Southern Literary Review 1

I have become the managing editor of Southern Literary Review.  We seek book reviews about Southern literature, and we’re looking for enthusiastic writers to contribute biographical profiles of landmark Southern authors.  Visit our submission guidelines.

The Southern Literary Review celebrates southern authors and their contributions to American literature.  We feature classic southern writers who have defined southern literature, such as Zora Neale Hurston and William Faulkner.  SLR also profiles and interviews modern novelists such as Tom Wolfe and Wendell Berry and emerging southern writers such as Daniel Wallace and Sue Monk Kidd.  With hundreds of pages of original content, we are dedicated to offering quality information about America’s southern authors, and their works.  Peruse our excellent book reviews on new southern novels as well as the classics of southern literature.

SLR was founded in 2004.  With an overhaul of the site in Spring 2009, SLR has now invited several contributors to join in producing fresh content on a regular basis, so there will always be something new to see here.  Julie Cantrell served as editor-in-chief for nearly two years and Adele Annesi joined as managing editor in 2011. Both Julie and Adele have recently retired. After years as dedicated contributors, Philip K. Jason and Allen Mendehall took the reigns of SLR in November, 2011. Phil is now publisher and executive editor.

Nietzsche on the Writer or Artist 2

“[O]ne does well to separate the artist from his work, which should be taken more seriously than he is.  Ultimately, he is no more than its pre-condition, the womb, the soil, possibly the manure and midden upon which, from which it grows—and thus, in most cases, something which must be forgotten before the work itself can be enjoyed.  Insight into the origin of a work is a matter for physiologists and vivisectors of the spirit: but never one for the aesthetic men, the artists!”

—Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals

It’s easy, reading Nietzsche, to fall into anachronism: to consider his comments about divorcing the author from the text as indicative of something akin to the New Criticism, a hermeneutic that isolated texts from externalities such as authorial intent and that treated the aesthetic object as self-contained and autonomous.  That is not at all what Nietzsche meant.  For Nietzsche, the text, or the aesthetic object, is not isolated from externalities, but merely removed from and, in a way, prior to the author; the text is plugged into externalities, shaped and molded by them, so much so that the author is but the incidental medium through which the text speaks.  The text, in other words, has its own authority apart from its creator, who, through the will, channels social and cultural energies to generate aesthetic output.  The writer or artist is “no more than its pre-condition, the womb, the soil, possibly the manure and midden upon which, from which it grows.”  Discourse impregnates the writer or artist, who, thus implanted with ideas and alphabets, carries vocabularies through their prenatal stages and into a rebirth—or new expression—in the form of art.  

According to Nietzsche, the objects and ambitions of the writer or artist as a thinking actor are not, or ought not to be, overstated because the writer or artist is the ultimate example of the effect of action and will.  For the writer or artist is not independent from discourse and ethos—indeed, he is constituted by them, and so, by extension, is his textual production: the aesthetic object.  We may forget the author; if anything, he or she only impedes the pleasure we derive from texts and aesthetics.  The author is “something which must be forgotten before the work itself can be enjoyed.”

Why does Nietzsche posit this view?  What is he after?  Among other things, he’s criticizing the writers and artists who would have us believe that they are above and beyond others, somehow able to divine the real and the eternal.  These writers and artists treat the ascetic ideal as part and parcel of aestheticism—i.e., they conflate the ascetic with the aesthetic to maximize their feeling of power.  Although writers and artists promote themselves in this way, as if they had privileged access to universal yet remote knowledge, they realize, Nietzsche says, that on some level their ascetic ideal is an unreality or falsity—what Baudrillard might have called a hyperreality or simulacrum.  The ascetic ideal is escapism: a fleeting respite from the reality of the will to power, the impulse that the writer or artist seeks to evade, suppress, and disguise.  The conflict of the writer or artist lies in the desire to escape both to and from asceticism; for the intoxicating powers of the ascetic ideal are sobered by the boredom and angst of knowing that the ideal is but therapy and relief.  That realization means that therapy and relief are themselves, paradoxically, the grounds for further escapism—for further therapy and relief. 

All of this suggests that ascetic ideals do not signify.  As Nietzsche says, ascetic ideals “mean absolutely nothing!”  What is so remarkable about these ideals is that they are contingent and contextual such that they amount to nothing and everything at once, and that we will, despite ourselves, and despite our longing for meaning, chase after nothing rather than not chase at all.  That, alas, is why the artist lacks independence in this world.  That, alas, is why no artist is disinterested.   

