Current Issue Article Abstracts
Fall 2017 Issue 5.2
This essay, "George Lippard's 'Theatre of Hell': Apocalyptic Melodrama and Working-Class Spectatorship in the Quaker City," centers on the best-selling sensation novel The Quaker City; or the Monks of Monk Hall (1844-45) and antebellum Philadelphia theatergoing. I claim that by reproducing climactic scenes from cheap-admission spectacle melodramas, Lippard activates the communion and the politics of working-class spectatorship within the reading experience itself. Several Quaker City scenes restage images of ruling-class collapse originating within Philadelphia's working-class playhouses. Especially important is a dream sequence that follows the novel's web-fingered, dwarfed doorman Devil-Bug and his fantasy about a crumbling Philadelphia monarchy. In this extended scene, Lippard imports and re-dramatizes earthquakes, revolutionary parades, storms, floods, and fires from several melodramas including The Last Days of Pompeii (1835), El Hyder, The Chief of the Ghaut Mountains (1839), and Undine, Spirit of the Waters (1841). In constructing Quaker City's climactic motifs, Lippard attempts to galvanize a working-class, theatergoing readership already programmed to recognize the apocalyptic symbols of class conflict. More precisely, he seeks to channel this familiarity into an analogous overthrow of the ruling class in real life.
This essay examines the link between Sarah Orne Jewett's "The Mistress of Sydenham Plantation" (1888), a story about former slave-owners and their slaves in post-Reconstruction United States, and a remarkable historical event the story silently invokes through its setting. The enterprise in question is the Port Royal Experiment—a program the Union government launched in 1862 to investigate whether recently freed slaves in the South were capable of being free. When read against this historical context, which inaugurated the capacity for freedom as the criterion of American citizenship, "The Mistress" unfolds into an outstanding interrogation of freedom, personhood, and citizenship—revealing these concepts to be grounded in a restrictive set of values, such as independence, self-ownership, and capacity. By coding its amnesiac former slave-owner and her two former slaves as active participants in the Port Royal experiment, the story registers a discursive shift in post-bellum America from the political and ethical (the right to freedom) to the biological via the economic (the capacity for freedom understood as the ability to participate in the market economy). As a consequence, the story indicates that the notion of "capacity" was inaugurated as the line that separates slaves from persons, and as the criterion not only of African Americans' citizenship but also of their personhood.
Ralph Waldo Emerson's 1870-71 lecture series Natural History of Intellect revisits subjects that were crucial to Emerson throughout his career: the relationship between the body and the mind, the resulting nature of consciousness, the capacity of texts to transmit an inviolate intentionality. And yet, the lecture series formed as Emerson's experience of memory loss became profound, and so registers its author's changing patterns of cognition: his shifting protocols for producing and delivering text, for instance, and his increasing reliance upon his daughter, Ellen Tucker Emerson (who attended lectures in order to prompt Emerson as he faltered, and who eventually re-shaped Emerson's manuscript materials themselves). Entering into conversation with other readers who challenge an account of Emerson's thought that enshrines individualism to the exclusion of more communal dimensions of transcendentalism, I contend that Natural History of Intellect theorizes the terms of Emerson's collaboration with Ellen in ways that break with his earlier tendency to lionize insular consciousness and to isolate the body from the mind, offering instead an account of first-person thought that is always interpenetrated with the thinking of other people.
"Big Cats and the Femme Fatale in Yda H. Addis's 'A Human Tigress'" presents to modern readers for the first time in its original form Yda Hillis Addis's "A Human Tigress" (1893), in which the title character, a mysterious nude woman with clawlike fingers, seduces then disembowels sexually threatening men. Working within and against the American literary tradition characterized by masculinist panther-killing episodes and narratives of panthers and panther-like men who "hunt" women, Addis critiques male sexual license on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border by creating a landscape where strong, lustful men (American and Mexican) encounter and more often than not fall victim to an even stronger feline woman. As the product of Addis's frequent border crossings and time spent living and working in Mexico, the tale adds a unique transnational dimension to our current understanding of how late-nineteenth-century American women writers responded to the social problem of male sexual authority.
This essay reads Harriet E. Wilson's Our Nig (1859) as conversant with the potent and at times debilitating social fiction of rights for antebellum African Americans who found themselves caught between the categories of slavery and freedom. Through an analysis of Our Nig alongside a court case about an enslaved girl's contested legal status in Massachusetts, Commonwealth v. Aves (1836), I follow two figures whose rights were paradoxically invalidated via recognition of their legal freedom. The essay investigates the imbrication of antebellum African American rights claims with the legal doctrine of comity, operative in the argumentation of the Aves case. It does so to show how a key concept in both texts' explorations of rights—the legal and extralegal dimensions of courtesy in the age of slavery—can help us understand the complex rights claim advanced by Wilson in Our Nig, where rights are theorized as an amalgam of the "debilitating courtesies" that attend the protagonist's status as a domestic servant and de facto slave in antebellum New England.
This essay proposes a new account of regionalism, one that views the movement as an epistemology rather than as an ethnography. It takes seriously Horace Garland's championing of regionalism as a global form, reading the work of Sarah Orne Jewett in the context of attempts by American and European writers to depict the imaginative freedom enjoyed by consciousness in the lives of even seemingly the most provincial of characters. In the process community for Jewett is revealed to be less a matter of people seeing one another than of people thinking of one another. In its most radical form, this practice involves externalizing one's own experience, turning it into something that can be viewed from the outside—as if one's own life belonged to someone else.