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DELIBERATE UNKNOWING AND STRATEGIC RETELLING: THE RAVAGES OF CULTURAL DESIRE IN CHARLES BROCKDEN BROWN'S EDGAR HUNTLY Harriet Hustis The College of New Jersey At the end ofchapter nineteen of Charles Brockden Brown's Edgar Huntly, the eponymous Huntly silently exults in a hardwon , gruesome victory. After mortally wounding a hostile Indian and then bungling the coup de grace, he decides to bayonet his suffering enemy, a "task of cruel lenity" which leaves him "overpowered by [its] horrors" and lamenting the fact that "such are the deeds which perverse nature compels thousands of rational beings to perform and to witness!"1 Moments later, however , the savagely merciful Huntly describes how, "cheered" by the dawn, he "stuck [the dead Indian's] musquet in the ground, and left it standing upright in the middle of the road" (203). He then continues both his journey and his retrospective narration, seemingly oblivious to the psychological implications ofthis triumphant celebration of deliberate and extended carnage. Huntly's lack of self-scrutiny at this textual moment is both striking and significant: in a confessional narrative purportedly devoted to an enlightened explication of the events of his recent past, his sudden, silent "freak of fancy" (203) is a singular anomaly. His erection of the Indian's musquet "in the middle of the road" phallically figures both his gruesome conquest and a significant gap in the palliative rhetoric that invokes the compulsions of "perverse nature" in order to justify such deeds. Huntly's gesture symbolically establishes a psychological and textual crossroads where masculinity, narrativity, and American national identity violently and memorably intersect. In effect , the Indian's musquet serves as a signpost, a silent but evocative marker ofthe repressions and epistemological elisions upon which American literary identity is premised in this novel. Such moments of narrative repression, elision, and digression have recently been identified and analyzed as hallmarks of hysterical discourse.2 In particular, critics have examined how this nervous disorder functions as a gendered social and cultural construct—in G. S. Rousseau's words, as both the "transformative , protean condition par excellence" and "the barometer 102Harriet Hustis responding ... to the perpetual stresses of gender and sexuality " and to "the cultural stresses weighing on sexual relations and gender formations."3 However, much ofthis scholarship has focused primarily on the role of hysteria within the texts and contexts of writing by women. Insofar as they overlook the function of "encoded ideals of normal and abnormal masculinity" in the construction of "male experience,"4 many feminist studies of hysteria tell only half of the story. As a cultural "barometer," hysteria registers the social and sexual pressures exerted upon both genders; the fact that the very possibility of male hysteria has been consistently avoided or minimized in discussions ofthe etiology ofthe condition represents a significantly gendered cultural omission. One particularly notable exception is Mark Micale's Approaching Hysteria: Disease and Its Interpretations. Micale traces the evolution ofa "substantially independent discursive [cultural] tradition" of male hysteria in (primarily British and French) literature of the late nineteenth century and posits "a lineage of cultural figures that extend[s] from the degenerate genius of the fin de siècle, back to the tubercular Romantic poet, thence through the melancholic writer of [the] eighteenth-century."5 He thus claims that male writers "were able to use the category [of hysteria] to develop new modes of sensibility and thereby to expand the scope of the emotional, intellectual, and aesthetic resources at their command," and that ultimately, "representations and self-representations of male hysteria have been employed by male artists and writers to strike and register the Sturm und Drang of artistic creativity" (260). As G. S. Rousseau has argued, however, "the history of hysteria is as much the 'his-story' of male fear" as "the history of linguistic embodiments, rhetorics, and emplotments" (93). This component of"male fear" complicates both Micale's proposed "lineage " and its "discursive tradition." As Michel Foucault observes in Madness and Civilization: A History ofInsanity in the Age of Reason, the transition from "the melancholic writer" ofthe eighteenth century to the "tubercular Romantic poet" of the early nineteenth was accompanied by a significant alteration in the medical imagery surrounding nervous disorders such...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 101-120
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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