Allen Mendenhall

The Place of Miscegenation Laws within Historical Scholarship about Slavery 2

Allen Mendenhall

Miscegenation laws, also known as anti-miscegenation laws, increasingly have attracted the attention of scholars of slavery over the last half-century.  Scholarship on slavery first achieved eminence with the publication of such texts as Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery (1944), Frank Tannenbaum’s Slave and Citizen (1946), Kenneth Stampp’s The Peculiar Institution (1956), Stanley Elkins’s Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (1959), and Leon F. Litwack’s North of Slavery (1961).  When Winthrop D. Jordan published his landmark study White Over Black in 1968, miscegenation statutes during the era of American slavery were just beginning to fall within historians’ critical purview.  The Loving v. Virginia case, initiated in 1959 and resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967, no doubt played an important role in activating scholarship on this issue, especially in light of the Civil Rights movement that called attention to various areas of understudied black history. 

In Loving, the Supreme Court struck down Virginia’s miscegenation statutes forbidding marriage between whites and non-whites and ruled that the racial classifications of the statutes restricted the freedom to marry and therefore violated the Equal Protection Clause and Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  In the wake of Loving, scholarship on miscegenation laws gained traction, although miscegenation laws during the era of American slavery have yet to receive extensive critical treatment.  Several articles and essays have considered miscegenation laws and interracial sex during the era of American slavery, but only a few book-length analyses are devoted to these issues, and of these analyses, most deal with interracial sex and miscegenation laws in the nineteenth-century antebellum period, or from the period of Reconstruction up through the twentieth-century.  This historiographical essay explores interracial sex and miscegenation laws in the corpus of historical writing about slavery.  It does so by contextualizing interracial sex and miscegenation laws within broader trends in the study of slavery.  Placing various historical texts in conversation with one another, this essay speculates about how and why, over time, historians treated interracial sex and miscegenation laws differently and with varying degrees of detail.  By no means exhaustive, this essay merely seeks to point out one area of slavery studies that stands for notice, interrogation, and reconsideration.  The colonies did not always have miscegenation laws; indeed, miscegenation laws did not spring up in America until the late seventeenth-century, and they remained in effect in various times and regions until just forty-four years ago.  The longevity and severity of these laws make them worthy our continued attention, for to understand miscegenation laws is to understand more fully the logic and formal expression of racism. More…

Law Professors and Laws of Slavery 10

I would, first of all, like to applaud all the contributors for the renewed activity on this fine blog, and second of all to extend my welcome to Mark D. White.  Welcome, Mark!  Glad to have you at the table.  I missed you at the Association for the Study of Law, Culture & Humanities conference, but I hear that you did a great job. 

My post today is something of a brief historiographical essay that ends by posing some critical questions for legal academics.

Kenneth Stamp published his landmark study The Peculiar Institution (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) in 1956, thus inaugurating the institutionalized and concerted efforts of scholars to examine the history of slavery in America with greater detail.  Research and study of the history of slavery then gained momentum in the 1960s.  One of the seminal texts from this period was David Brion Davis’s The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (Cornell University Press, 1966), winner of the 1967 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction.  An ambitious undertaking, this book seeks to demonstrate the continuity of slavery through various times and places in Western Civilization.  A legitimizing narrative or logic always accompanies the institution of slavery, Davis suggests, but such narrative or logic—or narrative logic—is fraught with paradoxes threatening to undermine the institution altogether.  How, for instance, does one reconcile the ideals of freedom and equality, so celebrated by American Revolutionaries, with the pervasive reality of human bondage?  How does one make sense of a Christianity that both condemns and justifies slavery?  How can slaves be humans—rational agents with free will—and chattel property at once?  How does ending the slave trade worsen conditions for the enslaved?  If enslaving infidels, and only infidels, is valid by law and church teaching, then how do European colonists validate the enslavement of converted Africans?  How can colonists rely heavily upon an institution that they fear?  How can one of the earliest American colonies to oppose slavery (Georgia) become a hotbed for slavery?  If, according to law and church teaching, only pagans can be enslaved, why are not Natives enslaved as frequently or as much as Africans?  For that matter, why do early objections to slavery focus on Natives, who are less likely to become slaves than blacks?  Why do colonists insist on Christianizing slaves yet fear converted slaves?  How does the antislavery movement develop out of the very ideology sustaining slavery?  How do notions of sin both justify and subvert the institution of slavery?  Why does the Age of Enlightenment, with its celebration of reason, humanism, and liberation, intensify rather than disparage slavery?  And how can the New World, a putatively progressive landscape, rely on and perpetuate an ancient institution?  These and other questions permeate Davis’s provocative text.  Davis does not try to resolve these apparent contradictions so much as he explores them through various persons, places, and patterns; in so doing, he describes how human bondage gets revised and extended from one age to the next, and how justifications for slavery in one era inaugurate justifications for slavery in later eras. 

