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American Literary History 14.2 (2002) 348-357

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Perpetual Emotion Machine

Michelle Burnham

Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans By Joyce Appleby Harvard University Press, 2000
Suffering Soldiers: Revolutionary War Veterans, Moral Sentiment, and Political Culture in the Early Republic By John Resch University of Massachusetts Press, 1999
Cato's Tears and the Making of Anglo-American Emotion By Julie Ellison Chicago University Press, 1999
Sentimental Bodies: Sex, Gender, and Citizenship in the Early Republic By Bruce Burgett Princeton University Press, 1998

In "Peter Rugg, the Missing Man," the story's central ghostly figure departs for his home in Boston one night in 1770, the year of the Boston Massacre, despite warnings of an approaching storm, determined to beat the tempest home. And 55 years later, travelers along the roads of the early US repeatedly encounter the lost and fantastical Rugg still racing at great speed in his horse-drawn chair toward a destination at which he seems destined never to arrive, oblivious to the profound changes that have taken place in the geopolitical landscape through which he rides. Rugg stops periodically to petulantly ask directions, but the directions always arrive in anachronistic, post-Revolutionary terms he cannot possibly follow, and as the storm gains on him, his agitated horse pulls him off, once again, toward a "home" he can never recover.

Joyce Appleby identifies William Austin's 1824 tale as "the most popular short story of the early republic" (1) and adopts its central image of a headlong velocity as the central trope for her portrait of the world of the "first generation of Americans" born after the Revolution, a generation that "inherited" its ideals, took up the task of crafting its meaning, and inhabited what she describes as a "perpetual-motion society" (6). I, too, begin with Rugg's ultimately inert frenzy because it figures so well the temporal and political terms of what might be called the American "perpetual emotion machine," the affective counterpart to this early national geographic and socioeconomic mobility that Appleby describes so well. Much in "Peter Rugg, the Missing Man"—its account of the past's weirdly throbbing appearance in the present, its meditation on the relative attractions of enchantment and investment, its suggestive representation of gender and inheritance, even the wet rainstorm that perpetually follows Rugg and inevitably drenches the spectators who watch him pointlessly ride away once again—speaks to these four books' interrelated concerns with the cultural, social, and literary history of liberal feeling in America.

Sentiment is a slippery category, every bit as hard to pin down and bring to a satisfied stop and every bit as resistant to self-recognition as Peter Rugg. The remarkable and explosive growth of what Julie Ellison calls "emotion studies" (7) has both grappled with [End Page 348] and fed on this slipperiness, on sentiment's ambivalent and shifty ground. Austin's story nicely encapsulates the always procrastinated urgency of sentimental time by reminding us that the suffering object of the sympathetic gaze is more often than not (whether literally or metaphorically) out of time. It also points toward the very different experiences of time that are felt, in very different emotional registers, by suffering subjects and their sympathetic spectators. Although each of these books covers a slightly different historical span of time, they collectively suggest, in their shared concern with the first decades of the American Republic and the turn from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century, that emotion studies today (at the turn from the twentieth to the twenty-first century) is relocating from its once-dominant residence in the American nineteenth century to a new home of sorts in those early national years characterized by bitter political divisions, paranoia, and prosperity. The appearance of these four books now also tells us something about our time, about the seemingly urgent political viability and visibility of feelings in our own politically divided, paranoid, and prosperous age. Ellison's book, which begins with a tabulation of tears shed by recent American politicians, practically predicts the affective terms of the presidential contest in 2000 over which political candidate...


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