Current Issue Article Abstracts
Volume 9, Number 1, Spring 2021
"Something Pathetic as Well as Wonderful": Celia Thaxter's Paratextual Interventions
This introduction briefly discusses the renewed interest in biography among humanities scholars and introduces the forum's fourteen essays, which are divided into three thematic clusters: "Legacies of Enslavement," "Questions of Evidence," and "Cases."
I. Legacies of Slavery
In "Finding Frank," the author considers what to do with a remnant of evidence left behind from her research for a larger project in the history of slavery. The remnant concerns Frank, a black man lost to the domestic slave trade in 1835, and Morgan-Owens argues that the conventions of micronarrative, which tie the worth of a story to its scalability, led to his omission in her manuscript. What does it mean to have a story worth telling, and how much of a story does it take to merit a biographical account? Writing as a white historian, she navigates the archival impulse to write about Frank after the fact and the persistent patterns of white supremacy found in projects of historical retelling.
Discredited Knowledges and Black Religious Ways of Knowing
This essay invokes Toni Morrison's notion of "discredited knowledges" to ruminate on Black religions among the enslaved in the nineteenth century, a period replete with revolution and "emancipation." It considers the slave narrative as a site of both the material and immaterial reality of Black religions in order to evidence the significance of biography for taking seriously and revering knowledges discredited by the master class, with particular attention to slave death, ancestors, funerary rites, and other evidences of what I term, "Black religious ways of knowing."
This essay argues that Solomon Northup's Twelve Years a Slave presents slavery as a problem for interpretation, demonstrating that what secures the relationship between evidence and assertion in racial slavery is force. Moreover, slavery's tautology is embedded in national law. However, Northup presents an outside to this closed logical system. The essay's key intervention is to read the narrative against its chronological emplotment to uncover the fundamental duality of Northup's text and life: Northup is simultaneously free and enslaved throughout, regardless of his location or relationship to legal documents. As a victim of kidnap, Northup is always rightfully free though he is mistaken for a slave; simultaneously, after his kidnapping he understands that even in freedom he is always subject to enslavement as a Black man in the United States. The instability of his ontological status—as simultaneously enslaved and free—presents the limit to the totalizing view of the kidnapers and the state. The essay recovers Northup's perspective as someone who did not previously understand himself to be a potential slave as a refusal to flatten interpretation to a single plane.
What Good Is a Moment?
Focusing on momentary experiences of individual's past lives, while posing unique challenges, also present new opportunities to connect the past to the present. When accomplished via rigorous research, privileging the moment enables scholars to draw people into thinking about these lives critically and empathetically. We can critique and seek to understand, for instance, both the Confederate soldier who fought for a government seeking to maintain slavery, and the Black civilian who leaped at the opportunity to shoot at that soldier.
II. Questions of Evidence
During the latter part of the long nineteenth century, actor and author Sylvester Clark "Chief Buffalo Child" Long Lance completely discarded his African American ancestry to assert a composite Native American identity. He did so in hopes of escaping anti-Black violence. His writings suggest that he believed that performing the racialized stereotype of the "noble savage" would better position him to achieve inclusion in US society, which was otherwise denied to him in his legal "colored" (read: Black) racial identity. His complex and problematic approach to his ancestry and racial identity invites scholars to critically consider how some authors simultaneously challenged yet adhered to social expectations regarding racial identification when reflecting on their personal lives and asserting their racial identities in literature. Long Lance's life and writings invite scholars to question what counts as "evidence" to prove so-called racial passing when authors or their characters reflect on certain aspects of their ancestry and racial identity. In this essay, I examine the complexities of racial passing in nineteenth and twentieth century literatures with attention to Long Lance's unique perspective of his racial identity and shows how he used literary and legal racial passing to challenge racial binarism.
The rules and history of evidence law can provide useful resources for understanding the role of biographical evidence in literary criticism. During the nineteenth century, as evidence law became increasingly formalized, presumptions acquired a newfound significance as a device for allocating the burden of proof in evidentiary disputes. Presumptions generally operate by stipulating a legal conclusion that flows from a certain factual premise, such that the conclusion remains dispositive unless the opposing party offers witnesses or documents that contradict it. The result is a burden-shifting procedure that licenses a generic inference, assumed to flow from a factual premise but capable of being rebutted by specific details to the contrary. Literary critics often use biographical evidence in a similar fashion: in the absence of concrete information about a writer's beliefs or experiences, critics use some kinds of generic biographical information to draw inferences about the attitudes that someone with a certain background would have held. When more specific biographical details become available, they are used to confirm, refine, or contradict those inferences. Unlike lawyers, however, literary critics tend to use biographical information of all kinds—both generic and specific—to raise new inferences rather than to resolve questions definitively.