Davis’s book departs from trends set by historians such as Stanley Elkins.  A paradigm shift away from the “Phillips School” of historiography—which looked sympathetically upon plantation life in the Old South—Elkins’s Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (University of Chicago Press, 1959) charts the rise of slavery in early America and argues, controversially, that the infantilization of American slaves by slave owners and overseers was akin to the psychological tactics that Nazis deployed in concentration camps.  Any comparisons with Nazi Germany are suspect and tend to raise more questions than they resolve.  How, for instance, do property and property law in American slavery relate to the Nazi investment in bodily economy?  How did the ideology of Southern slaveholders vis-à-vis the ideology of Europeans in other countries during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries contrast with the ideology of Nazis vis-à-vis the ideologies of other European countries during the Nazi era?   Elkins runs up against this problem by overstating, in part III in particular, the ideological similarities between American slave-owners and Nazi leaders.  In terms of time and geography, this comparison does not stand up to scrutiny.  At any rate, unlike Elkins, Davis contextualizes slavery by the historical events leading to and immediately following slavery in America, the West Indies, and Brazil, drawing from sources directly linked to these slave systems rather than generalizing about recent events only tangentially or conceptually related to American slavery, an institution balancing on a different ideological fulcrum than did Nazism.          

Davis argues that the basic characteristics and structures of slavery remain unchanged throughout Western history, even if the particulars of slavery—say, slave laws or notions of racial superiority—take on new forms in new sociopolitical environments.  Davis’s text appears in the wake of scholarship “less content with theories of progressive currents washing away the dregs of an evil past” and more interested in “the relations between ideology and social structure” (28).  Although Davis applauds then-recent scholarship for bringing “rewarding insights,” he cautions that it tends “to divert attention from the fact that Negro slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries posed a genuine moral problem that reflected deep tensions in Western culture and involved the very meaning of America” (28).  Davis’s text, then, stands in contradistinction to Elkins’s because Davis embraces an ethical approach—or at least entertains moral questions—while Elkins generally eschews approaches treating slavery as a system of competing moralities (Elkins 28).  Davis appears to position his text as a corrective to, rather than an extension of, scholarship on American slavery, although he, like Elkins, refuses to view history as necessarily linear or progressive, and although he uses America—that is to say, the colonies that would make up the United States—as a starting point for investigating other European slave societies both earlier (ancient, medieval, and Renaissance) and later (the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the West Indies and Brazil).  Davis’s accounts are not and cannot be exhaustive, but they are critically detailed and theoretically sound, tracing lines of thought about slavery across a vast time and space.  Davis takes pains, in chapters eight and nine especially, to debunk the notion that slavery in Brazil and Latin America was less harsh than slavery in North America.  Here he falls, like Elkins, into the trap of comparing a severe phenomenon from one time and place with the severe phenomenon of another time and place in a way that distracts from the brutality and grotesqueness of both phenomena.             

Winthrop Jordan’s White over Black (University of North Carolina Press, 1968), winner of the National Book Award and the Bancroft Prize, followed shortly after Davis’s publication and explores race-based theories underpinning the international slave trade.  The fundamental question upon which this book rests is whether racism precedes slavery or slavery precedes racism.  Contra Davis (see Davis, chapter 9), Jordan submits that slavery precedes racism, particularly in the American context.  His thesis is that although historians treat slavery and racism as one-in-the-same, the beginning of slavery does not correspond with the beginning of racism, which is a later phenomenon.  The colonists and mercantilists who transported slaves from Africa to the Americas were less motivated by racial prejudice than by difference itself.  Insofar as difference is bound up with race, the distinction is a fine one.  Nevertheless, “racism” entails science and implicates discourses of biological superiority and inferiority, whereas “difference,” as it were, entails dissimilarities that are, among other things, aesthetic, religious, cultural, sexual, and social.  Jordan’s focus is on Anglo-America.  He does not investigate slave life in Brazil or in the West Indies as does Davis.  His analysis is mostly rooted in the eighteenth-century, roughly the same period that Davis uses to foreground his discussion of earlier forms of slavery.  Both Davis and Jordan privilege a white, European reading of history, at least inasmuch as they ignore the perspectives and quotidian realities of black slaves.  Jordan in particular is criticized—and rightly so—for his apparent attempts to understand the psychology of European colonials.  Although he, like everyone, has no access to the inner thoughts of colonials—or to the inner thoughts of anyone not himself—he does piece together stark insights from the outward manifestations of personal attitudes that, in the aggregate, combine to create a telling portrait of the colonial ethos and milieu.  Davis’s work anticipates the work of later scholars such as Orlando Patterson, who, in Slavery and Social Death (Harvard University Press, 1982), analyzes slavery as a widespread practice throughout different periods and places. 

