- The Romance of Classlessness:A Response to Thomas Augst
Thomas Augst's essay on the material culture of antebellum temperance reform both inhabits and eludes this volume's central thematic in ways that invite us to think about what print culture, as a methodology, can and cannot do for us in our work. As a method, print culture would seem to do at least two things for its users: first, it takes a materialist turn towards the study of actual textual artifacts, and second, in doing so, it allows us to turn away from iconic authors and texts to focus instead on a more unstable and differential field of objects. It is, as we saw in the conference discussions that generated this issue of American Literary History, a fairly democratizing approach, allowing us to address a world of circulating things that defy the confines of a hierarchized canon of Great Books and Great Men.
In many ways, Augst's work on temperance fits well with the major goals of this project. Augst constructs Washingtonianism as a "loose cultural franchise," governed not from above by great men but from below by drunk and decidedly regular men. The many cultural objects this movement produced are, furthermore, clearly part of the messy, horizontal world of circulating texts that this volume of ALH describes. Nevertheless, Augst's essay is tricky—in terms of a print culture methodology—because at its center lies not a material text but the immaterial fact of experience, especially as it is embedded in the Washingtonian experience narrative. Augst hails the experience narrative as a "historical and material literary form" that initially imagines itself not as a printed text but as an oratorical performance, one that is staged, furthermore, not as a professional event packaged for a consuming [End Page 324] audience, like theater or lyceum lectures, but as a moment shared freely among equals—men who manage, in this setting, to elude the distinctions that structure the literary world that is emerging all around them. In such moments, Augst's essay appears to refuse the distinction between "literature" and other kinds of mass cultural printed texts, joining both under the privileged (and thus potentially exclusionary) sign of literacy, viewed here as a closed institutional practice, whether it comes in the form of a penny paper or a poem.
Yet that is not all Augst is up to. One of the great strengths of the essay is the way that it situates Washingtonian culture as outside of and in many ways in opposition to literary/print culture, while at the same time making clear the ways that the movement ultimately did become embedded within the more mediated structures of representation and reproduction that the experience narrative initially resists—for example, in newspapers, in novels, and in visual prints. Even when Augst produces and discusses printed artifacts here, he frames them as objects that arrived after the fact of a performance, repackaged in material formats that are not necessarily completely successful in relaying to us today what Washingtonianism was all about. The experience narrative is, in fact, not only not a printed text; it is, as Augst points out, not even, in its original iteration, a written text. It exists outside the closed and deferentially ordered circuits of representation and sits instead within the radical contemporaneousness of "experience" (or performance). To this end, Augst describes quite compellingly the failure of newspapers and newspapermen to transcribe, or reproduce, via printed texts the content of these meetings, which were really a structure for collective experience rather than a transcribable content—something that could never really be reproduced except through any number of formulaic ritual repetitions from within the immanent field of vernacular speech. As Augst put it in his conference remarks, "the vernacular eloquence of the reformed drunkard confounded reproduction and circulation as a printed text."
This focus on experience is an immensely appealing project, especially (if ironically) for those of us who work in print culture, for in returning to the experience narrative, Augst is able to get that much closer to the real—or at any rate, to the problem of the real that drives so much of...