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  • Feeling out of Place:Affective History, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the Civil War
  • Justine S. Murison (bio)

“No genuine loyal man would write thus.” So sums up the Liberator review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s anonymously published Atlantic Monthly essay, “Chiefly About War-Matters. By a Peaceable Man” (1862), a narrative of his visit to Washington D.C. and Virginia in 1862. Far from inspiring a “peaceable” response, Hawthorne’s article gets the Liberator downright hot headed. The review distinguishes the narrator’s impulse to “indulge in merriment while others are shudderingly affected” as the height of his disloyalty, a tendency toward a “flippant and heartless treatment of the present tremendous national convulsion.” According to the judgment of the Liberator, Hawthorne has transgressed acceptable expression with his “treasonable sentiments” and his desire to “whitewash the conduct of the traitors.” Yet Hawthorne’s treason is not quite located in the literal text. Instead, it is an affective, nearly ephemeral element that irks the Liberator: his “merriment” and “flippant and heartless” account; his ability to write “automatically, as though his veins were bloodless.”1 According to the Liberator, Hawthorne toys with serious matters and refuses an appropriate emotional engagement with the Union and the war.

The Liberator has not been alone in its judgment of Hawthorne’s politics. Indeed, very few nineteenth-century writers seem so out of step with the felt urgency of the century’s [End Page 519] political issues as Hawthorne did during the Civil War. Hawthorne, of course, had earned himself a paradoxical political reputation long before Fort Sumter: both fully entrenched in the spoils system of the Democratic Party yet insisting on his separation from it, “being so little of a politician that he scarcely feels entitled to call himself a member of any party,” as he apologizes in The Life of Franklin Pierce (1852).2 Thus by the outset of the Civil War, Hawthorne had already represented himself as uninterested in (if not recoiling from) the issues of partisanship, slavery, and secession, a reputation he continues to hold to this day. That seeming indifference, even apathy, has been a chronic interpretation of Hawthorne since the Liberator denounced his disloyalty. As F.O. Matthiessen once famously remarked, “Hawthorne’s distrust of purposive action presents a wide-open target,” a point that has not grown rusty with age.3 While Hawthorne was once said to “evade history” by way of romance, more recent criticism transmuted it into an evasion of politics.4 Hawthorne came to represent “the limits of American democracy, the willingness to make peace with the forces of corruption, as in Hester’s return or in Holgrave’s end,” as Gordon Hutner puts it.5 To be sure, recent work on “War Matters” by scholars such as Randall Fuller and Arthur Riss have deepened our appreciation of that complicated text beyond evidence of Hawthorne’s inability to divine the catastrophic weight and moral imperatives of the fight over slavery. Yet Hawthorne continues to elude, in Michael Borgstrom’s striking words, conforming to whom “we want (and even need) him to be.”6

The relationship between Hawthorne’s affective engagement with the Civil War and our scholarly investments in him occasions the argument of this article. Rather than interpreting his Civil War writings, Our Old Home (1863) and “Chiefly About War-Matters,” as evidence of Hawthorne’s indifference to national politics or unwillingness to inspect his own, I see them as ideal texts to query the relation of affect to history. On display in the reception of Hawthorne’s Civil War texts is a disjunction between affective qualities and discursive meaning, and this disjunction instructively echoes the fundamental theoretical problem of affect. There persists an impasse [End Page 520] between affect and the work of literary historicism, one that, I argue, is central to the current preoccupation with “affect” as a theoretical concept. In critical parlance, “affect” denotes the substratum of lived experience that supports and shapes consciousness, and it often implies the impulses of the body that lead to feeling, emotion, and understanding.7 “Affect” tends to be a fuzzy term in its application, a replacement for feelings or emotions, yet the embrace of “affect” also evinces more...


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pp. 519-551
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