Current Issue Article Abstracts
Volume 7, Number 1, Spring 2019
Letters from the People: A Response to Radiclani Clytus
Dread: The Phobic Imagination in Antislavery Literature
Don James McLaughlin
This article examines how abolitionists developed a rhetorical tradition premised on the neologisms colorphobia and Negrophobia in order to posit an affective basis for race prejudice. These concepts functioned initially as puns on hydrophobia, the historical name for rabies, named for the dread of swallowing known to accompany the disease. In other words, colorphobia harbored a precise metaphor in its etymology, picturing the slave system as a mad dog in the throes of a rabid breakdown, spreading race prejudice in the form of an infectious fear. Exploring the forms this rhetoric could take, I demonstrate that while satire thus served as the dominant mode early on, phobia’s emphasis on fear soon began to inspire strategies of public health activism too. Political discourse in the U.S. began to incorporate scientific investigations of fear as a psychological state. I conclude by arguing that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Dred is the most significant work of literature to respond to this rhetorical trend. Skeptical of the move to isolate fear as an exclusively pathological feeling, Stowe endeavors to repurpose a phobic aesthetic in the form of the novel’s protagonist Dred, originally spelled “Dread,” to explore the potential uses of fear as a political affect.
This essay explores how Emily Dickinson’s impairments influence the composition of her poems. From remaining skeptical of medical care to refusing to acknowledge the “Names of Sickness,” Dickinson considers how she might convey disability in ways that challenge diagnostic frameworks. I show how Dickinson’s early fascicle and late scrap poems translate physical impairment into textual form through representations of constraint: a term that both poetry and disability share. The essay begins by assessing the poet’s reclusion (what the field psychiatry termed “agoraphobia” at the close of the nineteenth century), proposing that her references to material enclosures and use of space on the pages of her poems implant spatial constraints that temper feelings of expanse or openness. Next, I explore poems that make explicit reference to blindness and consider how Dickinson’s eyestrain in the mid 1860s influenced the presentation of her poems in bound form. I conclude the essay by positing that Dickinson’s preoccupation with death influenced the unbound form of her late scrap poems. In adopting Tobin Siebers’s “theory of complex embodiment,” the essay reckons with the reality of the poet’s bodily and cognitive constraints to reveal how Dickinson registers disability via textual form.
Elizabeth Fenton, Valerie Rohy
This essay treats Herman Melville’s correspondence with Nathaniel Hawthorne as an occasion to examine the relationship between historicist literary criticism and absence. Hawthorne’s responses to Melville’s admiring messages stand as a lacuna in the archive; Melville told Julian Hawthorne that he destroyed them, and no evidence has surfaced to contradict that claim. Without Hawthorne’s half of the correspondence, contemporary scholars have been hard pressed to identify the precise nature of the two men’s relationship, and thus they often have called on other historical sources to supplement a lack that can never be filled. Reading Melville’s letters alongside his review of Hawthorne’s Mosses from an Old Manse as engagements with the productive power of absence, this essay argues that, as it was for Melville, absence is the condition required to produce the desire that undergirds historicist inquiry. Rather than attempting to solve the mystery that the missing letters present, we argue that they offer a compelling framework for considering the scholarly encounter with the past. It is the archive’s incompleteness, rather than its contents, we contend, that makes historicism possible.
Delirium So Real: Mark Twain’s Spectacular History
This essay analyzes Mark Twain’s late literary and technological projects as part of a larger effort to salvage historical consciousness within the antihistorical experience of spectacle. Focusing on works produced between 1880 and 1910, the essay traces Twain’s shifting articulations of the relation between modern technology and historical discourse through three stages: first, his embrace of the “spectacular” discourse of historical rupture endemic to second-stage industrialization, as exemplified in Twain’s writings on the Paige Compositor and in Hank Morgan’s “miracles” in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889); second, Twain’s mechanistic philosophy of history, in which “the machine” gives form to a vision of history as a long, unbroken chain of material causes and effects; and finally, a dialectical negation of these two positions, in which the illusory immediacy of visual technologies—including a board game, a roadway game, and photography—mediates vast networks of historical relations, providing a form of technological mediation suited to Twain’s critiques of US imperialism.
Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Metapoetics
Amanda Mehsima Licato
This essay looks to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s dilemma as the nation’s first African American commercial writer and representative of black dialect verse by examining his metapoetic standard English poems in Oak and Ivy (1893), Majors and Minors (1895), Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896) and Lyrics of the Hearthside (1899). At the cusp of a growing demand for black dialect and blackface performance in the 1890s, Dunbar’s “pure blackness” put him in the rather unfortunate position of having to write in dialect to gain a readership and make a living as a professional writer. To mitigate this problem, I find that Dunbar developed the proto-modernist technique of metapoetic personae, which he employed in the majority of his standard English verses as implicit commentaries on the romantic ideals of his white counterparts. Dunbar’s metapoems are thus significant assessments of the link between craftsmanship and commercialism in the Post-Reconstruction era, debunking the deeply problematic myths about the imaginative possibilities of black writers.
This essay recovers Melville’s long-neglected novel Mardi, arguing that it is an essential text for understanding Melville’s relationship to nineteenth-century science. Rich with “sedimentary strata” and imagery of terrestrial “treasures” – gold, silver, diamonds, granite – Mardi reveals Melville thinking on a planetary scale through the emerging sciences of geology, mineralogy, and astronomy. In particular, the strange presence of minerals in Mardi initiates an alternate trajectory within Melville’s writing, one that crisscrosses the barriers between art and science, life and nonlife, literary form and “earthy matter.” Mardi opens new sightlines into Melville’s early career that capture the significance of nineteenth-century American literature for our own precarious moment.
The Last Cleric: Ann Douglas, Intellectual Authority, and the Legacy of Feminization
Kevin Pelletier, Claudia Stokes, Abram Van Engen
This article revisits Ann Douglas’s classic work The Feminization of American Culture in order to assess its model of intellectual authority. Rather than offering a new close reading or critique of its claims about sentimentalism, we instead contend that the argumentative focus of Feminization is concerned primarily with the changing status of the public intellectual. Situating the book within its 1970s context, when female professors were extremely rare and institutional sexism extremely high, we examine how and why Douglas chose to speak as she did throughout the book. Her style--with its assertive tone, sweeping generalizations, and emphatic pronouncements--reflects this context, and it expresses how Douglas views her role as an intellectual and literary critic. Moreover, the style attempts to reach beyond scholarly peers in order to influence a broad, non-academic audience. In considering issues of context, presentation, style, readership, audience, and the cultural pressures that shaped this book, we show that Feminization still has much to offer humanities scholars whose authority, both inside and outside the academy, remains uncertain. As a book primarily about the vital role of American intellectuals and their responsibilities to the broader public, Douglas’s Feminization raises persistent questions about how we do what we do as English professors—and whom we hope to reach in our published work.