As contemporary literary scholars continue to debate the use-value of "lived experience" and testimonial evidence for the discipline—one arm of a larger debate over the ideologies of critique and postcritique—they often overlook the relevance of sites of literary making, or techne, where such distinctions are mediated. This essay argues that scholars need not choose between lived experience and critical distance ahead of their readings. By understanding how literary work depends upon techne and technologies, and how literary archives embody and inscribe transindividual craftwork and knowledge, we can better locate authorial and cultural causes of the texts we read without reducing either in the process.
Memoirs of Madness
Liana Kathleen Glew
In the mid-nineteenth century, reformers worked to transform the public's image of psychiatric institutions from the rattling chains of Bedlam to sunny gardens and sprawling hospitals. Many patients and ex-patients in the United States claimed that, to uphold this new image, administrators upkept one sparkling ward for visitors to see and kept poor, intellectually disabled, or behaviorally nonnormative patients hidden and neglected in abysmal back wards. Patient-writers challenged the image of the Potemkin asylum in memoirs that doubled as exposés with a twofold purpose: (1) to show readers the hidden parts of asylum life (including the interiority of people experiencing madness) and (2) to advocate for reform or abolition. This essay looks to one lesser-known patient-memoirist, Isaac Hunt, to ask, How do these writers acknowledge readers' desires for a sensational spectacle without replicating the objectifying dynamics of the Bedlam tour? What roles do disability, madness, stigma, and suspicion play in this encounter? Finally, how does one narrate an experience of madness? While memoirs like Hunt's have historically been framed as "psychotic" or "impaired," this essay argues that patient-memoirists often used literary experimentation to capture the ways that they experienced fluctuations in their sense of time, place, and self while in the asylum.
While archival materials are an invaluable resource for biographers, gaps in the archive complicate biography research. In this essay, I argue that the study of one-sided correspondence is crucial for nineteenth-century scholars interested in the intersection of labor and book history. Through a case study of Sarah Orne Jewett's letters to a manuscript typist, Abbie S. Beede, I suggest that one-sided correspondence can provide a useful, even if incomplete, site for examining class and labor dynamics in nineteenth-century book production.
This essay describes the author's classroom discussion of authorship and biography, focusing on Edgar Allan Poe; then it considers the difference between the approaches taken in scholarly essays on "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and those employed in the classroom (reflected both in the author's class and in two pedagogical essays on "Rue Morgue"). The essay concludes by advocating an intertextual approach to biography and interpretation; following Ed White's pedagogical article on "Rue Morgue," the author advocates placing more emphasis on authorial agency both in the classroom and in literary scholarship.
This essay engages Henry James's claim that The Wings of the Dove represents the consciousness of a sick young woman. Criticism has tended to interpret Milly Theale's consciousness as unrelated to her physiology and her physiology as unrelated to her sickness. I approach the text as both a Jamesian scholar and a person familiar with ordinary illness to register her as ordinarily, concretely ill. In addition to illustrating how Milly's thought patterns are rendered distinct from those of her healthy friends, I reflect on the tensions presented by relying on experience to generate textual analysis. These tensions include the risk of treating literary characters as real people, the threat of sentimentalism, and the suggestion of disability as psychologically rather than socially situated.
What Was Boston Marriage? Sarah Orne Jewett and Biography
Melissa J. Homestead
This essay reviews five years of scholarship on Sara Orne Jewett (c. 2014–19), with a focus on work foregrounding regionalism and on Queer readings. How does biography inform (or not inform) readings of Jewett's fiction? I conclude that new biographical work on Jewett and particularly her Boston marriage with Annie Adams Fields is needed. A dual biography of the two women has the potential both to deepen historical understanding of same-sex eroticism between women in the nineteenth-century United States and the nature of Boston marriage and to give impetus to new readings of Jewett's fiction.