Despite their shared attention to breadth and continuity, Davis’s and Elkins’s books differ in several important ways, but most notably in Davis’s avoidance of totalizing definitions for slavery.  Patterson defines slavery as “the permanent, violent domination of natally alienated and generally dishonored persons” (13).  This definition is problematic for a number of reasons, not least of which is its reliance upon slippery signifiers: “permanent,” “domination,” “natally alienated,” and “generally dishonored.”  (Was American slavery “permanent” if it no longer exists?  Put another way, did American slavery constitute slavery if it came to an end?  And did slave status always necessarily entail the natal?)  Patterson’s definition is too broad or too narrow, depending on who is interpreting it and in what context.  That there might be a universal definition for slavery, however, is an interesting—albeit daring—proposition.  It lends critical substance to Davis’s thesis that the dynamics of slavery remained relatively fixed over time, despite diverse technological, economic, and ideological currents shaping slavery in different eras.      

Slavery received an enormous amount of attention among historians working during the late twentieth century, and every year historians continue to uncover more information about slavery.  But the law professoriate has yet to examine the laws of slavery with adequate detail.  With a few notable exceptions—I’m thinking in particular of Paul Finkelman and Ariela Gross—law professors have yet to properly examine slavery and all of its ramifications for the law.  In light of Eugene Genovese’s magnificent Roll, Jordan, Roll (New York: Pantheon Books, 1974), which is now quite old but which remains relevant and important to any understanding of slave laws in America, the lack of attention to slave law among legal academics is striking and even worrisome.  Why have legal academics fallen behind in this critical area, and what are they doing to make up for this lacuna in legal scholarship?

Allen Porter Mendenhall

Article on E.M. Forster 1

Click here to view my article on law in A Passage to India.  Here is an abstract:

E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India presents Brahman Hindu jurisprudence as an alternative to British rule of law, a utilitarian jurisprudence that hinges on mercantilism, central planning, and imperialism.  Building on John Hasnas’s critiques of rule of law and Murray Rothbard’s critiques of Benthamite utilitarianism, this essay argues that Forster’s depictions of Brahman Hindu in the novel endorse polycentric legal systems.  Mr. Turton is the local district collector whose job is to pander to both British and Indian interests; positioned as such, Turton is a site for critique and comparison.  Forster uses Turton to show that Brahman Hindu jurisprudence is fair and more effective than British bureaucratic administration.  Forster’s depictions of Brahman Hindu are not verisimilar, and Brahman Hindu does not recommend a particular jurisprudence.  But Forster appropriates Brahman Hindu for aesthetic and political purposes and in so doing advocates a jurisprudence that does not reduce all experience to mathematical calculation.  Forster writes against the Benthamite utilitarianism adopted by most colonial administrators in India.  A tough figure to pin down politically, Forster celebrates the individual and personal relations: things that British rule of law seeks to suppress.

Thoughts on an Essay about Pragmatism Reply

Lately I’ve been reading a subject of interest to the lawyers, theologians, writers, and philosophers at the table: pragmatism.  (Pragmatism finds a way of encompassing any interest whatsoever.)  The following discussion is brief and does not do justice to the nuances of my subject: Ruth Anna Putnam’s essay “The Moral Impulse” (in The Revival of Pragmatism, Morris Dickstein, ed., Duke University Press, 1999).  Nevertheless, I proceed with eyes wide open. 

