- Constellating Associations:Jay Fliegelman and Critical Method
I reread Jay Fliegelman's two extraordinary books during the summer of 2007, and I finished Declaring Independence just days before receiving the sad news of his untimely death at age 58. Jay was an idiosyncratic and intuitive scholar who said little about methodological issues. Nonetheless, it's worth taking note of those relatively few moments in his books when he reflects on his critical approach. These moments offer some guidance about what he valued as a scholar and imparted as a teacher.
Published 25 years ago and still a vital work in eighteenth-century transatlantic studies, Fliegelman's Prodigals and Pilgrims: The American Revolution against Patriarchal Authority, 1750–1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1982), on the surface at least, is the more conventional of his two books. In this, his first book, Fliegelman sets forth a compelling thesis about the crucial importance of Lockean politics, educational theory, and sensationalist epistemology to the emergence in eighteenth-century culture of an antipatriarchalism that in certain respects culminated in the American Revolution. Fliegelman develops his thesis over a series of chapters that move chronologically forward to the Revolution and then beyond to the post-Revolutionary moment, which he reads in Lockean terms as a time when U.S. Americans were reconfiguring various forms of authority while remaining anxious about the deceptiveness of appearances and the fragility of the new nation. The book concludes with a large interpretive statement about the significance of the insights at the heart of his study: "The American revolution against patriarchal authority in the second half of the eighteenth century provided the paradigm by which Americans for the next two hundred years would understand and set forth the claims of both individual and national independence" (267). In his opening methodological remarks, however, Fliegelman is considerably more understated (and modest) about the causal and explanatory claims that he is he willing to make with respect to the material at hand: "My purpose is not . . . to [End Page 145] demonstrate an immediate or direct causal relationship between a set of ideas and a sequence of political or social events. . . . Mine is the more manageable and, I hope, more useful task: to clarify the crucial thematic connections between key historical events and the important literary, pedagogical, and political texts of the period under consideration" (6).
By conceding that he is not arguing for a causal relationship between the Lockean epistemological revolution and the American Revolution, Fliegelman risks making his book appear to be relatively inconsequential (at least to those historians who are wedded to cause-effect models of historical explanation). And yet what Fliegelman conveys through his seemingly modest remarks on "thematic connections," somewhat in the mode of the French annalistes, is that he is attempting to do nothing less than understand how a culture functions and thinks by exploring what Fernand Braudel and other like-minded historians call cultural mentalités. Fliegelman's method here, I would suggest, is all about making connections, or what Locke would call "associations," by engaging the widest possible range of cultural materials so that he might sympathetically plumb the mentalité of eighteenth-century Anglo-America. In effect, Fliegelman attempts to think his way into the world of the eighteenth century in order to figure out (and convey) how that world thinks. Locke's writings may be at the center of Prodigals and Pilgrims, but this is a book that considers (among many other things) key political texts ranging from John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon's Cato's Letters (1723) to Thomas Paine's Common Sense (1776); a wide range of works on social aesthetics by Francis Hutcheson, Thomas Reid, and numerous other writers who were part of the Scottish Common Sense movement; bestsellers such as Clarissa and Robinson Crusoe, both in their initial publication contexts and then as republished, redacted, and modified by American publishers later in the century; paintings and other art objects; theological discourses; and so on. Eschewing what he terms "the apparatus of psychohistory at the expense of sufficiently coming to terms with the relevant eighteenth-century intellectual history" (199), Fliegelman aspires not to diagnose but to understand eighteenth-century...