The Culture and Commerce of the Early American Novel
Reading the Atlantic World-System
The Culture and Commerce of the Early American Novel
Reading the Atlantic World-System
“Shapiro offers a powerfully synthesized reexamination of the early American novel.”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
2008 Honorable Mention for the Best Book in American Studies sponsored by the British Association for American Studies
Shapiro’s world-systems approach is a relatively new methodology for literary studies, but it brings two particularly useful features to the table. First, it refines the conceptual frameworks for analyzing cultural and social history, such as the rise in sentimentalism, in relation to a long-wave economic history of global commerce; second, it fosters a new model for a comparative American studies across time. Rather than relying on contiguous time, a world-systems approach might compare the cultural production of one region to another at the same location within the recurring cycle in an economic reconfiguration. Shapiro offers a way of thinking about the causes for the emergence of the American novel that suggests a fresh approach to the paradigms shaping American studies.
“Shapiro offers a powerfully synthesized reexamination of the early American novel.”
“Shapiro develops a stunning reconceptualization of the 1790s based on America’s position in Atlantic history at the end of the eighteenth century and an equally impressive analysis of what this reconceptualization means for our understanding of early American literature and culture.”
“As scholars such as Franco Moretti and Rodrigo Lazo encourage us to identify and expand the vast uncharted archives of novels that would necessarily alter our theories of the genre, Shapiro’s analysis reminds us that sometimes, just a few novels will do. His study paves the way, particularly for critics of sentimental, seduction, and popular fiction of the late eighteenth century, toward far richer accounts of how fictional forms function in the interstices between the early U.S. nation-state and the geo-economic, cultural, and political conditions of the American hemispheric context.”
“Shapiro’s [work] squarely and massively dissects market ideology. . . . [It] is what Harold Bloom would call a strong reading, with all the risks and benefits that boldness implies. . . . Shapiro reduces the era’s economic influences to an alliterative quartet—sensibility, sensational consumption, slavery, and sentiment. Although these terms have long been associated with eighteenth-century culture, their combination in a kind of social compound—a geoculture—is particularly powerful here. . . . Culture and Commerce is a massive, often brilliant, utterly original synthesis exposing important elements of the period’s structure of feeling.”
“Culture and Commerce is a massive, often brilliant, utterly original synthesis exposing important elements of the period’s structure of feeling.”
“Shapiro’s theory of the early American novel—grounded in the cultural realities of the historical moment and informed by an economic theory that thinks beyond the nation-state—is compelling.
“In The Culture and Commerce of the Early American Novel: Reading the Atlantic World-System, Stephen Shapiro provides a compelling account of the emergence of the American novel as a cultural form deeply implicated within the global economic transitions of the 1790s. While the novel in the new United States is the ostensible focus of this book, Shapiro skillfully moves through an account of the economic, social, and intellectual worlds of the late eighteenth century to situate the cultural work of this literary form.”
Stephen Shapiro is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick.
1. Method and Misperception: The Paradigm Problem of the Early American Novel
2. The Geoculture of the Anglo-French Eighteenth-Century World-System
3. The Re-export Republic and the Rise of the Early American Novel
4. The Paradox of the Public Sphere: Franklin’s Autobiography and the Institution of Ideology
5. Wieland and the Problem of Counterinstitutionality
6. Arthur Mervyn and the Racial Revolution of Narrative Consciousness
Afterword: Early Nineteenth-Century American Studies and the World-Systems Perspective
Method and Misperception: The Paradigm Problem of the Early American Novel
In the introduction of his contemporary history of the United States, the Annals of Europe and America (1807–10), Philadelphia-born novelist Charles Brockden Brown (1771–1810) considers the idea of America’s manifest self-determination as nonsense. Because America principally depends on international trade, its “destiny . . . is intimately connected with the situation and transactions of European nations.” As the demand for American goods was determined by shortages resulting from the convulsions of war among foreign peoples, the country was shaped by the wake of antagonistic global forces since the conditions of modern trade and navigation “have the wonder power of annihilating . . . space itself.” Because “two maritime and trading nations encounter and interfere [sic] with each other in every corner of the globe that is accessible by water,” the combative encounters of this pair of dominant actors in the world market affect America, even if these skirmishes occur halfway around the earth. The two superpowers referred to here are “undoubtedly France and Great Britain,” and the history of their conflict is “the history of Europe, and, in some measure, of the world.”
Understanding America as fundamentally conditioned by turbulence within a globalized arena of political economy, Brown consequently insists that his current moment belongs to a long eighteenth century that extends beyond the 1700s in either direction. Even in the early nineteenth century, America remains shaped by a trajectory that Brown sees beginning in 1688 when France intervened in the fractional disputes surrounding Britain’s dispossession of the Stuarts during the Glorious Revolution. The first segment of this phase ends with the Seven Years’ War (1756–63), which amplified Franco-British tensions beyond Europe and projected them throughout the world. American modern history breaks from its past only in 1793, with the period’s second inflection point, marked by the rise of French offensive expansion after nearly a century of having to defend its domestic and imperial territory against British incursions. Although Brown would not live to experience its arrival, he would probably have understood Napoleon’s defeat in 1815 and England’s consequent Victorian-era hegemony as the periodizing conclusion to this long passage of time.
While Brown sees the “quarrel . . . between Great Britain and her colonies in 1776” as a “favourable opportunity to France for reducing the formidable power of her rival,” the War for Independence is a minor point in a larger series of tactical sallies for position between the European powers, one less significant for Americans than the War of Spanish Succession (1701–14), which resulted in the expansion of the Atlantic slave trade. Discounting the noteworthiness of domestic independence and constitutionalism, Brown argues that America belongs to a global history not of its own making, given its incorporation into what the historical sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein calls a world-system of capitalist trade. The world-system is a constellation defined by the hierarchizing competition among bourgeois-dominated nation-states for profit through the exploitation of human and natural resources and business cycles of economic expansion and contraction. Throughout the Annals, Brown insistently describes seemingly personal acts, social experiences, and cultural expression as shaped by the worldly conflict over trade, which becomes enacted through the medium of bellicose states and mediated by declarations that use the language of moral value to disguise and justify the desire for commodified ones. In Brown’s account, the year 1793 ought to serve as the focus of the early period of American studies as it marks the start of the last segment of the Franco-British-defined phase of the modern world-system and an internal transition that prepares the onset of another.
