“The Empire of Romance”: Some Notes on Novels in an Extensive Republic


Cross-posted from The Junto. Please leave any comments there.

The current issue of the Journal of the Early Republic includes Andrew Cayton’s SHEAR presidential address on the novel’s place in the postrevolutionary Atlantic world: “The Authority of the Imagination in an Age of Wonder.” The essay makes a case for the usefulness of period novels to early-republic historians. Cayton gives us three reasons novels are useful as historical sources:

  1. “The people we study paid attention to them.” Novels were significant parts of people’s lives, and they illuminate “the shifting structure of discourse and discourse communities” in early-nineteenth-century America.
  2. “They challenge our preoccupation with categories.” Novels were experiments in defining and redefining people.
  3. Novels reveal that many people conceived of liberty socially, “as a voluntary location of one’s self within overlapping social networks” (25-26). [1]

To put these three ideas another way, Cayton argues that novels are evidence for intellectual continuity between the imperial-revolutionary eighteenth century and the national-liberal nineteenth. Contrary to their domesticated and privatized reputation, early nineteenth-century novels were a medium in which Americans discussed radical ideas about liberation and indeterminacy and, through acts of imagination, assumed those ideas into themselves.

Cayton makes this case largely through close readings. He discusses Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent and Ennui, William Godwin’s essays, Mary Hays’s Emma Courtney, Martha Meredith Reed’s Margaretta (a lonely American production), and Walter Scott’s Waverley. His treatment of these texts is excellent. What’s particularly useful is that he doesn’t read them looking for evidence of resistance or social activism, as many have. He’s more interested in figuring out what fills the gaps in “careless conversations and half-finished sentences.” He wants to read novels the way a cultural materialist reads teapots.

Because of this, he also makes a (largely implicit) claim that novels were a special vector of ideas across the ocean—part of the intellectual binding of the British Atlantic world. Here he’s incorporating work by Eric Slauter and Stephen Shapiro. But I’m not sure he fully articulates what I’m coming to see as a particular function of novels as part of public discourse.

The more I read of literary criticism from the first quarter of the century, the more convinced I become that the novel (or the “historical romance”) helped early nineteenth-century Americans manage a specific socio-political problem: the problem of distance. The novel’s functions included reconciling individuals and communities to the paradoxes of vast but republican empire, which strained established ideas about truthful representation and community cohesion.

Here’s an early contemporary text hinting at part of this problem. In 1800 in New York, Charles Brockden Brown published “The Difference Between History and Romance,” arguing that the obvious difference between a historian and a “romancer” is misleading. It may be correct, in a sense, that the historian relates things that have actually happened and the fiction writer describes things that have not. But when we look more closely, Brown wrote, we find that truth isn’t simply a matter of describing observable facts. It’s also a matter of tracing relationships and associations:

Curiosity is not content with noting and recording the actions of men. It likewise seeks to know the motives by which the agent is impelled to the performance of these actions; but motives are modifications of thought which cannot be subjected to the senses. […]

The facts to which we are immediate witnesses, are, indeed, numerous; but time and place merely connect them. Useful narratives must comprise facts linked together by some other circumstance . . . . How wide, then, if romance be the narrative of mere probabilities, is the empire of romance? This empire is absolute and undivided over the motives and tendencies of human actions. Over actions themselves, its dominion, though not unlimited, is yet very extensive.

Brown, claiming that historical truth is necessarily romantic, hinted that romance somehow has an authority, or a criterion of truthfulness, that doesn’t derive from empirical reality. The imagination provides access to truths that the mind demands but cannot obtain from the senses.

For citizens of a federal republic, I think, alienated from their own public histories by space as well as time, finding the links between facts and human motives presented a special challenge. How was it possible for a citizen to judge for himself the claims of authority, when every representation of history was the testimony of someone else? (It’s worth bearing in mind that Brown was just twelve years old when the Revolution ended.) The imagination provided what sight could not—and what one should not take on another’s word.

Skipping ahead in time a bit, seeing as this is a blogpost, I sense that the discontinuity between facts and whole experience was particularly problematic for American intellectuals trying, after the War of 1812 (and the “paper war” it ignited among the literati), to demonstrate that republican government had been good for the United States in intangible ways.