Putnam opens by referencing William James’s pragmatist metaphysics and its reliance upon feelings and the sensorial to get at the religious or moral.  This reference provides Putnam wide latitude to articulate her arresting point that people participate in moral value systems because they always retain agency even if their actions seem like products of habit.  People do not act in putatively moral ways simply because they are conditioned or determined to do so; they act in those ways because they want to do so.  The want is the moral impulse.  That one should act or think on an impulse does not evacuate that action or thought of all intelligence.  “It is not,” Putnam assures us, “to say that one does not have or has not given intellectually compelling reasons for that position” (63).  In fact, as James himself suggests, we may—notice he does not say ought to or must—entertain any moral impulses so long as they lead us toward critical currents of thought that have not been invalidated even if they have not been validated.  Using such Jamesian refrains as her starting-point and hesitating over the usefulness of a now catch-all signifier like “pragmatism,”[1] Putnam announces her intention to explore moral beliefs in the work of James and Dewey.  Her focus is on those moments of convergence and departure, with slightly more emphasis on the departure.  Without touching on all Putnam’s arguments about James and Dewey and their agreements and disagreements, I will here note one of Putnam’s more sustained and striking observations, which addresses the difference between James’s and Dewey’s moral values: the difference which, it turns out, is at the heart of her essay. More…

William Bartram’s Travels and the Erotica of Nature 1

I’ll limit my discussion of Bartram’s cognitive originality to some finer points made by Michael Gaudio, whose article, “Swallowing the Evidence,” is a mostly on-the-mark interrogation of Bartram’s persistent use of metaphor.

Gaudio writes that Bartram’s Travels, with its imagery of swallowing, mouths, and voids, calls into question Enlightenment aesthetics while signaling glaring absences in the putatively public sphere. Although Gaudio argues convincingly that Bartram’s imagery signifies an “Enlightenment view of the cosmos in which the natural and the social operate according to the same rational principles,” he privileges a political over an erotic reading, thereby reducing the text to a series of subversive patterns of visual perception. In fact, Bartram’s text is less about movement politics than it is about scientific or social politics (I’m strategically essentializing here—these spheres are neither mutually exclusive nor categorically absolute).

Travels describes a journey lasting from 1773 to 1777, arguably the most intense moment in American political history, yet Bartram makes no mention of the Revolution, the Continental Congress, the Declaration of Independence, or any other political signifier. As the war between Britain and America raged, Bartram rummaged through woods recording data and collecting specimens. He might have been interested in undermining Enlightenment ideals, as Gaudio suggests, but he probably was not keen on likening sink holes to doubts about the democratic project. A better reading would treat Bartram’s concave, hollow, and gaping imagery as vaginal and his nature aesthetics as sexual. Such a reading not only sheds light on Bartram’s aesthetic facility but also gives rise to a better reading of Bartram’s politics as understood through depictions of Natives, black men, or property-owning colonials. Gaudio is right to argue that, for Bartram, “the work of the naturalist is the recording of not only the visibility of nature’s surfaces but also the struggle that leads to that visibility,” but he is wrong to ignore the language of penetration and other pseudo-sexual insinuations. Attending to this sexual language might have allowed Gaudio to enlist Bartram in the “anti-Enlightenment” project in other, more interesting ways—for instance, by contrasting Bartram’s observations of Indian tribes with the unwarranted assumptions of Enlightenment thinkers who dismissed Natives as mere barbarians or worse.

Gaudio submits that because Bartram’s aim was to “exhibit the self-evidence of nature” and to “set the full presence of its surfaces before the viewer,” Bartram’s appeals were necessarily visual. That much, I think, we can grant. But Gaudio goes too far when he contrasts Bartram with Bacon by claiming that the latter employed “rhetoric of penetration” to peer beneath nature’s surfaces whereas Bartram looked precisely to nature’s surfaces because he preferred architectural forms to dissected taxonomies. Gaudio suggests, in other words, that Bartram seeks out rational forms, which share a visual logic, to show nature’s uniform and universal manifestations. Nevertheless, Bartram’s rhetoric (like Bacon’s) is rich in references to penetration. Gaudio’s formative analogy therefore does not stand up to close examination.

