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Secret Witness; or, the Fantasy Structure of Republicanism

From: Early American Literature
Volume 44, Number 2, 2009
pp. 333-363 | 10.1353/eal.0.0066

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How should we read the subtitle of Charles Brockden Brown's 1799 Ormond; or, The Secret Witness? With its representations of spying, peeping, and disguises, it seems to evoke the Foucauldian panoptical paradigm. Driving such monitory and disciplinary concerns would seem to be the dominant ideology of the period, the republicanism thoroughly described by the past generation's leading historians. Indeed, such a reading seems confirmed by the novel's prefatory epistle. "The distinctions of birth, the artificial degrees of esteem or contempt which connect themselves with different professions and ranks in your native country," writes S. C. to her European friend I. E. Rosenberg, "are but little known amongst us" (3/38). The contrast between Europe's hierarchies and artifices and the modern, rational assessment of human worth in the United States seems to embody the shift so crucial for Michel Foucault, from the vertical world of punishment to the horizontal world of surveillance. But what if we read this passage differently? In Europe, esteem and contempt are predictably structured according to "different professions and ranks" (the nobility, the clergy, intellectuals …), but in the United States, artifice structures itself in different ways, ways still obscure in the new republic. In other words, the opposition is not between European artifice and US clarity, but between a familiar European artifice and one unknown—to be examined under the rubric of "secret witness." Far from a self-congratulatory, nationalist diagnosis, the preface names the novel's crucial problem: what structures feelings of esteem and contempt in the United States?

The problem, let us say, is one of fantasy, the formal structure through which an ideology—republicanism—is experienced. In this respect, Ormond challenges a long and extensive critical tradition which has almost uniformly characterized republicanism as a discursive constellation of experiential beliefs and concepts. Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, and J. G. A. Pocock are the best-known theorists of such a republicanism which, in Bailyn's words, "crystallizes otherwise inchoate social and political discontent and thereby shapes what is otherwise instinctive and directs it to unattainable goals" (11). Literary critics have largely followed the historians, updating this Geertzian approach to ideology with new historicist flourishes. As Phillip Round writes, the new "discourse analysis focuses on a broad range of cultural acts … in order to describe how the processes of borrowing, arrangement, and emendation yield more insight into the formation of revolutionary ideology" (235). In its most compelling manifestations, however, some literary critics, like Michael Warner or Paul Downes, have seen imaginative literature as a kind of fantasy generated by the contradictions inherent in republicanism: Warner, for instance, sees literary texts emerging from the tensions between the public and the private, while Downes sees texts articulated around the rivalry between monarchism and republicanism. In other words, fantasy emerges from immanent tensions in republicanism or its competition with other discursive frameworks. But Ormond, we would suggest, makes a more basic and challenging claim: republicanism is itself a fantasy structure accessible through the figure of the "secret witness." In this respect, Ormond stands alongside novels like Edgar Huntly, in which sleepwalking denotes actions divorced from consciousness, or like Wieland, in which biloquism denotes expression divorced from speaker. In Ormond's permutation, "secret witness" denotes a selfwitnessing divorced from consciousness—the structure of consciousness whereby we secretly observe ourselves acting as republicans.

Drawing on Brown's contemporaneous magazine sequences, we read Ormond as a series of fantasy studies, rather than a unified narrative. These studies trace the unfolding of Anglo-American fantasy from its colonial period to post-Revolutionary moments. Stephen Dudley embodies the earliest moment, while the latter is centered in Constantia, whose name comes from Judith Sargent Murray's celebrated pseudonym in the Gleaner essays, collected and published a year earlier.Ormond's diagnosis of Constantia proceeds through her pairing with Ormond, a very different entity hors (du) monde, outside this world. This relationship, like that between her father and the con man Craig, is defined by the importance of labor, specifically the rhetorically charged problem of slavery. If our analysis gives less attention to the fascinating women that figure prominently at novel's end—and in much recent criticism—this reflects our sense...