So in 1822, we have James Fenimore Cooper (or so the anonymous article has been attributed), writing in the nationalistic Literary Repository, reviewing Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s New-England Tale:

Our political institutions, the state of learning among us, and the influence of religion upon the national character, have been often discussed and displayed; but our domestic manners, the social and moral influences, which operate in retirement, and in common intercourse, and the multitude of local peculiarities, which form our distinctive features upon the many peopled earth, have very seldom been happily exhibited in our literature. […]

Any future collector of our national tales, would do well to snatch [such books] from oblivion, and to give them that place among the memorials of other days, which is due to the early and authentic historians of a country. We say the historians —we do not mean to rank the writers of these tales, among the recorders of statutes, and battles, and party chronicles; but among those true historians . . . with whom Fielding classes himself, nearly in these words: “Those dignified authors who produce what are called true histories, are indeed writers of fictions, while I am a true historian, a describer of society as it exists, and of men as they are.”

Cooper himself, of course, was already deeply involved in a project of “making American Manners and American scenes interesting to an American reader” through historical novels.[2] But what’s easy to overlook is the imperialism of Cooper’s pronouns. Reviewing a book about New England, Cooper (who was many things, but was not a Yankee) talked about “our domestic manners” and “our distinctive features.”[3] Through fiction, he could lay claim to kinship—even in ostensibly private matters—with Americans in other communities. By depicting private kinship, novels made a national public more conceivable.

As a matter of theory, of course, this isn’t anything new. Homi Bhaba and Benedict Anderson have covered this territory thoroughly. But early-republic historians and literary scholars alike sometimes struggle to treat novels in general as a mode of communication about public things. The solution, I think, lies in their very privacy.


[1] Cayton contrasts this socially thick freedom with liberal conceptions of freedom as individual autonomy. But the more interesting challenge may be to other group-conscious conceptions of liberty, especially in historical literature on republican politics, nationalism, and race.

[2] Letter to his first publisher, Andrew Thompson Goodrich, 28 June 1820, in James Franklin Beard, ed., Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, 1:44.

[3] It’s worth mentioning, of course, that Sedgwick’s title is a bit ironic. A New-England Tale is about a young woman’s escape from Yankee Calvinist parochialism thanks to her national context.

The War in Christmas: Santa Claus and Middle-Class Americans

"Santa Claus in Camp," Harper's, 3 January 1863; courtesy of Library of Congress

“Santa Claus in Camp,” Harper’s, 3 January 1863; courtesy of Library of Congress

Sometime in the 2000s, as far as I remember, the “War on Christmas” became an annual tradition. Starting around Halloween each year, the research department at Fox News apparently starts googling “happy holidays” and “winter break,” while writers at the Huffington Post and the Daily Show respond by checking back through their bookmarks for snarkable references to the Puritans and Advent. Meanwhile, people in some parts of the country start wishing each other an especially vehement “Merry Christmas” in the checkout lines at department stores, with visible triumph, as if they’re in a bar in Casablanca singing the Marseillaise together in 1941.

The height of absurdity, maybe, is that the American Family Association keeps a color-coded list of “top retailers and how they recognize Christmas.” It includes a red list of “companies AGAINST Christmas,” two of which are officially under AFA boycott. Their crime, apparently, is not using the name of Jesus often enough when selling khaki trousers.

I wouldn’t be the first person to conclude that there’s something fishy going on when a conservative Christian group censures a secular company for failing to adequately co-opt a religious holiday. It seems particularly strange in light of some earlier protests, which attempted to reclaim the holiday as a religious event; the same sorts of people who wanted to “put Christ back in Christmas” now seem more worried about putting Christmas back in the Banana Republic. And I’m certainly not the first person to notice that most observances of Christmas in America are essentially secular anyway. It might be fair to say that “Christmas” is a name shared by two radically different holidays that happen to coincide on the calendar.

On the other hand, the truth is that the modern American Christmas — a day of family-oriented gift-giving — isn’t an originally religious or domestic holiday that was exploited and tarnished (or liberated) by secular forces of commercialism. Santa Claus isn’t just an inoffensive later substitute for a controversial religious figure. On the contrary, Christmas as Americans understand it exists in the first place because of anxieties about religious belief, political culture, and economic values — in other words, because of culture wars much like the ones we see today. The gift-oriented holiday, and Santa Claus himself, embodied these tensions from the start.


The quintessential American saint was anointed by Washington Irving in 1809. Strictly speaking, St. Nicholas is a Greek (or Turkish) saint from way back. In Western churches, his feast day is December 6. But it was Washington Irving who, for slightly complicated reasons, made him into an icon of New York City when he published Knickerbocker’s History of New-York in the first decade of the nineteenth century.

