Volume 8, Number 1, Spring 2020
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
Volume 7, Number 2, Fall 2019
Lost and Found in Gilead, Iowa
Kathryn Hamilton Warren
The first time I taught Gilead, I thought it was the best thing I’d ever done in the classroom. I had feared that my students would object to the relative plotlessness of Marilynne Robinson’s meditative novel, a book written in the voice of a seventy-six-year-old Congregationalist minister recording reflections and memories for his seven-year-old son. Remarkably, no one did. On the contrary, they were captivated by the romantic sensibility that infuses Robinson’s work, and they responded readily to her invitation to pause. The book’s structure, short bursts of writing separated by blank space on the page, requires that the reader slow down, for the pleasures of Gilead consist in dwelling in the moment of apprehension as images give way to ideas. As the narrator, John Ames, watches two boys playing in a sprinkler, for instance, his thoughts drift to baptism, which leads to a meditation on grace, which prompts him to consider his unconditional love for his son. “I know you will be and I hope you are an excellent man,” Ames writes, “and I will love you absolutely if you are not.”1 It gets me every time.
Considering the Racially “Inscrutable” Child: Letter Response to Laura Soderberg, “Writing the Criminal Child: Antebellum Prison Records, Parenting Manuals, and the Rise of the Incorrigible Child”
In our current moment, the criminalization and incarceration of children in the United States remains in the public eye. From the overpoliced children of the school-to-prison pipeline to the immigrating children separated from their families and detained indefinitely in concentration camps, the figure of the “incorrigible child” looms behind arguments about children’s culpability and justifications for their punishment. With these twenty-first-century conditions of childhood in mind, I eagerly approached Laura Soderberg’s essay “Writing the Criminal Child: Antebellum Prison Records, Parenting Manuals, and the Rise of the Incorrigible Child” (Fall 2018) and am honored to have the opportunity to respond.
Unraveling the Blood Line: Pauline Hopkins’s Haitian Genealogies
Mary Grace Albanese
As the first African American novel to feature both African characters and take place in Africa, Pauline Hopkins’s Of One Blood (serialized in The Colored American 1902–03) has been celebrated as one of the earliest articulations of black internationalism. This paper expands the coordinates of Hopkins’s global commitments, charting an alternative geography beneath the Africa-oriented Of One Blood. Rather than look east, I turn to the Caribbean to reveal how Haiti emerges at key moments of female resistance. Focusing on the spiritual practices of the matrilineage of Hannah-Mira-Dianthe, I argue that women in the novel carry specifically Haitian rather than Ethiopian valences: from colonial Saint-Dominguan mesmerism, the prophecy of Bwa Kayiman, the poison of Makandal to – leaping across national and temporal borders – the Haitian-inspired insurrection of John Brown. Situated in the precarious period between the U.S.’s attempted annexation of the Môle-Saint-Nicolas and the 1915 Occupation, Of One Blood stages a feminized Haitian history, which runs beneath the masculinist “back to Africa” romance of Reuel. If, in her editorials for The Colored American, Hopkins wrote of Toussaint Louverture as “Napoleon’s black shadow,” I propose we also think of Haiti as the novel’s quiet but potent shadow to Africa. This muted Caribbean geography re-centers women at the heart of the narrative, adumbrates Hopkins’s anti-imperialist commitments, and questions the U.S. politics of bourgeois respectability. Subverting the reproductive drive of racial-sexual violence, Hopkins’s Haitian-inflected ghosts, prophets, and possessions offer an anti-genealogical model, which ultimately redress historical violence and forge new structures of relation.
Regional Nationalism and the Ends of the Literary World
Alex Zweber Leslie
In this essay I examine the Literary World, the influential literary periodical edited by Evert Duyckinck, to rethink the relationship between region and nation in antebellum cultural geography. I argue that there were multiple literary nationalisms, each a regionally distinctive invocation of nationalist rhetoric on behalf of regional interests that belied rather than represented or advocated a national literature. Subscription records from the Literary World show that literary nationalist rhetoric developed within a feedback loop that reinforced the regional affiliation of both the periodical and its readers. Region emerges as a site of cultural identification, I argue, precisely through this dialectic between textual representations of cultural geography and the way those texts traversed actual geography. In order to understand the consolidation of national circulation and the concept of the nation in the nineteenth-century, we need to re-examine the regional cultural practices that produced them.
