative competence
to medical students and clinical practitioners, Charon published the groundbreaking
Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness in 2006. The book is widely seen as
the definitive articulation of the methodologies of narrative medicine, including the
practice Charon developed early in her career called the “parallel chart,” in which
medical students and other clinicians narrate their own experiences of caring for the
patients they see every day (Charon, Narrative Medicine 156). In the fall of 2009, the
program launched a master of science degree program in narrative medicine, the first
graduate program of its kind, to much acclaim and publicity.2
Narrative Medicine and Biocultures
In the preface to Narrative Medicine (2006), Charon argues for the relevance of the
new methodology she describes:
What this field brings to both clinical practice and narrative theory seem to be exactly
what each field needs. . . . My hypothesis in this work is that what medicine lacks today
– in singularity, humility, accountability, empathy – can, in part, be provided through
intensive narrative training. Literary studies and narrative theory, on the other hand,
seek practical ways to transduce their conceptual knowledge into palpable influence in
the world, and a connection with health care can do that. (vii)
Later in the book, Charon elaborates on the common features of medical and narrative
practice, arguing that both are
suffused with attention to life’s temporal horizons, with the commitment to describe
the singular, with the urge to uncover plot (even though much of what occurs in its
realm is, sadly, random and plotless), and with an awareness of the intersubjective and
ethical nature of healing. (Charon, Narrative Medicine 39)
Thoroughly versed in literary theory, Charon presents a compelling translation of the
insights of autobiographical theory, French critical theory of the 1960s, life writing
in identity movements, and postmodernist theories of subjectivity as they relate to
parallel developments in medical research (Charon, Narrative Medicine 65–83). In so
doing, Charon provides a clear articulation of the precise, highly skilled practices that
constitute literary analysis, and by reframing these techniques for medical, rather than
literary, readers, Charon invests acts that might be taken for granted by their own
practitioners with a clear use-value.
Citing and building upon the work of Charon and others in the field of narrative
medicine, the Program in Medical Humanities and Arts at the University of California,
Irvine, describes its mission:
[T]o achieve the following objectives embodied in the concept of narrative competence:
stimulate skills of close observation and careful interpretation of patients’ language and
behavior; develop imagination and curiosity about patients’ experiences; enhance
empathy for patients’ and family members’ perspectives; encourage relationship and
emotional connection with patients; emphasize a whole-person understanding of
patients; and promote reflection on experience and its meaning. (Shapiro and Rucker
This program and many others across the United States and around the world have
founded their practice of medical humanism on the techniques of narrative analysis,
offering a unique example of the “applicability” of literary study to real-world, “life
and death” issues.3 The institutionalization of these practices within traditional sites
of medical education bolsters the relevance of graduate study in English and American
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literature, even while this location within the formative training structures of biomedicine opens the field to criticism from the perspective of biocultures.
Following a roughly contemporaneous timeline, but less clearly defined and less
institutionalized throughout its history, biocultures has achieved an increasingly distinct identity in the past decade, in part through academic initiatives such as Project
Biocultures. Based at the University of Illinois, Chicago, Project Biocultures was
founded in 2003 by Lennard Davis, a professor with joint appointments in English
and Disability and Human Development, and continues under Davis’s direction today.
The interdisciplinary project defines its stakeholders broadly to include the medical
sciences, social sciences, area studies, cultural studies, biotechnology, disability studies,
humanities, and economic and global environment (Project Biocultures). Davis defines
“biocultures” as
the activity and consolidation of ideas created when the human intersects with the
technological. Along these lines, one can see the biosphere – the earth as it is affected
by the human – as the adaptation of the natural to the human and biocultures as the
inter-adaptation of the human to the new technologies and ways of knowing characterized by the 21st century’s attitude toward the body. (Project Biocultures)
In 2007 Lennard Davis and David Morris published a “Biocultures Manifesto” as
part of a special issue of the journal New Literary History on “Biocultures” (described
above). The authors argue that “culture and history must be rethought with an
understanding of their inextricable, if highly variable, relation to biology,” and it is
this phenomenon of inextricability that they term “biocultures” (Davis and Morris
411). Though written in the manifesto form of a call to action, the authors acknowledge that, in fact, scholars in a wide range of disciplines have been working on
“biocultures” for decades, at least since C.P. Snow famously described the growing
divide between the sciences and the humanities in his 1959 essay “The Two Cultures.”
However, Davis and Morris note that much of this work has transpired without a
recognized umbrella term or institutional home (such as narrative medicine or
medical humanities) to link diverse research in interdisciplinary fields such as public
health, disability studies, African American literary and cultural studies, queer
studies, and others. As a result, scholars in these fields have often developed their
own methodologies for bridging the cultural and the biological, often isolated from
scholarship in other disciplines that also aims to highlight the relevance of crossdisciplinary approaches to knowledge. Thus, the “Biocultures Manifesto” argues for
a new methodology, noting,
In the end, all branches of knowledge interpret. . . . Biocultures argues for a community
of interpreters, across disciplines, willing to learn from each other. . . . What we need
now is a way that students in the humanities can learn how to do experiments and that
students in science can learn about philosophy and theory. (Davis and Morris 416)
Narrative Medicine and Biocultures
One answer to this call for action might be the practice of training medical scientists
in literary study, as the field of narrative medicine advocates; another might be the
practice of training literary historians in the fields of life sciences.
Following on these lines of argument, Bradley Lewis, MD, PhD, an affiliated
member of Project Biocultures and editorial board member of The Journal of Medical
Humanities, presented an invited lecture at the American Society for Bioethics and
Humanities Spring 2009 meeting that was specifically solicited as a “Provocation” on
the question of the relevance of medical humanities to “patient care and clinical practice” (Lewis 9). Embracing the opportunity to provoke, Lewis argued that “the crisis
in healthcare is the mirror image of the crisis in humanities.” Lewis continues,
The humanities, in short, have become increasingly worthless to the culture at large.
For humanities to gain value again, they have to contribute directly to solving problems
people care about – like helping the culture move beyond its current crisis in meaning
regarding living and dying (previously known as the healthcare crisis). (Lewis 10)
Despite the hyperbolic tone of his critique of both the humanities and “biomedical
reductionism run amuck and out of balance,” Lewis pushes for a shift from the institutionalized practice of medical humanities to biocultures as a way of rethinking the
importance attached to different types of knowledge production. Significantly, Lewis
emphasizes the need for more attention to epistemologies through close reading of
biomedical truth claims – a practice of literary analysis: “we can’t consider facts
without also considering the value context in which those facts come into being”
(Lewis 10). In other words, humanities scholarship produced within the normative
framework of medical research cannot fully analyze the structures of power that shape
what counts as scientific evidence while simultaneously attempting to satisfy the same
evidentiary criteria. Instead, Lewis argues, new methodologies from outside the standard practice of medicine must be employed to reshape our analysis of the healthcare
crisis, just as the insights of medical research into human subjectivity must be
embraced to reshape the research program of the humanities. Lewis concludes succinctly, “The humanities cannot save itself without also saving medicine. Medicine
cannot save itself without also saving humanities” (10).
On the basis of these three interventions into the “crisis in the humanities,” we
can see that, despite their varied approaches, Charon, Davis, and Lewis all identify
interdisciplinary methodologies that bridge the humanities and the sciences as the
essential solutions to the problem of relevance. For the second half of this chapter, I
will discuss the implications of these proposals for our understanding of the future of
medicine within American literary studies as it encompasses image-based narratives
that circulate both within and beyond the boundaries of the United States. As
Nicholas Rose, director of BIOS Centre at the London School of Economics, has
cogently argued, the field of biomedicine functions through parallel operations in
the developed world, which enjoys maximum access to the latest innovations in
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biotechnology, and the less developed world, which is often the ground on which new
developments are pioneered, but which enjoys almost none of the expensive benefits
of this research (Rose 5–6). However, despite this imbalance, Rose demonstrates,
The two universes are, in fact, linked by multiple circuits of collaboration, exchange
and, of exploitation. . . . Circuits of tissues (the global trade in organs), of research
(researchers collecting DNA from populations in isolated regions in the search for the
genomic basis of diseases), of scientists and knowledge themselves (biomedical science
being a truly global activity). And, of course, they are linked by the ways in which
pharmaceuticals are licensed and exported from the developed to the less developed
world. (14–15)
As the underlying principles upon which the contemporary practice of biomedicine
depends, these points of intersection remind us of the complex global networks of
power that subtend the production of medical narratives and images within the
United States. Moreover, the sheer prevalence of immigrants within American hospitals – as medical specialists, technicians, and patients – underscores the extent to
which we must consider the boundaries defining the American literary experience of
biomedicine to be continually open to global intervention.
Medicine’s Visual Culture
Despite its many advantages, a key limitation in the methods of narrative medicine
is the narrow emphasis on written texts. While close attention to the multilayered
meanings of words and stories is essential to the practice of narrative competence, the
exclusion of visual images limits our ability to interpret the significance of medical
imaging as well as medicine’s broader visual culture. The examples offered by Stanley
Reiser’s recent book, Technological Medicine: The Changing World of Doctors and Patients
(2009), offer compelling evidence for the importance of understanding the role of
medical images in our understanding of health and disease. Reiser critiques how
technologies interfere with the doctor-patient relationship, and consequently interfere
with the practice of narrative medicine. In his foundational example, Reiser demonstrates how the invention of the stethoscope began to shift the practice of medicine
away from patient narratives (the domain of literary study) and toward instrumentbased evidence. As Reiser explains, “Before stethoscopes, the coin of evaluation was
words – the doctor learned about an illness from the patient’s story of the events and
sensations marking its passage” (1). The stethoscope “reformulated the relationship
between doctors and patients, through the use of an instrument that took the mantle
of illness out of the hands of patients and placed it in the doctor’s orbit” (Reiser 7–8).
In addition to this example, Reiser also considers the X-ray, ultrasound, and a range
of other medical technologies, most of which function as diagnostic imaging devices.
The ultimate objective of Reiser’s analysis, “to harmonize the technological with the
Narrative Medicine and Biocultures
social and humanistic spheres of medicine” (Reiser 201), suggests an implicit affinity
with biocultures, highlighting how changes in the practice of medicine itself require
an expanded notion of textuality that moves out from the patient’s words to incorporate intervening tools of signification, such as the stethoscope. By opening up the
domain of inquiry to encompass both written and visual texts, biocultures offers a
fuller, more interdisciplinary engagement with the contemporary global field of biomedicine, without sacrificing the nuanced interpretive strategies of close textual
analysis gained through literary study. However, neither narrative medicine nor biocultures highlights the privileged status of visuality in the contemporary practice of
medicine, and, as Reiser’s work suggests, without this focus the humanist intervention
into scientific medicine lacks a fundamental, historically specific analytical
Thus far, we have attended to the contributions of narrative medicine and biocultures in shifting our thinking about the meanings of textuality and national borders,
and our methods for analyzing biomedicine. I now want to argue for the importance
of attending to the cultural life of medical images outside of the clinical setting, and
their function in shaping doctors’ and patients’ ideas about health and disease.
Although it is essential to understand how a specific medical image, such as an
echocardiogram, shapes a specific patient’s and a specific doctor’s ideas about the health
of a specific heart, my analysis will not end there. Rather, I propose assessment of the
broader impact of a wide range of medical images – both clinical and fictional – that
we encounter in our daily lives, often without even noticing them. In other words,
we must understand the many different visual images of health and disease that
patients may take in – both intentionally and unwittingly – which may in turn shape
their medical decisions, both consciously and unconsciously. In the course of considering this vast array of images, it is also important to note that the specific types of
medical imaging one encounters in daily life will vary widely, and, outside of the
clinical setting, these renderings are rarely identified as specific types of imaging
(computed tomography [CT], magnetic resonance imaging [MRI], etc.) with specific
indications or specific functions. Our attention to the specificity of medical images in
this section will allow us to reframe the status of literary study by considering how
image-based narratives about health and disease require the methods of both visual
culture and literature to engage the full range of biocultural signification at work in
these texts.
As a method for engaging the images within and beyond the clinic, “medical visual
culture” will serve to name the analytical framework for considering how images that
are produced in one realm are often consumed in another, wholly different realm that
might radically transform their meaning. Adapting the work of Marita Sturken and
Lisa Cartwright in Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture (2009), this
section will discuss the conceptual significance of the mobility of medical visual
culture in our contemporary image-saturated, digitally connected society, where the
boundaries that have historically divided expert production of medical visualizations
from lay consumption of those images have become quite permeable. The first point
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to note about medical visual culture is that the term encompasses both production
and consumption. In the past two decades, visual art has become a central aspect of
medical center design, and many hospitals now host evidence-based programs that
help patients produce artworks as part of their healing process (Ulrich 1779–81). At
the same time, many visual artists working in studios find the body to be a rich source
of imagery, and both sets of art objects are then consumed by patients, physicians,
and the general public (most of whom become patients at some point in their lives)
in a diversity of settings. For example, curators brought together artists from the
Orange County, California, Center for Contemporary Art with imaging specialists
from the Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo, California, to produce an art show called
The Art of Imaging in February 2009, and the exhibit included artworks that manipulated X-rays and CT scans to produce complex images that foregrounded the aesthetic
qualities that are inherent in all visual representations but often suppressed within
the clinical setting.
The second key point is that the term “visual culture” is heterogeneous, meaning
it encompasses a wide range of media, including what have historically been termed
“high art,” such as the famous Thomas Eakins painting The Agnew Clinic (1889), as
well as “low art,” such as pharmaceutical advertisements or episodes of the contemporary television series Grey’s Anatomy. In addition to images whose content is medical,
such as the Eakins painting, medicine’s visual culture also includes artworks whose
aesthetics are inspired by medical technologies of visualization, whether directly or
indirectly. For example, art historians have noted the creative inspiration that
Surrealists, Cubists, and other avant-garde artists have gained from X-ray imaging
since the late nineteenth century; many have identified Marcel Duchamp’s Nude
Descending a Staircase (1912) as an exemplary artwork influenced by the visual perception of bodily fragmentation produced through X-ray imaging. Indeed, the history
of art is full of such examples, continuing in the present not only through art exhibits
such as The Art of Imaging (described above) but also through artists such as Eduardo
Kac, who uses biological experiments as the process for generating his artworks,
producing what he calls “transgenic art” or “bio art” (Kac xi). Kac famously created
Alba, the “Green Fluorescent Bunny,” in 2000, through a synthetic mutation of the
original wild-type green fluorescent gene found in certain jellyfish (Kac 266). A final
example of recent art that blends scientific and artistic forms of visualization is the
Visible Human Project at the National Library of Medicine (NLM), which is publicized on the NLM website through an image that blends the sixteenth-century anatomical illustrations of Vesalius with the 3D computerized anatomy enabled through
this project, emphasizing through the pixellation of the figure’s forearm the essential
role played by digital computing in this quantum leap forward in medical imaging.
Thus, we can see that an important feature of medicine’s visual culture is that it
includes images that are typically taken seriously, such as paintings by celebrated
American artists, and images that are typically dismissed as part of the detritus of
commercial popular culture. Moreover, medicine’s visual culture also includes scientific images, such as photographs of cell cultures, as well as anatomical specimens,
Narrative Medicine and Biocultures
such as those collected in the Mütter Museum at the College of Physicians of
The final, and perhaps most important, point to note in this brief overview of
medical visual culture is that, although the term refers to a vast collection of material
objects, it is a fluid, constantly evolving field of representation whose meaning changes
over time and in different contexts. Advertisements from the 1940s–1950s that use
physicians to promote cigarettes are a clear example of this contextual fluidity of
meaning.4 This point highlights the methodological necessity of blending analysis of
images and text in relation to their medical and cultural contexts to understand how
specific meanings are generated for specific audiences at a specific moment in time.
One of the fundamental tenets of the “visual culture” approach to medicine is that
the very process of representing the human body, whether literary, clinical, or artistic,
and whether based on biology or more abstract philosophical concepts, shapes our
understanding of that body, including our perceptions of what is normal and what is
pathological, and what is health and what is disease. This concept can be clearly seen
in the cultural circulation of medical imaging, and the remainder of this chapter will
address the question of how technologies of medical visualization and image-based
narratives have shaped the ways that doctors and patients see bodies, health, and
From the early anatomical illustrations of Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica (1543)
to the mid-nineteenth-century publication of Gray’s Anatomy: Descriptive and Surgical
Theory (1858), the development of improved techniques of medical visualization has
often been driven by a combined need for educational and diagnostic tools. All of the
now familiar technologies from the X-ray through ultrasound, MRI, positron emission
tomography (PET), CT scans, and functional MRI (fMRI) have profoundly altered the
way physicians practice medicine, and have resulted in major advances in the ability
to diagnose and treat disease. They have also generated a great deal of public interest,
as evidenced by the multitude of exhibits on medical imaging at museums of science
and by their coverage in the popular press. Indeed, the public and professional interest
in expanding the capabilities of medical imaging, especially as a means toward minimally invasive medicine, means that new devices sometimes drive medical practice
before their benefits have been proven (Kolata). We might thus question the cultural
significance of medical imaging by asking how modes of perception and representation
move between medical science, art, and popular culture. We might further ask how
we perceive the boundaries between scientific and artistic techniques of visualization.
Images produced in a clinical setting are usually treated as carrying objective, scientific data, while art objects are usually understood as providing subjective, aesthetic
experiences. And yet the very appearance of medical imaging outside of the clinic
makes it difficult to define clear boundaries between objective and subjective, science
and art, and data and experience, even when the observational setting provides strong
interpretive cues (after all, one experiences an X-ray differently in a hospital than one
does in an art gallery, even if the same technology is involved in producing the
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One familiar example of imaging taking on extraclinical meanings comes from
the fetal sonogram, which has transcended its purely clinical application to become
a tool in political debates about abortion, as well as an emotional image often designated as the baby’s “first portrait” (Sturken and Cartwright 366; Taylor). These
imaging technologies, like all forms of representation, have a cultural life of their
own that exceeds their clinical application even as it shapes patients’ expectations
of the clinical encounter. The prevalence of medical imaging as a backdrop in medical
dramas and sitcoms on television underscores the popular function of these images
as vague but nonetheless powerful evidence of state-of-the-art, high-tech medical
practice. These representations promote medical imaging as a diagnostic cure-all
that functions narratively to ensure that any medical condition, no matter how rare,
can be identified through imaging, and, consequently, within the medical resourcerich world of television, a cure will be effected. Here we begin to see how imagebased narratives shape the production of biocultures through a blend of scientific
and popular representations.
Popular medical series, forensic dramas, nearly all of the programs on the Discovery
Health channel, as well as programs and advertisements that are not directly about
medicine all regularly display medical imaging – often as an incidental but nonetheless central element of what media scholars call the show’s mise-en-scène (that is, the
lighting, staging, sets, and props). Medical imaging now functions not only as a
signifier of the best (equated to highest technology) medical care but also as evidence
of an objectively accurate diagnosis that leads clearly and automatically to a cure.
Following this logic, another example of how visual images and narratives shape both
public response and clinical uses of a medium comes from the popular reception of
early scientific findings based on fMRI brain scans. Studies have claimed to identify
the neural locations of truth and lies, object recognition, romantic love, partisan politics, and gender differences in emotion regulation, to name a few (Greenemeier;
Grill-Spector; Fisher et al.; Knutson et al.; McRae et al.). Such images have been
widely critiqued by neuroscientists, but they have also gained enormous traction in
the mass media and among the general public.
Early findings based on fMRI have claimed to demonstrate how subjects perceive
and interpret visual and auditory information, suggesting the potential for this
medium to transform humanistic understanding of how we interpret images, narratives, and sounds. While such studies are frequently cited in the mass media for this
very potential, the humanistic implications of these studies tend to be connected
somewhat loosely to the more technical, biomedical aspects of the experiment, which
locate where and when cerebral blood oxygenation occurs under specific circumstances. One key act of interpretation thus occurs in the translation of the researchers’
findings as they are communicated through mass media, in both nonfiction medical
journalism and fictional depictions of fMRI on popular television programs.
Returning to the question of bridging the humanities and the sciences, we might
approach these image-based narratives differently, by asking how we know that these
nonclinical representations of medical imaging have an effect on their viewers. The
Narrative Medicine and Biocultures
scholarly study of media effects has existed since the 1930s, producing a wealth of
data – often contradictory – about the impact of print media such as journalism, as
well as radio, television, advertisements, motion pictures, and so forth, on their
viewers’ thoughts and behaviors. A brief review of some recent studies can illuminate
the state of the field today, especially concerning medical media. Not surprisingly,
the field of medicine that receives the most attention in this realm is public health
communication, as it is primarily concerned with media campaigns to change
unhealthy population behaviors to healthy ones. This practice focuses on explicit messages and their effectiveness in producing desired outcomes, and for the most part it
is not concerned with the impact of background information on viewers’ perceptions.5
Consequently, no studies have been conducted on the significance of the ubiquitous
depiction of medical-imaging technologies in mass media ranging from advertisements for hospitals, pharmaceuticals, mouthwash, cosmetics, and other products to
television dramas and sitcoms, motion pictures, print journalism, and, of course, the
Internet. Nonetheless, a number of studies have drawn relevant conclusions about
depictions of health and medicine in the mass media.
One major recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the University of
Southern California (USC) Annenberg Hollywood, Health & Society program called
“How Healthy Is Prime Time?” confirmed previous studies’ findings that “[f]or many
Americans television provides an important, often primary, source of health information” (Kaiser Family Foundation, How Healthy 1). The study elaborates, “Regardless
of whether the inclusion of a specific health issue was intentional or unintentional,
the health content in entertainment television has the potential to influence the public’s knowledge, attitudes, and behavior – for good or for bad” (Kaiser Family
Foundation, How Healthy 1). Two major factors in television’s powerful influence, the
study argues, are its enormous reach – the sheer size of the primetime audience on
the major networks (even with competition from cable and the Internet) – and its
ability to tell stories through familiar, appealing characters who reach viewers more
effectively than public service announcements by experts do, even when they are
fictional characters (Kaiser Family Foundation, How Healthy 1–2). Although narrative
theory only plays an implicit role in this study, such claims clearly depend on the
techniques of both visual and literary studies to explain the power of these fictional
image-based narratives.
Another major factor in television’s influence on viewers’ perceptions of health and
disease is the sheer number of top-rated programs that focus on issues of medicine
and/or forensic pathology. In these programs, the study finds that “unusual illnesses
or diseases appeared more than four times as often as heart disease, five times as often
as cancer, and more than 20 times as often as diabetes” (Kaiser Family Foundation,
How Healthy 6). This finding also confirms previous studies that have argued that
medical television focuses on acute and rare health conditions at the expense of the
chronic and common diseases that afflict the largest number of viewers, thus presenting a distorted view of disease prevalence and missing an opportunity to educate
viewers on issues directly relevant to their own health.
Kirsten Ostherr
A feature of these representations that is not discussed in this study but that I have
identified through my own research is the role of medical imaging in enhancing the
dramatic potential of storylines featuring rare conditions. In these programs, diagnosis
is essential to the production of narrative closure, which, in turn, is essential to a
satisfying viewing experience. Medical imaging functions in these shows as an anchor
to the real; when a diagnosis is in question, the automatic line of dialogue is “Let’s
run an MRI,” and this is equally true in fictional and nonfictional depictions of hospital encounters. Thus, popular understanding and acceptance of new medical-imaging techniques and procedures rely heavily upon a blend of images and narratives that
is neither wholly fact nor fiction. Given the inextricability of the visual, the literary,
and the larger institutional contexts (medicine and popular entertainment) in which
they appear, this example again demonstrates the necessity of blending narrative
medicine and biocultures to engage the full spectrum of discourses engaged in shaping
our understandings of health and disease.
The importance of medical imaging for popular understandings of health care is
not a new phenomenon; indeed, imaging technologies have defined high-tech, scientific medicine since the discovery of the X-ray, and this linkage has intensified over
the course of the twentieth century. In this context, diagnosis and cure have become
inextricably linked to imaging – patients have come to expect that if pathology can
be represented, it can be cured. Hospitals themselves use this popular association in
their print and television advertising, often showcasing the latest high-tech devices
without explaining their purpose. Importantly, pain and the suffering body are completely erased from these fragmented images, though the patient’s experience is precisely what narrative medicine can make available. From the beginnings of television
in the 1950s to today, medical ads and programs on TV have shaped viewers’ understandings of the body, health, and disease as well as their expectation that clinical
encounters proceed according to a clear narrative from health to disease and back to
health, and with a beginning, middle, and end; a dramatic climax; a clear chain of
causality; and strong closure. Medical storylines were a steady feature of television
programming from its earliest days in both dramatic and educational formats, health
care manufacturers sponsored TV programs, and television stars became their spokespeople. These storylines and the iconography they made famous did not solely serve
the purpose of entertainment, however. Numerous studies have demonstrated the
impact of pharmaceutical advertisements and other marketing tactics on physicians’
prescribing practices, even when the scientific literature contradicted the advertisements’ claims (Avorn et al.; Angell).
Other recent studies have proven the effectiveness of breast cancer storylines on
Grey’s Anatomy and ER, the impact of an HIV education storyline of Grey’s Anatomy,
the neglect of health policy issues on televised medical dramas, the impact of AIDSrelated episodes of the soap operas The Bold and the Beautiful and General Hospital, the
effects of an ER storyline about teen obesity and hypertension, and the impact of
condom efficacy information in an episode of the sitcom Friends, to name a few (Hether
et al; Kaiser Family Foundation, Television; Kaiser Family Foundation, As Seen; Kennedy
et al.; Valente et al.; Collins et al.). Meanwhile, hospitals have long produced videos
Narrative Medicine and Biocultures
for patient education, and many are now actively courting new patients by streaming
live surgery footage to their websites, which is then available for later viewing by
prospective patients and other surgical voyeurs on YouTube, the hospital’s Facebook
page, and countless other websites.6
In light of the consensus amongst many social scientists, physicians, cultural critics,
pharmaceutical companies, and hospital administrators that medical images and narratives ranging from clinical texts to popular fictions exert a powerful influence on
their viewers (whether they are patients or doctors), it is easy to understand how
scholarship in this field might seem to solve the purported crisis in the humanities.
But an interesting twist on the claims of relevance to “real-world” biomedicine by
both narrative medicine and biocultures is the recent publication of research on the
role of humanities education in undergraduate premedical and medical education.
While support for humanities-based methods of analysis is widespread, and medical
humanities courses are now on the curriculum of almost every medical school in the
United States, the emphasis on textual specificity – of both words and images – makes
these approaches resistant to quantifiable outcomes measures. In our era of “evidencebased medicine,” some researchers have recently argued that it is necessary to prove
the long-term benefit of practices such as narrative medicine to justify their place in
medical school and residency training (Ousager and Johannessen). In response, medical
humanists (led by literary scholars) have argued,
The humanities resist the homogenization of social science metrics, for our focus is on
the specific and particular, exactly those aspects of human texts that resist reduction.
We value fine distinctions, even at the risk of defaulting to an n value of 1. This is
precisely why the humanities are so valuable to medicine, for we offer a counterpart to
the necessary reductions of the natural sciences. (Belling 940)
We can see from this recent exchange that the debate about hierarchical systems of
knowledge production and the relative status of the humanities and the sciences will
not be settled any time soon. However, from the point of view of American literary
studies, the ongoing discussion of the relevance of broadly defined, multimedia textual
analysis to the multidisciplinary fields of biomedicine affirms the value of adapting
the reading and writing practices of advanced literary scholarship to the problems of
the “real world.” It seems that the scientists are listening.
These examples are drawn from the curricula
at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School
of Medicine, the New York University School
of Medicine, and the Program in Medical
Humanities and Arts at the University of
California, Irvine, College of Medicine.
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See http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/03/
education/edlife/03narrative.html. Although
Columbia’s program in narrative medicine is
unique, several other important graduate programs in medical humanities, which include
training in narrative medicine, preceded its
establishment. The oldest PhD program in
medical humanities is at the Institute for
Medical Humanities at the University of
Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, which was
founded in 1988; see http://www.utmb.edu/imh/
3. For a thorough review of existing medical
humanities programs circa 2003, see Academic
Medicine vol. 78, no. 10 (October 2003),
which includes both lengthy and abbreviated
descriptions and analyses of 13 programs in
the United States as well as nine international
programs. For an updated list of medical
humanities programs around the world, see
4. The irony of these advertisements has recently
been highlighted on the AMC television series
Mad Men, which features a storyline about a
tobacco ad campaign that discusses the use of
physicians to promote cigarettes. For an excellent selection of historical advertisements and
essays on related topics, see “Medicine and
Madison Avenue,” http://library.duke.edu/
5. An exception is the field of public health that
analyzes the incidental appearance of cigarettes or alcohol in movies or television programs, such as the “Smoke Free Movies”
project at the Center for Tobacco Control,
Research and Education in the University of
California, San Francisco (UCSF), School of
Medicine; see http://www.smokefreemovies.
6. The practice of live-streaming surgical video
was pioneered by Methodist University
Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, in April
2009, when it webcast an awake craniotomy
procedure. For the video, see http://www.
orlive.com/methodisthealth/videos/awake craniotomy?cmpid=active_redirect. For discussion of this practice in the New York Times,
health/25hospital.html?scp = 2 & sq = awake
%20craniotomy&st=cse. For an insightful
and data-rich blog on hospital and socialnetworking media by a hospital information
technology (IT) administrator, see http://
References and Further Reading
Angell, Marcia. The Truth about the Drug Companies:
How They Deceive Us and What to Do about It.
New York: Random House, 2005.
Avorn, J., M. Chen, and R. Hartley. “Scientific
versus Commercial Sources of Influence on the
Prescribing Behavior of Physicians.” American
Journal of Medicine 73 (1982): 4–8.
Belling, Catherine. “Sharper Instruments: On
Defending the Humanities in Undergraduate
Medical Education.” Academic Medicine 85, no. 6
(2010): 938–40.
BIOS. “About BIOS.” London School of Economics.
Charon, Rita. “Doctor-Patient/Reader-Writer:
Learning to Find the Text.” Soundings 72 (1989):
Charon, Rita. Narrative Medicine: Honoring the
Stories of Illness. New York: Oxford University
Press, 2006.
Charon, R., J. T. Banks, J. E. Connelly, A. H.
Hawkins, K. M. Hunter, A. H. Jones, et al.
“Literature and Medicine: Contributions to
Clinical Practice.” Annals of Internal Medicine
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Collins, Rebecca L., Marc N. Elliott, Sandra H.
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Performance Anxieties: The
A-Literary Companions of
American Literary Studies
Catherine Gunther Kodat
For a long time now, the dalliances in American literary studies with subjects not
obviously literary have involved deciding which, not whether. The intellectual or
political formations understood as enabling such liaisons today – interdisciplinarity,
for instance, or transnationalism – might lead us to see this itch to roam as a fairly
recent phenomenon. But in fact the peripatetic tendencies of American literary scholars are part of the story of the emergence of literary studies as such in the United
States, as the career of Francis James Child (1825–96) illustrates. First to be called
professor of English at Harvard University, Child conducted research on Chaucer and
Spenser, but he is probably best known today for his work as a folklorist and ballad
collector and for his service as founding member and two-term president of the
American Folklore Society. When we consider how Child’s extraliterary work was
continued and expanded by his Harvard successor, the Chaucerian George Lyman
Kittredge (1860–1941) – an expansion that included mentoring the legendary
American folklorist John A. Lomax – we might be tempted to propose that professors
of English in (and of) the United States are best understood not as donnish guardians
of the canon but rather as academic sodbusters, out to stake a claim for the literary
cultivation of every neighboring field.
To be sure, this reading of the role that extra- or a-literary studies have played in
the growth of the American department of English literature is a bit of a back formation: Child’s and Kittredge’s seeming divagations are in large part a function of their
training in academic subjects (philology, rhetoric, oratory) that – before their migration or exile into new departmental homes (anthropology, theatre, communication)
– were considered native to the land of literature. On the one hand, acknowledging
A Companion to American Literary Studies, First Edition. Edited by Caroline F. Levander,
Robert S. Levine.
© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2011 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Catherine Gunther Kodat
this back formation does the reassuring service of reminding us that literary study in
the United States is a historical construct: objects and methods of analysis whose claim
to literariness might raise an eyebrow today once had little trouble finding their places
in anthologies, syllabi, and lecture notes. On the other hand, it does the perhaps
somewhat anxiety-inducing service of reminding us that American literary study (like
the study of literature in the United States) is no less historically constructed: almost
nothing signified by its central terms – not “literary,” and most certainly not
“American” – is self-evident or immutable.
This chapter examines one of American literary studies’ most recent explorations
of putatively extra- or a-literary subjects and methodologies, the fin de 20eme siècle
fascination with “performance.” It adopts a two-step approach. First, I provide an
overview of the rise and consequences (to this point, at least) of the interest within
American literary studies both in the interpretive uses of the concept of linguistic
performativity and in performances as objects of analysis, noting along the way the
contested terms and territory lying between literary and performance studies. I then
offer a reading of three intimately, if problematically, related early Cold War US works
of literature, music, and dance: W.H. Auden’s 1947 “baroque eclogue” The Age of
Anxiety; Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2 (1949), subtitled The Age of Anxiety and
directly inspired by Auden’s work; and Jerome Robbins’s lost 1950 ballet, The Age of
Anxiety, set to Bernstein’s symphony and taking its action from Auden’s poem. As
my choice of works suggests, both overview and analysis share the aim of describing
the particular set of anxieties that are both managed and produced by American literary studies’ engagements with performance. These would include not only the
extremely longstanding (perhaps constitutive) anxieties informing efforts to define
both the American and the literary, but also a relatively newly emerged set of issues
clustering around the word “performance” itself as it circulates within the worlds of
art, finance, technology, sport, sex, and education. To call this chapter a “performance
assessment” of performance is perhaps to name one of the anxiety-producing ways in
which these new understandings of performance are making themselves felt within
American literary studies.
Ages and Stages
First defined and described by the British philosopher John Langshaw Austin in a
1955 series of lectures at Harvard University (lectures posthumously collected and
published in 1962 as How to Do Things with Words), the concept of linguistic performativity enjoyed a fairly quiet early life, coming of age largely within that AngloAmerican cloister of analytic philosophy concerned with clarifying the role of language
in producing knowledge. In a manner very much in keeping with analytic practice,
Austin sought to identify and describe the properties of two fundamental kinds of
speech acts: constative utterances, which are descriptive and so presumably falsifiable,
and performative utterances, “in which to say something is to do something” (Austin
A-Literary Companions of Literary Studies
12; emphasis in original). Austin’s now-famous examples of performative utterances
include the marriage vow (“I do . . . take this woman to be my lawful wedded wife”),
naming (“I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth”), giving (“as occurring in a will”),
betting (“I bet you sixpence it will rain tomorrow”), and promising (one of “the more
awe-inspiring performatives” [Austin 5, 9]). Austin wants to explore the relationship
these kinds of utterances have to commonsense notions of truth, and this interest leads
him, quite early on, to exclude as impertinent to his analysis what he terms the “parasitic” “etiolations” of vowing, naming, giving, betting, and promising when “said by
an actor on the stage, or . . . introduced in a poem” (22). These theatrical and literary
instances safely set aside, performative utterances, Austin asserts, cannot be true or
false in the same way that “the truth of the constative utterance ‘he is running’ depends
on his being running” (47). Rather, they are either “felicitous” (“happy”) or “infelicitous” (“unhappy”): marriages are entered into, names adopted, gifts given, bets
honored, and promises kept – or not.
Over the course of a dozen lectures, Austin systematically refines and elaborates
his understanding of the performative in terms of its felicity or infelicity, an endeavor
that has the remarkable effect of amplifying our appreciation of the multiple and
complex ways in which words may be said to create reality while systematically
eroding the fundamental operating distinction between performative and constative
utterances. Austin straightforwardly acknowledges this erosion in his final lecture,
where he counsels against doctrinaire efforts to maintain “the performative/constative
distinction” in favor of a more wide-ranging project of philosophical taxonomy that
would identify “general families of related and overlapping speech acts” (150, emphasis
in original). Such a project focuses less on questions of performative felicity or infelicity than on issues of context and force, and it would be continued in the decade
immediately following Austin’s death by John R. Searle (and, more recently, by
Stanley Cavell).
To discreetly abandon a distinction, however, is not the same as actively interrogating it, and it is not surprising, in retrospect, that Jacques Derrida saw in Austin’s
performative-constative opposition an opportunity to advance his project of deconstruction. Derrida’s 1971 essay “Signature Event Context” (English translation 1977),
though in many ways appreciative of Austin’s project, bears down on the philosopher’s
decision to preemptively exclude from his analysis those so-called parasitic, etiolated,
nonserious, and nonordinary performative utterances that, Derrida observes, chiefly
serve to highlight the discomfiting “possibility for every performative utterance (and
a priori every other utterance) to be ‘quoted’ ” (“Signature” 16). Whether the impertinent performative is literarily framed or theatrically staged, Derrida notes that “it
is as just such a ‘parasite’ that writing has always been treated by the philosophical
tradition” (“Signature” 17). This observation opens onto a deconstruction of the
performative-constative distinction in a manner similar to Derrida’s famous interrogation, in “Plato’s Pharmacy” (1968; English translation 1981), of the writing-speech
opposition central to Plato’s Phaedrus. In “Signature Event Context,” Derrida deconstructs the performative-constative distinction so as to replace the notion that it
Catherine Gunther Kodat
accurately identifies two very different uses of language with an awareness of how
citation, quotation, and iterability destabilize the distinction by admitting the powers
of fiction in the construction of philosophical truth. In a follow-up essay (“Limited
Inc”), Derrida asserts that this understanding of the performative-constative relationship as simultaneously constitutive and deconstructive has political consequences:
[O]nce iterability has established the possibility . . . of a certain fictionality altering at
once . . . the system of . . . intentions and the systems of . . . rules or of . . . conventions, inasmuch as they are included within the scope of iterability; once this parasitism
or fictionality can always add another parasitic or fictional structure to whatever has
preceded it . . . everything becomes possible against the language-police; for example
“literatures” or “revolutions” that as yet have no model. (99–100)
Among other things, Derrida’s deconstruction of the performative-constative opposition served to push theories of linguistic performativity onto the center stage of
“theory” more broadly construed: cast as the lead in Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble,
the newly empowered, highly transgressive, and proudly defiant performative seemed
determined to fulfill its potential to make “everything . . . possible against the language police.” Folding political, philosophical, and psychoanalytic insights drawn
from the works of Michel Foucault and Jacques Lacan into the deconstructive project
opened by Derrida, Butler proposes that the various “acts, gestures, [and] enactments”
conventionally seen as (constative) articulations of an interior “truth” of gender are,
performative in the sense that the essence or identity that they otherwise purport to
express are fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and other
discursive means. That the gendered body is performative suggests that it has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality. (Gender 173,
emphasis in original)
By expanding Derrida’s inquiry into how to do things with words to include an
appreciation of how to do things with hair, clothes, makeup, and gesture, Butler
argues that gender is nothing more – though also nothing less – than a performative
utterance in the deconstructive sense: “neither true nor false, neither real nor apparent,
neither original nor derived” (Gender 180). In a justly famous move, Butler rereads
drag, cross-dressing, and “the sexual stylization of butch/femme identities” as staging
precisely the sort of gender revolutions that Derrida claimed a proper appreciation of
performativity would make possible: “drag fully subverts the distinction between
inner and outer psychic space and effectively mocks both the expressive model of
gender and the notion of a true gender identity” (Gender 174). Butler grounds her
theoretically developed point in the fieldwork of anthropologist Esther Newton,
whose 1972 study Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America does the service not
only of providing Butler with an important reading of drag as imbued with revolutionary potential but also of making clear how anthropological approaches to the
A-Literary Companions of Literary Studies
interpretation of culture might link the study of the politics of linguistic performativity – a project that would quickly be claimed by literary scholars, and largely through
their readings of Gender Trouble – to the study of the politics of performance: that is,
performance studies. Butler’s strongest disciplinary identification is with philosophy,
but Gender Trouble owes a great debt to anthropology – signaled, perhaps, by the last
footnote of the book, which is not to the writings of Derrida, G.W.F. Hegel, Friedrich
Nietzsche, or Simone de Beauvoir (all of whose thought informs Butler’s project) but
rather to the work of Victor Turner and Clifford Geertz. If it remains the case today
that, as Andrew Parker and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick put it more than a decade ago,
“the link between performativity and performance . . . [is] . . . an active question”
(8), we might attribute some of that ongoing uncertainty to the larger active interrogation of the nature of the link between anthropology and literature – or, to put it
another way (and to name another source of anxiety), between the social sciences and
the humanities.
In any event, Butler’s linking of the deconstructive understanding of linguistic
performativity with an appeal to the subversive possibilities of performance proved
enormously fruitful throughout the 1990s and into the early years of the twenty-first
century. Certainly the most well-known consequence has been the emergence of queer
theory within (or next to) gay and lesbian studies, but literary scholars also drew upon
various aspects of the argument to craft new approaches to longstanding interpretive
issues in autobiography (Smith and Watson) and in the construction of an authorial
self (Watson). There were consequences for more traditional and historicist modes of
literary analysis, as well. A key text in this regard, one crucial to a proper understanding of the growing importance of performance in American literary studies, is Jay
Fliegelman’s extraordinary revisionist interpretation of the Declaration of Independence
as a script intended for realization in public “declarations” – an interpretation arising
from his analysis, clearly influenced by the new research in performativity and performance, of the eighteenth-century “elocution revolution” and its mission to refashion oratory into a public staging of the private self. Declaring Independence set the terms
not only for a transformed understanding of the Declaration but also for a dramatically
different kind of scholarly project, realized in Fliegelman’s decision to forgo a reading
of the Declaration as an “artifact” (4) “fixed . . . immutable . . . [and] . . . falsely
[equated] . . . to formal legislation, legality and permanence” (21) in favor of developing a more wide-ranging, historically sensitive understanding of “ ‘declaring’ as performance and . . . ‘independence’ as something that is rhetorically performed” (4).
Fliegelman demonstrated the rich interpretive possibilities offered by performativity
and performance not only for an understanding of key subjects, forms, and modes of
address in American literature but also for an understanding of the United States itself
as a nation conceived in the midst of a “revolution in self-expression” (196) that aimed
to make “private and public character cohere in a single, externalized self” (200): the
forthright, honest, and sincere American. The national anxieties produced by this
impossible “demand that the rule of sincerity be obeyed” (200) in repeated stagings
of authentic and transparent declarations of individual independence – a demand that
Catherine Gunther Kodat
white women and all blacks initially were deemed incapable of meeting and that, by
the nineteenth century, had become “little more than an existential confidence game”
(200) – lead to the anxious task, in Priscilla Wald’s memorable formulation, of “constituting Americans” in literary narrative.
It may seem odd to linger over this move within American literary scholarship
from an investigation into the performative and oratorical status of “declaring” to a
concern with “constituting” more strictly literarily conceived. But the shift exemplifies the unusual blend of eagerness and skittishness informing many American literary
scholars’ engagements with performativity when it begins to tilt away from literature
toward oral and/or embodied performances. I am not speaking here of the quite real
and understandable difficulties faced by any scholar undertaking an analysis of an
unrepeatable event (though, as we shall see, questions of rehearsal and reenactment
are of increasing interest within contemporary performance studies). Rather, I mean
to point to two related interpretive gestures that pop up repeatedly in literary scholars’
work with the a-literary, and especially with performance: either to read “performance”
and “performativity” in largely metaphorical senses so as to draw fresh readings from
canonical literary texts (arguably detectable in Fliegelman’s account of the Declaration,
and obvious in Sedgwick’s splendid readings of Henry James), or to treat actual performances as literary texts manquées, usually by translating gestures, spatial and color
relations, sound, visual schemata, and rhythmic passages into narrative. Constituting
Americans, Wald’s brilliant and wide-ranging variation on several of the themes
sounded in Fliegelman’s study, seems haunted by this second move in its closing pages,
which offer a reading of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictée. Wald identifies Cha as a
performance artist, and she is careful not to call Dictée – a published, bound work
incorporating calligraphy, photographs, diagrams, maps, typeset text, reproductions
of handwritten and typed text, poetry, and short narratives in French and English – a
novel, or even a narrative. But her elegant reading of Cha’s work as a contemporary
example of a historically persistent literary problematic of “constituting Americans”
requires that Wald set to one side those many aspects of Dictée that resist incorporation into a view of it as an “account offered by a United States immigrant of her
inscription into history, and of the difficulty of recounting – of speaking from within
– that process” (300). These include the work’s many lengthy passages in French; its
division into nine sections corresponding to the nine Muses of antiquity; its incorporation of passages from the Roman Catholic catechism; and, finally, its relationship to
Cha’s work in visual and performance art.
More recent critical engagements with Cha’s tragically small corpus (she was murdered in 1982 at the age of 31) have noted not only the “personal cultural displacement and alienation” (Lewallen 1) so striking to Wald but also her “adventurous
spirit” (Park 9). We need not question Wald’s fine reading of a single sample of Cha’s
work in order to consider whether the sense of cultural displacement and alienation
experienced by an artist who lived not only in Korea and the United States but also
in Paris and Amsterdam can best be understood as a function of a struggle to adapt
herself to an insufficiently accommodating “official story” of the United States (Wald
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304); it’s worth considering, too, whether the work of an artist for whom “there was
no firm distinction between . . . visual and linguistic practices” (Lewallen 2) can be
properly appreciated in solely literary terms. If this is to say that Wald’s interest in
“the performative qualities and transformative powers of language” (300) as instanced
in the oath of American citizenship is perhaps too closely linked to an eagerness to
account for “an anxiety provoked by [Cha’s] difference” from a certain conception of
“the American,” it is perhaps also to indicate how Cha’s wide-ranging aesthetic practice activates anxieties over her works’ difference from a certain conception of the
In what would be her last book, Sedgwick offers a kind of elegy for the losses
entailed in construing a “nonlinguistic” performative “phenomenon” in “rigorously
linguistic terms” (6), and she does so with remarkable obliquity. Her wistful meditation on beside as a word summoning spatial possibilities of knowing lost to temporally
conceived analytic projects welded to “narratives of . . . origin and telos” (“Beside
permits . . . a wide range of desiring, identifying, representing, repelling, paralleling,
differentiating, rivaling, leaning, twisting, mimicking, withdrawing, attracting,
aggressing, warping, and other relations” [Sedgwick 8]) conjures up the dance as the
exemplary performative spatialization even as it does not speak its name. Despite
Sedgwick’s passionately professed wish “to address aspects of experience and reality
that do not present themselves in propositional or even verbal form . . . to push back
against an occupational tendency to underattend to the rich dimension of space” (6,
9), dance remains an (perhaps the) absent presence of Touching Feeling – as it remains
in a great deal of contemporary American literary scholarship undertaken in the name
of performance and/or performativity.
As literary scholars have lingered in the wings, uncertain of when and how to make
their entrance into performance, scholars in what Diana Taylor has called the “postdiscipline-come-lately” (2) of performance studies have struggled with their own set
of concerns, similarly clustered around issues of the word and temporality. From its
earliest mid-1960s articulations at the intersections of theatre, communication,
anthropology, and ethnography, performance studies has striven to maintain a sense
of itself as “wide open,” conducting its operations with “no historically or culturally
fixable limit to what is or is not ‘performance’ ” (Schechner Performance Studies, 1, 2).
Taken together, Richard Schechner’s oft-cited definition of performance as “twice
behaved” or “restored” behavior – a definition that rhymes nicely with the iterability
and citationality of the Derridean performative utterance – and his equally wellknown assertion that, while not everything “is” performance, everything can be
studied “as” performance (Schechner Performance Studies, 29), have worked together to
maintain a certain “generosity and porousness” within performance studies, both in
its methodologies and in its choice of subjects for analysis (Phelan and Lane 4). This
is not to say, however, that there has been little contention and disputation within
the field – this is academia, after all. Peggy Phelan’s categorical claim that “performance’s only life is in the present” (Phelan Unmarked, 146) has been put under some
pressure in the recent work of Taylor and Joseph Roach, who both seek to replace the
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notion of performance as delimiting a singular, irreproducible event – in Phelan’s
later, more forceful, formulation, an event “predicated on . . . [its] disappearance”
(Mourning, 2) – with an understanding of performances as “restored behaviors that
function as vehicles of cultural transmission” (Roach 13). Among other things, this
altered definition has drawn attention to the problem of interpreting events predicated
on reenactment – performances imagined as simultaneously unique and repeatable.
Not surprisingly, these radically different understandings of performance have
engendered somewhat incommensurable scholarly projects within performance
studies. Phelan’s wish to honor the ephemerality of the individual performance has
led her to forge a critical practice she calls “performative writing,” an effort “to enact
the affective force of the performance event” through an approach that would “amplify”
(rather than disguise) how performances “sound differently in the writing of them
than in the ‘experiencing’ of them” (Phelan Mourning, 11–12). The resulting critical
work is like none other: moving in its blending of ambition and humility, and always
alert to the ways in which “the very energy of its imaginative making . . . destroys
what it most wants to save” (Phelan Mourning, 12). Roach, by contrast, finds his
scholarly challenge in the juxtaposition of “living memory as restored behavior against
a historical archive of scripted records” (11), a challenge magnificently met as he traces
the routes of exchange and practices of surrogation embodied in the performances of
contemporary Mardi Gras Indians, the records of eighteenth-century London theatrical productions, the composition of Alexander Pope’s Windsor-Forest, and the 1992
New Orleans jazz funeral of “Mr. Google Eyes,” the bluesman Joe August. While
Taylor offers a similarly recuperative critical enterprise – one that, like Roach’s, means
to address a specifically American (for Taylor, hemispheric) history of colonization,
genocide, slavery, and the accompanying cultural practices of linguistic, religious, and
artistic obliteration, domination, creolization, and resistance – she exhibits an impatience with “the preponderance of writing in Western epistemologies” and the ways
in which writing has “come to stand in for and against embodiment” (16) that Roach
(or, for that matter, Phelan) does not appear to share. If Taylor’s oppositionally structured heuristic of the “archive” (of writing) and the “repertoire” (of performance) at
times seems a reconstituted version of the writing-speech opposition of the Phaedrus,
her decision to replace script with scenario nevertheless leaves writing largely intact at
the heart of a project that, like Roach’s, means to reveal “debates about the ‘ephemerality’ of performance as, of course, profoundly political” (5).
As Mark Franko pointed out more than 15 years ago, encomia to ephemerality have
long “trivialized and marginalized” performance “as that profoundly apolitical activity
(its deepest nature unplanned, its most essential sense irrecuperable)” (245), so it is
perhaps not surprising that Roach’s and Taylor’s wish to bring out heretofore unrecognized political powers within performance leads them to see historicization as the
surest means to that end. This was not quite Franko’s move, however, no more than
it has been Phelan’s – even though they have both written about the histories of their
fields of specialization (Western art dance and performance art, respectively) and are
expressly committed to a political understanding of performance. Phelan’s experi-
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ments in performative writing are one means to that end; Franko’s definition of the
dance as praxis – as “impermanent but not unstable, under erasure but not as ‘nonsense’ . . . the capacity to perform anew, although always differently, to reproduce by
repetitive otherness” and thereby take “forceful action . . . on behalf of what is not”
(251–3) – is another. Indeed, recent efforts to historicize performance studies – and
so, coincidentally, to make it more resemble currently dominant research paradigms
in both its methodologies and publication protocols – have emerged in tandem with
expressions of dissatisfaction within literary studies with the positivism and empiricism informing much historicist interpretation of literature. These dissatisfactions
have emerged in the recently articulated “unhistoricist” project within queer theory
(Goldberg and Menon), in the work of many of the so-called New Formalists (Levinson),
and in complaints about a regnant “cultural symptomatology” driven by a paranoid
“hermeneutics of suspicion” (Sedgwick 124–5, 138–46; see also Felski). If this is to
recast the anxious relations between literary and performance studies in terms of the
tensions animating the relations of “theory” and “history” (and their analogs “aesthetics” and “politics”), it is also to indicate how the restlessness within literary studies
today might arise from a realization, fostered by engagements with the objects and
methods of performance studies, that US literary scholars need to find ways to describe
and account for the effects of artworks that, “in a strict ontological sense,” lead
“nowhere” (Phelan Unmarked, 148) – or at least nowhere US literary study as currently
constituted would recognize without considerable anxiety about the work’s “literariness” or “Americanness.” Not to mention its fungibility in the current economy of
high-performance scholarly production.
Perhaps, then, the grit in the gears meshing performance and literary studies – the
anxiety that structures relations between embodiment and textuality, between the call
and its echo – merits attention in its own right. The recent effort to theorize gesture
as something common to writing, performance, and visual art – gestures of the pen,
the body, and the brush – constitutes one move in this direction, especially insofar as
it means to understand the gestural “as supporting the survival of the past while
potentially engendering meanings that bear the past toward an unpredictable future”
(Noland and Ness x). As Carrie Noland further observes,
[T]he gap between the “maintained” gestural routine (produced through training,
redundancy, acquisition of impersonal skills) and the “modulated” gestural routine
(emerging as a result of the more particularized energies of the performer) suggests that
there resides within the performance of gesture a moment of negativity, an unpredictable
force of nonidentity in mimesis countering the signifying potential of the conventional
sign. (Noland and Ness xiii)
Such an understanding of gesture as immanent critique suggests a middle ground
between performance and literature in which both history and the now exist, in
Sedgwick’s formulation, beside each other. It is also to suggest the displacement or
migration of gesture from one location to another – and here we should imagine
Catherine Gunther Kodat
location in the largest possible sense, denoting geography, language, bodies, and media
– as the means by which those claims are made. With this in mind, I turn now to
the displacements and migrations that constitute the Auden-Bernstein-Robbins
American poem-symphony-ballet, The Age of Anxiety.
Performing Anxiety
W.H. Auden immigrated to the United States in 1939 and became an American
citizen in 1946, the year he completed The Age of Anxiety. Published in 1947, the
poem won Auden a Pulitzer Prize. While the 60-page work is little read today, its
title lives on as a popular descriptive catchphrase for the early Cold War years of the
Red Scare, the growth of the military-industrial complex, and the emergence of suburban conformity and anomie. And indeed the poem was immediately seen as a kind
of summative statement of the times, articulating the open-ended fears of the nuclear
age while also serving notice of the United States’ ambition to claim global cultural
leadership in the years after the Second World War. “One of the most shattering
examples of virtuosity in the history of English poetry” (Bernstein n.p.), The Age of
Anxiety allowed American letters to claim Auden as its own (only US citizens may
receive the Pulitzer) and so shatter the notion that history-making English poetry
could only come from Britain.
And in truth, a knowledge of the history of English poetry is crucial to understanding the ambition of The Age of Anxiety. In calling his poem an eclogue, Auden situates
it within a genre that includes works by Spenser and Swift; in employing as its fundamental verse form the four-stress hemistich Anglo-Saxon alliterative line – the line
of Beowulf – he invokes English poetry’s most ancient ancestor. Auden quite deliberately bends this historical framework to modern ends: no Arcadian shepherds, his four
dramatis personae encounter each other in a Third Avenue bar during the waning years
of the war. To this ironic restaging of the eclogue’s pastoral habit of offering “ ‘under
the vaile of homely persons and in rude speeches . . . [a] glaunce at greater matters’ ”
(Preminger and Brogan 317), Auden adds increasingly elaborate allegorical layers of
characterization and incident. Typological representations of aspects of the fourfold
Jungian psyche (Callan), the characters Quant, Malin, Rosetta, and Emble discourse
on the seven ages of man before undertaking, through a kind of alcohol-induced
mutual hallucination, a seven-stage journey through “a landscape bearing a symbolic
resemblance to the human body” (Auden, Age 371). Leaving the bar at closing time,
they share a cab to Rosetta’s apartment and collectively mourn the loss of “some semidivine stranger with superhuman powers,” the “colossal father” who would save
humans “from their egregious destructive blunders” (Auden, Age 394). At the apartment, Rosetta and Emble dance; after nightcaps, Quant and Malin make their exits.
Emble passes out in Rosetta’s bed, the drunken Quant stumbles while climbing the
steps to his home, and the Jewish Rosetta and Christian Malin close the poem with
affirmations of religious faith in the face of modern alienation.
A-Literary Companions of Literary Studies
A most decidedly baroque eclogue, indeed. Edward Mendelson’s description of the
poem as “theatrical in tone but almost entirely without drama in its action” (244)
economically indicates the odd effect of the work for contemporary readers, with its
dated Jungian substructure and accompanying self-conscious appeal to a then-fashionable modernist myth making. Today’s dominant literary critical practice in the
face of such a work would entail an exfoliation of precisely this theatricality, dramatic
slackness, and intellectual datedness in order to analyze The Age of Anxiety as a
symptom of a particular double-voiced kind, making clear the poem’s effectiveness in
advancing US ambitions for global cultural significance while also drawing out its
critical engagements with the nation’s problematic reigning assumptions regarding
sociality, gender, class, ethnicity, and sexuality.
The concept of repeated gesture as immanent critique, however, opens different
interpretive possibilities by bringing forward Bernstein’s symphony and Robbins’s
ballet as discriminating contemporary readings not only of Auden’s poem but also of
its subject: the role of religious faith in an age of anxiety. Each work took its own,
quite different posture toward the concluding affirmations that it seems Auden (who
returned to Anglicanism within two years of settling in the United States) intended
as sincere, serious, and viable. For Bernstein, the ambivalence toward this affirmative
impulse was as strong as the longing it articulated – a longing he would later liken
to the “agony of longing for tonality” in an age of dissonance and the “blind” efforts
“to recapture it” (Secrest 289). In a prefatory note to the score, Bernstein observed
that his
conception of a symphony with piano solo emerges from the personal identification of
myself with the poem. In this sense, the pianist provides an autobiographical protagonist, set against an orchestral mirror in which he sees himself, analytically, in the modern
ambience. (Bernstein n.p.)
That the piano remains mostly silent during the symphony’s epilogue, which corresponds to the poem’s closing affirmation of faith, is certainly suggestive – as is the
judgment of New York Times music critic Olin Downes of the work, following its 1950
New York Philharmonic premiere, as “a triumph of superficiality” whose concluding
measures amount to “a sort of tinsel, bourgeois evocation of some distant plush paradise” (Secrest 175, 176). Downes touched what already was becoming for Bernstein
a sensitive spot: the degree to which his extraordinary facility with affirmative, middlebrow theatrical forms impeded the development of his skills in composing more
astringent “absolute” music. Bernstein would later claim that the original epilogue
was intended to be ironic, “a mockery of faith, a phony faith” (Secrest 175). But his
1965 revisions to the symphony, mostly all aimed at expanding the piano part in the
epilogue so as to bring it more in line with traditional expectations for the concerto
form, seem a weary acknowledgment that theatrical grandiosity had prevailed over
philosophical profundity. It could be the case, of course, that Bernstein’s symphony
simply failed to come up to the standard set by Auden’s poem. That certainly was the
Catherine Gunther Kodat
view taken by the poet, who made a point after the Philharmonic premiere of asserting that Bernstein’s symphony “really has nothing to do with me. Any connections
with my book are rather distant” (Secrest 176). But it could also be the case that
Bernstein’s symphony made audible a certain grandiosity already within the poem,
thus enabling an understanding of the truth of its closing affirmation as more clearly
(and problematically) indebted to the citational theatricality of its utterance.
A close look at Robbins’s ballet furthers this view of performance as gestural critique. His first major work for New York City Ballet, The Age of Anxiety was an
unqualified success for Robbins, a choreographer up to then best known chiefly for
his work on Broadway. For the most part, Robbins’s scenario followed the structure
of Bernstein’s symphony (which, in turn, was modeled on the narrative schema of
Auden’s work) – it employs four protagonists who meet, “discuss” the seven ages of
man, undertake a seven-stage journey, and cheer themselves in forced gaiety before
finally parting company – but the work closes with the principals bidding each other
farewell in a manner reminiscent of the opening scene of the ballet (Balanchine and
Mason 12). Robbins’s somewhat circularly structured Age thus simply refused to
reproduce the poem’s concluding affirmation of faith that Bernstein found so dangerously compelling. The ballet’s departure from the poem was immediately noted and
commented on by the critics, several of whom implied that the dance was stronger
for straying from its literary model. Robbins “makes no attempt to lean upon the
literary framework,” Doris Hering wrote; the ballet “speaks instead with the infinite
eloquence of the kinetic language. . . . that fluid realm where only movement speaks”
(qtd. in Reynolds 109). Probably not coincidentally, the critics also predicted that
Robbins’s Age would quickly age; its considerable power was of the moment and
destined to fade. “It is a work close to our time,” Rosalyn Krokover observed, “a
product that could be of this decade and no other. In some respects it is too close,
and this observer has the strong feeling that the next generation will find it remarkably dated” (qtd. in Reynolds 109). And in truth the work would not outlast the
1950s. In Taylor’s terms, the ballet passed from repertoire to archive; in Phelan’s
terms, it is no longer performance. Not even a shadow of its former self, the work
that was Robbins’s The Age of Anxiety is barely evoked in the reviews, published reminiscences of the dancers who performed it, and snippets of film (Nora Kaye) that are
the evidence of its passing.
Lincoln Kirstein has reported that Auden “disliked” Robbins’s ballet (Kirstein 76,
107). Never one to shy away from critical debate, Kirstein uncharacteristically offered
no explanation for Auden’s distaste. A great dance lover and a good friend of Auden’s,
Kirstein may have been unwilling to admit that Auden’s reaction could have less to
do with the particular properties of Robbins’s work than with the poet’s general
disdain for ballet itself. Auden had no use for ballet: it was, for him, a “very, very
minor art” (Nabokov 145). We get a sense of the reasons for Auden’s dislike in his
short essay, “Ballet’s Present Eden,” a program note written for the winter 1954 New
York City Ballet season – a season that saw not only the premiere of the company’s
terrifically successful production of The Nutcracker but also a revival of Robbins’s The
A-Literary Companions of Literary Studies
Age of Anxiety. Writing ostensibly about The Nutcracker, Auden proposes a theory of
ballet as an art condemned to “a continuous present; every experience which depends
on historical time lies outside its capacities.” Because its medium is the human body,
Auden claims, ballet can only express “whatever is immediately intelligible in terms
of variety of motion” (“Eden” 393). Therefore, he concludes, the ballet
cannot express memory, the recollection of that which is absent, for either the recollected
body is on stage and immediate or it is off and non-existent. Memory distinguishes
between the object and its invoked image; ballet deals only in the object. No character
in a ballet can grow or change in the way that a character in a novel changes; he can
only undergo instantaneous transformations from one kind of being to another. . . . These
observations, it should be said, refer to the forming principles of ballet; as with the other
media, tension and excitement come from pushing against the form. A choreographer
may take this risk again and again, but he will watch closely, being careful to make
himself clear. And he will return in good time to safe ground. (“Eden” 393–4)
When, from this, Auden concludes that the world of ballet is one “of pure being
without becoming,” the ethical force of his characterization of the dance – and the
degree to which that characterization relies on depicting it as antiliterary – comes
clear. Literature’s claim to be the art form of becoming is a historical claim: a claim
both for the importance of its becoming through history and for its ability to represent
history. It is also a claim for the historical importance of the author as an artist
uniquely able to produce works that defy time. Thus, like all sweeping aesthetic
generalizations, Auden’s reification of the ephemerality of the dance says at least as
much about his own literary anxieties as it does about the ballet – and however artful
it may sound, Auden’s distinction between being and becoming is worth interrogating
at least as much as Austin’s distinction between performing and constating. The possibility arises, then, that Auden disliked Robbins’s ballet and took his distance from
Bernstein’s symphony precisely because they each performed his extremely long and
ambitious poem in ways that made clear how its wish to speak through the ages was
supremely of its age: an anxious performance of a literary anxiety.