Irving’s comic “history” of New York was, among other things, a generally good-natured satire on the New-York Historical Society, which had been founded in 1804. According to a classic article by Charles W. Jones, the N-YHS had adopted St. Nicholas as a patriotic answer to foreign patron saints (George for England, Andrew for Scotland, Patrick for Ireland, David for Wales). Irving, never missing an opportunity to lampoon American pretensions to distinction, took the conceit a bit further. As Irving had it, the original Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam had crossed the Atlantic in a ship called the Goede Vrouw, which took St. Nicholas as her protector and literal figurehead. The settlers had first established their colony at Communipaw, New Jersey, but then St. Nicholas had come to one of them in a vision to direct them to settle on the tip of Manhattan Island instead.

Here’s how Irving described his apparition:

[L]o! the good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children. … And he lit his pipe by the fire, and sat himself down and smoked; and as he smoked the smoke from his pipe ascended into the air, and spread like a cloud overhead. … [T]he great volume of smoke assumed a variety of marvelous forms, … [and] shadowed out palaces and domes and lofty spires, all of which lasted but a moment, and then faded away, until the whole rolled off, and nothing but the green woods were left. And when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe he twisted it in his hatband, and laying his finger beside his nose, gave the astonished Van Kortlandt a very significant look, then mounting his wagon, he returned over the treetops and disappeared.

You could say that in this story, the great metropolis of New York City itself was a gift from Santa Claus. Already some key Claus attributes were present in an early form: the flying wagon laden with presents, the clay pipe, the finger, and the wink. And also the city bustling with commerce.

As Stephen Nissenbaum explains in The Battle for Christmas, between 1809 and 1822 this Manhattanized St. Nicholas became a useful symbol for elite New Yorkers (who, truth be told, were typically Episcopalians of Anglo-Saxon, not Dutch, ancestry). Irving had parodied them in Knickerbocker’s History, but as Elizabeth Bradley writes, it didn’t take long for them to embrace his book as an anthem for their city and class.

For them, according to Nissenbaum, Irving’s St. Nicholas came to represent old-fashioned, genteel values. The elite found him attractive largely because he was a polite alternative to the rough popular entertainments and carousing that they saw in urban streets during the holiday. Whereas these carnivalesque democratic Christmas celebrations threatened order and authority, St. Nicholas represented a proper social arrangement. The gifts bestowed to children by St. Nicholas on December 5 or 6 (not yet on Christmas Day) metaphorically took the place of the patronage ties that had once bound together gentlemen and their tenants. In a city obsessed with commerce and gain, St. Nicholas was supposed to represent an economy based on other values. Generosity flowed down from the rich (or parents); deference and loyalty rose up from the poor (or children).

Irving himself made the association with gentry values explicit in several stories he published at New Year’s in 1820. In The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Irving, who was now living abroad, depicted Christmas celebrations the way “an old English country gentleman” supposedly might still observe them. Already in these stories, a merry Christmas was depicted as something old-fashioned, something out of place in a world where people earned money by working by the hour in cities. (Even the word “merry,” you’ll notice, is deliberately anachronistic and Olde-Englande-flavored.) There was not a great distance between Irving’s paternalistic rural English Christmas of 1819 and the Christmas put on by Charles Dickens’s old-fashioned avuncular employer Fezziwig in A Christmas Carol in 1843; they were both — already in the early nineteenth century — suggesting that the soul of Christmas was premodern and somehow alien to profit and competition.

Robert Walter Weir, 1838 painting held by the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Robert Walter Weir, 1838; painting held by the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Substantially, the Santa Claus myth was fixed in 1823, when Clement Clarke Moore, a conservative and wealthy seminary professor — in this case, “wealthy” means he owned Chelsea — allegedly published “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Moore (if Moore was the author) included details straight from Irving’s story: swirling pipe smoke, a knowing look, and a finger laid beside the nose. But he also added the details that substantially completed the modern American St. Nick: reindeer, chimney plunge, Christmas Eve, bundle of toys, obesity. The poem hinted that St. Nicholas’s power was a form of elfin magic and not anything to do with Christian sainthood. And most importantly, this St. Nicholas descended directly into the home of a nuclear family, bearing toys from outside, as a jolly parental ally. He was a St. Nicholas ready for the age of the consumer middle class.

There was already a tension in this figure of Santa Claus. On one hand, he represented religious tradition, unease about the pace and values of modern life, and especially a desire for the sanctification of the home. He stood apart from the world of business; his toys arrived by magic, not by manufacturing or by the exchange of money. On the other hand, he was no rural squire or generous master. His gifts were recognizable as consumer goods; they were toys that came fully formed from outside the household, where presumably someone else made and sold them. (Later stories, of course, would supply Arctic factories staffed by elves as a way to defer the often-uncomfortable answer to this question.) These gifts were an intrusion into the self-contained household economy. Or rather, they suggested that the household was no longer self-contained at all. The instruments of parental authority and family loyalty came from the marketplace outside.

