- Writing the Rebellion: Loyalists and the Literature of Politics in British America by Philip Gould
History, we know too well, is written by the winners. Why, then, have we largely neglected to examine a crucial period in American literary history from the perspective of the losers? In Writing the Rebellion, [End Page 596] Philip Gould provocatively asks how the literary history of the Revolution changes when we take Loyalists out of their marginal role as Hollywood bad guys and resituate them in the history of political writing in British America. To do so, of course, is to imagine an Anglo-American literary history that need not lead to an America we know or with which we can identify. Midway through the book, Gould poses one of its central questions in terms of the traumatic disruption of identity: “In a world where traditional social relations … have been riven by patriotic politics, how can we tell the difference now between brothers and strangers? Who are the ‘we’ that ‘we’ are talking about?” (107–08). Who indeed? This question resonates not only for the eighteenth-century writers that Gould treats but also for scholars of American literature, for whom the slippage between a scholarly “we” and a national “we” has always been fraught. As Gould argues in his introduction, the “national narrative of the ‘development’ of American literature” and its reliance on “the Revolution as a crucial period of political independence that laid the groundwork for future literary and cultural independence” have persisted despite our best intentions (6). Even as scholars have criticized “the methods and assumptions of nationalist literary historiography,” they have tended to “read patriotic discourse as American writing”—and thus to read Loyalists as alien, or not to read them at all (7).
Writing the Rebellion marks a break from the circular logic whereby the centrality of a Patriot canon and the obscurity of Loyalist writing serve familiar national narratives, whether celebratory or critical. While crucial readings of Revolutionary-era texts have accustomed us to look for certain rhetorical and discursive features—the performative creation of national identity, the productive ambiguities of language, the Jeremiad, eloquence directed toward a disinterested public sphere—Gould contends that the literary register of Loyalist writing is “not commensurate with the critical rubrics that have traditionally shaped literary and cultural studies of the American Revolution” (5). As this assessment suggests, recovering a Loyalist archive and expanding our critical purview, impressive accomplishments in themselves, are only the groundwork for Gould’s ambitious project. He aims to produce “a new image of the complex political and cultural dynamics shaping British Americans’ renegotiations of their fraught and often damaged relation to ‘English’ culture” (8). His work thus takes its place in an admirable body of recent scholarship, thoroughly situated [End Page 597] in the Atlantic world, that addresses the intersections of transatlantic literary and cultural production and circulation; the interleaving of imperial, colonial, and national identities; and the complex interplay between political discourse, book history, and aesthetics—work exemplified by though certainly not limited to critics like David Shields, Edward Larkin, Trish Loughran, Leonard Tennenhouse, Elisa Tamarkin, Eric Slauter, and Edward Cahill.
In this context, it is hardly surprising that national narratives begin to creak under pressure. More surprisingly, perhaps, Gould shows how thoroughly political debate in British America was enmeshed in literary and aesthetic concerns. Writing the Rebellion argues that our habitual identification of Loyalists as “British” and Patriots as “American” is mistaken for two reasons. First, Patriots and Loyalists alike routed their claims through British identity and British literary culture; the difference between them was “not who embraced English culture but how they did so” (8). Second, particularly as their situation became more tenuous, Loyalists’ attempts to identify as loyal British subjects were increasingly stymied, not only by other Americans, who increasingly mistrusted them, but also by their metropolitan allies, who ignored them. Their writing, Gould suggests, constitutes less a literature of identification than a literature of alienation, marked by a characteristic affective palette: distress, dismay, disdain, and despair. Historians...