Would such a perspective help answer why the longer fiction of the early American novel sprang so unexpectedly into published existence during the 1790s only to fall into a long decline after 1800 until its resuscitation in the 1820s? Lillie Deming Loshe’s bibliography of early American fiction illustrates the trend. With only a handful of nonimported titles published in the United States before 1790, Loshe cites the appearance of thirty-three works in the 1790s, with thirty-one of these published in during the years 1793–1800. Between 1801 and 1810, the number of novels drops by a third, and in the following decade it continues to fall to slightly more than half of what it had been in the 1790s. In the 1820s, however, the number surges more than fourfold to stand as greater than double the 1790s output. The decadal contrasts are even sharper if new author fiction titles are separated from ones produced by already active writers as a marker of the field’s ability to support its enlargement. While the catalog of the 1790s mainly includes novices, initiate authors become a minority between 1800 and 1820, at which point the list returns to be dominated by new writers. Loshe’s review is an early one, but its findings do come from a period before the canon of U.S. writing began to exclude early American writing according to “literary” worth. Even with the recent recovery of antebellum texts, with its greater acceptance of a broader range of discursive and life writing as constituting “fiction,” contemporary criticism and the new digitalized archive has not markedly altered the shape of rise and fall described by Loshe.
In my focus on the novel as an evidentiary field, I have no interest in consecrating any particular text as the original U.S.-produced novel or in hazarding evaluations of any particular work’s merit. I have chosen the novel because, even discounting the period’s own debate about what generically constitutes a novel rather than a romance, the mode of printed matter in a long fictional narrative was clearly recognized by contemporaries as markedly different from collections of ecclesiastic sermons and partisan broadsides. American publicists recognized that the domestic novel was an event that had no substantive precedents before the 1790s, a perception that indicates the presence of conditions that are either unique to the decade or ones that could not be easily brought into the optics of social recognition before then.
The question about the novel’s changing rate should not be mistaken as one about cultural fluorescence and decline. Jared Gardner has initially, but convincingly, suggested that periodical shorter fiction and marginalia publishing in the 1800–1820 period came to serve that period’s cultural needs and talents in ways that novels had previously done for a prior one. This book instead asks: what factors drove cultural production first toward and then away from a specific form? I have selected the novel as a category meriting analysis not because it has any greater or less value than other social forms, but because its recognizable wave of appearance and disappearance suggests the presence of a social transformation during the 1790s that remains poorly articulated in existing narratives of American cultural history. What hitherto unrecognized energies and contradictions find shape in novelistic construction in ways that existing frameworks have elided, at the cost of confusing our perception of the foundations constituting antebellum society?
The central claims that I put forth in this book as a response to these questions about early American fiction and society are easily stated. Against nationalist claims for the endogamous production of cultural forms, I argue that the early American novel had little concern for allegorizing the nation-state or enunciating patriotic themes. There is a particular regional logic to the early American novel’s appearance, but its motivations are overwhelmingly not those of either nationality or statehood, but the expression of concerns by a particular set of middle-class interests, a bourgeoiseme, rising with the tides of change within the circumatlantic world-system. The early American novel arose as a local response to a global reconfiguration in the Atlantic political economy in the wake of the French Revolution, brought about as a result of the long confrontation between Great Britain and France for imperial control of global resources.
Within this conflict, the French Revolution’s social and political turbulence on U.S. interests was not primarily registered as a source for cultural allusions, allegorical representations, or political party claims, although all exist as features in the period. The French Revolution’s impact came as it altered circumatlantic trade flows in ways that reshaped American society more substantively than had the political act of independence. This change was catalyzed by the mutual embargoes that British and French governments placed on each other’s Caribbean export shipping in order to undermine the other’s supply lines and ability to generate revenue for the financing of interimperial conflict. Anglo-French blockades unexpectedly created an opening for a previously marginal stratum of mid- and southern-Atlantic seaboard merchants and associated professionals to reap tremendous profits in a highly compressed time as they stepped in to fill the gap.
When the National Assembly lifted the ban in 1793 from Americans accessing French Caribbean ports and their lucrative commodities of sugar, coffee, tea, and alcohols, the British feared that Americans would be drawn into the French sphere of influence and stopped enforcing similar limits on Americans trading in the British West Indies for the same goods. Once these commodities from the colonies of either imperial power were shipped to an American harbor, they could then be sent as goods from a neutral power to the United Kingdom and continental Europe, more or less, free from confiscation by either side. Within a few years, the freedom to import and export super-profitable goods brought unprecedented levels of wealth into New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. The sudden capital influx ignited a series of changes that revolutionized the nation’s economy and texture of everyday life. As America became a re-export republic, it experienced transformations greater and more redefining than those attached to political independence and nascent administrative centralization, even if these effects are difficult to perceive because they are not often captured in the writings of the period’s political elites or in American studies accounts based on these elites. Histories that frame the period through partisan disputes for authority between New England–based Federalists and Virginia-centered Democrat-Republicans often miss this internal alteration, which is not well represented in partisan debates because the re-export merchants came from different regions and were not active leaders of either political party.
The profits of re-export shifted power away from the colonial and postindependence anchors of New England and the Virginian-Carolinian South and toward the mid- and southern-Atlantic coastal harbor towns, with their proximity to the Caribbean. The re-export trade magnified a rupture within the nation’s aggregated middle classes as an older set of New England and southern bourgeoisie, who sought to gain status through political independence by removing their own superiors as Loyalist émigrés, found themselves confronted and displaced, in turn, by a nascent commercial faction of middle and southern Atlantic ones who disregarded the revolutionary-era leaders and their prestige. A quasi-gentry, land-based bourgeoisie that aligned itself with patriotism was shunted aside by an urban, cosmopolitan trading one that adapted more quickly to the new conditions of the 1790s and better leveraged the seemingly spontaneous commercial advantages opened by international conflict. The Caribbean-oriented traders were uninterested in debates about the nation’s founding and Constitution because their money and functional decolonization came from fully embracing recent conditions within the broadly Atlantic arena, not retreating from it.