In fact, St. Nicholas was a fairly obvious disguise for the consumer market that was reshaping American urban households. (According to Nissenbaum, he was already being used in advertisements in New York in the mid-1820s, and he was commonplace in New York and Philadelphia marketing by the 1840s.) As he became a central figure in American Christmas traditions, St. Nicholas was simultaneously criticizing and driving the market economy’s penetration into American homes. Through him and in spite of him, commerce was shaping Americans’ emotional interpretations of childhood and parenthood, and of play and work.

This tangled, frustrating relationship between the economy and the family persists today in many Americans’ experiences of Christmas. And it persists both because and in spite of St. Nicholas’s place in American Christmases. It’s largely because of Santa Claus that we make gift-giving the central rite of the holiday; Nicholas’s traditional delivery of presents to children in early December has evolved into the multilateral gift exchange of December 25. But it’s also because of the domesticity he represents that we feel so guilty about the annual Christmas rush. St. Nick sends us out into stores to spend money on the products of foreign sweatshops and keep shop clerks on their feet on Christmas Eve, and then he makes us feel guilty for missing the “true” meaning of a time we should spend quietly and moderately with people we love.

Meanwhile, as Leigh Eric Schmidt points out in Consumer Rites, historically there’s no clear distinction between religious and commercial holiday observance in America. Churches have been involved in the buying and selling of Christmas goods, and stores have been trading in religious representations, from the beginning of the modern holiday. Business is just the form that desire and devotion take in a market economy. To take mass consumption out of Christmas, we’d have to stop living life as a mass of consumers.


So perhaps it’s not so strange, after all, that a Christian nonprofit and a corporate media conglomerate would join forces to defend the distinctive religious identity of an annual consumption frenzy. If religious faith is finally about a community’s deepest desires — or “ultimate concern,” as Paul Tillich would have it — then it stands to reason that the most deeply meaningful events in a consumer society would also be the most lucrative.

For better and worse, the rites that constitute Americans as an ostensibly middle-class nation are rites of accumulation and exchange. Our most crowded public spaces are privately owned stores. Our defining narratives, including news stories and religious texts, are copyrighted and sold (either to consumers or to advertisers). Our life stories are organized around entry into, and then retirement from, a career. The first question we ask a stranger is “What do you do?” In a liberal and democratic society organized on a large scale, with few other transferable proxies for personal merit, money is often the most convenient measure of an individual’s character and authority. In the end, that means it’s also the most reliable measure of ourselves.

Santa Claus, the symbol of the gift-oriented consumer holiday, signals that disillusionment about the sources of pleasure and love is a natural part of growing up. At some point, the American child learns that there’s no such thing as a free gift or supernatural source of wealth. Presents are things grownups go out and buy with money, things they exchange with each other, once they can, to signify that they maintain independence within their love. The passage from a premodern (organic, hierarchical, and religious) understanding of wealth to a modern and liberal understanding is thus dramatized in an American rite of passage that each child experiences as a genuine internal shock. While the illusion lasts, however, it gives adults a few years to stage a hierarchical and mystical critique of their own grownup lives.

So when people defend the commercial Christmas, they are also defending the critical Christmas. When they grouse about the spectacular consumption and luxury of the holiday, they are also participating in one of the rituals of a luxury society. And when they take part in the utterly secular and materialistic holiday, they are also participating — in the most meaningful ways now available to most of them — in the ancient religious holiday underlying it.

Immense Power: An Existential Lincoln

The most interesting scene in Lincoln comes very near the end. It features a man and a woman — to avoid a spoiler, I won’t say who — reading the text of the Thirteenth Amendment by lamplight. Or rather, she is reading it to him. It’s a simple and understated scene, but for several reasons, it would have been inconceivable fifty years ago. It’s Steven Spielberg’s sharpest response to the Lost Cause, an upraised middle finger in the face of anti-abolitionism. (By a racist’s standards, it is literally obscene.) But more importantly, this scene is also the closing bookend to the first major monologue scene Abraham Lincoln gets in the film. That early scene shows the president delivering a sprawling soliloquy to his cabinet, in which he considers — inconclusively — whether issuing the Emancipation Proclamation was actually legal. Together, these scenes wrap the movie in a cloak of existentialism that sets Lincoln apart.

