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Quiet Testimony

A Theory of Witnessing from Nineteenth-Century American Literature

Shari Goldberg is Assistant Professor of Literary Studies at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Publication Year: 2013

The nineteenth century was a time of extraordinary attunement to the unspoken, the elusively present, and the subtly haunting. Quiet Testimony finds in such attunement a valuable rethinking of what it means to encounter the truth. It argues that four key writers—Emerson, Douglass, Melville, and Henry James—open up the domain of the witness by articulating quietude’s claim on the clamoring world. The premise of quiet testimony responds to urgent questions in critical theory and human rights. Emerson is brought into conversation with Levinas, and Douglass is considered alongside Agamben. Yet the book is steeped in the intellectual climate of the nineteenth century, in which speech and meaning might exceed the bounds of the recognized human subject. In this context, Melville’s characters could read the weather, and James’s could spend an evening with dead companions. By following the path by which ostensibly unremarkable entities come to voice, Quiet Testimony suggests new configurations for ethics, politics, and the literary.

Published by: Fordham University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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Introduction: Arriving at Quiet

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pp. 1-21

Testimony tends to be thought of as loud: it is associated with declarations, depositions, and confessions, issued from courtrooms and soapboxes, and charged with exhorting, proclaiming, establishing, and convincing. Nineteenth-century America produced no shortage of testimonies possessing these characteristics of loudness, especially within ...

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1 / Emerson: Testimony without Representation

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pp. 22-56

The passage with which I begin will likely be familiar to Emerson’s readers, if only because of its proximity to one of his most famous and challenging images, the transparent eyeball. The paragraph that follows it in Nature is, I propose, just as unexpected and just as revealing of a major...

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2 /Douglass: Testimony without Identity

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pp. 57-86

Frederick Douglass wrote three autobiographies, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881), and then he decided that he had more to say. His supplement expanding Life and Times (the new version was published in 1892) was, he writes, the result of a call: “I find myself ...

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3 /Melville: Testimony without Voice

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pp. 87-119

Melville’s later works begin quietly. They may describe momentous actions—such as Ishmael’s plan to join a whaling crew or the arrival of a mysterious ship in a lonely port—but rather than herald ensuing plots, the texts tend to focus on an observation of something or someone that does not speak. At the outset of...

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4 /James: Testimony without Life

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pp. 120-148

There is a dead woman in Henry James’s account of his visit to Charleston in The American Scene. He introduces the image as a point of comparison, but it startles the reader nevertheless; it is as if James has stumbled on a corpse in the midst of the sleepy southern city. This corpse, it turns out, is quite extraordinary: it testifies to the city’s lifelessness, and on ...

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Conclusion: Staying Quiet

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pp. 149-154

The narrative that this book’s chapters implicitly tell may initially have seemed familiar: while Emerson hails the testimony of all natural things, Douglass is more measured and limited in his optimism, and Melville rejects exuberance completely, resting instead in elusiveness. The figures become progressively less willing to assert that the world makes itself known in ways that may enter the realm of human speech. But ...


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pp. 155-178


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pp. 179-190


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pp. 191-200

E-ISBN-13: 9780823254804
Print-ISBN-13: 9780823254774

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2013

Edition: Cloth