Similarly, much of the decade’s political invective ought to be read as an effort by the period’s traditional elites to comprehend and enunciate the nature of rapid changes for which they had no existing analytic terminology or illustrative example. The re-export merchants ought to have cleaved to the governing New England–dominated Federalist ruling party because of its support for credit, banking, and free trade. Yet the Federalists’ official Francophobia in a time of European conflict threatened to roil the French Caribbean trade that made the mid- and southern-Atlantic merchants rich. Already chafing at their long-standing marginalization by older political and religious elites, the groups associated with the re-export trade looked for a new means of expressing their domestic social location.
Because the men who formed both sides of the existing political parties had been involved in forging independence, they relied on and monopolized an ornamental language of patriotism as a means of consecrating their status and legitimizing their financial schemes. Since the foreign trade merchants and their families had not been politically active or powerful throughout the 1770s and 1780s, they tended to avoid nationalist discourse, which did not speak to their international connections or compensate for their lack of domestic recognition. Instead these merchants and their children renovated older forms of expression, like those caught within the slightly obsolete British and French sentimental novel, to represent their anxieties and experiences.
The early American novel was born and circulated from within the network of these nouveau riche traders, their families, and associates as an alternative, nonpartisan mode of displaying their political discontent, class interests, and perceived connection with the larger world of Atlantic mercantile traffic, which was itself in transition at the time. While isolated individuals had attempted the novel, or novel-like narratives, in America before the 1790s, the occasional use of the form would not consolidate until a significant social-cultural effect allowed it to cross a threshold of emergence. By the 1800s, the reaction to re-export’s effects and shifts in French politics began to establish a new internal compromise among once more reorganized bourgeois factions, a reconfiguration that demagnetized the representational needs carried by the novel. The increasing disappearance of the novel-form in the first decades of the nineteenth century marked, however, a diastolic prelude to the onset of a new wave, beginning in the late 1810s, which would recall, slowly at first, the novel-form to represent that phase’s own social reorganizations. In the pages that follow, I will attempt to relate these macrolevel changes within phases of the world market’s political economy to the microlevel of the early American novel’s general themes, specific responses, and later narrative erasure. Doing so requires, however, a new method.
Method and Misperception: Paradigms of Early American Writing
Previous accounts of the novel’s emergence in the eighteenth century, like those of Ian Watt, Michael McKeon, Nancy Armstrong, and Leonard Davis, attribute it to the rise of the middle class. Yet what else could it be except as a cultural form brought into being by a nascent social class seeking a novel means of representation that differs from the communicative modes of the old regime? The middle class, however, is a set of competing interests, which share certain attributes, while differing in others, and changes shape and density, rather than a static, homogeneous category. Furthermore, British-centric studies tend to consider the novel’s development in a linear fashion rather than as a dynamic form that has different phases of relative activity depending on period-specific tensions. So molar a treatment cannot differentiate moments within the novel’s long history or explain the links between a period’s infraclass competition and cross-class struggle and cycles of the novel’s relative expansion and decline or generic alterations as indices to these confrontations. These generalizing studies of the novel thus tend, paradoxically, to separate bourgeois cultural forms from the patterns of accumulation and crisis within capitalist political economy that simultaneously enables and threatens bourgeois civil society. Consequently, they tend to read the appearance of American fiction as little more than belated cultural development, a predictable but redundant supplement to a prefabricated trajectory from the British center. Yet the early American novel arises less as an example of placid diffusion than one of strategic discontinuity with early midcentury European novels. Late eighteenth-century American interests reinvigorated the novel precisely because it had run out of steam in the prior decades, having already served its occasional purpose around the midcentury’s hinge.
A reading of the early American novel’s regional particularity as a result of altering global conditions has been difficult to perceive—not because the claim is obscure, but because existing frameworks for the novel in general and early American fiction specifically have made it so. Whatever success American studies made against totalizing Anglo-centric theories of the novel has been limited by its own ersatz frameworks for pre-1800 fictional texts. The explanatory codes that have been mainly used to transmit meanings for the period’s fictional texts are: nationalism, liberalism, republicanism, gendered sentimentalism, the public sphere of depersonalized print media, and, more recently, Atlanticism. These paradigms have provided compelling frameworks, but none of these heuristics can identify the transformations within the 1790s because of their terminological imprecision and presentist assumptions. While most critics admittedly rely on a syncretic approach that variously invokes two or more of these approaches, scholarly bricolage cannot cover over their intrinsic flaws. For the sake of clarity, I will disentangle the interpretive gestures more so than they typically appear in actual practice to clear the way for a new approach.
The Nationalist Imaginary of Early American Studies
A customary reading of the early Republic’s novels understands them as expressing, in various celebratory or anxiety-ridden ways, a nationalist imaginary. An earlier mode of American studies tends to see these novels as evidence of a mythic national exceptionalism and transcendental spirit inaugurated by the act of political independence. A contemporary turn simply inverts the affect as critics argue for the novels’ registration of concern about the fragility of the new nation. Both responses, however, share the same vantage point as they see the equation between the performance of concerns about national identity and literary imagination as commonsensical. These claims are by no means simply provincial chauvinism since influential Romantic and post-Romantic era accounts of the novel-form see its relation to nationality as a truism. More recently, Benedict Anderson’s influential account of cultural nationalism conflates the rise of nationalism as a collective ideology and the print capitalism of commodified narratives. Yet Anderson’s study primarily focuses on non-European nationalist movements attempting to respond to Western imperialism, which was organized long after nation-statist categories had congealed. If non-Western independence struggles understand the fusion of literary standards and national norms as self-evident, this equivalence appears commonsensical only because these movements become strongly integrated within the global market after the ligature between national identity and literary endeavor had been constituted in the now-dominant capitalist West. Anderson’s model self-admittedly works less successfully for the Americas in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and not because these tendencies were absent, but because they were still in the process of becoming fused together, let alone revealed as hegemonic. Anderson himself argues that a successful promulgation of a nationalist imaginary requires the alignment of manifold social interests, especially an alliance between statist protobureaucratic interests and print publishers, a coalition that is never automatic and nowhere guaranteed. The allegory of nationalism stumbles on the American case and, perhaps more generally, on several counterfactuals.
If the early American novel’s primary motivation was to express the experience of American independence, why then was there no outburst of novelistic output until the 1790s? Given the usual short time lapse between an author’s inspiration for a novel and its composition and publication, long fictions could presumably have been produced immediately on the heels of the Declaration of Independence, British military and diplomatic capitulation, states’ confederation, federal constitutionalization, and so on. Indeed, a frequent complaint by modern readers is that the 1790s novels were written too quickly and rushed into print with little authorial self-restraint or editorial supervision.
