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Reviewed by:
  • By the Law of Nature: Form and Value in Nineteenth-Century America
  • Marc Dolan
Howard Horwitz. By the Law of Nature: Form and Value in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford UP, 1991. 310 pp. $39.95.

In this inspired, provocative, yet oddly frustrating new book, Howard Horwitz elucidates and analyzes some of the most crucial philosophical conceptions underlying the "American Renaissance," American Realism, and the peculiarly American strain of literary Naturalism. In just under two hundred and fifty pages of text (and over sixty pages of notes and documentation), Horwitz examines such varied themes as the Americanization of the Kantian sublime; the cognitive and ontological connections between antebellum protectionist and Transcendentalist thought; and, most centrally, the overarching conception of "transcendent agency" or "mixed instrumentalities" that unites the philosophical schemata of such disparate figures as Andrew Carnegie, Eugene Debs, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Huck Finn, and Basil March. Horwitz's argument is far too complex to be summarized here, but it proves virtually seamless by volume's end, displaying both a depth of analysis and a breadth of knowledge that are unfortunately rare among scholars of any era.

Yet, for all Horwitz's brilliance, the form and presentation of this volume leave much to be desired. On the simplest level, By the Law of Nature is far too short. Such an intricate argument cannot be clearly and cogently articulated in this confined a textual space, and the resulting density of Horwitz's text tests the intellectual capacity (not to mention stamina) of the average academic reader. In addition, the volume suffers from the apparent, common defect of first being composed as a series of essays and then being assembled into a book. Each chapter is a jewel and fully persuasive in its own right, but the effect of the overall volume is more like a string of jewels than a proper necklace. Moreover, the volume seems like an outline for an argument rather than an argument itself. Horwitz appears to have nine central points to make, and he devotes a chapter to each of them, but each of these points is far too important to be examined only in relation to a single text or topic. Indeed, one wonders how Horwitz's volume might have faired had it been enlarged and split up into three volumes (à la Richard Slotkin's ongoing examination of the myth of the American frontier) or organized with roughly alternating chapters of pure theory and close readings (à la Peter Brooks' Reading for the Plot).

In other words, By the Law of Nature is an anomaly in contemporary literary criticism: one wishes it were longer, and more extensively argued. Having said that, I should emphasize, however, that Americanists of all methodological persuasions will ignore this stimulating volume at their peril. It is well worth the intellectual exertions that Horwitz's text requires, just to glimpse the outlines of the cultural landscape that his analysis suggests. His ideas may be neither fully developed nor immediately graspable in this severely condensed form, but they do point the reader in a valuable direction—toward a bolder, more comprehensive understanding of the complex relations between nineteenth-century American literature, economics, and political and social theory. [End Page 462]

Marc Dolan
Harvard University
...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-658X
Print ISSN
0026-7724
Pages
p. 462
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-01
Open Access
No
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