There is, obviously, much more that could be said. Here, I have sought to explore
the uses of performance for literary studies by limiting myself to readings of each Age
of Anxiety. This approach deliberately restricts the scope of the usual historicizing
move (avoiding entirely a literarily privileged judging of symphony and ballet in
terms of their more or less successful “adaptation” of Auden’s poem) in order to better
trace the migration of an initiating affect – anxiety – through its various gestural
instantiations in poetry, music, and the dance. As should be obvious, mine is no performative writing in the manner practiced by Phelan. But neither is it limited to
detailing a reading of poem, symphony, or ballet that would stress their capacities (or
incapacities) to reflect larger biographical, economic, social, and political forces. This
is not to say that such readings are not still worthwhile and important. Rather, it is
to propose other frames in which those readings might be set – other means of
acknowledging, and maybe even working through, our many performance anxieties.
Catherine Gunther Kodat
What the foregoing may also have shown, I hope, is that Sedgwick’s advice to think
sidewise, as it were, remains shrewd counsel for literary scholars interested in staging,
and engaging, interpretive encounters between performance and literature. In the age
of the electronic book, the digital database, and Internet-mediated “live” performance
(Auslander), such encounters will only increase, as the already fragile distinction
between performance and literature continues to be complicated and compromised.
The history of the relationships among linguistic performativity, performance, and
literature is, among other things, a history of categorical distinctions drawn, erased,
and redrawn elsewhere. Performance studies and literary studies each took shape
around distinctive objects of interest and analysis, and certainly the differences between
performances and literature matter. How they matter, though, remains an open question – anxiety producing, certainly, but unquestionably invigorating, as well.
References and Further Reading
Auden, W.H. The Age of Anxiety. In W.H. Auden:
Collected Poems (pp. 345–409). Ed. Edward
Mendelson. New York: Random House, 1976.
Auden, W.H. “Ballet’s Present Eden: Example of
The Nutcracker.” In The Complete Works of W.H.
Auden: Prose, Volume 3, 1949–1955 (pp. 393–6).
Ed. Edward Mendelson. Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press, 2008.
Auslander, Philip. “Live and Technologically
Mediated Performance.” In The Cambridge
Companion to Performance Studies (pp. 107–19).
Ed. Tracy C. Davis. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2008.
Austin, J.L. How to Do Things with Words. 1962.
2nd ed. Ed. J.O. Urmson and Marina Sbisà.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,
Balanchine, George, and Francis Mason. Balanchine’s
Complete Stories of the Great Ballets. Garden City,
NY: Doubleday, 1977.
Bernstein, Leonard. The Age of Anxiety: Symphony
No. 2. The Full Score. 1949. Corrected ed.
London: Boosey & Hawkes, 1993.
Bial, Henry. Ed. The Performance Studies Reader. 2nd
ed. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive
Limits of “Sex.” New York: Routledge, 1993.
Butler, Judith. Excitable Speech: A Politics of the
Performative. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the
Subversion of Identity. 1990. New York:
Routledge, 1999.
Callan, Edward. “Allegory in Auden’s The Age of
Anxiety.” Twentieth Century Literature 10, no. 4
(January 1965): 155–65.
Cavell, Stanley. “Performative and Passionate
Utterance.” In Stanley Cavell, Philosophy the Day
after Tomorrow (pp. 155–91). Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 2005.
Cha, Theresa Hak Kyung. Dictée. 1982. Berkeley:
University of California Press, 2001.
Cha, Theresa Hak Kyung. Exilée/Temps Mort:
Selected Works. Ed. Constance M. Lewallen.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.
Davis, Tracy C. Ed. The Cambridge Companion to
Performance Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2008.
Derrida, Jacques. “Limited Inc.” 1977. In Jacques
Derrida, Limited Inc. Evanston, IL: Northwestern
University Press, 1988.
Derrida, Jacques. “Plato’s Pharmacy.” 1968. In
Jacques Derrida, Dissemination (pp. 61–171).
Trans. Barbara Johnson. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1981.
Derrida, Jacques. “Signature Event Context.”
1971. In Jacques Derrida, Limited Inc. Evanston,
IL: Northwestern University Press, 1988.
Diamond, Elin. Unmaking Mimesis. New York:
Routledge, 1997.
Felski, Rita. Uses of Literature. Oxford: Blackwell,
Fliegelman, Jay. Declaring Independence: Jefferson,
Natural Language, and the Culture of Performance.
Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993.
A-Literary Companions of Literary Studies
Franko, Mark. “Mimique.” 1995. In Migrations of
Gesture (pp. 241–58). Eds. Carrie Noland and
Sally Ann Ness. Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 2008.
Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. New
York: Basic Books, 1973.
Goldberg, Jonathan, and Madhavi Menon.
“Queering History.” Publications of the Modern
Language Association 120, no. 5 (October 2005):
Jowitt, Deborah. Jerome Robbins: His Life, His
Theater, His Dance. New York: Simon & Schuster,
Kaye, Nora. In The Age of Anxiety. Video recording.
Tri-Star Pictures MGZIDVD 5-2514. New
York: New York Public Library for the
Performing Arts.
Kirstein, Lincoln. Thirty Years: The New York City
Ballet. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978.
Levinson, Marjorie. “The Changing Profession:
What Is New Formalism?” Publications of the
Modern Language Association 122, no. 2 (March
2007): 558–69.
Lewallen, Constance M. “Audience Distance
Relative: An Introduction to the Writings of
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha.” In Theresa Hak
Kyung Cha, Exilée/Temps Mort: Selected Works
(pp. 1–6). Ed. Constance M. Lewallen. Berkeley:
University of California Press, 2009.
McKenzie, Jon. “Is Performance Studies Imperialist?” TDR 50, no. 4 (Winter 2006): 5–8.
McKenzie, Jon. Perform or Else: From Discipline to
Performance. New York: Routledge, 2001.
Mendelson, Edward. Later Auden. New York:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.
Nabokov, Nicholas. “Excerpts from Memories.” In
W.H. Auden: A Tribute (pp. 133–48). Ed.
Stephen Spender. New York: Macmillan,
Newton, Esther. Mother Camp: Female Impersonators
in America. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall,
Noland, Carrie. Agency and Embodiment: Performing
Gestures/Producing Culture. Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 2009.
Noland, Carrie, and Sally Ann Ness. Eds. Migrations
of Gesture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Press, 2008.
Park, Ed. “This Is the Writing You Have Been
Waiting For.” In Theresa Hak Kyung Cha,
Exilée/Temps Mort: Selected Works (pp. 9–15). Ed.
Constance M. Lewallen. Berkeley: University of
California Press, 2009.
Parker, Andrew, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Eds.
Performativity and Performance. New York:
Routledge, 1995.
Phelan, Peggy. Mourning Sex: Performing Public
Memories. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance.
New York: Routledge, 1993.
Phelan, Peggy, and Jill Lane. Eds. The Ends of
Performance. New York: New York University
Press, 1998.
Preminger, Alex, and T.V.F. Brogan. Eds. The New
Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics.
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,
Reinelt, Janelle G., and Joseph R. Roach. Eds.
Critical Theory and Performance. Rev. ed. Ann
Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007.
Reynolds, Nancy. Repertory in Review: Forty Years of
the New York City Ballet. New York: Dial Press,
Roach, Joseph. Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic
Performance. New York: Columbia University
Press, 1996.
Schechner, Richard. Between Theater and
Anthropology. Philadelphia: University of
Pennsylvania Press, 1985.
Schechner, Richard. Performance Studies: An
Introduction. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge,
Schechner, Richard. Performance Theory. Rev. and
expanded ed. New York: Routledge, 1988.
Searle, John R. Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy
of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1969.
Secrest, Meryle. Leonard Bernstein: A Life. New
York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Touching Feeling: Affect,
Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham, NC: Duke
University Press, 2003.
Seldes, Barry. Leonard Bernstein: The Political Life of
an American Musician. Berkeley: University of
California Press, 2009.
Smith, Sidonie, and Julia Watson. Reading
Autobiography: A Guide to Interpreting Personal
Narratives. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Press, 2001.
Taylor, Diana. The Archive and the Repertoire:
Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas.
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.
Catherine Gunther Kodat
Turner, Victor. The Anthropology of Performance.
New York: PAJ, 1988.
Turner, Victor. From Ritual to Theatre: The Human
Seriousness of Play. New York: PAJ, 1982.
Vail, Amanda. Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins.
New York: Broadway Books, 2006.
Wald, Priscilla. Constituting Americans: Cultural
Anxiety and Narrative Form. Durham, NC: Duke
University Press, 1995.
Watson, James G. William Faulkner: SelfPresentation and Performance. Austin: University
of Texas Press, 2000.
Drama, Theatre, and Performance
before O’Neill
Jeffrey H. Richards
Drama matters to American literary studies – a position not always recognized by
American literature scholars or even students of American theatre for whom performance, not play text, is the point of interest. Put simply, the period of 1785 to 1915
cannot be viewed as detached from drama, even though the practice of literary scholarship has for many years largely left drama out of the literary picture. There is no
full understanding of James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne,
Herman Melville, or Henry James without consideration of American dramatic and
theatrical culture. Such perspectives on literary study as cultural studies, performance
studies, and historicism directed toward the long nineteenth century cannot be said
to be complete without full consideration of the traces left by dramatists and actors.
Regardless of the paucity of criticism in our own time, nineteenth-century drama and
theatre were never far from view, at least in the settled areas. Even the colonial period,
which begins in a kind of stagelessness, becomes marked by the theatrical in the
approach to the American Revolution. Schools in the early republic used drama as a
teaching tool. Hairdressers, lawyers, and republican mothers imagined they could
write for the stage and did so, although the playhouse did not always welcome their
efforts. After 1790, cities became increasingly eager to build the next playhouse that
held spectators in the thousands. Villages, steamboats, mining camps, and dusty
Western bars supported plays and performances of all kinds. Within two decades of
the nineteenth century, the country supported theatrical endeavors of all kinds
and remained that way until the next century. Yet by looking at the contents of
American literature anthologies or, until very recently, the index of papers given
at American literature conferences, one might never know that drama meant so much
to American participants in culture. For its status of illegitimacy in the larger scope
A Companion to American Literary Studies, First Edition. Edited by Caroline F. Levander,
Robert S. Levine.
© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2011 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Jeffrey H. Richards
of American literary studies, Susan Harris Smith in 1997 called American drama “the
bastard art.”
How does one confront the marginalization of a major genre? After Susan Glaspell,
Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee came upon
the scene, scholars framed the discussion of drama to exclude drama before 1915 as
worthy of critical consideration. There was modern drama and there was melodrama;
one was art and one was not. Although the impact of melodrama on modern and
postmodern drama and cinema remains, the essential division between an art drama
and mere entertainment still persists as a figure of criticism. In early editions of the
Heath Anthology of American Literature, for instance, the only play included in the
volume(s) to 1865 was Royall Tyler’s The Contrast (1787) – joined recently by Mercy
Otis Warren’s closet political play, The Group (1775). The Heath overall is a worthy
anthology, filled with writers who 20 or 30 years ago were obscure at best to students
of American literature but who now represent voices and trends long ignored. But
pre-1900 drama still suffers critical neglect. The Contrast is well worth teaching, but
so is Judith Sargent Murray’s play set in the Revolution, The Traveller Returned (1796).
When students encounter Glaspell’s Trifles (1916) in the second half of the American
literature survey, they might wonder, without some explanation from the instructor,
if only two plays had been written and performed before 1917.
Nevertheless, the development of performance studies has the potential to revive
critical interest in dramatic texts through the broader understanding of performance
in culture. In his recent book, Joseph Fichtelberg incisively uses performance as a way
of discussing Captain John Smith’s adventures in the New World. He notes the several
places where performance-based situations occur among Smith’s negotiations and
confrontations with Powhatan and other Tidewater Algonquians, largely as a way of
assessing the degree to which Smith engaged risk (“adventure” or “hazard” in seventeenth-century parlance) in establishing the economic stability of Virginia colony
(Fichtelberg 14–49). But Smith’s accounts, especially in The Generall Historie of Virginia
(1624), bear also a theatrical dimension that imagines performance in a wilderness as
if it were staged within the dimensions of a playhouse. Back in England, Smith complained about actors mocking his adventures onstage, a sign that his own performancebased accounts of experience in Virginia translated readily into satiric representations
of the same thing (Barbour). Nevertheless, many years passed before such representations would present themselves on the American stage. With the revival of interest
in Smith in the early 1800s, novels and other accounts began appearing. James Nelson
Barker’s The Indian Princess (1808) revived the playhouse Pocahontas-John Smith
tradition, but now as a celebration of national founding. Barker’s reading of Smith’s
texts extracts those elements that lend themselves to dramatic enactment, suggesting
that the theatrical nature of The Generall Historie was not accidental or merely a rhetorical product of the times but something directly derived from a culture that valued
stage conversion of the historical to the performative-expressive.
As an example of an early American dramatic text with a dense nexus of cultural,
historical, political, and distinctly theatrical elements, The Indian Princess performs its
Drama, Theatre, Performance before O’Neill
work on many fronts. As a commentary on how the Jamestown colony was read two
centuries after its founding, Barker’s “Melo-Drame,” as it was called, enacts its own
mythmaking function through the character Smith and the colonists and Indians who
comment on Smith and his exploits. The colonist Walter, a fictional character, observes
Smith through admiring eyes, ensuring that the audience for the Philadelphia performances understands the triumphalist interpretation Barker expects from his spectators. At the same time, both Pocahontas and her brother Nantaquas recognize the
English imperial power that forces them into an identity of abasement, whereby
Indianness becomes an uncertain trope, at once a mask of innocence and doomed
brutishness. Through these multiple observer characters, Barker establishes a contemporary politics of modern American imperialism, by which playhouse spectators
understand their function as scions of Smith, comprehending identity through both
the absorption and destruction of Native peoples.
While the play may be light in tone, the themes and implications are significant
ones to postmodern and postcolonial literary study. As a further example of Barker’s
conversion of Smith, we might turn to the most famous set piece of the play. Staging
the famous scene in which Smith is brought to the block to be bludgeoned but ends
up providentially saved, Barker inscribes the erotic, moving carefully between Smith
as an asexual, godlike being and the captain as potential lover of the princess – a role
he forfeits to the character John Rolfe. Ideologically, the play offers the thesis that
the erotic is a civilizing dimension; when Indians recognize its potency and submit,
they cease to be Indians at all but converted beings whose whiteness will be manifest
in future generations. Issues of racial ideology, Shakespearean influence, parody, and
gender performance all appear in this mock-execution scene. The performative Smith
in the author-adventurer becomes literalized as performing Smith in Barker. The point
here is that a play full of comic songs, jokes on Irish sentimentality, demonized sorcerers, and Indian maidens hunting flamingoes – the seeming quintessence of froth
and derivation – has a richness of interpretive possibility that belies its status as melodrama with its oft-assumed unworthiness of scholarly attention.
Theatre has a way of infiltrating culture by both developing as its own institution
and inserting itself into others. The interactions among drama, theatre, and other
genres and situations can be intricate and complex and raise a number of questions
about the scope of criticism and American literary study. Myra Jehlen and Michael
Warner in their 1997 anthology, The English Literatures of America, 1500–1800, rather
provocatively included Aphra Behn’s The Widow Ranter (1689), a play based on Bacon’s
Rebellion in Virginia and staged in London. As a play by a British woman living in
the late seventeenth century, it has its location in Reformation literary history. Placed
in a text that in essence turned the American of American literature into an idea and
not merely a birthplace of authors, The Widow Ranter suddenly takes on new dimensions beyond its Tory politics for an English audience. The widow herself is an
American character, a creolized immigrant whose adaptation to Virginia colonial
culture provides an interesting touchstone for assessing the imagined America of the
play. But even beyond all the things one might say about her and other characters
Jeffrey H. Richards
– class positioning, Native-English conflicts, and hybridization – the theatrical
element has its own story. William Berkeley, governor of Virginia in the 1670s and
a main player in the events of Bacon’s Rebellion, had been a playwright in England
three decades before, ushering some of his efforts to the London stage, including The
Lost Lady (1639). However, once landed on Virginia soil, Berkeley could do little to
encourage drama there; perhaps the demands on his position, including the civil war
that Bacon’s Rebellion became, made literal entertainment impossible. (The one
known public attempt to mount a staged performance in Virginia during the seventeenth century ended with the actors arrested, though they were acquitted of all
charges against them.) There is a certain irony in the playwright-governor being
erased by Behn in her theatrical account of the conflict; no character represents
Berkeley. Nevertheless, contextualizing the play as American by subject, as Jehlen
and Warner do, raises a host of critical questions, most notably about our understanding of transatlantic performance and the relationship of drama and theatre to history
The theatrical dimension makes drama different from poetry and prose; to enact a
text is to make it material, on the one hand, and ephemeral (and often unrecorded,
in many senses of the word), on the other. Because of a variety of factors, including
likelihood or not of sales, many enacted plays never appeared in print, although some
survive in manuscript. At the same time, acting has probably saved many plays that
otherwise would never have survived. The actress Sarah Marriott wrote a light piece,
The Chimera (1795), and saw it to the stage twice during the 1794–5 season of the
Old American Company in New York; as a result of just those two performances, the
play appeared in print, a survival of an often brutal system that discouraged authorship on the American side of the Atlantic. Even though The Chimera is unlikely to
inspire a doctoral dissertation on its status as a lost classic, the very presence of the
text allows us to comprehend what the age saw as failure, without our necessarily
having to use such a term in present-day analysis. Marriott was British by birth and
upbringing, and 1794 marked her arrival on North American shores. She not unreasonably imagined that her way to theatrical acclaim in the New World was to write
a farce in the British style – after all, most of the repertoire performed on US stages
originated in Britain. As a member of the New York-based Old American Company,
Marriott duly delivered her conventional comedy of English lords and ladies to the
managers, who allowed her the performances. In this case, Marriott’s early death in
1795 and her text’s status as a British imitation doomed her play as worthy of consideration by later American literary critics.
As a parallel case, the relative success of Susanna Rowson tells us not only about
her but also about the fortunes of drama in criticism and literary study. Known relatively widely among scholars of early American literature as the author of the seduction novel Charlotte Temple (1791), Rowson has gained readers in recent years for Slaves
in Algiers (1794), a comic drama about Americans and Britons in Islamic captivity.
Rowson in Philadelphia suffered some of the same problems faced by Marriott in New
York in terms of inserting herself into a repertoire managed by tastes as perceived in
Drama, Theatre, Performance before O’Neill
London. But her ability in her own time to manage those difficulties and her choice
of American subjects for her dramatic efforts rather than exclusively British ones
allowed her to succeed where Marriott did not. In the reconsideration of women
authors that has taken place in the last 40 years, Rowson has found a niche with her
mildly feminist treatment. With her text readily available in Amelia Howe Kritzer’s
1995 anthology as well as in Early American Imprints and other collections, Slaves in
Algiers can be accessed easily for analysis and study. Chapters and essays have been
devoted to the text, allowing us to consider the play from feminist and political perspectives. It forms a subject cornerstone, for example, of Elizabeth Maddock Dillon’s
study The Gender of Freedom.
To be sure, Rowson’s text gives a contemporary reader much more to go on than
Marriott’s, particularly with its themes of the Islamic other and self-liberating women.
At the same time, her text is also a story of the complexities of theatrical representation that are embedded within a printed version. For one thing, Rowson displays the
truly transatlantic nature of American dramatic and theatre cultures. Born to a British
military officer who was stationed in the American colonies, Susanna Haswell spent
her formative years in Massachusetts. Forced back to Britain by the war, Miss Haswell
became Mrs. Rowson when she married a theatre employee in London, William
Rowson. Before long, Susanna was following her husband to provincial theatres and,
later, sometimes set out on her own as she took up acting herself. When Thomas
Wignell came seeking actors for his new Philadelphia company, Susanna and William
signed on, only to encounter the yellow fever epidemic of 1793. By early 1794,
however, Rowson and her husband were working as lower-tier members of the cast.
Despite her low position on the dramatis personae, she managed to use her skill with
a pen – she had been establishing herself as a novelist before immigrating back to the
United States – to craft a number of performable texts, including Slaves in Algiers
(Rust). Rowson faced withering abuse from the pen of William Cobbett, a local critic,
but as a cast member who could demand any play to be played on her benefit night,
she kept Slaves alive in repertoire, not only in its original form but also as a strippeddown, two-act afterpiece. Whereas Sarah Marriott misjudged her audience, Susanna
Rowson responded to it. As an actress, a writer, and even a sometime producer,
Rowson showed it was possible for women to be involved with theatre in all phases
of the production. Thus, in future discussion of Slaves in Algiers, it would be salutary
to include the theatrical history of the play as part of the literary critical study of
Rowson’s work.
Considerations of race and ethnicity, things that matter greatly to literary studies
now, appear in Rowson – the Jewish stereotype in Ben Hassan, or instance, or the
Muslim tyrant in Muley Moloch. She merely follows in a long line of British plays
that include typing of all sorts. The stage African (or Afro-Briton or African American)
had been appearing in plays and the theatre since the Elizabethan period – not only
Aaron and Othello, the obvious examples, but also even Rowson’s Muley Moloch, an
Islamic variant of the stage African, can be traced to drama of the 1580s, for instance.
Popular plays of the late eighteenth century that featured Africanist characters, from
Jeffrey H. Richards
Isaac Bickerstaff ’s The Padlock (1768) to John O’Keeffe’s The Highland Reel (1788),
appeared in American playhouses and form part of American cultural history. Such
characters as O’Keeffe’s Benin, who is marked as African in a Highland musical,
though, created problems for stage managers in an increasingly racially sensitive era.
In playbills of the period, Highland Reel is sometimes played with, and sometimes
without, Benin – a choice made perhaps by reason of compression, if Highland Reel
was in the afterpiece, but perhaps not, especially when performed in cities with substantial black populations. In any event, criticism of these plays cannot ignore the
complex racial politics of performance then evolving in US theatre.
Recent scholarship by George Thompson, Shane White, and Marvin McAllister
has uncovered the history of the African Theatre that emerged in the 1820s. From
original plays, like King Shotaway (1821) by William Alexander Brown, to compelling
actors, like James Hewlett, the African Theatre put its mark on New York and
American playhouse history. Because many of the contemporary accounts of the
theatre are the product of unsympathetic pens, including those by playwright and
journalist Mordecai Noah, we are left with having to read the history of that theatre
carefully. Unfortunately, we have no surviving scripts from the troupe’s original plays
– only accounts of performances. But the fact itself of African American actors desiring to perform in public venues deserves attention. Further evidence suggests that
the African Theatre was not the first such organization in the new republic. At least
one other black-operated theatre was staging plays in 1801, leaving open the possibility that there might have been even earlier playhouses (or play spaces) operated by
African American entrepreneurs. This history of African American organized performance, beyond the rituals (like Pinkster, a popular African American celebration)
identified as belonging to folk culture, runs parallel to the development of American
versions of British racial types and speaks to stage racialism, telling us that the difficulty of those of African descent to participate in full measure on the white-owned
stage elicited responses from them.
The rise of minstrelsy in the 1820s and 1830s, then, must be observed from the
perspective of an implied critique by African Americans of their access to white-owned
theatres and the portrayal of blackface characters onstage. Eric Lott, for example, notes
the implications of the unstable signs represented by minstrel performers in blackface
– that is, in the mockery of black culture that the shows exhibit, blackness is given
a kind of ironic power (29). In other words, why are all these white people blacking
up? One history that is often elided from studies of early American theatre is that of
labor, although Lott certainly pays attention to the “love and theft” involved in white
workers appropriating a black style out of some mixture of envy, admiration, and
contempt inspired by African American positioning in racial hierarchies. What has
been ignored, however, is the world of black laborers at white theatres, who get little
attention in current scholarship. Evidence suggests, for instance, that playhouses from
the colonial period on featured African American laborers inside and outside the doors,
from oyster sellers on the street to concessionaires in the lobby to workers on the set
or others connected to the operations of the house. Managers or more successful actors
Drama, Theatre, Performance before O’Neill
had black servants or slaves; elite audience members sent their African American
servants to the theatre on the night of performance; and on occasion, workers of color
appeared onstage, either involved in set changes or as unacknowledged supernumeraries in the cast. Our recognition of this presence is crucial to understanding the audience experience of racial typing on the American stage. In other words, in theatres
north and south, African Americans occupied seating and earned (or had stolen from
them) livings from the white-controlled theatres – or tried to make a living out of
theatres aimed at pleasing predominantly African American spectators.
For American literary studies, such recognition of black laborers at the theatre
urges readers of the drama to expand their sense of theatre’s participatory culture.
Being at the playhouse means spectating, and for the most part, theatre scholarship
presumes a white viewer and white participant. The black theatrical laborer represents
a further complication of the performance of blackness in a culture that acts as if it
were trapped in racial binaries it neither made nor can undo. Nevertheless, despite
the black presence in the American theatre, the rise of minstrelsy represents, at one
level at least, a mockery of that presence. The English actor Charles Mathews engaged
in remunerative parody of American blacks when and after he toured the United States
in 1822, leading to James Hewlett’s parody of Mathews in England a few years later
(White). But while Mathews had the institution of the British theatre as his prop and
support, Hewlett had only himself and perhaps the hopes of a few people of color
back home to maintain his own hopes. Mathews did not have to answer Hewlett in
the same way Hewlett felt compelled to answer Mathews. This Mathews-Hewlett
interchange, with all its permutations of rival nationalities and power struggles over
the ownership of racial representation, is part of the prehistory of minstrel shows and
reminds us of the significance of performance in comprehending nineteenth-century
American culture as a whole.
To read a play like Samuel Woodworth’s The Forest Rose (1825), then, is to catch a
glimpse of minstrelsy before its official founding in the blackface performances of
T.D. Rice. Celebrated by some critics as a play of the resourceful Yankee or the innocence of the American pastoral, The Forest Rose has at its heart a vicious mockery of
blackness. Among various subplots is the humiliation of a blackface servant character
named Lid Rose, primarily by the Yankee, Jonathan Ploughboy. How do we read such
a play? It is no surprise to find racism in an American drama; rather, one rarely finds
comment upon it in the criticism of The Forest Rose. In place of critique we find celebration of Yankee innocence. Woodworth’s play text offers opportunities in the present
to confront the cost of American nationalism in the increasing virulence of racial
animosity. We learn about our own reading – whether we see or render invisible the
race character, Rose.
It cannot be known precisely how much the theatre is a cause or effect of social
phenomena outside the doors of the playhouse. In any event, however, theatre participates so thickly within American culture as a whole that literary scholars ignore it at
their peril. Certainly, as Heather Nathans has shown in her recent study, contemporary
practices, such as the Bobalition illustrations and broadsides (white parodies of black
Jeffrey H. Richards
aspirations for abolition, often showing blacks mimicking “white” dress), reflect
broader attitudes of racial demarcation that can be found not only in theatre but also
everywhere in literary and other cultural activities. Theories of minstrelsy explore the
relationship between blackface performance and a variety of representations that
include sympathetic relationships between nonelite whites and blacks. For example,
in the smart-aleck repartee between Tambo and Bones or in the stump speeches of
later versions of the minstrel show, one can read a popular expression that gave ordinary white people, represented as absurdly black onstage, a voice in the bigger arena.
Certainly the long popularity of minstrel shows, continuing not only to the Civil War
but also past it to the dawn of the twentieth century and beyond, suggests that the
form offered blackness as a kind of resistance to high culture. Reading that blackness
now, though, is troublesome (Lott; Toll).
If George C. Wolfe’s play The Colored Museum (1986) and Spike Lee’s film Bamboozled
(2000) are any indication, minstrelsy has a continuing and poisonous effect on the
lives of actual African Americans. The minstrel costume (sometimes ragged, sometimes formal) was a straitjacket against which an African American person struggled
to be authentic – in Ralph Ellison’s term, “counterfeit.” This is not to say that the
minstrel show caused racism – it is more likely the other way around – but it is to
say that the form enabled a society trying to make sense of slavery not to make sense
of it. A citizen might read the paper by day of the travails generated by abolitionists, escaped slaves, and fire-eating congressmen, but by night could laugh and slap
a thigh at the antics of the faux blacks at the local palace of histrionic pleasure.
Minstrelsy was a roundabout way of turning slavery into popular entertainment. In
Hawthorne’s well-known tale “The Minister’s Black Veil” (1835), for example, we
find a story about a performer-minister who puts on blackness as both a sign and a
mask, at once inviting and deflecting investigation into the depths of the man’s
heart. The story appeared in the first wave of minstrelsy’s popularity; it comes as
close as any fiction by the writer of blacking up his characters. To be sure, nothing
in the tale admits to burnt cork applied to the white clergyman, but there is something uncanny in the author’s use of a black mask as a substitute for a white one
at the beginning of the minstrel craze. Curiously, Hawthorne’s admitted source for
the story is the account of Handkerchief Moody, a Maine minister who wore a white
piece of cloth to hide his shame. In Hawthorne’s telling, assumed blackness simultaneously disguises and exposes. Reading Hawthorne in the context of theatre, then,
allows us not only to analyze the short story as infiltrated by the popular stage but
also to direct attention to the theatre itself. In other words, Hawthorne may be said
to participate in “theft,” even as the story asks about the nature of blackness at all.
When his literary friend Melville turned to minstrelsy in such fictions as Benito
Cereno (1855) or The Confidence-Man (1857), he mocked the mockery, blacking some
of his characters to expose the bloody racism at the core of the (self-proclaimed)
genial American temperament.
Theatre participates in the construction of social norms, even as it serves its own
peculiar interests. The brief period of the noble chieftain type on the American stage
Drama, Theatre, Performance before O’Neill
illustrates how quickly entertainment trumps everything for theatre companies trying
to succeed as businesses (Sayre). The American actor Edwin Forrest, seeking to capitalize on his rising fame, sponsored a contest to encourage American authorship of
plays on “native” themes. The winner of the first competition, John Augustus Stone,
gave to Forrest a vehicle he would maintain for four decades and hundreds of performances in dozens of venues: Metamora, or Last of the Wampanoags (1829). Featuring a
Native American hero, an interpretation of the historical Wampanoag leader Metacom,
or King Philip, Stone’s play provided audiences what they then wanted: a leaping,
bellowing protagonist who dwarfed all other characters onstage by literally forcing
them to the sides and the rear. This adaptation to British romantic drama had
American repercussions in creating a taste for titanic heroes – ironic, truly, that an
early version of this romantic hero is a “savage.” And indeed, Forrest and Stone make
clear that Metamora is savage, even if he’s the best person in the drama. The plot
urges us to accept his death as the necessary consequence of the Anglo-American
imperialist trajectory, as we do Oroonoko’s death or the death of any heroic figure of
color on the English or the American stage, by seeing his savagery as a sign of some
primitive, unimprovable nature, now beginning to be understood in relation to the
emerging discourses of scientific racism. Thus, despite its identification as a history
play, Metamora reflects a variety of immediate concerns to both nineteenth-century
audiences and twenty-first-century scholars who follow the pathways of racial
Indeed, writers like James Fenimore Cooper, whose forest texts themselves reflect
the author’s keen theatricality in their staging of entrances and exits, should be taught
with the theatre in mind – Metamora in particular. Andrew Jackson’s notion of democracy meant the intended destruction of Indian nations through a brutal plan of forced
removal from the eastern states. Curiously, Metamora played both to and against the
passions incited by Indian dislocation and mass death in ways, perhaps, that Cooper
does not quite reach. On the one hand, a performance of Metamora provided a certain
solace to those far from the center of affected Indian populations; by observing Forrest
channel Metacom, audiences in New York or Boston could take the comfort of tragedy:
he overreached, he has to die, but we are urged by Walter and Oceana, the young and
sympathetic whites, to see something of value in the doomed natural man. Audiences
in southern states, meanwhile, took the play as an attack on them: the Indian was too
sympathetic, too heroic, for their taste. To read Metamora cold is to encounter what
appears to postmodern readers as a baggy plot and shapeless characters; but to read
the play in context is to discover that the play is a dart in the center of the target
that reads “American Psyche,” and a reminder, ironically, that Indians, contra Cooper,
were not about to disappear, Metamora’s death in the play notwithstanding. In the
way that blackface performance enhances the privileges of whiteness, particularly for
the laboring class, so too in tawny-face performance, whites concomitantly reject and
embrace Indianness. The key to reading this and other Indian-subject plays is to read
through the texts to the inciting historical actions and observe the interplay between
multiple, situated histories and the text of the play among them.
Jeffrey H. Richards
By 1830 and for the rest of the nineteenth century, drama and theatre mattered.
Gulf coast and Western states, expanding rapidly in number, added their playhouses
to the national total. A tour by a star meant Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, as
well as Cincinnati, Mobile, and New Orleans. Theatres expanded, not only in number
but also in size. Many cities supported playhouses that held 2,000 or 3,000 spectators,
forcing playwrights and managers to adapt to the doubled or tripled capacity from
the theatre buildings of the previous century. This meant more attention to sets and
properties to accommodate the larger stage area, and also acoustics: actors had to be
able to speak to 3,000 people stacked into three tiers. Some managers mourned the
impossibility of raising the public taste for anything but melodrama and farce. The
latest British comedy or the hottest English actor was still a draw, but the rise of
minstrelsy, the new popularity of an old type, the Yankee, and the emergence of new
types, like the New York fireman, turned the theatre into a register of popular response
rather than a house of art – or so the critics grumbled. Democratic heroes, like actor
Frank Chanfrau’s portrayal of Mose the fireman (B. Baker) or James Hackett’s Nimrod
Wildfire (Paulding) or any number of Yankee imitators, were the draws, along with
the touring tragedian. The stage embraced cliché and bombast as well as popular taste
in songs and music, but reflected back in sometimes oblique ways the state of the
nation (Bank).
By the mid-nineteenth century, theatre was the most visible institution in the
expression of US mass culture. For those of us living in an era where the playhouse
is largely seen as an elite or limited-interest space, for the cognoscenti rather than hoi
polloi, it is a Forrestian leap to imagine the place of the stage in the era of Ralph
Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller. To be sure, neither of the transcendentalists just
mentioned were big-time theatre goers, but they could not help but observe or be
influenced by the stage. Writers like Cooper, Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, and Melville
can best be understood by reading the plays they saw and recognizing they could not
escape the pull of the theatrical. All had their writing shaped by attendance at or
awareness of the theatre. Moby-Dick (1851) has long been seen as shaped by theatrical
values, but the point is that there is a particular stage being represented in Melville’s
anatomical fiction: Ahab may have his origins in Byronic brooders (like Manfred), but
the expression is out of Edmund Kean and George Frederick Cooke, those dark and
caped actors of the transatlantic stage. In the days leading to the extraordinary and
lethal 1849 Astor Place Riot, ignited by the rivalry between the British star William
Macready and the American Forrest, Melville took the side of the Brit, who contra
the Byronic Cooke had a softer toned Shakespearean hero to sell. For those trapped
in the present, where theatre only occasionally stirs public passions, it is important
to conceive the mid-nineteenth century as a period when theatre mattered so much
that it was a life-and-death issue. The conflict between Forrest and Macready had been
simmering for years, not unlike that between Mathews and Hewlett, but on a larger
scale. Thus, it seems that working-class citizens, stirred to Forrest by national pride
(or the prospect of joyful hooliganism) and class animosities, turned on supporters of
the allegedly elite and effete transatlantic visitor and called them out as un-American.
Drama, Theatre, Performance before O’Neill
If this were a victory for American acting over British, or workers over merchants, or
performance over text, or just a declaration of theatrical independence, it was a bloody
and pyrrhic one. Whatever the precise cause or reading of the riot, in the end, nearly
two dozen people lay dead and more wounded as a result (Moody). Melville two years
later embodied Ahab with a theatrical power to sway even the most moral of the crew
to buy into his hell-fired quest – his own declaration on the allure and danger of the
romantic popular stage.
Perhaps one of the reasons that study of early theatre has lagged behind that of
other genres has to do with the kind of indirection that appears in Moby-Dick. It took
several decades of criticism to recognize in Melville a scornful critique of slavery,
particularly in Benito Cereno (1855). Slavery as an issue, and not simply as a circumstance of secondary characters, had been largely avoided directly by American playwrights, although in Britain, which had finally brought slavery to an end in its
territories in 1834, the theatre could be more overt about it than in the United States.
English playwright Shirley Brooks’s The Creole (1847), a source for Dion Boucicault’s
slavery play The Octoroon (1859), but a drama that did not appear on an American
stage, uses the theatre to mark the end of slavery and, by implication, remind the
United States it has failed to make progress on racial justice. The economics of theatre,
which included mass audience appeal, made bold social commentary difficult to
mount if it meant alienating blocks of spectators. Sometimes, though, the theatre had
ways of addressing racial captivity that critiqued existing culture without being confrontational. Anna Cora Mowatt’s Fashion (1845), a comedy of manners that lampoons
a family of strivers, has an African American servant character, Zeke, who, while
conforming to the role of the man in livery, also shows an ability to hide behind the
mask of his blackness and make his own parody on parvenu white culture. It’s a small
gesture, but it indicates that even amidst the comedy of minstrelsy, an occasional
playwright could insert a little doubt that minstrelsy represented anything other than
white people (audience as well as actors) enjoying a night off from being white. One
challenge for literary critics, then, is to read that contemporary topic in texts and
entertainments that do not announce them as subjects.
Slavery as dramatic topic only entered the American theatre overtly in 1852, with
the promulgation of plays based on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
The enormous success of the George Aiken version, running for over 300 consecutive
performances (a record at the time), suggests that American spectators were eager for
a performance on the topic of the day. It was a long time coming to the stage, but
when it came, slavery entered garbed in familiarity. In the 1840s, it was hard to find
a black character who could be called a character at all, other than Othello (but see
Nathans); in the 1850s, suddenly, a cluster of blackface characters, some represented
with a nod to their humanity, entered the cultural lexicon. Aiken was shrewd enough
to dramatize what became the most popular novel in the world and faithful enough
to keep most of the main characters and the basic outline of the plot intact. But like
most others who embraced the once-forbidden topic, Aiken could not resist the theatrical gimmicks popular at the time. Poor Topsy, a caricature of the abused black
Jeffrey H. Richards
figure that went back a century or more on the British stage, had her abuse amuse
the masses; beaten by Ophelia, she scampers and romps across the stage, a crowd
favorite. To be sure, Aiken’s play advanced the stage toward a more overtly political
sense of its place in culture, but it could not escape the choking racism that turned
a brutal institution into comedy (Meer).
The play of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, read alongside the novel, illuminates the spheres
that novel and drama occupy. Stowe’s novel was the biggest selling American fiction
of its era, and in that way reached many readers. Aiken’s play, neither authorized by
Stowe nor from whose productions she earned any money, probably reached many
more. Which Tom, then, is the cultural icon? Although Aiken is relatively faithful to
the main plot and characters, he makes many changes, including adding characters
and changing tone. The Topsy of legend is more likely the Topsy of the play than the
child in Stowe. Onstage, Topsy was often played by an adult woman rather than a
child actor, while Eva, the white angel, was enacted by a child actor. How does such
a practice illuminate the reception history of the characters? In the play, Topsy is
described derogatorily as something out of “Day and Martin,” a stove polish manufacturer. In other words, her blackness is made a comedic point, whereas in Stowe,
the bigger focus is Topsy’s unruly behavior generated by her not being loved.
Nevertheless, Stowe’s multiple plots and thrilling escapes met the demands of stage,
and even contributed to the theatricality of the novel. In some ways, the two genres
meet and speak to each other in this pairing of novel and play.
Much has been said about the shifts in taste and the movement away from the mass
audiences for post-Civil War stage performance. Bruce McConachie notes the many
dimensions to those changes, including the rise of what he calls “business class” spectators (157). Shifts in power and money and taste, not to mention the deep damage
done by North and South to each other, forced drama and theatre to adapt. The conditions of the large, mass stage were, by war’s end, not sustainable; a new day of
shaping smaller theatres to more specific audiences had arrived. Romance seemed, to
some at least, inappropriate to a bleeding, mourning nation. Even that boisterous
performer Walt Whitman turned to elegy at war’s end. But melodrama did not go
away for a long time. Moralistic plots continued, although over time the expression
in those plots moved toward less demonstrative, more natural speech. The drama of
the postwar era, however, gets relatively little attention; the amount of criticism
generated by individual plays in the period from 1865 to 1900 rarely meets the
volume of studies devoted to The Contrast.
That may be because the Civil War, oddly, left only a faint footprint on the dusty
boards of American stages. With a very few exceptions, notably Bronson Howard’s
Shenandoah (1888), playwrights and managers kept the conflict at more than arm’s
length. This could be explained easily enough – people were tired of war and did not
want to see it when they sought surcease from its memories and pains. But it required
something else – an institution dedicated to keeping the people it served always at a
distance from the sights and sounds of real life. There was nothing equivalent onstage
in the 1860s–1880s to a Mathew Brady photograph of bodies on a field of war.
Drama, Theatre, Performance before O’Neill
That did not mean that theatre people ignored the real world; it’s just that conflict
onstage was more likely to be represented as feuding siblings than warring halfnations. Nothing ostensibly seems farther from war than Augustin Daly’s popular
sensation drama Under the Gaslight (1867). Daly, an American who helped in the
transition from the old-style theatre manager to new-style artistic director, was, like
Dion Boucicault before him, a consummate man of the theatre. His most noted contribution – one disputed by Boucicault, who claimed he thought of it first – was the
use of the moving train as prop with the heroic rescue of someone tied to the tracks.
That in the original it was a man tied to the tracks who was saved by an ax-wielding
woman has been largely forgotten in the later Perils of Pauline iterations of this stage
spectacle. The main plot features Laura – one of many stage Lauras to come – an elite
young woman who, it is discovered, is not what she seems. Condemned by her class
to the streets, where, it is believed, she had her origins, she falls to the bottom, but
oddly finds a socially comfortable existence among denizens of New York’s slums.
Leading the condemnation is Pearl, her functional sister, who feels liberated from
competition with Laura but of course, in true melodramatic fashion, must eat crow
when the tables are turned at the end. Family disputes, like internecine wars, are best
solved onstage with forgiveness, not justice, and Laura, of course, forgives. It is the
kind of drama that scholars acknowledge and recognize for its theatrical innovations
but rarely turn to for literary study.
Even in this sensation drama, with its unbelievable plot (although the constant
threat of a fall from class plagued many late-nineteenth-century Americans of the
middling strata) and made-for-stage redemption, dark secrets reveal themselves in
often oblique ways (McConachie 213–7). One of Laura’s band of street supporters is
Snorky, a messenger by employment but also a wounded veteran of the war. Onstage,
we see and hear that he has lost an arm in the conflict, and because he is working
class, the text suggests of course he can take it – and naturally he will want to help
the fair-haired maiden living amongst the slum folk. Snorky is kept in his place by
having to be rescued by Laura – just as wounded vets were better off unseen as they
walked among the unwounded – but given a token heroism by his general contributions to Laura’s quick rise back to the elite at the end. Rough urban street conditions,
armless ex-soldiers, contrasts of wealth and poverty, and a house divided – these were
part of the postwar American landscape, and they were part of American drama. It’s
just that amidst the cross-cutting plots and sensational train, spectators would have
had to think hard about what they had just seen. In other words, for all the kidnap
plotting by the working-class villain Byke and the kidnapping and love interest of
Laura, the play should also be read in the context of a war just past. Although The
Red Badge of Courage is frequently one of the few works read as Civil War literature,
dramatists had their own ways of encoding and representing the war a decade before
Stephen Crane was even born.
When the war was faced directly in Shenandoah, it had to be accommodated to the
cultural demands of a squeamish and sensitive people. By the 1880s, the war itself
was long over, and so, for many, was its root cause, slavery. We observe in Howard’s
Jeffrey H. Richards
play that the news of Fort Sumter’s surrender to the Confederacy divides the characters’
loyalties according to birth; afterward, we imagine we are in various points of conflict,
notably the campaign over the Shenandoah Valley. But love rules the stage in the
nineteenth century, and the usual telltale artifacts of melodrama play their part in
this slight shift toward realism. There are no spectacular train rescues, but there is a
portrait miniature that carries its story: the prop as character. In the end, characters
pair up and the war itself is largely an afterthought. If New York theatre was to be
believed, everyone in 1888 just wanted to forget the war and its continuing differences
– and did not want to spend time over the lack of justice toward the former slaves
over whom the conflict raged. The postwar preference for realism in canonical works
of fiction is firmly rebuffed in the theatre for a while yet, suggesting sentiment and
sensation retain a strong grip over the cultural imagination in the age of William
Dean Howells and James.
Plays serve as odd registers of remembering and forgetting. Performances no longer
seen are often forgotten, but plays like Gaslight and Shenandoah serve as well as shapers
of memory of the trauma of war. Perhaps the emblematic play for a nation eager to
forget was Rip Van Winkle (1865). Written with help from Boucicault and played by
Joseph Jefferson III for four decades and thousands of performances, Rip Van Winkle
is at once an adaptation of a popular American tale and its own entity of memory and
forgetting. Rip makes a point of avoiding reality wherever he can. Of course, it
famously ends with his return to his village after 20 snoozy years – which in Washington
Irving’s original tale covered the American Revolution – and his liberation from the
“petticoat government” of Dame Van Winkle. The play gives Rip’s wife some sympathy, and Rip turns out to be a doting father of a girl, all in service of a growing
trend toward the sentimental onstage, but it too is a performance of amnesia (McArthur
213–40). Jefferson’s Rip clearly met the taste of the age; the actor, once a versatile
member of a respected theatrical family, found wealth and fame in a property that
remunerated well but did nothing to jolt his audiences out of complacency with the
status quo. Like other actors of his day, most notably James O’Neill and his one-trick
vehicle, Monte Cristo, Jefferson took the option placed on his plate. For Eugene
O’Neill, as expressed in Long Day’s Journey into Night, his father’s choice – and thus
Jefferson’s – was a craven capitulation to money over art. But Jefferson’s own skills as
an artist, his understanding of how to make Irving’s story work theatrically (others
had tried but with limited success), and his ability to sustain the play’s popularity
over many years suggest that the Jefferson play is deserving of being considered as
something more than a one-trick vehicle. Rather, it serves as a node of intersection
for a variety of scholarly and critical tools that include analysis of depictions of alcoholism, trauma studies, adaptation, performance, and authorship (sorting among
Irving, Boucicault, and Jefferson, for instance).
Before O’Neill and the Provincetown Players, some playwrights sought to extend
familiar boundaries of subject and treatment. Some who had success in the slick and
predictable vehicles of fin de siècle theatre, like Clyde Fitch, author of Beau Brummell
Drama, Theatre, Performance before O’Neill
(1890) and The Girl with the Green Eyes (1902), sought to produce texts that pushed
at the limits of theatre. Fitch’s last play, The City (1909), is a bold attempt by a consummate entertainer to extend himself into more difficult territory. Like that great
lover of the theatre 50 years before, Walt Whitman, Fitch saw the city as one of the
great American subjects. In previous plays, he had been content to show the lives of
the well-to-do and the city as a playground. In The City, he turned to a darker side,
the city as vast, corrupting force. It was as close to naturalism as Fitch had come – and
indeed, one laments his early death shortly after completing the play for what directions he might have taken his considerable skills at dialogue. Like Henrik Ibsen and
his followers, Fitch peeled the façade off bourgeois happiness to show that rising in
the city is a matter of not simply more money, but also a contamination of all family
values. The young banker from a small town finds his dream of the city is a nightmare;
and while the play does not kick over its sentimentalist traces entirely, it points the
way toward a theatre willing to leave the audience in some doubt and darkness about
the lives of its ostensible protagonists. Although naturalism onstage appeared later
in the United States than it did in prose fiction, it nevertheless can be found before
O’Neill. The commercial element of the playhouse should not preclude treatment of
dramatic texts by literary scholars. Indeed, issues of commerce and finance, from The
Contrast onward, run deeply through American drama (J. Baker 96–112).
By the same token, naturalism in fiction reflects its own interests in the theatre.
Stephen Crane’s Maggie (1896) and Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900) are filled
with numerous references to, or situations having to do with, theatrical culture. If
those texts, or similar ones, had their influence on Fitch and O’Neill, the playhouse
world familiar to them had its reciprocal influence on the fiction writers. For all the
differences of dramatic texts with stories and novels, the genres are imbedded in each
other, as both complementary and antagonistic genres. As literary scholars, we owe it
to ourselves to recognize the degree to which American culture was a theatrical and
dramatic one. Cooper, Hawthorne, Howells, and James each imagined himself at some
point in his career as either a dramatist or performance artist (Hawthorne’s wandering
storyteller). Literary scholarship has much to learn from and say about the plays and
performances in the culturally rich and critically compelling eras before Eugene
O’Neill ever penned a play.
References and Further Reading
Baker, Benjamin. A Glance at New York. New York:
Samuel French, 1848.
Baker, Jennifer Jordan. Securing the Commonwealth:
Debt, Speculation, and Writing in the Making of
Early America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
University Press, 2005.
Bank, Rosemarie K. Theatre Culture in America,
1825–1860. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1997.
Barbour, Philip L. “Captain John Smith and the
London Theatre.” Virginia Magazine of History
and Biography 83 (1975): 277–9.
Jeffrey H. Richards
Barker, James Nelson. The Indian Princess. In Early
American Drama. Ed. Jeffrey H. Richards. New
York: Penguin, 1997.
Behn, Aphra. The Widow Ranter. In The English
Literatures of America, 1500–1800. Eds. Myra
Jehlen and Michael Warner. New York:
Routledge, 1997.
Berkeley, William. The Lost Lady. London: John
Okes for John Colby, 1639.
Birdoff, Harry. The World’s Greatest Hit: Uncle Tom’s
Cabin. New York: Vanni, 1947.
Daly, Augustin. Under the Gaslight. In American
Drama: Colonial to Contemporary. Eds. Stephen
Watt and Gary Richardson. Fort Worth, TX:
Harcourt Brace, 1995.
Dillon, Elizabeth Maddock. The Gender of Freedom:
Fictions of Liberalism and the Literary Public Sphere.
Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004.
Ellison, Ralph. “Change the Joke and Slip the
Yoke.” In Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act (pp.
45–59). New York: Vintage, 1972.
Fichtelberg, Joseph. Risk Culture: Performance and
Danger in Early America. Ann Arbor: University
of Michigan Press, 2010.
Fitch, Clyde. Plays. Eds. Montrose J. Moses and
Virginia Gerson. Boston: Little, Brown, 1915.
Howard, Bronson. Shenandoah. In American Drama:
Colonial to Contemporary. Eds. Stephen Watt
and Gary Richardson. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt
Brace, 1995.
Jefferson, Joseph, III. Rip Van Winkle. In The
Black Crook, and Other Nineteenth-Century
American Plays. Ed. Myron Matlaw. New York:
Dutton, 1967.
Jehlen, Myra, and Michael Warner. Eds. The
English Literatures of America, 1500–1800. New
York: Routledge, 1997.
Kritzer, Amelia Howe. Plays by Early American
Women, 1775–1850. Ann Arbor: University of
Michigan Press, 1995.
Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and
the American Working Class. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1993.
Marriott, Sarah. The Chimera; or, Effusions of Fancy.
New York: Swords, 1795.
McAllister, Marvin. White People Do Not Know How
to Behave at Entertainments Designed for Ladies &
Gentlemen of Colour: William Brown’s African and
American Theatre. Chapel Hill: University of
North Carolina Press, 2003.
McArthur, Benjamin. The Man Who Was Rip Van
Winkle: Joseph Jefferson and Nineteenth-Century
Theatre. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press,
McConachie, Bruce A. Melodramatic Formations:
American Theatre and Society, 1820–1870. Iowa
City: University of Iowa Press, 1992.
Meer, Sarah. Uncle Tom Mania: Slavery, Minstrelsy,
and Transatlantic Culture in the 1850s. Athens:
University of Georgia Press, 2005.
Moody, Richard. The Astor Place Riot. Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 1958.
Murray, Judith Sargent. The Traveller Returned. In
Judith Sargent Murray, The Gleaner. 3 vols.
Boston: Andrews, 1798.
Nathans, Heather S. Slavery and Sentiment on the
American Stage, 1787–1861: Lifting the Veil of
Black. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
O’Neill, Eugene. O’Neill: Complete Plays. 3 vols.
New York: Library of America, 1988.
Paulding, James Kirke. The Lion of the West: Retitled
The Kentuckian, or A Trip to New York. Stanford,
CA: Stanford University Press, 1954.
Richards, Jeffrey H. “Barefoot Folks with Tawny
Cheeks: Creolism in the Literary Chesapeake.”
In Creole Subjects in the Colonial Americas (pp.
135–61). Eds. Ralph Bauer and José Antonio
Mazzotti. Chapel Hill: University of North
Carolina Press, 2009.
Richards, Jeffrey H. Drama, Theatre, and Identity in
the American New Republic. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Richards, Jeffrey H. Mercy Otis Warren. Boston:
Twayne, 1995.
Richards, Jeffrey H. Theater Enough: American
Culture and the Metaphor of the World Stage, 1607–
1789. Durham, NC: Duke University Press,
Rust, Marion. Prodigal Daughters: Susanna Rowson’s
Early American Women. Chapel Hill: University
of North Carolina Press, 2008.
Sayre, Gordon M. The Indian Chief as Tragic Hero:
Native Resistance and the Literatures of America,
from Moctezuma to Tecumseh. Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press, 2005.
Smith, John. The Generall Historie of Virginia. 1624.
In The Complete Works of Captain John Smith. 3
vols. Ed. Philip L. Barbour. Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press, 1986.
Drama, Theatre, Performance before O’Neill
Smith, Susan Harris. American Drama: The Bastard
Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
Stone, John Augustus. Metamora; or, The Last of the
Wampanoags. In American Drama: Colonial to
Contemporary. Eds. Stephen Watt and Gary
Richardson. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace,
Thompson, George A., Jr. A Documentary History of
the African Theatre. Evanston, IL: Northwestern
University Press, 1998.
Toll, Robert C. Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in
Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1974.
Tyler, Royall. The Contrast. In Early American
Drama. Ed. Jeffrey H. Richards. New York:
Penguin, 1997.
White, Shane. Stories of Freedom in Black New York.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,
Woodworth, Samuel. The Forest Rose; or American
Farmers. In Dramas from the American Theatre,
1762–1909. Ed. Richard Moody. Cleveland,
OH: World, 1966.
Disliking It: American Poetry and
American Literary Studies
Mary Loeffelholz
Poetry: “I, too, dislike it,” Marianne Moore offered in the famous opening gambit of
her sly modernist manifesto, “Poetry” (35). Sometimes I, too, dislike it – not US
poetry itself so much as the banality of the entanglement of nation, gender, and race
in the primal scenes of American poetry’s emergence as told by most mainstream
twentieth-century Americanist literary histories. Most Americanist literary scholars
of the last two, three, or four intellectual generations could probably still recite from
memory the script of the vehicle (once starring Anne Bradstreet and more recently
remade with Phillis Wheatley) in which the New World’s formally imitative poetry,
both literally and figuratively feminine, seeks to prove itself in the judgment of the
Old World. In this version of our literary history, Walt Whitman comes along just
in time to blow our poetry’s jambs wide open. Breaking the pentameter, Whitman
frees our captive feminine verse, and so liberates the United States at a stroke to
become nature’s nation.
Actual women aren’t essential to this binary nationalist script, since figures of race
can do the work of gender and notoriously did in Philip Rahv’s famous 1938 essay
on the “Palefaces and Redskins” of American literature. Rahv’s redskin “is a purely
indigenous phenomenon, the true-blue offspring of the western hemisphere” (254),
whereas the paleface, “in compensation for backward cultural traditions and a lost
religious ethic,” cherishes his own “peculiar excess of refinement” (255). Rahv epitomizes these “[f]atal antipodes” in the “mutual repulsion between the two major figures
in American literature,” Walt Whitman and Henry James (252). Aside from one
passing glance at Emily Dickinson among the palefaces, the fatal romantic polarities
of Rahv’s essay are enacted entirely among white men: “Will James and Whitman
A Companion to American Literary Studies, First Edition. Edited by Caroline F. Levander,
Robert S. Levine.
© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2011 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
American Poetry and American Literary Studies
ever be reconciled, will they finally discover and act upon each other?” wonders Rahv
in his conclusion (256). As Christopher Looby explores in Chapter 26 in this volume,
the answer at least to the second part of Rahv’s question is, in thunder, yes; and their
mutual antagonism was always already a powerful queer erotics of mutual discovery
and action. For the study of US poetry, however, what Timothy Morris aptly labels
the “resilient bipolarism” (18) of this model of American literary history would prove
particularly disabling. Among the poets cited by Rahv, only Carl Sandburg joins
Whitman on the indigenous side of the great divide, while “the novelists, who control
the main highway of literature, were and still are nearly all redskins,” the great
example of James notwithstanding (254). The history of American poetry implied in
Rahv’s essay pits a lonely Whitman against the mostly faceless majority of poets still
beholden to “the traditions and forms of English literature” (256). Looking forward
to the redskins lying down with the palefaces, though, did nothing to challenge the
rejection of sociality and history deeply embedded in this bipolar history’s melding
of Whitmanian autochthonous poetic experiments to the exceptionalist projects of US
Surviving a world war, a significant change in the US domestic political climate,
and many twists and turns of canonical judgment of individual writers, this resilient
bipolarism surfaced again in Roy Harvey Pearce’s influential The Continuity of American
Poetry (1961), this time framed in Emersonian terms as the enduring contest between
a man-making central canon of American poets and the surrounding “anti-poetic
culture” (139). In Pearce’s telling of the tale, Whitman becomes “the supremely realized Emersonian poet” (164) while several of Rahv’s exemplary palefaces, Herman
Melville and Ralph Waldo Emerson among them, move over to the Whitmanian side
of native, originary American strength – for Pearce, understood as “a consciousness
of the self defined in terms of its ultimate resistance to consciousness of other selves”
(140). Emily Dickinson’s poetry now earns an honorable place in this psychomachia,
as it “battles against and wins out over the mass media of the psyche” (185). In the
next generation of critics, Harold Bloom followed Pearce in claiming that “Emerson’s
insistence upon Self-Reliance made Whitman and Dickinson . . . possible” (52).
Bloom grafted his famous thesis of the poet’s “anxiety of influence” onto Pearce’s
foundational insight into the mise en abyme of American poetic identity: an American
selfhood defined as “ultimate resistance to consciousness of other selves” can only
emerge in relation to other selves who are also defined in terms of their “ultimate
resistance” to consciousness of still other selves, ad infinitum.
As recently as 1995, Timothy Morris could still observe, “The formulations of
Pearce and Bloom possess the field of the American poetic canon” (16). Their major
mid-twentieth-century challenger, the New Criticism – with its characteristic preference for transhistorical literary forms and aesthetic principles, and its consequent
distaste for author-centered literary nationalisms – had by 1995 conquered the
American poetry classroom as a pedagogical method of close reading while ceding the
ground of canon formation to the Whitman-centered nationalist narrative. As Alan
Golding summarized the evolution of the field in his 1995 study, From Outlaw to
Mary Loeffelholz
Classic: Canons in American Poetry, the increasing focus of poetry anthologies from the
1950s forward on “literary masters” marked “the point at which, under the influence
of New Critical method, the New Critical and Americanist canons started to converge
more closely” (112). The terms of this mainstream convergence, however, were markedly divergent from the most energetic strands of Americanist literary studies of the
1980s and 1990s. A canon of master poets producing autonomous works birthed out
of heroic resistance, not only to their surrounding culture but even to the consciousness of other selves, could hardly be less congenial to Americanist literary scholars
increasingly committed to understanding the sociality of all forms of selfhood and the
social situation of all acts of writing. Golding, surveying the “New Americanist
scholarship” of his contemporaries, noted with concern their “critical neglect of poetry
in favor of prose forms (usually fiction) that have a superficially more ‘direct’ connection to social and historical reality” (xiii). Echoing Golding’s concern, Joseph
Harrington pointed in 1996 to the absence of poetry, save for that of Whitman, in
influential current anthologies like Philip Fisher’s The New American Studies (1991) as
well as in field-defining classics like F.O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance (1941).
In Harrington’s view, “the identification of American fiction as American literature has
persisted” to the point that, for mainstream critical purposes, “American Poetry Is
Not American Literature” (496).
It has persisted and perhaps, in some settings, even intensified. Donald E. Pease
and Robyn Wiegman’s 2002 The Futures of American Studies evicts even Whitman from
the Americanist scene: its American literary canon comprises a wide range of fiction,
selected on a wide range of critical principles – from Herman Melville to Toni Cade
Bambara, and from Maria Cummins’s The Lamplighter to popular anti-Mormon novels
– along with drama and film, but avoids poetry entirely. Vanished along with Whitman
is nostalgia for the American poet’s Cold War incarnation as the “crucial, lonely, and
imperious role as trustee of our imaginative language” (Pearce 539). From the standpoint of scholars interested in US poetry, The Futures of American Studies looks oddly
like the inverted image of American studies past, as if the leading edge of present-day
criticism had embraced but transvalued Roy Harvey Pearce’s characterization of the
United States as the world’s preeminently antipoetic culture.
As an increasing number of scholars were reasserting from the 1980s forward,
however, the United States as a matter of empirical fact has been anything but hostile
to poetry. While the field-defining works of feminist criticism and African American
literary scholarship of these decades, like those of Americanist literary scholarship
more broadly, remained focused on prose genres (Harris 605), scholarly and pedagogical anthologies of US poetry selected on principles of New Americanist interest
– social identities, social movements, and historical representativeness – began to
appear in numbers in these years. Although sometimes on different shelves of different bookstores, these anthologies kept pace with the collections of contemporary
poetry, organized on competing aesthetic principles, through which the “poetry wars”
of the later twentieth-century literary scene were being fought. (On the mutually
defining contrast between the “revisionist collection and the canonical teaching text”
American Poetry and American Literary Studies
in poetry anthologies, see Golding 30–40; on the contemporary “poetry wars”
between experimentalists and traditionalists and their aftermath, see Caplan.) Joan
R. Sherman’s African-American Poetry of the Nineteenth Century and Cheryl Walker’s
American Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century both appeared in 1992, followed by
Janet Gray’s and Paula Bennett’s competing anthologies of nineteenth-century women
poets in 1997 and 1998. The 1993 publication of John Hollander’s two-volume
American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century by the Library of America – marked by a
standing-room-only reading, packed with literary and academic notables, on
Harvard’s campus – returned the American poetry anthology, as well as its surrounding social relations, to something resembling those of the later nineteenth century.
Ample in its coverage of canonical isolato-masters like Whitman, Dickinson, and
Melville, and innovative in its particularly capacious selection of American Indian
poetry in nineteenth-century versions, Hollander’s anthology also echoed the more
catholic selection principles of nineteenth-century American anthologies like those
of Rufus Griswold and Edmund Clarence Stedman. Hollander’s choices canvassed
US geographical diversity as well as multiple sites and social levels of poetry’s production and consumption, “embracing solitary visionaries and congenial story-tellers,
humorists and dissidents, songwriters and philosophers. . . . Parodies, dialect poems,
song lyrics, and children’s verse evoke the liveliness of an era when poetry was accessible to all” (Hollander I, jacket copy).
Meanwhile, the nineteenth-century United States was not the only era of American
history that revealed unexpected fecundity to historically minded scholars of poetry
in the 1980s and 1990s. Evoking the liveliness of an era when experimental modernism, insurgent African American writing communities, and leftist social movements
jostled with one another for public space, Cary Nelson’s 1992 Repression and Recovery:
Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory served as both critical manifesto for and quasi-anthology of a broadly diverse poetry of American modernism. The
twentieth-century United States, scholars of the 1980s and 1990s demonstrated, had
seen a number of booms in the market for poetry; Harrington’s “Why American
Poetry Is Not American Literature” offers evidence ranging from Joyce Kilmer’s
observation that World War I boosted poetry sales (497) to the “syndicated poetry
shows” of 1930s radio (504) to Time magazine’s reporting from the 1960s on the box
office success of poetry readings and the healthy sales of poetry recordings (505).
