- Books in Brief
History, Abolition, and the Ever-Present Now in Antebellum American Writing.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. ix + 255 pp.
Two lines from Longfellow's "Psalm of Life," which Insko quotes Frederick Douglass reciting in his 1852 Fourth of July address, can serve as a touchstone for this book: "'Act,—act in the living present! / Heart within and God o'erhead!'" (2). Indexing the political urgencies in the turbulent decades leading to the Civil War, these lines speak to a mood that Insko seeks to recover in investigating how antebellum writers manifest "Romantic presentism" (5). He defines this sensibility as an engagement with the past that eschews traditional historicism so as to live more fully in one's own political moment: to connect with the past "as a form of experience, rather than as a field or object of knowledge" (5). In subtle, astute close readings of familiar texts, Insko argues that a range of antebellum writers publishing between 1809 and 1855 constructed a sense of time—past, present, and future—responsive to their own polarized, action-oriented historical circumstances.
The book's first two chapters take up writers who predate abolitionism, the importance of which the book's title indicates. Chapter 1 analyzes how Washington Irving's History of New York (1809) and "Rip Van Winkle" (1819) disrupt and mock Whiggish histories through, for instance, Diedrich Knickerbocker's self-reflexive insistence on the storyteller's role in creating history and, in "Rip Van Winkle," stylistic techniques that model perceptual slippages between past and present. This chapter also frees Irving from his assigned historical period by showing how abolitionists and, in the 1950s, Martin Luther King, Jr., invoked Rip Van Winkle as a symbol of behind-the-times conservatism, or being caught in the past and out of touch with the moral demands of the present. Chapter 2 takes up Catharine Sedgwick's Hope Leslie and John Neal's Seventy-Six to argue that these books' metahistorical gestures and conscious anachronisms run counter to the historical romance tradition and constitute, [End Page 172] in effect, a fascinating but failed experiment in American historical fiction. Perhaps, though it would seem that The Scarlet Letter and George Lippard's The Legends of the American Revolution—or Israel Potter, which Insko discusses in chapter 5—also comport with Sedgwick's and Neal's Romantic presentism. And one can imagine a version of this book, more invested in generic categories, that sought to demonstrate that our understanding of American historical fiction would be revitalized if we set Irving or Sedgwick or Melville, rather than James Fenimore Cooper, at the center of that tradition.
Part 2 pivots to abolitionist writing to show how the presentist resistance to teleology, or "embrace of futural uncertainty" (89), dovetailed with abolitionism. Chapter 3 argues that after the Compromise of 1850, Emerson, ever ready to pillage books and traditions to suit his philosophizing, revved up his "act in the living present" rhetoric in ways that chimed with Garrisonianism. Rejecting critiques of Emerson's slowness to join the abolitionist movement, Insko shows how Emerson refused gradualism and regarded action as a means of discovery. To make this point, Insko shuttles between the antislavery speeches of the 1840s and 1850s, the essays of the 1840s, and the 1853 poem "On Freedom" (whose concluding line "Right thou feelest rashly do" reprises the exhortations of "The Psalm of Life" ), with illuminating forays into the writings of Garrison, Thoreau, Whitman, and Melville. He notes, for instance, Melville's uncertainty about the future, evident in "The Portent" and in Ahab's "Quarter-Deck" speech.
The argument for the overlap between Romantic presentism and abolitionism crescendoes in the next chapter, on Frederick Douglass. Insko maintains that between 1847, when Douglass returned from England, and 1857, when he responded to the Dred Scott decision, he developed a view of history that changed "from apprehension (fear of the future) to expectation (looking forward to the future become present)" (128). This rethinking of history accompanied his shift from regarding the Constitution as a static document enmeshed in an unreachable past to seeing it in terms of present demands and the futures it might...