“Having some repairs to make in the tackle of my vessel, I paid my first attention to them,” Bartram says of a particularly cheerful morning, adding, “my curiosity prompted me to penetrate the grove and view the illuminated plains.” Similarly, Bartram speaks of “penetrating the groves,” “penetrating the Canes,” “penetrating the forests,” penetrating the “first line” of alligators, “penetrating a thick grove of oaks,” and penetrating “the projecting promontories.” All of this penetration flies in the face of Gaudio’s argument that Bartram’s “voids” signal the limits of Enlightenment thought. Rather than avoiding vocabulary of penetration, Bartram embraces it. Bartram may be interested in surfaces, but he is also interested in—one might say seduced by—what lies beneath. He even employs sexual innuendo and other erotic lexica to portray what lies beneath.

The sexual language in Travels serves to eroticize nature, which seduces with its enchanting if virginal charms. In a brilliant essay, Thomas Hallock speaks of botanic men (including William Bartram’s father, John) who turned “genteel ladies into fascinated subjects.” For these men, plants “served as a shorthand for intimate relationships that were transacted across vast space.” According to this logic, it follows that any “individual who interacts with the natural world takes on an ‘ecopersona,’ an identity or costume of manners that locates consumption of the natural within a given cultural code.” By ignoring the eros pouring forth from Bartram’s nature writings, Gaudio overlooks a very telling association between Native women, whom Bartram eroticizes, and nature, itself a sensual “organism.” More to the point, he misses Bartram’s odd constructions of eco-personae for Native women. Indeed, Bartram forges an association between nature and Native women in his “sylvan scene of primitive innocence,” which was “enchanting” and “perhaps too enticing for hearty young men long to continue idle spectators.”

In what Bartram calls a “joyous scene of action,” nature (read: passion) prevails over reason and European men are drawn helplessly—as if by Sirens—to the Native “nymphs” guarded by “vigilant” and “envious” matrons. The Native women are sensual and seductive because they seem in tune with Nature and the “Elysian fields.” In light of this analogy, Bartram speaks of Natives as “amorous topers,” “amorous and bacchanalian” dancers, amorous singers, and amorous and intriguing wives, just as he speaks of the “sweet enchanting melody of the feathered songsters” in their “varied wanton amorous chaces,” or of the “soothing love lays of the amorous cuckoo.” That is to say, Bartram effectively ties Native women to the carnal cravings of animal lust. For this reason, the desire to penetrate takes on a much stronger meaning than the one Gaudio describes vis-à-vis Bacon—it becomes not just about examinations of exterior surfaces but about the physical need and urge to thrust right through surfaces.

The land on and adjacent to a particular river “appears naturally fertile,” Bartram declares, “notwithstanding its arenaceous surface.” Surfaces can be deceiving, so Bartram digs deeper, so to speak, and identifies their sexual and reproductive possibilities. Similarly, he likens “many acres of surface” to a “delusive green wavy plain of the Nymphae Nelumbo,” a plant that represents sexual purity or virginity. In these and other instances, Bartram renders nature as a playground of erotic spaces for male pleasure. Simply put, Bartram’s nature is fertile and stimulates sexual arousal.

If, for Bartram, Native women were in harmony with nature and so were fertile and seductive—if they were hypersexualized—then Gaudio could have done far more with the vaginal motifs in Travels. Like countless others, he could have called into question the tropes, male gazing, and sexual power plays at work in the book and thereby achieved a “political” reading actually supported by the text. Gaudio is at his best when bringing to light metaphors that would seem easy to overlook, but his analysis fails for disregarding the obvious sexual and vaginal connotations evoked by these metaphors. At worst, his analysis fails for pivoting on a major assumption—that Bartram limited his analysis to surfaces and exteriors without regard to “the insides.” If anything, Bartram seems even more interested in “the insides” given his sexual renderings of a nature that invites penetration and carnal exploration.

–Allen Mendenhall

See the following articles for more reading:

Abrams, Ann Uhry. The Pilgrims and Pocahontas: Rival Myths of American Origin. Boulder: Westview, 1999.

Fischer, Kirsten. “The Imperial Gaze: Native American, African American, and Colonial Women in European Eyes,” in A Companion to American Women’s History. Blackwell Publishing, 2002.

Fleming, E. McClung. “The American Image as Indian Princess.” Winterthur Portfolio. Vol. 2 (1965: 65-81).

Gaudio, Michael. “Swallowing the Evidence: William Bartram and the Limits of Enlightenment.” Winterthur Portfolio. Vol. 36, No. 1 (2001: 1-17).

Hallock, Thomas. “Male Pleasure and the Genders of Eighteenth-Century Botanic Exchange: A Garden Tour.” The William and Mary Quarterly 62.4 (2005): 32 pars. 13 Oct. 2009 .