Looking back at the same Cold War period from which Roy Harvey Pearce’s argument
for the essential opposition between American poets and their antipoetic culture
emerged, Robert von Hallberg by contrast saw the 1960s as the decade in which “the
poetic avant-garde was drawn into the mainstream of American literary life”: “In one
year, between 1963 and 1964, the total distribution of Poetry magazine jumped by
almost 50 percent to just under 10,000,” while US federal subsidies helped underwrite
library purchases of poetry books (13–15). In Hallberg’s ambivalent tribute, postWorld War II American poetry for better or worse met “a demand in America for
those signs of cultural coherence that help to ratify imperium” (28). “If some readers
and critics persist in the belief that American poets have made themselves cultural
Mary Loeffelholz
outlaws,” Hallberg concludes, “they must do so in spite of a very distinguished group
of poets who, it seems to me, have looked more searchingly and fairly at the national
culture” (244).
Different as these various 1980s–1990s representations of American poetry are in
tone and perspective – Cary Nelson’s radical take on the US “national culture,” for
example, is a far cry from Hallberg’s liberalism – they have in common a collective
turn away from what we might call, after Michel Foucault, the repressive hypothesis
of American poetry’s relationship to its surrounding culture: far from being repressed
or starved, American poetry has been abundantly produced and consumed. Far from
being discouraged, poetry in many contexts – the nineteenth-century schoolroom
(Loeffelholz From School 11–64; Sorby 1–98), the nineteenth-century public sphere
(Bennett Poets), and the twentieth-century university (Golding xv) – has been all but
compulsory. From this critical perspective, the object is to understand the productive
(in Foucault’s sense) rather than censoring relationship between American imperium
and the making of poets, to understand how “[t]he institutions of American
poetry, . . . like any other social institutions, shape social subjects, [and] make a
certain range of subject positions . . . possible and available” (Golding 170).
American poets themselves, taking stock of their situation, have often remarked
on the availability of the poet’s subject position in the United States. Writing on “The
New Math of Poetry” in the era of digital media, contemporary poet David Alpaugh
recites statistics of “runaway” production: extrapolating from a starting point of over
2,000 journals that accept poetry and a growth rate of “more than one new journal a
day,” he calculates that “more than 100,000 poems will be published in 2010” and
warns, “If journals merely continue to grow at the current rate, there will be more
than 35,000 of them by 2100, and approximately 86 million poems will be published
in the 21st century!” – with similar exponential growth rates projected for poetry-book
prizes (from one in 1950, the Yale Younger Poets contest, to 330 in 2010, to 100,000
by the end of the twenty-first century) (Alpaugh B12). Compulsive lust after the poet’s
subject position, in Alpaugh’s view, is a distinctively American weakness: “The notion
that writing and performing ‘poetry’ is the easiest way to satisfy the American itch
for 15 minutes of fame has spilled out of our campuses and into the wider
culture . . . the new math of poetry is driven not by reader demand for great or even
good poetry but by the demand of myriads of aspiring poets to experience the thrill
of ‘publication’ ” (B12). Appalled by the contemporary supply-side economics of
poetry, Alpaugh looks back to supposedly “quieter times,” when poetry’s “only significant promoters were English professors who focused on reading poetry for its own
sake” (B12). If we look back far enough in these precincts, though, we will find Henry
Wadsworth Longfellow looking back at us. In Kavanagh (1849), a village sketch
written during his stint at Harvard as a professor of modern languages, Longfellow
satirizes the torrential print culture of the early nineteenth-century United States.
Asked to contribute to a new periodical, “The Niagara,” Longfellow’s hero is both
flattered and offended to have his literary ambitions coupled with those of pushy
journalists and poetesses who have “not published anything yet, except in the news-
American Poetry and American Literary Studies
papers.” Helpless to enforce his own sense of distinction, he can only sigh, “There are
so many poets now-a-days!” (Longfellow, Kavanagh 121).
These new and old maths of American poetry suggest that the defining situation
of poets and poetry in the United States is not a permanently adversarial relationship
to an “antipoetic culture,” but rather a longstanding and evolving crisis of judgment
in the relationship between poetry and its publics. This crisis of judgment implicates
the relationship between readers and writers, and between writing and publication.
Alpaugh proposes, for example, that “in an ideal society everybody would write
poetry” but warns that “there is a difference between writing and publishing” (B13)
– or perhaps, more accurately, there should be a difference; but who is to secure that
difference? Established poets log-roll, university-housed writers ignore independents
while flooding the market with MFA-bearing wannabes, and even the staunchest of
disinterested editors are unlikely to be afflicted with the ideal insomnia it would take
to read all their submissions; and, as everyone apparently knows, the common reader
is more likely to make purchasing decisions on the basis of “the sociology of the poet”
(Alpaugh sniffs) or the subject matter than for the sake of “the art itself” (B12). If no
institutional arbiter can be trusted to draw the necessary distinctions, are we thrown
back upon the doubtful self-restraint of the same recognition-craving American subjects of writing who made this pickle in the first place? Authority to regulate the
American poetry system, on Alpaugh’s account of it, cannot be legitimately claimed
from either the inside or the outside of any of its institutional forms. The problem
is, to borrow the terms of the American political system, a constitutional question of
legitimacy: by whose consent does someone become a poet?
Whence the authority? In 1962, Roy Harvey Pearce concluded, “The abiding questions that American poets have had to ask are: ‘Whence the authority? What is left,
ineradicable, when one imagines oneself living apart from the world?’ ” (429). If the
second of Pearce’s questions no longer reflects assumptions within which most
Americanist critics would choose to abide, the first remains as pertinent as ever. Our
present-day answers to this question, as Alpaugh illustrates, will be shaped by the
revolution in digital media among other current developments in Americanist literary
criticism and cultural studies. These developments prompt us, I think, to envision a
literary history of American poetry ordered by transmission, mediation, and media,
rather than origin and imitation, as fundamental categories. As former US Poet
Laureate Billy Collins declares in the latest Bedford Introduction to Literature (with a
provocative nod toward John Ciardi’s mid-twentieth-century pedagogical classic How
Does a Poem Mean?), “More interesting to me than what a poem means is how it
travels” (Collins 1166). As Lawrence Buell presciently recommended in 1993,
Americanist literary scholars will continue to distance themselves from the “autochthonous myth of American poetic history that winds up dancing around a selective
version of Whitman, fathered by an even more selective version of Emerson,” in favor
of “a myth of American poesis as part of a transatlantic Anglophone community
almost as interlinked in the nineteenth century as in the High Modernist era” (119).
Deeply interested in what Meredith McGill calls “the traffic in poems,” our histories
Mary Loeffelholz
of American poetry will increasingly open up to linguistic communities beyond the
Anglophone one, attending to the importance of translation and adaptation studies
– as Susan Gillman and Kirsten Silva Gruesz argue in Chapter 14 in this volume –
even for a literary genre often thought of as uniquely resistant to translation. Histories
of US poetry will attend not only to mighty individual poets but also to poetry’s
institutional forms and their recurrent scandals of judgment (English 187–96), and
to poetry’s transpersonal figures of transmission, such as the poetess who enacts lyric’s
condition as a “medium of cultural exchange” (Jackson and Prins 523; see also
Richards). The future history of American poetry will join up with histories of the
book, of print, and of media more generally. It will comprehend traditional and
popular poetic forms – numbers, verses, and meters – as technologies of dissemination
and modes of literacy, understanding resistance and sociality not as the racialized
primordial opposites of American national character but rather as turns and counterturns in the rhythms of human exchange.
Let me return, then, to rewrite the script with which I began, this time as a story
about the transmission of poetry in America rather than its melodramatic rescue from
formal imitation. Phillis Wheatley’s 1772 presentation of her work to the worthies
of Boston, invited to certify that she was “qualified to write” the verses published
under her name (as they eventually judged her to be), is surely “the primal scene of
African-American letters,” in Henry Louis Gates’s memorable framing (Gates 30, 1;
but see also Joanna Brooks’s skeptical revision of Gates’s iconic narrative). Wheatley’s
trials also qualify in every respect as a primal scene for any history of American poetry
attentive to how poems travel as well as to how they mean. Published in England and
dedicated to the countess of Huntingdon, Wheatley’s poems were addressed to, and
rapidly found, a readership not only in the transatlantic Anglophone community but
also in France. Trafficked across the Atlantic first as a child of seven or eight (likely
“a native Wolof speaker from the Senegambian coast,” Gates hypothesizes [17]),
Wheatley in 1773 rode the traffic in her poems to England, still a slave but now also
an author and “an acknowledged celebrity among fellow celebrities and English peers”
(Robinson 34). At the command of her mistress, she sailed back to the United States,
still enslaved, before the notice earned by her poems, including that of the British
reviewer who tartly commented of the American independence movement that “the
purchase of [Wheatley’s] freedom, would, in our opinion, have done more honour than
hanging a thousand trees with ribbons and emblems” (qtd. in Robinson, 40), finally
prodded her mistress into freeing her.
Wheatley was no stranger to the hunger for fame that David Alpaugh sees as
driving the twenty-first-century American poetry system. “[T]he Oprah Winfrey of
her time,” as Gates calls her (33), Wheatley both got recognition and, importantly,
gave it. She understood poetry to be properly and above all a medium of recognition.
Compelled to vindicate her own authorship and her own humanity before an elite
white male jury, Wheatley asserted in her poetry her authority, in turn, to recognize
others – not only turning the tables on members of Anglo-American white elites in
well-known poems like “To the University of Cambridge, in New-England” (qtd. in
American Poetry and American Literary Studies
Robinson 157–8), but also extending recognition to other men and women of the
African diaspora, as in her tribute “To S. M. a young African Painter, on seeing his
To show the lab’ring bosom’s deep intent,
And thought in living characters to paint,
When first thy pencil did those beauties give,
And breathing figures learn from thee to live,
How did those prospects give my soul delight,
A new creation rushing on my sight?
Still, wond’rous youth! each noble path pursue,
On deathless glories fix thine ardent view:
Still may the painter’s and the poet’s fire
To aid thy pencil, and thy verse conspire!
And may the charms of each seraphic theme
Conduct thy footsteps to immortal fame! (qtd. in Robinson 256)
Formally and thematically derived from a long British tradition, lines like these were
repudiated by a long list of twentieth-century African American literary critics (Gates
74–84) and passed over in silence by many a history of American poetry. While its
neoclassicism offers nothing to the autochthonous myth of American poetry, Wheatley’s
tribute to “S. M.” (Scipio Moorhead, a fellow Boston slave known as a portrait painter)
asserts its own theory of the relationship between transmission and original creation.
Figuring the portraitist’s art not as creation ex nihilo but as a second birth into culture,
in which already-“breathing figures” yet learn to live, Wheatley puns evocatively on
several senses of “lab’ring,” doubling the conceiving body of the artist with that of
the slave and doubling the horizontal trafficking of Wheatley’s Atlantic world of
letters and slavery with the vertical translation, to “landscapes in the realms above,”
to which she along with Moorhead aspires. In those realms “Celestial Salem blooms
in endless spring,” yet another doubling back upon Wheatley’s Atlantic world: Salem,
Massachusetts, was one of many New England ports of the slave trade. “Thrice happy,
when exalted to survey / That splendid city,” Wheatley and Moorhead become both
denizens of heaven and, decades before Nathaniel Hawthorne stepped into their shoes,
critical surveyors of the earthly Salem’s customs of bondage.
Acutely for Wheatley, how her poems traveled is inseparable from how they mean.
The same held for Longfellow in the next century. Translator of 18 languages, author
of some of the most heavily trafficked poems in American literary history, Longfellow,
Kirsten Gruesz suggests, helped birth a nineteenth-century “hemispheric imaginary”
among US and Latino poets (Gruesz 37). The long poems produced over the long arc
of his career – especially Evangeline (1847), The Song of Hiawatha (1855), and Tales of
a Wayside Inn (1863) – together constitute a sustained and various exploration of how
poems travel: in time and space, in translation, and over the mnemonic airwaves of
meters. Writing of Hiawatha, Virginia Jackson characterizes Longfellow’s “Indian
Edda” (in Longfellow’s own tag for his poem) as the embodiment of “the dream of a
Mary Loeffelholz
lingua communis no longer linguistic, of perfect recognition, of infinite transmission”
(493). Indian picture writing, Jackson argues, serves Longfellow and his readers as a
figure for a magically universal literacy, extensible – like some dreams of the United
States as a nation – without limit or hiatus. His best-selling national epics were “made
to be read as if they were pictures, as if their elaborate classical meters were really a
transparent language” (Jackson 472).
In contrast with Phillis Wheatley’s poetry, though, the “perfect recognition”
embodied and extended in Longfellow’s American epics is deeply impersonal. Where
Wheatley puts her own vindicated humanity toward the individual recognition of
another enslaved African in “To S. M.,” Longfellow’s most ambitious poems turn upon
the recognition of one language by another: as if Homer’s Greek could recognize itself
in Evangeline’s famous hexameters, as if Old Norse were Native American picture
writing, as if simply taking in the highly wrought metrical variation of the narrative
poems ascribed to Longfellow’s much-travelled characters in Tales of a Wayside Inn
offered readers an immediate competence in all the languages of the Tales’ polyglot
Atlantic world company. The perfect transparency of one language to another renders
all readers equivalent; and in the literary marketplace – as Longfellow both found and
made it – where all readers are equivalent, no particular reader or community of
readers is essential. In Hiawatha most clearly, Longfellow’s dream of the perfect recognition of one language by another is at once democratic with respect to granting
readers access to classical letters in vernacular tongues and genocidal as to the nonnecessity of actual living Indian speakers and authors to this scene of reading.
Native American subjects and language communities are not the only ones, though,
ghosted by Longfellow’s dream of a lingua communis. Evangeline is Longfellow’s central
epic of what we can call, after Russ Castronovo, necrocitizenship. The poem’s formal
and linguistic assumption of the perfect recognition of one language by another –
classical Greek epic meter rendering a French-speaking diaspora in English – is
secured by a storyline of misrecognition, mistransmission, and bewilderment at the
level of individual persons, a storyline that ultimately figures the social belonging of
citizenship as a community of the dead. Evangeline’s hopeless pursuit of her lost
Gabriel – separated from her in the 1755 British expulsion of French Canadians from
Nova Scotia – across the length and breadth of the American continent figures the
United States as a single vast cemetery:
Before her extended,
Dreary and vast and silent, the desert of life, with its patient way
Marked by the graves of those who had sorrowed and suffered before her,
Passions long extinguished, and hopes long dead and abandoned,
As the emigrant’s way o’er the Western desert is marked by
Camp-fires long consumed, and bones that bleach in the sunshine. (Longfellow, Evangeline 88)
Mingling Native American ashes and bones indifferently with those of unfortunate
European settlers, Longfellow’s minor-key epic simile assimilates each into the formal,
American Poetry and American Literary Studies
abstract equality of death. As Castronovo argues and as the symbolic geography of
Longfellow’s poem compellingly illustrates, this “ghostly, disembodied polity” registers “tensions of racial embodiment specific to the United States” (Castronovo 2),
nowhere more clearly than when her pursuit of Gabriel draws Evangeline and her
companions-in-exile into the apparent calm and pastoral stasis of the slave South,
where “the houses of planters, with negro-cabins and dove-cots,” stand in a land of
“perpetual summer” (Longfellow, Evangeline 89). The sunlight of this scene proves
illusory when, “swerved from their course,” the exiles “enter the Bayou of Plaquemine”
and lose themselves “in a maze of sluggish and devious waters, / Which, like a network
of steel, extended in every direction” (89). Longfellow’s simile here entangles the
abortive forward movement of Evangeline toward the object of her desire with the
steel network of the slave power, extending itself in every direction of US national
life by 1847 and strengthened on its southwestern border by the Mexican-American
War as Longfellow was completing Evangeline.
Longfellow’s own Whiggish northeastern liberalism views the expansionist aims of
the slave network with foreboding rather than delight and the immigrants’ westward
journey as fatal rather than hopeful. The language and meter of Evangeline, however,
transmit this fatality as fated, as one more mode of what Castronovo calls “graveyard
politics” (2). In another of the poem’s epic similes, Longfellow compares the enervated
bewilderment of the Acadian exiles lost in the Louisiana swamp to the “shrinking”
of flowers on the western prairie before the vanguard of settlement:
Dreamlike, and indistinct, and strange were all things around them;
And o’er their spirits there came a feeling of wonder and sadness, –
Strange feelings of ill, unseen and that cannot be compassed.
As, at the tramp of a horse’s hoof on the turf of the prairies,
Far in advance are closed the leaves of the shrinking mimosa,
So, at the hoof-beats of fate, with sad forebodings of evil,
Shrinks and closes the heart, ere the stroke of doom has attained it. (Evangeline 89)
Longfellow’s contemporaries would have heard in this simile echoes of William Cullen
Bryant’s 1832 “The Prairies,” in which the poet turns his ear from his horse’s “sacrilegious” trampling of the grassland’s unknown dead to the colonizing bees: “I listen
long / To [the bee’s] domestic hum, and think I hear / The sound of that advancing
multitude / Which soon shall fill these deserts. From the ground / Comes up the
laugh of children, the soft voice / Of maidens, and the sweet and solemn hymn / Of
Sabbath worshippers” (Bryant 162–5). Democratic Bryant hears nothing fearful in his
own “dream” of westward domesticity; Longfellow, by contrast, hears in this reverie
nothing but forebodings of national disaster.
Everything about Longfellow’s critique of Bryant’s expansionism, however, declares
it to be national destiny. The very hoofbeats of its fate are those of Longfellow’s own
meter, and the heart’s proleptic closing ahead of its own doom is anticipated in the
elaborate inversions of Longfellow’s syntax. These overdetermined lines predict the
Mary Loeffelholz
poem’s plot: “sustained by a vision” of Gabriel having “wandered” these “shadowy
aisles . . . before her” (Longfellow, Evangeline 89), Evangeline presses west; but she
too will find that her hopes in the West perpetually retreat before her and that fulfillment of her romantic quest is foreclosed there. The heart’s only available opening lies
behind her, in service to the eastern city of brotherly love where, in the midst of
Philadelphia’s 1793 epidemic of yellow fever, she will find Gabriel on his deathbed.
Laid to sleep “[s]ide by side, in their nameless graves, . . . unknown and unnoticed”
(99), Evangeline and Gabriel’s end figures the social deaths of the many nameless
others encountered on their journey (the slaves of the Louisiana swamp, the Indian
woman encountered by Evangeline, the free black community of Philadelphia devastated by the epidemic, etc.), folding them all into the abstract equivalence of
In the midst of the Civil War, with the cemeteries filling up around him, Longfellow
returned to the twin questions of how poems travel and how they image citizenship
in Tales of a Wayside Inn. Unlike Hiawatha and Evangeline, and unlike his 1858
Courtship of Miles Standish, composed in Evangeline’s hexameters, Tales of a Wayside Inn
is a metrically varied longer form, in which the individual members of the company
gathered at the inn – artists, students, and refugees from many lands – pass their time
together reciting ballads and tales, embedded in a surrounding versified narrative
frame. In yet another version of Longfellow’s dream of a lingua communis, the Decameronlike anthology form of Tales (Irmscher 101; Loeffelholz “Anthology”) counters the
“steel network” of slavery and national politics with a heavily idealized representation
of American poetry’s liberal, voluntary networks of sociability and modes of
Tales of a Wayside Inn obliquely acknowledges the Civil War. The first of its embedded tales, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” is a galloping call to national mobilization – “words
that rouse” (Longfellow, Tales 185), as Longfellow’s Student comments afterward. And
as Christoph Irmscher and others have observed, the longest of the tales, “The Saga
of King Olaf,” would have “reminded the most oblivious of Longfellow’s readers of
the fratricidal mess outside their windows” (Irmscher 191) in telling of a Norse
kingdom torn asunder, leaving only an Evangeline-like nun behind to pray for the
living and the dead. As in Hiawatha, Longfellow’s adaptation of his Scandinavian
sources in “King Olaf” figures the perfect transmission of one language into another:
“It is as if Longfellow were emulating the splendid technical ostentation of the
Icelandic skalds themselves, different as his patterns are from theirs” (Arvin 214–5).
Longfellow’s embedding of “Paul Revere’s Ride” and the war saga of “King Olaf”
within the Tales’ surrounding frame of sociability, though, draws attention to their
conditions of transmission in a way that the unframed narratives of Hiawatha and
Evangeline do not draw attention to theirs. The frame narrative tacitly invites
Longfellow’s readers to ask what is at stake in the transmission of these poems, and
whether it is possible to retell these stories in a way that could subdue the glamours
of necrocitizenship to the fellowship of the living, to the arts of peace, and to the
American Poetry and American Literary Studies
projects of civil society. By way of answer, the 1863 version of Tales of a Wayside Inn
concludes with a consciously antiheroic recounting of a New England village schoolteacher-poet’s effort to save the songbirds of his town from extinction at the hands of
farmers tired of losing seed to them. The songbirds, of course, are figures for the poets
themselves, as the schoolteacher reminds the good citizens of Killingworth. “The
Poet’s Tale” catalogs how poems traveled, in the mid-nineteenth-century United
States, within the institutions of civil society – the village academy, the local newspaper, the town assembly – and, in doing so, orients Longfellow’s wartime poetry
away from “graveyard politics” and toward reconstructing citizenship as the work of
his living popular audience.
Of all the manifestations of the “quiet Longfellow revival” of the past 20 years
(Benfey 4), one of the earliest and most unexpected remains the surfacing of Evangeline
within Adrienne Rich’s “map of our country” in the title sequence of An Atlas of the
Difficult World (1991):
Here is a map of our country:
here is the Sea of Indifference, glazed with salt
This is the haunted river flowing from brow to groin
we dare not taste its water
This is the desert where missiles are planted like corms
This is the breadbasket of foreclosed farms
This is the birthplace of the rockabilly boy
This is the cemetery of the poor
who died for democracy This is a battlefield
from a nineteenth-century war the shrine is famous
This is the sea-town of myth and story when the fishing fleets
went bankrupt here is where the jobs were on the pier
processing frozen fishsticks hourly wages and no shares
These are other battlefields Centralia Detroit
here are the forests primeval. . . . (Atlas 6)
Longfellow’s resonant line echoes more widely through this often-noted Whitmanian
catalog, and in Atlas as a whole, than may be evident at first. Like Evangeline, An Atlas
of a Difficult World is a story of westering that is deeply critical of the impulse, one
that repeatedly doubles back upon itself – as in the geography of these lines – in order
to ask what labor remains to be done in the places westering left behind. Like
Evangeline and her exile company adrift and benighted in the “steel network” of the
slave state, Rich and her partner at one point lose their way among the islands of
California’s racialized penal state, threaded together by its great steel bridges:
San Quentin:
once we lost our way and drove in under the searchlights to the gates
end of visiting hours, women piling into cars
Mary Loeffelholz
the bleak glare aching over all
Where are we moored?
are the bindings?
What behooves us?
Driving the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge
no monument’s in sight but fog
prowling Angel Island muffling Alcatraz
poems in Cantonese inscribed on fog (Atlas 12)
And like Longfellow in The Tales of a Wayside Inn, Rich in Atlas is concerned with
how poems and poets travel institutionally. The westering movement of Atlas is in
part an institutional translation for Rich, from Rutgers University and City College
where she taught earlier in her career, to Stanford University; and the institutionalized
scene of poetic instruction surfaces repeatedly in the sequence, from the opening
poem’s vignette of the thin-bearded aspiring poet to Section IX’s bitter comedy of a
male poet’s vocational manners, “lonely in the prairie classroom with all the students
who love you” (19), to the final poem’s glimpse of a reader, in the same or another
university town on the prairie, “standing up in a bookstore far from the ocean / on a
grey day of early spring” (25) – a glimpse of readership and an image of the poetic
marketplace more solitary but not, perhaps, any less idealized than Longfellow’s
shadowy cosmopolitan company of the Wayside Inn.
“There are so many poets now-a-days,” Rich could have sighed along with
Longfellow’s Kavanagh. The solitariness of her imagined readers in Atlas is as much
a defense against the recognition-craving hordes of David Alpaugh’s fevered calculations, and against Rich’s own canonical status, as it is a rebuke to the cozy solidarity
of the Wayside Inn and its successors in the American poetry system. If Piotr Gwiazda
is right that Rich’s core aims in Atlas are “to envision and expand the concept of
poetry readership in the United States beyond its traditionally stipulated parameters”
(Gwiazda 167) and to trace “ ‘a transfer / of patterns’ among cultures” (Atlas 12;
Gwiazda 179), what tradition stipulated Longfellow the bestseller, Longfellow the
contagious metrical pattern-master and arch-translator? As Virginia Jackson insinuates, Rich’s dream of a common language runs through Longfellow’s dream of a
lingua communis, along with those of his peers and precursors in the word-hoard of
the American poetry archive. My point is not to turn Longfellow into the secret
linchpin of Rich’s often-noted turn, in her later poetry, toward American history
and American literary canons (Witonsky 339–40). It is, though, to urge widening
the premodernist range of the genealogy that – in the title of one representative
essay – repeatedly traces the continuity of American poetry “From Walt Whitman
to Adrienne Rich” (Erickson, in praise of Rich; see also Vendler 50–4 in skepticism).
Queer as this splendid pair is, it can never be queer enough by itself to evade the
disabling polarities inherited from mid-twentieth-century histories of American
poetry, or to let us see how many of our desires for American poetry, like Evangeline’s,
lie behind us.
American Poetry and American Literary Studies
References and Further Reading
Alpaugh, David. “The New Math of Poetry.”
Chronicle of Higher Education 56, no. 24 (February
21, 2010): B12–B14.
Arvin, Newton. Longfellow: His Life and Work.
Boston: Little, Brown, 1963.
Benfey, Christopher. “Longfellow’s Neglect.” Times
Literary Supplement, January 5, 2007, 4–5.
Bennett, Paula Bernat. Poets in the Public Sphere: The
Emancipatory Project of American Women’s Poetry,
1800–1900. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003.
Bennett, Paula Bernat. Ed. Nineteenth-Century
American Women Poets: An Anthology. Oxford:
Blackwell, 1998.
Bloom, Harold. A Map of Misreading. New York:
Oxford University Press, 1975.
Brooks, Joanna. “Our Phillis, Ourselves.” American
Literature 82, no. 1 (March 2010): 1–28.
Bryant, William Cullen. “The Prairies.” 1836. In
American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century (pp. 162–
5). 2 vols. Ed. John Hollander. New York:
Library of America, 1993.
Buell, Lawrence. “The American Transcendentalist
Poets.” In The Columbia History of American
Poetry (pp. 97–120). Ed. Jay Parini. New York:
Columbia University Press, 1993.
Caplan, David. Questions of Possibility: Contemporary
Poets and Poetic Form. Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2005.
Castronovo, Russ. Necro Citizenship: Death,
Eroticism, and the Public Sphere in the NineteenthCentury United States. Durham, NC: Duke
University Press, 2001.
Ciardi, John. How Does a Poem Mean? Boston:
Houghton Mifflin, 1959.
Collins, Billy. “How Do Poems Travel?” In The
Bedford Introduction to Literature: Reading,
Thinking, Writing (pp. 1166–7). 9th ed. Ed.
Michael Meyers. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins,
English, James. The Economy of Prestige: Prizes,
Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,
Erickson, Peter. “Singing America: From Walt
Whitman to Adrienne Rich.” Kenyon Review 171
(1995): 103–99.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Volume
1: An Introduction. New York: Pantheon/Random
House, 1978.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Trials of Phillis
Wheatley: America’s First Black Poet and Her
Encounters with the Founding Fathers. New York:
Basic Books, 2003.
Golding, Alan. From Outlaw to Classic: Canons in
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Gray, Janet. Ed. She Wields a Pen: American Women
Poets of the Nineteenth Century. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1997.
Griswold, Rufus W. The Poets and Poetry of America:
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Gruesz, Kirsten Silva. Ambassadors of Culture: The
Transamerican Origins of Latino Writing. Princeton,
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Poetry and Audience in Adrienne Rich’s An
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Literature 28, no. 2 (2005): 165–88.
Harrington, Joseph. “American Poetry Is Not
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Harris, Sharon. “ ‘A New Era in Female History’:
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Hollander, John. Ed. American Poetry: The Nineteenth
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Irmscher, Christoph. Longfellow Redux. Urbana:
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Jackson, Virginia. “Longfellow’s Tradition; or,
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Jackson, Virginia, and Yopie Prins. “Lyrical
Studies.” Victorian Literature and Culture 27, no.
2 (1999): 521–30.
Loeffelholz, Mary. “Anthology Form and the Field
of Nineteenth-Century American Poetry: The
Civil War Sequences of Lowell, Longfellow, and
Whittier.” ESQ: A Journal of the American
Renaissance 54, no. 1–4 (2008): 217–40.
Loeffelholz, Mary. From School to Salon: Reading
Nineteenth-Century American Women’s Poetry.
Mary Loeffelholz
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Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. Evangeline: A Tale
of Acadie. 1847. In The Poetical Works of Henry
Wadsworth Longfellow (pp. 78–98). New York:
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Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. Kavanagh. Boston:
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Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. The Song of
Hiawatha. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1855.
Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. Tales of a Wayside
Inn: Part First. 1863. In The Poetical Works of
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (pp. 181–206). New
York: Houghton Mifflin, 1887.
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Pearce, Roy Harvey. The Continuity of American
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Review 1, no. 3 (Summer 1939): 251–6.
Rich, Adrienne. An Atlas of the Difficult World:
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Richards, Eliza. Gender and the Poetics of Reception in
Poe’s Circle. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2004.
Robinson, William H. Phillis Wheatley and Her
Writings. New York: Garland, 1984.
Sherman, Joan R. Ed. African-American Poetry of the
Nineteenth Century: An Anthology. Urbana:
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Sorby, Angela. Schoolroom Poets: Childhood,
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Stedman, Edmund Clarence. An American
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Vendler, Helen. “Mapping the Air.” New York
Review of Books 38, no. 19 (November 21, 1991):
Von Hallberg, Robert. American Poetry and Culture,
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University Press, 1985.
Walker, Cheryl. Ed. American Women Poets of the
Nineteenth Century: An Anthology. New
Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992.
Witonsky, Trudi. “ ‘A Language of Water’: Back
and Forth with Adrienne Rich and Muriel
Rukeyser.” Women’s Studies 37 (2008): 337–66.
After the New Americanists:
The Progress of Romance and
the Romance of Progress in
American Literary Studies
Jennifer L. Fleissner
America, and American literary studies, have long dreamed of leaving the past behind.
We understand this as the drama of American exceptionalism, rooted in the image of
a New World. For many of the critics of the foundational epoch of Americanist criticism in the 1950s and 1960s, this myth gave coherence to American literary history,
explaining the figures to which novelists and poets obsessively returned: the wilderness, the sea, the city on a hill, the “American Adam.” Unburdened by the weight of
the past, Americans could imagine themselves looking forward to a glorious future.
The first sustained challenge to this conception of American literary history came
with the historicist turn in the 1980s, spearheaded by critics who called themselves
the New Americanists (a term Donald Pease appropriated from a skeptical survey of
the new scholarship, appending it to his own book series at Duke University Press).
The effect of this revisionary scholarship was profound. By taking seriously American
writers’ engagement with their historical moment, it simultaneously created an enormous new range of reference points for American literary studies, while dramatically
expanding the archive of writers who counted as important contributors to American
literature. Scholars who focused on late nineteenth-century writing found its practitioners of realist and naturalist fiction, authors grappling directly with the sweeping
social changes of their era, brought to center stage after decades of lingering in the
shadows of the American Renaissance. In new collections like the Heath Anthology of
American Literature, their voices were bolstered by those of slave narrativists, immigrant memoirists, female regionalists, and Native American activists, joining to create
a new canvas across which to tell a previously unheard account of American literary
A Companion to American Literary Studies, First Edition. Edited by Caroline F. Levander,
Robert S. Levine.
© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2011 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Jennifer L. Fleissner
A quarter century later, that account unquestionably sets the terms for study in
the field. Indeed, it may come as a shock to realize we now stand as far from the initial
New Americanists’ interventions as they did from many of those of the founding
critical fathers of the 1950s and 1960s. Has the time then arrived for the field to take
stock once again?
At one level, such reflection may seem unnecessary. Far from standing in an agonistic relationship to their predecessors, many current attempts at field reshaping
seem, rather, to build directly on the work of the 1980s and 1990s, as in the case of
the “postnational” turn. Other emerging ventures – such as digital humanities and
cognitive approaches to reading – do not appear at odds with such scholarship; they
might in fact be said to complement it, given their similar aim of bringing American
studies “up to date.”
What if, however, instead of simply moving ever forward, we chose to circle back
past the New Americanists to reconsider the critical past? As scholars in other fields
have begun to point out (in forums like the Representations special issue on “The Way
We Read Now,” ed. Marcus and Best), the historicist practice of ideology critique or
“symptomatic reading,” by seeking to diagnose texts’ allegiances as the product of a
bounded historical moment, can risk shoring up a self-congratulatory narrative of
progress toward our own present. As Americanists, however, we may ironically find
that, in so doing, we demonstrate how indebted we in fact remain to the past we
would seek to overcome, as so much of that past – both critical and literary – has
held fast to the same dream of beginning anew.
To begin to develop a framework that might instead acknowledge the continuities
between past and present, this chapter returns to the criticism of half a century ago,
and particularly to the generic focus so often thought to indicate that criticism’s lack
of interest in history: the romance. As I hope to show, a different story might be told
about the romance, one that is always already transnational, and that does not disallow
a space for meaningful social critique. As we track the progress of romance differently,
so might we also begin to recognize the consequences of our own weddedness to the
romance of progress.
Achieving a critical perspective on the notion of moving ever forward seems especially urgent at present, as it becomes ever harder for universities to conceive of
knowledge making in forms that do not involve notions of innovation and discovery
borrowed largely from scientific work. Hence, while this chapter makes an argument
for a different narrative of American literary studies, its larger horizon is the future
(as well as the past) of literary studies itself. Our work differs from that of the sciences,
and also from that of the discipline of history, in its ceaseless return to a past that can
never be understood as simply past. Our future, I want to claim, depends on our
ability to theorize what is at stake when we find ourselves drawn to look back in time.
For the New Americanists of the 1980s and 1990s, transforming the “field imaginary”
of American literary studies entailed skeptically redescribing the critical founding
fathers of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, so as to mark a decisive break that would
Progress of Romance and Romance of Progress
enable the field to constitute itself anew. Both Russell Reising in The Unusable Past
(1986) and contributors to the anthologies Revisionary Interventions into the Americanist
Canon (ed. Donald Pease, 1994) and Ideology and Classic American Literature (ed. Myra
Jehlen and Sacvan Bercovitch, 1985) thus gather a broad array of Americanist predecessors – including R.W.B. Lewis, Leo Marx, Leslie Fiedler, Charles Feidelson,
Richard Poirier, Harry Levin, and especially F.O. Matthiessen, Lionel Trilling, and
Richard Chase – in order to characterize them, as a group, as having been problematically committed to a model of American literature as “escap[ing] social categories”
(Graff 106) or “separat[ing]” itself from “the realm of politics” (Pease, “New
Americanists” 26). In place of the social or political, these critics argued, the postwar
Americanists emphasized the aesthetic, but an aesthetic specifically defined by its
interest in subjective interiority, so that individual “human psyches” replaced “economic and political systems” as the most meaningful “ ‘reality’ ” (Reising 95). As such,
they upheld a tradition of the American romance: the literary text as a transcendent
“world elsewhere” in which, unlike in the public sphere, the “desire for [psychic]
wholeness could be fulfilled” (Pease, “New Americanists” 26).
By emphasizing historical context, the New Americanist scholars would “desublimate” the political elements not only of the romance tradition, but also, equally, of
the earlier generation of critics who wrote about it. After all, as Pease and Reising in
particular emphasized, Chase’s Herman Melville and Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination,
published in 1949 and 1950, respectively, made their “field-defining” arguments
against their own predecessors, Progressive 1930s critics such as V.L. Parrington, for
overtly political reasons – to make a Cold War-era case for American freedom against
the “totalitarian” idea that “literature should participate directly in the economic
liberation of the masses” (Chase, Herman vii). As Pease argues in “Moby-Dick and the
Cold War” (which sees Matthiessen’s 1941 American Renaissance as prefiguring these
anticommunist critiques in opposing the expansiveness of the American romance to
Hitler’s fascism) and, later, in his writings on C.L.R. James’s Mariners, Renegades, and
Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In, Melville criticism
became an especially popular platform for mid-twentieth-century literary scholars to
intervene directly in one of the most charged ideological struggles of their time.
Looking back after another quarter century, however, it seems fair to say that, just
as Trilling did with Parrington, the New Americanists tended to oversimplify their
predecessors’ arguments in order to clear the scholarly ground. The Cold War lens
assumes that the 1950s critics valorized the American romance, yet the contrasts that
Chase and Trilling delineate between the American tradition and the “social” one
predominant in Britain hardly aim to favor the former, which even Chase described
as “morally equivocal” and obviously lacking in the “complexity” of, say, a Dickens
(American 1, 6). Trilling, who in fact once critiqued the antireferential stance of the
New Critics by claiming that “literature is of its nature involved with ideas because
it deals with man in society,” never celebrated antisocial fiction; instead, he repeatedly
championed the nineteenth-century American writer whom he felt most powerfully
diverged from the romance tradition and toward the British alternative, Henry James
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(Reising 102). Conversely, Trilling’s infamous attack on Theodore Dreiser in “Reality
in America” faults the novelist chiefly for his excessively “literary” language and the
fact that his “dim, awkward speculation” concerning such matters as “ ‘beauty,’ ”
“ ‘sex,’ ” and “ ‘life itself ’ ” bears insufficient relation to “political practicality” (“Reality”
26, 28).
How, then, did writings like Pease’s and Reising’s manage to cast Trilling as the
definer of an American literary tradition built on the avoidance of the “world of politics” (Pease, “New Americanists” 8)? In retrospect, the New Americanists appear to
have persistently conflated two terms, “politics” and “ideology,” that Trilling (as well
as Chase) intended very much to keep distinct – because, in their view, the latter
actively worked against the former. (For example, Reising sees it as an unacknowledged irony that Trilling, “opponent of any ideological thinking,” uses literary analysis as a form of “oblique political criticism” [101].) Trilling thus explained in the
1970s that he wrote against Stalinism in The Liberal Imagination because of its “clandestine negation of the political life” (qtd. in Murphy, Politics 369). Like James’s
Princess Casamassima in his 1884 novel of the same name, the American left seemed
to him to have become ideological in the sense that it substituted moral arguments
for political ones; wrapping itself in the cloak of “political innocence,” it professed to
operate not in the name of power but only in that of “virtue” (Trilling, Liberal 95).
As a result, it could only ever remain blind to the less generous psychic investments
lurking behind its own “good impulses” – an argument intended less to undermine
the impulses themselves (as Trilling puts it, “There is nothing so very terrible in
discovering that something does lie behind”) than to caution that the refusal to
acknowledge such motivational complexities could result in an imperious disregard
for those of others as well (Liberal 213).
It probably served the New Americanists well not to dwell on these features of
Trilling’s criticism, since they continue to pose a meaningful challenge to the mode
of political criticism that has been the 1980s’ continuing legacy to critical practice.
Indeed, Trilling’s remarks here display a surprising commonality with Wendy Brown’s
Nietzschean critique of the late twentieth-century academic left for an “ambivalence
about freedom” that led to a rhetoric of sheer “resistance,” one that advertises the
“moral goodness” and “reason” of its proponents rather than their own political “will
to power.” Along related lines, Eve Sedgwick has called into question the “paranoid”
stance of ideology critique for tending to “disavo[w] its affective motive and force”
and instead “masquerad[e] as the very stuff of truth” (Touching 138).
The disavowal of an affective dimension within historicist criticism derived, of
course, from the distance it hoped to take from an American romance tradition said
to emphasize the psychological – “all those dark, inner, asocial drives of the self” – at
history’s expense (McWilliams 74). And yet, as evidenced by the two subsections in
Pease’s anthology – titled “The Desublimation of Romance” and “The New Historicist
Return of the Repressed Context” – a Freudian vocabulary in fact remained central
to the historicist project. What Fredric Jameson, following Althusser, termed “symptomal” reading is, after all, a practice that conjoins Marxist and psychoanalytic inter-
Progress of Romance and Romance of Progress
pretive techniques. In either case, the critic resembles the scientific analyst, whose
expertise uncovers the deeper affective logic that the patient’s – or the text’s – representational edifice is designed to occlude. Hence, it is perhaps unsurprising that in
many historicist readings, entrapment within a historical “moment” (versus the critic’s
own transcendent freedom) can begin to appear as a form of psychological pathology.
This is true when the author in question – say, Melville – is critiquing the dominant
views of his time, as in Susan Mizruchi’s essay on Billy Budd in Pease’s anthology
(where those views appear as “anxieties” if not outright “irrational terror” at a changing social landscape [292]); it is equally true when he himself is said to emblematize
the dominant views, as in Wai Chee Dimock’s new historicist reading of Moby-Dick
(where Melville himself appears wracked by “obsessiveness” and “anxiety”).
The emphasis in Trilling, as in Brown and Sedgwick, then, is less on the hubris of
this critical position than on the way it tends merely to “mirror the mechanisms and
configurations of power . . . which [it] purport[s] to oppose” (Brown 3) – which, in
this case, entails not simply possessing unacknowledged affective motivations (paranoia, as Sedgwick notes, being itself a manifestation of “anxiety” par excellence [128])
but also covering these over, precisely via the discourse that attributes them solely to
one’s historical subjects of study rather than oneself. The chief concern for all these
commentators, however, is less the potential for critical obtuseness as such than the
risk of “scapegoating” (LaCapra 72). In its place, Sedgwick’s “reparative” criticism
offers the same alternative suggested by Trilling in The Liberal Imagination: to make
our judgment a function not of our moral superiority but of our “love” (Sedgwick,
Touching 128; Trilling, Liberal 210).
Part of the 1950s critics’ argument with their Progressive predecessors, after all,
concerned those predecessors’ tendency to separate out certain writers from what
Parrington called the “main current of American thought,” and specifically the broad
collective project of “democracy,” via recourse to a psychological vocabulary: specifically, through procedures of pathologization. Thus, Trilling notes that, for Parrington,
Poe’s “gloom” was “merely personal and eccentric,” inseparable from his “dipsomani[a]”
(Liberal 21). In fact, Parrington’s dismissal was stronger: “It is for abnormal psychology to explain” Poe’s evident “ ‘neural instability,’ ” he wrote – as Henry James’s
tendency to project “figment[s]” of his “fancy” in place of the “realities of life” made
clear he was “shut up within his own skull-pan” (240–1). Similarly, Chase’s Melville
book aims to take seriously the thought of a writer dismissed by Parrington and
Van Wyck Brooks as “ ‘morbid,’ ‘pessimistic,’ ” and done in by his own “obscure,
abiding neurosis” – at best, “a kind of primitive man – a natural or unconscious
genius’” (Chase ix–x). Although Pease argues that Chase valorized romance for its
projection of a reassuringly “whole self,” Chase in fact contrasted the American tradition’s production of “fragments,” its “poetry of disorder,” to the “massive unities,” the
movement toward “harmony” and the “normative,” that he found in the British novel.
Rather than merely celebrate American writing, Chase thus begins from the difficulty
of taking it seriously at all, given the tendency to view the romance merely in pathological terms. As he writes of the Americanist criticism of D.H. Lawrence,
Jennifer L. Fleissner
[L]ike all the observers of American literature we are citing in these pages, Lawrence
was trying to find out what was wrong with it . . . he thinks that the American novel
is sick, and he wants to cure it. Perhaps there is something wrong with it, perhaps it
is sick – but a too exclusive preoccupation with the wrongness of the American novel
has in some ways disqualified him from seeing what, right or wrong, it is. (Chase,
American 9)
The commonality between Chase’s and Trilling’s stance here and Sedgwick’s call
for a reparative criticism may in fact be less surprising than it appears. Within the
politicized criticism of the last quarter century, queer theory stands out for the tension
it must negotiate between projects of collective identification and a suspicion of the
normalizing technologies that produce those identity categories in the first place.
Albeit in very different ways, recent queer studies such as those of Heather K. Love
(Feeling Backward) and Scott Herring (Queering the Underworld) deliberately focus on
those historical figures who, like Trilling’s Poe or Chase’s Melville, resist inclusion in
larger collectives, dwelling instead in a space of negativity and eccentricity that is
inseparable from the achievements of their art. (Less surprising in this context, then,
is the casualness of Chase’s admission, nearly 300 pages into his 1949 Melville book,
that of course Herman preferred men.)
In these construals, it is the demand for collective identification, rather than the
turn away from the social to the individual, that goes hand in hand with the insistence on an integrated selfhood. This is actually more in keeping with Geraldine
Murphy’s strikingly counterintuitive accounts of the mid-twentieth-century struggles
over Melville’s writings – in particular, his late unfinished novella Billy Budd in addition to Moby-Dick – which differ from Pease’s in two significant respects: (1) Rather
than narrate a continuum linking the pro-American, antisocial stances of all of the
field-defining critics from Matthiessen going forward, Murphy’s essays establish Chase
and Trilling as reacting against the stance of American Renaissance; and (2) more provocatively, they argue that Matthiessen, the more Progressive critic, developed what
has come to be known as the “conservative” reading of Billy Budd, and that Chase
and Trilling reacted specifically against that reading.
As Murphy explains, Matthiessen’s Popular Front politics led him not to condemn
the hanging of Billy Budd as an antidemocratic miscarriage of justice (as later New
Historicists would); rather, he emphasized the story’s ultimate, religiously inflected
themes of “unity, reconciliation, and harmony” as the characters arrive at a common
understanding (Murphy, Politics 356). (As Gerald Graff comments, Matthiessen realized that “there need be no necessary connection between the [Romantic] aesthetics
of organic form” and a reactionary political stance [106].) For Chase, in contrast – as
for Hannah Arendt and a number of others who have commented since on Melville’s
novella – the character of Billy demonstrates the necessary impossibility of inhabiting a morally “innocent” stance in a political situation. Most interestingly, Murphy
points out, Trilling made the politics of reading Billy Budd a core concern not in
any of his critical writings but in his lone published novel, The Middle of the Journey
Progress of Romance and Romance of Progress
(1947). Therein, a former Soviet “fellow traveler” turned arch-anticommunist
(modeled on Whittaker Chambers, the accuser of Alger Hiss) writes an article on
Billy Budd that, like Matthiessen’s reading, simply affirms the story’s conclusion.
While Trilling’s autobiographical hero wonders “how someone once so devoted to
social justice could now ‘make so impassioned a plea . . . for the status quo . . . the
rule of force,’” the novel’s unrepentant Stalinists have no trouble with their political
enemy’s reading, similarly affirming that innocent men may sometimes end up
sacrificed to the higher purpose of “ ‘Law in the world of Necessity’ ” (Murphy,
Politics 370).
In his acknowledgment of the commonalities linking opposed ideologies here,
Trilling draws surprisingly close to a figure who might easily seem his own opposite,
the C.L.R. James to whom Pease has valuably reintroduced present-day readers. In
Pease’s own account, James appears as a renegade Melville reader from the same midcentury era that produced the canonical Americanist interpretations – one who, had
his words been heeded, could have charted an alternate genealogy for American studies
scholarship. Specifically, Pease argues, by integrating his experiences as a deportee on
Ellis Island into his study of Moby-Dick, James transformed the text from an American
classic into a work with a significance “transgress[ing] national boundaries”
(“Introduction” xx). James as described here thus becomes a forerunner of the postnational criticism of the present day.
In fact, however, James’s very “postnationalism” can point up how dependent on
the category of the nation-state, and specifically on “America,” contemporary scholarship arrayed under the postnational banner can at times remain. The opposition that
Pease posits between James’s Melville reading and that of Richard Chase, for example,
depends on reading the former as a protest against an American state power that the
latter, as a Cold Warrior, wrote to defend. Yet James’s characterization of Melville’s
relation to Progressive reform actually well nigh mirrors that of Chase: both see him
as, in James’s words, “the mortal foe of any kind of program by which mankind should
act to achieve salvation. If he were alive today, he would turn in horror from Socialists,
Communists, Anarchists, Trotskyists,” and so forth (James 20). In what is very much
a paean to, not a critique of, Melville’s text, James quite explicitly asserts that the
Pequod’s crew is “not to be confused with any labor movement. . . . They are not suffering workers, nor revolutionary workers” (20, 22).
What leads to the critical confusion here? One might suggest it is the very postnationalism of James’s reading. Rather than the American state, James specifically
articulates, as the object of Melville’s critique, that feature of transnational (though
importantly Western-influenced) modernity that Max Weber would so influentially
theorize as “rationalization.” It is this emphasis that accounts for his portrayal of
capitalism and state communism as twinned formations, rather than opposed ones.
In both cases, a cadre of “administrators” and “executives” works with one aim only,
that of implementing “the Plan,” a massive project of rationalized industry, “productivity quotas,” and so on (James 14, 56). The result is a “mechanization” not merely
of everyday life but also, eventually, of “human personality” itself (11).
Jennifer L. Fleissner
To recognize James’s chief target as rationalization has at least two important
effects. One, it implicates us as readers today. A critique of the anticommunist, antiimmigrant state need not do so; we have politics, we can easily think, while “they”
(then and now) have ideology. Yet what is our relation to rationalization? The university, in the years since James and Trilling wrote, has become more and more a
business like any other, with productivity quotas of its own. Americanist scholars
trained in the methods of the past 25 years must come to grips not simply with our
participation in this structure, but also with the possibility that the very critical
methods taken on for antihegemonic purposes have in many ways served hegemony’s
ends. If we admire James’s arguments, we must admit (as William Cain does) that
their highly “personal” mode of presentation, their distance from “academic routine”
and imitability, stands as far from our own scholarship today as that of Trilling, if not
farther (Cain 270). In contrast, our historicizing practices and eager pursuit of “new”
and “leading-edge” scholarly techniques dovetail quite nicely with the transformation
of the humanities into a research-driven enterprise modeled on more explicitly empiricist fields.
The point is not simply to demonize or abandon such approaches; yet we must
recognize their usefulness for a bottom-line-driven scholarly world. Hence, C.L.R.
James’s work, with its Weberian focus on rationalization, becomes timely in a heretofore unexplored way, one in which its resonances with, rather than only its differences from, the 1950s and 1960s Americanists can come to the fore. These resonances
might lead us to modify Pease’s question about an alternative genealogy for Americanist
scholarship: what might that scholarship look like if Weberian analysis were to play
a larger role? One surprising possibility is that we might reconsider, with an eye
toward its transnational as well as American instantiations, the critical capacities of
that category so important to mid-twentieth-century scholarship: the romance.
As the French-Brazilian scholar Michael Löwy argues in Romanticism against the Tide
of Modernity, his 1992 book with Robert Sayre, romance’s quest for a “world elsewhere”
may be understood as more than merely escapist or aestheticizing if grasped as a mode
of utopian critique; in Löwy and Sayre’s words, “utopia will be Romantic or it will
not be.” Used as a term to encompass not only literary Romanticism but also earlier
modern references back to medieval romans as repositories of “exalted sentiments,”
“the marvelous,” and “extravagance,” romance appears here a child of the Enlightenment
that revolts against its parent: specifically, against a modernity defined in distinctly
Weberian terms as the “disenchantment of the world,” “instrumental rationality,”
“bureaucratic domination,” and “dehumanization” that arise out of the “spirit of
Weber himself, of course, strove for “value-neutrality” in describing these phenomena. Yet he shares with his fellow turn-of-the-twentieth-century sociologists Ferdinand
Tönnies, Georg Simmel, and Émile Durkheim (not to mention with Friedrich
Nietzsche) a commitment not only to questioning the self-evidences of progress – the
spiritless specialists who fancy they have “attained a level of civilization never before
achieved” (182) – but also, in doing so, to taking seriously the losses modernization
Progress of Romance and Romance of Progress
inevitably entails. In Löwy and Sayre’s view, this perspective stands in ongoing
tension, in twentieth-century Marxist thought (including, for them, that of the
“Romantic critic” C.L.R. James [152]), with a more thoroughgoing commitment to
progress as such. The career of Weber’s student Georg Lukács, the great twentiethcentury Marxist critic, is here exemplary: having repudiated his own earlier romantic
tendencies to embrace a party-line Stalinism in the late 1920s, he recants again a
decade later in works like The Historical Novel, which critiques realism for its inability
to look beyond the present moment to acknowledge the “endless field of ruin” and
“broken social formations” that were the “necessary pre-conditions” of that present’s
coming into being (54).
The contemporary critic most influenced by Lukács’s account of literary history has
been Fredric Jameson, whose 1981 The Political Unconscious – with its opening invocation to “Always historicize!” – has often been read as galvanizing the turn toward
historicist criticism and ideology critique. Yet despite this association, Jameson, too,
affirms the utopian capacity of romance to “liberat[e]” the literary text from its
“generic confinement to the existent,” to the “real” – and specifically to the “historical
present” (Political 104). Interestingly enough, the late nineteenth century, the era most
associated with realism in the United States, appears as an especially crucial moment
in this regard. On the one hand, intellectually speaking, it indeed represents the
high-water mark of positivism triumphant, which for Jameson as for Lukács finds its
literary expression in the naturalism of Émile Zola, with its hope of finding deterministic laws equally able to govern “the stones of the roadway” and “the brain of
man” (Zola 17). As the “ ‘realistic’ option” thus begins to feel to the seeking imagination like “an asphyxiating, self-imposed penance,” Jameson writes, romance “once
again comes to be felt as the place of . . . freedom from that reality principle to which
a now oppressive realist representation is the hostage” (Political 104).
Yet Jameson’s account also depicts the late nineteenth century as auspicious to
romance for a different reason. As he writes, in countries that saw especially rapid
industrialization and urbanization during these years, we recognize a “transitional”
phase “in which two distinct . . . moments of socioeconomic development” may be
seen to “coexist” – such that we see “an organic social order in the process of penetration and subversion, reorganization and rationalization, by nascent capitalism, yet
still, for another long moment, coexisting with the latter” (Political 148). This kind
of prolonged period of transition is presented as romance’s “ultimate [historical] condition of figuration” (148).
American literary history, of course, has rarely associated the late nineteenth century
with a “revival of romance” of the kind used to explain the resurgence of, say, Gothic
fiction in 1890s Britain. Realism and naturalism have instead been presumed ascendant in these years. When critics such as Amy Kaplan have occasionally acknowledged
the glut of titles like When Knighthood Was in Flower on the decade’s bestseller lists,
these have typically been dismissed as nostalgic attempts at escapism from contemporary struggles, if not veiled apologias for the government’s imperialist adventuring
in “exotic” lands. In sum, the notion of a critical investment in romance as a protest
Jennifer L. Fleissner
against the limitations of a realist era, as Jameson and others describe, has seemed
nearly impossible for politically minded Americanists to imagine.
An important exception in this regard, albeit from outside the field of literature,
was a study published around the same time as the original New Americanist interventions: T.J. Jackson Lears’s cultural history No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the
Transformation of American Culture, 1880–1920 (1981). In Lears’s Weberian account,
American thought during these years might best be understood through the concept
of “antimodernism,” a “revulsion against the process of rationalization” – “the reduction of the world to a disenchanted object to be manipulated by rational technique”
– and a quest to regain the immediacy and sense of broader meaning thought to be
slipping away (7).
One of the many enduringly powerful features of Lears’s analysis is how readily it
can be broadened beyond both national and temporal boundaries. This does not mean
that the turn of the twentieth century does not remain a crucial moment; as Jameson
puts it in an early essay on Weber, “Nothing is quite so striking as the simultaneous
appearance, within the various national situations at the end of the nineteenth century,
of comparable visions of the crippling of energies” (“Vanishing” 5). Robert Pippin,
in his still unrivaled Modernism as a Philosophical Problem, similarly dates to “sometime
around the latter half of the nineteenth century” the full ascendance of the suspicion
(which he, too, recognizes as rooted in Romanticism) that the move from the ancient
reflection on “what ought to be” to the modern orientation toward “the way things
are” – with its concomitant emphasis on “natural science and technology” and “a
progressive, liberal democratic culture” – was in fact “enervating and spiritually
destroying that very culture” (5, xii).
As we see here, equally common to Pippin, Jameson, and Lears is a period-specific
language of modernity as specifically generating distinct psychic disturbances – whether
“anxiety,” “melancholy,” or, in Lears’s account of fin-de-siècle United States, the rise of
the diagnosis of “neurasthenia,” a condition of breakdown or withdrawal that the era’s
own medical men traced to the ravages of modern life. Yet while this reframing of
modernity as a “malady” (Löwy and Sayre 251) might seem one of the strongest arguments one could make against the unmitigated salutariness of progress, No Place of
Grace remains especially brilliant in its account of how such diagnoses in fact paved
the way for many antimodern critiques to dissolve into narrowly “therapeutic” discourses – essentially, precursors to contemporary New Age rhetorics – that collapsed
the critique of progress into another kind of progressive storyline.
Lears’s account of the rise of the therapeutic has been powerful enough that antimodern or romantic expressions in late nineteenth-century American writing – Sarah
Orne Jewett’s sketches of a dying rural New England, for example, or Henry Adams’s
paeans to the Virgin of Chartres – have routinely been read as merely attempts at
escape from hard historical realities into the soothing balm of nostalgia. We see the
same dismissal at work in the New Americanists’ claim that the romance appealed to
1950s critics as a way to recapture “an ersatz wholeness for their authentic selves”
(Pease, “Introduction” 8). Yet an opportunity is missed here to recognize that such
Progress of Romance and Romance of Progress
writers – no less than a Lukács or C.L.R. James – might both indulge in a therapeutic
vision of wholeness and offer a meaningful critique of modernity’s commitment to
planned obsolescence at one and the same time. Understanding this era’s antimodernism as more than merely a historical “symptom” – or, better, understanding, as did
William James, the ways our symptoms might augment the work we accomplish
rather than merely inhibit it – allows the past to speak meaningfully to the dilemmas
of the present. At the same time, it furthers the New Americanist project of imagining a diversely populated American literary landscape – one that could encompass
texts from Maria Amparo Ruíz de Burton’s rewriting of Don Quixote to Zitkala-Sa’s
School Days of an Indian Girl – that can and should be read in tandem with contemporaneous global writings, from the Latin American historical romance to the studies
of Weber and his cohorts in European sociology.
In Löwy and Sayre’s words, “That [the Romantics] have often presented [their]
penetrating diagnosis in the name of an elitist aestheticism, a retrograde religion, or
a reactionary political ideology takes nothing away from its acuity and worth – as a
diagnosis” (251). Indeed, one could go farther still, and note, as Gerald Graff did over
25 years ago, that “continued recourse to the Left-Right antithesis as a way of making
sense of the cultural situation blinds opposing factions to common attitudes and
interests” (105). Thus, one form of conservatism should be recognized as having long
been as disgusted by capitalism as its putative opposite on the left. Hence, Parrington’s
regret that Henry Adams never met up with William Morris – or, more recently,
Kenneth Warren’s at Henry James’s failure to see that his interest, in The American
Scene, in uncovering “that part of the national energy that is not calculable in terms
of mere arithmetic” was in fact shared at the time by W.E.B. Du Bois.
Du Bois, himself a New Englander and a Harvard man, remains one of the
few avowedly progressive – and, of course, nonwhite – writers of this period whose
work has been recognized as part of a broader strain of antimodern critique.
(Shamoon Zamir’s Dark Voices is an especially important study in this regard.) Yet the
groundbreaking work done by the historian Wilson Julius Moses in Afrotopia (1998),
if taken up by literary scholars, would enable a much broader recognition of the role
of what Moses explicitly defines as a utopian “antimodernism” in African American
thought from the nineteenth century through the present day. Although much of his
study concerns intellectual history rather than literature, Moses does spend some time
with Pauline E. Hopkins, whose political deployment of Gothic modes in such novels
as Of One Blood (1903) predates Du Bois’s own experiment with utopian fantasy in
works like his 1928 Dark Princess. Were such texts to be joined by Charles W.
Chesnutt’s conjure tales, one could well begin to make the case for a critically minded
“revival of romance” in 1890s American fiction.
And one might note, then, that the “romantic” elements Moses discerns in
Afrocentric critiques of Western modernity – a celebration of “communalism” and
“harmony” with the natural world – do not differ greatly from those qualities for
which a “Nordic” writer like Jewett so wistfully longs in Country of the Pointed Firs.
In either case, one may critique the nostalgic idealization – or, alternatively, take
Jennifer L. Fleissner
seriously Raymond Williams’s distinction between the “residual” and the merely
“archaic,” and recognize the former as a mode of nostalgic thought possessing a legitimate critical force.
In fact, however, even in the work of writers often accused of the apparent sin of
nostalgia, an antimodern stance need not entail an idealization of some glorious lost
past. Indeed, at its most scathing, it aims its barbs equally at past and present alike
– ending up, like Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee or Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Sport of
the Gods, affirming above all a tragic view of human relations, a view that others, such
as Edith Wharton (not to mention Jackson Lears), have portrayed the Progressive-era
United States as uniquely unable to entertain. From this vantage, the greatest distinction of Henry Adams may lie in his understanding that, despite what he termed
Americans’ chronic ignorance of “tragic motives” (416), the intractability of such
problems as “the fiendish treatment of man by man” (458), if denied by Progressiveera thought, might be explained with terrifying new clarity by the scientific revelations of the same epoch. Put otherwise, modernity might explode its own optimistic
premises by pressure not from without but from within.
Tragedy, too, has recently received renewed attention from anything but conservative critics such as Terry Eagleton and Rita Felski for the challenge it poses to “modern
dreams of progress and perfectibility.” In Felski’s words, if “modern history extends
the promise of self-actualization to an ever-widening circle of persons,” tragic texts
see therein a democratization of “opportunities for human . . . miscalculation and
error,” to say nothing of the “agony of being torn apart by conflicting desires and
values” (11, 9). If the pitfall of the tragic perspective might be said to lie in its sense
of the hopelessness of any prospects of meaningful reform, this at least allows it to
deliver an acute critique of the narcissistic quick fixes of therapeutic culture, as we
see perhaps most scathingly in Wharton’s underappreciated late novel Twilight Sleep
(1928). For its antiheroine Pauline Manford, the worries of modern life require a
round-the-clock schedule of “patient Taylorized effort” combining spiritual and hygienic cleansing (98). She is, moreover, certain that all the world’s ills might be salved
were children never to be told they were naughty and were all military toys to be
Here, then, we might return at last to Billy Budd, for Melville, writing his final tragic
novella in the era of high realism, could stand as the eminence grise of the lineup of
antimoderns we’ve been discussing. If so, however, he must be seen as not simply a
man out of time, but, as such, as a man of that later moment as well – indeed, even,
I hope finally to suggest, of our own.
Although it is customary to view the aging Melville as a romantic holdout amid
the late nineteenth century, the readings of him by those purported champions of
American romance, Chase and Matthiessen, actually share a nearly opposite claim:
that the Melville of the 1850s was already speaking toward the turn-of-the-twentiethcentury future. Matthiessen thus conceives him as a proto-Darwinian naturalist whose
portrayal in Moby-Dick of nature’s “brutal energies” marked his distance from the more
Progress of Romance and Romance of Progress
utopian Romanticism of the Transcendentalists; yet even as Melville affirmed what
would later appear as a scientific rebuke to such Pantheisms, he “could at no point
rest content with the kind of truth that was to be found in science” (407). As Chase
puts it, Melville already in “I and My Chimney” (1855) was critiquing the “ways of
practical science,” or rationalization, that would become firmly hegemonic during the
postwar years, in the form of an “unquiet, baneful spouse who measured all things
with her meaningless tape measure” (291). In Billy Budd, then, the equal suspicion
of a world of measurable progress and its “enchanted” opposite leads the narrator to
alternating disavowals of both realism and romance.
Unquestionably, however, the text’s own romanticism has always been easiest to
identify. From its opening paean to the “time before steamships” forward, the narrative seems obsessively to linger on the glories of a lost past – from the “symmetry
and grand lines” of the superseded battleships, their “poetic reproach” to the “ironclads” of the more “prosaic” present, to the heroically self-sacrificing actions of Lord
Nelson at Trafalgar, which are depicted as belonging more to an epic tradition than
a novelistic one.
