Recap: MLA 2012

This year’s MLA saw me organizing a panel, instead of presenting on one like last year. The panel was entitled, “Nineteenth-Century American Sentiment, Radical or Otherwise,” and was dedicated to featuring current scholarly work in the field of nineteenth-century sentimental American literature. Of course, this panel reflected many of my own interests, particularly the last section of my dissertation which deals with sentimental fiction and its relation to the culture that surrounded it (a post on finishing my dissertation is part of the backlog I mentioned before, though I did manage to get up a table of contents).

My goal for the panel was two-fold. First, I wanted to feature papers that dealt with the political nature of sentimental literature in the period, with a particular eye toward its use in the radicalization—or otherwise—of its readers. Second, I am interested more broadly in accounts of sentimental culture which are at once more complex and more specific. I believe that scholars all too often judge the political implications of sentiment from the perspective of the present, using criteria unavailable to most individuals of the era being judged. Along these lines, each of the papers articulated areas in which a nuanced vision of sentiment illuminates the complex cultural situation of the nineteenth century.

The first paper was given by Kevin Pelletier of the University of Richmond, and was entitled “‘Can Fear of Fire Make Me Love?’: Nineteenth-Century Apocalyptic Sentimentalism.” He argued Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous injunction to “feel right” is often read too narrowly, focusing on a single class of sentiments defined by love, compassion, and sympathy at the expense of a whole other class defined by fear. However, as is obvious in Stowe’s texts themselves, nineteenth-century sentimentalism had profound misgivings about the ability of love alone to do the work that many scholars claim for it, i.e., the forging of social bonds, often outside the confines of received class, gender, and racial roles. Thus, visions of an apocalyptic God, with all their attendant sentiments of fear and terror, were regularly employed to buttress love and transform those recalcitrant to its righteous powers. In this regard, he juxtaposed David Walker’s Appeal and its invocation of apocalyptic sentimentalism to Stowe’s use of a similar discourse in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Between the two, we not only see an important expansion of which forms of affect are included in ‘the sentiments,’ but an important connection to a theological discourse which viewed fear and love not as antagonists, but as necessarily complementary forces. It also demonstrates how and why Walker’s situation lead him to form “[h]is own theory of sentiments” as a necessary political tool with regard to often less-than-sympathetic white audiences.

Second was Leslie Petty’s “‘Every woman … should raise her voice’: Rethinking White Women’s Activism in William Wells Browns Clotel.“ While following upon similar themes, it shifted them into the register of early African-American fiction. Using as her touchstone William Wells Brown’s 1847 lecture to the Female Anti-Slavery Society of Salem, she argued that Clotel undertakes a conscious recasting of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The text’s heroine, Georgiana Peck Carlton, constructs a less passive role for white women’s activism in antebellum America. Going beyond the politics of ‘indirect influence,’ she not only presents an alternate model of feeling for contemporary readers, she also demonstrates how sentimental tropes and characters could and were taken up and redeployed beyond the confines of what was deemed socially acceptable. In Clotel’s rewriting of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, we see divergent discourses—slave narrative and sentimental novel—stitched together to form something new, which nonetheless relied upon the power of both its original genres. As Petty notes, “it is in his depiction of this white activist heroine that Brown most consciously critiques white female abolitionists … even while he acknowledges their importance and imagines ways that their activist impulses can be translated into immediate, fundamental reform … by imagining a white woman who both ‘feels right’ and does something about it.”

Finally, April Davidauskis’s  presented a paper which attempted to call into question the very terms of the debate over sentiment’s radical or conservative penchant. Her “Deemphasizing Sentimentality in Nineteenth-Century American Culture” used E.D.E.N. Southworth’s popular, roguish heroine Capitola Black to analyze “how the gendering process works for women beyond sentimentality, yet within normativity” in the nineteenth century. With a wink at Sarah Palin, she invoked such roguish figures as Gothic heroines, protagonists in romances of the U.S.-Mexico war, cross-dressing women, actresses, activists, and performers to demonstrate how, in her view, “scholars have overemphasized sentimental culture in order to understand not only what ‘women’s culture’ is, but also to limn out the terms of normative feminine identity.” Focusing the terms of the debate on sentiment not only obscures these other possibilities, Davidauskis argued, but may make identities that were normative at the time look more radical than they actually were.

In addition to posing questions for each of the panelists, I also attempted to distill some commonalities in my response to these three papers. Though divergent in many respects, I found that each of the texts manifested the increasing complexity of the concepts which govern our discussion of the sentimental and the sentiments. Indeed, each paper could be seen as bringing to light a contemporary critique of what it means to “feel right” as a political act. They echoed Cindy Weinstein’s warning against “monolithic and consistently pernicious account[s] of sympathy” which “[fail] to take into account the extraordinarily rich and ideologically diverse debate about sympathy that was taking place in the antebellum period” (link). Just as David Walker formulated ‘his own theory of sentiments’ with particular political goals in mind, different discourses of sentiment abounded at the time. From mesmerism and animal magnetism, to the medical discourse of the nerves, to handbooks on female conduct, multiple cultural discourses competed to inculcate the proper ways of knowing, acting, and feeling about the world. Indeed, it may be that what all these discourses show is how the sentimental itself is probably neither radical nor conservative in and of itself, but a battleground upon which various tactics and strategies play themselves out. Returning to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s injunction to “feel right,”  I concluded by arguing that, in the debate over sentimental culture, we have placed too much emphasis on the feel and not enough on the right.

