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  • Theorizing Democratic Feelings, Disagreement, and the Temporal Child in Catharine Maria Sedgwick's The Linwoods
  • Marissa Carrere

Written in the wake of the Nullification Crisis over tariffs on manufactured goods in which South Carolina threatened to leave the Union, Catharine Maria Sedgwick's 1835 novel The Linwoods stages the anxieties that condense around the desire to believe that democracy follows timeless certainties and the knowledge that its process necessarily entails negotiating contingent and ephemeral opinions. The Linwoods suggests that such irresolvable tension is vital to democratic thought, and Sedgwick uses the figure of the child to represent that tension. Because of nineteenth-century constructions of children as both malleable and transcendent, the figure of the child permits Sedgwick to dramatize the conflict between the self-evident truth and radical revisability of the Constitution and the patriotic feelings of American citizens. As the novel investigates the nature of both national and political commitments, Sedgwick uses the figural child to assert normative claims in response to her particular politico-historical moment while troubling the theoretical integrity of those claims. In limning Sedgwick's move toward the theoretical realm, my project aims to expand our understanding of how the child operates in the political literary imagination and to recognize Sedgwick's contributions to the archives of democracy.

Contextualizing these aims demands that we read nineteenth-century American women's writing through the lens of political theory. Without question, the feminist recovery of nineteenth-century female-authored fiction introduced women writers to the political clime and canon; indeed, the inclusion of women involved disrupting the fantasy of an apolitical or ahistorical [End Page 33] aesthetic canon and recognizing literary texts as politically, socially, and historically contingent. However, literary historians have not fully examined how these texts theorize democratic governance and participation. While we read women's texts for their political valences and explicit political critiques and as political acts themselves, we might also ask how these texts variously theorize democracy not only in the ideological terms of gendered relationships to the political center but also at the level of philosophical principle. Admittedly, in seeking the conceptual nature of political critique I may be trying to tease a distinction that will ever elude us: What is the difference between reading a literary text for its political engagements and as a mode of political theory? How do we discern which aspects of a literary text count as articulations of political critique? Even without resolving these questions, we can acknowledge the need to rethink and revise the disproportionately (white-and) male-authored literary archive of democracy.1 This essay begins to offer a response by reading through the historical in order to reach the conceptual in Sedgwick's writing.

the nullification crisis and the temporal child

In the opening chapter of The Linwoods, a group of boys on a playground confound their adult audience with the un-childlikeness of their politically charged play. Mr. Linwood turns to his son and asks: "Herbert, can you tell me what these boys are about? They seem rather to be at work than play" (17). Herbert replies that the boys are "throwing up a redoubt to protect [their] fort" and to "keep off the British" (17–18), and Mr. Linwood is appalled by "the seeds of rebellion springing up in their young hot bloods":

A loud huzzaing was heard from the fort—"What does that mean?" asked Mr. Linwood.

"The whigs are hanging a tory, sir."

"The little rebel rascals!—Herbert!—you throwing up your hat and huzzaing too!"


With this scene, Sedgwick establishes the intergenerational conflict between loyalist Mr. Linwood and his revolutionary children that the novel will work to resolve. Critical readings of The Linwoods generally characterize this conflict as a domestic political allegory responding to the nationalist concerns of its contemporary moment, in particular the passing of the Revolutionary generation and the threat of disunion raised by the Nullification Crisis of 1832–33.2 By casting these concerns about the current generation's national identity into the moment of its discordant origins, Sedgwick imagines the possibility of a reconciled and [End Page 34] healthy national future through proper models of republican virtue. In keeping with other domestic...


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pp. 33-52
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