“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.


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.]

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

People Who Tell the Truth (and People Who Don’t)

Ark. State Rep. Jon Hubbard (official portrait)

Rev. Jermain W. Loguen (Onondaga Hist. Assoc.)

Down in Arkansas, a state representative named Jon Hubbard recently made headlines when people started noticing that he had called American slavery a “blessing in disguise.”

The claim appears in his self-published book Letters to the Editor: Confessions of a Frustrated Conservative, but you don’t have to buy the book to read his thoughts; they appear on his campaign website.

In an essay posted there, Hubbard writes that “for our brothers and sisters of the black race, as hard as it may be to understand and appreciate, slavery just might have been a blessing in disguise, as well as their most difficult challenge ever. Maybe, just maybe, God had a plan for what he allowed to happen.”

To explain, Hubbard writes that the descendants of slaves were eventually blessed because “they would one day reap the reward handed down to them by their brave ancestors: that of being an American.” Hubbard contrasts black Americans’ living conditions in the modern United States with the conditions he believes they would face today as “African tribesmen living in grass huts and constantly searching for their food,” whose “existence and lifestyle … has been almost unchanged since the beginning of time.”

As cartoonish and condescending as Hubbard’s historical claim is, it’s presented as the meditation of a Christian who believes that God can use any sort of horrible event for good. To the extent that Hubbard is simply saying that God moves in mysterious ways, then, he isn’t necessarily endorsing slavery itself as a good thing. Unfortunately — and maybe to the surprise of nobody who knows the American South — that’s not all he is saying.

The problem isn’t simply that Hubbard seems to think that Africans all wear grass skirts and dance around pots of boiling missionaries all day. That would be bad enough; it’s just an updating of what slavery’s defenders said in the nineteenth century.  No, Hubbard doesn’t stop there.

On Hubbard’s website, the essay on African slavery is followed immediately by an essay on “the legacy of the Baby Boomers.” Tucked into that essay in a bizarre paragraph (highlighted in yellow for reasons that are not clear) is this thought about public education:

The integration of our public schools was a major challenge that was designed to close the gap between blacks and whites in the area of education. After the initial shock of this decision, it was understood that by bringing blacks and whites together into a common school system, it would eventually be a good thing for everyone. One of the stated purposes of school integration was to bring black students up to a level close to that of white students. But, to the great disappointment of everyone, the results of this theory worked exactly in reverse of its intended purpose, and instead of black students rising to the educational levels previously attained by white students, the white students dropped to the level of black students. To make matters worse, the lack of discipline and ambition of black students soon became shared by their white classmates, and our educational system has been in a steady decline ever since. This is not a racist statement, but a valid and realistic evaluation of what has actually happened to our schools. One totally unexpected result of public school integration was that along with the decline in educational achievement in this country came a dramatic rise in crime over that same time period. [Emphasis added.]

It’s hardly necessary for me to point out that any claim requiring the clarification “this is not a racist statement” is almost certainly a racist statement. That said, I can’t find a way to read that paragraph as anything but a qualified (actually somewhat cowardly) but firm endorsement of racial segregation. To remove all doubt, Hubbard even tells us that the reason school desegregation was a bad thing is that black students infected white students with their laziness.


To their credit, Republican leaders in Arkansas (for Hubbard is a Republican) are anxious to avoid the taint of his racism. Arkansas GOP chairman Doyle Webb said that Hubbard’s remarks on slavery “were highly offensive to many Americans and do not reflect the viewpoints of the Republican Party of Arkansas.” Webb also, however, said that state Democrats’ efforts to capitalize on Hubbard’s indiscretion were “distractions.” (Hubbard, for his part, has accused Democrats of “Nazi-style political intimidation.”)

Unfortunately, the understandable fury over Hubbard’s relatively innocuous “blessing in disguise” line is obscuring the practical depth of his evident racism.

Hubbard’s belief that school desegregation led to the academic ruin of white children is part of a complex of ideas that have led him, as a state legislator, to sponsor a Birther bill, English-only bills, a bill making it a felony to harbor an undocumented immigrant, and a bill diverting some public-school funds to homeschoolers. And his book Letters to the Editor claims that immigration, “both legal and illegal,” threatens to overwhelm Western countries —  due to overpopulation that will lead to “planned wars or extermination” that “will at some point become as necessary as eating and breathing.”

It’s possible to support each of those initiatives or ideas without being a racist. But that’s pretty clearly not what is happening in Jon Hubbard’s case.

Anyway, to get back around to what this post was supposed to be about when I started it, I’d like to direct your attention to something the excellent Ta-Nehisi Coates posted this week: “The Hyperlinked Ballad of Jarm Logue.”

When I saw Coates’s post, I sat up straighter. For two years, I lived a few hundred yards from a neglected little wedge of public land called Loguen Park, in the city of Syracuse:

That strip of land is how I first learned about Jarm Logue, a.k.a the Reverend Jermain Wesley Loguen, escaped slave and all-around abolitionist badass.

Coates does a great job telling Loguen’s story, using Loguen’s own words (always the best way). What really stands out in Loguen’s account is his defiance. He refused to bow, not just to the literal torture of slavery (seriously — go read about the sadism he endured), but to all economic and political ideas that would tend to ratify his enslavement. For example, in a letter to his “owner’s” wife, he scoffed at the idea that stealing a horse to escape from slavery made him a thief, and he mocked the idea that he owed a debt of compassion or gratitude to the slaveowning Logue family.

