- Mania for Freedom: American Literatures of Enthusiasm from the Revolution to the Civil War by John Mac Kilgore
They who have made but superficial studies in the Natural History of the human mind, have been taught to look on religious opinions as the only cause of enthusiastick zeal, and sectarian propagation. But there is no doctrine whatever, on which men can warm, which is not capable of the very same effect. The social nature of man impels him to propagate his kind. The passions give zeal and vehemence. The whole man moves under the discipline of his opinions.
Although he doesn't quote it directly, John Mac Kilgore's account of American literatures of enthusiasm from the Revolution to the Civil War accords with Edmund Burke's statement from the First Letter on a Regicide Peace (1796). Mac Kilgore is very well aware of the contribution made by Burke to the refreighting of the idea of enthusiasm in the age of democratic revolutions: the period, as he sees it, when the term was regularly used—whether positively or, like Burke, negatively—to describe the "mania for freedom" of his title.
Methodologically, the difficulty of enthusiasm is that it is more often a [End Page 606] term of attribution than self-description. The discourse on enthusiasm is everywhere in this period and earlier, at least from the English Civil War, and Mac Kilgore is very well read in its archive on both sides of the Atlantic. The problem is identifying what is the discourse of enthusiasm, especially when those accused of it were often not always keen on the identification. Mac Kilgore makes a genuine contribution to recent studies on enthusiasm, a subject that has become conspicuous in several fields over the last two decades, by looking at its distinctive contribution to American literature and politics. He proceeds with a particular definition of enthusiasm, effectively derived from hostile accounts of an insurrectionary tradition at odds with the conservative narrative of the prudence of the American Revolution. His method is to use the term to find a positive continuity between groups often accused of enthusiasm: "commoners, slaves, Native Americans, women, abolitionists—who activated dissent against institutional tyranny and forged transnational, counternational, or antinationalistic political affiliations in the process" (1). Primarily concerned with the literary dimension of this American tradition, he more specifically identifies "literatures of enthusiasm" as "those texts that transform writing into a species or inciter of democratic revival and revolt" (1).
The term is given a particularly American purchase through its complex relationship with the foundation of the United States. Exploiting recent theoretical writing on "constituent power," mostly indebted to Antonio Negri, Mac Kilgore sees the tradition as one that refuses to cede that constituent power to the state and continually insists on the originary power of "the people" to assert its authority. Of course, one might say that tradition persists in some of the populism, especially in its anticonstitutional formations, of the Right that has played a part in recent American politics, most obviously in last November's election result, an event horizon perhaps unforeseen when this book was written. On the other hand, Mac Kilgore's identification of constituent power with enthusiasm raises questions of organization, practical politics, and forms of progressivism whose dreams of revolutionary intervention have made no claim to inspiration or any kind of prophetic tradition. Have forms of American insurgency existed beyond Mac Kilgore's enthusiastic tradition? Do they still?
Mac Kilgore's primary concern is with the way normative constructions of the sphere of politics have tended to distance it from enthusiasm because of the assumption that emotion is primarily a subjective form of experience. [End Page 607] Mania for Freedom invokes instead the work of Brian Massumi and others for whom "affect" (as opposed to "emotion") summons "exteriorized, intercorporeal, and pre-personal intensity or contact that has to do with relations exceeding but including the self" (19). Within the larger history of the term, Mac Kilgore writes intelligently of the...