Yet if Billy Budd himself seems at first like an emissary from an even earlier,
prelapsarian moment, we are quickly told his story should in fact be understood as
“no romance” – the proof of this lying in the habit of stuttering that will lead
inexorably to the Handsome Sailor’s execution. As Arendt and others have emphasized, the stutter represents the hinge where Billy’s pagan combination of “strength
and beauty” stands revealed as inseparable from an “elementary violence.” In direct
contrast, his highly civilized nemesis, Claggart, derives his menace from a nearly
complete self-restraint. His nefarious ends are thus pursued persistently via indirection, even in the accusation scene (“ ‘Be direct, man,’ ” snaps Captain Vere); this, too,
the narrator informs us, is a hallmark of the civilized, and specifically an outgrowth
of democracy, in that “unobstructed free agency on equal terms,” with individuals
whose status is unknown, “soon teaches one that [a] ruled undemonstrative distrustfulness” represents the most prudent approach to social relations. And yet we cannot
help but notice that indirection is also, of course, explicitly named as the narrator’s
own rhetorical mode.
Aside from Billy’s stutter, the other moment in the novella when the narrator
explicitly rejects romance occurs during his extended probing of the mystery of
Claggart’s motivations. No “romantic” backstory of a past encounter with Billy can
account for them, we are assured. And yet, with its scorn for those who would attempt
to plumb the depths of “human nature” via mere “knowledge of the world” – not to
mention the deleted barb at contemporary “medical experts” who were increasingly
wont to diagnose away criminality as brain disease – this section remains equally chary
of “realist” alternatives. We must, the narrator states, grasp in Claggart a condition
that is “in its very realism . . . charged with that prime element of Radcliffian romance,
the mysterious”: “a mind peculiarly subject to the law of reason” goes hand in hand
here with a “heart [that] riot[s] in complete exemption from that law.” What we find,
then, is that this very paradoxical state is what modernity has wrought: “Civilization,
Jennifer L. Fleissner
especially of the austerer sort, is auspicious” to the development of such natures, the
narrator affirms – meaning, in effect, that a historical unfolding toward the rational
or prosaic seems to generate (or, at the very least, to harbor) that which it is constitutively unable to explain.
If in Claggart, then – unlike in Billy or Vere – the “exceptional” is explicitly
understood as the pathological, the pathological exception is also at once reconceived
as the historically representative. This may seem a near impossibility, until we remember that it is merely the way both Richard Chase and C.L.R. James understood the
function of the similarly “monomaniacal” Captain Ahab; as an apotheosis of capitalist
modernity, he was, of necessity, mad. The weakness of both readings could then be
said to lie in their equal refusal to remain with what they at moments acknowledged
as Melville’s genuine ambivalence toward the madness and the modernity alike – in
sum, with his darker Romanticism – in favor of a reassertion of the therapeutic alternative: an unfraught commonality, the healing of the social divide. Yet this act of
healing comes at a familiar price: James’s portrayal of Moby-Dick’s crew as emblematic
of a whole self – a “total, complete being,” characterized by its “sanity” and an “unfailing humanity” necessary to suturing the fragments of modern society – generates as
its pathological other a “divided personality,” of the kind exemplified by Ahab and
Ishmael, which is explicitly labeled “degenerate” and “diseased” and is more than once
specifically aligned with homosexuality.
In this light, it is again worth noting the crucial role played by queer theory, in
the form of Eve Sedgwick’s paradigm-shifting reading of Billy Budd, in turning criticism’s gaze at last on the therapeutic impulse itself. And yet for all that reading’s
power, it is telling how little it (like, indeed, many revisionist accounts from the
1980s and 1990s) can say about Melville’s persistent situating of the drama of the
Bellipotent amid the larger historical arc of modernity. The critique of therapeutics, I
would insist – which is also the critique of a certain narrative of progress conjoining
“old” and “new” American literary studies – requires that arc as well. For the error
of therapeutic antimodernism lies in its belief in a harmonious marriage of realism
and romance, a seamless merger between pragmatic progress and mystical nostalgia.
The more it insists on this merger’s possibility, the more the fundamental conflict
between the modern and antimodern worldviews – the subject matter of Billy Budd
– threatens to fall away.
That conflict remains front and center, however, in “Science as a Vocation,” the
1918 talk in which Weber first used the phrase “disenchantment of the world”
(Entzauberung der Welt), along with “rationalization,” to describe the “fate of our times”
(155). Lecturing at Munich University, Weber addresses himself to the youth of the
day, who have embraced a romantic sensibility, one with which many of Jackson Lears’s
antimodern turn-of-the-twentieth-century Americans, from Henry Adams to William
James, would have been sympathetic: “They crave not only religious experience but
experience as such,” “redemption from the intellectualism of science in order to return
to one’s own nature and therewith to nature in general” (143, 142). In the classroom,
Progress of Romance and Romance of Progress
these students thus long not for intellectual guidance so much as for a “prophet” who
will lead them forward toward the utopia they imagine.
What makes “Science as a Vocation” such an enduringly powerful work is that
Weber himself understands these students’ concerns. Today, he admits, who indeed
“still believes that the findings of astronomy, biology, physics, or chemistry could
teach us anything about the meaning of the world?” (142). Indeed, to the extent other
university disciplines have modeled themselves on the sciences, they, too, eschew such
questions. To the contemporary Americanist, their methods may sound familiar:
“They teach us how to understand and interpret political, artistic, literary, and social
phenomena in terms of their origins. But they give us no answer to the question, whether the existence of these cultural phenomena have been and are worth
while” (145; emphasis in original).
Yet perhaps, Weber suggests, this is not such a bad thing. Consider the (again
remarkably “contemporary”) case he cites of the American college student, who in no
way seems to be suffering for lack of a guru in the classroom:
The young American has no respect for anything or anybody, for tradition or for public
office – unless it is for the personal achievement of individual men. This is what the
American calls “democracy.” . . . The American’s conception of the teacher who faces
him is: he sells me his knowledge and his methods for my father’s money, just as the
greengrocer sells my mother cabbage. And that is all. To be sure, if the teacher happens
to be a football coach, then, in this field, he is a leader. But if he is not this . . . he is
simply a teacher and nothing more. . . . Now, when formulated in this manner, we
should reject this. But the question is whether there is not a grain of salt contained in
this feeling. (149–50)
That “grain of salt” is what the rest of “Science as a Vocation” goes on to adduce.
The American, as Weber portrays him, represents all that the German youth are
striving against: he is a self-satisfied creature of capitalist modernity. For him, the
questions the others are asking cannot arise even as questions. And yet he has apparently also gotten something right. Teachers should not be in the business of telling
students how to live, Weber says. This is because, in his words, “the various value
spheres of the world stand in irreconcilable conflict with each other,” and thus will
“struggle with one another, now and for all times to come” (147). There will never
come a moment, put otherwise, when we will be able definitively to “ ‘refute scientifically’ the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount” (148). The task of the teacher, then, is
to bring such conflicts, as conflicts, before the student, to enjoin him to give “an
account of the ultimate meaning of his own conduct” (152; emphasis in original).
It may seem a curious feature of “Science as a Vocation” that Weber brings this task
forward as the most important contribution “science” can finally make to society.
Earlier on in the essay, he pointedly distinguishes scientific work from that in the
arts by stating that the former is “chained to the course of progress . . . it asks to be
Jennifer L. Fleissner
‘surpassed’ and outdated,” whereas “in the realm of art there is no progress in the same
sense”: we do not say that a later period’s better grasp of perspective renders it of greater
value, or success, than a medieval painting (137–8). And yet the model Weber gives
of the teacher who recognizes the historical irresolvability of the “value spheres of the
world” – for which his ultimate example, indeed, is “science” versus “the holy,” or the
modern versus the premodern (154) – scarcely seems in keeping with the notion of
science as inexorable progress. Might it not better describe those disciplines that keep
turning back to the works of the past, and not simply for data about the way people
once lived, or so as to “manipulate [them] by rational technique” – that is, our own?
If Weber is right, we should affirm our distance from knowledge production that
simply rests on the model of progress, but precisely not in favor of endorsing timeless
truth or beauty; that would make us prophets after all. Instead, ours would be understood as the classrooms where, following Weber’s injunctions, the ongoing conflicts
of the spheres of value may be made flesh. The struggle between genres – sometimes
within a single work – speaks to those conflicts among Weltanschauungen. Such struggles require literary analysis for their detection, the lesson that texts – even texts as
reassuringly familiar as novels – are not contourless containers of information or
“content,” but full-fledged miniature worlds, shaped by implicit choices about the
most fundamental things: what a person is, what counts as making meaning, how to
think about space and time. Here we remember what might be a much more lasting
lesson of The Political Unconscious and its precursors in novel theory: the living struggles we unearth by taking seriously questions of form.
When Weber depicts what we might call humanistic work as a variant (albeit
perhaps one now fighting for its life) of the scientific vocation, he reminds us that we,
too, are resolutely creatures of a modern epoch. Only modernity’s own “value-freedom”
makes possible the perspective that ranges critically over the worldviews of centuries
– that which confidently “historicizes” these, and that which might also question the
hubris of its own historicizations. Yet how to understand that position of apparent
objectivity? As Jameson argues in his own early work on Weber, we must not confuse
it with either “that tolerant coexistence ritually invoked by modern liberal apologists”
or the “positivistic objectivity” of the sciences (Jameson, “Vanishing” 11). For Weber,
we must always remember, a “pluralism” of value systems means not “peaceful coexistence” but the combat of those values across a “Homeric battlefield” (Jameson,
“Vanishing” 11).
Thus is the novel once again charged with the energies of the epic – the more so,
as we uncover those traces within its modern realism of counterdiscourses from another
time. This was the “objectivity” (his own term) that Lukács ascribed to Scott’s historical novel, which in his view differed from romance in its sobriety, and from realism
in its remembrance of a history when the present we now presume was merely a
contingent possibility. In Billy Budd, similarly, because of that feature that reveals it
as modern, its “indirection” – the very fruit of mistrust, and of the impossibility of
immediacy – modernity has a facet that turns ever awry, even backward, ever consumed with the unfinished work of the past.
Progress of Romance and Romance of Progress
References and Further Reading
Adams, Henry. The Education of Henry Adams.
1918. New York: The Modern Library, 1931.
Brown, Wendy. States of Injury: Power and Freedom
in Late Modernity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press, 1995.
Cain, William. “The Triumph of the Will and the
Failure of Resistance: C. L. R. James’s Readings
of Moby-Dick and Othello.” In C. L. R. James: His
Intellectual Legacies (pp. 260–73). Eds. Selwyn R.
Cudjoe and William Cain. Amherst: University
of Massachusetts Press, 1995.
Chase, Richard. The American Novel and Its
Tradition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University
Press, 1957.
Chase, Richard. Herman Melville: A Critical Study.
New York: Macmillan, 1949.
Dimock, Wai Chee. Empire for Liberty: Melville and
the Poetics of Individualism. Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press, 1989.
Eagleton, Terry. Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic.
London: Blackwell, 2002.
Felski, Rita. Ed. Rethinking Tragedy. Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.
Graff, Gerald. “American Criticism Left and
Right.” In Ideology and Classic American Literature
(pp. 91–121). Eds. Myra Jehlen and Sacvan
Bercovitch. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1985
Herring, Scott. Queering the Underworld: Slumming,
Literature, and the Undoing of Lesbian and Gay
History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
James, C.L.R. Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways:
The Story of Herman Melville and the World We
Live In. 1953. Hanover: University Press of New
England, 2001.
Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious:
Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca, NY:
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Jameson, Fredric. “The Vanishing Mediator; or,
Max Weber as Storyteller.” In The Ideologies of
Theory: Essays 1971–1986 (pp. 3–34). Vol. 2.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,
Jehlen, Myra, and Sacvan Bercovitch. Eds. Ideology
and Classic American Literature. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Kaplan, Amy. “Romancing the Empire: The
Embodiment of American Masculinity in the
Popular Historical Novel of the 1890s.”
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LaCapra, Dominick. History and Criticism. Ithaca,
NY: Cornell University Press, 1985
Lears, T.J. Jackson. No Place of Grace: Antimodernism
and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880–
1920. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
Love, Heather K. Feeling Backward: Loss and the
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against the Tide of Modernity. 1992. Trans.
Catherine Porter. Durham, NC: Duke University
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Donald E. Pease. Durham, NC: Duke University
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Melville, Herman. Billy Budd and Other Tales. New
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Moses, Wilson Julius. Afrotopia: The Roots of African
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Mass Media and Literary Culture at
the Turn of the Twentieth Century
Nancy Bentley
What happened to American literary culture in the age of incorporation? To formulate
the question in this way is to pay homage to Alan Trachtenberg’s study The Incorporation
of America, a work that established an enduring paradigm for understanding turn-ofthe-twentieth-century US literary production. The advent of corporate capitalism,
Trachtenberg argues, also brought about an incorporation of culture, as literature,
museums, public architecture, and World’s Fair expositions all became part of the
gravitational field of a newly centralized private economy. Though often hidden or
obscure, a pervasive logic of “hierarchy and control” (133) worked to reorder the
cultural material of shared symbols, beliefs, and even the “substance of perception”
(7) in ways that favored the moneyed elite.
But Trachtenberg’s insights about economic consolidation overlook a crucial development in the sphere of communications. To be sure, the concentration of more capital
in fewer private hands transformed the foundations of expressive culture and public
speech. But, as media historians have shown, the resulting “industrialization of communication” (Gitelman 13) actually decentralized the terrain of print and image
production, giving rise to a wide diversity of newspapers, magazines, and book
markets, and at the same time creating mass audiences for an array of visual and aural
technologies, including early film. As the media environment changed, moreover, the
cultural meaning of public speech and publication became unfixed, and longstanding
assumptions about the civic value and emancipatory nature of print and literacy lost
their ability to pass as self-evident truths (Gitelman 25–9). Literature faced new and
vexing questions. As Henry James put it, the era’s massive “flood” of print unsettled
existing protocols for reading and critical evaluation inasmuch as the whole enterprise
A Companion to American Literary Studies, First Edition. Edited by Caroline F. Levander,
Robert S. Levine.
© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2011 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Nancy Bentley
of literary reading “depends on what we may take it into our heads to call literature”
(“Question” 653). Far from imposing top-down control of all things cultural, the new
media landscape that emerged from economic incorporation helped introduce profound, sometimes anarchic-seeming changes in sensory perception, print culture, and
public expression – with far-reaching implications for literary culture.
Trachtenberg’s study, of course, did not ignore the outsized growth of print in this
era. Dime novels, mass-market newspapers, and popular crime gazettes are important
parts of his story of incorporation. But for Trachtenberg, mass journalism and consumer culture necessarily produced an erosion of lived experience by external, profitdriven streams of information and commercial spectacle. Workers and local
communities thus lost the ability to define material reality in their own terms, as
everyday life was “invaded” by cultural discourses that had been put into circulation
by private capital. Trachtenberg’s emphasis on the category of experience is important;
it is one of the signal achievements of his study to have focused scholarly attention
on the question of how a new alliance of finance, industry, and culture mattered on
the ground, how it reached into ordinary lives and affected modes of perception. But
in crucial respects, I contend, understanding lived experience in the age of incorporation must include everyday experience of media and mediation, including the experience – now often estranged or transformed – of the medium of print. If we discount
mass-mediated material and commercial culture as providing merely “surrogate experience” (125), we close off any chance to investigate new media as the sites of alternative publics – sites at which a mix of fantasy and reflexivity offered possibilities for
negotiating the antinomies of modernity. More to the point for this chapter, recognizing media as integral to everyday sensory experience is also crucial to the story of
what happens to literary culture in the age of incorporation. My organizing premise
for this chapter is that we cannot understand the literary culture of this era without
paying attention to the deterritorialization of speech, sound, and image that occurred
through the rise of mass media. Whether analyzing dime novels or the highly cerebral
fiction of a Henry James, we need additional compass points: cinema as well as print,
the force of the uncanny and the effects of perceptual shock, as well as the regularities
of polished literary style and the calm of aesthetic contemplation. Only this wider
media context discloses the new “world of dialects” (Vattimo 9) in which literature
suffered a crisis of vocation and began to fashion new kinds of literary analysis.
In Trachtenberg’s account, the expressive culture of this era affirms the social vision
of a corporate elite, putting art in the service of an “artfully composed reality” (231).
He astutely discerns that many key cultural institutions in this era perform a kind of
advertising; museums and concert halls, highbrow literary publications, public parks,
and Beaux Arts architecture conduct an ongoing work of mass persuasion. Beauty and
grandeur bespeak the nobility of private wealth. Taste and professional expertise,
rather than self-reliant labor, become the dominant symbols of social value. Meanwhile,
workers and farmers, though their productive work is slighted, are invited to share
in this “ethos of incorporation” (233) when they buy and consume cultural goods.
The result is a transfer of authority from a social imaginary organized around labor
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(the freeholding citizen) to one that favors consumption and knowledge work as the
real measures of value. Economic incorporation thus raises the stakes on cultural
perception, the stuff of sensory experience. Although incorporation is driven by an
“unconscious logic” (57) of political economy, it is evinced less in balance sheets or
bureaucracies than in a panoply of sights, sounds, and cultural symbols. The 1893
Chicago World’s Fair is Trachtenberg’s key emblem for the broad effort to
“array . . . before the senses” (220) a vision of the nation preferred by the ruling elite
– its proper social relations, its artistic and industrial prowess, and its global destiny.
Literary institutions in this era aspired to perform their own version of pedagogical
display. The highbrow magazines and publishing houses that promoted literary
realism, for instance, hoped to offer a picture of social relations and realities that could
counter the “fantastic and monstrous and artificial things” (Howells, Criticism 10)
relished by popular audiences. Like the new metropolitan museums dedicated to
displaying authentic specimens of natural history and fine art, literary authorities
promoted the kinds of fiction, critical essays, and poetry they believed could cultivate
higher understanding. Such literature would help transform unsophisticated readers
“into thinking, knowing, skillful, tasteful American citizens” (qtd. in Trachtenberg
150). Although proponents saw movements like literary realism as a democratic
project, the norms used to define what counts as “knowing, skillful” reading and
perception, of course, were the norms favored by a fairly narrow elite; other kinds of
aesthetic experience would fail to be recognized as such.
But if a new economy altered the basis of cultural production, did it dictate the
content of cultural stories, signs, and expression? For critics who rely on one or another
version of an incorporation thesis, the plots, characters, and imagery that characterized
advanced movements like literary realism were ultimately shaped by an underlying
“logic” of economic incorporation. Amy Kaplan’s study of American realism, for
instance, defines the realist novel as a form that “incorporates competing definitions
of the real” (164) so as to confront and then tame “profound social disturbances” (7).
Walter Benn Michaels has argued that the “logic of naturalism” (177) is finally inseparable from the logic of corporate capitalism. In these and subsequent studies they
influenced, literature wittingly or unwittingly expresses an incorporated culture –
expresses, in Trachtenberg’s words, a “composed reality” as well as a “reality composed” (231). But what should we make of the extensive record in this period of
literary discomposure? Writers’ acute expressions of unease and bewilderment were not
just a reaction to the crowded urban spaces or restive immigrant populations. More
striking are the frequent admissions of their own readerly disorientation, a kind of
vertigo that writers experienced when confronted with new media and mass-circulation print.
One editor confessed that “at the mere sight of a row of paperbacks, I am conscious
of a feeling of nausea.” William Dean Howells admitted that he sometimes experienced “impossible stress from the Sunday newspaper with its scare-headings, and
artfully-wrought sensations” (qtd. in Bentley 41). Henry James closely recorded and
dissected different variations of what he called “ ‘lettered’ anguish,” his keen awareness
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that the sensibilities cultivated by literary reading and reflection were being marginalized if not altogether erased by forces of “publicity.” Edith Wharton drew a sharp
contrast between contemplating successful literary form and the “nightmare weight
of a cinema ‘close-up’ ” (933). These and other testimonies of mass-media queasiness
suggest that even the most influential literary arbiters did not feel they enjoyed a
position of “hierarchy and control” in the domain of culture, at least not with regard
to shared cultural norms or modes of public expression. Far from suggesting an alignment with levers of power, such statements record a sense of baffled vulnerability in
the face of a far more disorderly public sphere.
Was traditional literary culture in fact one of the losers of the incorporation process?
The idea is in many ways counterintuitive, for the development of the nineteenthcentury US communications industry, perhaps more than any other sector, followed
the logic of capitalist incorporation. In contrast with Europe, American law permitted
private companies to own and control communications systems with very little oversight by the state. The US telegraph industry, though it took root later than in Europe,
had a remarkably steep take-off period, after which regional companies were very
quickly linked in a single network. Not long after the Civil War, one corporation –
Western Union – had a monopoly on a vast, national market. Moreover, Western
Union’s aggressive partnership with the Associated Press allowed that wire service to
dominate news syndication, creating the first “bilateral monopoly” in the United
States (Starr 165–89). The highly centralized, private development of the telegraph
later served as the blueprint for both the telephone and broadcast industries.
Meanwhile, print publication, despite its much longer history, evinced the same basic
pattern of consolidation and growth. The decentralized press of the early nineteenth
century, serving largely local audiences, gave way to an integrated system of newspaper, magazine, and book markets that allowed a good many publications to reach mass
readerships (Starr 260–2).
These communications systems – highly capitalized, increasingly centralized, and
intensely managed – are a strong example of corporate consolidation; together they
helped concentrate ownership of the means of cultural reproduction in the hands of
the wealthy. And yet this historical development brings a striking paradox: the expansive public sphere that emerged from incorporation was far more diverse, uneven, and
ideologically heterogeneous than ever before. For one thing, alongside the new masscirculation publications there emerged a diverse array of smaller niche publics organized around specialized newspapers and magazines. The same cheap paper and
technological advances that were necessary for mass fiction and tabloid journalism also
helped create and sustain an astonishing number of foreign-language publications:
dailies were published in languages ranging from Slovenian, Greek, and Chinese to
Bohemian and Japanese. Meanwhile, exclusion from mainstream publications spurred
African American and Jewish writers to produce weeklies for both regional and
national communities. Labor publications also flourished; there were enough to
support a trade organization for the labor press alone. For many households, then,
mass-circulation tabloids and Sunday supplements had a place next to issues of a
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populist farmer’s journal or a Yiddish daily (total circulation of Yiddish papers reached
763,000; Starr 250–66). Mass print and specialized publications emerged together;
both introduced new assumptions about reading and writing that complicated the
idea of a single matrix of literary production as the source of public reason.
The results put traditional literary culture on the defensive. Jürgen Habermas has
analyzed the late nineteenth-century moment as bringing the “disintegration of the
public sphere in the world of letters” (175). This “collapse,” Habermas argues,
occurred as the dialectic of private reading and public discussion established in the
bourgeois public sphere was now broken by the intrusion of powerful corporate interests. Rather than fostering deliberation and reflective art, public culture was seized
upon by profit-driven entities that wished only to garner the passive approval of mass
audiences for their prepackaged messages. Like a number of other scholars, I find
Habermas’s model of what counts as public discourse too narrow. But his account
captures the broader sea change that occurred in the late nineteenth-century United
States, change that inaugurated a “postliterary” era when educated literary discourse
no longer instantiated the public sphere. In the new “commonschooled and newspapered democracy,” as Henry James put it (“Opportunities” 651–2), the earlier culture
of print actually lost authority, ushering in what one scholar calls the “twilight of the
literary” (Cochran 14–30). It is this loss of the former centrality of letters that is
behind the reported sensations of literary nausea, a kind of cultural disorientation that
could even rise to the level of somatic feeling.
This media vertigo was quite distinct from other strains of cultural anxiety and
dissent. Cultural criticism was certainly a pronounced element of late nineteenthcentury literary culture; even Trachtenberg acknowledges that literary intellectuals
sounded notes of alarm about what Howells called “our deeply incorporated civilization” (qtd. in Trachtenberg 185). But criticism of this sort actually presumes a secure
public authority to describe, diagnose, and address society, and it was this very authority that writers acknowledged in other contexts to be under threat. The contradiction
could be acutely felt. In an era of mass taste, “if you don’t amuse your reader,” Howells
complained, “practically, you cease to exist” (Literature 199). Yet it is this very dimension of media-inflected angst, I contend, that can allow us to see the emergence in
this era of a different kind of “postliterary” experimentation and thought, a strain of
writing that follows neither the logic of incorporation nor a reactionary aversion to
mass media but instead exploits its own disorientation to achieve new artistic and
critical discoveries.
For literary authorities, losing their predominance in print culture could seem like
the loss of reason itself. Charles Eliot Norton in an 1888 essay decried the “horde of
readers” whose “vicious taste for strong sensations” was fatal to their ability to acquire
“intellectual nourishment” from the printed page (qtd. in Bentley 32). At one level,
the rise of mass media and their affinity for “strong sensations” helped create a polarized opposition between “intellectual” reading and mass consumption, between
meaning and mere sensation. But if we look more closely, this very polarization was
also productive: even with the era’s felt opposition between extremes of culture and
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anarchy, we can identify a mode of literary reflection that combines analytic thought
and unruly sensory experience. As I try to demonstrate in what follows, the very
displacement and disorientation of the literary could also generate its own kind of
open, exploratory thinking when writers’ immersion in a dizzying new environment
of public signs and unfamiliar perceptual experience spurred new ways of conceiving
history and the public sphere. When we focus on this operative mode, literary culture
begins to present a kind of inversion or photographic negative of the emerging
medium of cinema, the cultural field in which viewers were bombarded with novel
kinds of perception and visual sensation even as movie-going opened up new possibilities for public expression and meaning. For writers, the volatile results of incorporation meant the loss of “hierarchy and control,” but it could also mean a new recognition
of tracts of experience hitherto excluded from literary culture.
Edith Wharton was convinced that “the wireless and the cinema” (“two worldwide enemies of the imagination”) were bad for fiction (qtd. in Lee 737). The verbal
precision, nuance, and irony that for her characterized the highest kind of novelistic
power were lost on readers subjected to a “long course of cinema obviousness and
tabloid culture” (qtd. in Lee 628). But, strikingly, the very opposition she drew
between movies and novels was itself critically meaningful for Wharton for the way
that cinematic experience could illuminate literary form. In her memoir A Backward
Glance (1934), she describes the unnerving effect of trying to dispassionately observe
her own literary handiwork. When the artist steps back to contemplate his own
creation, she writes, he hopes to return to see “happy glow of colour, or a firm sweep
of design,” but the work “often presses on his tired eyes with the nightmare weight
of a cinema ‘close-up’ ” (Wharton 933). For avid filmgoers, of course, the camera
close-up – however jolting or unsettling – was not a nightmare but a source of
pleasure, one of the sensations that attracted them to the movie house. The earliest
close-up in film history, the snarling figure of a bandit pointing a gun at the viewer
in The Great Train Robbery (1903), quickly became an icon of the visual thrills unique
to cinema. For Wharton, in contrast, a close-up held no pleasure, only an unwelcome
sense of invasive “weight”; and yet the very sensation was able to function as a
species of critical sight, a reseeing of literary form by way of startling sensory experience. For a literary mind like Wharton’s, cinematic experience could be converted
into cognitive insight.
Was the same kind of critical conversion possible for devoted viewers of cinema?
Wharton herself was doubtful. In place of the syntactical complexities of the highest
literature, with its patterned meaning created from a skillful weave of innumerable
linguistic relations, mass media forms like film seemed to offer only indiscriminate
jolts of mental stimulation. When Charity Royall, the young protagonist of Wharton’s
Summer (1917), visits a movie theater in rural Massachusetts, reality dissolves into an
onrush of sensory experience:
Everything was merged in her brain in swimming circles of heat and blinding alterations
of light and shadow. All the world has to show seemed to pass before her in a chaos of
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palms and minarets, charging cavalry regiments, roaring lions, comic policemen and
scowling murderers. (228–9)
Like the phonograph, early cinema exploited the capacities of a new medium to turn
mechanical reproduction into expressive form. In doing so, it sharpened the fears of
many cultural authorities that the emergence of mass media would allow sheer sensation (“blinding alterations of light and shadow”) to drive out the critical thought and
reflective insight necessary for a robust public culture. When Wharton lamented to
a friend the decline of literacy in the general public, cinema is her symbol for the
erosion of cultural intelligence: the “mental level has gone down with such a rush,”
she wrote, that “even in England,” book reviewing “appears to be written by cinemafans in their teens” (qtd. in Lee 695).
There is no gainsaying that much mass entertainment traffics in sensation, often
the stronger the better. Though his assertion is tinged by panic, Howells was not
mistaken when he argued that the “cheap effects” cultivated by popular new forms of
entertainment, from dime museums to outsized circuses, had helped generate a brand
of fiction “in the service of sensation” (Criticism 52). I have argued elsewhere that
much of the impetus behind the efforts by intellectuals like Howells to promote
realism was desire to restore literary culture as a unitary site of public reason. Not
everyone welcomed the more strenuous intellectualism of what was sometimes dubbed
“the analytic school” (qtd. in Bentley 307). But a new emphasis on “painstaking
accuracy” and “dispassionate analysis” in fiction and criticism reflected the hope that,
in the midst of a chaotic and commercialized public sphere, higher literature could
offer a sanctuary for critical reflection and understanding. When Henry James describes
literary realism as “a more analytic consideration of appearances,” it distills for us the
new emphasis on literature as a vehicle of critical thought (“Daudet” 229).
As early cinema began to develop and find an audience, it seemed to fulfill the
belief that, as with mass print, new media would supply only the kind of entertainment that James called “irreflective and uncritical” (“Future”103). Slapstick comedy,
trick films, melodrama, urban “actuality” films: these and other early genres
exploit the technical capacities of cinema to deliver visceral shock and visual surprise.
Walter Benjamin would later identify cinema as the aesthetic form in which “perception in the form of shocks was established as a formal principle” (175). But if mass
genres like film cultivated sensory shock, was cinematic experience irrelevant to the
public-sphere function of collective reflection on modern life and its possibilities? The
thrill of the close-up or a rapid-fire chase sequence was certainly at odds with the
aesthetic ideal of sustained contemplation. But the very features that made early
cinema incompatible with what Benjamin identified as the traditional “aura” of art
– film’s eclecticism and excess, its industrial production, and its penchant for speed
and mobility – were precisely the features that made cinema among the most meaningful media for certain populations: immigrants, women, and the white-collar clerical class. Drawing on reception histories and other archival material, film historians
contend that the heterogeneous combination of fantasy and reality that characterized
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early nickelodeon programs made movies “an objective correlative of the immigrant
experience” (Hansen 108). Lacking the cultural authority or language skills to participate in mainstream public discourse, and often living a mix of fragmented homeland traditions and New World labor regimens, immigrants came to derive both
pleasure and solidarity from collectively viewing the multifarious images supplied in
early cinema. As one observer writing for the Jewish Daily Forward put it, “[O]ur Jews
feel very much at home with the detectives, oceans, horses, dogs, and cars that run
about on the screen” (qtd. in Hansen 108). In turn, what theorist Miriam Hansen
calls “the aesthetics of disjunction” in early film, its compression of different worlds
and disparate images, provided immigrants a means to “negotiate the specific displacements and discrepancies of their experience” (44).
In contrast with the more fixed identities developed at length in realist novels,
early movies fostered fleeting and changeable identifications with a wide array of
screen subjects. Siegfried Kracauer described this tendency toward dispersed subjectivity as the movie-goer’s willingness to be “polymorphously projected in a movie
As a fake Chinaman he sites in a fake opium den, turns into a well-trained dog who
performs ridiculously clear acts to please a female star, gathers himself into an alpine
storm, gets to be a circus artist and lion at once. (332)
If this mobilization of self was part of what made film an especially expressive medium
for immigrants, it was also one of the likely draws for women, a group that responded
to early cinema across lines of class, age, and racial background. With its shifting,
nonlinear storylines and rapid changes of location and temporality, early cinema programs allowed women and girls to entertain unsorted and contradictory images of
womanhood – on screen, women were erotic as well as maternal, adventurous as well
as vulnerable, glamorous and charismatic as well as piously domestic. For working
women and middle-class women alike, cinema quickly became a part of ordinary life,
a space structured by neither work nor family in which disparate subjectivities and
desires found a variety of concrete shapes (Hansen 199–241). Similarly, African
Americans who migrated to northern cities responded to early cinema as a space “in
which Black subjects could see and be seen in modern ways” (Stewart 4).
Such a space, of course, was hardly a public sphere in the sense defined by Habermas.
Driven by pleasure, fantasy, and desire, the consumer context of cinema gave little
weight to public interaction and reason over individual acts of imagining. Yet for
groups traditionally at the margins of public discussions (such as women and the
young) or with weak access to high literary culture (e.g., immigrants, rural workers,
and African American migrants), the profit motive at work in cinema was precisely
what made the medium adept at registering experience and needs otherwise deemed
too “uncritical” and particular to count as truly public. Despite film’s “industrialcommercial basis,” Miriam Hansen argues for recognizing early cinema as an “alternative public sphere,” a site of collective reflection and speculation for those whose
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experience was “repressed, fragmented, or alienated” by the hierarchies of literary
culture and other established institutions of public life (90–1). Like newspapers, early
films recognized world historical events (e.g., the assassination of McKinley in The
Mob outside the Temple of Music after the President Was Shot; the Boxer Rebellion in Attack
on a China Mission). But cinema also registered tracts of interest and experience that
were largely elided in other media: new kinds of urban sociality (The Gay Shoe Clerk;
What Happened on Twenty-Third Street, New York City), details of everyday self-presentation (Those Awful Hats; Laughing Gas), erotic images and exceptional physical feats
(The Kiss; Sandow Flexing His Muscles), sensations of speed and mobility (A Romance of
the Rail; Hale’s Tours and Scenes of the World), ordinary human types (Boarding School
Girls at Coney Island), as well as extraordinary or pathological kinds of subjects (The
Fire Bug; The Adventures of the Girl Spy). Shaped as much by audience response as by
studio directors, early cinema offered an unstable mix of visual shock, public spectacle,
and personal experience as a horizon against which to articulate from below a new set
of relations to modernity.
In time, stricter oversight by authorities eventually made movies less discordant
and more decorous. But in the era before Hollywood, cinema was in effect an uneven,
kaleidoscopic formation that conjoined memory, sensory experience, and fragmented
narrative, all drawn from disparate social sources – Christian scripture and vaudeville
comedy, technological wonders, and Old World folklore. If we judge by the example
of cinema, the advent of mass media did not bring a standardized culture; on the
contrary, it was perhaps the keenest register of what Gianni Vattimo calls the “irresistible pluralization” of social experience fostered by mass media (68). However, new
media did bring mass publics, groups self-organized through the same inventory of
unsorted, dynamic images and plots. And mass publics forever transformed what
Jacques Rancière calls “the distribution of the sensible,” the allotment of speech,
perceptible signs, and visible roles that form the horizon of possibility for a given
community or polity. As we have seen, when literary writers were confronted with
this new and shifting distribution of sensory signs, they tended to assume that mass
genres could only cultivate a “passive consciousness,” the “uncritical” disposition that
Henry James associated with “women and the very young” (“Future” 100, 103). Yet
crucially, the same welter of deterritorialized signs also spurred new analytic interest
in understanding the kinds of consciousness – “passive” and otherwise – that could
be glimpsed in this expanded public terrain. At the same time, mass media also
pushed writers toward a new reflexive examination of the literary itself, its limits and
its new possibilities amid the public proliferation of image, print, and sound.
Embracing rather than resisting their own feelings of displacement, writers began to
develop a new epistemology of literary disorientation.
An important document in the archive of disorientation is Howells’s remarkable
novel A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890). The leading US advocate for American and
European realism, Howells looked to literature to provide a comprehensive map of
social experience. With the arrival of international Réalisme, he proclaimed, “[T]he
whole field of human experience was never so nearly covered by imaginative literature,”
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and “American life especially is getting represented with unexampled fullness”
(Criticism 68). But Howells’s investment in fiction as a comprehensive genre makes it
all the more notable that Hazard of New Fortunes is ultimately a meditation on the
representational limits of literature. Literary failure and insufficiency are the novel’s
strongest keynotes, and yet by articulating these limits Howells generates a secondorder realism able to register an emergent field of extraliterary signs and meanings.
In Hazard, Howells makes literary culture the reflexive subject of his own novel.
When the protagonist, Basil March, moves to New York City to help launch a new
literary magazine, Howells’s plot tests the existing resources of letters to mediate what
one character calls a “thoroughly commercialized society” (154). A staff of writers,
illustrators, and financial backers succeeds in getting the publication into circulation;
their publicist boasts that he can write a news item about the magazine that will
travel “from Maine to Texas, and from Alaska to Florida” (256). But even as the
publication is successful in reaching “the American public,” the editor, March,
becomes increasingly focused on how literary culture falls short, fixing on the gap, as
it were, between his notion of the public and the realities of the social. Whenever
“the cause of literary curiosity” (409) sends March out into the streets of New York,
the experience is always one of sensory assault. The city presents “uproar to the eye”
(163). It wears an “outward aspect” that “shrieks and yells with ugliness” (52).
Although March confesses to finding the city’s “savage exultation” at times “intoxicating” (52), his immersion in the “huge disorder” (164) of New York also produces
feelings of anxiety and melancholy.
It isn’t simply the immediacy of noises and novel sights that brings on March’s
unease. The multiplicity of communicative forms he encounters – labor newspapers
(marked for him by a “tastelessness” [172] of overheated rhetoric), the “fashionable
entertainment” (362) of the affluent classes who prefer light operas and plays to books,
the stock ballads sold on the street like apples or chestnuts, the “noisy typography”
(376) of the city’s newspapers – these only heighten his sense that he cannot articulate
any intelligible meaning for this seemingly “lawless, Godless” world (164). A connoisseur of all manner of irony, March alternates between dryly humorous observations
and vague despair. Then, when he happens to witness a violent response to a labor
strike, he is horrified and stymied: in the face of this order of event, March’s literary
sensibility is wholly at a loss.
A literary enterprise succeeds; a literary mind fails. In his reflections and observations, March attempts a “violent struggle to subordinate the result [of modern forces]
to the greater good” (164), but the struggle is in vain. The differential suffuses Hazard
of New Fortunes with an unstable ambivalence toward its own literary resources. But
the troubled reflexivity is itself a species of eloquence. Tracing the limits of this order
of the literary, the novel also uncovers an expansive field of emergent experience by
simply displaying in fragments what it cannot adequately narrate: “swarms” of Bowery
children; the beer gardens of laborers; the new kinds of family life glimpsed through
the windows of tenements; the conformity of the “vast, prosperous commercial class”
(273); and the “private war” (373) in the streets between strikers and strikebreakers.
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For March all of this seems to be expressive of nothing more than pure “accident and
exigency” (164) and threatens a drift toward nihilism. For Howells’s readers, however,
these unsorted fragments offer a cinematic display of compelling images and potential
stories that materialize a new distribution of the sensible.
What Hazard begins to articulate is an aesthetic principle based not on contemplation but on disorientation. The rhythm of March’s life (like the structural shape of
Howells’s novel) alternates between the experiences shaped by the literary codes he
shares with his staff, and his glimpses of inassimilable experience that exceed those
codes. The result is a structure of feeling that matches neither the beautiful nor the
sublime. It resembles instead the “continual oscillation between belonging and disorientation” (10) that Vattimo has argued offers us a new basis for defining creativity
and emancipation in a media society. Drawing on Martin Heidegger’s notion of the
role of Stoss – literally, a blow – in the work of art, and on Benjamin’s theory of cinematic “shock,” Vattimo contends that only aesthetic disorientation can adequately
illuminate what has become a “world of dialects.” Mass media have forever damaged
if not yet killed off “the idea of a single true form of humanity that must be realized
irrespective of particularity and individual finitude, transience and contingency.” In
its place there has emerged a “world of dialects,” each of which has its own “grammar
and syntax” – its own way of making the world meaningful – yet which together
make speakers aware of “the historicity, contingency and finiteness” of any given
cultural language, including one’s own (9). Only by seeking both estrangement and
belonging can art fulfill its capacity “to make us live, in the realm of the imagination,
other possibilities of existence, thereby extending the borders of the specific possibility
we realize in everydayness” (71).
Written at the moment when mass media were usurping the public primacy of
letters, Hazard of New Fortunes is fashioned from the disequilibrium that comes from
exposure to multiple grammars and publics. Howells’s sprawling novel retains the
analytic impulse so characteristic of realism. But in Hazard, as in many other works
written in this moment, the impulse to analyze is bound to a field of mediated social
experience that both feeds analysis and exceeds it. The resulting gaps and excesses in
these works often resemble the kind of transgressive forms we associate with literary
modernism. But if we see these ruptures only as indices of an incipient modernism,
we risk overlooking the specific social conditions that give works like Hazard their
formal shape and thematic preoccupations. Rather than assuming a teleological history
of successive formal developments culminating in modernism, we instead can examine
the traits and strategies of the literature of this period as different responses to immersion in a new world of dialects.
The late style of Henry James, for instance, emerges from experiments in representing the experience of women and young girls – precisely those groups that James once
lamented possess the kind of “passive consciousness” that responds to mass fiction. In
works like The Bostonians, James imparts a strong dose of anxiety to his portrait of
women’s receptivity to commercial culture and public fads (although Basil Ransom
does not come off any better, despite his reverence for an older literary culture as
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embodied in a journal with the telling title The Rational Review). In subsequent works,
however, James closely examines the seeming passivity of young figures like Maisie
Beale (What Maisie Knew) and Nanda Bookenham (The Awkward Age), presenting each
girl’s necessarily limited access to knowledge as a crucible producing a new and poignant way of understanding (often more acutely than adults) the modern conditions that
structure her life.
Even more telling is James’s novella In the Cage (1898), a story that centers on a
young working-class telegraph operator in London who learns how to decipher – and,
eventually, to participate in – the covert communication between a pair of aristocratic
lovers. James was not alone in his fascination with the phenomenon of the female
communications worker; she would soon be featured in many “railroad thriller” films
like The Grit of the Girl Telegrapher and in D.W. Griffith’s The Lonedale Operator. The
new class of “pink-collar” workers themselves flocked to such movies, while few were
likely devotees of James’s fiction; he acknowledges as much when he mentions his
protagonist’s familiarity with “ha-penny novels” (869). Yet in her ability to master
complex codes and to pursue the implications of minute clues and ambiguous messages, James’s telegrapher possesses the serious investment in language and the analytic imagination shared by all of James’s literary intellectuals. In this narrative,
moreover, James openly explores how new industries that traffic in information and
communication may be making different class dialects more porous – open to usurpation, imitation, and exchange.
In their demand on the reader’s analytic ability, the excessively nested, serpentine
sentences of James’s late style could not be more different from the quick word bursts
of a telegraph. However, giving oneself over to the motion of the Jamesian sentence
often means reaching a point where analysis turns into a confused, even queasy sense
of immersion in an alien language, an aesthetic disorientation that accompanies
James’s representation of everything from drawing rooms and museums to a shabby
telegrapher’s “cage.” What has vanished is a sense that any one way of writing, literary
or otherwise, will render all such spaces transparent. Literary language thus leads us
back into – instead of away from – the communicative welter of the media society.
Deliberately cultivating the pressured perceptual “weight” that Wharton found in
the cinematic close-up, James fashions an image language out of alternating moments
of distortion and recognition.
A similar distortion of narrative surface and scale is characteristic of the fiction of
many naturalist writers. In their drive to reach what Frank Norris calls the “black,
unsearched penetralia” (1169) of human experience, naturalists tend to sacrifice polished social scenarios for referential excess and close-up portraits of sheer sensation.
The intensely visual nature of Stephen Crane’s fiction is commonly compared to
impressionism. But the surface of a Crane text is less like a composed, painterly canvas
than what Bill Brown calls a “protosurrealist” (166) screen studded with a haphazard
collection of metaphoric images – a circus performer or football player, flames that
turn into flowers that turn into snakes, the sideshow freak and the Coney Island crowd.
For Brown, Crane’s distinctive style comes from a largely unconscious ability to register
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the decontextualized objects and “chaotic kinesthesis” (47) that surface in the modern
amusement industry. But Brown’s analysis also makes clear that it is mass media that
have churned up the debris of images strewn throughout Crane’s stories. Randolph
Hearst’s new “sports page,” the billboard and the poster, and “new graphic and reduplicating technologies” all made “the world of amusement appear an integral part of
American daily life and the mode through which daily life had become public” (7).
The famously uncanny effects of Crane’s style owes as much to the new tumult of public
signs and mass-mediated experience as it does to his innovations in literary form.
The same might be said of the disjunctions introduced into historiography by The
Education of Henry Adams (1918). One of the foremost US historians, Adams confounded many of his friends when he wrote his hybrid book, a discrepant mix of
autobiography and historical narrative. William James complained that it was “a
hodge-podge of world-fact, private fact, irony (with the word ‘education’ stirred in
too much for my appreciation!”) (qtd. in Bentley 251–2). But it is precisely the way
Adams yokes private experience with historical fragments that formally shapes what
is his central purpose: narrating a pedagogy of disorientation. Adams calls himself a
“child of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries” fated to “wake up to find himself
required to play the game of the twentieth” (723), and the Education presents this life
experience as a mind-bending course of instruction in historical rupture and incongruity. Nearing the end of his life, the author of the nine-volume History of the United
States during the Administrations of Washington and Jefferson asserts that the subject of
history is “in essence incoherent” (994), a verdict embodied in the book’s irregular
form and perplexed tone.
Witnessing both personal tragedy and historical catastrophe (“the nightmare of
Cuban, Hawaiian, and Nicaraguan chaos” [Adams 1045]) seems to play a part in
fostering the book’s dominant mood of confounded efforts at historical analysis. In
Adams’s darkest moments, rational reflection not only is blocked but also dissolves
into sheer bodily sensation – “so-called thought merged in the mere sense of life”
(983). More often, though, his descriptions of his own disorientation draw on more
playful images that would have been familiar to a mass public, a public accustomed
to seeking out sensory experience: “His artificial balance was acquired habit. He was
an acrobat, with a dwarf on his back, crossing a chasm on a slack-rope, and commonly
breaking his neck” (1116). Like a slapstick movie, Adams’s trope combines the pleasure of the spectator (Adams admitted his habit of “haunt[ing] the lowest fakes of the
Midway” [qtd. in Bentley 253]) with the serious risk to the performer, and thereby
articulates a shared historical vulnerability with the masses who will never read his
book. Like them, Adams cannot master the ferocious expressions of modern “force”
he tries to capture in a historical narrative, even as the failure generates a shocking
image of everyday threat: “Forces grasped his wrists and flung him about as though
he had hold of a live wire or a runaway automobile” (1171). Evoking a chaotic public
sphere, Adams’s strange book describes the way an exiled literary subject is tutored
by a world of inassimilable experience, and thereby learns to anticipate the future
subject – the possessor of a “new social mind” (1175) – who will supplant him.
Nancy Bentley
Despite his sense of a shared bodily vulnerability, of course, Adams possessed far
more security in life than the vast majority of modern subjects. He seemed to acknowledge as much when he once described himself as a privileged spectator of the “circus”
of modernity:
My lunacy scares me. I am seriously speculating whether I shall have a better view of
the fin-de-siècle circus in England, Germany, France or India, and whether I should engage
seats to view the debacle in London or Paris, Berlin or Calcutta. (qtd. in Bentley 253)
The image evokes the idea of an educated observer preparing for a form of sensory
derangement (“lunacy”) in confronting a brave new global world. But if this form of
disorientation – part pleasure, part terror – is the ironic endpoint of Adams’s education, another literary work from this moment reminds us that, for some groups,
education begins with a dispossession of the senses. One of the most striking examples
of reflexive analysis of literary culture is the autobiographical narrative published by
Zitkala-Ša (Gertrude Bonnin), a Dakota author and activist who as a young girl was
taken from her mother’s home on the reservation and educated at a Quaker-run boarding school for Indian children. For Zitkala-Ša, a process of sensory derangement is not
the result of literary failure but the devastating origin of her literary success.
As Trachtenberg observes, economic incorporation was manifest most overtly in
the expansion of industry and communication into the “Western wilds.” Frederick
Turner’s frontier thesis represented the East-to-West expansion of “complex mazes of
modern commercial lines” as a form of neurological development: “It is like the steady
growth of a complex nervous system for the originally simple, inert continent” (qtd.
in Trachtenberg 15). According to expansionist ideology, tribal reservations (“schools
of industry”) and Indian education policies would allow Native peoples the chance to
acquire a parallel development: boarding schools would cultivate the minds and
complex nervous systems of youth who possessed only primitive ideas (the “thoughts
of civilized life cannot be communicated to them in their own tongue” [qtd. in
Trachtenberg 31]). But Zitkala-Ša’s “School Days of an Indian Girl” (1900), published
in the Boston-based Atlantic, points to a very different neurological process. She reveals
that her education was really a harrowing invasion of her nervous system, one that
seemed designed to utterly remake her sensorium.
We were led to an open door, where the brightness of the lights within flooded out over
the heads of the excited palefaces who blocked our way. . . . The strong glaring light in
the large whitewashed room dazzled my eyes. . . . The large bell rang for breakfast, its
loud metallic voice crashing through the belfry overhead and into our sensitive ears.
The annoying clatter of shoes on the bare floors gave us no peace. (88–9)
Here is the logic of incorporation at its most pernicious. For the Indian, the incorporation process meant a radical reordering of bodily perception in accord with a single
set of norms for “thinking, knowing, skillful, tasteful American citizens.”
Mass Media and Literary Culture
Through her retrospective narrative analysis, of course, Zitkala-Ša undercuts these
norms by relativizing them – they become the demands of a destructive “civilizing
machine” (96). Even as she demonstrates mastery of English literary codes, she uses
that mastery to recast her English education as merely one cultural dialect among
others (albeit a dominant – and dominating – one). Her education rests on an epistemology of disorientation as profound as that uncovered by Howells, Crane, or
Adams. But crucially, the disruptive sensory experience at the heart of Zitkala-Ša’s
narrative is the product of neither analytic excess nor mass media ferment. Rather, it
is a primal scene of sensory dispossession that colors her very participation in literary
culture with what we might call an analytic of melancholy and loss. Her words imaginatively evoke “other possibilities of existence,” to borrow Vattimo’s phrase. But they
do so not with the chance of extending the borders of what is possible to realize in
everyday life but in order to memorialize the lost world encoded in her original sensorium, the generative ensemble of sight, sound, and touch that had been the somatic
inheritance of her Dakota childhood.
There is no known evidence that Henry James read Zitkala-Ša’s pieces in Harper’s
and the Atlantic (although he published in the Atlantic in the same year in which her
essay was published). But in his most sustained meditation on literary disorientation,
The American Scene (1907), the figure of the Native American triggers a profound
instance of productive discomposure. Visiting the United States after many years
abroad, James is struck most by the “acute demand for display” (314) that seems to
emanate from every visible object, surface, and body in the American “scene.” His
analysis of the pervasive “air of publicity, publicity as a condition, as a doom” (364),
anticipates Vattimo’s description of the media society, the milieu in which the hunger
of the “information ‘market’” demands that “everything somehow become an object
of communication” (6). James does not attempt to disguise his feelings of “ ‘lettered’
anguish” (470) at these conditions. They have pushed to the margins the kind of literary sensibility that defines who he is and what he values – the grammar and syntax
informing his understanding of the world. The polyglot populations of American
cities, too, bespeak the decline of the “linguistic tradition as one had known it” (471).
No other work in American literature shows as acutely how economic incorporation,
for all its energies of hierarchy and control, actually served to break up a prevailing
understanding of “[l]iterature as the primary reservoir of humanity’s historical spirit”
(Cochran 29).
For James, literary dispossession means a discomfiting vulnerability to “ ‘modernity,’ with its terrible power of working its will” (484). But immersed in the very
crucible of American publicity, he also comes to recognize that the shocks delivered
to a “surrendered consciousness” (452) can generate new kinds of knowledge. After
leaving behind the clamor of New York City and Philadelphia for Washington, DC,
he initially feels a measure of calm when he takes in the solemn monuments of the
Capitol and its surrounding grounds. These “sensibly massive” forms seem to dispel
the disorienting profusion of signals he experienced in other American cities. Here
all he surveys seems to transmit the same “sweeping purpose” drawn forth and
Nancy Bentley
directed by the state: the prospect of “the great Federal future.” The sudden appearance of “a trio of Indian braves,” however, shatters this monumentalized vista,
tearing open the composed scene of national futurity with the intrusion of a violent
history (652).
The men themselves are not figures of the past. On the contrary, it is their obvious
modernity – in wearing bowler hats and carrying photographs and tobacco, they
remind James of “Japanese celebrities” – that seems to rupture the scene. These
Indians are neither literary objects (they defy “a mind fed betimes on the
Leatherstocking Tales”) nor cinematic red men. Rather, they are subjects – not merely
objects – of a media society and its disordered trafficking of images (as well as “specimens, on show,” James adds dryly, “of what the Government can do with people with
whom it is supposed able to do nothing”). And it is as subjects of disjunctive modern
publicity and state power that the Indians shatter the “great Federal future” with a
flashback image of a violent past.
They seemed just then and there . . . to project as in a flash an image in itself immense,
but foreshortened and simplified – reducing to a single smooth stride the bloody footsteps of time. One rubbed one’s eyes, but there, at its highest polish, shining in the
beautiful day, was the brazen face of history, and there, all about one, immaculate, the
printless pavements of the state. (652–3)
Amid uncomprehending monuments to futurity, the shock of the encounter opens a
new form of access to the violence of history. Although national historiography and
literary tradition are sealed to this flashback vision, the sight of these “brazen” new
figures allows James’s literary analysis to uncover what the state has buried under its
spacious grounds and “printless pavements.” The brave new world of media dialects
will not be immune to perpetuating the injuries of history, but its ungoverned play
of images may still allow sensory experience that erupts from the past as well as new
glimpses of future publics.
References and Further Reading
Adams, Henry. The Education of Henry Adams. In
Henry Adams, Novels, Mont Saint Michel, The
Education. Ed. Ernest Samuels. New York:
Library of America, 1983.
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Trans. Harry
Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.
Bentley, Nancy. Frantic Panoramas: American
Literature and Mass Culture, 1870–1920. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.
Brown, Bill. The Material Unconscious: American
Amusement, Stephen Crane, and the Economies of Play.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,
Cochran, Terry. Twilight of the Literary: Figures of
Thought in the Age of Print. Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 2001.
Gitelman, Lisa. Always Already New: Media,
History, and the Data of Culture. Cambridge, MA:
MIT Press, 2006.
Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of
the Public Sphere. Trans. Thomas Burger.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989.
Mass Media and Literary Culture
Hansen, Miriam. Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in
American Silent Film. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 1991.
Howells, William Dean. Criticism and Fiction, and
Other Essays. New York: New York University
Press, 1959.
Howells, William Dean. A Hazard of New Fortunes.
New York: Penguin, 2001.
Howells, William Dean. Literature and Life. New
York: Harper, 1902.
James, Henry. “Alphonse Daudet.” In Literary
Criticism. Vol. 2. Ed. Leon Edel. New York:
Library of America, 1984.
James, Henry. The American Scene. In Collected Travel
Writings: Great Britain and America. Ed. Richard
Howard. New York: Library of America, 1993.
James, Henry. “The Future of the Novel.” In
Literary Criticism. Vol. 1. Ed. Leon Edel. New
York: Library of America, 1984.
James, Henry. In the Cage. In Complete Stories 1892–
1898. Eds. David Bromwich and John
Hollander. New York: Library of America,
James, Henry. “The Question of the Opportunities.”
In Literary Criticism. Vol. 1. Ed. Leon Edel. New
York: Library of America, 1984.
Kaplan, Amy. The Social Construction of American
Realism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
Kracauer, Siegfried. The Mass Ornament: Weimar
Essays. Trans. Thomas Y. Levin. Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.
Lee, Hermione. Edith Wharton. New York: Vintage,
Michaels, Walter Benn. The Gold Standard and the
Logic of Naturalism. Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1988.
Norris, Frank. Novels and Essays. Ed. Donald Pizer.
New York: Library of America, 1986.
Rancière, Jacques. The Politics of Aesthetics. Trans.
Gabriel Rockhill. New York: Continuum,
Starr, Paul. The Creation of the Media: Political
Origins of Modern Communications. New York:
Basic Books, 2004.
Stewart, Jacqueline Najuma. Migrating to the
Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.
Trachtenberg, Alan. The Incorporation of America:
Culture and Society in the Gilded Age. New York:
Hill and Wang, 1982.
Vattimo, Gianni. The Transparent Society. Trans.
David Webb. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
University Press, 1992.
Wharton, Edith. Novellas and Other Writings. Ed.
Cynthia Griffin Wolff. New York: Library of
America, 1990.
Zitkala-Ša (Gertrude Bonnin). American Indian
Stories, Legends, and Other Writings. Eds. Cathy N.
Davidson and Ada Norris. New York: Penguin,
Part II
Cabeza de Vaca, Lope de Oviedo,
and Americas Exceptionalism
Anna Brickhouse
The last two decades have seen an increasing familiarity among Americanists with
the extraordinary narrative of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, a sixteenth-century
Spaniard who was wrecked off the coast of Florida during the failed expedition of
Pánfilo de Narváez in 1527.1 Over a decade before Hernando de Soto’s famous crossing of the Mississippi River, Cabeza de Vaca traveled for eight years across presentday Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, living among
different coastal and inland indigenous groups before he and three fellow castaways
made a stunning reappearance in Nueva Galicia (north-central Mexico) to the surprise
of the Spanish forces newly stationed there. But if the broad outline of this remarkable story has grown increasingly familiar, few readers of Cabeza de Vaca’s account
will recall the name of Lope de Oviedo, a castaway from the same expedition who
also survived the initial attempt led by Narváez to explore inland Florida – and
who, like the author, also wound up living among a coastal group of Floridian
Natives. Unlike Cabeza de Vaca, Lope de Oviedo never produced a written account
of his experiences, nor was he ever “delivered” from his indigenous life or restored
to his Spanish compatriots. In fact, we know little about him. Lope de Oviedo
makes only a few brief appearances in Cabeza de Vaca’s account before he abruptly
disappears from the text, and even among specialists his marginal role in this
much-studied narrative has attracted little or no attention. Yet the elusive presence
of Lope de Oviedo holds in many ways the interpretive key to Cabeza de Vaca’s
Relación. As I hope to show here, Lope de Oviedo provides the account with its most
crucial narrative alibi while also embodying the story that Cabeza de Vaca sought
most anxiously not to tell: the story of a man’s indigenous acculturation in the New
A Companion to American Literary Studies, First Edition. Edited by Caroline F. Levander,
Robert S. Levine.
© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2011 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Anna Brickhouse
World and his subsequent choice not to return to life among the Spaniards. As a
minor figure in the Relación, Lope de Oviedo provides Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative
with an indispensable justification for the narrator’s own delay in returning to his
European life. But Lope de Oviedo’s story, which is never explicitly told within the
narrative and yet reverberates through it, compellingly undermines the narrator’s
most emphatic claims about what he called his “sad and wretched captivity” in
North America (Adorno and Pautz 1:244–5).
More broadly, Lope de Oviedo bears a certain conceptual weight for American literary studies to the extent that most scholarship has consigned him to oblivion. His
thwarted, never-realized narrative trajectory – toward indigeneity without return –
ultimately represents the limits of not only Cabeza de Vaca’s discourse but also our
own. In this sense, the strange tension between the celebrated Cabeza de Vaca and
this often overlooked marginal character offers an oblique but clarifying perspective
on the current state of the Americanist field in the wake of the so-called hemispheric
turn in American literary studies. Indeed, Lope de Oviedo’s very marginality might
be productively reconsidered in light of the emergence of Cabeza de Vaca himself as
an icon of early American literature.
The Relación’s expanded critical presence within American literary studies is due
in large part to a groundbreaking critical edition published in 1999 by Rolena Adorno
and Patrick Charles Pautz as The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca. Even as early as 1994,
however, the account showed signs of exceeding its central position within Latin
American colonial studies, appearing that year in excerpted English translation in The
Norton Anthology of American Literature. Since then, Cabeza de Vaca has found a place
in each new edition of the Norton – and not only in the extensive offerings included
in Volume A: Beginnings to 1820, but also in the shorter, one-volume Norton Anthology
that covers only the “core strengths” in American literary history from the “beginnings” to the turn into the twenty-first century. The Relación is now a hallmark text
of the early American literary tradition, in other words, and as such it has offered to
the field a useful signpost for the literary-historiographical and pedagogical renovation
announced by the hemispheric approach: asking us to acknowledge – as we have done,
perhaps too glibly – that “American” literature is not necessarily written in English,
and that “America” itself does not refer solely to the United States but to the wider
hemisphere from which the name was appropriated. At the same time, because many
of the events represented in the text take place in Florida and the southwest of what
is currently the United States, the Relación conveniently allows the field to retain the
retroactive territorial logic that continues, with few exceptions, to define the colonial
period (see Bauer, “Early American” 254).
In this sense, the Relación provides an index of not only how much but also how
little has changed as a result of the hemispheric turn. As Bauer observes, hemispheric
American studies is for the most part still driven by the same “multiculturalist metanarrative” that dominated before the emergence of an Americas approach to American
literary history (“Early American” 254). Certainly, Cabeza de Vaca’s trajectory as a
critical figure would seem to bear out this claim, given that he has been distinctly
Cabeza de Vaca and Americas Exceptionalism
celebrated by American literary studies for the criticism of the Spanish colonizers and
the implied opposition to Spanish violence against the Natives that he famously voices
at the end of his Relación, where he self-consciously presents himself returning from
his New World captivity with a powerfully changed identity, and a putative understanding of and proximity to the indigenous inhabitants of Florida and northern
Mexico. In the early 1990s, accordingly, Cabeza de Vaca was lauded as the virtual
inventor of “Chicano narrative,” the inaugurator of a new autobiographical mode in
which “ambiguity, the essence of Chicanismo, is already present” (Leal 64; see also
Bruce-Novoa 12–21). Later critics followed this lead, dubbing him “the first Latino
author . . . an intercultural man creating an intergeneric literary form” (Augenbraum
4). By the first decade of the twenty-first century, not surprisingly, the purported
chicanismo and latinidad of Cabeza de Vaca’s Relación had evolved into the marks of its
mainstream and representative Americanness, its status as “the first truly literary
document of the Americas, written by a European who has been changed by his
American experiences” (Augenbraum 4). In this light, its narrator emerges as “a
curious and debatable hybrid . . . [a]nticipating many later heroes and heroines in
American literature” (Gray 25); in “becoming American by experience,” Cabeza de
Vaca creates, “in essence, the story of America” itself (Reséndez, A Land So Strange
10). In these accounts, Cabeza de Vaca emerges heroically as a “literary pioneer [who
not only] deserves the distinction of being called the Southwest’s first writer,” but
also indeed provides the “prototype of much American writing to come” (Reséndez
250, citing William T. Pilkington).
If such critical accounts retain a multicultural logic now often disavowed, they
also serve to enable the early American field’s continuing focus on New England,
simply by establishing Cabeza de Vaca as an exemplary prototype – whether Chicano,
southwestern, hybrid, or hemispheric – against which the entire Anglo-American
tradition may be unflatteringly measured. Thus, in The Cambridge History of American
Literature, Cabeza de Vaca serves as a benevolent foil to his seventeenth-century
counterpart, Mary Rowlandson, the Puritan ex-captive author of the enormously
popular narrative The Sovereignty and Goodness of God (1682). While Rowlandson fails
at cross-cultural identification, “insist[ing] that she has been transported beyond the
human pale,” Cabeza de Vaca recognizes “linguistic difference” and thereby “makes
[the Indians] commensurate with himself, people with whom he can communicate,
if not always actually, then potentially” (Jehlen 50). Cabeza de Vaca’s quintessential
American strength in such accounts is his ability to “occupy a border area between
one culture, one version of experience, and another”: he and the three fellow captives
who accompany him are “mixed, New World beings . . . and their tale, finally,
is about neither conquest nor captivity but about the making of Americans”
(Gray 25).
