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  • Recovering Chance in Antebellum America
  • Arthur Riss (bio)
Maurice S. Lee. Uncertain Chances: Science, Skepticism, and Belief in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2012. x, 239 pp. $65.00 cloth.

At the conclusion of Uncertain Chances, Maurice Lee’s valuable and ambitious study of the relationship between chance and probability in antebellum US literature, Lee observes that he wrote this book “during a period of U.S. history governed by the denial and underestimation of chance,” a moment when “overdetermined, slam-dunk interpretations of inclusive evidence” have sanctioned war, when “faith in unregulated markets and rational actors [has] failed to pay proper respects to the unpredictable power of chance,” and when we have “seem[ed] incapable of acting on the moral certainty that global climate change is both real and human caused” [188–89]. Indeed, to the extent that Lee is right and we currently operate according to “false senses of certainty,” his determination to uncover the wonder, beauty, and possibilities of chance during the antebellum period becomes more than an exemplary work in the history of ideas; it stands as a model for personally committed, ethically motivated scholarship.

In six elegantly argued chapters, Lee situates Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass, Henry David Thoreau, and Emily Dickinson within what has been called, following the work of Ian Hacking, the “probabilistic revolution”—the “broad intellectual and cultural shift in which chance became increasingly treated as a challenge to be managed but never mastered” [4]. Lee convincingly places the concept of chance at the center of antebellum culture. Indeed, after reading Uncertain Chances, one appreciates Ishmael’s famous weaving together of “chance, free will and necessity” as paradigmatic of the way in which chance “for the most part has been only tangentially treated” in contemporary criticism, even though it is often “so forthrightly announced” [10, 62]. Scholars, Lee argues, have missed their chance because they have remained preoccupied with the well-worn and “overdetermined debates over fate and free will,” belief and unbelief, individual and society [62]. The significance of Lee’s work is that it provides a framework within which finally to see and appreciate what has been hiding in plain sight all along.

The background narrative motivating Lee’s readings is the broad intellectual shift toward modernity, the move from deterministic narratives based on [End Page 120] God, Reality, and absolute certainty toward narratives of probability and uncertainty. Although Lee acknowledges that the notion of chance is “by definition . . . devilishly hard to define,” he nonetheless focuses on a particular understanding of chance, identifying it as a challenge to both doubt and faith, as a concept that emerges precisely to the extent that it is distinguished both from skepticism—where belief itself is a problem—and from certainty—where belief is not a problem [4]. Having persuasively affiliated the rise of chance and the rise of pragmatism, Lee turns to Poe, Melville, Douglass, Thoreau, and Dickinson, in part to consider how literature contributed to the modern recognition of the world’s complexity and unpredictability, and in part to explore how these figures faced the challenge of forming beliefs and reaching decisions in a universe without any absolute standard of Truth or Good—in a world, as Louis Menand memorably puts it in The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America, “shot through with contingency” [(New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001), 439]. But unlike Menand, Lee tracks the beginnings of this pragmatist world view to before rather than after the Civil War. It is during the antebellum period, he argues, that one sees providential design giving way to Darwinian chance and reality being reimagined as relative, shifting, and provisional.

It is not surprising that Poe stands as a major figure in the rise of probabilistic thinking that Lee traces, but it is somewhat surprising that Lee sees Poe less as a romantic or postmodernist and more as a pragmatist, someone who seeks “a more livable, more adequate approach to uncertainty” [45]. Calling him the “father of American literature of chance” and an “early adopter of probability theory,” Lee locates Poe “on the cutting edge of the probabilistic revolution” [17, 46]. According to Lee, Poe goes...


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