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  • 12 Early-19th-Century Literature
  • Kristin Boudreau

The majority of this year's studies are marked by the convergence of culture and politics as critics continue to reflect on the connections between literature and other kinds of discourses. The best of these give sustained attention to nonliterary texts, though some continue in the practice (characteristic of early New Historicism) of building an argument on a single historical detail. The traditional geopolitical boundaries of American literary studies are also expanding. Critical attention to domestic conflicts—particularly slavery and women's rights—shares the stage with a more global American Studies.

i Period Studies

Slavery figures prominently in this year's period studies. One of the finest is Maurice S. Lee's Slavery, Philosophy, and American Literature, 1830–1860 (Cambridge). Lee grimly concludes that the slavery crisis frustrated one of the nation's most popular and most normative assumptions, the belief that rational debate among reasonable people could lead to certain basic agreements. For the writers he studies—Poe, Stowe, Douglass, Melville, and Emerson—slavery "instantiate[ed] in tragic social experience the failure of rational authority." Before they arrived at the conclusion that deliberation was futile and philosophy part of the problem, these writers turned to a variety of philosophical sources to judge and settle the slavery controversy. Poe derived his theory of race from German and British Romanticism; Stowe steeped [End Page 233] herself in the moral philosophers she encountered through her sister Catharine before turning to Calvinism to explain a fallen rather than a perfectible world; Douglass found rhetorical power in Scottish commonsense philosophy before discovering that "moral absolutes could not be logically demonstrated." Lee's argument is well served by his method of "trac[ing] patiently [the] intellectual genealog[ies]" he discovers in these writers; the complicated intellectual fabric he reconstructs adds considerably to our understanding of these writers. His account of Stowe, for instance, begins with the familiar claim that the novelist's philosophy of reform depends on "the central concepts of interest, sympathy, and passion," but his unusual pursuit of Stowe's thinking beyond Uncle Tom's Cabin reveals her flagging faith in the power of sympathy to resolve slavery without violence. Stowe's later novel Dred, Lee contends, takes more seriously the possibility of innate depravity and "suggest[s] that violence and not moral suasion might end the slavery crisis." Lee's story is original and compelling, and while he demonstrates how all of these writers confronted and revealed the limits of philosophy, his careful attention to detail unearths the considerable differences among them. While revealing how Poe's fiction allegorizes the slavery crisis ("Metzengerstein," Poe's first published story, is a "cautionary . . . political commentary" offered in the wake of Nat Turner's rebellion), Lee sets Poe apart from the other writers studied here, claiming that Poe sought "'absolute oneness,' a synthesis of the material and the ideal," but that his "racist anti-abolitionism . . . mars his potentially transcendental plots." Stowe, more committed to political reform, "trie[d] harder to salvage her logic," but finally stopped writing about slavery in the years just before the Civil War because the subject became much more difficult to discuss "as the country reached a terrible stasis in which no one knew what to say." This rhetorical impasse is most clear in Lee's admirable discussion of Douglass, whom he describes as a "fugitive philosopher." While Douglass encouraged his fellow blacks to "ascend to the loftiest elevations of the human mind," he also believed that no argument was necessary to establish the moral illegitimacy of slavery: commonsense philosophy persuaded him that untutored individual perceptions inevitably condemned slavery, which would end as "sure[ly] as the fall of Newton's apple." Discovering, however, that the institution of slavery deadened this innate moral sense and that "moral absolutes could not be logically demonstrated," Douglass lost his faith in "the reformist capacities of rational debate." Although Lee's chapters [End Page 234] on Melville and Emerson fall beyond the parameters of this essay, they offer impressive discussions as well.

Michael Bennett's Democratic Discourses: The Radical Abolition Movement and Antebellum American Literature (Rutgers) offers paired readings of black and white abolitionists to demonstrate how...


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