- "What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us?"
About halfway through the introduction of Mark L. Kamrath's The Historicism of Charles Brockden Brown: Radical History and the Early Republic, I began to think of the scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian where Reg and the gang of the Judean People's Front—sorry, the People's Front of Judea ("splitters!")—laid down the principles of their struggle. My initial expectations of this book were conditioned by its odd title. I doubted that Kamrath was going to associate Brown with the protean German historiographic tradition of Historismus that emerged during Brown's lifetime. I anticipated a more likely tie-in with the rhetoric-based historicism of Hayden White. A final possibility was that by "historicism" Kamrath means the New Historicism associated with the literary scholar Stephen Greenblatt, and that the book wasn't entitled "The New Historicism of Charles Brockden Brown" because that might sound, well . . . ludicrously anachronistic—like the Monty Python film?
So which is it?
In his introduction, Kamrath asserts that Brown's late-career periodical and historical writings—which will be the focus of the book to come—"strike us as having a self-conscious, meta-critical quality in the mode of Hayden White or Robert Berkhofer" (p. xiii). I want to flag in passing that "us." Who exactly is Kamrath referring to? A general community of scholars? A particular community of scholars? Or does the solitary author have a frog in his pocket?
The spirit of Hayden White would also seem to hover over Kamrath's claim that "Brown's self-reflexive inquiry into modes of historical representation tested assumed boundaries between 'fact' and 'fiction' in eighteenth-century writing" (p. xiv). But in an endnote, Kamrath specifically defines "historicism" as "the theory and practice of history writing that attempts to be impartial or factual and avoid biased judgments of the past" (p. 267). That sounds more like the "wie es eigentlich gewesen war" Historismus of Leopold von Ranke and less like the Hayden White of Metahistory. However, he adds in the same note: "By 'historicism,' I mean a theory and method of history writing that [End Page 434] concerned itself with the quest for historical understanding and factual truth" (p. 268). Now that sounds like just about anybody who writes history—at least as they see themselves.
Other hints in the introduction point in other directions. Kamrath identifies the "central problem" of scholarship on the "later Brown" to be that "historians and literary critics alike have relied on accounts of historiography that have become calcified by time and generations of misreadings about historical representation and the debates about narrative and truth that took place at the end of the eighteenth century" (p. xii). So readings can be wrong. That seemingly points away from Hayden White and in the direction of the politically charged Foucault-inspired practitioners of the New Historicism. Kamrath, presumably, is going to argue that his representations of the past are right and others are wrong.
Which proves to be the case. Specifically on this point, Kamrath explains that "Using New Historicist, narrative discourse, post-colonial, and other reading strategies, the central argument . . . [of the book] is that Brown lived during an era of intensely democratic change and disruption and that scholarship has carelessly portrayed post-Revolutionary Americans as living in a flat, rational universe without historical self-consciousness or dialogue" (p. xiv).
The book's affiliation with the New Historicism receives further confirmation elsewhere in the introduction, where Kamrath writes:
As scholars are more fully understanding, Brown's writing across a range of genres and cultural debates offers a unique lens through which to understand early republican interests, concerns, and contradictions. It is fair to say that Brown is now viewed as an interdisciplinary "touchstone for understanding the cultural transformations and conflicts of the early republic" [my italics] and that his 'historical' interests and often self-reflexive writing constitute a field of inquiry that is of interest to...