But if American literary studies has found an ideal representative in Cabeza de
Vaca for advertising the field’s self-avowedly comparative and antinationalist configurations – a literary-historical conversation that is aiming, now more self-consciously
than ever, to become not only multicultural but also multilingual – scholars in
Anna Brickhouse
colonial Latin American studies have emphasized other, more faithfully historical
interpretive contexts for the Relación, particularly its participation in the new discourse
of imperial “pacification” and its function as the author’s “narrative curriculum vitae”
for a leadership role in future conquests (see Adorno, “Introduction” 25; Bauer,
Cultural Geography 33–48; Rabasa 31–2). The Cabeza de Vaca of these studies appears
as a figure wholly unlike the celebrated border dweller of American literary studies.
This more fully historicized Cabeza de Vaca – the one seen from the vantage of colonial
Latin American literary history – is no oppositional hero: instead, his call for a “peaceful” colonization in seeming opposition to the greedy, slave-catching conquistadors
in Nueva Galicia appears not only utterly conventional and in keeping with emergent
Spanish imperial policy but also quite self-serving given his interest in future colonial
endeavors and his eventual, short-lived appointment as governor of the South American
colony Rio de Plata, where – in a painful irony for the most part lost on American
literary history – he was ultimately arrested under allegations of (among other things)
mistreatment of the Indians (see Bauer, Cultural Geography 36–46; Pupo-Walker 129).
In this light, to read Cabeza de Vaca as an icon of early American multiculturalism
is at best absurd, and at worst, as José Rabasa argues, a kind of scholarly “perpetuat[ion
of] the culture of conquest” (31; and see Ferens) – or, at the least, a reinscription of
its rhetorical violence.
In the reading that follows, I take a different approach to Cabeza de Vaca and
to the question of what his narrative may ultimately have to tell us about American
literary studies, both its current hemispheric impulses and its future potentials.
My argument centers around the premise that Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative is the
repository for a story that he only partially tells, a story that never achieves form
within the larger Relación and its epic elaboration of its own authorial protagonist
as a suffering hero returned from the primitive wilderness to protest a civilization
that he now finds flawed. This more “literary” Cabeza de Vaca (see Adorno,
“Negotiation” 50) emerges in part through the narrative’s suppression of a living
person and historical agent – that is, through the story’s elision of Lope de Oviedo
as the marginal figure of a narrative tangent. But the never formalized story surrounding this transient character – which begins, I think, before Lope de Oviedo
has even entered the narrative – evokes a range of interrelated issues, a kind of
unspoken theoretical problematic, that organizes the hemispheric American field:
an abiding structure of Western literary primitivism that continues to shape our
(mis)readings, including a critical romanticization of the captivity genre that ultimately conceals its most radical possibilities; a scholarly mystification of translational mastery that elides the role of the interpreter and the ever-present possibility
of mistranslation; and the almost inevitable academic enlistment of those foundational points of exclusion that guide what we can and cannot see, what we remember and forget. In this sense, Cabeza de Vaca’s example suggests the extent to
which the field’s alleged triumph over American exceptionalism has been a mere
reconfiguration. The result – what I am calling Americas exceptionalism – is central
to how we continue to define the epistemological sophistication, the ethical cre-
Cabeza de Vaca and Americas Exceptionalism
dentials, and the continued modernity of our scholarly work through gestures of
inclusive exclusion.
First published in 1542, and addressed to King Charles I of Spain (Charles V of the
Holy Roman Empire), Cabeza de Vaca’s Relación presents a firsthand account of the
main events comprising the failed expedition in Florida led by Pánfilo de Narváez:
the departure from Cadiz, Spain, with 300 men, and with Cabeza de Vaca serving as
their crown treasurer; the intervening stops in Hispaniola, Cuba, and Trinidad; sea
voyages and storms; an abortive attempt to enter Florida on horseback after leaving
the ships behind; and, finally, the experience of what the narrator terms a captivity
among the indigenous peoples of Florida and later northern Mexico before he and
three fellow castaways arrive in Nueva Galicia. Crucial to the failed outcome of the
expedition is Narváez’s self-interested abdication of authority in the worst moment
of crisis, when the Spaniards on shore are attempting to return to their ships on precarious rafts. The problem, as the narrative stages it, is a conflict between cowardly
selfishness (as enacted by Narváez, who flees in the best equipped raft) and an honorable collectivism (as embodied by Cabeza de Vaca, who attends to the sick and
wounded after his own raft is left behind). The narrator insists so straightforwardly
upon this conflict between cowardice and honor, individualism and corporatism, that
it is easy to overlook an arguably more telling conflict that slips into the narrative at
this moment before quickly receding.
Just after Narváez’s abdication of leadership, the group left behind is stranded
without a raft, “naked as the day [they] were born,” and weak from cold and hunger.
Cabeza de Vaca, having chased down a group of coastal Natives – and having, he
avows, “made them understand through gestures how a raft had sunk on us and three
members of our company drowned” – now proposes a possible course of action: “I
asked the Christians and said that, if it seemed acceptable to them, I would ask those
Indians to take us to their houses” (Adorno and Pautz 1:98–101). The narrative never
fully addresses the implications of the proposed plan, but the attempt to solicit group
approval here suggests the gravity of the proposition – as does the response it elicits:
“And some of them who had been in New Spain replied that we should not even
speak of it” (1:100–1). In the ensuing lines, Cabeza de Vaca both undermines and
strategically reframes the intensity of this refusal by noting that his companions’
reaction derives, erroneously, from the soldiers’ experiences in New Spain during the
conquest of Mexico and their consequent belief that “if [the Indians] took us to their
houses, they would sacrifice us to their idols.” This gesture toward the misguided
nature of their fears effectively directs attention away from the fact that his proposal
has somehow marked a discursive limit of sorts, arriving at or implying what cannot
be said. Cabeza de Vaca ultimately abandons the pretense of consensus and concedes
that he “did not heed their words, but rather beseeched the Indians to take us to their
houses” – a request in which the Natives apparently “showed that they took great
pleasure” (1:100–1). Given the vehemence of the Spaniards’ objection, the disagreement proves oddly fleeting within the larger account. Indeed, the narrative moves
Anna Brickhouse
quickly past it precisely because the moment speaks elliptically but unmistakably to
the most difficult problem within Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative: how to explain not just
the fact but also, far more problematically, the apparent choice of his entrée into native
life – how to tell the story of what is essentially a requested captivity.
The ensuing narrative repeatedly describes what cannot be specified as consensual
bondage. After the Indians are “beseeched” to do so, they convey the Spaniards into
ostensible imprisonment: “close to nightfall . . . they took us, and by their carrying
us by clutching us tightly and making great haste, we went to their houses . . . so
rapidly that they almost did not let our feet touch the ground” (1:100–1). As Cabeza
de Vaca continues, memorably detailing the circumstances of his new life among these
Florida Natives, the narrative works assiduously to explain not only what the experience of indigeneity was like but also – less directly yet far more urgently – why he
found it necessary to remain among the Indians as long as he did. A telling moment
occurs in the narrative when another group of stranded Narváez explorers, led by
Andrés Dorantes and Alonso del Castillo, arrives in Cabeza de Vaca’s village, precipitating a scene of distraught recognition – a scene that oddly parallels and presages
the famous moment of misrecognition that occurs at the end of the account and precipitates Cabeza de Vaca’s permanent return to his Spanish identity. In this early scene,
Dorantes and Castillo appear to have no trouble recognizing Cabeza de Vaca and the
Spaniards with him, but they are disturbed by what they perceive: “Upon encountering us, they received great fright to see us in the condition we were in” (1:102–3).
Yet by this point in their requested captivity, Cabeza de Vaca and his fellow cautivos
have, by his own account, been well fed and “treated . . . so well” that they are far
less uncomfortable than before they entered into bondage. Thus, their visible “condition” – which gives Dorantes and Castillo “great sorrow,” particularly their nakedness,
because they have “no clothing other than what they were wearing” to offer them –
must have been marked not by their general misfortune but by the signs, instead, of
an incipient assimilation (1:102–3; see Molloy 447). Once we begin to see the narrative’s oblique gestures toward this incipience – which remains unarticulated because
the narrator himself “should not,” or cannot, “even speak of it” – other signs of
ambivalence emerge. No sooner has Cabeza de Vaca “agreed . . . to go forward [to]
the land of Christians” with the combined groups of Spaniards than he has also convinced them to stay, having “decided to do what necessity dictated, which was to
spend the winter there” (1:104–5). Indeed, the entire middle portion of the account
seems to revolve around this tension between leaving and remaining: between traveling
along the Gulf coast to the intended destination at the Pánuco settlement in New
Spain and residing in Florida with the Natives.
Not surprisingly, then, the account grows tense and muddled when Dorantes and
Castillo finally take the initiative in unifying the 14 castaways, “gather[ing] together
all the Christians who were somewhat dispersed,” to travel together along the coast
toward Pánuco (1:116–7). The narrative’s palpable challenge here is the production
of a coherent rationale, for Cabeza de Vaca, rather than going with Dorantes and
Castillo, lingers on with the group whom he now calls “my Indians”:
Cabeza de Vaca and Americas Exceptionalism
As I have said, I was on the other side, on the mainland, where my Indians had taken
me and where a great sickness had befallen me, such that if any other thing were to
give me hope of survival, that illness alone sufficed to deprive me of it altogether. And
when the Christians found this out, they gave to an Indian [a] cloak of sable skins . . . so
that he would cross over to where I was to see me. And thus twelve of them came. . . .
After they had crossed, the Indians who held me informed me of it, and of how
Jerónimo de Alaniz and Lope de Oviedo had remained on the island. My sickness prevented me from following them, nor did I see them. I had to remain with these same
Indians from the island for more than a year, and because of the great labors they forced
me to perform and the bad treatment they gave me, I resolved to flee from them and
go to those who live in the forests and on the mainland. (1:116–19)
In a passage whose most salient feature is its overdetermination, Cabeza de Vaca
articulates a range of contradictory reasons for not joining the Dorantes and Castillo
group: he is separated by distance from the group, he is too ill to travel with them,
the illness has left him with too little hope of survival to care about leaving, he doesn’t
know the group is leaving until the Indians inform him of it, and, once again, his
illness prevents him – and he never saw the departing Spaniards in the first place.
Interspersed within this frantic litany of the multiple, individually sufficient, and
collectively self-cancelling causes of his remaining is the significant information that
the group has tried unsuccessfully to bring Cabeza de Vaca back into the fold by
sending an Indian messenger. As the narrator puts it somewhat paradoxically, Cabeza
de Vaca “had to remain” until he “resolved to flee” – not to the Spaniards, however,
but to another group of Indians.
Lope de Oviedo emerges precisely when the narrative reaches a kind of crisis point
in maintaining its logic as a captivity narrative. Recounting his circumstances after
the departure of the Dorantes and Castillo group, Cabeza de Vaca offers a vivid description of his own evolving role as a “merchant” within the indigenous groups among
which he lives and travels, gathering extensive knowledge as he trades. On the one
hand, this occupation confers an obvious narrative advantage, endowing the Relación
with a value that may be offered to Charles I in lieu of any material wealth brought
back to Spain: it becomes evidence of his superior knowledge, as he puts it in his
opening address to the king, of precisely the sort of “information [that is] not trivial
for those who in your name might go to conquer those lands” (1:18–19). But Cabeza
de Vaca’s role as a merchant also serves him well in the temporal moment of the
because practicing it, I had the freedom to go wherever I wanted, and I was not constrained in any way nor enslaved, and wherever I went they treated me well and gave
me food out of want for my wares, and most importantly because doing that, I was able
to seek out the way by which I would go forward. (1:120–1)
If this passage establishes the freedom of the protagonist, which in turn enables the
production of the narrative’s knowledge-value, it also presents an unsettling generic
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problem for the larger story of captivity. Cabeza de Vaca clearly understands this on
some level, for he qualifies this description of his unlimited personal liberty and protection from the problem of hunger during his life among the Indians via a single
but telling phrase – “most importantly” (‘lo más principal’ 1:120) – that suggests
that leaving his indigenous life is his first priority. It is a priority – “to seek out the
way by which I could go forward” – that nevertheless finds only the vaguest articulation even in this retrospective telling of his story. As the narrator concedes within a
few sentences, “The time that I spent in this land, alone among [the Natives] and as
naked as they, was nearly six years” (1:122–3).
This bald statement breaks abruptly into the narrative almost as if someone outside
the text – for example, an official recording his legal declaration – had just posed the
question directly: how long did you remain there? And, of course, Cabeza de Vaca
presumably was asked exactly that question when he gave his sworn testimony, along
with Dorantes and Castillo, for the Joint Report prepared in Mexico City in 1536
upon his return to life among Spaniards – six full years before the initial publication
of the Relación. He was also almost certainly asked a related question during the production of this now-lost report – a question of potentially shattering implications – for
he explicitly answers it in the next and perhaps most ambiguous section of the
The reason I stayed so long was to take with me a Christian who was on the island,
named Lope de Oviedo. His companion, de Alaniz, who had stayed with him when
Alonso del Castillo and Andrés Dorantes left with all the others, had since died. And
in order to take him out of there, I crossed over to the island every year and begged
that we go, in the best manner that we could, in search of Christians. And every year
he kept me from going, saying that we would go the following year. In the end I took
him. And I carried him across the inlet and four rivers that are along the coast, because
he did not know how to swim. And thus we went forward with some
Indians. . . . (1:122–3)
The scenario oddly mirrors the earlier description of Cabeza de Vaca’s failure to leave
with the Castillo-Dorantes party, with the narrator now taking the part of the
traveling group and crossing over between island and mainland to urge a departure.
What remains ambiguous in the passage – precisely when one would expect the clarity
presumably associated with longstanding disagreement and cajoling – is exactly why
Lope de Oviedo wants to remain among the Indians and why Cabeza de Vaca agrees
to wait for him. To add to the confusion, given that the castaway in question is an
expeditionary of lesser rank (whom Cabeza de Vaca has previously commanded as a
superior), the narrative’s assertion that Lope de Oviedo repeatedly “kept [him] from
going” appears downright dubious. On the other hand, Lope de Oviedo provides the
narrative with precisely the scapegoat that is required for explaining why its protagonist “stayed so long.”
By the time Cabeza de Vaca reunites with Dorantes, Castillo, and Estevanico – the
only three survivors of the party that had earlier left him behind – Lope de Oviedo
Cabeza de Vaca and Americas Exceptionalism
is no longer there to corroborate or deny the story that we now have. For after Cabeza
de Vaca has taken the subordinate expeditionary with him – whether by persuasion
or force – the entourage encounters a new group of hostile Indians from whom they
hear frightening tales and receive “slaps and blows” as well as threats:
And fearing this, Lope de Oviedo, my companion, said that he wanted to go back with
some women of those Indians with whom we had crossed the inlet. . . . I entreated him
repeatedly not to do it, and I pointed out many things, but I was unable to detain him
by any means. And thus he returned and I remained alone with those Indians.
Lope de Oviedo’s purported cowardice, like his inability to swim, allows the narrative
to showcase the narrator’s bravery as it earlier established his selflessness – while also
providing, of course, a convenient cover for Cabeza de Vaca’s extended stay among
the Indians. But Lope de Oviedo is also a kind of doppelgänger, and when he departs
the Relación, he acts out the narrative trajectory that Cabeza de Vaca must anxiously
abjure: a return to the Indian life that they had both manifestly resisted leaving.
Lope de Oviedo’s untold story thus shadows the conclusion of Cabeza de Vaca’s
narrative, and his eventual return to the Spaniards, on multiple levels. Whether it is
the protagonist or his marginal double who truly achieves deliverance from the “sad
and wretched . . . captivity” is left open to debate given that the final pages of the
Relación explicitly call into question the meaning of freedom. As the narrator observes
with painful irony, “[I]t is evident how much men’s thoughts deceive them, for we
went to [the Spaniards] seeking liberty, and when we thought we had it, it turned
out to be so much to the contrary” (1:252–3). In the most general sense, the remark
suggests the extent to which Cabeza de Vaca’s New World experiences have brought
into sharp relief the deceptive, culturally relative nature of liberty. More specifically,
however, this remark points to the active suspicion under which Cabeza de Vaca’s
return was held by the Spaniards who encountered him in Nueva Galicia: the ostensibly returning castaways are treated, in fact, as a threat to Spanish security, “sent . . . off
under the guard of an alcalde” and “remove[d] . . . from conversation with the
Indians” with whom they had been traveling (1:252–3). Cabeza de Vaca casts this
turn of events as an outrageous consequence of the Spaniards’ greedy plot to continue
enslaving Indians, a plot that was, at the time he produced the Relación, illegal under
Spanish imperial policy – and that therefore presents a conveniently unsanctioned foil
against which to position his own credentials as the best potential representative of
royal Spanish interests, the most effective “pacifier” (rather than enslaver) of the
At the same time, the narrator’s purported outrage at the intended enslavement of
Indians – an outlawed but nevertheless ubiquitous Spanish practice that could hardly
have surprised him – provides the account with a kind of digressive alibi for the
threatening figure that the Spaniards clearly understood Cabeza de Vaca to embody
– and also, perhaps, with a kind of narrative mystification of the enduring problem
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of his journey: why he and his three fellow castaways chose to leave the coastline once
they had nearly reached their intended destination in Pánuco, forging ahead into the
unknown interior of North America where they had no reason to believe they would
ever find Spaniards. In casting its protagonist as a kind of conscientious objector who
suffers for his principles of pacification, in other words, the narrative subtly draws our
attention away from the very possibility that the Spaniards in Nueva Galicia seem to
have had in mind when they put Cabeza de Vaca under guard and separated him from
the indigenous group with which he traveled: that he was not necessarily attempting
to return to the Spaniards when he encountered them, quite by chance, in northern
Ultimately, the primary narrative work of the Relación may be precisely this performance of distraction. In attending to the text’s virtuosic shifting of the reader’s
attention away from the obvious – away from the story that his account has been
almost, but not quite, telling all along – we gain a useful vantage on the legacy of
primitivism that (as I’ll suggest below) defines the current scholarly predicament of
Americas exceptionalism. The Relación achieves its distractive performance and accomplishes a now-celebrated feat of self-mythologizing by presenting a foundational story
of Western modernity: the enduring plot of “going native.” This narrative trajectory
is not, to be clear, Lope de Oviedo’s, for the narrative structure of Western literary
primitivism demands the narrator’s positioning within civilization as its mode of
contrast, its production of a return with a difference. It is thus Cabeza de Vaca’s manifestly changed identity – perceived by Spaniards and Indians alike – that differentiates
him from, and consolidates the narrative’s suppression of, Lope de Oviedo, who merely
remains in his life among the Indians with nothing to show for it. Unlike Lope de
Oviedo, Cabeza de Vaca performs toward the end of the Relación upon a stage designed
to showcase his postcaptivity difference as the manifest sign of his superiority over
the Spaniards who have arrested and detained him. Rather than state the protagonist’s
emergent superiority outright, the narrative slyly ventriloquizes it through the speech
of the Indians of Nueva Galicia, whom the Spaniards are underhandedly seeking to
The Christians [in Nueva Galicia] . . . made their interpreter tell [the Indians] that we
were of the same people as they . . . and that we were a people of ill fortune and no
worth, and that they were lords of the land whom the Indians were to serve and obey.
But of all this the Indians were only superficially or not at all convinced of what they
told them. Rather, some talked with others among themselves, saying that the Christians
were lying, because we came from where the sun rose, and they from where it set; and
that we cured the sick, and that they killed those who were well; and that we came
naked and barefoot, and they went about dressed and on horses with lances; and that
we did not covet anything but rather, everything they gave us we later returned and
remained with nothing, and that the others had no objective but to steal everything
that they found. . . . Finally, it was not possible to convince the Indians that we were
the same as the other Christians. (1:250–1)
Cabeza de Vaca and Americas Exceptionalism
The last seven lines of the passage are probably the narrative’s most famous. As
many readers have observed, Cabeza de Vaca’s use of the first-person plural pronoun
has dramatically shifted by this point in the narrative, marking what seems to be
almost a categorical separation from the Spaniards or “Christians.” In a series of
antithetical parallelisms emphasized with anaphora and asyndeton, this highly rhetorical speech pronounces Cabeza de Vaca’s divinely ordained transformation: a
Jesus-like man who hails naked and barefoot from the East, cures the sick, gives
from his poverty – and, crucially, a man with whom the Indians identify and to
whom they look as a spiritual leader. In the “sad and wretched” process of going
native, the narrative argues, Cabeza de Vaca has achieved profoundly Christian
results. But the scene also achieves a secular payoff through the narrative’s larger
structure of primitivism: its endowment of the protagonist with the marks of his
surpassing modernity vis-à-vis not only the narrative’s guileless and loyal Indians
but also the Nueva Galicia Spaniards who mistrust Cabeza de Vaca – and with
whose testimony he is essentially in competition as a writer. The moment in which
the narrative establishes Cabeza de Vaca’s experience of having gone native – registered in the Indians’ refusal to recognize his Spanishness, or even the potential
imperial similitude between him and the “other Christians” – is central to the
process of the protagonist’s subject formation: Cabeza de Vaca emerges as a modern
man defined specifically by his commitment to the royal law against robbing and
mistreating the Indians and by a cross-cultural understanding that is not only more
capacious and humane as a result of his primitivism but also, to the Indians as
much as to readers, utterly transparent. By contrast, the narrative captures the
failed modernity of the Nueva Galicia Spaniards in their inability to successfully
translate themselves and their point of view to the Indians.
It is at this key point in the narrative that Cabeza de Vaca directly addresses the
problem of failed translation for the first time in the Relación and, in doing so, raises
more general questions about the coercive and opaque nature of the translation process
itself. Up to this point, the narrative has featured numerous episodes of translation,
scenes of communication between Spaniards and Indians, all of which have unfolded
smoothly, whether via words or gestures. Here, however, the Nueva Galicia Spaniards
have “made their interpreter” present their case, and still the Indians believe that “the
Christians were lying.” Yet the narrative’s qualification that the Indians were “only
superficially or not at all convinced of what [the Spaniards] told them” introduces a
note of ambiguity that is hard to reconcile with its larger argument about Cabeza de
Vaca’s own cross-cultural prowess and ability to produce transparent communication
of meaning. How can the reception of a translation be known and evaluated except
by the interpreter – for that matter, how can reception be accurately gauged even by
the interpreter, who can only know what the target audience chooses to reveal about
his or her reception of information? The distinction between the acceptance and the
rejection of a translated proposition appears to be as unverifiable as the process of translation itself.
Anna Brickhouse
In the ensuing pages, Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative begins to make unprecedented
concessions regarding the strains and burdens of translation, the possibility of its
failure, and his own limited place within a larger translational chain involving multiple languages and interpreters. He and his fellow returning castaways now find
themselves, at times, less than persuasive in their interpretive roles, such as when he
admits, “We had great difficulty convincing the Indians to return to their homes and
secure themselves and sow their maize” (1:248–9). Similarly, when Melchior Díaz,
the alcalde mayor, asks Cabeza de Vaca to help with recalcitrant Indians by “hav[ing]
them called together and order[ing] them on behalf of God and Your Majesty to come
and settle the plain and work the land,” the narrative emphasizes the protagonist’s
indispensability in bringing success to the conquest, but nevertheless concedes a
significant problem: “To us this seemed very difficult to put into effect, because we
did not bring any Indian of ours or any of those who usually accompanied us and were
skilled in these matters” (1:254–5). The skills in question are, of course, those of
translation; lacking an indigenous interpreter, Cabeza de Vaca apparently worries
about his ability to deliver on the implied promise of controlling the Indians.
This difficulty of communication, however, is quickly resolved into a scene of
seamless understanding by means of another translative chain. Here again the narrative acknowledges the mediation of native interpreters – but recasts this mediation
as a mystifying effect of Cabeza de Vaca’s own authority, made manifest when the
Indians held captive by the Spaniards first learn about him:
these Indians had been with the Christians when we first arrived to them, and they saw
the [600 Indians] who accompanied us and learned from them about the great authority
and influence that through all those lands we had possessed and exercised, and the
wonders that we had worked and the sick people we had cured. (1:254–7)
Cabeza de Vaca’s reputation, in other words, precedes him: by merely arriving on the
scene, this redeemed captive (and pretender to future colonial authority) introduces a
model of successful, transparent, and utterly persuasive communication with the
Indians. The series of interpreters acting on Cabeza de Vaca’s behalf proceeds to
address all the Indians and explain Christian theology in some detail before pronouncing the terms of the Spaniards’ demands. The Indian masses, who have heretofore
been avoiding the Spaniards, remarkably respond “that they understood everything
very well and . . . that thus they would do it as we commanded it” (1:258–61). By
his own account, moreover, Cabeza de Vaca uses these powers of communication to
“secure” the 600 indigenous people with whom he has been traveling as well as those
he meets in Nueva Galicia – assuring them all of their safety among the Spaniards
(1:260–1). And though he glosses neatly over it in the concluding story of his ostensible victimization by greedy conquistador villains who cannot understand or make
themselves understood to the Natives, Cabeza de Vaca’s cross-cultural prowess is – by
the internal logic of his own account – the precise means by which these Indians are
ultimately betrayed into the very fate of enslavement that the narrator purports to
Cabeza de Vaca and Americas Exceptionalism
abhor. In the end, then, Cabeza de Vaca’s fiction of mutual comprehension is as selfserving and deadly as the monolingual logic of the requerimiento that he reads before
his Indian audience, the infamous declaration of Spanish sovereignty and authority.
The violent hallmark of its political mode is a linguistic performance of “inclusive
exclusion,” that “seizing of the outside,” as Agamben defines it in his writing on
sovereignty, from which the law defines the “sphere of its application” (1:104–5).
Only those Indians who understand the language of the requerimiento can consent to
conversion, and thus achieve, like all Christian Spaniards, the ostensible guarantee of
legal status as “subjects and vassals” of the Crown, “free without servitude,” with all
the “privileges, and exemptions, and . . . benefits” entailed therein (“Requerimiento”).
Those Indians who do not understand Spanish and do not consent to their subordination to the Crown and Church, on the other hand, are also included in sovereignty’s
embrace, but precisely via their exclusion as subjects: they become slaves.
The signature accomplishment of Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative is thus to establish the
ethical superiority of its protagonist through a discourse of primitivism that consolidates his power. This accomplishment, I want to suggest, is relevant to American
literary studies qua Americas studies, where a structure of primitivism often similarly
conceals its dominating effects under the sign of critique. In the case of Cabeza de
Vaca’s Relación, the protagonist achieves the ethical foundation for his critique – of
modern Spanish civilization and its culture of conquest – by virtue of his experience
of the primitive realm, from which he emerges, paradoxically, as more modern, more
humane, and more true to the new letter of “peaceful” law than his fellow Spaniards.
The effects of primitivism, however, require both the narrative journey into the indigenous, New World heart of darkness and, crucially, the return that separates Cabeza
de Vaca from Lope de Oviedo. The narrative’s doubling of Cabeza de Vaca and Lope
de Oviedo requires its subsequent suppression of the trajectory represented by Lope
de Oviedo himself, for it is this trajectory – the movement toward indigeneity without
return – upon which Cabeza de Vaca’s account depends for its narrative authority. Just
as the Indians addressed by the requerimiento must be embraced as subjects even as
they are excluded by their lack of Christianity in order to lend political meaning to
conquest and genocide, Lope de Oviedo’s trajectory must be enlisted as the narrative’s
foundational point of exclusion, the untold story against which Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative return defines itself: his emergence as a protagonist, as primitivism’s modern,
ethical hero, borne on the wings of a translated and self-translating authority. But
Cabeza de Vaca’s apparent acquisition of translational mastery – an achievement of
absolute authority across the linguistic divide separating the Spaniards from the
Indians – conveniently elides two problems that are also quite often suppressed within
Americas studies: the ambiguous role of the translator and the ever-present possibility
of mistranslation.
At the same time, if the Relación presented its earliest readers with Cabeza de
Vaca’s epic emergence by demanding that they simultaneously forget the never completed narrative trajectory embodied by his double and foil, Lope de Oviedo, the now
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canonical account has induced the same response in the realm of contemporary scholarship – prompting us effectively to maintain the silence mandated by the veterans
of the Mexican conquest in the early pages of the text: “We should not even speak of
it.” To attend to a story that is referenced but never told requires a great deal of
speculation, of course, as well as an open-ended process of noticing what the story is
not despite the fact that we cannot know what it is. The untold story of Lope de
Oviedo comes into being in a context of Spanish-Native, cross-cultural relations that
result not in a mestizo or ladino identity but rather, working in an inverse direction,
in an indigenously acculturated subject of Spanish descent for whom we have no term.
Provisionally defining this subject by negation, we might draw upon his shadowy
figure to imagine the possibilities of cross-epistemic translation that are simply not
available within the vast colonial archive to which we have access. Born as a Spaniard,
Lope de Oviedo nevertheless embodies the potentials of what Walter Mignolo has
called “border thinking,” the new modes of knowledge production made possible by
modern and colonial expansion and the enforced incorporation of foreign languages
and conceptual frameworks within an invaded culture’s worldview. As Mignolo
observes, these emergent conditions did not produce “border thinking” symmetrically:
“Europeans, in general, did not have to incorporate Indigenous languages and frameworks into their own” (Mignolo, Idea 9). As one of the many exceptions to Mignolo’s
generalization, Lope de Oviedo would have embodied a kind of epistemological threat
to the colonial regime perhaps even more acute than the indigenous manifestations
of border thinking that existed visibly all around the Spaniards in Florida and northern
Mexico – each time, to take a mundane example, that they encountered an Indian
who already knew their language.
In this sense, Lope de Oviedo’s untold story could not be articulated outside of a
new, dual, and improvised way of knowing – a mode of understanding to which
Cabeza de Vaca undoubtedly had access, but which he had every reason not to
acknowledge or promote in his narrative. To put this another way: By casting Lope
de Oviedo’s return to native life as cowardice, Cabeza de Vaca was simultaneously
denying any intellectual substance to the decision. To engage with Lope de Oviedo’s
marginal presence in the Relación, as well as the concerted unrealization of his narrative trajectory, is thus to look back through layers of historical suppression in order
to imagine, despite all the information we lack about his point of view – the conditions of possibility in which he thought and acted as he did. To do so is to entertain
an expanded, nonprimordial conception of indigeneity – but without the attendant
romanticizing that consistently dogs the scholarly stories so often told about both
captivity and “playing Indian” (see e.g. the respective critiques by Deloria and Strong).
That there is no story here to romanticize is perhaps a condition of possibility, rather
than an insurmountable obstruction, for future scholarship.
Cabeza de Vaca’s story, on the other hand, has yielded much material over the last
decades for our collective critical romanticizing within the field of US-American
studies. But perhaps his self-mythologizing narrative – read alongside the arc of its
contemporary critical reception – might also serve as a kind of critical mirror on
Cabeza de Vaca and Americas Exceptionalism
ourselves, an oblique and transtemporal perspective upon the emergent exceptionalism of transnational American studies, particularly in its incarnation as Americas
studies. The field registers this reconfigured exceptionalism in a number of ways,
though it does so perhaps most clearly in a geographical sense: insisting upon its
expanded, border-crossing parameters while placing a critical primacy on the American
hemisphere as the origin of the modern world itself – and thus occluding other hemispheres, other continents and histories, to which it is intricately tied. There is also
the reflexive exceptionalism of field self-representation, or disciplinary self-description, an idiom that, read alongside the Relación, resonates with the celebratory pronouncement of the field’s new cross-cultural scholarly credentials – a pronouncement
that elides the work of translators while drawing upon it to shore up the ostensible
distance from its own former parochialism.
Perhaps this peculiar and informing tension between the stories of Cabeza de Vaca
and Lope de Oviedo adumbrates our field’s seemingly intractable relationship to the
logic of imperialism. As Cabeza de Vaca’s text reminds us, the heady sense of epistemic
expansion is not fully separable from imperial desire – an intellectual-political affinity
that is symptomatic of the field’s headlong slide from the rigors of institutional history
into a largely a-historical anxiety of disciplinary imperialism: the field’s near obsession
not only with US imperialism, its primary object of study, but also with its own
imagined ability somehow to replicate imperialism itself, which it construes as the
dreadful potential, lurking behind every corner, of imperial complicity at the scholarly
level. At the same time, even as we declaim the ethical and political dimensions of
our expanded purview, our oppositional undoing of the national framework, we often
ignore the new exclusions produced precisely by our inclusive embrace of the larger
hemisphere. As ideological manifestations, these exclusions will remain difficult for
any of us within the field to identify without a collective, sustained, and flexible effort
to do so – and without the understanding that such “inclusive exclusion,” as Devon
Carbado has argued in reference to black subjectivity and the law, entails not only
exclusion via obfuscation but also exclusion via the uses to which the newly included
itself is put (639).
What purposes do the ever-inclusive parameters of Americas studies serve – what
are the uses of its emergent transnational objects of study, imported with ever-growing
sophistication and great aesthetic care from abroad? Here again, Cabeza de Vaca’s
narrative may offer some insight into the latent primitivism within the discipline’s
transnational structure of feeling: its critical penchant for the “alternative” ways of
knowing – the indigeneity, the hybridity, the supposed non-Westernness, the “colonial difference,” as Mignolo puts it – of the wider hemisphere (Mignolo, Local esp.
2–11). Transnational American studies achieves much of its disciplinary cosmopolitanism – its scholarly modernity, its ethical platform for critique, its mantle of translative mastery – through the very gestures of inclusive exclusion that it also disavows.
The solution to this problem (if there is one) is our own return of sorts, not to the
national paradigm, but across the too-easy critical distance we have assumed between
ourselves and the texts by which we have come to define the field. Like Cabeza de
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Vaca himself, we may end up suppressing the more compelling and revealing stories
in favor of those that consolidate our image of ourselves.
All quotations from the text of Cabeza de
Vaca’s 1542 Relación come from the authoritative modern edition by Adorno and Pautz
(published by the University of Nebraska
Press in 1999) and will hereafter be cited by
volume and page number. Adorno and Pautz’s
three-volume study includes a facing-page
English translation of the narrative as well as
a study of the author’s life, the multiple historical and ethnographic contexts in which
the narrative emerged, and the relation of the
narrative to other writings by Cabeza de Vaca
as well as other accounts of the expedition. Of
particular importance in this study is the
1555 Valladolid edition of Cabeza de Vaca’s
narrative, the Relación y Comentarios, which
conjoined a new version of the 1542 narrative
with an account by Pedro Hernández of
Cabeza de Vaca’s governorship of Río de la
Plata. Readers may also wish to consult the
shorter Adorno and Pautz paperback edition,
The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca (listed in the
bibliography). For the purposes of this volume,
I use the term “Americanist” (rather than USAmericanist) as a shorthand for scholars of US
and Anglophone colonial American literature
(as opposed to, e.g., Latin Americanists).
References and Further Reading
Adorno, Rolena. “Introduction.” In The Narrative
of Cabeza de Vaca (pp. 1:1–42). Eds. and trans.
Rolena Adorno and Patrick Charles Pautz.
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.
Adorno, Rolena. “The Negotiation of Fear in
Cabeza de Vaca’s Naufragios.” In New World
Encounters (pp. 48–84). Ed. Stephen Greenblatt.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
Adorno, Rolena, and Patrick Charles Pautz. Ed.
and trans. The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca. 3 vols.
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.
Agamben, Giorgio. The Time That Remains: A
Commentary on the Letter to the Romans. Trans.
Patricia Dailey. Stanford, CA: Stanford
University Press, 2005.
Augenbraum, Harold. “Literary Strategies in Alvar
Núñez Caveza de Vaca’s Account.” In U.S. Latino
Literature: A Critical Guide for Students and
Teachers (pp. 1–9). Eds. Harold Augenbraum
and Margarite Fernández Olmos. New York:
Mercantile Library Association of the City of
New York/Greenwood, 2000.
Bauer, Ralph. The Cultural Geography of Colonial
American Literatures: Empire, Travel, Modernity.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Bauer, Ralph. “Early American Literature and
American Literary History at the ‘Hemispheric
Turn.’ ” Early American Literature 45 (2010):
Bruce-Novoa, Juan. “Naufragios en los mares de la
significación: De La Relación de Cabeza de Vaca a
la literatura chicana.” Plural (February 1990):
Carbado, Devon. “Racial Naturalization.” American
Quarterly 57 (2005): 633–58.
Deloria, Philip J. Playing Indian. New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1998.
Ferens, Dominika. “Wayward Conquistador or
Transcultural Hybrid? Commentaries on Alvar
Nunez Cabeza de Vaca’s The Account.” Anglica
Wratislaviensia 36 (2001): 21–34.
Gray, Richard. A History of American Literature.
Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.
Jehlen, Myra. “The Literature of Colonization.” In
The Cambridge History of American Literature:
Volume 1. 1590–1820 (pp. 11–168). Ed. Sacvan
Bercovitch. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1994.
Leal, Luis. “Pre-Chicano Literature: Process and
Meaning.” In Handbook of Hispanic Cultures in
Cabeza de Vaca and Americas Exceptionalism
the United States (pp. 62–85). Vols. 1–2. Eds.
Nicolás Kanellos, Claudio Esteva Fabregat,
and Francisco Lomelí. Houston, TX: Arte
Publico, 1993.
López, Kimberle S. “Naked in the Wilderness: The
Transculturation of Cabeza de Vaca in Abel
Posse’s El largeo atardecer del caminante.” In A
Twice-Told Tale: Reinventing the Encounter in
Iberian/Iberian American Literature (pp. 149–65).
Eds. Santiago Juan-Navarro and Theodore
Robert Young. Newark: University of Delaware
Press, 2001.
Mignolo, Walter. The Idea of Latin America. Oxford:
Blackwell, 2005.
Mignolo, Walter. Local Histories/Global Designs:
Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border
Thinking. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Press, 2000.
Molloy, Sylvia. “Alteridad y reconocimiento en Los
Naufragios de Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca.”
Nueva Revista de Filologia Hispanica 35, no. 2
(1987): 425–49.
Pupo-Walker, Enrique. Castaways: The Narrative of
Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. Berkeley: University
of California Press, 1993.
Rabasa, Jose. Writing Violence on the Northern
Frontier: The Historiography of Sixteenth-Century
New Mexico and Florida and the Legacy of Conquest.
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.
Reséndez, Andrés. “Cabeza de Vaca and the
Problem of First Encounters.” Historically
Speaking 10, no. 1 (2009): 36–38.
Reséndez, Andrés. A Land So Strange: The Epic
Journey of Cabeza de Vaca: The Extraordinary Tale
of a Shipwrecked Spaniard Who Walked across
America in the Sixteenth Century. New York: Basic
Books, 2007.
Silva, Alan J. “Conquest, Conversion, and the
Hybrid Self in Cabeza de Vaca’s Relacion.” Post
Identity 2, no. 1 (1999): 123–46.
Strong, Pauline. Captive Selves, Captivating Others:
The Politics and Poetics of Colonial American
Captivity Narratives. Boulder, CO: Westview
Press, 1999.
Worlding America: The
Hemispheric Text-Network
Susan Gillman and Kirsten Silva Gruesz
To judge from the proliferation of adjectives like comparative and transnational in recent
American studies, the field seems bent on bringing “America” into conversation with
the rest of the globe. These terms, often used interchangeably, signify a will to include
more objects in the purview of analysis than those with a clear connection to US
nationhood, to get beyond its perceived limits. Yet there are vital differences between
comparative and transnational and the approaches they suggest. Imagine a drawingcompass with the sharp, fixed arm resting upon one point while the movable arm
extends outward, marking variably smaller or larger circles around that center.
Figuratively speaking, the comparative Americanist positions such a compass over a
map of the world, planting its fixed arm firmly in the United States, then adjusts the
other to encircle a different geographical space – moving across the Atlantic to encompass England, for example, or westward to ponder the relationship between the United
States and Japan. But the compass is still centered upon what is unquestionably the
point – in both senses – of the comparison: it is the United States from which every
observation comes and to which every conclusion returns, as either an affirmation of,
or a contrast to, its implied norms.
Writing about a similar paradigm shift among historians away from the nation as
the default unit of analysis, Micol Seigel cautions against the apparent neutrality of
its longstanding replacement: comparative history. Comparison involves naming similarities and differences between two or more discrete units, which “discourages attention to exchange between the two, the very exchange postcolonial insight understands
as the stuff of subject-formation.” Rather than diminishing the importance of the
nation-state, as a comparative approach might at first seem to do, “comparisons
A Companion to American Literary Studies, First Edition. Edited by Caroline F. Levander,
Robert S. Levine.
© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2011 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
The Hemispheric Text-Network
obscure the workings of power,” in particular the conceptual power that comes with
being the center from which a comparison is being made (Seigel 65). Seigel favors
the term transnational as an alternative method that not only pays attention to such
exchanges, but insists on shifting their locus of comparison. To extend our analogy:
a transnational analysis would draw multiple circles, replanting the foot of the
drawing-compass in different, central points, moving across different scales of observation. In so doing, it aims to avoid what is all too frequently, as Seigel demonstrates,
the outcome of comparative analysis: a patronizing affirmation that the Other is different, but essentially just like Us. It could be rightfully objected that not every
analysis that calls itself “transnational” actually accomplishes these objectives, or that
all those who invoke the rubric of “comparative” necessarily fail at it.1 Our point,
however, is that the description and the process are linked, and that it is not mere
semantic fussiness to begin by ruminating on how we talk about the United States
in relation to the world.
Of course, the drawing-compass analogy doesn’t quite capture what happens when
we select examples from which to extract comparative contrasts and similarities: we
are always delineating what does and doesn’t fall within the perimeter of any study,
even if we assiduously try to keep moving its center of analysis. Yet the metaphor
does highlight the primarily spatial preoccupation of post- and transnational American
studies at this critical juncture: the field’s will to push beyond the nation’s boundaries
or (as the rise of border and diaspora studies suggests) to think from their edges and
peripheries. The nation has become just one point on the spatial scale of American
literary studies along with locality, region, nation, hemisphere, climatic zone, trade
zone, and so on. Yet as recent scholars from Wai Chee Dimock to Lloyd Pratt, as well
as a host of historians and theorists not identified as “Americanists” (e.g., Peter
Osborne, Reinhard Kosselek, and Harry Harootunian), have reminded us, it is equally
important to move between temporal scales. How people conceive of the relation
between past, present, and future is as crucially linked to nationhood as are geographical boundaries. Drawing connections along the scale of time marks out periodizations
and implied causalities through the idea of influence; one cannot think the Americas
together, for instance, without considering the discrepant timing of modernity and
modernization in Latin America.
When we shift from the realm of historical objects and narratives in general to
literary-cultural artifacts in particular, we will inevitably be drawn toward texts that
thematize border crossings and contact zones, and their attendant challenges to dominant temporalities. But beyond the theme of movements and flows, we should foreground their material conditions: how do texts themselves move through multiple
translations, adaptations, and significant editions and republications, each instantiation punctuated along the scales of time and space? Translation represents both one
form that this dynamic exchange between nations can take, and a figure for that process.
Although we tend to think of translation as involving two distinct vehicles of communication (“English” and “Spanish,” for example), in fact each language is composed
of a multiple set of registers, regionalisms, and sociolects of variegated lexical and
Susan Gillman and Kirsten Silva Gruesz
grammatical usages. Those components can also be imagined in a scalar fashion, since
language use reflects larger patterns of social influence and power. Translations, too,
are positioned on the scale of linguistic authority, usually relegated to a position of
secondariness in relation to an original. To model a way of moving dynamically along
all three of these scales – space, time, and language – we will discuss a network (as
opposed to a singular “work”) of texts clustered around Herman Melville’s novella
Benito Cereno (1855) and an earlier French fiction on what Victor Hugo called the
“immense topic” of Haitian slave rebellion, his Bug-Jargal (1826). Our analysis extends
backward and forward in time from the two temporal nodes indicated by those publication dates, as well as outward linguistically and geographically to hemispheric
abolitionist fiction and to the critical and historical work of C.L.R. James. We will
argue that a transnational analysis should multiply situate where a text “belongs” in
time and space by noting how it stands in relation to this third scale, language.
Having pledged ourselves to pay attention to exchanges and flows and to multiple
loci of comparison, we must now admit the inadequacy of the term transnational to
describe that analytic. The prefix trans does not analyze the space of the comparison
– how the points of scalar connection to be brought together can include nations,
colonies, and localities not incorporated into either governing unit – or its time:
whether these units antedate or postdate the establishment of nationhood. In either
case, something other than the simple trans seems called for. Echoing Siegel’s beef
with comparison, Christopher Connery and Rob Wilson write that a comparative
study “always suggests the third term: the world itself, the world systemic, not always
intelligible in its localized or concretized instantiation, but the ultimate and necessary
horizon for interpretive work” (Connery and Wilson 3). They propose worlding as a
term for the multi-sited, dynamic process of analysis that Seigel associates with transnationalism: a way of bringing this underlying framework into visibility, not ignoring
or wishing away the nation but showing it to be simply one point on a scale rather
than the determining unit of analysis. The gerundive form worlding deliberately
detaches itself from the nominative world, which for many drifts dangerously toward
a totalizing ethos of global homogenization and commodification. From this concern
have stemmed parallel criticisms of “world music,” “world history,” and – most relevant to our discussion here – “world literature.” To some, the world-literature
concept exerts an equalizing force by recognizing significant works from many cultures. But it also insinuates an equality among texts without attending to the real
power differentials between the places they represent, or to the relative influence of
their language of expression (global English, unsurprisingly, plays an outsized role in
most visions of world literature).
Ultimately, then, we want to push American literary studies beyond anti-exceptionalism, beyond comparativism, and even beyond the transnational turn, to think
in a worlded way. A worlded analysis would plant the foot of the drawing-compass
somewhere and sometime else than an “America” conceived of as the inevitable center
and beginning. Further, it would attend to the way that texts move between multiple
forms of language usage – native and foreign, dialect and register, Creole and patois
The Hemispheric Text-Network
– that are tied to forms of social capital. Thinking dialectically and translationally
about the movements of texts across space, time, and language, such a worlded analysis
would map out a network of crosshatched, multidirectional influences rather than
drawing one-way or even two-way lines of comparison.
Benito Cereno and the Hemispheric Text-Network
Ever since 1993, when Herman Melville and Martin Delany were recovered and paired
under the rubric of “New World Slavery” in Eric Sundquist’s To Wake the Nations,
Melville’s Benito Cereno has provided continuous service as American literature’s most
overtly hemispheric work. Its meteoric rise from relative obscurity as a “minor”
Melville text, with limited critical currency from the time of its publication in 1855
up to the 1980s and 1990s, might be explained away as a short-term effect of the
then-impending centennial of the Spanish-American War in 1998 and the call that
it prompted for more attention to the legacies of US expansionism and imperialism
in the rest of the Americas: Melville’s novella was both politically and aesthetically
suggestive. But Benito Cereno has proved remarkably long lasting and protean, serving
the field of American literature in its ongoing postnational phase as proof-text for a
series of innovative geographical paradigms, routinely appearing at the center of
studies that call themselves comparative or trans-American, Black Atlantic, circumCaribbean, or trans-Atlantic. For Sundquist, Sterling Stuckey, Rodrigo Lazo, Jonathan
Elmer, and a host of other critics who have worked this theme, the novella’s geography
maps out a New World or “Americas” history of race-slavery and colonialism, revolt
and revolution.
Not only does Benito Cereno invite reframings of familiar spatial access points, but
it confounds linear time as well. The novella’s chronology reaches back from 1799,
when it is set in the midst of the Haitian Revolution, then forward to the expansionist
and filibustering mood of the 1850s when it was written, and finally back still further
to 1492, when the ship’s “proper figurehead,” Columbus, first set foot on the island.
Melville’s notorious manipulation of historical time extends outward to his adaptation
of his own sources, as he moved the 1805 events on the ship Tryal that were described
in Amasa Delano’s 1817 Narrative of Voyages and Travels, in the Northern and Southern
Hemispheres backward to an earlier point, prior to Haiti’s naming of itself as a free
republic. This is only one instance of the way that the linear ordering of antecedents
and descendants in (and of) this text is thwarted, as we will argue later. But the name
of Haiti or Saint Domingue or San Domingo is never directly uttered in the story,
only alluded to in the renamed Tryal, Benito Cereno’s ship, the San Dominick, so the
argument that the novella references this key hemispheric event had to be demonstrated by these early critics only by indirection – through an inferential or speculative
reading of the references and sources that Melville uses and adapts. Their line of
thinking about adaptation across dis-orderly space and time should be extended to
the question of linguistic priority, as well: Melville’s text is written in English, but
Susan Gillman and Kirsten Silva Gruesz
Benito Cereno is most evasive in its treatment of languages.2 It is a work rife with
evidence of implied, partial, uncompleted, or otherwise inadequate translation, notably
most often at the margins, in the intertexts and paratexts. For example, the court
depositions near the end, “translated from one of the official Spanish documents” that
have been “selected” out of the totality, “for partial translation,” mark the omissions
ostentatiously by rows of asterisks (Melville 238).
Despite these and other textual hints at the nonsufficiency of American English,
language remains a relatively unexplored axis of analysis among the recent scholarship that has turned to this text to rethink nationalist parameters. Even when Benito
Cereno is conceived as Melville’s meditation on Haiti and revolutions both past and
prospective, the view that is taken of his “sources” is constrained by both our conception of him as an American author and our assumption about the texts that he
would have read and the language in which they were written. Melville’s work can
readily be paired with Delany’s (as Sundquist does), but never gets put in conversation with Victor Hugo’s Bug-Jargal (1826). This novel, by a French poet, dramatist,
and novelist, perhaps the most global of writers in the nineteenth century, was
translated no less than four times into English between 1833 and 1866, and its
explicit subject is the Haitian revolution. It’s especially strange to leave Hugo out
in the cold given his own compelling view of the “immense topic”: “the revolt of
the Saint Domingue blacks in 1791, a struggle of giants, three worlds having a
stake in the matter – Europe and Africa as the combatants, America as the field of
battle” (Hugo, Bug-Jargal 58). A classically comparativist study might set out to
prove that influence, suggesting points of binary contrast and uncanny similitude
between two texts that stand in for their respective nations. Instead, we want to
suggest that the works we link to and by Melville and Hugo belong to a larger
text-network connecting multiple points on the hemisphere’s space-time map and
serving as an exemplum of the way that the encounter of Europe with the Americas
occasioned modernity and the colonial system.3
When José Martí, that other figure lastingly recalled for service in an “Americas”
context by the 1998 centenaries, called his version of Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona
(1887) “otra Cabaña” [“another Uncle Tom’s Cabin”], proposing that it spoke out in
favor of the Indians as “la Beecher” did for the Negroes, he signaled that his was more
than a literal translation: rather a transculturation (anticipating Cuban anthropologist
Fernando Ortiz’s 1940s term), the product of more than one author, belonging to
more than a single national literary tradition, that elevates the role of translation to
active participant in, rather than mere footnote to, the production of literary and
cultural meaning. “Text-network” is one term for this kind of circulation, used in
studies of the ancient novel, where it refers to a characteristic and central type of
Hellenistic world literature, such as the “Alexander romance.” Bodies of prose composition with no definitive origin and no telos in their dissemination, no known
“author” and no definitive form, they exist only as a multiplicity of different versions,
in a wide variety of different languages, retailored to fit a host of different cultural
contexts, diffused in a multiplicity of directions over much of the Asian-African-
The Hemispheric Text-Network
European land mass. One way to describe them would be as translations without an
original (see Selden).
Clearly, the classical idea of a text-network would be altered by the rise of print
and the flourishing, by Hugo and Melville’s time, of a recognized social space for the
author as professional and (however fleetingly for Melville) as celebrity. Nevertheless,
the text-network model has the advantage of denaturalizing these potent modern
ideologies surrounding the author and the original, and privileging circulation over
the post-Romantic fetishization of composition. It makes translation both a material
practice and a metaphor for the constant and multidirectional movement of texts
through channels that are often not officially sanctioned or legitimated with an
acknowledgment, like so many unnamed translators. Another text that has recently
been enlisted for repeated “hemispheric” work enters this network as well: C.L.R.
James’s Black Jacobins. That title comprises a complex web of versions and translations,
both of itself as a text (the different editions of 1938 and 1963, including all the
paratextual material; and the three Atlanta lectures of 1971) and of its own source
texts, as James assesses differently in changing moments of the twentieth century
the cultural legacies of the Haitian Revolution – the works of Hugo and Melville
among them.
Melville’s symbolic temporal compression of the Age of Revolution into the antebellum United States is itself a strategy of translation by which history can be read
back into the novel. As subject and object of translation, the “black letter” of the
cryptic text of past-eventness that Amasa Delano must decipher also references the
longstanding English-Spanish-French colonial rivalry in the Americas, and in turn
the ways in which that old rivalry continued to manifest itself in Melville’s time in
the form of heated debates about the expansion of the US into territories formerly
claimed by the Spanish empire – in Mexico, Cuba, and Central America. Hugo does
the same with Bug-Jargal, which addresses events that were then being frantically
historicized in France (with which the new Republic of Haiti was negotiating its
fateful debt payment during the novel’s serialization) but terminates its action at a
point before the Haitian Revolution had even ended. To compound this historical
compression, the novel was expanded from Hugo’s first short story, published several
years earlier when he was 16. As a completed process, then, the history of the Haitian
“event” both is and is not present in the novel. Hugo cryptically alludes to this strange
disjunction in his 1826 preface, where he comments seemingly grandiosely, “Events
have accommodated themselves to the book, not the book to events” (Hugo, BugJargal 57). Just as Melville and Hugo translate their purportedly nonfictional sources
into fictive narratives, they approximate the necessarily multilingual pathways that
historical research would have to take by highlighting the many social scales of language use from which these sources might have emerged: metropolitan British and
American English, proper and pidgin Spanish, the French of the capital and of the
colony, the patois of plotting slaves who had been exposed to all these as well as to
African tribal and trade languages, and even more hinted-at symbolic forms of communication. Hugo forces his readers to be aware at every step of the need for if not
Susan Gillman and Kirsten Silva Gruesz
the gratification of translation, as he provides footnotes with translations of all the
Spanish, English, and Creole “jargon” that he has to use in the tale. There is no central
spatial point, then, upon which our drawing-compass of the hemisphere rests – not
even Haiti, a place that has been significantly constituted by the imagination of
persons elsewhere, like C.L.R. James. Nor does a single date or year emerge: rather,
there are a set of entry points into a text-network roughly bounded by the western
hemisphere – and by the babble of incompletely understood conversations that have
taken place within it.
Antecedents without Influences: Hugo’s Bug-Jargal
Bug-Jargal (1826) was to Victor Hugo what Typee was to Herman Melville: a youthful
exercise in writing an exotic romance pitched to sell to readers already primed toward
its subject. Addressing a French audience still steeped in the legacy of Jacobinisms
both white and black, both metropolitan and colonial, it proved to be one of the
best-known and most widely circulated fictions about the world-shaping effects of the
events in Haiti. It was immediately popular as well among readers in France’s colonial
rivals Spain and England, and in their present and former colonies struggling over
the fate of the plantation system whose ideological basis had been dealt such a severe
blow by those events. Three distinct English translations – each with a different,
telling subtitle – had already appeared prior to Melville’s composition of Benito Cereno,
and three different Spanish translations were also in circulation before midcentury;
Hugo’s novel was an acknowledged source of Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda’s Cuban
abolitionist novel, Sab (1840). The most popular rendition into English, the Scotsman
Leitch Ritchie’s The Slave-King (1833), expanded and rewrote the original to make it
fit more obviously into the program of the transatlantic abolitionist movement. While
Melville’s fame took a steady arc downward over the course of the nineteenth century,
Hugo’s tracked meteorically upward – a pattern that in the Americas would be ironically reversed a century later.
Enfolded within a brief frame narrative, the forward motion of Bug-Jargal begins
at one of the traditional origin points of the revolution, on the eve of the Bois Caïman
uprising in August 1791. Hugo thus sets out to narrativize that real event, brushing
his story with a thin love-and-hidden-identity plot but also insisting on an extraordinary apparatus of footnotes: a true historical romance. Its plot revolves around two
central characters who forge an unlikely alliance: the young white nobleman Léopold
D’Auverney and the African-born slave he knows as Pierrot, but whose true identity
is that of the abducted “king of Kakongo” turned rebel leader, Bug-Jargal. Yet if those
two self-sworn “brothers” at first seem to represent a dyad of France and Africa, their
story turns out to be significantly triangulated by Spain, which held the eastern half
of the island and intervened militarily in the early stages of the power struggle
between the French colonials and their enslaved subjects. Like many liberal readings
The Hemispheric Text-Network
of the Saint-Domingue event then and since, Hugo’s novel oscillates between romantic
idealization of the dark-skinned hero of the title, and virulent dismissal of the creolized revolutionary characters, who are based on real-life players that Hugo’s French
readership would have known. Toussaint and Dessalines play minor roles in the novel,
but the bulk of its attention rests on the mulatto Jorge/Georges Biassou, one of the
earliest leaders who emerged from Bouckman’s 1791 revolt. Biassou hails from Santo
Domingo – the Spanish version of the name that would translate itself into the San
Dominick of Melville’s mutinous ship – and allies his followers with the Spanish. Hugo
depicts Biassou as a buffoonish pretender, who has taken the worst from both racial
worlds and whose hybrid speech – an uncouth admixture of Spanish, French, and
Creole – is mocked by the narrator, particularly in the paratextual apparatus. The
novel strongly suggests that Biassou and his followers are responsible for turning what
was initially a clear-cut struggle for universal human dignity and individual justice
into an anarchic bloodbath, laying the blame for that shift on the gens libres de couleur.
But Biassou is not the only figure in the novel who embodies cultural and racial
hybridity: a major plot twist reveals that another mulatto creole, a “dwarf” named
Habibrah who had been a favorite slave of D’Auverney’s planter uncle, is a key plotter
as well. In contrast to Biassou’s stark hunger for power, Habibrah’s motives are disturbingly murky. A master of appearing harmless while he is quietly plotting murder,
Habibrah takes delight in revealing to D’Auverney how he had been taken in by the
placid outward appearance of his uncle’s clown, his family pet. Habibrah then pursues
D’Auverney to the end, attempting to push him off a cliff but falling himself instead.
In this figure of the short-statured master plotter rests the most uncanny resemblance
to Melville’s Babo. Both are creolized, having lived for such a long time in the
Americas that they are fluent in the cultural idioms of their masters; both enact
elaborate masquerades to terrorize others and to cover their true intentions – performances that exceed the bounds of what is necessary to liberate or to avenge. The uncanny
effect of each tale is linked to that excess.
Like Amasa Delano (and, presumably, like the youthful creole planter’s son Benito
Cereno himself before the insurrection on board the San Dominick), D’Auverney had
been incapable of seeing malice in Habibrah precisely because he did not register him
as fully human. Again recalling Delano, D’Auverney sees himself as a liberal thinker
who is appalled by the conditions of plantation slavery, wincing at the blows his uncle
lands upon the slaves and observing the demeaning effects of unchecked power upon
the slaveholder – “at what high cost this power is bought” (Hugo, Bug-Jargal 81).
He is particularly struck by the cruelty of his uncle’s decision to imprison his strongest and most able slave, Pierrot, possessed of “nobleness and bearing” and “beauty of
form” that “could very well have suited a king” (80). The statuesque, coal-black
Pierrot stands in a long line of such figures reaching back (at least) to Oronooko and
forward (at least) to Melville’s Atufal, “supposed to have been a chief in Africa”
(Melville 240): D’Auverney and Delano both flinch as they witness these kingly bodies
being brought in chains before a despot. As Hugo’s title suggests, however, Pierrot/
Susan Gillman and Kirsten Silva Gruesz
Bug-Jargal is a central figure in a way that Atufal is not, although one of his main
purposes in the narrative is to mirror D’Auverney in something like the way that
Delano and Cereno, representatives of New England and New Spain respectively,
mirror each other. Just as the closing scenes of Benito Cereno leave us with an almost
courtly exchange between Cereno and Delano – debating whose life has been saved
by whom, and where the debt of honor lies – so too are D’Auverney and Pierrot/BugJargal shown to be entwined by mutual life debts. Early on, Pierrot had saved
D’Auverney’s fiancée Marie (with whom he is also, chastely, in love) from an alligator.
D’Auverney pledges his fraternal loyalty and tries to intervene with his uncle to spare
Pierrot’s life, but the slave’s escape renders this moot. That debt of honor is deferred
during the chapters in which D’Auverney thinks Pierrot guilty of treachery: misinterpreting his gestures during the sacking of the plantation on the night of Bois
Caïman as murderous (Pierrot had in fact saved the white family), D’Auverney’s personal anger at Pierrot causes him to join the colonial militia. They are reunited after
D’Auverney has been captured by Biassou’s rebels, whereupon Pierrot reveals himself
as Bug-Jargal and explains his heroic conduct that night. D’Auverney then feels just
as tied to his black “brother” as ever.
The two figures engage in a kind of contest of nobility: D’Auverney insists on
keeping his word of honor to Biassou to return to his camp as a prisoner of war after
meeting with Bug-Jargal, who in turn stages a spectacular rescue of D’Auverney and
offers his own life in exchange for that of his followers, also being held captive by
Biassou. Due to a mistaken signal, D’Auverney’s troops think the white man has been
killed, and go to avenge themselves on the blacks. It is D’Auverney’s own faithful
sergeant who executes Bug-Jargal in the final scenes, moments before D’Auverney can
speed back to the camp to stop him. Emotionally broken, D’Auverney returns to
France, where he guiltily retells this story three years later in an army camp and then
throws himself into a suicidal battle, “following his leader” into what we are led to
believe is a militarily avoidable, but morally necessary, death. D’Auverney here recalls
Benito Cereno, dogged by the “shadow of the negro,” looking in vain for signs about
how to navigate their moral compass in a world – punctuated by the Haitian event
– that makes such signs newly unreadable.4
Spanish: Everyone’s Language of Conspiracy
To the extent that both Hugo’s and Melville’s stories are preoccupied with the role
of language in granting or withholding power and agency, the foreign-to-both language of Spanish serves as the register of those concerns. For another striking parallel
between the two texts is their attention to Spain’s colonial experience in the Americas
as the shadow of the one represented by the protagonist from whose perspective the
story is told: France and D’Auverney, and the new United States and Delano. Hugo
references the interrelated histories of the colonial powers through Pierrot/BugJargal’s life story: born a king’s son in Gambia, he and his family were befriended
The Hemispheric Text-Network
by a Spanish captain (who “gave me all that useless knowledge that so impressed
you” [Hugo, Bug-Jargal 171]) who lured them into slavery. He was transported to
Santo Domingo – the piece of land dubbed la isla española by Columbus, the ground
zero of African slavery in the New World, divided three centuries later between
France and Spain. Footnoting the Spanish “Hispaniola,” Hugo signals the shadowhistory of New World Spain by writing in the double negative, “Our readers will
doubtless not be unaware that this was the first name given to Saint Domingue, by
Christopher Columbus at the time of the discovery in 1492” (75). It is there that
“Bug . . . otherwise known as Pierrot” learned to speak Spanish before French (65).
D’Auverney hears Pierrot/Bug-Jargal before he sees him for the first time, when a
beautiful voice sings a “Spanish air” in the woods. Spanish is here identified as a
language of art, revealing the slave’s aptitude for culture, beauty, and other markers
of civilization (not unlike that “true off-shoot of a true hidalgo Cereno”). But it is
also their language of fraternité across racial lines, the language they speak when
Pierrot is in prison; in pledging his loyalty to D’Auverney, Pierrot/Bug-Jargal establishes a secret song by which the Frenchman will always know how to identify him
– a corrido appropriately titled “El contrabandista.” (D’Auverney’s fluency in Spanish
is not explained, although Hugo takes care to translate their dialogue into French
in footnotes.)