Lincoln publicity photo by David James, released by DreamWorks II Distribution Co.

Lincoln publicity photo by David James, released by DreamWorks II Distribution Co.

Eric Rauchway recently observed that different wars have different purposes at the movies. Films about the Great War are nihilistic. Movies about World War II are existential. Movies about the American Civil War are political, telling a story about emancipation. Rauchway acknowledges major exceptions in each case, but the rule holds in spite of them; in some cases, a film isn’t truly “about” the war in which it takes place. If Rauchway is right, what makes Spielberg’s Lincoln odd is that it pays extraordinarily close attention to the politics of abolition, yet consistently treats emancipation as a process of ethical self-assertion in defiance of apparently hostile reality.

Lincoln, in other words, is a film about conviction, but not about faith. For Spielberg’s Abraham Lincoln, amending the Constitution is a leap into the dark.

In the first review I ever saw for the film, Roy Blount Jr. got this badly yet understandably wrong. In Blount’s mind, Lincoln is a movie about pragmatism and compromise. The film suggests, he writes, that “the road to progress … is seldom straight, entirely open or, strictly speaking, democratic.” Blount sees Lincoln’s willingness to travel the crooked paths of a political insider as heroic. Probably Spielberg does too; this film undoubtedly grows from our particular moment in liberal opinion, intervening in debates about populism, bipartisanship, and technocracy. But “progress,” as usual, is a misleading term. It betrays two key elements of this film’s Lincoln’s worldview. The first is his belief in justice; righting wrongs simply isn’t the same idea as progress, and the film’s Lincoln sees slavery as wicked, not old-fashioned. (He doesn’t compromise for the sake of social improvement; he compromises because he’s obsessed.) The second is this Lincoln’s apocalyptic belief in himself.

Lincoln’s Lincoln is desperate. He has one idea deep inside him — “marrow deep,” as he says in another context — that overrides every other. By 1865, it is his reason for existing. Every power he holds, every good he believes in, and now even the perpetuation of the Union and the Constitution, are secondary to the imperative of ending slavery. He doesn’t know what will come afterward for the country. He doesn’t know how former slaves will survive. He doesn’t know, and doesn’t particularly care, what civil rights black Americans will have, or whether they will ever reach full social equality. He simply knows that this thing must be done, and he must do it, and he must do it now.

In fact, every significant character shares in this moral moment somehow. Nobody with deep principles in this film really seems to be known by anyone else. Each of them, instead, has political conviction insofar as he knows himself.

The strongest men of the film — Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens, and William Seward — are entirely self-contained. No matter what they are saying at a given moment, almost anything could be happening behind their eyes. Each of the swing legislators in Congress, on the other hand, makes his emotions painfully obvious, and for all of them, deciding how to vote on the Thirteenth Amendment is a process of reluctantly coming to terms with their deepest feelings. Some of them collapse from exhaustion and grief as they vote. Subplot characters also struggle to know themselves. Robert Lincoln, the president’s son, must enlist in the army, even if it destroys his parents, to preserve his self-respect. Mary Lincoln, having lost herself along with her younger son, must face her emptiness and invest herself in her husband instead; in some ways, as a result, she serves as a more forthright voice of Abraham’s authentic character. Even venal, frivolous men like political fixer W.N. Bilbo are useful because they relish and admit their venality.

In this movie, the only people acting out of devotion to rules or constituencies are racists and appeasers. Everyone of character is acting from within himself.

That, and not just marketing, is why this film is called Lincoln instead of, say, Emancipation, even though it doesn’t remotely qualify as a biopic. And it’s part of why the major Lincoln speeches quoted in the film sound false here. “The better angels of our nature” might be consistent with this Lincoln’s ethic; “binding up the nation’s wounds” and “taking increased devotion to that cause” are not. Even a wonderful scene in which Lincoln invokes his love of geometry to assert human equality — a scene based on a close reading of Lincoln’s intellectual influences — is false, for in this scene, the explicit moral reasoning is another façade for Lincoln’s internal struggle to do what he already knows he should. This Lincoln is performing a moral conclusion, not reaching or defending one.

But this version of Lincoln, scripted by Tony Kushner and enacted with astonishing realism by Daniel Day-Lewis, does get close to a very important truth. This is a Lincoln living out the Day of Judgment. Lincoln is a movie about the Civil War as the end of the world. It is full of shadows and silences; we can hear the ticking of clocks in the background of some conversations, and the lamps used in nighttime scenes are so dim that we perceive the moonlit sky as blue instead of black. The handful of battlefield shots look like glimpses of the pit of hell. Lincoln possesses the erratic mental clarity of a man about to go mad. All of this is as it should be. In Lincoln, we get a movie that treats America’s bloodiest war as a nightmare.

