Current Issue Article Abstracts

Volume 8, Number 1, Spring 2020



"A Million—a Billion Thoughts": A Letter on "Absent-Minded Historicism"
Russ Castronovo



Becoming Global: Gender, Race, and Cognitive Mapping at the 1884 World's Fair
Katherine Adams

Late nineteenth-century Americans struggled to conceptualize global capitalism and their own position within it, negotiating the divide between abstract totality and what Fredric Jameson describes as "our particular path through the world." For Jameson and others, this negotiation entailed "overcoming" epistemic disjuncture in a quest for synthesis, a gradual process of mapping continuity with encompassing networks. This essay shows how different the project of global becoming appears from the perspectives of women who organized, wrote about, and exhibited in the Woman's and Colored Departments at the 1884 New Orleans World's Fair. Hailed as "the world's university," the Exposition provided a disciplinary apparatus for producing global subjects that women inhabited in self-conscious ways. Looking at Julia Ward Howe's ironic juxtaposition of Internationalist Womanhood with women's industrial works, Mary Ashley Townsend's aggressively sectionalist cosmopolitanism, and Sarah Shimm's (literally) embroidered history of Toussaint L'Ouverture, I argue these reveal an orientation to the disjuncture between global totality and subjective immediacy that is self-referential and playful. They re-frame the project of becoming global as a shared cultural problematic (rather than psychological impasse) and as self-production (rather than self-insertion), illuminating the gendered and racialized dynamics that mediate access to global identity.

Vegetative Politics from Crèvecoeur to Hawthorne
Erin E. Forbes

Bridging critical race theory and environmental humanities, this essay argues that plants represent peculiar forms of personhood, politics, and poetics in Crévecoeur's and Hawthorne's work. Crèvecoeur's late eighteenth-century context differed markedly from Hawthorne's: as Crèvecoeur's settler colony transformed into Hawthorne's imperialist nation-state, a purportedly universalist ideal of the human as separate from and sovereign over the natural world subsumed earlier climate theories that emphasized malleability. Yet a porous conception of personhood rooted in the vegetable world not only links both authors, but also frustrates their attempts to justify racial hierarchies. Precisely those moments showcasing their (by now well-rehearsed) political failings also sustain a tenacious alternative humanism worth nourishing insofar as its incorporation of environmental concerns apprehends humanism's racialization, and therefore retains reparative potential

The Speaker, Photographed: Paul Laurence Dunbar's Poems of Cabin and Field
Caroline Gelmi

While the photographically illustrated volumes of Paul Laurence Dunbar's poetry published between 1899 and 1906 have begun to attract critical attention, there is still much to be said for how they expand our understanding of the historical modes for reading Dunbar's dialect verse in the late nineteenth century. The first in this popular series of illustrated gift books, Poems of Cabin and Field features reprints of eight of Dunbar's black dialect poems, cover and page designs by Alice Morse, and photographs by the Hampton Institute Camera Club. This essay explores how the volume's photographs stage the mechanics behind dominant readings that approached Dunbar's dialect verse as authentic expressions of a vanishing Southern black folk. I argue that the volume depicts how the poetic speaker—the figure imagined as uttering the poems—works to construct and uphold literal readings of Dunbar's dialect and the larger cultural fantasies of the black folk with which these readings were associated. This argument complicates the deployment of the speaker in recent critical interpretations of Dunbar's plantation dialect poetry and asks us to consider the speaker itself as one of the racial formations at stake in the history of reading Dunbar.

What Is the White American? Race, Emigration, and Nation in Melville's Redburn
Robert S. Levine

The essay argues that Melville's fourth novel, Redburn (1849), is one of the great nineteenth-century works about race and emigration, and a work that looks forward in prescient ways to our current debate about emigrants and a border wall. The focus is on Melville's depiction of Irish emigrants, who are presented both as refugees and as Celts who are less "white" than the Anglo-Saxons. Melville thus links the Irish analogously to blacks and (at times) to slaves. Drawing on recent work on refugee studies by Agamben and others, and on slavery and whiteness studies, the essay situates Melville's transatlantic novel in relation to mid-19th-century debates in England and the US on the displaced, stateless Irish of the Great Famine. For its trenchant account of the limits and even brutality of the white US nation, Redburn is the Melville novel we should be reading right now.

Twain's Modernism: The Death of Speech in Huckleberry Finn as the Birth of a New Aesthetic
Mika Turim-Nygren

While critics may wrestle with Huckleberry Finn's role in the American canon – including what Hemingway meant by singling it out for praise – they usually agree that Huck sounds as lifelike as "a real boy talking out loud." Yet Twain himself believed that "the moment 'talk' is put into print" it turned into a "corpse." His solution was a specifically written mode of 'talk,' severed from its origins in speech so as to belong on the page rather than in anyone's mouth. For Hemingway, Twain provides a model for overcoming the problem of artificial dialog not because his printed talk sounds just like the real thing, but because it's no longer primarily trying to. And when Hemingway himself composes dialog that displaces what was 'really' said somewhere off the page, using a kind of purported translation that Ben Lerner has termed "virtualization," he reveals Twain as an unexpected source of American literary modernism – and of modern nationalism as well. That is, since Huck's language derives from oral catchphrases rooted in racialized dialect, his voice transforms the kind of minority speech associated with the country's deepest divisions into the kind of literary language that everyone could recognize as "purely American."

Inherited Obligations: Conquest, Californio Promises, and Native American Land in Helen Hunt Jackson's Ramona
Pablo A. Ramirez

Because readers of Ramona focused on the romantic depictions of Californio hacienda culture, critics often see the inclusion of the Californios as a distraction that undermines Helen Hunt Jackson's political message. However, to read Californio culture as a mere misstep on Jackson's part obscures the important role it plays in her efforts to establish the legitimacy of Native-American land claims. The nostalgic representation Californio hacienda life in Ramona is actually a celebration and idealization of California's Mexican/Spanish past as a time when contracts cemented peaceful relations between Californio land owners and Native American tribes. Ramona illustrates the tragic consequences of replacing Californio-Native American contracts, which involved obligations and groups, with American liberalism's redefinition of contract and its emphasis on individualism and consideration. Jackson criticizes classical liberalism for replacing a Californio racial hierarchy constituted by contractual obligations for an American racial hierarchy that is founded on the suspension of contractual relations between whites and Native Americans. Stripped of the old Californio-Native American contractual agreements and unable to enter into new contracts with white Americans, Native Americans in Ramona have been transformed into a non-contractarian people by white settlers, who are determined to reduce them to a state of barbarism.