Indeed, Loguen, a Christian preacher, was condemning all attempts to use sentimentality to deny the reality of the injustice done to him:

Nevertheless I am indignant beyond the power of words to express, that you should be so sunken and cruel as to tear the hearts I love so much all in pieces; that you should be willing to impale and crucify us out of all compassion for your poor foot or leg. Wretched woman! Be it known to you that I value my freedom, to say nothing of my mother, brothers and sisters, more than your whole body; more, indeed, than my own life; more than all the lives of all the slaveholders and tyrants under Heaven.
You say you have offers to buy me, and that you shall sell me if I do not send you $1,000, and in the same breath and almost in the same sentence, you say, “you know we raised you as we did our own children.” Woman, did you raise your own children for the market? Did you raise them for the whipping-post? Did you raise them to be drove off in a coffle in chains? Where are my poor bleeding brothers and sisters? Can you tell?
Who was it that sent them off into sugar and cotton fields, to be kicked, and cuffed, and whipped, and to groan and die; and where no kin can hear their groans, or attend and sympathize at their dying bed, or follow in their funeral? Wretched woman! Do you say you did not do it? Then I reply, your husband did, and you approved the deed — and the very letter you sent me shows that your heart approves it all.
American freedom still requires us to value justice, mercy, and inconvenient honesty above self-interest.

No Hatred, Part I: Reading a Banned Author

To observe Banned Books Week 2012, I have chosen to read a prohibited book.

I wasn’t sure at first what to read. Should it be a cult classic? A controversial recent bestseller? A political satire? A libertine treatise? After puzzling over the question for some time, I decided that the best book to read would be one that is banned by a government today. In fact, I wanted to celebrate a book for which an author, somewhere in the world, is currently suffering. It wasn’t hard to find one.

“Solidarity with Liu Xiaobo.” Graffiti on a wall in Warsaw. Courtesy of Wikimedia user Brandmeister.

In 2010, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波) (劉曉波). The judges honored Liu “for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” Liu’s chair on the stage at the award ceremony in Oslo was empty. He was finishing the first year of an eleven-year prison sentence for “inciting subversion of state power.” This is his fourth prison term in China.

Liu is a poet and literary critic who has spoken out for decades in favor of freedom in China. He’s one of the signatories of Charter 08, a  dissident manifesto published four years ago. “The time is arriving everywhere,” the charter says, “for citizens to be masters of states.” Among its specific demands is universal freedom of expression. Charter 08 was the main evidence used against Liu at trial.

With Liu imprisoned for his ideas, and with all of his work banned in China, it wasn’t hard for me to decide to read one of his books this week. My first choice was the full text of Aesthetics and Human Freedom, his 1988 doctoral dissertation. It doesn’t seem to be available in English. But what is available now, thanks to Harvard University Press, is a large collection of his essays and poems: No Enemies, No Hatred.

Yesterday, I picked up a copy of No Enemies at the library and began to read.

Things That Are Kind of Banned

According to the American Library Association, this is Banned Books Week. From now (actually yesterday) through Saturday, we get to celebrate press freedom by, for example, ostentatiously reading naughty books. It’s my kind of subversion — theoretically shaking the roots of authoritarianism and ignorance, but really just giving me a good excuse to read things with squelchy bits.

I have mixed feelings about the origins of Banned Books Week. Keeping certain books away from children may be problematic, but it’s simply not the same thing as adult censorship. So I’m never very impressed by the ALA’s lists of “challenged” books, which inevitably are full of angsty teen titles that some parents just don’t want stocked on low shelves next to The Magic School Bus Lost in the Solar System. Still, there are greater forces at work in the world, and sometimes there isn’t as much distance as I would like between a lovingly nervous parent, a nondenominational loon trying to rid the world of the Expelliarmus charm, and a cultural fascist ordering a man’s assassination for writing an otherwise unremarkable book about immigration. There’s easily enough real book-banning in the world to justify having a fun little anti-censorship holiday.

So today I’m trying to decide what book I should read this week to celebrate. The ALA’s dorky lists of most-challenged books don’t impress me. (Gossip Girl? Please.) I’m leaning more toward titles with a hardcore burn-all-his-writings-and-kill-his-entire-family sort of vibe. But I’m open to persuasion. Here are some of the tools I’m using to brainstorm:

  1. The Index. Where else to start but the Index Librorum Prohibitorum? Maintained by the Catholic Church between 1559 and 1966, this list is Christendom’s gold standard for banned subversive ideas. The last edition, published in 1948, is available here. Voltaire On Toleration, anyone?
  2. Banned in Boston. Who needs popes and councils when you have Brahmins? Long before their mayor tried to silence Chick-fil-A, the descendants of the people who exiled Anne Hutchinson were notorious for suppressing books on the grounds that they were the least bit interesting. Perhaps this would be a good week to read Faulkner, Hemingway, or Dreiser.
  3. The Great Postal Campaign. In the 1830s, southern postmasters, with the blessing of Postmaster General Amos Kendall, systematically denied antislavery writers the right to circulate their ideas in the mail. The censorship intensified in response to the American Anti-Slavery Society’s direct mail campaign, but it really began in 1829, when David Walker’s magnificent Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World terrified white southern officials. But just about any antebellum antislavery work would qualify for my attention as something that white Americans, feeling guilty and expecting a race war, found bannable.
  4. Nobel Prizes. As it turns out, there’s a pretty high correlation between winning the Nobel Prize in Literature and having your work banned somewhere in the world. Maybe it’s time to read Herta Müller or Doris Lessing.

What else should I be considering as I make up my mind today?