But the real Civil War wasn’t just Lincoln’s nightmare. A crucial line that made it into the trailer, “I am the president of the United States of America, clothed in immense power,” has a far different meaning here from what it should have.

As it happens, without making specific plans to do so, I watched Lincoln in a little theater in Center City Philadelphia, on the southeastern edge of Independence Hall National Historical Park. This cinema sits next door to the site of Alexander Hamilton’s house, a few steps away from the plots where James Wilson and Benjamin Rush lived, and within sight of the First Bank of the United States and Carpenters’ Hall, where the First Continental Congress met in 1774. In other words, I stumbled into a showing of Lincoln at the ground zero of American federalism. Perhaps that has influenced my reaction to the film.

In any case, what bothers me about Lincoln is that for all its narrowness of focus on a political process, it hardly ever honestly acknowledges the constraints — whether intellectual, ideological, institutional, economic, or, beyond the walls of Congress, political — that bound its figures. It presents us with a story about man in time, but not man in human space.

This Lincoln certainly does know how Congress works, but the film still treats congressional lame ducks (and a newly reelected president) as momentary gods, free, for a few weeks, to come to terms with their true selves. The film’s problematic treatment of its black characters, none of whom play an active part in emancipation, is structurally just one part of this flaw. Ultimately, there are no voters, petitioners, editors, pamphleteers, or poets — black or white — and no judges, languages, myths, faiths, dreams, or communities. There are no state legislatures taking a year to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment after Congress passes it. In a sense, there aren’t even any congressional radicals spurring Lincoln to act on slavery; the film creates the impression that Lincoln infected the radical Republicans with a sense of urgency, not the other way around. In Lincoln, there are just gods and generals.

For all its attempted honesty about the grubby details of how great events happen, therefore — and for all the strengths that make it possible for me to recommend it to other viewers without hesitation — Lincoln ultimately cheats us out of a better story about justice, or power, or humanity. It doesn’t puncture a national myth about individual freedom or goodness or inexorable social progress. It embodies one. At its core, this is a movie about Americans without an America.

Was America Part of the Republic of Letters?

There’s an interesting take on early America in the new issue of Modern Intellectual History.  The article is an unusually layman-friendly essay on digital humanities, but it’s also an excellent essay on the importance of a spatial imagination to those of us who work on American intellectuals. And it challenges conventional thinking about the intellectual significance of the American Revolution, so I think it merits careful reading.

In “Where Is America in the Republic of Letters,” Caroline Winterer reflects on what modern digital tools can reveal about early American intellectual life. Specifically, Winterer discusses an ongoing initiative at Stanford called “Mapping the Republic of Letters.” There she is the lead researcher on a project to visualize Benjamin Franklin’s correspondence networks in the mid-18th century. In her new MIH article, Winterer tries to explain how digital projects like this can challenge or revise historians’ thinking.

Winterer contrasts two dominant ways of conceptualizing intellectual exchange in colonial British America. “Put bluntly,” she writes, “the Atlantic world has become an early Americanist’s category, while the republic of letters has become an early modern Europeanist’s category.” She suggests that this is due to Americanists’ nationalistic assumptions. European historiography, by definition, (and I’m embroidering a bit on her text here) starts from the the recognition that nations are contingent and porous, while Americanists, always conceiving of their subject teleologically as the future United States, struggle to recognize the limits of the nation at all. So for us, the British “Atlantic world” is useful as a rather grudging way frame and problematize the thing that was not yet the United States, while Europeanists are happy to follow the cosmopolitan “republic of letters” wherever it leads them, whether around the Mediterranean or into the Far East.

This may fall slightly off the mark, I think. The more important thing about the Atlantic world is that it’s a sneaky way to maintain a special relationship between Britain and the United States, preserving the privileged place of English law and ideology in our studies of colonial and revolutionary America while acknowledging the existence of other empires and constituent peoples. In other words, I think the Atlantic world is actually more about U.S. historians’ Anglophone nationalism than their American nationalism. Nevertheless, Winterer’s observation seems important. It is true that the republic of letters gets far more play in early-modern European history than in early American history, and this almost certainly means something interesting.