Did Howells Give Up on Realism?
Near the turn of the twentieth century, William Dean Howells, the most fervent promoter of literary realism in America, serialized a romance trilogy, the Altrurian romances. Since they so conspicuously conflict with Howells's other novels and his many programmatic statements about the value of literary realism, these anomalous tales have continued to pose a problem for critics. In contrast to past interpretations of the romances—which either try to explain away their differences or argue that Howells lost faith in realism—this essay contends that the romances constitute a strategic move on Howells's part to support the cause of realism in the midst of “the romance revival” afoot in both the U.S. and England.
On First Looking into Charles Chesnutt’s Homer
Like many early African American writers, Charles Chesnutt was deeply interested in the texts and educational practices of classical antiquity. While Chesnutt similarly connected the rhetoric of racial uplift to the project of reading the classics, his reading choices also reveal how classical literature moved him to think (and write) beyond the racial constraints of his post-Reconstruction historical moment. In this article, I reexamine Chesnutt’s manuscript Journals with a focus on his intensive reading of Homer’s Iliad—a section of the Journals not broadly available to scholars in print form. The Journals show us the reading method of a partially educated African American man of the late-nineteenth century, demonstrating that he viewed reading as an opportunity to assert his entitlement to participate in a timeless community of readers and to acquire the knowledge he would need to engage in conversations with readers of his time, without regard to racial boundaries.
FORUM: Amerikastudien; Or, American Studies in Germany
This Forum seeks to provide the readers of J19 with an exemplary glimpse into American studies in Germany today, with a view to how scholars in this particular academic framework see its position in the larger field. Sascha Pöhlmann’s introduction first proffers a brief overview of the discipline’s complex history in this particular national context, while the four main contributions by Johanna Heil, Heinz Ickstadt, Kerstin Schmidt and Clemens Spahr take a more hybrid perspective by combining the personal with the scholarly. The contributors to this Forum reflect the regional diversity in American Studies in Germany, but more importantly they also reflect the structural diversity of the field with regard to different career stages and thus the contexts in which they embarked on and have practiced American studies. Their essays address the general question of what it means to be an Americanist in Germany both politically and intellectually, and their answers are exemplary in that they are unique, individual voices but are also indicative of broader cultural contexts
My Sixty Years as an Amerikanist
My life as an Amerikanist began in 1958 with a seminar on Herman Melville that brought my rather vague academic interests—I was then in my fourth semester—into sharper focus. My major had been German literature. But Melville made me switch (or, rather, “convert,” the experience was that intense) to the study of American literature. Melville’s novels, especially Moby-Dick, seemed new and exciting, so different from everything I had read so far as a beginning student that I didn’t have to think twice. Besides, there were other reasons: Germanistik was a huge field. I remember an advanced seminar on Goethe’s Faust with 200 participants. In contrast, my Melville seminar was small; we were about ten.
I grew up during the Cold War in a divided country—divided by a fence, a wall, and two political and economic systems at (cold) war with one another. I lived just outside the town of Fulda, Germany, a small city with a beautiful baroque historic center known to locals as the favorite settlement of Saint Boniface, the eighth-century “apostle of the Germans,” whose bones were laid to rest in Fulda’s abbey church. But Fulda is not only famous for its role in the Christianization of medieval Germania. In the twentieth century, it became a site of some geopolitical significance: during the Cold War, the German- German border ran eighteen miles east of Fulda, through the rolling hillside of the Rhön. The area around Fulda is a corridor of low land known as the Fulda Gap, which connects the former border region to western Germany. This corridor was strategically important during the Cold War because it was believed to be the passage the Soviet army would have used to attack the West.