Technology is of no help here since the 1790s witnessed neither any dramatic upswing in the number of printing presses in the United States, such as had occurred earlier in the century, nor the implementation of the more efficient and cheaper production processes that would later spur novelism. The decade did, however, see a sharply increased circulation of newspapers that serialized fiction amidst an expanding communication network. The number of post offices increased during the 1790s from 75 to 903, miles of post road went from 1,875 to 21,000, and the number of newspapers from 100 to 250. The expansion of distribution channels obviously facilitates the traffic of printed material and its potential market, but the increase of exchange relays can by itself neither wholly explain the advent of the novel’s particular form nor why novelist production declined in the early nineteenth century, even as the range of distribution continuously expanded and transport costs declined.
Another insufficiency of the nationalist paradigm lies with its refusal to make national comparisons. The increase in American novelism is matched, if not superseded, by similar trends in England and continental Europe. Robert Heilman argues that the English production of novels and magazine reviewers’ interest in novels generally fell throughout the 1760s and mid-1780s. Beginning in the late 1780s and sharply increasing in the 1790s, novels and critical commentary on novels returned. Similar trends can be found in France and other European linguistic domains, where the 1790s, in particular, saw a vertiginous acceleration of novelistic production. For instance, French domestic novels went from 15 in 1794 to 177 in 1799. This global expansion indicates that novelism responds to social effects that are neither unique to the United States nor wholly driven by its local factors. The renaissance of the novel in Anglo-continental Europe and its nascence in the United States does not wholly exclude the effects of state-formations on cultural forms, since it could be argued that the French Revolution and its ensuing seeding of republics is a major, if not primary, cause of novelism. The rise of statism is not exactly that of nationalism, however, and the period’s ongoing condensation of these elements in the term nation-state means that the production of representations might as easily resist as endorse the cultural equation of the nation and state.
Even though the parameters of state containers may have had important implications for the fate of novelism, these factors cannot automatically be transcribed as emanations of literary nationalism. It is questionable whether the early American novel’s perceived vitalist relation to nationality existed as anything approaching a compelling tendency during the 1790s as it would later on. As nineteenth-century Romantic aesthetics made the analogy between an interior mental space of vital imagination and a local or regional geography, it conjoined notions of intrinsic personhood and particularizing cultural characteristics. Both trends, however, were undergoing construction during this time and were by no means dominant mentalities or clearly premised on their later convergence.
When eighteenth-century writers evaluated the relative merits of a novel, the distinguishing criteria gauged the success of writing in relation to a nexus of social traits, but proximity to a nationalist imaginary was not one of the leading ones. If by nationalism we mean the putative assumption of traits illustrating a regional clan and status association, an ethnie, then novelism for eighteenth-century writers was often functionally antagonistic to particularistic nationalism; the latter’s claims of isolated and inward reflection would have appeared to many of the period’s writers as a mark of social immaturity and stunted development resulting from the inability or refusal to embrace progressive, civilizing trends of disembodied, universal enlightenment within a supranational republic of letters. Most eighteenth-century authors intentionally abandoned conventional representational forms that focused on a cultural region, like the epic, and embraced a new (“novel”) form in order to resist archaic place determinations tainted by association with the reactionary blood-and-soil determinants of aristocratic-regal provincialism, as a form of alienation that artificially divides humans by the accidental location of their birth. Because a primary concern of eighteenth-century bourgeois writers was to devalue the legitimacy of the old regime’s social foundations, feudalistic topographies could not be immediately reformulated as national identity until an intervening phase could separate the ligands tying a mode of social power (feudal, absolutist) to place-determining representational forms.
Not until the “post-Enlightenment” phase of the early nineteenth century could literary canonizers, like Barbauld and Walter Scott, use the form of historical romance to rehabilitate the gentry’s territorialism in order to categorize fiction by standards of bourgeois-led nation-statism. Not until an evolving modernity fully consolidated the separation between public and private spheres in the nineteenth century could literary nationalism take hold. For nationalism’s attraction rests in how it mediates the public-private antimony, since it operates simultaneously as a public mode of defining society and a private feeling of intrinsic personality. Even then the process of reconfiguring aristocratic notions of land-based subjectivity into the geographized ones of a cultural nationalism congruent with the dictates of industrial-era society was not without its discontents, as seen with Samuel L. Mitchill’s A Discourse on the State and Prospects of American Literature, delivered at the 1821 anniversary meeting of the New York section of Phi Beta Kappa at Union College.
If any American of the time rivaled Benjamin Franklin in terms of civic, scientific, and intellectual engagement, it was Mitchill. A professor of natural history at Columbia in the 1780s, Mitchill was considered by John Randolph to be a human “congressional library” because of his widespread knowledge and participation in more than fifty learned societies. One of these societies was New York’s Friendly Club, a hothouse of cultural activity in the 1790s that included Charles Brockden Brown, whose prolific output of longer fictional narratives exemplifies the decade’s turn to novelism. Mitchill’s personal learning and location within the cross-hatching of multiple early American projects and nascent institutions makes him an especially privileged redactor of 1790s attitudes and concerns, since it was the formative period of his most intense cultural activity, before his turn to formal politics as a New York state senator and U.S. congressman and senator.
If his 1820s Phi Beta Kappa audience had expected Mitchill to position himself in a cultural field mainly defined by the opposition of gentrified conservatism, exemplified by the Knickerbocker school, to “Young American” literary nationalism, they instead received a masterfully insistent recovery of views belonging in spirit to the 1790s. Mitchill works forensically to dissociate an essentialized geographical “Americanness” from the recent achievements won in the field of “Literature,” since the latter belongs to the “mighty march of the mind,” the mobility of which exceeds the limits of cartographic outlines. He repeatedly encourages his audience to refuse the definition of arts and sciences according to nationality, and Mitchill begins his talk by describing how the recent post-Napoleonic peace may actually result in a period of cultural deficiency because the absence of European conflict will decrease the immigration to American shores by foreign (mainly French) intellectuals who have particularly instigated literary, scientific, philosophical, and publishing activity. If Jacksonian-era United States isolates itself from the worldly currents of cosmopolitan invention and intellectual conversation, then it will simply slither backwards to stew in stagnant pools.