According to Winterer, one thing it means is that early American intellectual history needs to take a closer look at where the letters of the republic were actually going. “The big, broad idea of an Atlantic world” is a clumsy replacement for more precise locating of nodes in transatlantic intellectual networks. Mostly, she writes, the paths taken by writers and writing reveal that British America’s “Atlantic” intellectual life was really centered on England, and not just England but London (phenomena like the Edinburgh enlightenment and John Fea’s rural enlightenment notwithstanding).

Detail from Claire Rydell and Caroline Winterer, “Benjamin Franklin’s Correspondence Network, 1757-1763,” Mapping the Republic of Letters Project, Stanford University, October 2012

A second use for the concept of the republic of letters, Winterer argues, is to show that America’s revolutionary “philosopher-statesmen,” Benjamin Franklin in particular, weren’t really as new as certain historians have claimed. Franklin, Winterer writes, should not be seen simply as a producer of Enlightenment knowledge. His real importance lay in his function as a key node in Enlightenment literary networks, a sort of “human switchboard” who relayed ideas to and from his many correspondents. This sort of figure, Winterer says, was not exactly new to Europe, but it may also have been more common in colonial America than most people realize. Winterer points to Prospero’s America, Walter Woodward’s recent study of John Winthrop Jr., which reveals that the 17th-century Connecticut governor maintained a similar transatlantic correspondence network one hundred years earlier. The scale of Franklin’s literary output and scientific success was extraordinary, but he functioned as the literati had throughout the early modern era.

A harder problem, Winterer concedes, is what all of this means for the nature of intellectual cosmopolitanism and empire. For example, what was the relationship between centers and peripheries in the republic of letters — and is it appropriate to view early America as intellectually peripheral? The answer is unclear. On ordinary maps of correspondence networks, American letters appear as long lines crossing the vast Atlantic ocean. But does this mean that Americans were less firmly connected to London and Paris than provincial Europeans were, or more? Similarly, does mapping intellectual networks shed any light on the role of religion in carrying ideas? In the absence of well-organized missionary-intellectual orders like the Jesuits, were British America’s religious literary networks primarily a cause of empire or an effect? The concept of the republic of letters, Winterer suggests, opens these as important questions without resolving them.

Finally, and most importantly, Winterer argues that the concept of the republic of letters calls into question the significance of the American Revolution. “In fact,” she writes, “seen in the broader context of the republic of letters, the specific influences of the American Revolution and republicanism on the deep structures of US intellectual life become more difficult to assert with confidence.” In the first decades after the Revolution, the intellectual life of the new nation was not necessarily preoccupied with republican politics. Often, intellectuals in the early American republic were more concerned with the same sorts of questions that had long kept the public of letters humming — questions of personal refinement and honor, virtue in a prepolitical sense, and appropriate sensibility. So when the ground beneath American intellectual life shifted later in the 19th century, was this because of the Revolution and democratization, or was it because of a wider evolution in the modern republic of letters? Winterer clearly favors the second thesis.

To say that I agree with Caroline Winterer about the importance of visualizing early American intellectual networks would be an understatement. That’s true whether we’re discussing “visualization” in a formal sense, i.e., the sense of precisely representing large data sets as comprehensible graphics, or in an informal sense — meaning the presentation of stories about travel and communication that make it easy to imagine ideas as concrete, material, personal things rather than abstractions.

But I also worry about what Winterer’s model might mean for the study of “intellectuals” as people. The great virtue of the concept of the Atlantic world is that it reminds us of the enormous importance of ships (bear with me a moment) to literally every aspect of life in early America. Not just particular ships, like, say, the Mayflower or the Arbella— the special vectors of special people with special thoughts — but shipping in general. It puts many different kinds of exchange at the center of what it meant to be and think in colonial America. And it makes it increasingly hard to set apart ideas as a special kind of thought, or to set apart colonial intellectuals, a priori, as special people. Early American intellectuals may be distinguishable as unusually good writers and thinkers, but they were also full participants in a culture of exchange  that encouraged written representations of all kinds. Their ideas had meaning not only in the republic of letters, but also in a much larger public of letters — an enormous quasi-Habermasian commercial public sphere. So the concept of a watery world of exchange opens up intellectual history to new topics and new forms of relevance to other subfields, in ways that the concept of a relatively rarefied cosmopolitan republic of letters does not.

It seems to me that mapping the republic of letters will be most useful if it can help us represent that aspect of early American intellectual life. Benjamin Franklin’s thousands of letters traveled overwhelmingly between London and a handful of American cities. But who were the thousands of people who sent and received them? With whom else did those people correspond about the same questions? And how closely were “ideas” bound up with their daily pursuits? If we can find better ways to visualize these dimensions of intellectual exchange, we may find ourselves in a much better position to argue for the importance of the life of the mind to the wider history of early America.

