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  • Early-19th-Century Literature
  • Kristin Boudreau

This year's scholarship would suggest that authors are shrinking in importance next to the cultural issues that affected 19th-century literary production. With the exception of Poe, whose popularity among scholars has not waned, individual authors receive much less attention this year than do the political, social, and material contexts of writing, the most important of these being globalization, print culture, adaptation and appropriation, and the convergences of law and literature. Although the topic of slavery, for instance, continues to inspire energetic and innovative scholarship, even such an influential African American writer as Frederick Douglass is a minor figure in this year's scholarship, and treatment of other African American writers is minimal except within the context of larger period studies. With such sparse attention to individual authors, the biographies of Cooper and Irving and some important essay collections on Cooper stand out among this year's works, with significant attention being paid in other quarters to Cooper's novelist daughter.

i Period Studies

The topic of slavery continues to dominate period studies. Jeannine Marie DeLombard's splendid Slavery on Trial proposes that antebellum treatments of slavery adopted legal rhetoric in order to enact their [End Page 257] own legal contests in print when actual courthouses failed to live up to their constitutional promise. When the cheap press made possible widespread spectatorship of sensational trials, actual legal crises over slavery became central to abolitionist print campaigns, as DeLombard demonstrates in her readings of both actual and literary "trials." Central to her discussion is an examination of the key tactics of abolitionists: to frame abolitionist rhetoric as the only effective defender of both free speech and habeas corpus, and to authorize various forms of African American speech by transforming black speech from guilty confession to righteous witness to legal advocate. Focusing on criminal trials rather than constitutional or property law, DeLombard demonstrates how abolitionists first had to shed their identity as criminals before indicting slaveholders for the crime of slavery. Through her careful and often brilliant readings of the rhetoric of trials and abolitionist literature (both obscure and familiar), DeLombard demonstrates the powerful symbolic significance of print in the nation's cultural history. Her attentive readings bear fascinating fruit, for example, in her consideration of several fugitive slave rendition trials, where the symbolism of a courthouse sealed from spectators suggests what abolitionist rhetoric made clearer still: that the courts, closed to the public, served the interests of the slaveholding South, and that "the antebellum courthouse . . . could no longer stand as the architectural symbol of impartial justice" but must give way to a print culture that could acquire value only by confronting the injustice of slavery. Her fresh readings of Douglass's autobiographies find new insights in both less-discussed passages (Douglass's beating in a Baltimore shipyard) and their well-combed counterparts (the murder of the slave Demby). Later chapters consider how Stowe recognized but could not overcome the limits to black discursive autonomy, how defenders of slavery "countersued" by arguing that the sectional dispute was a civil rather than a criminal matter, and how illustrated press coverage of the John Brown trial documented the inevitability of a military rather than legal solution to slavery. DeLombard's book is a gem both in its details and in its overall structure and makes a persuasive case for the mutually constitutive relationship between law and print culture.

An excellent essay in William W. Demastes and Iris Smith Fischer's edited collection Interrogating America Through Theatre and Performance considers a number of antislavery plays within Pierre Bourdieu's framework of various forms of capital. Amy E. Hughes's "Defining [End Page 258] Faith: Theatrical Reactions to Pro-Slavery Christianity in Antebellum America" (pp. 29–45) argues that plays by William Wells Brown, Daniel S. Whitney, and an anonymous writer attack Christian defenses of slavery by distinguishing between the empty "religious capital" enjoyed by hypocritical proslavery preachers and the more authentic "spiritual capital" claimed by antislavery activists. These playwrights, Hughes contends, saw themselves primarily as activists waging ideological war against proslavery arguments wielded on religious terrain. Abolitionist dramatists questioned the spiritual capital of proslavery ideologues and thereby "attempted...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2125
Print ISSN
0065-9142
Pages
pp. 257-280
Launched on MUSE
2009-10-01
Open Access
No
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