Before citing a state-by-state catalog of regional centers of higher education, Mitchill reminds his listeners that Congress has repeatedly refused to establish a national university that might institutionalize a centralizing school of thought or brand of education as a federal model for the regions to emulate. The defensive need to produce nationalist definitions of culture is the mark of excremental critics, who prize “American” subject matter with the same nature of “sturdy beetles in a path, boring the ground and stealing manure. They roll with peculiar art—one pushing and the other pulling, their new-made ball, which is precious above all things to them.” As for the certainty of the terms invoked by patriots, Mitchill claims that these are intellectually untenable confusions of an actually existing reality since a term like United States is a temporary political appellation, not a fixed identity.
Rather than assume the self-evident nominalism of a national imaginary, Mitchill wryly suggests that the matter be referred to committee for a possible referendum. The pleasure that Mitchill takes in knowingly antagonizing his audience marks a historical shift in the intellectual currents between the late eighteenth century and the early mid-nineteenth one. Mitchill would not have delivered such an arch lecture in the 1790s because he would not have yet seen himself as marginalized in the period’s cultural mainstream. Only with the later formation of literary nationalism does Mitchill see the need to intervene. The value of Mitchill’s discourse for us, however, is that it flags the absence of literary nationalism by a paradigmatic key player in the cultural field of the 1790s.
My claim here is not that literary nationalism cannot be found in the early Republic, but that it nowhere exists as so influential or decisive a factor as many critical studies of the period insist. Not only were state (lowercase) and provincial affiliations still prevalent, but, I will argue, differentiating regional determinations were crucial to the novelistic representation of social experience in the 1790s. A self-fulfilling prophecy appears as critics favor the evidentiary material of the period’s political party actors, their official documents and voluminous portfolio of written letters on the national question. Yet the presence of an articulate and prolix faction should not be taken as representing either a cultural totality or dominant feature.
The Paradigm Debate: Liberalism and Republicanism
The distortions of nationalist-oriented scholarship were partially recognized as later efforts position the study of the late eighteenth-century Unites States through the intellectual history paradigm debate between liberalism and republicanism. This debate is now so long-standing, especially as its proponents have retroactively incorporated earlier Americanist scholars within its critical narrative, that mapping its sallies is practically tantamount to recapitulating a bibliography of early American studies cultural historiography. The liberalism approach often interprets the period as primarily operationalized by a set of assumptions associated with Locke’s writing that are taken to signal the devolutionary rights of “possessive individualism,” the postaristocratic assertion that the monadic subject can participate in the free market of exchange by instrumentalizing itself, and the labor of others, as commodities and determine the course of its life apart from physicalized status determinations, denominational hierarchies, and the absolutist State. Republican positions look to the ideas of “commonwealth” or “country” English party claims for personally disinterested virtue, exemplified in the dedication to a civic humanist opposition to the despotic “hidden” interests involving the monarchy’s assumed constraints on liberty enacted through the covert machinations of its political servants in tandem with speculative financial and mercantile elites.
The paradigm debate has experienced so long a life, partly because it aptly functions as a surrogate for a series of other critical confrontations, ranging from ones over methodology (the author-centric approach of history of ideas versus the “history from the bottom up” that attempts to excavate the collective experience of unnamed and disempowered groups), periodization (the points, stages, or residues of protomodernity, modernity, and countermodernity), and, not least, the often covert war of left-right political affiliations by academics and how they understand various critical positions as allegorizing these allegiances.
One would need something approaching a polygonal model to visualize the debate’s manifold nature, especially as there are often internal divisions even within political sides. No simplifying binarization of the statements made between adherents of the liberal and republican heuristic can exist because the subterranean skirmishes between these tendencies often become ventriloquized through what seem to be stable and objective categories, but which frequently transform a previously received meaning into the opposite of its original provenance. If the category of liberalism was first marshaled into service by a Progressivist critique of capitalism’s social antagonism, a later academic generation complained that it had become reconfigured into a language of pluralism, which submerged the scars of social confrontation within a cold war rhetoric of melting-pot nationalism that celebrated the ethical superiority of U.S. consensus and consumer democracy over the racializing antagonisms of mid-twentieth-century Europe. As the term liberalism flip-flops to contradict the argumentative positions that it was originally meant to signify, the confusion led critics to veer away from its use as a tool for critiquing dominant forces in American society. As a more socially heterogeneous U.S. humanities academy evolved after the 1960s, scholars desired a paradigm that excluded the intellectual complacency and political quiescence that was connoted by liberalism-based research, as republicanism has become something like a default category throughout the 1980s and 1990s, especially for the renewed interest by nonhistorians in early American studies on matters of race, gender, sexuality, and geography.
Of the three titles that mark the recovery of late eighteenth-century writing in the United States—Jane Tompkins’s Sensational Designs, Cathy Davidson’s Revolution and the Word, and Michael Warner’s Letters of the Republic—all have implicit and explicit allegiances to the republican camp. Tompkins’s reader-response approach defends noncanonical work against the liberal aesthetic’s patriarchal disregard for female-authored and mass audience taste. Davidson’s richly theorized mediation of pre-1800s texts avoids relying on the depth interiority of a liberal aesthetic’s prioritization of irony and authorial self-assertion, which are of little use in many of the period’s highly generic texts. Both critics also enabled a serious return to discussions of sentimental and gothic writing, while Ann Douglass’s liberal-inspired complaint against sensationalized narratives feels barely part of the current discussion and is usually mentioned only as a bibliographic marker of quickly dismissible claims. The slightly later work of Warner introduces a variant of republican claims by mediating Habermas’s argument for the disembodied, universalizing sphere of public communication for the relevance of the early Republic’s texts.
As republicanism became a hegemonic term, the point of its historical intervention becomes increasingly lost through treatments that position its antagonist as a straw dog. For instance, Bruce Burgett argues for the weakness of liberalism as a category by comparing it to republicanism: “Liberalism and republicanism share a theoretical commitment to the principle of popular sovereignty, a commitment that presupposes the distinction between civil and state authority central to any democratic political theory. They differ, however, in republicanism’s greater emphasis on the public sphere as the space within civil society where the people’s sovereignty is debated, contested, and exercised. In contrast to the liberal subject, the republican citizen requires not only the negative liberty to withdraw from legal coercion and state supervision, but also the positive liberty to participate in public processes of collective self-determination.”