But Spanish is also deceptively associated with other conspiracies and secret communications. Whereas Bug-Jargal is a populist crusader against injustice, Biassou’s
rebels have allied themselves with the Spanish, and they receive arms and munitions
from across the island. D’Auverney, obtuse in much the same way as Delano, is incapable of connecting the linguistic dots that might lead him to recognize Habibrah
when he later discovers him, now dressed as a spirit-conjurer, in Biassou’s camp. Both
narrators, Hugo’s and Melville’s, are themselves complicit in the uses of language for
misrecognition. For Habibrah’s dialogue from the beginning has been presented in a
mixture of French and Spanish. He had declared to D’Auverney long ago that the
“language that you call Spanish, [was] the first that ever I lisped – when my age was
counted by months and not by years. . . . I love that language.” (Hugo, Bug-Jargal
77). D’Auverney is obtusely unaware of the possibility that stubby Habibrah might
have been anything but a faithful pet, treated with every privilege by a doting master
(“Como un perro!” scoffs Habibrah in response to this, reasserting his humanity [183]).
He adamantly denies that the figure before him, respected by all of Biassou’s men,
could be the same creature – until he sees his dagger (also, we may recall, Babo’s
weapon of choice, secretly pointing at Benito Cereno throughout the charade of
Delano’s visit to the ship).
Spanish is marked as foreign in both the French- and the English-language novels,
yet not so foreign as to be untranslatable – and in that translatability lies its danger.
Spanish is a lingua franca in both contexts: the tongue that the two captains, the
“masters,” share on board the San Dominick (“Captain Delano sought, with good
hopes, to cheer up the strangers, feeling no small satisfaction that, with persons in
their condition, he could – thanks to his frequent voyages along the Spanish main
Susan Gillman and Kirsten Silva Gruesz
– converse with some freedom in their native tongue” [Melville 168]). However, as
Gavin Jones has convincingly shown, it has also become, on this ship of Africans and
ladinos of very different tribal origins, the common language of conspiracy. The mutineers can hold the captain and his sailors in thrall only if they understand enough
Spanish to know whether any of them is uttering a word to Delano about what is
really happening on board – and they clearly do, since that threat holds the Spaniards
in check.5 And it is a language that their ringleader, Babo, also possesses at an
advanced competency: it is he who coins the recurring phrase that most marks
Melville’s text linguistically, seguid vuestro jefe, follow your leader. In contrast to BugJargal’s tale of transatlantic exile – a happy ending would have him returning to
Gambia to reclaim his kingdom – Habibrah and Babo index the far more threatening
process of transculturation whereby slaves have selectively appropriated New World
culture and language as their own. They are Calibans who have captured another
colonial master’s tongue and, as a consequence, know how to curse – even if idealized
noble savages like Bug-Jargal can also use it to sing.
While Hugo lards his French text heavily with Spanish words and phrases, in Benito
Cereno the one phrase, seguid vuestro jefe, bears the weight of its ponderous duality. As
many critics have pointed out, Melville turns any naturalized idea about leadership
upside down by strategically deploying the image of dogs and sheep. Shortly after
noticing the Spanish sentence strangely chalked beneath the ship’s figurehead, Delano
first perceives Babo as being “like a shepherd’s dog” (Melville 167), and figures the
older black men fancifully as “shepherds to your flock of black sheep” (Melville 180).
Delano obtusely compares both Babo and his ship’s boat, the Rover, to Newfoundland
dogs: his fiction of fidelity, summoned to keep at bay the ominous thought that the
subservient “species” may not in fact be so. The same persistent dog imagery materializes in Bug-Jargal, where the “slave-king” keeps a mastiff, Rask, who is preternaturally
smart and faithful (he sends messages between the friends, and pulls D’Auverney off
the cliff that Habibrah has dragged him down). In the frame-narrative where BugJargal’s story is being retold in 1794, we learn that D’Auverney took Rask with him
when he left the island, as if adopting the last living part of his dead “brother.”
Intentionally or not, it was a highly ironic choice to make Rask a mastiff: many of
the bloodhounds brought from Cuba to torture and kill runaway Indians and Africans
were of that breed (Johnson 83–5). If both narratives of slave rebellion keep returning
obsessively to the figure of the dog to compare races within the presumed hierarchy
of the animal world, it is perhaps because of its ambiguity in the master-slave
dynamic: the sheepdog leads and controls its flocks, but it is a subaltern, subservient
to its master. The striking thing about Delano is that he can’t see the slave-hunting
dog, the dog ready to maim and murder, as the necessary shadow of the familiar dogs
he commands at home. In adopting Rask, D’Auverney may be ignoring the lesson of
Habibrah that “pets” may not be as docile as they seem, but he does learn from the
transferred trauma of his double. Unlike sunny Delano, D’Auverney’s guilty liberal
conscience brings the “shadow” of rebellion home to haunt him, to remind him of
what he must not forget.
The Hemispheric Text-Network
The Translator in the Network: Ritchie’s The Slave-King
As a commentary on how to judge then-recent events in Haiti, Bug-Jargal can only
be read as tremendously ambivalent. On the one hand, D’Auverney’s humanistic,
antislavery impulses are affirmed and Bug-Jargal’s inherent nobility goes unchallenged, for in siding with his white brother the African has even waived his right as
an individual to avenge the wrongs done to his family (his wife was sexually abused
and then, like his children and his father, worked to death). On the other hand, as
Chris Bongie has shown, Hugo borrows very selectively from his historical sources to
mock the revolution as a social movement, underplaying the magnitude of the event by
reducing it to the petty imitations of “real” French civilization by terrifying individual
wannabes like Biassou and Habibrah.6 But subsequent translations and adaptations
of Hugo’s work would iron out those ambivalences in ways specific to their own place
and time: Gómez de Avellaneda’s Sab, for instance, relocates the drama to Cuba,
retaining the doomed-love plot but reversing the polarity of mulatez from negative to
positive, and attaching an explicit message of abolition to its frame.7 Something
similar occurs with the most influential rendition in English, Leitch Ritchie’s The
Slave-King: From the Bug-Jargal of Victor Hugo (London and Philadelphia, 1833), whose
title even more strongly universalizes the title character as noble savage.8 The “from”
in Ritchie’s subtitle does not quite do justice to the way he literalized the “liberal”
in the phrase “liberal translation.” According to Bongie, Ritchie overtly “conscripts
Bug-Jargal to the abolitionist cause”: he expands the beginning and ending to clarify
some of the characters’ muddier motives; adds descriptive, travelogue-style passages
about the island’s beauty; and completely overhauls the character of Biassou, who
rather than embodying violent excess serves as spokesman for due process and the rule
of law. Finally, Ritchie corrects and supplements Hugo’s 50-plus footnotes with more
glosses of his own, as well as a 40-page appendix giving his own “factual” narrative
of the Haitian revolution (Bongie, Friends 122). In activist fashion, he “translates these
ambiguities [in Hugo’s novel] into the more headlong language of abolitionism”
(Bongie, Friends 115).
Ritchie’s version, in other words, presents a paradigmatic case of the way a translation can move well beyond its supposedly secondary, imitative status to make distinctive intertextual connections in its own right. Bongie concludes that The Slave-King,
in ironing out the ambiguities of Hugo’s text, shows the limits of Ritchie’s liberal
imagination when it comes to the undecipherable, almost unthinkably complex
phenomenon that the Haitian Revolution represents. And this is precisely what
happens in Benito Cereno when the good-natured Delano repeatedly translates the
confusing sights and sounds aboard the San Dominick into a story that will better
conform to his preexisting convictions. Ritchie was just one of Hugo’s many English
translators, and Bongie suggests that we need to see Hugo – who rivaled Scott as the
most popular historical novelist in the world over the course of the nineteenth century
– as a formative English writer, and Bug-Jargal as “one of the most important works
Susan Gillman and Kirsten Silva Gruesz
of nineteenth-century colonial fiction” in the English-speaking world as well (Bongie,
Friends 119). So are the parallels between its versions and Benito Cereno signs of what
we are accustomed to call “influence”? In the absence of hard evidence for much of
what Melville read during his most productive years as a fiction writer, we can only
hazard that one of these apparently popular renditions of the Bug-Jargal story may
have come into his orbit. But which translation might he have read? Ritchie’s, with
its explicitly abolitionist, pro-Haitian spin? One that stressed the exotic-romance
aspect, as in The Noble Rival; or the Prince of Congo? Or one that fed into darker, more
paranoid musings on why Haiti mattered for Americans, like The Massacre in San
Domingo? The impossibility of answering such a question suggests that we need to
think about text-networks rather than sources and influences, to look seriously at
multiple versions rather than fetishizing originals.
Although the novel’s three central black characters – the African Bug-Jargal and
the mulattoes Biassou and Habibrah – all speak both of the island’s colonial languages
as well as the local creole, only Bug-Jargal commands them in a way that demonstrates
his “civilizable” potential, his affinity for culture and beauty. Biassou’s language use,
in contrast, reveals him as a pathetic pretender, “frequently mixing creole and Spanish
phrases in with his bad French” (Hugo, Bug-Jargal 121). Much of the middle sections
of the novel describe scenes in Biassou’s rebel camp that are peripheral to the plot;
this is where Hugo leans most heavily on his sources and seems to be endeavoring to
make sense of the event in a larger way. They are also some of the most polyvocal
sections, with Biassou in particular making long speeches punctuated by Spanish and
Creole sayings that require a footnote from Hugo. Biassou’s “bad French” is played
for comic effect, but his butchery of the language also reinforces the idea that he and
his followers are animals. The sentences that Hugo chooses not to render in French
tend to be folksy sayings on which he performs a potentially explosive exegesis: for
example, “El tiempo de la mansuetud es pasado” (translated in Hugo’s footnote: “The time
for being meek is over”). Biassou continues in Creole, “We have for a long time now
been as patient as the sheep whose wool the whites liken to our hair. Let us now be
as implacable as the panthers and jaguars of the lands from which we were torn away”
(121). Even as the narrative mocks Biassou’s ragged code-switching, the effectiveness
of his figurative language upon his followers is clear – and clearly threatening.
Some of this Babel-babble inevitably escapes from Ritchie’s version, as he translates
Hugo’s French footnotes for the Spanish and Creole phrases into English, but maintains Biassou’s nonstandard French in standard English – losing the comic effect
conveyed to Parisian readers by that character’s dialect. A scene in Chapter 29, which
recounts Biassou’s telling of a parable, is a good example. Here Biassou has someone
bring him “a glass full of grains of black maize. He threw in some grains of white
maize” and then, holding it up for the troops to see, says – in Creole – “Guetté blan
si la la.” Hugo’s footnote translates this as “Voyez ce que sont les blancs relativement à
vous,” or, in Bongie’s translation, “See what the whites are in relation to you” (Hugo,
Bug-Jargal 319). Ritchie’s version, however, drops an accent and shifts a consonant to
get “Guette blan ci la la” in the body of the text, which is translated at the bottom as
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“Now look, where are the whites!” (Ritchie 95). Although he maintains the imperative form of voyez, the phrase “Where are the whites!” makes it sound as if the white
grains of maize had been lost or pushed aside. The translation loses the sense of relativity and proportion – the entirely logical argument that the whites in SaintDomingue were far outnumbered by people of color. Only Hugo’s version of Biassou’s
parable gets across the idea that the minority power typical of the slave system was
entirely unnatural.
And yet Ritchie’s version, however imprecise it is for a reader not versed in Creole
idioms, gets at that unnaturalness in a different way, an uncanny way. How does one
“see” whiteness? In the legal documents that are imagined in the latter pages of Benito
Cereno, we are told that Babo used a particular form of psychological torture to ensure
his hold over the captain and sailors of the ship he has taken over. He stages a ritual
of forced looking. Bringing out first the captain and then each of the men, he demands
they gaze at Aranda’s skeleton, asking
whose skeleton that was, and whether, from its whiteness, he should not think it a
white’s; that, upon discovering his [Cereno’s] face, the negro Babo, coming close, said
words to this effect: “Keep faith with the blacks from here to Senegal, or you shall in
spirit, as now in body, follow your leader,” pointing to the prow. (Melville 245)
The imperative to see what is precisely invisible and ideological – whiteness – is
directly linked in Benito Cereno to the foreign language, Spanish, through yet another
iteration of seguid vuestro jefe, the phrase that the reader has by now been schooled to
translate. This much-commented scene of the racial uncanny might also be understood
as a translation or adaptation of Ritchie’s “Now look, where are the whites!”
Yet another twist to the textual movements of the parable of the maize is that
Hugo lifted this scene nearly verbatim from one of his principal sources, JosephFrançois-Pamphile de Lacroix’s Mémoires pour Servir a L’Histoire de la Révolution de
Saint-Domingue, published in 1819. There, however, it is attributed to Toussaint
L’Ouverture himself: Toussaint allegedly mixes the grains and says – in Creole –
“Guetté blanc ci la la, c’est a dire: Voyez ce qu’est le blanc proportionnellement à vous” [“See
what the white man is in proportion to you”] (Lacroix 410). By putting these words
instead into the mouth of an uneducated character who massacres the language, Hugo
seems to undermine any effort to frame the story of Haiti around a political logic of
majoritarian justice or around Toussaint as a heroic leader. That would be a task for
John Beard and other early biographers of Toussaint, who followed Lacroix in portraying Toussaint in the role of revolutionary genius and master of liberatory language,
his head a “hive of subtlety” (to adopt the sign of Babo’s unfathomable brilliance).
Hugo writes Toussaint out of his historical romance. But many of Hugo’s readers
would have known that the real Jorge/Georges Biassou, after breaking with Toussaint
and witnessing the withdrawal of the Spanish militia (and with it, the reassertion of
French as the language of power chosen by the Haitians themselves), fled the island for
St. Augustine in Spanish Florida. There he married a fugitive slave from South
Susan Gillman and Kirsten Silva Gruesz
Carolina and disappeared into the history of another former Spanish colony, just
waking up to its inclusion in the US nation-state.
Hugo, then, was drawn to simplify the confounding early stages of the Haitian
Revolution through the vilified, Hispanized figure of Biassou. And while Melville
criticism today may have overcome its stubbornly national focus by finally remembering Haiti as the prime historical subtext of Benito Cereno, it nonetheless replicates
Hugo’s own binary tendencies by debating the source for the character of Babo in
Manichean terms: bloodthirsty Dessalines versus heroic Toussaint (see Beecher). The
limitations of that stark choice mirror the analytical limitations of two-way “comparison” between the United States and Haiti. Imagining Babo in light of the shifting
loyalties and languages of Biassou, Habibrah, and Bug-Jargal, on the other hand,
brings more of the complexity of that colonial world back into our field of vision.
Descendants, Antecedents, and Precedents
C.L.R. James in the Text-Network
Pamphile de Lacroix, the originator of the parable of the black and white maize, is
also a key source of C.L.R. James’s Black Jacobins. James tells his own version of the
story about the grains of maize – and like Lacroix but unlike Hugo, he attributes it
to Toussaint, using it to demonstrate that Toussaint’s genius extended far beyond
tactical or oratorical brilliance to the psychological: “with all classes of people he found
instinctively the right method” of communication (James, Black Jacobins 251). James
does not mention Toussaint speaking in Creole but his own translation of the key
line, “See, the white ones only here and there,” stresses the outnumbering of whites
by blacks that underlies Lacroix’s original version. James also makes his own, apparently speculative addition to the anecdote that is in neither Lacroix nor Hugo, commenting that the blacks went away, initially reassured by Toussaint’s parable, but then
they came to him saying that they did not wish to obey either whites or Mulattoes (due
in all probability to some insults or injustices meted out to them by these former
masters). Toussaint took a glass of wine and a glass of water, mixed them together and
showed the result. “How can you tell which is which? We must all live together.” They
went away satisfied. (James, Black Jacobins 252)
Because James does not footnote his source for this incident – as was his wont with
Lacroix, whom he often paraphrases at length without direct attribution – we cannot
tell whether or not he is speculating about the “We must all live together” ending, but
in any case James’s parable complicates the adaptations of Lacroix – via Ritchie’s Hugo,
or via Beard’s popular and derivative 1853 history (which also cites verbatim, in translation, Lacroix’s version of this scene) – to which Melville might have had access.
What better evidence of the possible intersecting worlds among these writers and
sources, their different languages, places, and times, could there be than the parable
The Hemispheric Text-Network
of the maize that they all improbably share in common? Yet James is something of
an outlier in the Haiti-Hugo-Melville text-network, not despite but because of the
Lacroix connection. As a common source Lacroix poses some real challenges. James,
writing in 1938, recommends Lacroix’s Mémoires in his “Special Bibliography” as
“indispensable” and “fully deserv[ing] its reputation,” although Lacroix is “biased in
favour of the French,” and “modern research has proved him wrong on many points”
(James, Black Jacobins 381). So one of James’s important sources, an antecedent on
which he relies heavily, is, like most books available to him in 1938, semitainted:
“Despite the importance and interest of the subject, it was for long difficult to find
in English or French a comprehensive and well-balanced treatment of the San Domingo
revolution in short compass” (James, Black Jacobins 381). It almost goes without saying
that neither Hugo nor Melville answers the need for such a treatment, and neither is
listed among James’s sources in either the bibliography or the footnotes (notwithstanding the occasional references to fictional sources such as Lamartine’s 1863 play
Toussaint that James “counts” among the works he consulted). How, then, does James’s
celebrated history of the San Domingo revolution help us to think through the
network of antecedents, precedents, and descendants that he brings into or on-line?
While it is notoriously difficult to assess negative evidence, we know that just as
James did not include Melville in the revised 1963 Black Jacobins, he also did not talk
much about Benito Cereno in his late writings on Melville during the 1950s. Given the
simple fact of their temporal proximity, it’s nonetheless a challenge to establish, not
that, but how the 1963 edition of The Black Jacobins relates to the late James works,
which take Melville as a jumping-off point for Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: The
Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In (1953) and the long essay on American
civilization completed in early 1950 (“my ultimate aim, and my book on Melville is
merely a preparation for it, is to write a study of American civilization,” he writes in
Mariners, 160). One way to express the relation is to note that all of these works engage
the social and narrative problem of unfinished revolution. James imagines Melville to
be the author of a story of revolt that could have happened but instead loomed, unfulfilled, in Moby-Dick: the nonevent of mutiny by the international crew of “mongrels,
renegades, castaways and savages” aboard the Pequod (James, American Civilization 75).
When James writes about Melville in Mariners, 10 years before he would turn to the
second edition of Black Jacobins, he dismisses Benito Cereno as “a propaganda story and
mystery, written to prove a particular social or political point” (James, Mariners 112),
leading critic Jonathan Elmer to question James’s motives. Why would James seemingly disavow Benito Cereno and turn instead to Moby-Dick, when a text that clearly
seemed to reference Haiti was right there before him (Elmer 73–4)? One answer lies
in the multiplicity of The Black Jacobins itself, and the way it returns to Haiti differently in the second edition of 1963 – that is, after James’s encounter with Melville.
James continually updated and translated Haiti and slave revolt to fit “the
history of our time” (James, The Black Jacobins vii), starting with the coming decolonization of Africa that he envisaged in the 1938 edition. In the revised edition
of 1963, however, he makes these events anticipate the emancipation of the West
Susan Gillman and Kirsten Silva Gruesz
Indies, through and within the Cuban Revolution: “What took place in French San
Domingo in 1792–1804,” James says in the famous appendix “From Toussaint
L’Ouverture to Fidel Castro,” “reappeared in Cuba in 1958” (James, Black Jacobins
391). His additions to this version, including as well a new preface, footnotes, and
updated bibliography, underscore the way that James retranslates his own earlier idea
of the ultimate meaning of the Haitian Revolution in response to changing historical
conditions, just as he had reimagined the plot of Moby-Dick for Melville. These
autotranslations extend forward to James’s 1971 lectures “Why I Wrote The Black
Jacobins” and “How I Would Rewrite The Black Jacobins,” delivered at the Institute of
the Black World in Atlanta. Whether one considers these materials paratexts, metatexts, or versions, they, too, may best be understood as translations without an original
– as additional pieces in James’s own text-network, which in turn overtly calls forth
and reanimates the antecedent texts in this hemispheric network that we have just
In so doing, James shows the necessity of thinking speculatively and even counterfactually. His “Black Jacobins” (both the work and the force it named, in the words
of Robin Blackburn) are open-ended, speculative thoughts. James himself invokes the
Hegelian term speculative thought to describe why he wrote The Black Jacobins: “thinking about what is going to happen as a result of what you see around you” (James,
“Lectures” 72). In 1938 James wrote his book on Haiti 1789–1803 “in order that
people should think about the African revolution and get their minds right about
what was bound to happen in Africa.” Then, in a doubly or perhaps triply speculative
act, he revised Black Jacobins in 1962 to show how “what took place in French San
Domingo in 1792–1804 reappeared in Cuba in 1958,” tracing Castro’s uncompleted
revolution of the twentieth century to Toussaint’s of the eighteenth via their common
route in and through the West Indies: “West Indians first became aware of themselves
as a people in the Haitian Revolution. Whatever its ultimate fate, the Cuban Revolution
marks the ultimate stage of a Caribbean quest for national identity” (James, Black
Jacobins 391). For James, this speculative thought means that the 1790s constituted
an immediate historical context for the 1930s and 1940s: neither simply an important
precedent (though it is that) nor a tragically failed past future, foreclosed once and
for all time, but an untimely futures past.9 In so doing, he preserves the prolepsis
characteristic of as yet unfulfilled, or untimely, history. African decolonization may
have occurred by the time of the 1963 Black Jacobins, but that outcome does not
change the urgency of futurity, the “bound-to-happen.” And Haiti becomes part of
something bigger than itself, “an original pattern, not European, not African, not a
part of the American main, not native in any conceivable sense of that word, but West
Indian, sui generis, with no parallel anywhere else” (James, Black Jacobins 391–2).
If this formula seems to reflect a strange hybrid of both Haitian unthinkability and
American exceptionalism, that is exactly the point. Worlding America requires speculative thought: a willingness to let go of its presumed center of analysis, again and
again. Melville as a figure was enlisted by James – against the grain and in the absence
of his own best articulation of what the Haitian event might mean for the United
The Hemispheric Text-Network
States in Benito Cereno – to underscore the point that Black Jacobins wanted to make
about unfinished revolution. Indeed, James’s work may be a model of worlded literary
criticism, in that it points to the necessity of finding multidirectional lines of transnational contact, characterized by unanticipated geographical and temporal contiguity
across far-flung spatial, national, and linguistic contexts – including, finally, our own
present conditions. The links that connect Black Jacobins to Lacroix’s Mémoires, to BugJargal, The Slave-King, and Benito Cereno, cannot be articulated within traditional
models of authorial influence, or within comparative mappings (espoused by Franco
Moretti, Jerome McGann, and others) of the way that specific genres migrate from
one nation to the next. An emerging interdiscipline of network studies proposes that
the behavior of mutating cells, stock markets, and wary voters can all be better understood by paying attention to this dictum: stuff spreads in mysterious ways.10 As digital
media beckon with a more open access to those old text-networks, we may find not
so much a brave new world of Americas literature, freed from the shibboleth of
America, our singular object of analysis, as the counterfactual of a literary past that
is different from what we thought we knew and that, paradoxically, has yet to materialize: James’s speculative thought, our worlding America.
A vocal resistance to the “transnational turn”
in American literary studies has emanated
mainly from scholars located in comparative
literature departments; Djelal Kadir in particular has repeatedly taken up this position.
While we disagree with many of his conclusions, Kadir’s 2004 essay contributes the
useful figure of the compass on which we
build here, and sums up the stakes of this
See Leslie and Stuckey, 287–301. In his 2008
book, Stuckey moves deliberately away from
Sundquist’s insistence on a diasporic framework to a more continentally Africanist one.
Barely glancing at the events in Haiti, he
presents Benito Cereno and Moby-Dick instead
as fictions whose “worlds largely turn on an
African cultural axis” (18).
This is why we think the term hemispheric
still has an analytic utility despite the geographic limitations of western-hemispheric
studies: hemispheric lends to transnational
American study a continuing stress on
slavery and indigenous dispossession as the
dominant conditions of a modern worldsystem defined, at its base and core, by the
European discovery and ravishment of the
For a provocative reading of Haiti as “event,”
see Elmer (55–61, 64–70).
Jones challenges Sundquist’s guess that the
mutineers communicated through African
drums and hand signals. Spanish, he argues,
can’t be a secret or secondary language on
the ship because it is possessed by all the
masters and most if not all of the slaves,
which goes against Sundquist’s notion that
Babo was the principal user of the European
language. This implies that the mutineers
had the power to enforce “linguistic surveillance” (Jones 44) on the Spanish sailors, so
the sailors have to resort to unspoken means
of communication with Delano, like the
tossing of the knot and the flashing of the
We are indebted to Chris Bongie, whose new
translation, introduction and notes to BugJargal, as well as his detailed chapters in
two books, set the standard for new work on
this novel. Citations to the novel are to his
translation unless attributed to a different
Susan Gillman and Kirsten Silva Gruesz
Nina Scott’s introduction to her English
translation of Goméz de Avellaneda’s Sab
notes the author’s indebtedness to Hugo.
There was a Spanish translation published in
Paris in 1833, just after it came out in
French; two others (which may be the same
translation) in Madrid in 1834 and 1835;
and most influentially for Spanish abolitionists, Bug-Jargal o el Negro Rey, por Victor Hugo,
traducida al español por D.M. Bosch.
8. Ritchie’s The Slave-King went through new
London editions in 1837 and 1852; a cursory
search uncovers at least a few contemporary
reviews of this translation in US papers. The
other editions that would have been accessible to Melville prior to the writing of Benito
Cereno were Bug-Jargal; or, A Tale of the
Massacre in St. Domingo. 1791 (New York,
1844), and The Noble Rival; or, the Prince of
Congo. A Translation of Bug-Jargal (London,
1845). There was also a version available in
an American compendium of Hugo’s shorter
novels in French: Hans of Iceland, Bug-Jargal,
Claude Gueux (New York, 1833). All this
would seem to back up Bongie’s assertion
that in contrast to France, where Hugo’s later
novels quickly came to overshadow it, BugJargal “retained a certain life of its own in
mid-century Britain and the States . . . it
was a novel that mattered to Victorian
readers” (Friends 119).
See Wilder (106) for the “as if” comment; for
other views of James’s proleptic thinking, see
Pease and Surin.
The summary phrase comes from Gudrais’s
overview of recent network theory across
References and Further Reading
Beard, John Relly. Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture.
London: 1853.
Bongie, Chris. Friends and Enemies: The Scribal
Politics of Post/Colonial Literature. Liverpool:
Liverpool University Press, 2008.
Elmer, Jonathan. “Babo’s Razor.” Differences 19, no.
2 (2008): 55–64.
Gómez de Avellaneda, Gertrudis. Sab; and
Autobiography. Trans. and ed. Nina M. Scott.
Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993.
Gudrais, Elizabeth. “Networked.” Harvard
Magazine, May–June 2010. http://harvardmagazine.com/2010/05/networked
Hugo, Victor. Bug-Jargal. 1826. Trans. and ed. by
Chris Bongie. Peterborough, ON: Broadview
Press, 2004.
Hugo, Victor. Bug-Jargal o el Negro Rey, por Victor
Hugo, traducida al español por D.M. Bosch. Spanish
trans. Barcelona: Impr. Manuel Saury, 1840.
Hugo, Victor. Bug-Jargal; or, A Tale of the Massacre
in St. Domingo. 1791. New York: J. Mowatt &
Co., 1844.
Hugo, Victor. Hans of Iceland, Bug-Jargal, Claude
Gueux. New York: PF Collier & Son, 1833.
Hugo, Victor. The Noble Rival; or, the Prince of
Congo. A Translation of Bug-Jargal. London,
James, C.L.R. American Civilization. Eds. Anna
Grimshaw and Keith Hart. Oxford: Blackwell,
James, C.L.R. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint
L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. 2nd
ed., rev. New York: Random House, 1963.
James, C.L.R. “Lectures on The Black Jacobins.”
Small Axe 8 (September 2000): 65–112.
James, C.L.R. Mariners, Renegades and Castaways.
Hanover: University Press of New England,
Johnson, Sara E. “ ‘You Should Give Them Blacks
to Eat’: Waging Inter-American Wars of Torture
and Terror.” American Quarterly 61, no. 1 (March
2009): 65–92.
Jones, Gavin. Strange Talk: The Politics of Dialect
Literature in Gilded Age America. Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1999.
Kadir, Djelal. “To World, To Globalize:
Comparative Literature Studies 41, no. 1 (2004):
Lacroix, Pamphile de. Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire
de la révolution de Saint-Domingue. 2 vols. Paris,
Leslie, Joshua, and Sterling Stuckey. “The Death
of Benito Cereno: A Reading of Herman
The Hemispheric Text-Network
Melville on Slavery: The Revolt on Board the
Tryal.” The Journal of Negro History 67, no. 4
(1982): 287–301.
Melville, Herman. Benito Cereno, Billy Budd and
Other Stories. New York: Penguin, 1986.
Pease, Donald. “C.L.R. James, Moby-Dick, and the
Emergence of Transnational American Studies.”
American Quarterly 56, no. 3 (Autumn 2000):
Pease, Donald. “Doing Justice to C.L.R. James’s
Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways.” boundary
2 27, no. 2 (2000): 1–19.
Ritchie, Leitch. The Slave-King: From the Bug-Jargal
of Victor Hugo. London and Philadelphia: Smith,
Elder, 1833.
Seigel, Micol. “Beyond Compare: Historical
Method after the Transnational Turn.” Radical
History Review 91 (2005): 62–90.
Selden, Daniel. “Text Networks.” Ancient Narrative
8 (2009): 1–23.
Stuckey, Sterling. African Culture and Melville’s Art:
The Creative Process in Benito Cereno and MobyDick. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Sundquist, Eric. To Wake the Nations: Race in the
Making of American Literature. Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 1993.
Surin, Kenneth. “ ‘The Future Anterior’: C.L.R.
James and Going Beyond a Boundary.” In
Rethinking C.L.R. James (pp. 187–204). Ed.
Grant Farred. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.
Wilder, Gary. “Untimely Vision: Aimé Césaire,
Decolonization, Utopia.” Public Culture 21, no.
1 (2009): 101–40.
Wilson, Rob, and Chris Connery. Eds.
“Introduction: Worlded Pedagogy in Santa
Cruz.” In Chris Connery and Rob Wilson,
Worlding Project: Doing Cultural Studies in the Era
of Globalization (pp. 1–12). Santa Cruz, CA:
Pacific Press, 2007.
Worlds of Color, Gender, Sexuality,
and Labor in Early American
Literary History
Michelle Stephens
In the simple distinction between our own and past societies we avoid calling into question our own position, the place from which we ourselves speak. (Žižek, 102)
In literary criticism and scholarship, it is always a tricky enterprise to use the standards
and dilemmas of the present as a lens for viewing and interpreting the past. One is
afraid of being too presentist, of creating counterfactuals that go against the effort to
ground literary texts and authors in their historical specificity. One expects such a
criticism, for example, in relation to American authors of historical novels writing
before the 1950s, criticized for their inability to place their characters in multicultural
or culturally diverse settings. It also arises as a response to feminist critiques of
American authors who cannot attribute to their female protagonists the same degree
of presence, agency, subjectivity, and freedom as their male counterparts.
Our lens in the early twenty-first century is supposed to have broadened to include
a notion of American literature as a more gender-diverse and racially capacious space.
To the degree that racial segregation and female marginalization were aspects of earlier
moments in American society and culture, it is to be expected that those norms would
shape the previous literary worlds and consciousnesses of American authors. However,
what if we took the very terms by which previous authors saw their world, their
America, not as some kind of natural social or historical fact, but rather as they themselves defined it by a set of occlusions and repressions? These occlusions have to do
not only with the exclusion of the actual or historical conditions of women and people
of color in previous eras of American history. They also exclude the very instabilities
produced within the American subject when the narrative frames of nationality, mas-
A Companion to American Literary Studies, First Edition. Edited by Caroline F. Levander,
Robert S. Levine.
© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2011 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Worlds of Color, Gender, Sexuality, and Labor
culinity, patriarchy, heterosexuality, and Christianity cannot fully contain the equally
powerful fantasies of the self and the Other that made up the space of intercultural
interaction in the early American colonies.
Another real loss, then, in the exclusion or marginalization of people of color and
women in American narratives is the veiling of the problems those Other subjects
represented for the white, male, Anglo-American traditionally conceived as the template for the American self. Yet I would argue that this is one of the more fruitful
entryways for pursuing the question of Otherness and Others in early American texts.
Even in the canonical work of a traditional male author, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The
Scarlet Letter (1850), one can read, in those moments when the worlds of men, women,
and people of color brush up against each other, a more complex and messy narrative
of the prohibitions that were necessary in order to occlude and contain the intercultural
relations that shaped both racial norms and sexual mores in the early colonies.
As much as distinct, official, community identities and nationalities were created
from the economically intertwined, interimperial history of the New World, so too
were the very subjects created by those histories also experiencing a variety of destabilizations and anxieties produced by the colonial encounter. These psychic splits and
fissures problematized the very question of who or what constituted a standard
American from within, producing “forms of suppression and disavowal” precisely in
order to contain such identity rifts (Fischer 20). Not surprisingly, sexuality or sexual
relations, or, even more specifically, intimacy – the intimacy of proximal relations – is
an arena that has much to tell us about this secret dimension of American literature
and history, the worlds of gender, color, and labor that the Anglo-American male
subject inhabited and was shaped by in both conscious and unconscious ways.
The Scarlet Letter is, of course, one of the paradigmatic tales of sexual mores and
behaviors set during the era of American Puritanism. And it is toward the end of that
very novel that the author uses a word that first struck this reader as oddly anachronistic in the context of the mid-nineteenth century, when the novel was written – the
word is “diversity.” As Hawthorne describes a scene in the town of Salem’s marketplace
on the occasion of a public holiday in the mid-1600s, he states, “The picture of human
life in the market-place, though its general tint was the sad gray, brown, or black of
the English emigrants, was yet enlivened by some diversity of hue” (148).
By retracing the paths this term takes in the text, acknowledging its origin in
present connotations and concerns but moving backward to the arena of meaning laid
out by Hawthorne’s use of the term, I argue here that the diversity of the American
past is revealed in the novel’s veiled references to the more polyglot and polyamorous
worlds of gender, color, labor, and sexuality that underlie the narrative’s primary plot.
We read the political unconscious of American fictions for the ways the classed,
racial, gendered, sexual tensions of the text attempt to resolve contradictions internal
to the societies from which they are created. Here I am arguing that “reading for
diversity” in the context of early American texts means reading for the intercultural
unconscious of such works, that is, reading for the ways the classed, racial, gendered,
sexual tensions of the imagined American society emerge in the face of difference from
Michelle Stephens
without. As such, this reading mimics that of the nineteenth-century critic Jane
Swisshelm, who reviewed Hawthorne’s novel when it was first published. As Robert
Levine describes, in her clever and ironic “misreading” of Hawthorne’s intentions, her
“own uncertainty about Hawthorne’s didactic aims [is] suggested by her repeated use
of ‘if ’” when considering “Hawthorne’s conflict between his attraction to the subversive Hester and his desire to contain her” (Levine 278–9). She anticipates the type of
“aversive reading” Sacvan Bercovitch calls for that emphasizes “dissent over containment” (Levine 290). I argue strenuously here that The Scarlet Letter is fully amenable
to just such a reading, but not for reasons shaped solely by feminist concerns. In addition, a potentially counterfactual reading that begins from the traces of the diversity
of the present immanent in the text can also rebuild the very worlds of color, labor,
gender, and sexuality in early American history whose tensions and rough edges are
simultaneously inscribed on and disavowed in Hawthorne’s imaginary construction
of America (Fischer). These tensions reveal the instabilities produced in the early
American colonies and later republics by the global market economies and hemispheric historical conditions within which they were situated. As such, the close
reading I offer here, of a seemingly innocuous feature of the marketplace that serves
as the setting for Hester Prynne’s public exposure and shaming, is intended also as a
harbinger for what more aversive, counterfactual approaches in American literary
studies can reveal in traditional texts – not so much their subversive or dissenting
features as the ways they bear witness to their own inability to contain the diverse
elements and forces constituting American social and cultural orders across times and
The Picture of Human Life in The Scarlet Letter
In his one-sentence description of the “diversity of hue” present in Salem’s marketplace, Hawthorne encapsulates two of the key features of the diversity of this midseventeenth-century world that is the setting of his story (148). The first is the
market-based context within which “cultural diversity” first emerges. The second is
the intersubjective nature of a Puritan identity colored by the settlers’ awareness of
the differences surrounding them in the other inhabitants of the New World.
The marketplace that serves as the backdrop for this colorful scene is suggestive of
the public sphere of economic activity and transatlantic trade that is also the determinative force shaping the scene’s motley features. In their account of the early days of
the “revolutionary Atlantic,” Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker use the term
“motley” to describe the heterogeneous populations involved in and interacting
together as part of the seventeenth-century trade between Europe, Africa, and the
Americas. Derived from a garment used in Renaissance England, a motley was “a multicolored garment, often a cap, worn by a jester who was permitted by the king to make
jokes, even to tell the truth. . . . [T]he motley brought carnivalesque expectations of
disorder and subversion, a little letting-off of steam” (Linebaugh and Rediker 28). As
Worlds of Color, Gender, Sexuality, and Labor
they continue to describe, “motley could also refer to a colorful assemblage,” not unlike
the crowd Hawthorne is attempting to describe in the Salem marketplace – or a
“ ‘lumpen’-proletariat,” not unlike the motley crews of the various trading ships crossing
the Atlantic in the early days of New World discovery and trade. These ships were
populated by a diverse group of laborers, both men and women who “worked as skilled
navigators and sailors on early transatlantic ships, as slaves on American plantations,
and as entertainers, sex workers, and servants in London” (28).
We can follow the routes of Linebaugh’s and Rediker’s Atlantic ships of the revolutionary seventeenth century forward to the world of modern capitalism. At the start
of the twentieth century, W.E.B. Du Bois coined the phrase “worlds of color” to
describe precisely the convergence of “modern imperialism and modern industrialism”
as “one and the same system; root and branch of the same tree” (386). Laura Doyle
turns our attention to the place of Anglo-American literary history within an “Atlantic
modernity reaching from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century” (304). This
trajectory also extended into the twentieth century for Du Bois. The word “color” in
his famous trope of the twentieth-century color line referred not just to the problem
of race as racism but also to the problem of race as precisely the interdependency of
national labor relations and global market concerns: “the race problem is the other
side of the labor problem [and] empire is the heavy hand of capital abroad” (386). In
addition, Du Bois used the phrase “worlds of color” to capture the relations of mutual
dependency between empires and colonies. His trope of Europe as part of a network of
“worlds of color” is not unlike Sean Goudie’s imagining of the early United States as
a “creole” republic where the founding fathers, as invested as they were in political
independence, found themselves still as dependent on colonial markets and economic
relations as the rest of the colonies of the Americas.
So, in the economic trajectory traced by Linebaugh and Rediker and by Du Bois,
the diversity of seventeenth-century America reflects a world of commerce and labor
that is racialized in ways that continue to shape the relations of dependency between
empires and colonies at the start of the twentieth century. In this sense, “diversity”
is not anachronistic in Hawthorne’s seventeenth-century world as much as it references
the forces that set that very world described in motion – a broader, global, economic
context that interpellates multiple subjects in different locations and creates a logic
still operative for Du Bois in the industrial world of the early twentieth century.
What is different from the twentieth century in Hawthorne’s account, however, is
that, to the degree that we associate diversity with the cultures of peoples of color,
the second aspect of the “diversity of hue” in his Salem marketplace includes the
Puritans dressed in their “sad gray, brown, or black” apparel. Focusing on their clothing, Hawthorne points subtly to their own self-construction not merely for religious
purposes, but in addition as a response characteristic of Europeans more broadly when
faced with the worlds of difference and color they were newly encountering in Asia,
Africa, and the Americas. The choice against color that seems so characteristic of the
Puritans is as much a racial as a religious choice – a choice shaped by encounters
between racially diverse populations. By the nineteenth century, this choice had taken
Michelle Stephens
on such ideological rigidity that color itself signified as the very essence of the difference between the European settlers and the American populations surrounding them.
As the anthropologist Michael Taussig describes,
“Men in a state of nature,” wrote Goethe in his book on color, “uncivilized nations and
children, have a great fondness for colours in their utmost brightness.” . . . He recalled
a German mercenary returned from America who had painted his face with vivid colors
in the manner of the Indians, the effect of which “was not disagreeable.” On the other
hand, in northern Europe at the time in which he wrote in the early nineteenth century,
people of refinement had a disinclination to colors, women wearing white, the men,
black. (3)
In What Color Is the Sacred? Taussig pursues this history of color further, offering an
archaeology of how we have come to think about color by demonstrating its links to
colonialism. Unraveled, color signifies as nothing less than “the making of culture
from the human body,” in other words, the implication of the human body and the
sensuous realm it inhabits in the manufacture of cultural regulations, prescriptions,
attributes, and norms (Taussig 8). Taussig argues further,
Even in the West color is a whole lot more than hue. . . . [I]t is the combustible mix
of attraction and repulsion towards color that . . . as Goethe’s face-painted mercenary
suggests, owe more than a little to the Western experience of colonization as colored
Otherness. (9)
If we follow Taussig’s narrative to its logical conclusions, when we state our postmodern truism that race is a social construction, we are also saying that the color of human
skin has been embedded with a set of social meanings already attached to the idea of
color itself as a racialized construct, a mark of difference; the chicken and the egg,
the organic and the cultural, the body and its apparel, become indistinguishable.
Lest we think Hawthorne’s notion of diversity differs greatly from most twentyfirst-century Americans’ notions of racial diversity, beyond the first two features of
seventeenth-century diversity we noted – the marketplace and the Puritans’ selffashioning of their own sense of difference – the racialization of color, fabric, and the
body’s apparel are integral to his continuing description of the diversity of figures in
the marketplace. As he remarks,
A party of Indians – in their savage finery of curiously embroidered deer-skin robes,
wampum-belts, red and yellow ochre, and feathers, and armed with the bow and arrow
and stone-headed spear – stood apart, with countenances of inflexible gravity, beyond
even what the Puritan aspect could attain. (Hawthorne 148)
It is the curious place of the Native American in Hawthorne’s text that is my point
of focus, however, for explicating the subtlety with which Hawthorne, consciously or
not, locates the diversity of an early America. We find this diversity in the novel in
Worlds of Color, Gender, Sexuality, and Labor
the traces of worlds of color, gender, labor, and sexuality that Anglo-American male
subjects brush up against in their interactions in the New World.
In her own situating of The Scarlet Letter within an Atlantic context, Laura Doyle
argues convincingly that the “Indian-associated imagery” of the novel represents fantasies in which Hawthorne “himself becomes the ‘removed’ victim . . . identifying
with the removed outsider, taking up the very weapons of that wronged figure, but
then usurping the place of that figure” in a way that ultimately shores up his AngloAmerican male self (311). For Doyle, while the “story takes place in a colony flanked
on one side by the peopled and troubled nation of England and on the other side by
the peopled and troubled nations of Indian America. . . . [Hawthorne] largely depeoples these adjacent, interlocked communities,” thus burying the “foundational
violence” of the colonial encounter (307). Her interest is in the ways Hawthorne both
merges and suppresses “the threat of women and the threat of Indians,” precisely
because both could potentially “expel Anglo-American men from their dominance in
‘the field’ ” (314).
We can build on her analysis of the convergence between the Indian and Hester
Prynne’s “fallen” sexuality if we see this linking not only as a metaphor or instance
of deviant colonial relations to be suppressed, but also as the very condition of coloniality itself, a naturalized as opposed to marginal component of early coloniality. The
ever present possibility and proximity of miscegenated relations were New World
realities that were constantly repressed and disavowed, precisely due to their ability
to reveal the instability of racialized and gendered norms in a world of commercial
exchanges and cross-cultural interactions. As Lisa Lowe confirms, historically the
colony was the space where the lines between the worlds of gender, color, sexuality,
and labor blurred:
Conjugal and familial relations in the bourgeois home [were often] distinguished from
the public realm of work, society, and politics. . . . In the colonial context sexual relations were not limited to a “private” sphere but included practices that disrespected
such separations, ranging from rape, assault, domestic servitude, or concubinage to
“consensual relations” between colonizers and colonized. (Lowe 195)
Regulatory fantasies of the Other and prescriptive fictions of the Self emerge in the
face of the de facto legitimacy of inevitable, inescapable, informal, and unorthodox
intimate relations. These sexual relations simultaneously supported norms of patriarchy and heterosexuality whilst undermining them from within.
What Hawthorne symbolically prefigures in his positioning of the figure of the
Native American in the novel as within the community of the public sphere, rather
than without, is the way sexual transgressions reflect the broader instability of the
rules governing the European settler community’s sexual boundaries and behaviors in
the New World. In other words, colonization and coloniality are revealed in The Scarlet
Letter in the moral instability of bourgeois, European heterosexuality itself, given the
informal legitimacy of illegitimate intimate relations within the space of the colony.
Michelle Stephens
As Doyle also reminds us, Governor Richard Bellingham, the historical figure whom
Hawthorne places on the scaffolding above Hester Prynne in her moment of public
shaming and judgment, in actuality had been “voted out of office, in May 1642, for
conduct not so different from Hester’s” (304). His was only one of a “series of sexual
transgressions with which the colony elders were grappling in the early 1640s,” scandals involving the colony’s founding fathers themselves. While for many this leads to
the criticism that Hawthorne, in not revealing this much messier sexual history of
the founding fathers, simultaneously avoids the violent relations between Puritans
and Indians by turning our gaze “strictly to intra-community Puritan violence,” it is
also true that, without the ominous presence of the Native American as one marker
for “wildness” in the text, even the revelation of Bellingham’s and others’ indiscretions
could have been read simply as exceptional instances of violation internal to this
specific Puritan community (309).
In contrast, in the colonial space of polycultural interactions, various relations of
proximity and intimacy, power and labor, were the norm, and intimacies developed
from the meeting of the peoples of four continents in the New World that are absent
from the official colonial archive. As Lowe also describes,
The racial classifications in the archive arose, thus, in this context of the colonial need
to prevent those unspoken intimacies among the colonized. This other valence of intimacies, then, can be said to be the obverse of the intimacy of bourgeois domesticity.
These intimacies are the range of laboring contacts that are necessary for the production
of bourgeois domesticity; they are also the intimacies of captured workers existing
together, the proximity and affinity that gave rise to political, sexual, intellectual connections. (203)
If we place the figures of Hester Prynne, Roger Chillingworth, and the unnamed
Native American within this intimate, laboring world of color, triangulating the
relations between colonizer and colonized, we find that the world of color is constituted precisely by those interactions missing from the colonial record but haunting
the sexual interstices and moral outskirts of the founding fathers’ domestic
What this reading of Hawthorne’s narrative aims to demonstrate is that what may
be missing from the colonial archive can also be present, as a trace, in the most traditional or canonical of American literary texts. This is especially true when these
texts, and the sexual relations they reference, are set against the backdrop of an
Atlantic economy. While this is not Hawthorne’s primary setting, the Atlantic context
is still very much present in the ironic registers of The Scarlet Letter. The trope of the
colorful Native American Taussig finds so problematic in European colonial discourse
actually functions in a much more layered way in Hawthorne’s novel. The reference
to the Native American standing amidst the marketplace crowd actually refers back
to an earlier scene in the novel when Hester Prynne appears in the same marketplace
for her first public shaming before her fellow townspeople, with the scarlet letter A
Worlds of Color, Gender, Sexuality, and Labor
embroidered on her chest. Hawthorne describes this early scene from Hester’s point
of view:
From this intense consciousness of being the object of severe and universal observation,
the wearer of the scarlet letter was at length relieved, by discerning, on the outskirts of
the crowd, a figure which irresistibly took possession of her thoughts. An Indian, in his
native garb was standing there. (44)
The Native American, we are first led to believe, is so irresistibly compelling as to
distract Hester Prynne from her own unique predicament as a white female being cast
out by her Puritan community for adultery. As Hester’s own objectification becomes
less fascinating to her, the reader also turns away from the scene of her humiliation
to follow her gaze at the exotic American Other – the Native American as the vision
of the “colored Otherness” Taussig describes.
As it turns out, however, the focus of Hester Prynne’s attention is not the Native
American at all. The more subtle dimensions of Hawthorne’s portrayal of this seventeenth-century American world lie in this very simple observation. For Hawthorne
actually pushes the Native American to the background as merely another prosaic
feature of the landscape Hester is looking out onto, the world of the marketplace that
extends well beyond the confines of her own moral and gendered dilemma. The relegation of the Native American to the background is rhetorically underscored by
Hawthorne’s use of a colon, which he then follows with the following statement:
but the red men were not so infrequent visitors of the English settlements, that one of
them would have attracted any notice from Hester Prynne, at such a time; much less
would he have excluded all other objects and ideas from her mind. By the Indian’s side,
and evidently sustaining a companionship with him, stood a white man, clad in a strange
disarray of civilized and savage costume. (44)
Both Hester’s shaming, then, and the Native American’s exotic presence, two somewhat unorthodox features in this Puritan landscape, are nevertheless represented as
two of the more mundane aspects of the everyday relations of community and proximity shared by English settlers, shamed women, and Native Americans alike. By mentioning the Native American and then discounting him, Hawthorne does a double
action of both highlighting his presence and then de-exoticizing him as the figure
one might presume to be the deviant Other in this setting. The Native American
functions instead as a natural part of this scene, but not because he blends with nature.
Rather, in the context of the marketplace, both the smaller public sphere of the colony
and the larger, developing global economy it is a satellite of, interactions and transactions with Native Americans are familiar enough that they blend with the Puritan
inhabitants of the colony themselves.
In the earlier scene in the novel, despite the distractions of the main action –
Hester’s public shaming – it is neither the sexual deviance of the Puritan female
Michelle Stephens
subject nor the deviant cultural exoticism of the Native American New World subject
that ultimately threatens the foundations of this Puritan community. Rather, the true
object of attention in the scene is the possible sexual and cultural corruption of the
European male subject, a Chillingworth dressed in his “strange disarray of civilized
and savage costume.” He represents by extension the other upstanding men of Salem
such as the Reverend Dimmesdale, who is the undisclosed father of Hester Prynne’s
child. Like the painted German mercenary Taussig describes, it is the corruption of
the white male subject and narrative by the different causal forces that shape interactions and actions in a world of color – forces of difference and desire – that is at the
center of Hester’s attention and the focus of the reader’s gaze.
When Roger Chillingworth, the white man on the outskirts observing Hester’s
humiliation, describes himself to a bystander as the recent captive of his Native
American companion, he is told in response, “Truly, friend; and methinks it must
gladden your heart, after your troubles and sojourn in the wilderness . . . to find
yourself, at length, in a land where iniquity is searched out . . . here in our godly
New England” (Hawthorne 45). Of course, the irony of this comment is that, for all
the boldness and exposure of Hester’s scarlet A, the one thing the patriarchal community elders have not gotten her to do is to reveal the identity of the man with
whom she conceived her child. In refusing to name the father, Hester enacts her own
refusal to engage the public ritual of shaming that the prescriptions governing Puritan
heterosexuality require.
In The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne’s punishment is crucial then not only as a
measure for policing female sexuality, but also as a measure for securing the sexual
boundaries and kinship laws necessary if this liminal Puritan community, settled in
the borderland between the “wilderness” of the Native Americans and the distant
European homeland, is to maintain and preserve in the New World the stabilizing,
patriarchal features of the Old World past. It is the very policing of sexuality itself
that enables the construction of community boundaries in a world in which those very
boundaries are not at all givens, and that once established are constantly in threat of
erosion by the very reality of cross-cultural intimacies and proximities in the early
colonial world. Hawthorne’s Puritan community remains successfully isolated in a
de-peopled landscape only when we read Hester’s dilemma as the exception to community norms, the narrative provided on the surface of the text. However, reading
the narrative more aversively, for the traces it contains but cannot contain, the sexual
dilemma at the heart of the novel is not the exception but the very norm signaled by
the shadowy figures of deviant others and wild landscapes that migrate from the
margins to occupy the same central space – of the colony, of the market – as the
founding elders themselves.
The family arrangements and gendered relations that lay at the core of bourgeois
domesticity were some of the most important markers of European civilization preserved by the American colonists. Idealized European family arrangements were often
used to define the very meaning of family and kinship for other communities in the
Worlds of Color, Gender, Sexuality, and Labor
bourgeois intimacy was precisely a biopolitics through which the colonial powers administered the enslaved and colonized and sought to indoctrinate the newly freed into forms
of Christian marriage and family. The colonial management of sexuality, affect, marriage
and family among the colonized formed a central part of the microphysics of colonial
rule. (Lowe 193)
Against this backdrop, what we can also read for in early American narratives is the
instability of the European family in the face of mobility, miscegenation, and difference. Doyle argues rightly that the scene of Hester’s undoing occurs before the novel
even begins, in “the transatlantic migration of Hester alone [to the Americas]. It is
this fact that determines Hester’s ‘fall’ ” (301; emphasis in original). We can extend
this observation to say that the narrative of that undoing is still unfolding in the New
World, as all social and sexual norms are in danger of being undone by colonial life.
Using irony and foreshadowing to great psychological effect, what Hawthorne actually
establishes in his use of the Native American both in the novel’s opening scene and
throughout is his status as a trope or marker for an alternate sexual and intercultural
reality that parallels the conventional colonial setting of America’s Puritan origins.
The reality that the waves of the transatlantic economy could also shape and reshape
white European females’ desires is captured in Hester’s impassioned cry to the father
of her child, the Reverend Dimmesdale, that they escape the reprobation of the
Puritan community by setting out once again into the wild, marine world of the
“Is the world, then, so narrow?” exclaimed Hester Prynne. . . . “Doth the universe lie
within the compass of yonder town, which only a little time ago was but a leaf-strewn
desert, as lonely as this around us? Whither leads yonder forest track? Backward to the
settlement, thou sayest! Yes; but onward, too! Deeper it goes, and deeper, into the
wilderness . . . until, some few miles hence, the yellow leaves will show no vestige of
the white man’s tread.” (127)
Often in American literature, it is women of a “diversity of hues” who find themselves
standing at the crossroads between the world of their culture, and a world of color in
which interactions with Others are the everyday norm rather than the exotic exception. This world of color lies at the borderland, at the frontiers, at the margins, of
hegemonic national narratives. It is the world of the wilderness from which the Native
American figure in Hawthorne’s Salem comes, and also a world that Chillingworth,
the white man, inhabits because it is the conceptual space where a historical narrative
of the material relations between Puritans and Natives – relations of war, commerce,
sex, cultural exchange, miscegenation, and kinship – supercedes the more bounded
narratives of each as distinct imagined communities. And to the degree that gender
and sexuality provide crucial axes along which stable national identities are both
defined and simultaneously undermined, women are less the symbols of Puritan corruption, as in the more straightforward reading of Hester Prynne’s dilemma, than the
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bulwark against a deeper fear of the corruption of the European male subject by his
own miscegenated desires.
To the degree that the interaction with difference in the New World threatened
the stability of prior domestic arrangements central to European conceptions of civilization, Hester’s sin is not just a violation of the terms of the Puritan society being
established in Salem. It also reflects women’s complex place within the creolizing
realities of communal relations forged in an emerging transatlantic economy.
Hawthorne, by telling the story of Hester Prynne, tells us about not just a Puritan
world but also the economic, sexual, social, and cultural relations within which that
world was inscribed. Rather than Hester’s womanhood being merely the symbol of
the corruption of a Puritan world, Hester is also the vehicle by which the instability
of Puritan society and masculinity, in the face of and surrounded by a world of color,
is revealed. As Sean Goudie also describes in Creole America, it was precisely these
proximate relations, these near brushes up against difference, which complicated the
white male settlers’ efforts to define a New World form of Creole nationality that
could be politically independent from European governance whilst remaining dependent on Europe’s cultural identity and the economic influence of the transatlantic
As much as The Scarlet Letter stands as one of the classics in a national, American,
literary tradition, such a text is also to be situated in its hemispheric context since it
is very much within this economic and historical Atlantic context – on the ocean –
that the alternative landscape of an early American world of color – on land – can
also emerge. The history the novel evokes, of adultery and patriarchy within a Puritan
community surrounded by the Otherness and difference of early American communities, shapes a circum-Atlantic landscape in which processes of sexual and gender
formation in the Americas writ large are shaped by the multiple worlds of color created
by labor and transatlantic trade. The moment Hawthorne chooses to return to is, of
course, highly symbolic; The Scarlet Letter is set roughly between 1642 and 1649, a
mere “fifteen or twenty years after the settlement” of this town of Salem by men who
will become in New World history “the founders of a new colony” (36). These men
aspired to create a late seventeenth-century “Utopia of human virtue and happiness,”
and they will literally become the authors of the myths that will found a new republic
(36). The Scarlet Letter’s opening scene is set within the frame of this hegemonic
national narrative of white, Anglo-Saxon origin, with an accompanying focus on the
patriarchal, religious mission that defined the Puritan settlement project. Hawthorne
intentionally evokes this history when he locates Governor John Winthrop, the famous
author of the Puritan ideal of creating in the Americas a “city upon a hill,” as an
actual historical character whose death is referenced in the text.
However, intentionally or not Hawthorne also captures other equally typical, even
if less legitimate or hegemonic, aspects of this early founding scene. Both Hester’s
adultery and the heathen world of the Native American in the wilderness are the
proximate, mundane realities of the surrounding New World that both the public act
of shaming and the Puritan text must work to locate at the margins. This is in order
Worlds of Color, Gender, Sexuality, and Labor
to protect and preserve at the center an ideal vision of the colony as a “Utopia of
human virtue and happiness,” that is, as a site of idealized, Anglo-American sexual
and gendered relations. By the later scene in the marketplace, Hawthorne develops
much more fully the relations between the Puritans’ will to preserve the integrity of
their social and religious community, the multicultural world he rebuilds around
them in Salem, and the transatlantic foundations of this world of diverse hue represented in this Puritan marketplace on the occasion of the “election day” holiday.
Once again, in the later scene the Native Americans constitute only one aspect of
the colorful marketplace. “Wild as were these painted barbarians,” they are relegated
to the ordinary when compared with the even more disruptive group whom Hawthorne
describes as “the wildest feature of the scene” (148). Unlike the exotic Native American
Other, these men hail from Europe’s shores: “some mariners – a part of the crew of
the vessel from the Spanish Main, – who had come ashore to see the humors of Election
day.” Elaborating further on these “rough-looking desperadoes, with sun-blackened
faces,” Hawthorne uses garb and clothing once again to reveal the markers of the
mariners’ alternate notion of community, distinct from Puritan social and religious
norms. And yet, the narrator complains further, given that these men “transgressed,
without fear or scruple, the rules of behavior that were binding on all others,” their
benevolent treatment by the Puritans was a sign of the “incomplete morality of the
age.” “Rigid as we call it,” the age of the Puritans, the Puritan leaders yet allowed a
certain “license” to “the seafaring class, not merely for their freaks on shore, but for
far more desperate deeds on their proper element,” the sea, where they engaged in
acts and behaviors closer to those of the pirates (148).
As his description continues, Hawthorne does away with even the dichotomy that
Linebaugh and Rediker describe in their conception of a revolutionary Atlantic, where
pirates and mariners created an alternative network of sea-based states, “hydrarchies,”
which operated by their own rules and undermined the powers of the imperial units
governing the triangular trade. Instead, in The Scarlet Letter the worlds of hydrarchy
and of Puritan social and religious convention became mutually dependent on and
interactive with each other. As Hawthorne recounts in a lengthy and dramatic
But the sea, in those old times, heaved, swelled and foamed, very much at its own will,
or subject only to the tempestuous wind, with hardly any attempts at regulation by
human law. The buccaneer on the wave might relinquish his calling, and become at
once, if he chose, a man of probity and piety on land. . . . Thus, the Puritan elders, in
their black cloaks, starched bands, and steeple-crowned hats, smiled not unbenignantly
at the clamor and rude deportment of these jolly seafaring men. (148)
With this elaboration on the place of the mariner in relationship to the world of the
male Puritan elders, now the “old times” of the founding of the Salem colony reflect
the transatlantic rather than the Puritan origins of an American world. Thus, in a
final twist Hawthorne reminds us that the issue at stake in the novel is not the
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comparative cultural differences between different communities, Indians and Puritans,
preachers and mariners, but rather the manner in which economic forces are actually
working to undermine those very differences, to make them signify less meaningfully
in the face of other imperatives and priorities.
Revisiting the World of The Scarlet Letter Today
Because of the work of scholars such as Laura Doyle and Sean Goudie, a strand of
American literary scholarship is already engaged in resituating the nation and
American literary histories in the creolized space of the transatlantic. However, just
as the word “creole” itself derives from questions of mixture and sexual hybridization,
a question we can now ask more fully of American literary history is, “Precisely what
were the new worlds of sex and gender created by and formed in the crucible of New
World discovery?” Can we identify as a strand of the American literary tradition narratives that, in describing the boundaries of defined New World communities such
as the Puritans’, have also left clues of the adjacent and equally defining communities
within which those Puritan settlements were situated and with whom they interacted?
American communities were as much about imagining communal identities as about
regulating imaginary and symbolic relations – that is, the more unconscious intercultural relations of desire that occurred side by side with more conscious forms of
cultural interaction. It is these circum-Atlantic historical relations, labeled under the
stigma and the category of miscegenation, that Joseph Roach reminds us are at the
heart of a constitutive amnesia in telling the story of New World formations.
In thinking about the place of women in the worlds of color, gender, and labor
that characterize New World and American cultural and literary histories, one can
read intimacy itself as a globalized relation, with the sexual and gendered identities
of both colonizer and colonized read together as mutually constituted by the laboring,
multicultural formation of the New World. Hawthorne describes the change in
Hester’s development and disposition once thrust outside the boundaries of a regulated, prescribed femininity. She wanders instead, “without rule or guidance, in a
moral wilderness . . . where she roamed as freely as the wild Indian in his woods”
(128). What puts Hester in this place without the rule of law is precisely her alienation from the bourgeois conventions that determine the difference between public and
private life and a woman’s place in both:
For years past she had looked from this estranged point of view at human institutions,
and whatever priests or legislators had established; criticizing all with hardly more
reverence than the Indian would feel for the clerical band, the judicial robe, the pillory,
the gallows, the fireside, or the church. . . . The scarlet letter was her passport into
regions where other women dared not tread. (Hawthorne 128)
Hester has not only become a foreigner in her own country with a license to travel in
another, the world she looked out on when first spotting Chillingworth and the Native
Worlds of Color, Gender, Sexuality, and Labor
American standing on the outskirts of the marketplace. In addition, her exiled condition is shaped specifically by the disruption of the codes and conventions governing
sexual and gendered relations in her “country” of origin, the colony. As such, Hester’s
individual condition of exile could be said to characterize the parameters of the sexual
formations created in the New World as a whole. To some degree, the potential for
sexual transgressions of all kinds was the reality shaping the colonies as a world of
color, and the very condition of possibility shaping Hawthorne’s text. In the colony,
“exile” from gendered conventions and institutions was itself the norm shaping the
defining of American gendered and sexual identities, even when such definitions relied
on the forceful imposition of gender or intimacy prescriptions left behind in the Old
The project of an Americanist literary scholarship that takes the Americas as a
whole as its geohistorical landscape should be not to discover simply “who got left
out” of Anglo-American narrative histories. Rather, we also need to explore the forces
threatening early Anglo-American societies and colonies that then created the terms
of exclusion that shaped these early literary texts. In other words, if we begin from
the presumption that is evident throughout Atlantic history that the Atlantic world
was a polycultural world, with various forms of official and unofficial community and
individual interactions between peoples of many races, then the question becomes not
just who was left out but also who had to be created in order for those other worlds
to be occluded and obscured in the first place. The landscape of American history was
obviously populated by women and people of color. In American literary history,
however, very different models of the white, male, American self can also emerge when
he is placed in less regulated and prescribed intersubjective interactions with those
women and people of color surrounding him. As much as we find it appropriate to
historicize seventeenth-century Puritan relations, or the politics of Hawthorne’s nineteenth-century context, as appropriate historical determinants of his novel, so too
must we include the sexual histories of New World relations as an equally valid historical backdrop for locating the worlds of color and diversity of hue in The Scarlet
Contemporary authors have created their own answers to these questions by retelling stories of colonization in which, simultaneously, certain notions of the central
white male European subject are peripheralized (opening the space for new representations of white, Anglo-American masculinity) and certain unexpected relations between
characters of different races emerge (complicating the imperatives of colonial conquest
and the civilizing mission). In Toni Morrison’s 2009 novel A Mercy, and Bharati
Mukherjee’s 1993 rewriting of Hawthorne’s classic, The Holder of the World, both
authors open up the space of the Atlantic to describe worlds of color and labor that
were created when the populations from four continents met.
