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.
Volume 8, Number 2, Fall 2020
Ledger No. 1
Christina Michelon, Karen Sánchez-Eppler, Megan Walsh
This essay explores how Frederick Douglass’s The Heroic Slave (1853) both reveals and intervenes in the often-implicit controversies over the accessibility of slave interiority for white audiences that underpinned competing representations of slavery in the antebellum public sphere. Focusing on The Heroic Slave’s exploration of white people’s desire to probe the inner lives of enslaved persons, the essay argues that The Heroic Slave not only displays Douglass’s skillful deployment of fiction, but also constitutes a complex metafictional engagement with fiction’s increasingly central role in the struggle over slavery. As fiction became an important genre for representing slavery in the early 1850s, the conventions of fiction, especially its direct narration of unspoken thoughts and feelings, increasingly mediated how white audiences understood their ability to access the inner lives of enslaved persons. In The Heroic Slave, Douglass developed alternative formal strategies for representing slave interiority in fiction in order to resist the fantasy of complete knowledge of inner life associated with conventional fictional psychonarration. Drawing on recent work on fictionality, this essay shows how Douglass retheorized fiction’s value, positing fiction as both a useful vehicle for probing inner life and a powerful means of confronting readers with the necessarily speculative nature of this revelatory access to interiority.
Pleasure in Melville’s fiction is never unalloyed. It is inseparable from pain and dependent upon economic forms: in “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids,” the Melvillean bachelors’ delights are part of an economic system that opposes the British owners’ pleasurable leisure to the American laborers’ painful efforts. This exemplifies what Catherine Gallagher has described as the “somaeconomics” of the classical political economic tradition (Smith, Ricardo, Mill), the central tenet of which is a “pain theory of value.” It also signals a globalized understanding of economic forces that have an impact on bodies and affects.
This essay argues that such a Western “pain theory of value” is at the core of the narrator’s perception of work and leisure in Typee and Omoo. In these works, the narrator’s representation of the Polynesian proto-economy of pleasure, characterized by what I call a “pleasure theory of value,” is gradually replaced by the Western somaeconomics of toil and suffering, a combination of Protestantism and capitalism. Such a replacement replicates and defines the colonization process itself. In both narratives, an economic understanding of pleasure and pain (and conversely, a somatic understanding of the economy) is at the core of the description of imperialism in Polynesia.
The Sweet Truth of Slavery
This article performs a case study of the post-truth phenomenon in American literature. The discourse around post-truth has gained prominence as a means to explain recent political upheavals and media innovations; arguments about the topic frequently proceed from the assumption that post-truth rhetoric is adjunct to new mass media technologies and thus is novel. This article studies a set of pro-slavery novels that borrow from slave narratives and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin— “anti-Tom” novels—to demonstrate a much earlier instance of the phenomenon. One goal of this article is to question the periodization assigned to post-truth as a means to begin to contend with post-truth’s enduring relationship to how race is constructed on the page. The larger goal of this argument is to consider the radical in/visibilization of black suffering “anti-Tom” novels perform which destabilizes the racial claims these texts seek to make.
Drawing on transnational approaches to American literature, this essay reconsiders the politics of US Civil War cartoons. Whereas prior studies analyze how pro-Union and Confederate periodicals satirize both the enemy and themselves to bolster their respective causes, I ask what is at stake in jokes about foreign encounters. In the largely unstudied humor magazine Yankee Notions, cartoons persistently touch on fears that the war would weaken the country’s status and fantasies that Union victory could affirm US global authority. The cartoons strive to manage these sentiments by revising familiar caricatures. In so doing, they implicitly assure readers that Americans understand foreign peoples and themselves well enough to make light of international relations. Moreover, the magazine defines who is worth knowing, as it focuses on how Europe views the United States and vice versa. The cartoons thereby assert that ostensibly white, civilized empires recognize the Union as their equal, while occluding questions of how peoples of color view US imperialism.
This article explores the transnational and gendered aspects of nineteenth-century poem dedications authored by women in Spanish-language newspapers. These intimate exchanges routinely contaminated the public sphere with very personal missives, resulting in the development of a genre that was both socially performative and literary. The article considers a previously unstudied exchange between the Central American poet Amelia Denis and the Mexican-American poet Carlota S. Gutierrez as a flashpoint for thinking through these issues. In September of 1875, Denis dedicated a poem “A la Señorita Carlota S. Gutierrez” in the San Salvador newspaper La America Central. Gutierrez published her response in May of 1876 in La Crónica of Los Angeles, with the title: “A la Inspirada Poetisa Columbiana Amelia Denis.” Their poems express intense admiration for one another via the articulation of a collaborative and gendered ars poetica. They also emphasize Latinx identity as playing a part in creativity, Denis referring to Gutierrez’s poetry as “flower of Mexican soil.” While the industrialized production and circulation of paper media puts women across continents in contact, my study contends that it is the unique form of the poem dedication that makes this precarious and gendered performance of panlatinidad possible in the nineteenth century.
Recent calls for literary critics to return to form and affect have faulted historicist methods for denying textual alterity. Historicism was likewise cast as a tool for denying textual power in the course of Protestant debates about Bible reading in the late nineteenth century. This essay tracks the charge of historicist narcissism as a constitutive link between sacred and secular reading practices from then to now. It describes a shared project, carried on by literary studies and theology alike, of protecting free agency from the felt threat of historicist determinism. But by reexamining the theological counterargument for a historicism that enhanced, not diminished, a reader’s encounter with divine alterity, the essay also demonstrates that historicism is not always secularizing. The point is not to argue for a more thoroughly secular mode of historicism, nor to expose the religiosity at the heart of literary studies. The point is to articulate an ideal of historically embedded alterity that can stand as a professional value worth defending.
This forum explores how the fraught nexus of gender and race became central to questions of citizenship and the franchise in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. How did conceptions of the populace – an unremitting contestation of the “we” in “We the People”– shift with the changing electorate before, during, and after the Civil War? Following an introduction by Christopher Malone, Leila Mansouri investigates how slave narratives staged the paradoxes of black electoral politics during the antebellum period. Laura Free then ponders the loyalty oaths imposed on southerners in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, exploring their relevance to more fundamental questions of citizenship and inclusion. Next, through a close reading of Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, Jennie Kassanoff uncovers how the “gerrymandered black body” consolidated the myth of white male majority rule in an era of tense partisan reapportionment. Collectively, these essays ask us to consider the ways that the nineteenth century continues to reverberate in contemporary debates over race, gender, citizenship and voting rights in today’s fractious United States.
Voting Rights in the Age of Formal Equality
Outvoting: Pudd’nhead Wilson and the Logic of Apportionment
Jennie A. Kassanoff
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.