Against Self-Reliance: The Arts of Dependence in the Early United States by William Huntting Howell (review)
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Independence, Autonomy, Individuality, David Rittenhouse, Benjamin Franklin, Phillis Wheatley, Charles Brockden Brown, Herman Melville, Literary history

Against Self-Reliance: The Arts of Dependence in the Early United States. By William Huntting Howell. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. Pp. 312. Cloth, $49.95.)

In Against-Self Reliance, William Huntting Howell develops a suggestive theorization of the importance and proper interpretation of imitation, emulation, and other acts of dependence in the formation of the self during the early republic. In Howell’s argument, the modern American investment in independence, autonomy, and liberal self-differentiation is an artifact of the nineteenth-century embrace of Romantic culture by American intellectuals and literary writers, exemplified in Ralph Waldo Emerson; recovering the earlier cultural importance of dependence requires beginning with the American Revolution and the project of republican selfhood. Building on work by cultural and literary historians such as Sarah Knott and Julia Stern on the republican subject and society, Howell premises the republican self as “individuality without individualism,” which is embraced and enacted through “imitation, emulation, derivation, repetition, iteration, and sympathetic identification” between self and others. In this formulation, dependence is not “helplessness, or hopeless second-orderness, but rather a way of acknowledging contingency and connection—of hanging together” (9–10). In forwarding the project of the republican self, Howell does a service to both literary and cultural historians by offering an avenue for [End Page 167] reassessing our reliance on liberal narratives of political and aesthetic value premised on autonomous self-making, suggesting new ways of examining both cultural artifacts and practices in the early republic.

While theoretically ambitious, the structure of Howell’s book is quite traditional. With the exception of the two middle chapters examining the reception of David Rittenhouse and the pedagogical purposes of the sampler for schoolgirls, each chapter takes a single writer as its subject: Benjamin Franklin, Phillis Wheatley, Charles Brockden Brown, and Herman Melville. Howell’s insights into each of these authors are shrewd and, at their best, playfully and skillfully upend accepted truisms. In his analysis of Franklin’s Autobiography, he argues that, while Franklin might be the quintessential self-made man, we perhaps misunderstand exactly what “self” means in Franklin’s thought: “Franklin tends not to treat ‘self ’ as a thing but as an unending and never-perfected procedure—an adjective that describes the process of becoming. ‘Self ’ is at once the object of reform and the continually changing sum of reforming actions” (44). Countering traditional views of Phillis Wheatley as derivative in her imitation of British Neoclassical poetics, Howell argues that we should instead understand Wheatley’s poetry as inspired by Methodist beliefs that prioritized the total devotion of self to God over individuation and self-promotion: “[In Wheatley’s poetry,] [d]ependence is not weakness but strength; formality is not artifice but worship; individuation is merely a representation of one’s distance from God” (81). These author-centered chapters serve to clarify the usefulness of Howell’s theoretical paradigm, illustrating how an attunement to the practices and pedagogies of republican selfhood can reframe our aesthetic and political priorities; yet they leave a distinct impression of a mismatch between the importance of the theoretical insight and its analytical application.

Howell more clearly contributes to debates in political and educational history in his extended analyses of material culture that form the central chapters of the book. He first explores the reception of the orreries of natural philosopher and instrument maker David Rittenhouse, arguing that in the thought of Rittenhouse, Benjamin Rush, and others “the fantasies of replication and mechanized reproduction that structure[d] the New Science” were also constitutive for imagining the “disinterested, republican citizens” who would populate the newly formed nation (88). These conjoined political, natural philosophical, and pedagogical discourses imagined the nation as a “self-renewing, self-regulating, and self-evident manufactory for unselfish selves” that would produce “perfect [End Page 168] sympathy, celestial harmony, and national unity” instead of the volatile political and economic divisions of the founding era (112).

Moving from the national to the local, Howell’s chapter on girls’ samplers offers an illustrative account of how the vision articulated by Rush and Rittenhouse...