“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