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Risk Culture

Performance and Danger in Early America

Joseph Fichtelberg

Publication Year: 2010

As a number of recent studies have shown, the north European commercial world made the precise calculation of risk a central concern of the intellectual project of exploration, trade, and colonization. The great merit of Fichtelberg's book is systematizing the imaged world of dangers, and charting the various kinds of ritual and discursive performances marshaled to deal with the pressure of the unspeakable in early America from the 17th into the early 19th century. The readings of texts are invariably careful, and the points made, persuasive. ---David Shields, University of South Carolina Risk Culture is the first scholarly book to explore how strategies of performance shaped American responses to modernity. By examining a variety of early American authors and cultural figures, from John Smith and the Salem witches to Phillis Wheatley, Susanna Rowson, and Aaron Burr, Joseph Fichtelberg shows how early Americans created and resisted a dangerously liberating new world. The texts surveyed confront change through a variety of performances designed both to imagine and deter menaces ranging from Smith's hostile Indians, to Wheatley's experience of slavery, to Rowson's fear of exposure in the public sphere. Fichtelberg combines a variety of scholarly approaches, including anthropology, history, cultural studies, and literary criticism, to offer a unique synthesis of literary close reading and sociological theory in the service of cultural analysis. Joseph Fichtelberg is Professor of English and Chair of the English Department at Hofstra University.

Published by: University of Michigan Press


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Title Page

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p. vii

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pp. ix-x

Many friends and colleagues have been generous over the years it took to write this book. At Hofstra University, I thank Gloria Hoovert, Ron Janssen, Craig Rustici, Paula Uruburu, and Lee Zimmerman. Dean Bernard Firestone and Vice Dean Barry Nass gave me valuable assistance at a critical time. Hofstra’s Interlibrary Loan staff fulfilled my requests with ...

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1. Nightmares of History

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pp. 1-13

... after losing nearly half his men to “extreamity” during the winter, John Smith heard a curious story. Hard pressed to establish cordial relations with the Powhatans, on whom Jamestown depended for food, he sojourned with the “king” of Acawmacke, “the comliest proper civill Salvage” in the region. The chief related a strange “accident.” ...

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2. The Colonial Stage: Promise and Savagery in John Smith’s Virginia

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pp. 14-49

... Virginia experience suggest the deep roots of a new American regime. The ‹rst occurred in the fall of 1608, when the English adventurer was foraging for food. In a “fair plaine field,” waiting for word from Powhatan, Smith was suddenly accosted by thirty naked women, “their bodies al painted, some white, some red, some ...

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3. Suspect Grace: The Trials of Puritan Faith Echoes and Infamies: The Languages of Salem

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pp. 50-93

Although religious institutions do not figure prominently in Anthony Giddens’s historical sociology, the fate of religion is bound up with the narrative of the modern world. That narrative has produced two opposed allegories. Sociologists like Weber, Durkheim, and Habermas have claimed that modernity came about ...

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4. Alien Terrors: Phillis Wheatley’s Feminine Sublime The Silence of John Marrant

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pp. 94-144

Black writers commemorating the upheavals and betrayals of the Age of Revolution were themselves beset by contradiction, their idealism shadowed by despair. One might look to their texts, then, to focus the tensions of displacement and authority that I have associated with the term ...

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5. Infidelities: Disavowing Charlotte Temple Slander and Honor in Trials of the Human Heart

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pp. 145-185

... Wheatley and Marrant, her sense of exposure was equally acute. An itinerant actress who lived by her wits and on whom the anxieties of the American Revolution left a lifelong impression, Rowson explored that vulnerability in novels treating abandoned women. Her texts come closest to what Anthony Giddens means by the term ...

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6. The Devil Designs a Career

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pp. 186-216

Her emphasis on honor and vows suggests her attempt to resist the expansive opportunities of the public sphere, even as she uses the public sphere to register her claims. In this final chapter, I turn to another figure whose spectacular successes and failures reveal his “recursive” capacity to fuse convention and risk. Although Aaron Burr has ...


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pp. 217-250


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pp. 251-254

E-ISBN-13: 9780472026883
E-ISBN-10: 0472026887
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472050949
Print-ISBN-10: 047205094X

Page Count: 264
Illustrations: 5 halftones
Publication Year: 2010

OCLC Number: 655245579
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Risk Culture

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Subject Headings

  • American prose literature -- Colonial period, ca. 1600-1775 -- History and criticism.
  • Literature and society -- United States -- History.
  • Social change in literature.
  • American prose literature -- 1783-1850 -- History and criticism.
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