As I write this piece, I am twice removed from the country I live in, Germany, and from the country whose texts I have been studying for the better part of my adult life. Since my time as a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the 1990s, I have been preoccupied with the US American “republic of letters.” I am sitting in a colonial hotel in Havana, Cuba, participating in the annual conference of the Caribbean Studies Association. The conference theme is “Education, Culture, and Emancipatory Thought in the Caribbean.” The place I find myself in relates to my background and my work on US literature in different ways: the US embargo of Cuba and its repercussions have been the subject of conversations with many US colleagues and friends. To get here, I walked endless corridors at JFK, all the way to a far-off corner to check in for the flight.
For this essay, and in keeping with this Forum’s intent, I will heed Henry David Thoreau’s advice. Such a focus allows me to address some of the general issues associated with the field of American studies in Germany from a particular subject position, one linked to a specific research field and shaped by my career stage. While I don’t think that topically or theoretically there is something inherently “German” about American studies in Germany—there is a Heideggerian Emersonian tradition in the United States, just as there is a pragmatist romanticist tradition in Germany—the question about the specificity of German American studies can productively be asked institutionally: How do local institutional conditions affect scholarly exchange? How is it possible to reconcile the expectations of the German university system with the often different time lines of academic discourse and publications in the United States? The latter question is, of course, of particular relevance for those on the job market, and it importantly shapes what it means to work in American studies in Germany.
Volume 7, Number 1, Spring 2019
Letters from the People: A Response to Radiclani Clytus
Dread: The Phobic Imagination in Antislavery Literature
Don James McLaughlin
This article examines how abolitionists developed a rhetorical tradition premised on the neologisms colorphobia and Negrophobia in order to posit an affective basis for race prejudice. These concepts functioned initially as puns on hydrophobia, the historical name for rabies, named for the dread of swallowing known to accompany the disease. In other words, colorphobia harbored a precise metaphor in its etymology, picturing the slave system as a mad dog in the throes of a rabid breakdown, spreading race prejudice in the form of an infectious fear. Exploring the forms this rhetoric could take, I demonstrate that while satire thus served as the dominant mode early on, phobia’s emphasis on fear soon began to inspire strategies of public health activism too. Political discourse in the U.S. began to incorporate scientific investigations of fear as a psychological state. I conclude by arguing that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Dred is the most significant work of literature to respond to this rhetorical trend. Skeptical of the move to isolate fear as an exclusively pathological feeling, Stowe endeavors to repurpose a phobic aesthetic in the form of the novel’s protagonist Dred, originally spelled “Dread,” to explore the potential uses of fear as a political affect.
This essay explores how Emily Dickinson’s impairments influence the composition of her poems. From remaining skeptical of medical care to refusing to acknowledge the “Names of Sickness,” Dickinson considers how she might convey disability in ways that challenge diagnostic frameworks. I show how Dickinson’s early fascicle and late scrap poems translate physical impairment into textual form through representations of constraint: a term that both poetry and disability share. The essay begins by assessing the poet’s reclusion (what the field psychiatry termed “agoraphobia” at the close of the nineteenth century), proposing that her references to material enclosures and use of space on the pages of her poems implant spatial constraints that temper feelings of expanse or openness. Next, I explore poems that make explicit reference to blindness and consider how Dickinson’s eyestrain in the mid 1860s influenced the presentation of her poems in bound form. I conclude the essay by positing that Dickinson’s preoccupation with death influenced the unbound form of her late scrap poems. In adopting Tobin Siebers’s “theory of complex embodiment,” the essay reckons with the reality of the poet’s bodily and cognitive constraints to reveal how Dickinson registers disability via textual form.
Elizabeth Fenton, Valerie Rohy
This essay treats Herman Melville’s correspondence with Nathaniel Hawthorne as an occasion to examine the relationship between historicist literary criticism and absence. Hawthorne’s responses to Melville’s admiring messages stand as a lacuna in the archive; Melville told Julian Hawthorne that he destroyed them, and no evidence has surfaced to contradict that claim. Without Hawthorne’s half of the correspondence, contemporary scholars have been hard pressed to identify the precise nature of the two men’s relationship, and thus they often have called on other historical sources to supplement a lack that can never be filled. Reading Melville’s letters alongside his review of Hawthorne’s Mosses from an Old Manse as engagements with the productive power of absence, this essay argues that, as it was for Melville, absence is the condition required to produce the desire that undergirds historicist inquiry. Rather than attempting to solve the mystery that the missing letters present, we argue that they offer a compelling framework for considering the scholarly encounter with the past. It is the archive’s incompleteness, rather than its contents, we contend, that makes historicism possible.