In an almost direct confrontation with the nation’s Puritan narratives of origin,
Morrison shifts her readers’ attention southward to that other founding American
colony in Virginia, and to an interval in the American past just before racial categories
solidified. On a small farm, the Vaark estate, four women – a European, a Native
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American, a woman of both black and white parentage, and an African-descended
slave – work together to carve out an existence after the death of the main male figure
in the narrative, the farmer, slave owner, and husband, James Vaark. What brings
them together is their mutual labor. Not only are they forced to work side by side in
learning how to make the Vaark farm productive. In addition, females in general
function, regardless of hue, as labor – whether as mail-order brides, indentured servants, rescued orphans, conquered natives, bought slaves, or laboring subjects on the
farm, as field workers, sex workers, or domestic workers.
Similarly, when Bharati Mukherjee, an Indian American woman writer in the late
twentieth century, travels back to the same world Nathaniel Hawthorne is visiting
when he writes of Salem from the perspective of the nineteenth century, she elaborates
on the complex sexual relations of the world that Mary Rowlandson and Hester Prynne
inhabit on the outskirts of the Puritan colony and beyond. In Mary Rowlandson’s
captivity narrative, too much time in the wilderness not only threatens a European
woman’s Puritan faith, but also opens her up to recognizing in an almost anthropological sense that the “savages” possess a coherent culture and worldview of their own.
In Mukherjee’s reimagining of such a world, English women who wear the scarlet
letter have engaged specifically in the sin of miscegenation with Native Americans,
English colonizers negotiate exile by adopting Native American names for their
towns, and Christian Indians live with conquest as they return straying English children back to their family homesteads safely. For Mukherjee, the world of the past to
be rebuilt is one in which English settlers identify with native Americans not just to
appropriate their cultural identities. Together they imaginatively inhabit, if only for
a brief interval in time, a shared American community of hardships, expropriations,
and deprivations as well as collaborations, negotiations, and cooperation.
In both of these instances, authors who share a contemporary vision of a diverse
America return to the seventeenth century precisely in order to create a usable,
American, multicultural past. What I find more useful about their novels, however,
is their grounding of the diversity of that past in the confused sexual politics, mores,
and behaviors of early American subjects. I believe a place lies therein for thinking
about references to the proximate intimacies of a world of color as the formal place
in the early American literary text where previous authors, in reconstructing the
nation’s past, could not completely avoid rendering traces of the polyamorous and
polyglot new world within which the history of the nation is embedded. Slavoj Žižek’s
response to the critique of presentism is relevant here, for as he observes, “Much more
subversive than ‘entering the spirit of the past’ is thus in contrast the procedure by
which we consciously treat it ‘anti-historically’, ‘reduce the past to the present’”
(102–3). Literary scholars are much too historical to take Žižek’s recommendation
completely at face value (in the way that authors of fiction such as Morrison and
Mukherjee can, for example, imagine and create counterfactual worlds). However, his
words should inspire in us the idea that if one looks conscientiously for the seeds of
the present in early American narratives, one could find a past that does, in a sense,
originate from contemporary concerns. After all, we still live in the aftermath of that
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polyglot, New World modernity that American narratives, whether The Scarlet Letter,
A Mercy, or The Holder of the World, all struggle to make sense of, in the context of
the worlds of color pressing in on the imaginations of their authors from their own
place and time.
References and Further Reading
Anderson, Benedict. “Exodus.” Critical Inquiry 20,
no. 2 (1994): 314–27.
Doyle, Laura. Freedom’s Empire: Race and the Rise of
the Novel in Atlantic Modernity. 1640–1940.
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008.
Du Bois, W.E.B. “Worlds of Color.” In W.E.B.
Du Bois, The New Negro: Voices of the Harlem
Renaissance (pp. 383–414). New York:
Atheneum, 1992.
Fischer, Sibylle. Modernity Disavowed: Haiti and the
Cultures of Slavery in the Age of Revolution.
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.
Goudie, Sean X. Creole America: The West Indies
and the Formation of Literature and Culture in
the New Republic. Philadelphia: University of
Pennsylvania Press, 2006.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter and Other
Writings. Ed. Leland S. Person. New York:
Norton, 2005.
Levine, Robert S. “Antebellum Feminists on
Hawthorne: Reconsidering the Reception of The
Scarlet Letter.” In The Scarlet Letter and Other
Writings (pp. 274–90). Ed. Leland S. Person.
New York: Norton, 2005.
Linebaugh, Peter, and Marcus Rediker. The ManyHeaded Hydra: The Hidden History of the
Revolutionary Atlantic. Boston: Beacon Press,
Lowe, Lisa. “The Intimacies of Four Continents.”
In Haunted By Empire: Geographies of Intimacy in
North American History (pp. 191–212). Ed. Ann
Laura Stoler. Durham, NC: Duke University
Press, 2006.
Morrison, Toni. A Mercy. New York: Random
House, 2008.
Mukherjee, Bharati. The Holder of the World.
New York: Knopf, 1993.
Roach, Joseph. Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic
Performance. New York: Columbia University
Press, 1996.
Rowlandson, Mary. “The Sovereignty and Goodness
of God.” In The Bedford Anthology of American
Literature (pp. 192–228). Vol. 1. Ed. Susan
Belasco and Linck Johnson. New York: Bedford/
St. Martin’s Press, 2008.
Swisshelm, Jane. “From the Saturday Visiter.” In
The Scarlet Letter and Other Writings (pp. 271–4).
Ed. Leland S. Person. New York: Norton, 2005.
Taussig, Michael. What Color Is the Sacred? Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Žižek, Slavoj. For They Know Not What They Do:
Enjoyment as a Political Factor. New York: Verso,
Transatlantic Returns
Elisa Tamarkin
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Whole History of Grandfather’s Chair (1841), Grandfather
tells the story of American colonial history through the history of a chair that moves
through it. Carved from a tree in the park of the earl of Lincoln, it crosses the Atlantic
in 1630 and passes through a succession of owners who also happen to command a
place within the “two or three centuries” of transatlantic history that the chair assumes
simply by giving them a seat (209). The chair belongs to Roger Williams, Anne
Hutchinson, John Winthrop, John Eliot, and many others before it belongs to
Grandfather; it belongs to George Washington during the American Revolution, but
also to the British colonial governors who preceded him in “the chair of state” (32).
The figures who occupy the chair link it to the wider world of the British Empire
that occupies them and from which they derive their commissions to serve in colonial
Massachusetts, for example, or the war with France, or from which they otherwise
choose to secede. All the while, we find the story of an antiquated English chair
“intertwining” not only with the “great events that have befallen” the colonies on
their way to independence but also with the lives of writers, merchants, sailors, and
soldiers that help connect the colonies to each other and to the networks of trade,
religion, literature, medicine, and politics that extend over and around the Atlantic
to Canada, the West Indies, and elsewhere (65). More importantly, for Grandfather
at least, his chair’s archaic presence on the colonial scene speaks to the connections
and people that are sacrificed to the progress of events but that leave their marks on
its worn surface as accidentally as the black slave who, in the act of cleaning it, rubs
the “gilding” off this thing that stands in the place of American history (136). The
“cold policy” of war drives Acadians from their homes, and Tory exiles cry; through
A Companion to American Literary Studies, First Edition. Edited by Caroline F. Levander,
Robert S. Levine.
© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2011 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Transatlantic Returns
it all, says Grandfather, “here stood the chair” with “its old Lincoln coat of arms”
(128, 66). Its persistence “here” from another time and place enlarges our understanding of American progress to include the experience of loss until it finally seems that
we have access to nothing less than a “whole history” of the Atlantic struggle for
dominion on the North American continent, including the perspective of the subjects
who no longer seem to belong there. But, Grandfather says to the children who listen,
“I am merely telling the history of a chair” (33).
Why does the history of America become the historical romance of a chair? After
all, when little Alice asks Grandfather to tell “some more stories about [his] chair,”
she really means that she is ready for the next episode in his narrative history of
America from sometime before 1630 through 1803 when it leaves off (73). The history
that Grandfather tells sounds much like a version of Atlantic history as we have come
to understand it. Insofar as it is a “whole history,” it suggests a belief in an immensely
complex but still integrated and cohesive field of relations across and around the
Atlantic in which people travel, migrate, trade, compete, plunder, exchange, and
communicate, and in which both things and people are bought and sold: “Our ancestors,” says Grandfather, “not only bought negroes from Africa, but Indians from South
America, and white people from Ireland. These last were sold, not for life, but for a
certain number of years, in order to pay the expenses of the voyage across the Atlantic”
(109). Events in one place reverberate in others; nothing affects the policy and liberties of the “remote colonies” so much as the temperament of monarchs, the wars in
Europe, and the English revolution of the 1640s – even during times when the outposts of its empire were “left to take care of [themselves].” Grandfather speaks primarily of Massachusetts, but since all the North American colonies are tied to each
other through their common dependence on the English empire, the children know
that he “might have gone on to speak of Maryland and Virginia” as well and that the
strength of their interconnection is also defined by their sense of difference from the
French in Canada and the Dutch who remain in New York (30).
Merchants and adventurers pass over imperial and national lines within an oceanspace that is constitutive of their trading and traveling patterns and also a “deeply
historical location whose transformative power is . . . material and real” (Klein and
Mackenthun 2). The tales told from Grandfather’s chair, in other words, touch on
many of the histories that scholars identify with the early modern Atlantic world and
the economies of exchange that pattern the way we understand the work that culture
did in its own expanded travels through the period. Most of all, the tales represent
an early variation on the performances of memory and creative survival that respond
to the impossible recovery of “the submerged and the drowned” records of violence,
theft, and trauma in the cross-currents of the ocean (Boelhower, “The Rise” 95). When
Sir William Phips, before trying to capture Quebec, charges Indians to dive for treasure in a sunken Spanish galleon off the West Indies – among “the skeletons of the
ancient Spaniards . . . whose bones were now scattered among the gold and silver”
– Grandfather reminds the children that “there is something sad and terrible in the
idea of snatching all this wealth from the devouring ocean” (61). It would be better,
Elisa Tamarkin
he suggests, to acknowledge its loss. The gold that Phips recovers explains why, years
later as governor of Massachusetts, he has the means to redecorate his Boston mansion
and to embellish Grandfather’s chair with the varnish and gold that the black slave
rubs off.
The children hear not only of people who cross the Atlantic, of their commerce
and politics, but also of the diseases they carry: sometimes the smallpox arrives with
“poor sailors” or “lay[s] hidden in the cargoes of ships, among . . . costly merchandize
that was imported for the rich to wear,” and sometimes it follows in the train of
imperial administrators who come over from England (100). We learn that Cotton
Mather discovers how to inoculate for it by reading a letter he finds by an Italian
physician describing how the method was commonly practiced in Turkey and Greece
and also by “the negroes of Africa” (101). Thus the “informal connections” that
Bernard Bailyn suggests created a dynamic “mental” network in the early modern
Atlantic beyond the economies and politics of empire include, in Hawthorne too, a
“flow of ideas that shaped the manifest world and bound it together” (Bailyn, Atlantic
51–2; Bailyn, Soundings 42). Grandfather’s story is a straightforward history in which
early events, sweeping forward to later outcomes, explain the progress of the United
States in time; but it is also offset by a variety of transnational and transimperial
perspectives that reach out laterally in space and give life to the people and things
who no longer figure when the nation is independent of them and when Grandfather
can only look back from where he sits in his chair.
But, again, this is not a national history; it is also not a colonial history that suggestively evokes the density of encounters and conflicts around the Atlantic basin that
our scholarship now tracks with increasing momentum under the disciplinary label
of “Atlantic studies.” Hawthorne’s history is the history of a chair. If, as Nietzsche
suggests, “the final trait of effective history is its affirmation of knowledge as perspective,” then at least we know we can say we have nothing to affirm but the singular
perspective of a chair (Foucault 90). As Grandfather’s chair changes hands, it accrues
meaning through the way it is used, shared, transported, defaced, and refinished, and
from where (a ship, a Tory mansion, a coffeehouse, beneath the Liberty Tree). It is one
of the many objects in Hawthorne’s book that circulates in colonial networks of
exchange and whose deep and layered genealogy speaks to the way that relations
between people are embedded and inscribed in the relations they have to their possessions. Yet the chair in the tale is not only a relic of history but also the figure of
history, which is why the children mean that they want to hear stories of America
when they think they want stories of the chair and also why Grandfather seems to
suppose “that the whole surface of the United States was not too broad a foundation
to place the four legs of his chair upon” (30). I could reverse what I said earlier to
just as easily say that, in Hawthorne’s tale, it takes nothing less than a “whole history”
of the Atlantic struggle for dominion on the North American continent to give an
adequate picture of a chair.
Hawthorne seems to be suggesting that Atlantic history is a fantasy of relation that
is not transmitted across time so much as embraced through the imagined origins of
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material from a vanished world that is neither American nor British in ways that later
generations will come to understand the difference between a nation and its antecedent empire. Grandfather’s chair is perhaps the least significant symbol for this wider
Atlantic history that Hawthorne can conceive, which is why the unlikely charm of
its persistence as a “cultural atom,” to borrow an idea from Erich Auerbach, can
express such a textured and diverse network of associations, travels, economies, and
politics that brought so many peoples into contact (Boelhower, Atlantic 21). The
transatlantic world that returns with Grandfather’s old chair is in part a fiction that
tries to recapture the impossible complexities of an historical epoch that can only be
possessed through the figures that are left behind as it recedes. Its story suggests not
just a teleological progress from the past into modernity, but also a literary romance
of fugitive events and individuals once connected by the same geography that disperses them. I will return to the chair below, but it is already possible to see how the
most useful term for illuminating the cultural difference we look for when we return
to the contours of a “whole” Atlantic world may be an anachronism of it – one that
reflects an impulse to imagine histories beyond the presence of the nation that an
earlier moment (indeed, Hawthorne’s nineteenth-century moment) has passed down
to us. His fiction points to the ways in which any version of the transatlantic we might
imagine can only be romantically revived.
Space and Time
What is the place of literary studies within Atlantic studies? In the past decade, the
question has been hard to answer because, insofar as “the new Atlantic studies” sees
its subject as an object that is also a space – the Atlantic Ocean and all that it holds,
carries, and touches on in time – no discipline seems more equipped than any other
to represent the experience and meanings it suggests. “Certainly,” writes William
Boelhower, “there is no urgent mandate to shoehorn the new Atlantic studies matrix
into yet another traditional academic disciplinary asset” (“The Rise” 87). At the upper
limit of its challenge to what Boelhower describes as the “institutionalization” of
historical knowledge within the structure of the university, Atlantic studies rejects
the idea that even the most sophisticated and self-conscious scholarship based on
traditional categories of humanistic inquiry (national literatures, historical periods,
and conventional modes and genres) can capture the irreducible “fluidity” of the
Atlantic world. Indeed, such invocations of the ocean and its material form provide
Atlantic studies with a powerful symbolic language for registering the degree to
which the archive of the Atlantic world itself is shaped by “unpredictable natural
flows” that immerse us like “the equinoctial tides.” Thus, studying Atlantic history
and culture can become its own version of a “rendez-vous . . . with the sea,” and while
we take the poeticism for what it is, the interdisciplinary ambitions and energies of
the new Atlantic studies are hard to understand without taking seriously the homology between the unfathomable complexity of the ocean as both a natural environment
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and field of human action, and the “oceanic order” that it conditions across centuries
of history (as cited in Boelhower, “The Rise” 98). Like the figure of the “historiantraveler” who Roland Barthes describes, in his work on Michelet, as “swimming” in
an archive of materials – “I am rowing,” writes Michelet, “through Louis XI” – scholars of the Atlantic world, trying to navigate the density and expanse of Atlantic
history, finally realize that their “plunge involves an incomplete assimilation” of what
it yields (22). In recent years especially, Atlantic studies has defined an “epistemological style” in keeping with the diverse ecology of its many archives, which demand a
range of disciplines and methodologies not just in the humanities but in the social
and physical sciences as well; attending from a sense of what Eric Slauter calls the
“inherent multidisciplinarity” of Atlantic history, scholars have sought to incorporate
“the dizzying shifts that come from viewing familiar phenomena from different
angles, [and] different geographies,” within the texture of their writing by embracing
the work of economists, anthropologists, cartographers, oceanographers, meteorologists, and more (161).
Almost every scholarly attempt to define the scope of Atlantic studies suggests that
the unbounded history of the ocean in its midst requires multiplying points of view.
“No one historian,” writes Alison Games, “can have the competence or expertise that
scholars desire” (“Atlantic” 750). As Atlantic studies draws on a greater set of methodologies and approaches, the desire for even more flexible responses to an archive
whose scale, at last, is oceanic has inspired the sense that its scholarship must operate
with an appropriate magnitude. Bailyn observes that in the first years of the field’s
development, the urge to formulate outsized intellectual projects of Atlantic history
was almost a recursive phenomenon in which the sheer “force of scholarship itself”
encouraged a “rescaling of perspective”; he cites, for example, Pierre Chaunu’s “fourvolume interpretation of seven volumes of data” from the 1950s on Seville’s transatlantic commerce as representing, in a phrase that may say more than Bailyn realizes,
the only sort of “titanic oeuvre” that could claim to cover at least a portion of the
ocean’s massive history (Atlantic 30–2). “Large-scale spatial orbits developing through
time,” Bailyn writes of this formative period, “were becoming visible as they had not
been before,” and after demographics, statistics, epidemiology, migration studies, and
other quantitative methods of analysis began to make significant contributions to the
field, many efforts in Atlantic history emerged in the form of censuses and databases
that accumulate details toward a vast “panorama” of transatlantic history (30). “The
question,” says Wai Chee Dimock of transatlantic and transnational scholarship, “is
very much a question of scale” (6). What began after World War II, in Bailyn’s
account, as an effort to enshrine a North Atlantic alliance within an historical relationship between the United States and Britain, has been expanded and dispersed into
a broadening “matrix” of territories and peoples that meet and collide in North
America and Europe, as well as South America, Africa, and all the islands in between
(Esty 102). Recently, the areas that surround the Atlantic on four continents have
seemed too narrow a frame for representing the imperial flow of people, information,
and ideas that also reach past the rims to borderlands, transfrontier regions, and con-
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tinental interiors, where native groups, for example, though “often far removed from
maritime littorals,” still feel their effects (Morgan and Greene 13–14). But now critics
also are learning that Atlantic commodities circulated in a much larger world and
that the laborers who produced them, and the merchants and sailors who transported
them, suggest more global currents of trade even in the early modern period.
Adventurers, promoters, ambassadors, and ministers circled the planet, conjoining
Western Europe to “the rest of Europe, the rest of Eurasia, indeed, Afro-Eurasia,”
while conjoining Atlantic routes to Pacific ones in ways that remind us that oceans
themselves are interconnected (Coclanis 729). Thus, Atlanticists are always vulnerable
to the charge that they have not explored the connections from the connections they
have already made. While some scholars are earnestly trying “to assume a scale of
analysis broad enough to encompass the entire circuit” of the Atlantic world (McGill,
The Traffic 1), others argue that Atlantic history “is a slice of world history,” that other
areas impinge on and shape its developments (Games, “Atlantic” 748), and that the
Atlantic finally “lacks the kind of coherence” that we need to establish a field of inquiry
in the first place (Wïgen 718). “Might the Atlantic,” writes Games, “be too small a
unit of analysis?” (“Beyond” 676).
“Really, universally,” writes Henry James, “relations stop nowhere.” Perhaps the
accumulative impulse is best seen in the massive Transatlantic Slave Trade database,
which, as of January 2008, contained details of 34,934 documented slave voyages, an
estimated 80 percent of all the ventures that set out for Africa from Britain, Spain,
Portugal, Holland, and North America to obtain slaves. The database supplies the
information for David Eltis and David Richardson’s comprehensive Atlas of the
Transatlantic Slave Trade, in which the slave voyages are mapped, along with their
destinations, their ports of origin, the coastal origins of slaves, and the links they all
provide between Africa and the Atlantic world. The database and atlas suggest a logic
of accretion, in which the traumatic history of the African diaspora is vividly reproduced in a scale of information that makes equally palpable the scale of loss. If the
African diaspora provides the greatest number of voyages, migrations, and trades
around the Atlantic (the British, for example, carried three Africans to the Americas
for every European through the early nineteenth century), then it also points to the
atrocities that leave gaps in the archive and a scarcity of resources where the statistics
speak most. Atlantic studies responds to these absences through the immensity of its
efforts to chart them, seeing the proliferation of materials and perspectives as a challenge to binary categories of centers and peripheries – including postcolonial scholarship that preserves them from the peripheries – and other paradigms of knowledge
that fail to capture the complexities of diasporic experience. The closer we look, the
more we find exceptions to official archives that subsume slaves within slave societies
or to earlier histories that only recognize, in Vincent Brown’s words, “violence, violations of personhood, dishonor, and namelessness as the fundamental constituent elements of slavery” (1233). The exceptions include Brown’s sense of how funerary rituals
among slaves defy “totalizing definition[s] of slavery” as “social death” (and so make
death “as generative as it was destructive”) (“Social” 1239; The Reaper’s 4); they also
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include Joseph Roach’s sense of how performative acts of forgetting substitute histories of violence with the cultural memories that reinvent them. When Ian Baucom
calls Atlantic projects “an invitation to assemblage,” he means that the innumerable
contingencies that increase our understanding of the ocean world also demand their
own textured aesthetic in our work (“Introduction” 7), making it fair to say that
Atlantic studies “is more than simply the study of a geographical unit; it is also a
style of inquiry” (Games, “Atlantic” 749). For Boelhower, the fact that Atlantic
studies aims to resist the inherited blindness and rigidity within institutional structures of knowledge makes our choice of its nontraditional style an ethical imperative.
The fact that the particular archives of slavery and the black Atlantic make this need
for new epistemologies most obvious signals to him nothing short of an “immediate
and utter” call for rethinking the organization of the university itself (Esty 106).
In suggesting the discontinuities inherent in Atlantic history, the idea of “black
Atlantic” history ruptures the narratives of modernity, national development, and
Enlightenment rationality that underwrite a Western system of racial hierarchy. In
this sense, Atlantic studies derives from black Atlantic studies in particular its characteristic modality: a provocation away from ideologies of modernity and progress
that are put at sea. Like Nietzsche’s sense of the marine horizon, “every daring of the
lover of knowledge is allowed again; the sea, our sea, lies open again” (199). The
Atlantic is not an empty space against which a series of events unfold, but “a workplace, home, passage, penitentiary and promise” whose experience never conforms to
ideas of linear movement – between old and new, past and present (cause and effect),
on separate sides of an ocean – that enact a decisive shift forward from one epoch to
the next (Blum 670). For Paul Gilroy, the black Atlantic is a “counterculture of
modernity” in which movements between Africa, Europe, and the Americas should
be appreciated as “configurations” of flows and circuits that often double back to their
own points of origin, or that wander far from their intended trajectories (1). The
“impurity” of Atlantic history, he suggests, finally prevents it from ever being assimilated for “nationalist or ethnically absolute” ends; he thus charts a dizzying variety of
cultural aesthetics and politics that displace both Enlightenment teleologies of
progress in which Africa is always behind, and later black anxieties of authenticity in
which Africa can never be revisited (2, 15). For Ian Baucom, the “black-Atlantic
philosophy of history” is also necessarily a critique of finance capitalism and the perverse “modernity” of the slave trade itself that abstracted human beings into calculable
instances of profit or loss (Specters 327). Taking as his central case the infamous Zong
massacre – in which sick slaves were thrown overboard so that their owners could
recoup their investment under the “jettison clause” on the ship’s insurance policy –
Baucom discovers in the cultural responses to the affair a “romantic counterdiscourse”
of trauma and melancholy that sets itself “against the tide of modernity” by relentlessly insisting on emotional and psychic losses at sea that no amount of rationalization
can move beyond (Specters 33).
To the degree that Gilroy, Baucom, and others have accustomed us to think about
the Atlantic as a “system of cultural exchanges” in restless movement everywhere
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within its layered geography, they return us to a language that derives from Fernand
Braudel, whose exemplary studies of the Mediterranean world set the terms for understanding how spatialized histories can look for patterns that are too slow, too large,
and often too pervasive to capture in conventional accounts of change and progress
(Gilroy 14). Braudel’s approach to the Mediterranean and the people who lived within
its shadow marked a radical turn away from narrative accounts of the region that
proceeded by tracing out national histories and filling in the dates that punctuated
them over seemingly critical spans of years or decades. Braudel proposed instead that
history operated on a scale of time that beggared such small units of temporal
meaning, and famously turned his attention to what he called the longue durée in order
to suggest both the enlarged scale and slower pace of the events and phenomena that
shaped the culture of the Mediterranean over several centuries. More importantly,
Braudel refused to slice and subdivide his very long time spans into linear sequences
of unfolding epochs; thus, in his most influential work for later scholars of the
Atlantic, the densely textured totality of the “Mediterranean world” cannot be circumscribed within the years that technically bound his subject (the age of Phillip II
from 1550 to 1600) because this isolated moment is at once layered over with the
residues of earlier periods, and also powerfully resonant for the centuries that follow.
The “vast, complex expanse” of the sea provides the sense of a spatial constant whose
presence across time is, from the perspective of the succeeding nation-states that
flourish and then fail along its rim, effectively unchanging (18). Or, put another way,
for Braudel it only makes sense to write the history of a maritime world by adopting
the temporality of its dominant figure, which is to say, the sea itself. So his own
analyses return and overlap within a single cartographic and figurative space from
multiple disciplines – geography and ecology, social and economic history, politics
and military history – that illuminate different aspects of the Mediterranean world as
their various discoveries accrete across the vast expanse of Braudel’s massive books.
History becomes visible not as a narrative of superseding events, with the present
arriving as the past fades away, but rather as an accumulation of meanings that remain
perceptible long after their originary moments. If modernity conceptualizes history
as a serialization of causes and effects that advance along strict chronologies of universal time, the oceanic world, to borrow from Bruno Latour, has never been modern:
its spaces show too much wear and evidence of pasts that continue to inflect its present;
time within the pull of the sea feels asynchronous and uneven, and much of what is
lost on one occasion or another ends up returning unexpectedly to bring distant
periods and cultures into relation with each other.
As early as the 1950s, Atlantic historians incorporated and extended Braudel’s
spatial emphases to reconstruct the larger oceanic world that Europe, Africa, and the
Americas shared in the early modern period. The new Atlantic studies especially
register the extent of Braudel’s importance even in projects that seem far removed
from his often empirical accounts of the tectonic patterns that shape cultures and
mentalities over long durations. If, as Bailyn observes, the impulse behind Braudel’s
project was “poetic,” reflecting his own “love of the Mediterranean world,” it has also
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provided a model for understanding how a sense of asynchronous or spatialized time
can capture some of the more harrowing legacies of transatlantic history (Atlantic 5).
Baucom, for example, describes the Atlantic as a “form of time” that is, more radically,
a “ghost-haunted, apparitional now,” centuries long and still burdened with “the
moment of loss” that slavery represents; invoking Derrida’s late turn to “hauntology”
to describe the spectral power of past forms in presents where they are clearly anachronistic, Baucom in effect renders Atlantic studies as an expression of melancholia in
the place of Braudel’s “love” (“Introduction” 8). In such models of Atlanticism, the
geography of the present is overwritten with traces of the past, and nothing that
crosses the ocean is ever really lost to time so long as it is remembered somewhere
within the larger circuits of culture and feeling that constitute the historical aesthetic
of the ocean world. The aesthetic does not need to operate on the largest scale to
produce the sorts of temporal discontinuities and anachronisms that Braudel observed;
Baucom’s granular account of a single historical incident of the slave trade ramifies
out to later episodes in global capitalism’s exploitation of factory workers in Vietnam,
which, poetically at least, becomes a phenomenon of “the late-eighteenth- to latetwentieth-century development of an Atlantic cycle of capital accumulation” (Specters
80). In The Slave Ship: A Human History, Marcus Rediker similarly expands a single
transatlantic artifact – the slave ship as a “wooden world” unto itself – into an elaborately synecdochic construct that materializes not just the whole of the Middle Passage
but also the translation of African cultures to the Americas, and the plantation economies that demanded so much human cargo at unimaginable cost. Rediker treats the
slave ship as a small world (or microcosm) that contains within it an astonishingly
complete reconstruction of the social codes, material practices, and emotional dramas
that characterized the space of the Atlantic in its most extreme form (67).
Transatlantic literary studies has proven to be particularly well equipped for thinking through the complex field of relations across time and space that Braudel calls
the longue durée since literature, always in conversation with other literature, “never
inhabits positions of pure autonomy” (Manning and Taylor 21). While literary culture,
from the nineteenth century forward, has been central to the expression and constitution of national traditions by providing, as Schlegel describes it, “the aggregate mass
of symbols in which the spirit of an age or the character of a nation is shadowed forth,”
it is also the case that the literary artifact is never as trapped in its national or institutional moment as Schlegel suggests (Schlegel 1:274). “Literature,” writes Wai Chee
Dimock, “is the home of nonstandard space and time,” and by this she means, in her
discussion of the “deep time” of American literature for which Braudel provides the
model, that literature both in its material forms of transmission and in the ideas it
contains travels in unpredictable and often accidental ways (4). In and out of geographies, languages, and cultures, literature binds “continents and millennia into many
loops of relation” because the particular timelessness of literary texts – either universal
in appeal or adaptable in meaning – works “against the official borders of the nation
and against the fixed intervals of the clock” (3, 4). Thus “American literature emerges
with a much longer history than one might think” (4): in Emerson, for example, we
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find words and ideas from eighteenth-century Germany in Goethe and, through
Goethe, the lyric forms of fourteenth-century Persia in Hafiz. Hafiz affects our understandings of Emerson as much as Emerson adapts and appropriates Hafiz, and so the
meanings of both (new and old, present and past) are created at once as each readjusts
to the other. It is no surprise that transatlantic literary studies often seems like an
expanded version of influence studies in which forms, genres, and language flow erratically between generations, so that multiple and foreign traditions combine to create
what once seemed to be a single national heritage.
After all, as Stanley Cavell writes, “geographical proximity is a poor, let’s say vulgar,
measure of intellectual intimacy” (458). Beyond the idea of influence as a single
lineage of great authors within the same tradition – each rising to the challenge or
agonizing against the burdens of precedent – the life of the mind that Dimock and
others describe admits an open-ended tangle of impressions that are often hard to
predict or trace, but whose influence within a single text brings together Emerson,
Goethe, and Hafiz or any other combination of people and ideas who would otherwise
be temporally distinct. Transatlantic literary studies is also not a version of classic
comparative studies in which the literature of one nation exerts cultural force over
another, but rather attends from a sense of influence that stays true to the liquid
origins it shares with the idea of transatlanticism itself: “In its historical [or etymological] meaning, from which we take our present use,” writes Lionel Trilling, “influence . . . means a flowing-in, but not as a tributary river flows into the main stream
at a certain observable point” (187–8). Or, as Mary Orr suggests,
By remembering that influence is quintessentially a metaphor of motions and fluids,
applied to waters that swell a greater river or freeze as blocks in seas, its many . . . uses
need to be reinstated not least for its power to map flow, force, currents, divergence and
convergence. (93)
Transatlantic literary studies describes the ways in which “the present is present
to more than itself” by tracing the multiple influences and confluences of literary
traditions and genres as they criss-cross the Atlantic (Baucom, “Introduction” 8). In
the work of Meredith McGill, for example, we see how the practices of reprinting and
“piracy” that dominated the antebellum book trade call into question the rights of a
nation, both legal and symbolic, to own its literary expressions; books function, for
much of the period, as one of many commodity forms whose value was often a measure
of how far they had traveled from a lost point of origin somewhere abroad. Both Paul
Giles and Amanda Claybaugh chart the mobility of genres and styles that may emerge
on one side of the Atlantic or the other – neoclassical poetry, sentimental novels, or
novels of reform – but soon come to flourish over great distances and to alternate ends,
and are often transformed, upon echoing back, by the material networks that sustain
their effects and resonance over time. The literary systems of influence and innovation
that they describe are predicated on the lateral dispersion of precedents throughout
an imagined geography of shared aesthetics and political purposes that finally cannot
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be mapped onto the story of a single national culture. In Freedom’s Empire: Race and
the Rise of the Novel in Atlantic Modernity, 1640–1940, Laura Doyle traces the idea of
Atlantic modernity back to a seventeenth-century myth of Anglo-Saxon freedom in
order to show how black and white Anglophone writers lay claim to an inheritance
of English liberty that is racialized at its inception. For all these critics, questions of
influence are not answered with simple claims of derivation or descent, but instead
provide occasions for the kind of genealogical reflections that demonstrate, as Foucault
writes, the “heterogeneity of what was imagined consistent with itself” (82). More
importantly, we begin to see that the project of transatlanticism is almost impossible
to conceptualize, in literary terms at least, without a sense that its character as an
intellectual practice is essentially genealogical: alternative lineages are claimed for
figures rarely pictured in relation; multiple inheritances for texts are accumulated but
left unresolved as if to confirm that genealogy “opposes itself to the search for
‘origins’ ” in favor of “the details and accidents that accompany every beginning”
(Foucault 77, 80). Thus, even as Atlantic studies is increasingly confident about asserting where it is coming from – Boelhower identifies one strain of Atlanticism with
Edward Said by way of Eric Auerbach by way of Vico – it is possible that the field’s
own genealogical pursuits are a measure of the romance about beginnings that distinguish so many of its projects. Or, put differently, for all the ways that historians
find predecessors for the transatlantic sensibility that is now prominent across the
disciplines, literary studies might be the discipline best able to appreciate the romance
at the origins of “transatlanticism” itself.
After Lieutenant-Governor Thomas Hutchinson recovers Grandfather’s chair from a
garret and restores it to the fireside where it belongs, he sits down to write the colonial
history of Massachusetts. “No doubt, the dim figures of the former possessors of the
chair flitted around him as he wrote,” inspiring him with the knowledge of what they
had “done and suffered” and then with a “reverie” that amounts to a counterfactual
history of the revolutionary period to follow: looking ahead, he sees, not a progress
into modernity, but “visions of hereditary rank for himself and other aristocratic colonists. . . . He [sees] stars, garters, coronets, and castles” (137, 139). Years later, when
an angry mob approaches his house to retaliate for the Stamp Act, Hutchinson rests
in Grandfather’s chair, “unsuspicious of the evil that was about to fall” on him; surrounded by his “beloved family” and the portraits of ancestors he “honorably remembered,” he takes some time to “[lay] aside the cares of state” (155). By the moment
of the American Revolution, Grandfather’s chair is not so much the seat of power as
the place to sit out history, which perhaps explains why, during the war itself, the
chair goes missing: “the manner of its departure cannot be satisfactorily ascertained,”
and meanwhile, “during the mysterious non-appearance of our chair,” Americans and
British fight in the Battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill (183). Like
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Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle, who sleeps through the revolutionary break
that separates the past from the present, the chair only reappears in the present as the
untimely figure of a period that is lost. What persists with the chair, even to the
present when it belongs to Grandfather, is an archive of relations and attachments
within the colonial era that seems as archaic and strange as an old chair with a coat
of arms, but that invests the contemporary moment with a sense of its difference.
The tales Grandfather tells are always sympathetic to the shadow “forms of departed
friends” and “vanished scenes” that, from the perspective of the chair, seem “almost
as real as what was actually present” (121). The children who listen cry for the Acadian
refugees whose “hearts had been torn asunder by separation” from their families and
homes, and then they cry for Hutchinson and other Tories when they become “homeless” too (125, 159). (“ ‘Alas! for the poor Tories!’ said Grandfather.”) They also cry
at the Boston Massacre, not so much because people die, but because they learn that
the Revolution itself could have been avoided and that “the ancient bonds of brotherhood” between America and Britain “would again have been knit together, as firmly
as in old times” if the first shot had never misfired (191, 169). The stories of colonial
Atlantic separations stand in relation to the stories of American progress from which
Grandfather says they are themselves “inseparable” (128); they offer alternative origins
for a national moment that seems inevitably to have arrived by forgetting the sources
that diverged from it. The point of the “whole history,” in fact, is to recover these
lost connections within an enlarged human context, so when Grandfather’s silent
chair is finally given a voice – in Grandfather’s dream at the end – it says that the
“all-important secret” of history it hopes to teach is, along with truth and justice,
“Love!” (209).
In Hawthorne’s tale, the history of the chair is discontinuous, since the children
keep moving on from it to other things for “two or three months” at a stretch, after
which Grandfather can pick it up again. Playing in “the gladsome sunshine of the
present,” they lose sight of “the shadowy region of the past, in the midst of which
stood Grandfather’s chair”: “How strange that we should have forgotten it so long!”
says Clara (74). A gold watch “pilfered” from the enemy during the French and Indian
War and “still in existence” continues to mark “each moment of time, without complaining of weariness, although its hands have been in motion ever since” (131): it
registers the linear, teleological time that cuts the “whole history” into a sequence of
homogeneous moments as it advances to the present. The history of the chair, in fact,
can never keep up since months pass while Grandfather is telling it, so he is urged
to “make haste, or [the chair] will have a new history to be told before we finish the
old one” (147). The tale, in other words, is always out of sync, registering a different
phenomenology of time that slows down or accelerates according to the children’s
increasing sympathies to the figures of history as Grandfather reflects on them. When
little Alice is uninterested and falls asleep, she misses 18 years of history in the space
of a nap, and so do we. Against the modern progress of the nation is the historical
romance that “cuts anywhere with equal ease,” so that American history appears in
strange, uneven, and overlapping shapes – even in the shape of a chair (Kubler 2).
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The history of Grandfather’s chair ends not in 1841, where it currently is, but in
1803, when Samuel Adams, its last owner, dies. Grandfather purchases the chair at
the auction of the Adams estate to help pay for his funeral. Why 1803? Adams dies
in early October of that year, just weeks before the United States ratified the Louisiana
Purchase Treaty, acquiring from Napoleon the wide expanse of Western land that
doubled the nation’s size and turned its attention to the future of the continent. France
sells the Louisiana territory to focus its resources on the Haitian slave revolt against
colonial rule, but by the end of 1803 Haiti had won its independence. We could say
that the story of the chair ends at the moment when a whole interconnected colonial
history that linked European empires with colonies in the Americas and the coast of
Africa gives way to the primacy of national histories. After 1803, in other words, the
paradigm of a “whole history” as a unified concept or space that suggests the contours
of an integrated Atlantic experience, and for which an ocean (or a ship or chair)
becomes a figure, loses its hold when the American colonies secede and when the
modern course of nation building begins. As Bailyn writes,
The birth of the American nation-states in the independence movements of the late
eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was not the goal toward which Atlantic
history had been inevitably tending, but the opposite: it marks not the fulfillment but
the demise of the world that had gone before. (Soundings 2)
Well by the time Hawthorne writes his tale, the Atlantic had become an anachronistic model of relations, not because people, ideas, and things did not continue to
traverse it (in fact, with the invention of the steamship and telegraph, they traversed
it more), but because, with the wars of independence, the Atlantic basin and all it
encompassed was no longer valid as “a single functional unit” of analysis and experience, if it ever was beforehand (O’Reilly 67). Either the nations surrounding it
became independent of it or with the accelerating pace of modernity – and the new
global frameworks necessary to think through its systems of capital, technology, and
imperialism – the Atlantic seemed less a “world” unto itself, and more a part of the
world as such. Historians suggest “that the expansion of European imperialism and
the spread of commerce after 1800 make a global framework of more utility than
an Atlantic one for those who are not content to operate within traditional national
and imperial frameworks” (Morgan and Greene 21). Thus, it is not just the specific
set of relations – to the British, for example – that Grandfather reassembles when
he reflects on his chair, but also the virtual experience of completeness, including
the feelings of belonging to people and homelands elsewhere, that is perhaps the
last form in which the totality of an Atlantic world that is never coming back might
still be known.
It is worth remembering that, as Joyce Chaplin points out, before the mid- to late
eighteenth century, the Atlantic was called by the names of its individual “seas” (e.g.,
the North Sea and the Ethiopian Sea) and that it took a while for the people around
the Atlantic “to convince themselves that the ocean at the center of their attention
deserved a distinctive name” (45). Transatlantic is similarly a late eighteenth-century
Transatlantic Returns
word, and its popularity rises dramatically by the beginning of the nineteenth century:
a keyword search in the American Periodical Series electronic database shows no instances
of the word before 1780 and eight instances before 1800; but there are 242 uses of
the word between 1800 and 1820, and 1,755 uses between 1820 and 1840, more
than seven times as many as the previous two decades in less than twice the number
of periodicals. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the origins of the word as encompassing an Atlantic oceanic region to Thomas Jefferson in 1782 when, during the
Revolutionary War, he invokes the “trans-Atlantic ties” that he is trying to dissolve.
Transatlanticism is always a belated category whose own dominant, relevant time was
already behind us at the moment we become aware of it. In this respect, both new
Atlantic history and the literary criticism it now informs are propelled ahead by the
imaginative power of a concept that was invented to look back at the texture of a
world that remains apart from the modernity it helps to make. Transatlanticism, to
put this differently, is a variety of historicism as it was conceived in the nineteenth
century: a way of understanding how the past is a space that is entirely its own and
knowable when we feel how far we traveled from it even if, according to the clock or
calendar, time may not have moved so much as we have.
References and Further Reading
Bailyn, Bernard. Atlantic History: Concept and
Contours. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press, 2005.
Bailyn, Bernard, and Patricia L. Denault. Eds.
Soundings in Atlantic History: Latent Structures and
Intellectual Currents, 1500–1830. Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.
Barthes, Roland. Michelet. Trans. Richard Howard.
New York: Hill and Wang, 1987.
Baucom, Ian. “Introduction: Atlantic Genealogies.”
The South Atlantic Quarterly 100, no. 1 (2001):
Baucom, Ian. Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital,
Slavery, and the Philosophy of History. Durham,
NC: Duke University Press, 2005.
Blum, Hester. “The Prospect of Oceanic Studies.”
PMLA 125, no. 3 (2010): 670–7.
Boelhower, William. “Atlantic Studies Complexities: Routes across Cultures.” In “The Sea
Is History”: Exploring the Atlantic (pp. 11–23).
Eds. Carmen Birkle and Nicole Walker.
Heidelberg: Universitätssverlag, 2009.
Boelhower, William. “The Rise of the New
Atlantic Studies Matrix.” American Literary
History 20, nos. 1–2 (2008): 83–101.
Braudel, Fernand. 1949. The Mediterranean and the
Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. Vol.
2. Trans. Sian Reynolds. Glasgow: William
Collins, 1973.
Brown, Vincent. The Reaper’s Garden: Death and
Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery. Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.
Brown, Vincent. “Social Death and Political Life
in the Study of Slavery.” American Historical
Review 114, no. 5 (2009): 1232–49.
Cavell, Stanley. Little Did I Know. Stanford, CA:
Stanford University Press, 2010.
Chaplin, Joyce E. “The Atlantic Ocean and Its
Contemporary Meanings, 1492–1808.” In
Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal (pp. 3–34).
Eds. Jack P. Greene and Philip D. Morgan. New
York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Claybaugh, Amanda. The Novel of Purpose: Literature
and Social Reform in the Anglo-America. Ithaca,
NY: Cornell University Press, 2006.
Coclanis, Peter. “Atlantic World or Atlantic/
World.” William and Mary Quarterly 63, no. 4
(2006): 726–42.
Dimock, Wai Chee. Through Other Continents:
American Literature across Deep Time. Princeton,
NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.
Doyle, Laura. Freedom’s Empire: Race and the Rise of
the Novel in Atlantic Modernity, 1640–1940.
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008.
Elisa Tamarkin
Eltis, David, and David Richardson. Atlas of the
Transatlantic Slave Trade. New Haven, CT: Yale
University Press, 2010.
Esty, Jed. “Oceanic, Traumatic, Post-Paradigmatic:
A Response to William Boelhower.” American
Literary History 20, nos. 1–2 (2008): 102–7.
Foucault, Michel. “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.”
In The Foucault Reader (pp. 76–100). Ed. Paul
Rabinow. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.
Games, Alison. “Atlantic History: Definitions,
Challenges, and Opportunities.” American
Historical Review 111, no. 3 (2006): 741–57.
Games, Alison. “Beyond the Atlantic: English
Globetrotters and Transoceanic Connections.”
William and Mary Quarterly 63, no. 4 (2006):
Giles, Paul. Transatlantic Insurrections: British
Culture and the Formation of American Literature,
1730–1860. Philadelphia: University of
Pennsylvania Press, 2001.
Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and
Double Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 1993.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Whole History of
Grandfather’s Chair. In True Stories from History
and Biography. Ed. Fredson Bowers. Columbus:
Ohio State University Press, 1972.
Klein, Bernhard, and Gesa Mackenthun. Eds. Sea
Changes: Historicizing the Ocean. New York:
Routledge, 2004.
Kubler, George. The Shape of Time: Remarks on the
History of Things. New Haven, CT: Yale
University Press, 1962.
Manning, Susan, and Andrew Taylor. Eds. The
Transatlantic Literary Studies Reader. Edinburgh:
Edinburgh University Press, 2007.
McGill, Meredith L., ed. American Literature and
the Culture of Reprinting, 1834–1853.
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press,
McGill, Meredith L. Ed. The Traffic in Poems:
Nineteenth-Century Poetry and Transatlantic
Exchange. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers
University Press, 2008.
Morgan, Philip D., and Jack P. Greene.
“Introduction: The Present State of Atlantic
History.” In Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal
(pp. 3–34). Eds. Jack P. Greene and Philip D.
Morgan. New York: Oxford University Press,
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. Ed. Bernard
William. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2001.
O’Reilly, William. “Genealogies of Atlantic
History.” Atlantic Studies 1, no. 1 (2004):
Orr, Mary. Intertextuality. Cambridge: Polity, 2003.
Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship: A Human History.
New York: Viking, 2007.
Roach, Joseph. Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic
Performance. New York: Columbia University
Press, 1996.
Schlegel, Frederick. Lectures on the History of
Literature, Ancient and Modern. Trans. J. G.
Lockhart. Philadelphia: Dobson, 1818.
Slauter, Eric. “History, Literature, and the Atlantic
World.” William and Mary Quarterly 65, no. 1
(2008): 135–61.
Trilling, Lionel. The Liberal Imagination.
New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1954.
Wïgen, Karen. “Introduction.” American Historical
Review 1113, no. 3 (2006): 717–21.
American Literature in
Transnational Perspective: The Case
of Mark Twain
Shelley Fisher Fishkin
During the last decade or so, a number of books have drawn our attention to American
literature written in languages other than English, and to the transnational movements of people and culture that gave rise to this rich body of material. I have in
mind books like Multilingual America: Transnationalism, Ethnicity, and the Languages
of American Literature, edited by Werner Sollors; and The Multilingual Anthology of
American Literature, edited by Marc Shell and Sollors. Also Xiao-huang Yin’s Chinese
American Literature since the 1850s (with its attention to American literature written
in Chinese); Hana Wirth-Nesher’s Call It English: The Languages of Jewish American
Literature; Merle Bachman’s Recovering “Yiddishland”: Threshold Moments in American
Literature; and numerous publications coming out of Arte Público Press under the
direction of Nicolás Kanellos. Work like this, along with a large body of work by
historians, has been central to the “transnational turn” in American studies, marked
by the creation of the American Studies Association’s International Initiative and the
launch of the Journal of Transnational American Studies.1 These and other like-minded
projects are rooted in the assumption that American scholars need to be more attentive to voices that were previously largely redlined from the cultural conversation
about the United States.
But there is a category of voices that has received almost no attention in this recent
ferment of recovery and recognition: the voices of writers and scholars who were not
American, who wrote about American literature over the last century and a half in
languages other than English, and who published their work outside the United
States. This chapter explores what we might gain by seeking out and attending to
some of this writing. I take as my case study Mark Twain. The cultural conversation
A Companion to American Literary Studies, First Edition. Edited by Caroline F. Levander,
Robert S. Levine.
© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2011 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Shelley Fisher Fishkin
about Mark Twain that is most familiar to scholars in the United States transpires in
English. But writers have been reading and responding to Mark Twain in languages
other than English for at least 138 years. Indeed, the first book devoted to Mark Twain
published anywhere, in any language, was a French book published in Paris in 1884
by the 24-year-old Henry Gauthier-Villars (best known today for having been the
controversial first husband of the writer Colette, whom he met five years after publishing his Twain book). Writers from Europe, Asia, and Latin America, writing in
Chinese, Danish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Russian, Spanish, and Yiddish,
have all engaged Twain. Aside from a few excerpts, the pieces they wrote have been
unavailable in English until 2010. Previously untranslated texts that I included in a
new collection of writers responding to Twain include essays by Nobel laureates from
Denmark and Japan, by two of Cuba’s most prominent public intellectuals, by
Argentina’s most celebrated author, by a famous Chinese writer (who supplied a
preface to the first book by Twain published in China), by a major Russian poet, and
by respected writers from Germany, Italy, Spain, and the Soviet Union. An article on
Twain from a Yiddish newspaper in Vilna serves as a poignant reminder of the vibrant
intellectual culture that once thrived in Yiddish-speaking communities in Eastern
Europe. I included as well a piece originally published in Chinese that was translated
fairly recently but is still relatively unknown, and a similarly obscure piece that was
translated some decades ago from its initial publication in Russian.
These previously little-known materials open up new venues of critical inquiry and
prompt fresh questions about the place of Twain (and, by extension, US writing) in
the world. It has generally been assumed – at least by US scholars – that anything
genuinely interesting or worth taking into account about Mark Twain would be published in English. And it has generally been assumed that critical writing in languages
other than English was just about the last place one would look to learn something
about US authors or about US literary traditions. But this conventional wisdom is
flawed on several fronts. Let me give some brief examples of what we can learn about
an American writer in the world, from writers working in languages other than
English, by drawing on writing on Twain originally published in Chinese, Danish,
French, German, Spanish, and Russian. (I am indebted to the colleagues from Canada,
China, Denmark, Germany, Russia, and the United States who translated and in some
cases helped identify these materials as well.)
I begin with José Martí, the Cuban writer and national hero who died in 1895.
Martí is celebrated as an innovative poet and gifted orator, as an idealistic political
leader and the father of the Cuban revolution, and as a martyr who tragically lost his
life in the struggle to make Cuba an independent, democratic nation. Martí was also
the first writer to popularize Mark Twain’s work in the Spanish-speaking world. (As
Ivan A. Schulman notes, although other nineteenth-century American writers such as
Emerson, Whitman, Poe, Hawthorne, and Longfellow were recognized names among
the cultivated reading public in Spanish America during the last quarter of that
century, Mark Twain was not; only one brief mention of Twain in a Latin American
periodical has come to light before Martí began writing about him [104–5, 111–12]).
American Literature in Transnational Perspective
Martí referred to Twain a number of times during his exile in the United States in the
1880s and 1890s, but I want to focus on just two such occasions. In November 1884,
Martí attended a reading by Mark Twain and George Washington Cable and wrote
about it in Spanish for the Buenos Aires paper La Nación, and in 1890 Martí wrote
about A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in that same publication. In the first
of these articles, the main topic that Martí addresses is Twain’s style; in the second, it
is his social criticism. And on both of these issues he has interesting things to say.
In his 1884 letter to La Nación, which was published in early 1885, Martí praised
the unaffected freshness of Twain’s prose and expressed admiration for the ways in
which his satire “clarifies with a certain picaresque innocence, the contradictions,
baseness and hypocrisy of ordinary people” in a manner that causes people to “laugh
at themselves”; and he called Twain a child not “of books but of Nature” (“Escenas”
1:1576, Editorial Lex, in Fishkin, Mark Twain 48–9). Indeed, careful readers of his
essay on Twain will find the seeds of some ideas that will blossom in Martí’s most
famous essay, “Our America,” which he wrote six years later, in which he praises “the
natural man” who “overthrows the authority that is accumulated from books” (291).
In this 1884 essay, Martí frequently describes Twain as just such a “natural man.” He
writes that
[Twain’s] ideas come to him directly from life; and although you can see the literary
skill very well in his books, he is not one to trim, snip, and fashion his ideas to appear
cultivated, as if any woman in finery for a formal ball were more beautiful than Venus
de Milo. Where else but from excessive affectation comes that evasion or distortion of
what one sees for himself, out of an urge to demonstrate one’s knowledge of what others
have said? (“Escenas” 1:1576, Editorial Lex, in Fishkin, Mark Twain 49)
Martí’s comment about Twain’s rejection of “excessive affectation” resonates with
Jorge Luis Borges’s assertion almost a century later that in Huckleberry Finn, “for the
first time an American writer used the language of America without affectation” (37).
Martí goes on to say in this piece on Twain, “Literature is now an occupation for
gilders; it urgently needs to be an occupation for miners. The hands hurt more, but
you extract, with strong hands, pure metal” (“Escenas” 1:1577, Editorial Lex, in
Fishkin, Mark Twain 49–50). Martí clearly admired Twain for being a miner, not a
The occasion that prompted this letter to La Nación was a public reading. What
had Twain read? Although Martí does not name the titles of the selections that Twain
read, the record shows that at this reading in New York in the winter of November
1884, Martí would have heard Twain read parts of A Tramp Abroad, as well as some
portions of a book that was currently in press, a book that would come out in England
the following month, but that would not be published in the United States until early
the next year: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.2
But all that Martí had written about Twain previously was pallid and tame compared to his response to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Martí wrote in
Shelley Fisher Fishkin
La Nación in 1890, just a little over a month after Yankee was published, that the
book was “fueled by indignation” at “the privileged classes who are beginning to rise
on the backs of the poor,” that its author was “exasperated” by “injustice,” and that
reading the book made Martí want to meet its author and congratulate him (“Escenas”
40:119, Editorial Trópico, in Fishkin Mark Twain 53–4). He recognized that Twain
was committed as a writer and as a citizen of a democracy to values that Martí shared:
both men rejected the claims of aristocracy to deference and legitimacy; both abhorred
injustice; both sympathized with the downtrodden and disempowered; both disdained
writing that was pretentious and affected. Martí clearly saw in Twain a kindred spirit.
He read Connecticut Yankee as much more than a satire of medieval chivalry: he recognized it as compelling criticism of contemporary injustice. He wrote that Twain “makes
evident – with an anger that sometimes borders on the sublime – the vileness of those
who would climb atop their fellow man, feed upon his misery, and drink from his
misfortune” (“Escenas” 40:119, Editorial Trópico, in Fishkin Mark Twain 53). Twain
“handles his subject with such skill,” Martí writes, that we get much more than scenes
that are faithful to
that age of kings and bishops, villagers and serfs – that a picture emerges of that which
is starting to be seen in the United States today: virtuous men who are scourged by
whips, armed by nature, with only solitude and hunger, men who go forth with a pen
for a lance and a book for a shield to topple the money castles of the new aristocracy.
There are paragraphs in Twain’s book that make me want to set off for Hartford to shake
his hand. (“Escenas” 40:119, Editorial Trópico, in Fishkin Mark Twain 53–4)
Martí doesn’t say anything quite like that about any other writer he admires – even
writers about whom he wrote at much greater length. Martí clearly recognized Twain
as a fellow traveler when it came to issues of social justice; he saw the author of
Connecticut Yankee as one Yankee who dissented from some of the conventional pieties
of the exploitative society in which he lived, as Martí himself did, and, in a larger
sense, whose social critique of modern society paralleled Martí’s own in important ways.
The cultural and political issues at the core of Connecticut Yankee were often sidestepped by reviewers who preferred to focus on the book’s less controversial mockery
of a long-dead age of chivalry. There were exceptions to this trend, of course – most
notably, William Dean Howells, who wrote a review the same month that Martí’s was
published in which he asserted that the Twain we see in Yankee is
to the full the humorist, as we know him; but he is very much more, and his strong,
indignant, often infuriate hate of injustice, and his love of equality, burn hot through
the manifold adventures and experiences of the tale. . . . There are passages in which
we see that the noble of Arthur’s day, who battened on the blood and sweat of his
bondmen, is one in essence with the capitalist of [our own] day who grows rich on the
labor of his underpaid wagemen. (145)
American Literature in Transnational Perspective
Still, Howells and Martí were in the minority in their focus on social justice issues
in the novel.
Mark Twain may have helped model for Martí, then, ways in which a writer could
reject effete, mannered, excessively ornamental European models and create natural,
bold, original art out of American materials – materials mined from American quarries; he also may have modeled a way to create art “fueled by indignation” and powered
by a well-honed sense of social justice. Is it not intriguing that a Martí who would
entitle his most widely reprinted essay “Nuestra América,” or “Our America,” referred
to the author of Connecticut Yankee with affection, one year earlier, as “Nuestro Mark
Twain,” or “Our Mark Twain” (“Escenas” 38:186, Editorial Trópico, in Fishkin, Mark
Twain 48)? The leading Cuban public intellectual of the generation after Martí similarly would lay claim to Twain as a kinsman from a continental standpoint. Jesús
Castellanos wrote in 1910 that there is only “one in all the continent who can
call himself truly American,” and that one is Mark Twain. “No one else has
presented such astonishing discoveries of expression, feeling, ideas, language,”
Castellanos wrote (116).
We can probably credit Twain with having helped hone Martí’s aesthetic sense
of what kind of new-world language was needed to tell new-world stories – a vernacular modernism, if you will, that aspired in theory, if not always in practice, to
eschew the belabored, ornamental “gilded” literary conventions with Old World
pedigrees in favor of a more rough-hewn and natural prose style. Twain also seems
to have modeled for Martí how a writer could prompt readers to think about social
justice in fresh ways. Both of these areas would inform Martí‘s own writing in the
years that followed. Both would also prove to be central for other non-U.S. writers
who read Twain. Indeed, the two areas that were particularly salient for Martí
were key to other writers around the world, as well – in some cases decades before
they came to figure prominently in the thinking of writers and critics writing in
In 1884, the same year that José Martí lauded Twain for being a miner and not a
gilder, for rejecting the densely ornamental “gilded” writing models of Europe in
favor of a more natural mode better suited to the United States, a young Parisian,
Henry Gauthier-Villars, made virtually the identical point in his book entitled simply
Mark Twain – the first book published on Mark Twain anywhere. Only GauthierVillars was writing not as a fellow “American” in the continental sense, as Martí was,
but as a young Frenchman who saw Twain as modeling what I’ve called a “vernacular
modernism” that Gauthier-Villars wanted to graft onto French literature. GauthierVillars had little use for what he called the “refined stylists” currently in fashion in
France who “compose a sentence with the minute labor of a mosaicist,” with results
that are “tangled-up” and “precious,” writers who feel obliged to disdain the “gaiety,
spontaneity,” and “literary good health” so abundant in the work of Mark Twain (94;
Fishkin, Mark Twain 56). With wonderful élan, Gauthier-Villars held up Twain as a
standard to displace the dull “refined stylists” currently in vogue, urging his countrymen to look to “young America and its completely new literature [since] the authors
Shelley Fisher Fishkin
of the Old World have nothing more to satisfy our jaded minds” (11; Fishkin, Mark
Twain 57). He continued,
[H]ere is a first-rate writer who has not taken from the Germans either their mysticism
or their brutality, and who even leaves to the English their jolts of convulsive laughter
and black depression; he will not ever lose himself in the foggy ruminations of JeanPaul; he will not tarry either in the lovingly stroked descriptions of tea prepared at just
the right temperature, that try the patience of the French in insurmountable terror! No!
He is lively, jovial, incisive, and his bold irony deserves to focus, at least for a moment,
our easily distracted attention. Hello then, charming writer with no model or imitator!
I bid you welcome among us, newcomer with endless verve; the sound of the hurrahs
you have raised has already crossed the ocean. We have been waiting for you. (12;
Fishkin, Mark Twain 57)
Gauthier-Villars cautioned that translations may not “capture the joyous temerity of
the American prose, or the joyous eccentricity of the expressions Twain creates from
whole cloth, nor the sharp edges of the humor to which the original use of slang adds
irresistible comedy” (56; Fishkin, Mark Twain 60). But nonetheless Gauthier-Villars
hazarded a number of translations of his own that in large measure manage to do
justice to Twain’s originals. (Gauthier-Villars paid homage to Twain in later years, by
the way, by occasionally publishing under the pen name “Jim Smiley,” which is the
name of the gambling-obsessed figure central to Mark Twain’s short story “The
Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”)
The influence of those refined Gallic stylists who set the standards in literary art
seems to have declined elsewhere in Europe, as well, in part as a result of the efforts
of other European admirers of Mark Twain. One example is Johannes V. Jensen, who
is often considered the first great modern Danish author. When Twain died in 1910,
Jensen wrote an editorial in the leading Danish newspaper, Politiken. Here Jensen
wrote that “vitality is the word that almost fully covers Mark Twain’s nature. There
is something singularly rested and awake about him, he rears, challenges, he is new,
and there is a new world around him. His essence is a new beginning” (5; Fishkin,
Mark Twain 119). When Jensen received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1944, in
his acceptance speech he credited himself with having imparted something akin to
that vitality to his own country’s literature; he wrote, “I inspired a change in the
Danish literature and press by introducing English and American vigour, which was
to replace the then dominant trend of decadent Gallicism” (Nobel; Fishkin, Mark
Twain 117). The vitality and “American vigour” of Mark Twain’s prose probably
played a role in shaping the ways in which Jensen transformed Danish writing in the
twentieth century, an aspect of his work that the Nobel Prize committee recognized
when it applauded the “bold, freshly creative style” that Jensen had developed
Twain may even have had a hand in prodding Germans to be more open to accepting a more streamlined, modern version of their language. At least that possibility
American Literature in Transnational Perspective
arises when we read what Eduard Engel, an influential German novelist, critic, and
philologist, wrote in 1880 about “The Awful German Language,” which Twain published as an appendix to A Tramp Abroad. Calling this “the best Mark Twain has ever
accomplished,” Engel wrote,
Here, ignorance, good humor, and wit form such a strange mixture that when reading
it one really does not know if one should get angry or laugh. I preferred the latter and
advise any reader of this appendix to do the same. (578; Fishkin, Mark Twain 37)
Engel, the great turn-of-the-twentieth-century authority on German, credits Twain
with having somehow aptly hit upon many “a sad truth” about the language “worth
taking to heart,” such as when he is deploring the “parenthesis disease” that allows
a “sort of luminous intellectual fog” to substitute for “clearness” (578; Fishkin, Mark
Twain 38). Engel claimed in 1880, concerning one point Twain raised, that it
was “well-known” that “a reform, if you want to call it one, is on its way,” one that
he wagered Mark Twain could witness if he “visits Germany again in another ten
years” (578; Fishkin, Mark Twain 38). But in her translator’s note, Valerie Bopp
observes that over a century later, that reform has still not come to pass (Fishkin,
Mark Twain 39).
I want to turn now to what we can learn from these commentaries in languages
other than English about the second theme that José Martí put on the table in his
discussion of Twain – Twain’s social criticism and concern with issues of social justice.
Until relatively recently, readers in the United States were likely to be largely
unfamiliar with the Mark Twain that writers in China and the Soviet Union had been
praising for much of the twentieth century. As Maxwell Geismar put it in Scanlan’s
in 1970,
During the Cold War era of our culture, mainly in the 1950’s although extending back
into the ’40s and forward far into the ’60s, Mark Twain was both revived and castrated.
