Rereading the Politics of Literature in the Early United States
The field of early American studies is replete with arguments about the central role literary texts played in defining the nation. Carrie Hyde’s Civic Longing and Colin Wells’s Poetry Wars make significant contributions to this well-trodden ground by addressing a literary genre and a concept—citizenship and poetry respectively—have both been too often overlooked. Although poetry was a dominant mode of literary expression during the revolution and early republic, there have been few extended studies of the genre in this period, and Poetry Wars provides a much-needed assessment not just of poetry’s prevalence in American print culture but also of its “capacity to intervene in the domain of real power” (55). Hyde’s incisive analysis likewise draws attention to the central role that literature played in defining citizenship in the early United States. Although our contemporary understandings of citizenship are rooted in fixed legal definitions, Civic Longing provides a groundbreaking “prehistory” that explores how citizenship was “an elastic site of political fantasy and debate” (7) in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. By examining the “definitional fluidity” and “extralegal origins” (7) of this concept, Civic Longing provides an exciting new framework for evaluating the political influence of literature in the antebellum nation. Taken together, Civic Longing and Poetry Wars offer a compelling reassessment of the politics of literary form and the literary forms of politics.
Spanning from the mid-1770s to the end of the War of 1812, Poetry Wars explores how poetry operated “as a weapon of political or ideological warfare” (1) by providing a medium to debate the source and expression of legitimate governing authority. For Wells, poetry was not simply a vehicle for political arguments; poetry actively shaped their terms and outcomes by offering citizens the opportunity to perform and challenge political language in the public sphere. By framing poetry as a form “of actual, rather than merely virtual, intervention” (13), Poetry Wars illuminates how it played [End Page 318] a decisive role in the rejection of imperial authority, the drafting of the Constitution, the emergence of the two-party system, and the development of U.S. economic and foreign policies.
The range of poems that Wells examines is impressive, including the work of canonical figures such as Philip Freneau, John Trumbull, Joel Barlow, Timothy Dwight, and Lemuel Hopkins, as well as many other equally important, though lesser known, poets. In each chapter, he closely examines the specific formal strategies poets used to intervene in national politics. For instance, he demonstrates the power of “versification” (9), a poetic technique revolutionary writers used to parody official statements issued by the crown. By juxtaposing popular versifications by Trumbull and Freneau that lampooned royal proclamations delivered by General Thomas Gage with a wide range of others from the 1770s, Wells demonstrates how such works neutralized imperial power by representing British authority as “‘mere’ language” (27) and relocating political authority to the voice of the people.
Wells’s analysis of the political influence of poetry during the late 1780s and 1790s is particularly eye-opening, as he traces how poetry wars contributed to the development of political parties. Wells identifies three discursive frameworks—the rhetoric of conspiracy, liberty, and vox populi—poets used to distinguish the positions of the Federalists, Anti-Federalists, and Democratic-Republicans. Although partisan poets drew on similar rhetoric, Wells convincingly argues that they employed distinct strategies of satire, songs, hoaxes, and historical allusions to proclaim themselves the vox populi and distinguish their positions from one another. In doing so, Wells makes an important contribution to recent efforts to explore the complex definitions of “the people” in the early United States, exemplified by the work of Jason Frank and Benjamin H. Irvin.1 Wells also provides a fascinating analysis of poetry’s engagement with the rhetoric of liberty that dominated the public sphere in the 1790s. Most striking is his attention to the Federalist “second generation” (141) of Connecticut Wits, who composed an influential series of poems known as “The Echo” from 1791 to 1794. They revived parodic versification “to highlight, and expose” (144) the limits and inconsistencies of the nation’s discourse of liberty, particularly regarding the institution of slavery and the marginalization of African American and Native American people.2 In tracing this critique of the nation’s failure to observe its founding principles, Wells pushes us to recognize the role Federalists played in challenging policies of racial exclusion and inequality and to reconsider the dynamics of partisan arguments involving race in the early republic. [End Page 319]
Wells devotes the most attention to the discourse of conspiracy for, as he writes, early American poetry “was steeped in a decidedly conspiratorial notion of politics” (95). He deftly illustrates how poets used conspiracy’s logic of cause and effect to influence arguments about the value and the dangers of a strong central government during the constitutional debates and to manipulate public belief surrounding the speculation crisis, the Jay Treaty, and the Alien and Sedition Acts. This focus on the poetics of conspiracy also permeated U.S. foreign policy, as Wells shows how it contributed to U.S. engagement with Britain and France in the contexts of the French Revolution, the Quasi War, and the Embargo Act of 1807.
Poetry Wars closes by identifying a substantial shift in the role of poetry during John Adams’s presidency, as Federalist and Republican poets began to mimic one another’s strategies. Wells illustrates this literary mirroring with astute formal readings of poems and war hymns from the late 1790s, exploring how partisan poets imitated one another’s literary tactics so closely that the critical strategies that once differentiated them became indistinguishable, effectively ending the poetry wars after Thomas Jefferson’s election in 1800. Although there were a few efforts to revive this tradition, Wells argues that U.S. writers and readers eventually lost faith in poetry’s ability to “successfully intervene in” (279) partisan political debates and public policy, giving rise to the more detached and depoliticized style of romanticism in the nineteenth century.