Burgett frames the difference between liberalism and republicanism as the former lacks a sphere, or utopian claim for a sphere, that allows for conflict-free collectivity. But surely liberalism has such a fantasmic receptacle—the bourgeois marketplace: “The sphere of circulation of commodity exchange, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labor-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. It is the exclusive realm of Freedom, Equality, Property, and Bentham.” By reducing liberalism to its political, rather than economic, characteristics, Burgett turns the argument into one over the relative benefits of different modes of bourgeois sociocultural representation. The oppositional or populist features of republicanism that often attract critics to its claims, namely, as a form for the expression of plebeian class dissent and subaltern complaint, consequently becomes another version of consensualism when it elides a sustained treatment of the marketplace and becomes a shorthand for the retreat from class as a category for critical inquiry. When republican-oriented scholars fashion liberalism as simply a choice of particularity over universality, they deflate the antiliberal intervention to little more than a culturalist gesture that often reintroduces aesthetic-led criteria, much as had the earlier proponents of liberalism.
In other words, the longevity of the paradigm debate may rest on how the terms of its confrontation have become so plastic as to encompass nearly any proposed position. The incoherence of the underlying argument is perhaps expected, given that even for the historical agents involved, the question—liberalism or republicanism—is one badly posed.
A revenant from Greek and Roman history, the idea of republicanism was recalled and reinvented in the eighteenth century through tendentious readings of archival fragments by a broad coalition of disenfranchised gentry and nascent bourgeois interests as part of a decades-long project to construct a political theory that could, on one hand, legitimize antimonarchical energies and enable a mode of postregal governmental practice that might prevent the king’s restoration, as had happened in England during the seventeenth century and, on the other, contain any potential violence by plebeians. Rather than a coherent set of statements, republicanism is more usefully considered as a tactical representational field that encapsulates a series of multiple, often contradictory, claims, even to the point where republicanism could be taken as a gambit for reforming, but not revoking, the monarchy.
In this light, Isaac Kramnick cautions against assuming that the concept has an initially radically democratic valence because “republicanism is historically an ideology of leisure. Its conception of citizenship privileges people who do not need to work, and have time to devote themselves to civic life.” For most of the eighteenth century, republicanism was the rallying cry of social and political elites who had the misfortune of not occupying government ministries, but desired to do so and sought to shift the center of power away from the old regime to a slightly different set of actors. In this form, the ideal of the disinterested citizen looks nostalgically to the authority of an extracourt landed gentry, or, for Americans, the Creole standing order of political and theological leadership. The elites’ financial independence and comfort grants them the liberty to disengage from a marketplace that makes men vulnerable to base influences either through the despotism of credit or coerced dependence on wages.
By the century’s end, republicanism was recodified by plebeians, artisans, mechanics, and other wage and bound laborers for functionally antibourgeois purposes. The concept’s refunctionalization means that the term’s recurrence in the 1790s mainly indicates the presence of social transformations that use the language of republicanism to enunciate collective confrontations at a time when the language of class was not widely available. When John Adams said late his life that he had “never understood” what republicanism meant, since it “may signify any thing, every thing, or nothing,” his professed confusion mainly indicates the degree to which the term had been redefined by interests other than his own. While the lability of “republicanism” made it tactically useful for the period’s factors, its fluidity prevents it from operating as a stable analytic category for contemporary scholars.
If republicanism was deployed throughout the eighteenth century in ways that do not necessarily link the signified beliefs to its signifying name, then the same is true for liberalism, which was a nascent practice, but not one recognized by the historically posterior use of that term. If liberalism refers to an impersonal marketplace, freed from governmental oversight and constituted by anonymous, autonomous, and mobile subjects, known through the abstract identities of buyer and seller, who are motivated by the restless desire to accumulate, the term characterizes features of a fully developed capitalist society that has overcome the personal power of known caste-status hierarchies. In this sense, however, liberalism is still in the process of formation for the late eighteenth century, “still an unarticulated behavioral pattern more than a sharply delineated mode of thought.” The problem here is that liberalism is an overly expansive term that does not adequately delimit the leading traits of capitalist activity in the phase between early modern merchant capital and nineteenth-century industrial capitalism. As I will argue below, the move from the personal early modern to impersonal industrial-era modes of the marketplace is too great a social catachresis: the dominant mode of the eighteenth-century phase of historical capitalism instead represents a calibrated transitional form of power that advocates for a “friendly” mode of the bourgeois marketplace, which ostensibly functions through universalizing sentiment and moral community among strangers.
The dominant topic for eighteenth-century writers associated with the middle class is the question of forming postabsolutist, civil society, not competitive individuality. Unlike later, nineteenth-century ideologues, Adam Smith’s defense of free trade saw the good of commerce in terms of collective wealth and as a medium for civilizing society, not as an arena of permissible Hobbesian war of all against all. Certainly many aspects of classic nineteenth-century liberalism are present in eighteenth-century affairs, but using a term forged by evidence of a later historical moment to define an earlier one risks injecting a teleological trajectory onto a set of conditions that might have produced different conditions than the ones that did, in fact, ensue. For the conditions of an intermediary phase, like the 1790s, more period specific terms are needed to apprehend that era’s form of capitalist accumulation.
The couplet of liberalism and republicanism does make sense, in the last instance, because the motility of these terms’ use in the eighteenth century points to the logic of their pairing: republicanism is a mode of liberalism as the former is one of the politicocultural mediums through which eighteenth-century agents articulated the ideals of protoliberal capitalism. Within the widely divergent meanings of republicanism, one version is entirely compatible with the mode of capitalism that later became nominated as liberalism. Before a fully fledged capitalist marketplace could arise in the nineteenth century, commercial interests needed to liberate the exchange of commodities from regulation by the church, absolutist state, and gentry concerns. Mercantilism and physiocracy could only be overcome by proposing an enlarged market of ostensibly equal agents who match self-interest with a sympathetic concern for the collective. Republicanism could shift throughout the century from being conveyed as a rhetoric of aristocratic oligarchy to one of plebeian equality because protoliberal middle-class actors had appropriated a version of republicanism’s insistence on the mutually enabling corporate body as a viable vision of a bourgeois ideal in order to use its invented traditions as a revisionist justification for the rise of commercial society. For this reason, the liberalism/republicanism dyad indicates the onset of a larger social movement, which the debate cannot be used by itself to clarify.