The entire arena of Twain’s radical social criticism of the United States – its racism,
imperialism, and finance capitalism – has been repressed or conveniently avoided by the
so-called Twain scholars precisely because it is so bold, so brilliant, so satirical. And so
prophetic. (33)
But while most Americans in the twentieth century had been encountering a tame
and “castrated” Twain, to borrow Geismar’s word, readers in China and the Soviet
Union were encountering a Twain unafraid to launch salvos at the hypocrisy and failings of the country that he loved. It turns out that Mark Twain’s achievement as a
writer and his role as a social and cultural critic may have been distorted by imperatives of the Cold War, in ways that Twain scholars (myself included) have heretofore
largely ignored. While Chinese and Soviet writers and critics lauded the Twain
who was a searing critic of his country, American writers and critics at midcentury
largely dismissed that Twain as a figment of the Communist propaganda machine and
Shelley Fisher Fishkin
valorized America’s Twain as a writer to be celebrated primarily as a humorist rather
than as a satirist and social critic. The propaganda functions to which Twain’s writings
were put are obvious; but Americans threw out the baby with the bathwater when
they downplayed the validity of Twain’s criticisms of his country – which were
also criticisms of their country – and, unfortunately, in some ways, of America today
as well.
Lao She (the pen name used by Shu She Yu, 1899–1966) was one of the leading
Chinese authors of the twentieth century. In 1960, as president of the National
Association of Writers, he delivered a speech in Beijing to commemorate the 50th
anniversary of Mark Twain’s death.3 Lao She was in the United States between 1946
and 1949, and returned home soon after Mao Zedong announced the establishment
of the People’s Republic of China. An influential novelist and dramatist, he was named
“The People’s Artist” and played a prominent role in the Chinese literary establishment before he was purged from the Communist Party and became a victim of the
Cultural Revolution (although it is undisputed that Lao She delivered this speech,
and although the text is now widely credited to him in print in China, the prominent
Chinese poet and scholar Yuan Kejia claimed in a Chinese journal in 1985 that he
was paid to write this speech for Lao She to deliver, and that he is its actual author).4
As Xilao Li has noted, after the founding of the People’s Republic, Mark Twain was
one of the very few foreign writers whose works were allowed to be translated and
published. Particularly during the Korean War, the anti-imperialist, antiwar aspects
of his work were emphasized. Although Lao’s speech fits this mold and served China’s
ruling interests at the time, and contains some of the expected Cold War jargon, it
also contains some insightful readings of pieces by Twain with which American
readers were then largely unfamiliar. With a few exceptions – most notably work by
Philip Foner and Maxwell Geismar – Twain’s trenchant critiques of the country he
loved tended to be as ignored in the United States at midcentury as they were celebrated in China. The fact that the most important book on this topic, Philip Foner’s
Mark Twain, Social Critic, was published by International Publishers, the publishing
firm of the Communist Party U.S.A., may have helped to prevent it from having the
impact that it deserved to have upon Twain scholars; it was not ignored – but neither
did it set scholars’ agendas. Meanwhile, Geismar was marginalized and dismissed as
a critic in part because of his progressive politics.5 Only in the 1990s would American
scholars generally decide that this political aspect of Twain deserved their attention.
Lao She notes in 1960 that Twain’s criticism of the “Dollar Empire”
has retained profound and immediate significance throughout the past half
century. . . . Mark Twain’s reprimand of the imperialist aggressive powers and sympathy
for the anti-colonialist Asian and African people [are] especially significant. This is the
part of his literary heritage we should value most. (11, emphasis added; Fishkin, Mark Twain
But until the publication of Jim Zwick’s book Mark Twain’s Weapons of Satire: AntiImperialist Writings on the Philippine-American War in 1992, this was probably the part
American Literature in Transnational Perspective
of Twain’s literary heritage that his countrymen valued least. Zwick’s book did much
to help Americans rediscover this side of Twain and set in motion a process of reevaluation that continues into the twenty-first century, in work like the recent international
forum on ‘The War-Prayer” that ran in the first issue of the Journal of Transnational
American Studies. Lao She had announced back in 1960,
In the fall of 1900, Mark Twain returned to the United States after being absent nine
years. He told the press, “And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the
eagle put its talons on any land.” He also gave strong support to the Chinese people’s
fierce struggle against imperialist aggression. As early as 1868, in his essay entitled
“Treaty with China,” he berated the shameless invaders for their forceful setting up of
concessions. (12; Fishkin, Mark Twain 284)
To this day, relatively few Americans have even heard of “Treaty with China,” an article
Twain published in the New York Tribune in 1868. Indeed, this article is so obscure
that its first reprinting since its initial publication was in the spring of 2010, in the
second issue of the Journal of Transnational American Studies, which also features an
analysis of it by Martin Zehr.
The speech that Lao She delivered in 1960 reveals an astute and thoroughgoing
familiarity with a tremendous number of Twain’s publications, many of which were
relatively unknown to Americans. It particularly champions Twain’s “excellent political comments and essays,” noting, for example,
In 1900, in his “Salutation Speech from the Nineteenth Century to the Twentieth,”
[Twain] remarked sarcastically, “I bring you the stately matron named Christendom,
returning bedraggled, besmirched and dishonored from pirate raids in Kiao-chew,
Manchuria, South Africa and the Philippines, with her soul full of meanness, her pocket
full of boodle and her mouth full of pious hypocrisies. Give her soap and a towel, but
hide the looking glass.” He thought the American invasion of the Philippines had
stained the American flag, on which the only thing fit to be drawn were “the white
stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross bones. (12; Fishkin,
Mark Twain 285)
Twain’s anti-imperialism was not the only aspect of his satirical social critique that
Lao She/Yuan Kejia appreciated. Along with Soviet writers Yan Bereznitsky and Abel
Startsev, Lao She also underscored the strength, depth, and aptness of Twain’s critiques
of American racism, drawing readers’ attention to texts with which most Americans
were unfamiliar (14; Fishkin, Mark Twain 286). In a similar vein, the Twain that the
Soviet writer Abel Startsev valued in his 1963 book, Mark Twain in America, was a
Twain whose love for his country forced him to blast the “racists and lynchers” who
had inspired him to write the dystopian fantasy “The United States of Lyncherdom,”
a piece that Americans did not read in unbowdlerized form until the 1990s (Fishkin,
Mark Twain 295; Oggel).
Shelley Fisher Fishkin
The Twain that Lao She celebrated was the antiracist Twain, the Twain who was
“Peace loving, democracy loving, anti-imperialist and anticolonialist” (14; Fishkin,
Mark Twain 287). This is the Twain who was also valued by Soviet critic Yan
Bereznitsky. But both Bereznitsky and Lao She complained that this was the Twain
that Americans preferred to bury or ignore. Writing in Liturnaya Gazeta in 1960,
Bereznitsky faulted the selections that Charles Neider had made in his 1959 edition
of Mark Twain’s Autobiography, charging that Neider had allowed previously unpublished “inoffensive trifles” such as “Twain’s meditations on baldness, on the value of
hair-washing,” and so on to displace Twain’s “indignant notes about the predatory
wars which the United States carried on half a century ago” or his critiques of the
“knights and henchmen of American expansionism” – pieces that were omitted from
Neider’s book (“Mark Twain” 14; Fishkin, Mark Twain 279). Lao She, too, had voiced
the charge that American critics were reducing a bracing, satirical, social and political
critic to a figure who told trivial humorous anecdotes. In his 1960 speech, Lao She
had written, “Some critics, bribed by Wall Street, even labeled Twain as just a humorist, trying to wipe out the bitter sarcasm behind his humor. Twain by no means was
a mere humorist. He was a profound and excellent satirist” (14; Fishkin, Mark Twain
287). The assumption that American critics were “bribed by Wall Street” is absurd,
of course, a relic of the discourse of the Cold War. But the opinion that Lao She/Yuan
Kejia attributes to these critics is accurate. While the “part of [Twain’s] literary heritage we should value most,” according to Lao She/Yuan Kejia, was his searing social
critique, American critics by and large did maintain that what was most important
about Twain was his humor. Indeed, this view of what mattered most about Twain
dominated writing on Twain throughout the twentieth century, and continues into
the twenty-first.
When he wrote a new preface in 2001 to his book Mark Twain: Social Philosopher,
which had first appeared in 1962, Louis J. Budd, the celebrated elder statesman of
Twain scholars (and a man whom I admire), felt compelled to close his new preface
with this assertion, “Though I consider sociopolitical ideas – or the art of how we do
and must live together – supremely important, we care about [Twain’s] particular
questions and answers primarily because of his gift for humor” (xvii). Lao She/Yuan
Kejia begged to differ. Personally, I find Lao She/Yuan Kejia’s view of what matters
most about Twain more compelling: there is humor, to be sure; but it is the social
criticism that makes it lasting. As Twain himself once said, “Humor must not professedly teach and it must not professedly preach, but it must do both if it would live
forever” (Mark Twain 202). How would late twentieth-century and early twenty-firstcentury writing on Twain be different if the extended appraisals of Twain’s long arc
of anti-imperialist writing by Lao She/Yuan Kejia, Startsev, and Bereznitsky had been
more familiar to Americans? What might it look like, for example, if Americans had
been more aware of his 1868 anti-imperialist work, “Treaty with China,” that Lao
She lauded in 1960? Perhaps noted scholar of empire Amy Kaplan would have hesitated before making the argument that we should view Twain as aligned with pro-
American Literature in Transnational Perspective
imperialist forces until the last decade or so of his life, a factor that she claims is key
to the writer he became.
As John Carlos Rowe observes in Literary Culture and U.S. Imperialism,
The strict periodization of the “anti-imperialist” Mark Twain of the fin de siècle, as
distinct from the apparently patriotic and nationalist Twain of the 1870s and 1880s,
has prevented us from recognizing how anti-colonial and anti-imperialist attitude[s]
inflect virtually all of Twain’s writings. (122)
I agree with Rowe that “Twain’s public statements about his ‘change of mind’ ” about
imperialism belie “the continuity of his thinking about imperialism from Connecticut
Yankee to his overtly anti-imperialist satires of the period 1898–1905” (125). (Indeed,
“Treaty with China” suggests that we need to track his anti-imperialist views
back to 1868.) Rowe warns us not to trivialize “the great achievement of [Twain’s]
critique of European and emerging U.S. imperialisms.” Twain, along with Howells,
he tells us,
spoke out against U.S. imperialism in Cuba and the Philippines . . . at a time when
few were able to understand and even fewer were willing to challenge the emerging
imperium of the United States. . . . [L]ong study . . . enabled [Twain] to comprehend
what few others did about the direction of United States foreign policy and national
identity. (139)
Lao She/Yuan Kejia, Yan Bereznitsky, and Abel Startsev foregrounded precisely these
issues decades before US critics began to pay them serious attention; José Martí was
attending to them a century before most US critics recognized their importance.
Our understanding of Twain’s impact on the development of vernacular modernism
in a range of languages in the twentieth century, and our appreciation of his prescient
role as a social critic, are enriched when we add the voices of Martí, Gauthier-Villars,
Lao She/Yuan Kejia, Bereznitsky, Startsev, and others to the conversation. For a
century and a half, Twain’s works have traveled across the globe, shaping world literature in ways we are just beginning to understand. And for nearly that long, writers
and critics have been discussing Twain in languages other than English, honing often
fresh and distinctive insights into how Twain’s writing works and why it matters. It
may not be easy to welcome multilingual, transnational voices into the cultural conversation about Mark Twain. Such an enterprise requires that we work collaboratively
across linguistic and national borders, that we get to know colleagues in foreign language and literature departments at our own universities and around the world, that
we embrace new technologies that facilitate global communication, that we stalk
serendipity with interlibrary loan, and that we urge our multilingual students to apply
their language skills to broadening the study of American literature.
While this chapter has focused on what we can learn about Mark Twain by paying
attention to transnational perspectives on his work, extending this approach to other
Shelley Fisher Fishkin
writers can yield comparable fresh insights. A case in point is Walt Whitman East and
West: New Contexts for Reading Walt Whitman, edited by Ed Folsom, which was published in 2002. This outstanding collection of essays, the result of an international
conference held in Beijing, demonstrates the significance of Whitman’s impact on
literature in China, and also deepens our understanding of the importance of Asia for
Whitman himself.6
Exploring transnational perspectives on American literature poses many challenges.
It requires scholars whose primary language is English to pay attention to the possibilities and pitfalls of translation. It insists that colleagues around the world help
each other to grasp how American writers are understood in connection with a range
of national literary traditions. It demands that Americanists move beyond their
comfort zone – beyond familiar ways of talking about their field – to seek out ways
of connecting, in person and virtually, with peers who live and work in vastly different
linguistic and cultural environments. But with these challenges come extraordinary
opportunities. Foremost among them is the chance to make American literary studies
in the twenty-first century a truly global, genuinely collaborative enterprise infused
with unprecedented energy and excitement.
See Fishkin, “Crossroads of Cultures: The
Transnational Turn in American Studies –
Presidential Address to the American Studies
Association, 2004.” The ASA International
Initiative, which helped make it possible for
over a hundred scholars from outside the
United States to attend the American Studies
Association annual meetings for four years,
from 2004 to 2007, was supported by grants
from the Mellon Foundation, the Asia
Foundation, the National Science Foundation
of Taiwan, the U.S.-China Education Trust,
the Luce Foundation, and other foundations.
See also Elliott, “Diversity in the United
States and Abroad: What Does it Mean When
American Studies is Transnational? –
Presidential Address to the American Studies
Association, 2006.” The Journal of Transnational American Studies (JTAS) was launched in
2009. As the open-access journal notes on its
home page,
The Journal of Transnational American
Studies (JTAS) is a peer-reviewed online
journal that seeks to broaden the interdisciplinary study of American cultures
in a transnational context. JTAS is the
first academic journal explicitly focused
on what Shelley Fisher Fishkin in her
2004 American Studies Association
presidential address called the “transnational turn” in American Studies.
Sponsored by UC Santa Barbara’s
American Cultures and Global
Contexts Center and Stanford
University’s Program in American
Studies, JTAS is hosted on the eScholarship Repository, which is part of the
eScholarship initiative of the California
Digital Library. (http://escholarship.
To access volumes 1, 2, and 3 of the journal,
go to http://escholarship.org/uc/search?entity
=acgcc_jtas;volume=1;issue=1, http://escholarship.org/uc/search?entity = acgcc_jtas;
volume=2;issue=1, and http://escholarship.
org/uc/search?entity = acgcc_jtas;volume
=3;issue=1. JTAS has an editorial board of
scholars from Asia, Europe, North America,
and South America.
American Literature in Transnational Perspective
The New York Sun reported, for example, on
November 19, 1884, that at the Chickering
Hall reading (the event that Martí attended)
Twain announced that he would “give a short
chapter from my new novel, ‘Huckleberry
Finn.’” The New York Times reported (also on
November 19, 1884) that in addition to
reading from his new novel during the regular
program, when he was summoned to do an
encore, Twain “ladled out another section of
the ‘Huckleberry Finn’ advance sheets.”
3. For decades, scholars had assumed it had been
lost, but after determined searching over
many years, J.R. LeMaster and Zhao Huazhi
managed to locate a copy in 1995 and had it
translated by Zhao Yuming and Sui Gang; the
translation was published in 1996 in the USChina Review.
4. In the summer of 2010, while this chapter was
being written, I learned from literature professor Gongzhao Li of Luoyang University of
Foreign Studies in China that although it is
established that Lao She definitely delivered
this text as a speech in Beijing in 1960, the
speech may actually have been written for him
by another prominent Chinese writer, Yuan
Kejia, a respected poet and expert on American
literature. According to Gongzhao Li,
In Feb. 1985, Foreign Literature Review,
run by the Institute of Foreign
Literature, China Academy of Social
Sciences, published a note by Yuan
Kejia, in which he pointed out the
mistake in publishing, in the 4th issue
of Foreign Literature Review in 1984 (p.
132)[,] the essay under the name of Lao
She. He also described the circumstance under which Lao She read the
essay. It was read at a national conference in memory of Mark Twain in
1960. They made the agreement that
Yuan was to write the essay, and Lao
She was to read the essay under his
name, but the payment for the writing
was to go to Yuan. Yuan said in the
note that it was not uncommon for one
to write an essay and for another to read
it under his name. But for publication,
it was another matter. The essay should
be given its right author’s name to
avoid confusions in the future.
(Gongzhao Li, personal email communication, July 6, 2010)
The essay, however, continues to be attributed
to Lao She in China despite Yuan Kejia’s claim
that it was he, and not Lao She, who wrote it.
5. In the 1960s, however, in part in response to
charges of American censorship of Twain made
by Soviet critics, some of Twain’s social criticism began to appear in print in the United
States. But, as Jim Zwick points out, the versions of these pieces that US editors often used
had been bowdlerized by Albert Bigelow
Paine, Twain’s first biographer. As Zwick
notes, “these later editors,” who included
some of Twain’s social criticism in editions in
the 1960s and early 1970s, “were undoubtedly unaware that by relying on Paine’s texts
they were perpetuating a literary fraud.
[Janet] Smith and Geismar, in particular, were
trying to present the critical Mark Twain, but
they unintentionally (and carelessly) reproduced censored texts that diluted his views”
(Confronting 171).
6. It built upon the pioneering earlier anthology,
Walt Whitman and the World, edited by Gay
Wilson Allen and Ed Folsom, which included
responses to Whitman by poets and writers
from around the globe.
References and Further Reading
Allen, Gay Wilson, and Ed Folsom. Eds. Walt
Whitman and the World. Iowa City: University of
Iowa Press, 1995.
Bachman, Merle. Recovering “Yiddishland”: Threshold
Moments in American Literature. Syracuse, NY:
Syracuse University Press, 2007.
Bereznitsky, Yan. “Mark Twain on the Bed of
Procrustes.” Literaturnaya Gazeta (Moscow),
August 18, 1959, 4. In Charles Neider. Ed.
Mark Twain and the Russians: An Exchange
of Views (pp. 13–15). Trans. Robert Belknap.
New York: Hill & Wang, 1960.
Shelley Fisher Fishkin
Bereznitsky, Yan. “The Question is Significantly
More Profound: A Letter to Charles Neider.”
Literaturnaya Gazeta (Moscow), December 12,
1959, 5. In Charles Neider. Ed. Mark Twain and
the Russians: An Exchange of Views (pp. 19–24).
Trans. Robert Belknap. New York: Hill &
Wang, 1960.
Borges, Jorge Luis, and Esther Zemborain De
Torres Duggan. An Introduction to American
Literature. Lexington: University of Kentucky
Press, 1971.
Budd, Louis J. “Preface to the 2001 Edition.” In
Louis J. Budd, Mark Twain: Social Philosopher
(pp. ix–xviii). 1962. Columbia: University of
Missouri Press, 2001.
Castellanos, Jesús. “Mark Twain.” In Los Optimistas
(pp. 115–20). Madrid: Editorial América, 1910.
In Shelley Fisher Fishkin. Ed. The Mark Twain
Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Works
(pp. 133–6). Trans. Edward M. Test. New York:
Library of America, 2010.
Elliot, Emory. “Diversity in the United States
and Abroad: What Does It Mean When
American Studies Is Transnational? – Presidential Address to the American Studies
Association, 2006.” American Quarterly 59, no.
1 (2007): 1–22.
Engel, Eduard. “Mark Twain: Ein Amerikanischer
‘Humorist’ ” (Mark Twain: An American Humorist). Magazin für die Literatur des Auslandes 98
(1880): 575–9. In Shelley Fisher Fishkin. Ed.
The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His
Life and Works (pp. 30–9). Trans. Valerie Bopp.
New York: Library of America, 2010.
Fishkin, Shelley Fisher. “Crossroads of Cultures:
The Transnational Turn in American Studies –
Presidential Address to the American Studies
Association, November 12, 2004.” American
Quarterly 57, no. 1 (2005): 17–57.
Fishkin, Shelley Fisher. Ed. The Mark Twain
Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Works.
New York: Library of America, 2010.
Fishkin, Shelly Fisher, and Takayuki Tatsumi. Eds.
“New Perspectives on ‘The War-Prayer’: An
International Forum.” Journal of Transnational
American Studies 1, no. 1 (2009). http://escholarship.org/uc/search?entity=acgcc_jtas;volume=
Folsom, Ed. Ed. Whitman East and West: New
Contexts for Reading Walt Whitman. Iowa City:
University of Iowa Press, 2002.
Foner, Philip S. Mark Twain, Social Critic.
New York: International Publishers, 1958.
Gauthier-Villars, Henry. Mark Twain. Paris:
Gauthier-Villars, Imprimeur-Libraire, 1884. In
Shelley Fisher Fishkin. Ed. The Mark Twain
Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Works
(pp. 56–60). Trans. Greg Robinson. New York:
Library of America, 2010.
Geismar, Maxwell. Mark Twain: An American
Prophet. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1970.
Geismar, Maxwell. “Mark Twain and the Robber
Barons.” Scanlan’s Monthly, March 1970,
Howells, William Dean. “A Connecticut Yankee in
King Arthur’s Court.” 1890. In William Dean
Howells, My Mark Twain (pp. 145–9).
New York: Harper & Brothers, 1910.
Jensen, Johannes V. “Mark Twain.” Politiken
(Copenhagen), April 23, 1910, 5. In Shelley
Fisher Fishkin. Ed. The Mark Twain Anthology:
Great Writers on His Life and Works (pp. 117–20).
Trans. Jan Nordby Gretlund. New York: Library
of America, 2010.
Journal of Transnational American Studies. Center for
American Cultures and Global Contexts,
University of California, Santa Barbara, and
Program in American Studies, Stanford
University. eScholarship, University of
California. http://escholarship.org/uc/acgcc_jtas
Kanellos, Nicolás. Herencia: The Anthology of
Hispanic Literature of the United States. New York:
Oxford University Press, 2003.
Kaplan, Amy. “The Imperial Routes of Mark
Twain.” In Amy Kaplan, The Anarchy of Empire
in the Making of U.S. Culture. Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 2002.
Lao, She (Yuan Kejia). “Mark Twain: Exposer of
the ‘Dollar Empire.’ A Speech by Lao She
Commemorating the Fiftieth Anniversary of the
Death of Mark Twain.” US-China Review 19
(Summer 1995): 11–15. In Shelley Fisher
Fishkin. Ed. The Mark Twain Anthology: Great
Writers on His Life and Works (pp. 283–8). Trans.
Zhao Yuming, Sui Gand, and J.R. LeMaster.
New York: Library of America, 2010.
Li, Xilao. “The Adventures of Mark Twain in
China: Translation and Appreciation of More
Than a Century.” The Mark Twain Annual 6, no.
1 (November 2008): 65–76.
Martí, José. “Escenas Norteamericanas” (“North
American scenes”). La Nación (Buenos Aires),
American Literature in Transnational Perspective
sent November 27, 1884, published January 11,
1885. In José Martí: Obras Completas (pp. 1575–
9). Vol. 1. Havana: Editorial Lex, 1946. In
Shelley Fisher Fishkin. Ed. The Mark Twain
Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Works
(pp. 48–53). Trans. Edward M. Test. New York:
Library of America, 2010.
Martí, José. “Escenas Norteamericanas” (“North
American scenes”). La Nación (Buenos Aires),
sent January 9, 1890, published February 20,
1890. In Obras Completas de Martí (pp. 113–22).
Vol. 38. Havana: Editorial Trópico, 1941.
Martí, José. “Escenas Norteamericanas” (“North
American scenes”). La Nación (Buenos Aires),
sent January 13, 1890, published March 12,
1890. In Obras Completas de Martí (pp. 113–22).
Vol. 40. Havana: Editorial Trópico, 1942. In
Shelley Fisher Fishkin. Ed. The Mark Twain
Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Works
(pp. 53–5). Trans. Rubén Builes and Cintia
Santana. New York: Library of America, 2010.
Martí, José. “Nuestra America” (“Our America”). El
Partido Liberal (Mexico City), January 20, 1891.
In José Martí: Selected Writings (pp. 288–96).
Trans. Esther Allen. New York: Penguin
Classics, 2002.
NobelPrize.org. “Nobel Prize in Literature 1944:
Johannes V. Jensen.” http://nobelprize.org/
Oggel, Terry L. “Speaking Out about Race: ‘The
United States of Lyncherdom’ Clemens Really
Wrote.” Prospects: An Annual of American Cultural
Studies 25 (2000): 115–38.
Rowe, John Carlos. Literary Culture and U.S.
Imperialism: From the Revolution to World War II.
New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Schulman, Ivan A. “José Martí and Mark Twain: A
Study of Literary Sponsorship.” Symposium 15,
no. 2 (1961): 104–13.
Shell, Marc, and Werner Sollors. Eds. The
Multilingual Anthology of American Literature: A
Reader of Original Texts with English Translations.
New York: New York University Press, 2000.
Sollors, Werner. Ed. Multilingual America:
Transnationalism, Ethnicity, and the Languages of
American Literature. New York: New York
University Press, 1998.
Startsev, Abel. Mapκ TBeH и AMepиκa (Mark Twain
in America). 1963. Rev. ed. Moscow, 1985. In
Shelley Fisher Fishkin. Ed. The Mark Twain
Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Works
(pp. 293–5). Trans. Katya Vladimirov and Nina
Yermakov Morgan. New York: Library of
America, 2010.
Twain, Mark. Mark Twain in Eruption: Hitherto
Unpublished Pages about Men and Events. Ed.
Bernard DeVoto. New York: Harper, 1940.
Twain, Mark. “Treaty with China.” New York
Tribune, August 4, 1868. In Journal of
Transnational American Studies 2, no. 1 (2010).
Wirth-Nesher, Hana. Call It English: The Languages
of Jewish American Literature. Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press, 2008.
Yin, Xiao-huang. Chinese American Literature since
the 1850s. Carbondale: University of Illinois
Press, 2000.
Zehr, Martin. “Mark Twain, ‘The Treaty with
China,’ and the Chinese Connection.” Journal of
Transnational American Studies 2, no. 1 (2010).
Zwick, Jim. Confronting Imperialism: Essays on Mark
Twain and the Anti-Imperialist League. West
Conshohocken, PA: Infinity, 2007.
Zwick, Jim. Mark Twain’s Weapons of Satire: AntiImperialist Writings on the Philippine-American
War. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press,
Southern Literary Studies
John T. Matthews
It may be surprising to learn how central new ways of thinking about the South are
to the questions and research now transforming the whole field of American literary
studies. That in the past this was rarely true of scholarship about the region’s literature
almost goes without saying. The US South was long associated in the rest of the
nation’s imagination with resistance to moral and material progress, cultural isolation,
and even a kind of proud spirit of backwardness. Many Southerners celebrated their
sectional culture for its veneration of “traditional” values allegedly lost in the national
march toward modernity: a sense of community; a regard for place; the continuity of
family across generations; a social order founded on “natural” hierarchies of race,
gender, and class; and an appreciation for leisure and culture over industry and money
making. Scholars of Southern literature tended to reproduce those features as categories of analysis, even when they noticed inadequacies and contradictions within them.
Through the era of the region’s belated modernization (changes spurred between the
late 1930s and late 1950s by the Great Depression, World War II, and the civil rights
struggle), Southern literary criticism’s explanation of what made writing of “the” US
South distinctive often served as implicit defense of a culture thought still to harbor
worthwhile oppositional values.
Belief in Southern distinctiveness hardly died out with the region’s acceptance of
more modern views and values. In 1980, one prominent scholar of Southern letters
wondered whether the country might not be entering a new era in which the region’s
experiences in progressive reform – particularly the revolution in race relations
achieved by the contemporary South – could inspire liberal advances nationally. The
inauguration of a highly popular Southern president in 1992 invited reflections on
A Companion to American Literary Studies, First Edition. Edited by Caroline F. Levander,
Robert S. Levine.
© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2011 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Southern Literary Studies
how Southern the nation as a whole was becoming, and then in 2008 the nation
elected its first black president, a man whose personal history evokes a colonially
inflected hybridity: Barack Obama’s father was a Kenyan, his mother was the descendant of a white slave-owning family from Kansas, and his childhood years were spent
in Indonesia and Hawaii. Some commentators continue to tout the South’s persistent
differences (its comparatively high level of religious practice, for example), but demographic changes in Southern states make any effort to imagine “an enduring South”
increasingly difficult. Inspired in part by the exciting variety of contemporary creative
work in the US South, much of it by recent immigrants from Southeast Asia and
Latin America, as well as African Americans returning to the region, literary scholars
of the South have been challenging the orthodoxies that governed earlier accounts of
the section’s culture. The result has been not only to interrogate regional shibboleths
of agrarian community, place, the past, and the “natural” orders of race, gender, sexuality, and family – exposing how such ideals functioned ideologically to preserve
advantages for certain groups – but also to begin to rethink even more fundamental
categories like “the South” and “America” – exploring how the US South functioned
as a disavowed Other in fantasies of national unity and purity, and how the histories
of colonial conquest, the extermination of indigenous peoples, and the republic’s
involvement in transatlantic slaveholding plantation economies were localized in one
part of the country, where you could “look away” from them.
The South: World and Nation
As American studies has swung broadly toward transnational modes of analysis, the
US South has emerged as a crucial site for reconceptualizing the material and cultural
history of the hemisphere. Although it is still not always treated as a fundamental
category, the South – especially as expanded to designate numerous other hemispheric
and global places that share histories of European colonialism – figures in reconsiderations of transatlantic Euro-American society, slavery and abolitionism; histories of
race, New World immigration, Caribbean colonial societies, and the aftermath of
independence; comparisons of hemispheric plantation cultures; and the histories
of European imperialism (including US border studies) as well as of postcolonial
regimes of racial segregation. In some ways, that is, the US South has risen to a new
level of general and scholarly attention in a straightforward way: as a region whose
irrepressible contemporary creative vitality has attracted notice; whose material and
cultural history prove, on closer inspection, to be more complex and more central to
national bearings than previously appreciated; and whose similarities to other Southern
places invite conceptualization of a global South. Our definition of American literature,
once taken in the United States to mean its own national literature (and even that of
a pretty provincial sort), has been stretched in numerous ways, with various senses of
Southernness contributing to breaking the continental Northeastern frame that once
shaped our view of American literary culture.
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In other ways, though, “the South” retains its power to conceal the world-system
– to use Immanuel Wallerstein’s influential formulation – responsible for the emergence of modern industrial capitalism. Wallerstein proposes a model of core and
periphery to explain the primary dyad of capitalist world systems: the speculative,
productive, and commercial domination of metropolises over peripheries that supply
raw materials via exploitable land and labor. Although core and periphery tended at
one point to align with geographical spaces like north and south, Wallerstein’s economic model emphasizes that such “places” are essentially positions within a system
that divides the labor of production. Some of the most exciting work on US Southern
literature situates it in the context of transnational colonial Souths.
Southern literary scholarship has been revolutionized by the emergence of hemispheric comparative studies. In Post-Slavery Literature of the Americas, George Handley
contends that nothing short of a fully comparative approach to “New World” literatures can break the US-centrism of an “American” literary history that has typically
been understood as a matter of British transatlantic culture, and of methods of analysis
and aesthetic standards suited to it. In demonstrating how postplantation cultures in
the United States, Cuba, Mexico, and other Latin American nations shared conceptual
problems – in this study, how to avoid reproducing colonial models of family and
blood ancestry as they sought to imagine postemancipation modes of affiliation and
identity – Handley powerfully resituates prominent works of US Southern literature.
For example, William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! may be telling the story of the
South not only as a distinct sectional destiny, from Tidewater Virginia to the Mississippi
cotton frontier, but also as the manifestation of a hemispheric history of colonial slave
economies, racial technologies, slave rebellion, and emancipation and modern statehood. Likewise, the US South’s notorious obsession with history – also susceptible to
an excessively national-regional explanation, and exemplified in US criticism’s fetishization of Faulkner’s preoccupation with the Deep South’s past – is put into hemispheric perspective by Deborah Cohn’s History and Memory in the Two Souths, which
focuses on the comparable efforts of the postemancipation US South and South
America to imagine usable colonial pasts.
The problem of Faulkner’s disproportionate representativeness of the South (a
problem because of the many national and social positions his work cannot speak from
or for) we might track here as a touchstone in the new Southern studies. On the one
hand, the indisputable capaciousness of Faulkner’s historical and literary imagination
has allowed subsequent writers around the world – including many in the global
South – to draw decisively on his work: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa,
V.S. Naipaul, and Edwidge Danticat, to name a very few. Cohn and Jon Smith’s edited
volume of essays, Look Away! which takes as its premise that the US South, owing to
its formative “experience of New World plantation colonialism” (2), more resembles
many Latin American countries than it does the rest of the United States, has an entire
section on the exceptional significance of Faulkner to Latin American writers. Edouard
Glissant’s Faulkner, Mississippi challenged establishment scholars of the South’s signature writer by suggesting that Yoknapatawpha was less the continent’s southernmost
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place than a Caribbean plantation society’s topmost rim. Following Glissant’s lead,
Valerie Loichot brings together the writing of Faulkner, St. John Perse, Toni Morrison,
and Glissant himself to show the common concerns of authors from various national
locales across a “postplantation” South. On the other hand, one might see the kind
of critical attention accorded Faulkner as reinscribing the authority of US social and
political perspectives, expressive forms, and critical values. Hosam Aboul-Ela’s Other
South examines the importance of Faulkner’s fiction to postcolonial authors in South
America and the Middle East, but demonstrates that indigenous theories of economic
production and class better illuminate how such writers could read Faulkner profitably
in postcolonial contexts ostensibly so different from those of the United States.
Let me suggest that the lingering reluctance of US scholars of American literature
to incorporate the study of the Americas’ Souths fully into the study of US literature
stems from the country’s longstanding refusal to acknowledge that the national project
rested on the foundation of a slave-holding plantation economy. The US South was
only the most proximate reminder that national prosperity descended from a history
of hemispheric colonialism and trafficking in humans. A novel like Absalom, Absalom!
obsessively unravels the mythmaking that defended elite interests in the South, even
as it compulsively reproduces the will to disavowal conditioning the beneficiaries –
national as well as regional – of such a past: “I dont hate it [the South]. . . . I dont
hate it. . . . I dont. I dont!” It took 50 years for readers of Faulkner’s version of the
South’s story to ask why its iconic planter, Thomas Sutpen, has to go to Haiti to begin
his career, or how his tiny town in rural Mississippi was connected to a wider circumCaribbean plantation society, or whether it matters that Absalom was published just
as the US occupation of Haiti and Santo Domingo was ending in the mid-1930s.
Matthew Pratt Guterl’s American Mediterranean, which begins with an evocation of
Sutpen in Haiti, recreates a nineteenth-century pan-Caribbean plantation society that
formed an economic, social, and cultural web around New Orleans and Havana as the
key metropolises of the Gulf basin. Other innovative approaches to transatlantic or
hemispheric plantation culture similarly complicate the US South’s regional and
national boundaries. The Plantation in the Postslavery Imagination by Elizabeth Christine
Russ examines the cultural legacy of the New World’s central economic organization
on writers from throughout the hemispheric South. Kirsten Silva Gruesz reconstructs
the discourses of Hispanic literary activity circulating within and through the porous
borders of the United States. Her study, Ambassadors of Culture: The Transamerican
Origins of Latino Writing (2002), reimagines literary scenes in the Southwest and the
Gulf South, for example, including creolized New Orleans, which invite Southern
studies to reassess its fundamental categories; Gruesz’s primary concerns involve
breaking down arbitrary and distortive notions of exclusively white Anglo national
From early in the republic’s history, the slave plantation South came to be identified with traumatic social divisions and antagonisms that constituted the contradictory reality behind fantasies of American nationhood. Jennifer Rae Greeson has shown
how Northerners began distinguishing the former colonies’ national identity after the
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War of Independence by casting Southern plantation states as the new nation’s internal
Other: a realm of unenlightened tyranny and bondage that sharpened the rest of the
new republic’s revolutionary devotion to enlightenment ideals. Leigh Anne Duck
similarly examines how the idea of a backward South later served the conceptual needs
of a modernizing nation early in the twentieth century as it defined by contrast its
commitment to market capitalism, racial integration, and other progressive reforms.
The US South continued to function as an alternative “chronotope” – an imaginary
time and space – in the national imagination, an Other to the National Self, even as
modern Southern literature began to challenge and complicate such representations
of the South.
If the South traditionally functioned as the nation’s abject Other, one might appreciate a trope common in complaints about its mistreatment: the North, it was
claimed, exploited the South as a colony. To be sure, there’s plenty of irony in thinking about the US South in terms of colonial oppression since the region’s entitled
classes practiced lethal forms of internal colonization themselves: the extermination,
“removal,” or disfranchisement of Native Americans; the commerce in African chattel;
the expropriation of slave labor; and the later confinements of racial segregation. The
effects of the Southern expansion of the nation on Native American peoples have been
investigated by Gary Eric Anderson and Annette Trefzer. Robert Brinkmeyer’s
Remapping Southern Literature demonstrates how contemporary writing by Southerners
has reoriented itself toward the West in an effort to unmoor itself from longstanding
preoccupations with place, community, the past, and racial division. In Turning South
Again, Houston Baker extends the argument he has made across several important
studies of African American culture: that Southern figures (in this case, Booker T.
Washington) were crucial to the development of national modernism. He concludes
with a forceful meditation on the continuities between the Atlantic Middle Passage,
the carceral state of the US plantation South, and the modern national prison system
so disproportionately populated by African Americans.
In its double-edged history as both the abject Other of an exploitative power to
the north as well as the perpetrator of internal racial colonization within its boundaries, the US South functioned as a crucial test case for national debates about foreign
imperialism in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. One of the major reorientations of American literary studies has involved the study of the relation between
US imperialism and national literary culture, particularly the ways imperial America’s
interests in establishing sites abroad for the production of raw materials, markets for
US goods, and bases for military supervision preoccupied the nation’s imagination.
Amy Kaplan’s and John Carlos Rowe’s accounts both involve Southern material –
primarily strategies for “managing” peoples of color and rationalizing American
(federal and Northern) hegemony. Other studies more explicitly take up the role of
the US South as a distinct region, with its history of plantation agriculture, coerced
labor, and administration of a periphery from a remote core, to illuminate how the
South functioned as a template for certain US imperialist projects (see Renda;
Stecopolous; Schmidt).
Southern Literary Studies
The South Not Itself
Unlike the work I have discussed so far, which revises what we mean by “the South”
by putting it into international and national contexts that disrupt its image as a naturally distinct, self-contained, and homogeneous place, a number of groundbreaking
studies of the US South in the last decade challenge the region’s self-conception of
itself on its own terms. These studies focus on the region as traditionally defined: the
11 states that seceded from the Union and formed the Confederacy (South Carolina,
Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas,
Tennessee, and North Carolina). Many of these projects tend to take up one of the
primary categories once held to distinguish “the mind of the South,” as W.J. Cash
put it in his powerful critique of the region in his 1941 book of that title. One of the
signal interventions in the launching of the “new Southern studies” (before it was
called that) was Michael Kreyling’s Inventing Southern Literature. Kreyling argues that
the canon of Southern literature was formed in large measure by the social and cultural
tastes of the Southern Agrarians, a group of Southern intellectuals who attempted in
the 1930s to promote the region’s purported values of community, personal cultivation, and pastoral tranquility as antidotes to the materialistic culture of Northern
industrial capitalism. The Agrarians’ preference for formalist literature and criticism
– that which eschewed political engagement – reinforced a conservative political
agenda in a society confronting changes to its vicious racism and genteel sexism.
Community was hardly the ideal it passed itself off to be for everyone. Kreyling
charges that academics complied with cultural quiescence in making a writer like
Faulkner the epitome of Southern writing, a phenomenon he attributes to a cohort of
guilt-stricken Southern white male academics in the 1950s–1970s who identified
with Faulkner’s sense of tragic despair in confronting the offenses of a beloved South.
The South’s toxicity to people of color, many women, and social progressives has
stimulated a number of cold-eyed reckonings with the region’s violent defense of its
traditional ways. In Making Whiteness, Grace Elizabeth Hale chronicles what she calls
“the culture of segregation” in the South during the Jim Crow decades between 1890
and 1940. Hale’s cultural history examines the gruesome methods that whites used
to subjugate blacks (particularly spectacle lynchings), but she also reveals significant
criticism in Southern letters to such practices, as well as the conceptual and practical
contradictions that contributed to segregation’s collapse.
Habits of violence, acquired through generations of slaveholding, attracted some
modern Southerners to the coercive politics of totalitarianism. Robert Brinkmeyer’s
Fourth Ghost charts the various involvements – from espousal to opposition – of a
number of prominent Southern writers to fascism during the mid-twentieth century,
including the Nashville Agrarians, W.J. Cash, Lillian Smith, William Alexander
Percy, Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers,
Robert Penn Warren, and Lillian Hellman. Melanie Benson’s Disturbing Calculations
(2008) surveys a wide range of Southern writing (from white modernists struggling
with the guilt of elites to African Americans, women, Native Americans, and the poor
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writing back against subordination) to assess the difficulty of thinking beyond the
inhuman epistemology of slaveholding capitalism.
After Reconstruction, women writing from the South began to insist more openly
on the complicity between racism and sexism in a nation intent on sectional reunification across the lines of white male solidarity. Writers like Pauline Hopkins, Frances
Harper Lee, and Anna Julia Cooper focused on the distinctive difficulties of black
women to forge social forms that would free them from the burdens of both Victorian
womanhood and bourgeois racial uplift. The continued misfit between women’s experience and the traditional social and expressive forms available to women in Southern
society is responsible, in Patricia Yaeger’s view, for a modern permutation of the most
infamous feature held to characterize Southern literature: “the grotesque.” If we allow
that earlier authors like Edgar Allan Poe, the Southwest humorists, and Mark Twain
were drawn to the grotesque as a way to encode the social disfigurement of slaves, the
wilderness, Native Americans, and poor whites, Yaeger helps us see that a domestic
variant of the grotesque in Zora Neale Hurston, Harper Lee, Carson McCullers, Toni
Morrison, Flannery O’Connor, Alice Walker, and Eudora Welty serves as a resource
for women writers who use perversity to exaggerate, parody, and redirect the anathema
aimed at them by misogynistic social and critical judgments.
The planter’s mastery of bodies, land, and generation is safeguarded by an ideology
that warrants white male heterosexuality as the normative position of power. The
mutual exercise of such “domestic” colonizations – of gender, sexuality, race, labor,
and so forth – not only installs a disciplinary regime but also stimulates desires deviant
from its purposes and authority. Why, for example, do Faulkner’s retellings of plantation romance so invariably identify plots of homoerotic longing: from Quentin
Compson’s uxurious attachment to his roommate at Harvard, to their shared fascination with the androgynous Charles Bon, to John Sartoris’s attraction to the uniformed,
soldierly Drusilla Hawk, who accompanies him to battle during the Civil War?
Michael Bibler suggests that such spaces of alternative sexualities may be understood
as forms of “homoness”: same-sex intimacies – some fulfilled, and others left imagined
– that embed dissident social and personal liberties.
The Southern habit of making a fetish out of place in literature – and any number
of observers have noticed that the region’s reverence for geographical place reinforces
an insistence on keeping some people (down) in their various social places – has also
come in for intensive challenge. Martyn Bone studies the vestigial effects of Southern
place in The Postsouthern Sense of Place in Contemporary Fiction. Bone credits the Agrarians
with reviving the importance of actual “proprietary” place through their dream of
subsistence farming as an antidote to advanced capitalism, and then shows how the
idea of a place exempt from modernity continues to preoccupy writers like Faulkner
and Welty. Eventually, in Bone’s account, contemporary writers begin to engage with
the real economic and social transformations that produce a sense of Southern place
that goes on functioning in the deterritorialized landscape of postmodernity.
Contemporary Southern literature, so much of it arising from newcomers to the
region, looks at the friction between imagined places in the US South and remembered
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places in the global South that so many immigrants carry with them. A novel like
Lan Cao’s Monkey Bridge, for example, superimposes impressions of northern Virginia,
where many Vietnamese émigrés have resettled, over the rural countryside they have
left behind in Southeast Asia. The uncanny resemblances of family, history, and politics in these two places conjure the global South as a palimpsest of military aggression,
domestic suffering, and subsequent negotiations between collided cultures. The
notion that it is something other than an actual geographical place inspires Scott
Romine to explore “the South” as a fantasy of social and cultural cohesion in times of
acute material dislocations. Under a postmodern regime in which cultural goods are
primary forms of production and consumption, the South functions primarily as a
fungible commodity, a brand, a logo, a lifestyle, and a state of mind to be bought,
rather than a place into which you are born.
The New Southern Studies
Just as the tide had begun to change in Southern studies, Houston Baker and Dana
Nelson marked the moment with a coedited special issue of the journal American
Literature in 2001 devoted to “Violence, the Body and ‘The South.’ ” Baker and Nelson
sought to remind the broader field of American literary studies how centrally the
South had figured in the course of national development, and to suggest by the new
scholarship they were representing how our understanding of American culture should
no longer segregate Southern literature within American literary studies. The stakes
of Baker and Nelson’s enterprise ran to their convictions that the establishment and
flourishing of the republic depended upon the systematic defilement of black bodies
under chattel slavery, that the long postemancipation persistence of racial violence
testified to the durability of racist ideology forged under Southern slaveholding, and
that the armature of national formation and progress depended on disavowing slavery
and racial violence as regional aberrations. Pursuing these lines of inquiry would
further the mission of what Baker and Nelson termed “a new Southern studies” (232),
a movement they identified as already emerging in books like Yaeger’s Dirt and Desire,
Jones and Donaldson’s Haunted Bodies, and Richard Gray’s Southern Aberrations.
It seems plain that the urgency to look freshly at the US South at the end of the
twentieth century had a great deal to do with globalization – from the circulation of
jobs and workers through peripheral regions and economic sectors to the sharpening
appreciation of what it means for neoliberalism to have reoriented global capital from
an East-West axis to a North-South one. To what extent have multinational corporations reduced poor workers to a liquid colony? To what degree have growing discrepancies in income within the United States inducted the domestic poor into a global
South? What do we learn about the origins of economic imperialism by examining
the history of the US South – the United States’ “first colony,” as George Handley
has put it? As in the past, the US South functions as the site of conflicting ideas about
what the country is or should be: does its low income, immigrant diversity, racial
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hybridity, religiosity, political conservatism, skepticism toward government and
science, and so on make it an ideal to be emulated or a problem to be fixed?
The determination by scholars to characterize and present Southern literature to
the rest of the nation – that is, to practice Southern literary studies – has invariably
reflected ideological inclinations. Peter Schmidt demonstrates, for example, that a
number of studies of Southern literature, along with anthologies meant to define a
canon of Southern literature, appeared at the turn to the twentieth century, as Southern
progressives sought to convince the rest of the country that the region should be
thought of again as part of the nation. Such anthologies suggested the utility of
Southern literature to the purposes of nascent US imperial ventures overseas, when
the model of a society that knew how to subordinate darker peoples might prove
apposite. That is, the South could become American to the extent that the nation saw
itself as Southern.
Beginning in the 1920s, H.L. Mencken’s ridicule of the South as hopelessly backward spurred Southern apologists to congratulate Southern culture on its refusal of
national modernity’s decadent values, however grotesque that might make it: Faulkner’s
history-haunted revenants, Welty’s place- and family-bound survivors, and O’Connor’s
otherworldly souls bespoke an alternative to urban Northern materialism and standardization. Southern literature did not attain professional standing until 1953, when
Louis D. Rubin, Jr., and Robert D. Jacobs published The Southern Renascence, a collection of essays on the burgeoning of modern Southern writing between the world wars.
A Cold War agenda would make much of Southern culture’s ostensible veneration of
“family, kinship, community, history, and memory” (Ladd 1628). The South also
served as an example of democracy’s superiority: even secession and a violent civil war
did not destroy the republic. The nation did reunite, and the thriving of culture in
the once-backward South only further testified to the opportunities for personal
freedom and creativity. Faulkner traveled on behalf of the U.S. State Department as
an icon of such national unity in the 1950s, after he had won the Nobel Prize for
Literature. Obviously, the matter of continued violence against blacks to enforce their
political disfranchisement failed to make it into such narratives of American triumphalism, although the Cold War did in fact serve as one instigation to addressing the
embarrassments of official US racism.
During the 1960s, when the white South felt particularly embattled as a result
of federal pressure to end segregation, a burst of books appeared offering to explain
the South to outsiders. Works of literary criticism and intellectual history invited
the rest of the country to understand what C. Vann Woodward called “the burden
of Southern history.” Scholarship from this era of the “long” civil rights movement
(through the early 1980s) – much of it by white Southern males – did not stint in
criticizing the region, even when personal affection for the region was evident. The
principal school of Southern literary studies ran from Lewis Simpson and Louis Rubin
through Fred Hobson. Simpson and Rubin began producing studies of Southern
literature, while Hobson’s landmark intervention identified an imperative in Southern
writing to explain – given its purported peculiarities – what the South was like,
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how it was different, how it might be defended, and why it could be condemned.
Rage to Explain (a phrase taken from Faulkner) concluded with the speculation that
a tradition of morbid self-loathing might be taken as reaching its end in the figure
of Quentin Compson, Faulkner’s despairing heir to the sins of Southern elites, who
momentarily breaks free of Mississippi, only to commit suicide after his first year
at Harvard.
Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, both of whom had been affiliated with
the Vanderbilt Agrarians, and both of whom had made their way to national prominence in the academy (both taught at Yale), together became perhaps the most influential exponents of “practical” criticism in post-World War II higher education.
Warren was well known for his fiction, including the acclaimed All the King’s Men,
and poetry (he later was named US poet laureate); Brooks was perhaps the most
important popularizer of the New Criticism, and collaborated with Warren on a
widely used series of textbooks for the study of literature in the college classroom. As
their tastes in literature and literary method prevailed (the New Criticism was marked
by a focus on formal features and a relative subordination of historical context), one
could say that students of literature in the United States were trained by Southerners
to ignore the relevance of history to the appreciation of culture.
An End to Southern Studies?
My point here is simple, but I believe crucial: the idea of the South has always served
ideological purposes in the nation’s imaginary. To the extent that US Southern studies,
however freshly conceived and practiced, retains a dyadic model of regional and economic relations, it continues to harbor the foundational abjection of the South as the
nation’s Other, and it continues to permit American literary studies to proceed as if
plantation economics and slavery belonged to a national elsewhere. The idea of “the
South” performed the essential cultural work of screening the entire nation’s reliance
on a colonial plantation economy, subtended as it was by race-based chattel slavery,
in order to disavow national complicity. “The South” emerged in the early national
imaginary as a device to enable the denial of the nation’s violation of its own republican ideals. Sectional difference became a matter of even more intricate equivocation
over the first half-century of the republic, since the circuitry of the plantation economy
continued to unite the new nation’s Northern and Southern regions. Whether as business partners in the production and manufacture of cotton goods, or in the wide range
of commercial gain generated by the Atlantic slave trade, New England and the
plantation South (continental as well as Caribbean) together created national prosperity. Elites enriched by national plantation economies fashioned a set of cognitive
mechanisms allowing them to manage such contradictions.
Forms of fetishistic evasion appear in a number of national narratives that broach
the reality that the republic’s origins and growth were embedded in the South’s
ongoing plantation society. Such strategies of representation in antebellum literary
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texts work by hiding Southern plantation economy in plain sight. The cultural
technology may be encountered in – to cite some foremost examples – Poe’s Pym (with
its staging of the Haitian slave revolt as a barely disguised menace to Nantucket sea
traders), Melville’s Benito Cereno (with its vertiginous meditation on American innocence as fetishistic disavowal), or Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables (with its
cryptic anxieties over bodily enslavement and Salem port commerce). Let me illustrate
how attention to what goes on below New England might reorient our sense of what
some works of imagination did to accommodate national involvement in hemispheric
plantation society.
The House of the Seven Gables (1851) pays no explicit attention to slavery or race –
despite the numerous ways the issue would have enveloped Hawthorne as he wrote
in Concord, Massachusetts, about nearby Salem in the 1840s. Hawthorne lived amid
family and friends embroiled in New England abolitionism, at a moment fevered by
questions of Northern complicity in sustaining slavery (and enflamed by the Fugitive
Slave Act). The Salem that Hawthorne chose to write about was in tumult over race
and slavery. An emerging modern middle class was ashamed of the seaport’s earlier
involvement in the triangular Atlantic trade in Africans, and its civic life was convulsed with disputes over desegregation. A notorious crime of suspected racial revenge
then punctuated the scene. A free black man was charged with murdering a former
slave-trading sea captain, with the trial riveting public attention and the newspaper
accounts of the grisly act probably serving as a model for Hawthorne’s macabre treatment of Jaffrey Pyncheon’s death. As in virtually all of Hawthorne’s work, the midnineteenth-century United States’ “great subject” goes unremarked (Hawthorne to
Longfellow [16:431], qtd. in Bonnet 487). Scholars have drawn a dismal assessment
of Hawthorne’s career-long indifference to the problem of slavery and the question of
race (for a different view of Hawthorne, slavery, and race, see Levine 119–78).
But Hawthorne’s private circumstances might have augured greater interest.
Hawthorne’s eventual wife, Sophia Peabody, and her sister Mary spent over a year in
Cuba in the early 1830s. Sophia’s letters from the Morrell coffee plantation record the
natural beauties of the island, while also turning away from troubling displays of
slavery’s cruelties. Sophia’s family circulated the letters among their acquaintances in
Salem. Hawthorne himself reportedly read Sophia’s “Cuba Journal” on his first visit
to the Peabody household in 1837, and although some passages reappear in his
Notebooks, he never yielded to Mary’s urging that he write a novel on the subject. Mary
Peabody did compose a fictional version of the sisters’ sojourn in Cuba. It was explicit
in its condemnation of slavery, but appeared only after her death in 1887, as Juanita:
A Romance of Life in Cuba Fifty Years Ago. Given the numerous ways that plantation
slavery might have urged itself on Hawthorne’s attention, Jean Fagan Yellin concludes
that “the studied ambiguity of [Hawthorne’s major] works, generally understood as
the result of deliberate artistic decisions, must also be considered as a strategy of
avoidance and denial” (157). I contend that Hawthorne does not simply refuse to
represent slavery, however, so much as he conceals it in plain view. That the nation’s
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origins, Salem’s prosperity, the Hathornes’ livelihood, and the author’s sense of shame
all owed to the curse of New World colonial plantation economics may be found
everywhere in the novel but where one thinks to look.
Consider what the commodities stocked by Mistress Pyncheon may reveal about
the nature of New England commerce. Hepzibah’s first transaction involves selling a
gingerbread cookie in the shape of a Jim Crow dancer. Gingerbread is made from
molasses, a byproduct of sugar refinement that was imported into Salem from the
West Indies. Molasses was acquired in the islands with US goods and brought back
to New England to be distilled into rum, which was then carried to Africa to procure
slaves for Caribbean plantations. Ginger is found in abundance in the West Indies,
and Jamaica is still its leading producer. Hawthorne’s father, Nathaniel Sr., was a
commercial ship captain out of Salem from 1795 until his death from yellow fever in
Surinam at the age of 34 in 1808. He sailed the globe, to India, South America, and
the South Pacific, but after he married and began a family (Nathaniel Jr. was born in
1804), he restricted his seafaring to the West Indies. The orphaned son pored over
his father’s ship logs, prized possessions he displayed in his room at Bowdoin. Salem’s
unparalleled prosperity through the 1840s depended largely on the supply trade with
the plantation Caribbean, where commodity agriculture in sugar and coffee meant
that staples had to be imported. Yellin also notes that Salem recorded regular direct
traffic from Guinea, presumably in slave trade, until 1795. All in all, “Hawthorne’s
Salem . . . fed on slavery,” Yellin summarizes (136).
Hepzibah’s Negro gingerbread cookies fetishize the sordid trade in black bodies
upon which Salem, New England, and Northern wealth was in part founded.
Hawthorne never specifies how the first Pyncheons made their money, although a
plausible inference would be that, like most of Salem’s aristocracy, their wealth derived
from sea commerce. The Pyncheon family has misplaced its legitimating documents
by the 1840s, but Hepzibah’s goods, like all commodities, carry on their surface the
knowledge of what they would forget. As fetish, the cookie substitutes a pleasure for
an anxiety, innocent consumption for lethal production, a dark sweet for black sweat.
New England’s mindfulness of its dependence slips in obliquely, as when Hepzibah
fantasizes that some hypothetical Pyncheon gone to Virginia to make his fortune as
a planter will learn of their distress and send an annual “remittance.”
The logic of fetishized knowledge would prompt us to look for the representation
of guilt hiding in the open, and Seven Gables does exactly that in its constitution of
Maule’s curse. Colonel Pyncheon’s abuse of Matthew Maule ostensibly delineates a
conflict of class. However, when a contemporary Maule descendant, the daguerreotypist Holgrave, offers a fictional account of his family’s insult, racial slavery unexpectedly
surfaces. Holgrave relates a story in which an earlier Maule scowls blackly when he
recognizes his own condition as laborer in that of the black servant Scipio: “ ‘No
matter, darkey!’ said the carpenter. ‘Do you think nobody is to look black but yourself?’ ” (188). Maule knows he will never be accepted by the refined Alice Pyncheon,
since she regards him “as if I were a brute beast” (201).
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Alice later falls under the spell of Maule’s mesmerism, reduced to a zombie under
the will of her new master. That Maule’s revenge on the “fair, and gentle” Alice should
be to make her live as his “slave, in a bondage more humiliating, a thousand-fold,
than that which binds its chain around the body” (208), suggests that it is the slave’s
dream of revolt and revenge that is hiding in front of our eyes. To the extent that
Maule identifies himself metonymically with Scipio’s African blackness, in other
words, he casts himself a slave: coerced labor displaced from natal land and deprived
of limbs (hands, feet, or heads – as occurs to the devoured gingerbread cookies).
Among white Northern abolitionists, mesmeric spells were seen as analogous to the
unseemly control exercised by masters over slaves. Hawthorne may be acknowledging
a version of ancestral and national guilt that actually has as much to do with slavery
as witchcraft, with chattel as land, with sea captains as judges.
In an account of preparations for battle in Washington, DC, during the first days
of the Civil War, Hawthorne draws a startling connection between the plantations of
New England and those of Virginia:
There is a circumstance, known to few, that connects the children of the Puritans with
these Africans of Virginia, in a very singular way. They are our brethren, as being lineal
descendants from the May Flower, the fated womb of which, in her first voyage, sent
forth a brood of Pilgrims on Plymouth Rock, and, in a subsequent one, spawned Slaves
upon the southern soil, – a monstrous birth, but with which we have an instinctive
sense of kindred, and so are stirred by an irresistible impulse to attempt their rescue,
even at the cost of blood and ruin. The character of our sacred ship, I fear, may suffer a
little by this revelation; but we must let her white progeny offset her dark one – and
two such portents never sprang from an identical source before! (Hawthorne, Complete
Works 12:319)
Seven Gables all but reaches the recognition that New England is the twin progeny of
the plantation South, that American and African are delivered from the same womb,
that the errand into the wilderness and the peculiar institution are a single monstrous
New World prodigy.
Hawthorne’s conceit of a monstrous prodigy anticipates Twain’s use of the trope in
Pudd’nhead Wilson to mock the persistence of willful blindness in the nation’s accommodation of racial segregation in the South after Reconstruction. Twain shows how a
social design of imaginary descent from plantation Virginia has been superimposed
over the Missouri frontier as a post-Reconstruction romance, its violent absurdities
hidden in plain sight. Twain suggests the force of ideological denial in the figure of
the conjoined twins – a single entity taken as two separate ones – like the “legal
fiction” of separate races, or like assumptions about separate regional histories and
national futures. The prodigy’s indivisibility is never remarked. The townspeople
know the brothers to be one, yet act as if they are two.
In limning this cultural history of Southern disavowal, let me suggest further that a
principal feature of US modernism involved challenging received fantasies of nation
Southern Literary Studies
that had disguised the bedrock of plantation history. In the broadest context, such an
account would align our national modernism with shifting accounts of other AngloEuropean modernisms that now recognize the political and economic problems of
colonialism in the formation of modernism. More specifically, such an approach would
make the Southernness of so many US modernists central, not incidental. An experimental work like Jean Toomer’s Cane, for example, suggests how modernist aesthetics
negotiates territorial as well as temporal, racial, sexual, and aesthetic hybridities in a
palimpsest of plantation and metropolis. As I Lay Dying registers the derangement of
the South’s agricultural workers by late capital in what may be our national literature’s
most modernist novel. At such moments, the work of defetishization opens out toward
the writing of numerous other writers of the modern: toward Willa Cather, whose
figure of Blind D’Arnault in My Ántonia points back to the origins of national prosperity in the Virginia plantation, and to the French planter colonialism behind it; or
toward Ralph Ellison, who sees in Invisible Man the historical convergence of global
colonialism in the postplantation South, New York world import houses, and West
Indian slavery.
A final provocation, then: one goal of the present new Southern studies might be
to fulfill itself by vanishing as a separate enterprise, to integrate what we know about
the US South into thoroughgoing accounts of its long-disavowed centrality to national,
hemispheric, and global cultural histories.
References and Further Reading
Aboul-Ela, Hosam. Other South: Faulkner,
Coloniality, and the Mariátegui Tradition.
Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press,
Anderson, Eric Gary. American Indian Literature and
the Southwest. Austin: University of Texas Press,
Baker, Jr., Houston A. Turning South Again:
Re-Thinking Modernism / Re-Reading Booker T.
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001.
Baker, Jr., Houston A., and Dana D. Nelson. Eds.
“Preface.” In “Violence, the Body, ‘The South’ ”
(special issue). American Literature 73, no. 2
(2001): 231–44.
Benson, Melanie. Disturbing Calculations the
Economics of Identity in Postcolonial Southern
Literature, 1912–2002. Athens: University of
Georgia Press, 2008.
Bibler, Michael. Cotton’s Queer Relations: Same-Sex
Intimacy and the Literature of the Southern
University of Virginia Press, 2009.
Bone, Martyn. The Postsouthern Sense of Place in
Contemporary Fiction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana
State University Press, 2005.
Bonnet, Michele. “Consuming Tragedy and ‘the
Little Cannibal’ in The House of the Seven Gables.”
ATQ 20, no. 2 (2006): 481–97.
Brinkmeyer, Robert. The Fourth Ghost: White
Southern Writers and European Fascism, 1930–
1950. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University
Press, 2009.
Brinkmeyer, Robert. Remapping Southern Literature:
Contemporary Southern Writers and the West.
Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007.
Cash, W.J. The Mind of the South. New York:
Knopf, 1941.
Cohn, Deborah. History and Memory in the Two
Souths: Recent Southern and Spanish American
Fiction. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University
Press, 1999.
Cohn, Deborah, and Jon Smith. Eds. Look Away!
The U.S. South in New World Studies. Durham,
NC: Duke University Press, 2004.
John T. Matthews
Duck, Leigh Anne. The Nation’s Region: Southern
Modernism, Segregation, and U.S. Nationalism.
Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006.
Glissant, Edouard. Faulkner, Mississippi. Trans.
Barbara Lewis and Thomas C. Spear. New York:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.
Gray, Richard. Southern Aberrations: Writers of the
American South and the Problem of Regionalism.
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press,
Greeson, Jennifer Rae. “The Figure of the South
and the Nationalizing Imperatives of Early
United States Literature.” Yale Journal of
Criticism 12, no. 2 (1999): 209–48.
Gruesz, Kirsten Silva. Ambassadors of Culture: The
Transamerican Origins of Latino Writing. Princeton,
NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
Guterl, Matthew Pratt. American Mediterranean:
Southern Slaveholders in the Age of Emancipation.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,
Hale, Grace Elizabeth. Making Whiteness: The
Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890–1940.
New York: Vintage, 1999.
Handley, George. Post-Slavery Literature in the
Americas: Family Portraits in Black and White.
Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press,