- "A Million—a Billion Thoughts":A Letter on "Absent-Minded Historicism"
August 31, 2019
Dear Professor Fenton and Professor Rohy,
Thank you so much for "Absent-Minded Historicism," which I greatly enjoyed reading. I hope you'll forgive me taking the essay personally, that is, as refreshing encouragement to a lapsed historicist such as myself. Like many writing after New Historicism, I was bound to a fruitless search for the historical proof that would make my chosen objects of literary study relevant and meaningful. Only by digging up the actual daguerreotypists, mesmerists, confidence men, spiritualists, phrenologists, suffragists, sexologists, Fourierists, and temperance crusaders who were the prototypes of fictional avatars found in nineteenth-century American literature, or so it seemed, could we make claims about its historical significance. Besides, as I learned long ago from my graduate advisor, Hayden White, we inevitably find what we're looking for when we go to the archives. The historian "prefigures the historical field," which is to say history reflects the historian's desires.1
Rather than strive to be better historicists in the hopes of one day unearthing some long-lost connection that will fill the gaps in our understanding, readers need not rue their always-wanting historicism. "Historical analysis," you assert at the outset, "is at its core an imaginative methodology" (83). Literary history does not suffer from missing pages, lost letters, or other ellipses in the historical record but is instead constituted, driven, and, above all, enlivened, by absence. [End Page 7]
Herman Melville's letters to Nathaniel Hawthorne form your case study, but what most interests you are Hawthorne's missing replies to his effusive correspondent from Pittsfield. Instead of seeking to determine or reconstruct what might have been in those letters, you sagely suggest that various types of desire, epistemic as well as sexual, can serve as an authorizing absence, which is itself structured by the irony that "the arrival of the desired object will only produce more desire" (94). Indeed, such is my heightened state of anticipation as I await your reply.
September 3, 2019
Dear Elizabeth and Valerie,
Thank you for responding to my letter of the 31st ult. I had been checking the mailbox for your reply several times a day. It appears that I am not as even keeled as Melville when he wrote to Hawthorne, as you observe, "without expecting a reply" (87). Melville, by this account, not only tolerated but also invited absence. What would it mean to follow his example as interpretative method "if we do not attempt to fill the space of Hawthorne's missing letters with historical or literary materials?" (86). This refusal sets up a heroic demeanor for criticism: "We must confront the void of history and write into that void without hoping to fill it" (87). Does this mean that desire, contradictorily, requires stoicism, a dose of textual abstinence that does not seek to complete the lacunae in our literary histories? Is this a methodology of self-restraint and ascetism, one that intensifies the reader's desire? To what degree might absent-minded historicism entail abstinence-minded historicism?
This method accepts the challenge and inevitable failure that comes with dealing with any archive—Hawthorne's elusive letters, the sketch form employed by James McCune Smith and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, indeed, the body of history itself—that is always and necessarily incomplete.2 Your essay thus puts me in mind of a brief but insightful musing on history as fragment, Jorge Luis Borges's "Del Rigor en la Ciencia." This sketch, itself a fictive fragment, relates how some long-ago empire produced maps of such massive scale that its maps spread out to cover entire cities and provinces. In pursuit of ever-more-faithful representation, the empire's cartographers at last create a map that "tenía el tamaño [End Page 8] del Imperio y coincidía puntualmente con él" (had the same size as the Empire and coincided with it point by point).3 The literary-historical equivalent would be an interpretation that corresponds completely with the text. Yet the drive for total description and exact...