Delirium So Real: Mark Twain’s Spectacular History
This essay analyzes Mark Twain’s late literary and technological projects as part of a larger effort to salvage historical consciousness within the antihistorical experience of spectacle. Focusing on works produced between 1880 and 1910, the essay traces Twain’s shifting articulations of the relation between modern technology and historical discourse through three stages: first, his embrace of the “spectacular” discourse of historical rupture endemic to second-stage industrialization, as exemplified in Twain’s writings on the Paige Compositor and in Hank Morgan’s “miracles” in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889); second, Twain’s mechanistic philosophy of history, in which “the machine” gives form to a vision of history as a long, unbroken chain of material causes and effects; and finally, a dialectical negation of these two positions, in which the illusory immediacy of visual technologies—including a board game, a roadway game, and photography—mediates vast networks of historical relations, providing a form of technological mediation suited to Twain’s critiques of US imperialism.
Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Metapoetics
Amanda Mehsima Licato
This essay looks to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s dilemma as the nation’s first African American commercial writer and representative of black dialect verse by examining his metapoetic standard English poems in Oak and Ivy (1893), Majors and Minors (1895), Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896) and Lyrics of the Hearthside (1899). At the cusp of a growing demand for black dialect and blackface performance in the 1890s, Dunbar’s “pure blackness” put him in the rather unfortunate position of having to write in dialect to gain a readership and make a living as a professional writer. To mitigate this problem, I find that Dunbar developed the proto-modernist technique of metapoetic personae, which he employed in the majority of his standard English verses as implicit commentaries on the romantic ideals of his white counterparts. Dunbar’s metapoems are thus significant assessments of the link between craftsmanship and commercialism in the Post-Reconstruction era, debunking the deeply problematic myths about the imaginative possibilities of black writers.
This essay recovers Melville’s long-neglected novel Mardi, arguing that it is an essential text for understanding Melville’s relationship to nineteenth-century science. Rich with “sedimentary strata” and imagery of terrestrial “treasures” – gold, silver, diamonds, granite – Mardi reveals Melville thinking on a planetary scale through the emerging sciences of geology, mineralogy, and astronomy. In particular, the strange presence of minerals in Mardi initiates an alternate trajectory within Melville’s writing, one that crisscrosses the barriers between art and science, life and nonlife, literary form and “earthy matter.” Mardi opens new sightlines into Melville’s early career that capture the significance of nineteenth-century American literature for our own precarious moment.
The Last Cleric: Ann Douglas, Intellectual Authority, and the Legacy of Feminization
Kevin Pelletier, Claudia Stokes, Abram Van Engen
This article revisits Ann Douglas’s classic work The Feminization of American Culture in order to assess its model of intellectual authority. Rather than offering a new close reading or critique of its claims about sentimentalism, we instead contend that the argumentative focus of Feminization is concerned primarily with the changing status of the public intellectual. Situating the book within its 1970s context, when female professors were extremely rare and institutional sexism extremely high, we examine how and why Douglas chose to speak as she did throughout the book. Her style--with its assertive tone, sweeping generalizations, and emphatic pronouncements--reflects this context, and it expresses how Douglas views her role as an intellectual and literary critic. Moreover, the style attempts to reach beyond scholarly peers in order to influence a broad, non-academic audience. In considering issues of context, presentation, style, readership, audience, and the cultural pressures that shaped this book, we show that Feminization still has much to offer humanities scholars whose authority, both inside and outside the academy, remains uncertain. As a book primarily about the vital role of American intellectuals and their responsibilities to the broader public, Douglas’s Feminization raises persistent questions about how we do what we do as English professors—and whom we hope to reach in our published work.