Nathaniel Hawthorne's Civil War
How should literary historians measure a writer's understanding of war as it is witnessed and what effect that might have on literary reputation. The occasion for posing this question is Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Chiefly about War Matters," his essay about a tour of Washington, DC, and environs during the second spring of the Civil War. The essay examines Hawthorne's understanding of the central conflict of his time and how, 160 years later, his article in the Atlantic magazine reveals some of his worst limitations as a cultural observer. Should we submit contemporary writers to similar tests? And when did the practice begin? To what end?
Jordan Alexander Stein
This essay considers the biographical speculations about Nathaniel Hawthorne's history of sexual abuse as an exemplary instance of insufficient archival evidence. It contemplates the implications of such insufficient evidence for the practices of truth telling in nineteenth-century Americanist historiography and literary criticism more generally. It argues for the possibility of accuracy without precision as an ethical alternative to dismissing insufficient evidence, and in elaborating this idea the essay identifies some of the urgency for taking up these questions at the present.
"A Wasted Sympathy": Undiagnosing Winifred Howells
Opening her poem "A Wasted Sympathy" with a command against pity, Winifred Howells (1863–89) instructs readers how (not) to read her poetry—guidance unheeded by those who would write about her life and work. Howells, daughter of novelist William Dean Howells, experienced years of nervous illness before her early death under the care of the notorious S. Weir Mitchell. Speculation regarding her death has lent her a small but persistent role in scholarship. Her poetry, though, has been largely ignored or read as symptoms of despair and decline. In this article, I reframe Howells as an agent rather than object of literary history, asking how her illness poetics might intervene in the kinds of illness narratives that shaped her experience and continue to challenge our ability to see her poetry as assertive, ironic, and ultimately experimental. In reevaluating Howells's biography and work, this essay attempts to move past concerns with the diagnosis of her illness to privilege her experience of it and her complex rhetorical and aesthetic negotiations of gendered discourses of illness.
This essay shows how Frederick Douglass's first two autobiographies, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) and My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), ambiguously represent the power of African cosmologies in ways that might disorient the nineteenth-century white readership into rethinking the illogic of slavery. I argue that Douglass evokes Yorùbá folk knowledge in his characterizations of Sandy Jenkins and his supernatural root, and that the narratives' performance of objectivity and neutrality when representing them creates a sensibility of conceptual instability in the narratives. In his cryptic representations, I explain, Douglass enlivens mêtis—a technique in which speakers feign one purpose to cleverly achieve their opposite—as a radical rhetorical appeal. By showing how the narratives' treatment of African cosmologies can implant uncertainty that raises questions about the logic that legitimated chattel slavery, this essay establishes Douglass's autobiographies as early experiments with radical black aesthetics.
Combining archival research with childhood and Queer studies, this essay analyzes multiple versions of "His Heart's Desire," an extraordinary but little-known short story by Alice Dunbar-Nelson about a racially unmarked boy who wants a blonde, blue-eyed doll. While the story was originally meant to be part of a never-finished story collection, it has seen print separately in two different versions, one published during Dunbar-Nelson's lifetime and one posthumously. In this essay, I argue that the story's two published versions, when read together, make a devastating case for the damage wrought by global imperialism and its fetishizing of white femininity. My comparative textual study also indicates Dunbar-Nelson may have engaged in savvy self-censorship that ultimately contributed to her relative obscurity in the current day, even among scholars of African American studies and Queer studies.
This article takes up Thoreau's concerns in Walden with the stakes of standardized speech, hearing, and auditory communication. I reframe Thoreau's frequent preoccupations with hearing and sound through the histories and sensory epistemologies of deafness, which can highlight the threads that lace through Thoreau's work about comprehending nonnormative perception in the midst of an American cultural landscape increasingly preoccupied with demanding particular types of auditory and verbal behaviors. Following scholars like Christopher Krentz and Rebecca Sanchez, I "deafen" Thoreau by putting his work in dialogue with the alternative sensory, linguistic, and embodied histories and phenomenologies given to us by deaf experience. Thoreau frames sound and hearing, alongside broader notions about communication and perception, as fluid and individually variant processes rather than standard sensory givens. Thoreau's deeply subjective way of thinking through the body and its processes of perception and self-expression can highlight how the standardizing impulses of modernity work against more fluid human types of "multimodality" and the "heterogeneity" of sensing and communicating. The subjectivity and particularity that characterize Thoreau's explorations of nonnormative hearing and communicating ultimately prompt a deeper critique of standard sensory experience as a prerequisite for social legibility and interaction.