Recap: MLA 2011

The panel I was on at the MLA, “The Global American South in the Nineteenth Century,” turned out to be quite interesting, as I expected it to be. The four presentations (three papers and Caroline Levander’s response) all focused on the antebellum South, yet they all diverged in interesting ways. (Thanks especially to Lloyd Pratt for putting it all together.) I’ll treat each in the order they were presented.

My paper, “An Archaeology of Slave Management: From ‘The State of War Continued’ to ‘No More Beautiful Picture of Human Society,’” was comprised of three components. The first was a juxtaposition between the colonial regime of slavery and the humanist one which emerges in the mid-eighteenth century and continues up until (and probably extends across) the Civil War. The second was a distillation of slave management discourse from the humanist regime, whose three principles are the moderation of the body, the cultivation of sentiment, and the inculcation of habits. The final section was an argument to the effect that we need to read slave narratives in the context of these, quite literal, master narratives, using Frederick Douglass’s Narrative as an example, and arguing that Douglass takes great pains to refute these specific principles of humanist slavery.

Sarah Lahey’s paper, “An Englishwoman in the South: The Global Politics of Race in Fanny Kemble’s American Journals,” examined a divergent example of what I referred to above as master narratives. Kemble, an Englishwoman who was critical of slavery in fraught and varying degrees, wrote the journals in question from 1838 to 1839, but was forbidden by her husband, whom she later spectacularly divorced, and only published them later in 1863 as an intervention into the Civil War against slavery. Lahey argues that Kemble’s journals serve to deconstruct the black/white binary that was, and to a great extent still is, the dominant paradigm of interpretation for race in America. Particularly in her triangulation of the relation between white elites, black slaves, and Irish immigrants and poor whites, she teases out the way Kemble’s global perspective cannot be contained within the dominant racial ideology, whether the ideology of the past or the present.  As she concludes, “Kemble might not offer as much insight into the diverse contours of the black community, but her transatlantic vision does provide one of the earliest deconstructions of the white race as a racial entity in antebellum America.”

Matthew Sandler’s paper, “‘Too-Wit’: Poe’s Southern Political Aesthetic in Latin America,” returned us to the works of Edgar Allen Poe, building a series of proliferating connections between his work and that of the Comte de Lautréamont. Lautréamont exemplifies, as Sandler argues, the way “Poe’s dark romanticism came to have tremendous appeal among writers of the American South, the Caribbean, and Latin America.” The Poe-Lautréamont connection represents, then, a whole a series of transnational literary connections that exceed traditional boundaries. In the work of both, Sandler traces a set of common themes, in particular that of the sea voyage. For these authors, the sea voyage does not open onto “the joy of the universe” or “interminable oceans,” as it does for Emerson (#). Instead, they open onto disaster and terror, a reflection of the brutal violence of their times and places, almost as if these two authors are haunted by the restrictions national borders, spatial and cultural, impose upon them. Paradoxically, these intimations of frustration and constraint produce texts which transcend those very limitations, as the history of their receptions attest.

Caroline Levander concluded the panel with a response which centered on the intersection of two terms which governed the panel, the Global and the South. She pointed out that, both in the nineteenth century and today, the intersection of these two terms destabilize the static interpretations that each alone can tend to generate. Whether it be the shift from the conceptual category “Third World” to that of “Global South” that is reorienting today’s geopolitics, or the way that in a global context the American South was only something like the Northern tip of an Americas-wide slave system, adding the Global to the South forces us to recognize and rethink the arbitrary limits that are often placed on either. (For more on her work on The Global South, see here.)

Lives of Infamous Men

In his essay, “Lives of Infamous Men,” Foucault states a list of rules he has chosen for the selection of material for a broader project.

• The persons included must have actually existed.

• These existences must have been both obscure and ill-fated.

• They must have been recounted in a few pages or, better, a few sentences, as brief as possible.

• These tales must not just constitute strange or pathetic anecdotes; but, in one way or another (because they were complaints, denunciations, orders, or reports), they must have truly formed part of the minuscule history of these existences, of their misfortune, their wildness, or their dubious madness.

• And for us still, the shock of these words must give rise to a certain effect of beauty mixed with dread. (#, 159)

Foucault tells us that the purpose of these seemingly arbitrary criteria was to unearth “the existence of these men and women” of whom “nothing subsists of what they were or what they did, other than what is found in a few sentences” and present these scraps of official discourse, because what was written “really crossed lives; existences were actually risked and lost in these words”  (162, 160). Foucault gives an example of one such scrap, whose kindred surprised and enraptured him with their intensity:

Mathurin Milan, placed in the hospital of Charenton, 31 August 170 7: “His madness was always to hide from his family, to lead an obscure life in the country, to have actions at law, to lend usuriously and without security, to lead his feeble mind down unknown paths, and to believe himself capable of the greatest employments.” (158)

In my own research, I come across such lives from time to time, which effloresce briefly in the account books of a plantation, an ancient diary, or some long forgotten agricultural journals. So when there is occasion, I will try to re-present the lives of these infamous men and women I stumble across, with as little adornment as possible. Such representations have a politics, to be sure, yet these documents endure in any case, and we tend to believe that knowledge is made for cutting.