Although Civic Longing does not focus on poetry, Hyde is similarly invested in asserting “the everyday power of language as a medium of political persuasion and world-making” (12), which she illustrates by tracing “the uneasy, speculative birth of” (7) citizenship as a category of national identity prior to the Civil War. Hyde convincingly argues that citizenship was an undefined concept in the early United States and that “‘citizenship’ as we use it today and ‘citizenship’ [as it] was used in the early United States do not name identical—and so interchangeable—models of political membership” (39). By pushing us to recognize this distinction, Civic Longing not only opens the door for reimagining the political role of literature but also leads us to rethink the terms and conditions of national belonging in the early United States.
Civic Longing is organized in three parts. Part 1 provides a terminological history of “citizenship” in the United States that both identifies its origins in Enlightenment philosophy and explains the legal definition of citizenship established by the Fourteenth Amendment and Expatriation Act of 1868. This clearly delineated definition contrasts sharply with its malleability during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which Hyde traces by examining how the federal and state constitutions along with laws of suffrage and property ownership failed to demarcate citizenship consistently. By carefully illustrating the gaps, ambiguities, or “insistent vagaries” (38) in the early republic’s definitions, part 1 lays the necessary groundwork for understanding how and why literary works played such a decisive role in [End Page 320] defining this elusive concept. The remaining two parts of the book examine how specific forms of literary expression participated in the “speculative making” (7) of citizenship by filling these gaps with imaginative models of national belonging.
Part 2, “The Higher Laws of Citizenship,” explores how popular representations of divine and natural law imagined citizenship. Hyde’s recognition of the political efficacy of religious texts is particularly groundbreaking, especially her identification of the cultural influence of Philippians 3:20, which defines “citizenship in heaven” (43) through the rejection of worldly goods. Though this model might seem to conflict with political membership, Hyde demonstrates how nineteenth-century translations of this passage provided a framework for imagining a “renunciative” (53) citizenship that served both spiritual and political purposes by using the experience of estrangement as a tool of critique and reclamation. Most prominently, those excluded from the nation relied on this model, as Hyde demonstrates through her analysis of David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829). This rhetoric could be deployed even by those not subject to systematic exclusion; by juxtaposing Walker’s work with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s antislavery novel Dred (1856), Hyde shows how white writers drew on representations of slavery to imagine citizenship through experiences of exclusion, in this case positing an inclusive model of Christian unity that erased the significance of race.3
Estrangement and renunciation were also essential components of literary romance, and in part 3, Hyde breathes new energy into this genre by reframing it as a space that enabled readers to test different models of national affiliation “by temporarily occupying the unmoored, renunciative extremes of fantasy” (143). Hyde terms this the “political subjunctive” (117), and her concluding analysis of “The Man without a Country,” Edward Everett Hale’s famous allegory of succession, shows how Hale used “negative instruction” (157) to define political membership through a fictional experience of exile, teaching readers to identify as citizens by exposing them to the damaging effects of losing that status.4 Once again, citizenship emerges not as a specific set of rights tethered to the location of one’s birth or a formal process of naturalization but as a category imagined through experiences of loss and estrangement.
Conceptualizing citizenship through literary renderings of displacement marks this book’s most significant contribution to the field. By shifting our [End Page 321] understanding of citizenship from an experience of collective belonging to an imaginative experience of longing, Hyde’s work provides a new way to think about the political influence of literature and the sentimental dynamics of national affiliation.
Hyde’s productive reconceptualizations of poetry and citizenship have the potential to open new areas of inquiry regarding the “extralegal” (9) dimensions of early American politics. One area that merits further attention, however, concerns regional dynamics of literature and citizenship. In fact, both Hyde and Wells acknowledge the sectional undercurrents of citizenship in nineteenth-century partisan politics, but they do not explore this issue in detail. Attention to the regional contingencies of literature and citizenship would be a compelling subject for future inquiry, offering yet another opportunity to examine, as Hyde and Wells both do so effectively, “what it means to think of the imaginative arts as properly political—rather than normatively social or descriptively historical” (Hyde, 12). By illuminating the literary construction of citizenship and the political impact of poetry, these works reorient and reanimate our understandings of the relationship between literature and the nation. [End Page 322]
1. Jason Frank, Constituent Moments: Enacting the People in Postrevolutionary America (Durham, N.C., 2010); Benjamin H. Irvin, Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and the People Out of Doors (New York, 2011).
2. “The Echo. No. 1,” American Mercury, Aug. 8, 1791, .
3. David Walker, Walker’s Appeal, in Four Articles, Together with a Preamble to the Colored Citizens of the World . . . Written in Boston, in the State of Massachusetts, Sept. 28th, 1829 (Boston, 1829); Harriet Beecher Stowe, Dred, a Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. In Two Volumes (Boston, 1856). See also Frederick Douglass, “The Heroic Slave,” in Autographs for Freedom (Boston, 1853), 174–239.
4. [Edward Everett Hale], “The Man without a Country,” Atlantic Monthly, December 1863, 665–79.