Gendered Sentiment and the Public Sphere
After much of the work on republicanism, and partially informed by a sense of its exhaustion, two other paradigms evolved during the 1980s and 1990s for the study of early American novelism: sentiment and the public sphere. Because both are topics that I will treat later at greater length, a full-blown analysis will have to wait. In the interim, a few comments are in order. Although the themes of sentiment and the public sphere attempt to provide a more historically nuanced context for the early Republic, these topics have been frequently deployed in ways that emphasize, if not acerbate, gender divisions as the sentimental becomes associated with a feminized private sphere of emotions and affective intensities, while the public sphere is often configured as a male-dominated realm of political administration, commerce, and (print) communication configured as disembodied universality. Such a scholarly division has tended to distort our understanding of both terms for reasons of collapsing oppositions similar to those mentioned above with the liberalism-republicanism pairing. The period’s claims for these elements never compartmentalized sentiment and publicity in the ways that recent criticism routinely enacts.
The assignment of sentiment to the private sphere and publicity to the male one assumes both gender difference and emotional performance to be transhistorical categories readily transparent to modern readers. Gender and emotion, however, have a complex history of recodification and reconfiguration throughout the long eighteenth century, and they cannot be taken as independent variables that carried the same meaning then as they are often assumed to have today. The eighteenth century’s conceptualization of print discourse in spaces of collective discussion was neither disembodied nor defined by the absence of emotional display, just as sentimentality cannot be split off from its economic concerns.
In a linked fashion, sentimental tales are often conflated with industrial-era narratives on the cult of domesticity. The sentimental is made to flow seamlessly with the domestic in order, again, to buttress claims for women’s experience as unaltered by historicity. Yet the object defined by “classic” nineteenth-century domesticity differs from that of the prior century’s sentimentality, as elements of the earlier were refashioned to produce the later category. The problematic enshrined at the heart of nineteenth-century “domestic” novels is the nexus of reproductive heterosexuality; the nuclear, bourgeois family; and an individualizing subjectivity marked by intrinsic personhood and genitalized sexual drives. The problematic enshrined at the heart of eighteenth-century sentimental tales involves the nexus of new associative relations made possible by the bourgeois subject freed from aristocratic lineage and status hierarchies and a subject marked by a sociability of body surface correspondences and a host of other bodily passions, which are not necessarily subordinated to a particular erotogeneous zone, like the genitals, or easily transcoded as primarily erotic in nature.
The concerns magnetized and amplified by domesticity in the nineteenth century have a different configuration and point of emphasis than those of eighteenth-century sentiment because the middle classes have slightly different historical concerns and positions of relative power in the two phases. Domesticity shares many of the generic narrative elements and devices of sentimentality, but the same words have been used in an entirely different social grammar. Because new formations find the cultural investment cost of inventing fresh terms too high, the concerned agents often appropriate preexisting tropes and recode them within a new syntax. Both the discourses of sentiment and domesticity use similar representational devices, but domesticity is of a piece with one phase of historical capitalism whereas sentimentality belongs to the preceding one. They share similar dynamics as they both belong to bourgeois culture, but they also diverge, as these dynamics take on different forms in different phases of historical capitalism. A definition of sentiment that sees it as nothing more than domesticity occludes its actual function in the eighteenth century.
The New Atlanticism
Recognizing its prior paradigms’ lack of efficacy, American studies has recently begun taking the “spatial turn” to consider the ways in which human geography impacts cultural production, particularly because hemispheric Atlantic studies might escape nationalist categories.
In the broadest sense, Atlanticism considers the production of cultural experience and its transmission as no longer comprehensively defined by the bounding limits of either a monocultural ethnic or state structure even while recognizing these as significant and determining factors. Although the level of the nation-state cannot be discounted, Atlanticism prioritizes the dense network of the extraterritorial circulation of goods and peoples as its primary context. Considering economic, social, political, and cultural factors as one involving the process of encounter and exchange, Atlantic studies considers the ocean as a relational unit of littoral contact zones rather than as an aquatic obstacle of division and difference.
The idea of a mutually structuring and systemic Atlanticism is not of a recent coinage. R. R. Palmer and Jacques Leon Godechot showed that the tides of political transformation in the late eighteenth century had to be understood as an integral matrix rather than simply as a set of isolated case studies. Though widely admired for their scholarship, Palmer’s and Godechot’s arguments were largely left alone by their scholarly generation, perhaps because their focus on revolutionary and counterrevolutionary struggles was at odds with a cold war academy intent on mythologizing an intrinsic national spirit of pluralist consensus as an allegory of American difference from Europe’s fascist and authoritarian regimes. When a later generation of Americanist historians and cultural critics came of age through the 1960s social movements, the sensibility shift toward a “history from the bottom up” made Palmer’s and Godechot’s work on political figures seem methodologically suspect as a Whig history of great men and dates. Yet, ironically, the first-wave practitioners of labor studies tended to internalize nativist predicates as strongly as had the prior scholarly generation.
The new Atlanticist turn may likewise reinscribe tendencies that were previously critically objectionable. For instance, transatlanticism as a recently revalorized term deserves qualification. The trouble with transatlanticism involves its conceptual inability to apprehend the cultural, economic, and ecological mechanisms that generate social history. At the epistemic level, transatlanticism rests on a static binary (a move caught in its prefix) that current criticism would otherwise avoid, if not seek actively to dismantle. Implicitly foregrounding, and nationalizing, with the Anglophone poles of England and the United States as its dominant reference points, transatlanticism fails to acknowledge that Britain and America have different ratios of importance throughout modern history, and that Euroamerican productions are contingent on the matrix formed by Africa, the Caribbean, and the other Americas. Collapsing the Atlantic basin into a self-contained, monolinguistic zone, transatlanticism risks reinstating a triumphalist history, which often relies on a census of imperial diplomacy, great individual actors, and economic patterns abstracted from human agents that can marginalize the subordinated subjects that American studies has otherwise prided itself on documenting.
In this vein, Paul Gilroy criticized accounts that “view modes of material production and political domination as exclusively national entities” in ways that disinclined the study of “racial politics as a significant element in the formation and reproduction of [white] English national identities.” To counter this insularity, Gilroy suggested the “image of [slave] ships in motion across space between Europe, America, Africa, and the Caribbean as a central organizing symbol for . . . a living, micro-cultural, micro-political system in motion” that circulates “ideas and activists as well as the movements of key cultural and political artifacts” throughout the Atlantic.