[Note: This is reposted from U.S. Intellectual History under a Creative Commons license. Thanks to L.D. Burnett for arranging its publication there.]

A City of the Mind: Jacques Barzun, 1907-2012

Jacques Barzun on the cover of Time Magazine, 1956I woke up this morning to learn that Jacques Barzun, born in Paris 104 years ago, died last night in San Antonio.

Barzun was old (and European) enough to remember the Great War as a “shattering experience,” and to have published books denouncing racism and authoritarianism before the Second World War came to America. He was also old enough to have witnessed (and questioned) all three of the great twentieth-century transformations in the American academy: the rise of a new breed of leftist public intellectual, the integration of the university system into the total-war state, and the half-subversive, half-therapeutic insurgencies of the New Left and New Right, which challenged that entanglement.

He was also old enough to have appeared on the cover of Time, accompanied by the lamp of learning, its flame burning like the tail of a rocket, fifty-six years ago.

I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about the kind of romantic intellectualism Barzun championed. On the one hand, I strongly agree with his condemnations of brutish partisanship and technocracy in the academy. I think it’s a little bit disgraceful that universities offer degrees in business — and I hold one — or operate graduate training schools for government functionaries — and I’m earning my doctorate from one.

On the other hand, I’m also the kind of outsider who never would have had a place at the academic table if ugly things like the SAT and GRE didn’t exist. And I just don’t have any inclination to support the conceits of metropolitans who confuse proximity with merit. To his credit, Barzun believed he had a high public calling and wished to make the life of the mind available to ordinary Americans. But there’s also more than a trace, in his record, of the notion that ideas are something ordinary people receive, not something they generate or resist. So when I read Barzun and people like him, I’m left feeling uneasily inspired, trying to sort out the romanticism of sanctity from the romanticism of privilege.

What is certain is that I will continue to draw inspiration from them.

Politics and the Stirred Heart

Courtesy of Cybershotking (CC BY 2.0)

A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter. I feel no obligation to deal with politics. I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.

E. B. White, “The Art of the Essay No. 1”

The Bird on the Rhinoceros

At the conferences and in the journals of historians, attention to literature of the early republic is more often than not justified by linking that literature to the formation of the polity and the party systems. Literature becomes like the bird who rides around on the rhinoceros — a sweet little creature worthy of attention only by its odd connection to that great beast of early republic history, politics. This sorely limits our understanding of literature’s role in the world, and perhaps also limits, at least in this historiography, our understanding of politics.

Catherine O’Donnell, “Literature and Politics in the Early Republic: Views from the Bridge” (JER 30.2, summer 2010), 290

The American Intellectual Tradition Tradition

For the upcoming USIH conference in New York, I’m finishing off a paper that comments briefly on how U.S. intellectual historians have treated the early American republic. To provide a pithy illustration, I mention that the current edition of The American Intellectual Tradition, the widely used sourcebook by Charles Capper and David Hollinger, contains essentially nothing from the four decades between 1790 and 1828. (Other than some late letters of Adams and Jefferson, the only essay included from that period is William Ellery Channing’s “Unitarian Christianity,” which was preached in 1819 but is probably useful in the modern classroom mainly for understanding what the 1830s were like in Concord.)

To me, this seems like a useful little observation, but for safety’s sake, if nothing else, I’d also like to be able to compare the contents of the sixth edition with previous editions, which go all the way back to 1989. Unfortunately, the only other edition I have on hand at the moment is the second.

I see that Amazon does show the tables of contents for the third and fourth editions. It seems pretty clear that Channing first appeared in the fourth edition, in 2001 — meaning that AIT has grown more inclusive, not less, over the years. But I’d really like to see the full run.

It’s not worth my time right now. But at some point, I think, I should make a collation of the contents of all six editions. It could useful as one way to judge how the field has evolved — or not — since the late twentieth century.

In the meantime, there’s Hollinger’s own essay on the making and remaking of the book: “What Is Our ‘Canon’? How American Intellectual Historians Debate the Core of Their Field.”

The Dead Are Real

What sort of person writes fiction about the past? It is helpful to be acquainted with violence, because the past is violent. It is necessary to understand that the people who live there are not the same as people now. It is necessary to understand that the dead are real, and have power over the living. It is helpful to have encountered the dead firsthand, in the form of ghosts.

Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Dead Are Real: Hilary Mantel’s Imagination”