The Middle Passage as ethical imperative was the moral compass for two later defining instances of cultural Atlantic studies: Joseph Roach’s Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (1996) and Robert Linebaugh’s and Marcus Rediker’s The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (2000).
By replacing the term transatlantic for circumatlantic, Roach defines his Atlantic as formed by multiple traumatic histories, including the devastation suffered by the Americas’ first peoples at European contact as well as the institutionalization of oceanic African slavery. Circumatlanticism imagines the Atlantic basin as a systematizing matrix in which all sections exert bounding pressure that define the space, even if the movement of specific goods and peoples does not actually transverse the Atlantic but travels along segments of its perimeter. Like Gilroy, Roach links trauma and the transport of performative, visual, and printed texts as the catalyzing feature of modernity, but whereas Gilroy focused on the “revolutionary transformations of the West at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries,” Roach extends the horizon back to the seventeenth century, a move that logically includes the first establishment of New World plantations by the English but also tellingly centers his study away from the emancipatory political energies of the revolutionary era.
For Roach, acts of historical violence create a culture of primal grief that organizes cultural interaction throughout the ages in ways seemingly outside of further elaboration or intervention. Describing what he calls surrogation, wherein “the unspeakable cannot be rendered further inexpressible” and acts as the return of the repressed, often through various performances of morbid desire by oppressors for the oppressed, Roach allows scarring experience to free itself from later sociohistorical contexts that may amplify, re-direct, or ameliorate trauma. This New Historicist tendency to grant cultural codes a fetishized life and self-referentiality of their own means that experience becomes presented as increasingly belonging to an autonomous signifying chain of quotations that seeps into every text because of the metonymic nature of semiotics, rather than as a matter regarding further political and economic investment and rearrangement through a historically transforming series of material exchanges, alliances, and institutions. As Roach’s focus becomes increasingly attuned to the flow of representations, rather than the social transformations that cause certain representations to be promoted or contested, his study increasingly relies on a synchronic citation of historical context that lacks any notion of cultural change.
More emphatically, we need to insist that the circumatlantic matrix does not simply arise because of an abstract “modernity,” but rather because of a specifically capitalist-driven dynamic that catalyzes social change as it appropriates geographies and constructs commodity chains. The advantage of using circum rather than trans to describe the Atlantic matrix is not finally just a matter of replacing one geometric abstraction for another, a circle for a line, but that even at the level of its name, the circumatlantic underlines how social geography is shaped by the circuits of capital flows, where the search for surplus-value contours the topography of encounters.
Like Roach, Linebaugh and Rediker remain committed to tracing the flow of memory about injustice, but they differ in their approach to the links between representation and the history of capitalist expropriation. Rediker and Linebaugh argue that the antinomian, revolutionary politics of seventeenth-century plebeian England do not disappear after their political repression, first by Cromwell and then by the Restoration. These energies become externalized as the newly landless and masterless men go to the seas. Projected into this nautical matrix with a mixture of desperation and desire for opportunity, these dispossessed sailors created an aquamarine terrain of resistance in the ship’s holds and seaports within the interstices of the imperial machine. As the ships shuttle between the ports, they scatter the seeds of remembered rebellion and ideals of millennial transformation throughout the Atlantic to create a gestalt outline of resistance, which Linebaugh and Rediker chart by indicating contemporaneous clusters of rebellions throughout the eighteenth-century Atlantic as the belated receptacle of England’s seventeenth-century crisis.
As a foundational guide to an alternative world of plebeian insubordination, The Many-Headed Hydra provides a welcome new map of linking social relations through space. But if they want to tell a labor history about the motley community of plebeian consciousness in an era before capitalist racism was fully consolidated, Linebaugh’s and Rediker’s tendency to anchor their study on acts of relatively spontaneous outbursts of revolt does not entirely extricate them from the insufficiencies of prior approaches that they hoped to surpass.
Their emphasis on the spirit of rebellion means that they often mimic the myth-and-consensus school of an earlier mode of American studies, especially with their celebratory focus on cross-racial alliances. Despite their professed renunciation of the national frame, they mainly hold to the shores of a self-contained Anglophone, albeit creolized, Atlantic defined by the mythos of naval England. Yet England was neither the only Atlantic player throughout the eighteenth-century nor was it free from the pressures and limits of other imperial interests, especially as a latecomer to New World colonization. This point is crucial since the sequence of plebeian revolt makes sense only in context of interimperialist conflict. When dominant colonial elites face no extrinsic threat from other imperial authorities, they could contain riots and foreclose the idea of revolt in the first instance. Even the most successful rebellion—Haiti’s—succeeds only because its leaders were able to pit Spanish, French, and British interests against one another in order to create the time and space for the black revolution’s survival and consolidation.
The enduring secret recourse to the nation-state, even if that container is no longer conclusively determined by territorial limits, raises two macrodisciplinary questions regarding Atlantic studies, one about its object of research and the other of methodology. Has (circum) Atlantic studies constituted itself as a field involving a specific problematic, domain, and method of evidentiary analysis, or has it relied until now on a loose bricolage of approaches charted out in other disciplines (economics, political science, history, and so on) to maintain allegiance to the autarkic nation-state in unreflexive ways? Does Atlantic studies have a particularity different from research into other aquatic containers, like Pacific studies or Indian Ocean studies, or should all these pursuits be considered as local facets or levels of analysis within a more general concern, such as the rise of historical capitalism and its spatial configurations of the price-setting marketplace? On another axis, how can we relate the production of cultural artifacts, notations, and performances to larger extranational flows involving commodity chains of goods and peoples, even those that do not necessarily occur within the transmission lines of a specific state? Can we chart an approach that is specific to the Atlantic bundle of relations, processes, and flows; provides a nondeterminist, as well as nonidealist, approach to cultural histories of texts and mentalities; and acknowledges historicity, the phase transformations of social history? My point of departure in this book is the need for a new paradigm that uses Atlantic circulation as the aquatic container of power inequities and polygon of traumatic and utopian experiences, but in ways that better relate the connections between suprasubjective social history and the production of individual cultural notations, the tides of trade and texts.
Also of Interest
Subscribe to our mailing list and be notified about new titles, journals and catalogs.