The Travels of William Bartram. Ed. Mark Van Doren. New York: Dover Publications, 1928.

Schoelwer, Susan Prendergast. “The Absent Other,” in Discovered Lands, Inventing Pasts. Yale University Press, 1992.

Thoreau, Environmentalism, Economy 5

Turning to the works of Henry David Thoreau might provide a “third way” and go some length toward resolving debates about the Environmentalists’ Dilemma.  I borrow the words “Environmentalists’ Dilemma” from Bryan G. Norton, who uses the phrase to refer to the competing discourses of two environmentalist camps: the economists and the moralists.  These camps would, Norton submits, provide very different answers to the question, “What is the value of biodiversity?”  Economists would emphasize “the actual and potential uses of living species” whereas the moralists “do not believe our obligations to protect nature can be traded off against other obligations” (Norton 29-30).  Economists would state the value of biodiversity in quantifiable, utilitarian, and anthropocentric terms whereas the moralists “insist that we have an obligation to protect all species, an obligation that transcends economic reasoning and trumps our mere interests in using nature for our own welfare” (Norton 30).  The dilemma for the environmentalist is which of the two realms, economic or moral, to heed.  Norton’s argument is that the two realms are not in fact mutually exclusive and that Henry David Thoreau supplies proof of their mutual reinforcement.  That Thoreau titles the opening chapter of Walden with one simple if unsuspecting word, “Economy,” is no coincidence.  The Environmentalists’ Dilemma, for Thoreau, is no dilemma at all: “most commentators have assumed that we should give one answer or the other,” but an absolute, totalizing separation is neither necessary nor accurate (Norton 31, my italics).  I agree with Norton and would like to extend his reasoning in this brief post, which draws its analysis from Thoreau’s Walden.

If economists first measure value “as contributions to human welfare” and then promise “an aggregation of values”—i.e., if they promise a calculation of “the contribution of nature to human welfare” as “commensurable and interchangeable with other human benefits”—then Thoreau was something of an economist (Norton 30).  As implied by the title of his opening chapter, Thoreau uses nature as an occasion to opine about human affairs, often in purely economic terms; he transforms the humble, small, and common scenes of nature into grand meditations about labor and profit.  “When my hoe tinkled against the stones,” he says of a day in the bean field, “that music echoed to the woods and the sky, and was an accompaniment to my labor which yielded an instant and immeasurable crop” (247).  Here, Thoreau’s profit—his “yield”—is not quantifiable in monetary terms but in vague moral insight:  “It was no longer beans that I hoed, nor I that hoed beans; and I remembered with as much pity as pride, if I remembered at all, my acquaintances who had gone to the city to attend the oratorios” (247).  Thoreau appreciates the value of labor (minimal physical input for cost-effective output—free food) while recognizing that such value goes far beyond the fiscal benefit of planting crops rather than purchasing food at a store: the labor becomes valuable for what it teaches about solitude, individualism, and freedom from materialism, and not just for its potential for monetary savings.  In this respect, Thoreau marries economics and morality.  Or, as Norton, looking elsewhere in Walden, puts it, “Thoreau describes the benefits of the transformation to higher values in terms of human maturation and fulfillment of potential, as improvements within human consciousness, not in terms of obligations to nature and extrinsic to human consciousness” (32).  In other words, in his celebration of nature, Thoreau takes pains to privilege human economy over natural aesthetic, although the former is dependent upon the latter for its “proceeds.”  Nature is a vehicle for arriving at virtue, thrift included.  It is good—and a good—but humanity is essentially of higher importance.

The merger, as it were, of economics and morality finds its most obvious expression in Thoreau’s various price listings: the costs of building a house; the profits turned from harvesting corn, potatoes, turnips, and beans; the expenses of food and clothing; and the overhead in maintaining a self-sufficient lifestyle.  Of these, John Updike writes,

The long opening chapter, “Economy,” joyously details just how to build a house […] down to a list of expenses totaling $28.11 1/2.  Briskly marketing to the world his program of austerity and self-reliance, he itemizes the few foodstuffs he paid for and the profits he obtained from his seven miles of bean rows.  (xiv, my italics)

Updike’s choice of the word “marketing” is important, revealing as it does that Thoreau’s economics did not stop at savings and cutbacks, but actively advertised a lifestyle at once economic and environmentalist.  Thoreau sold his routine and persona to a curious public, a few of whom bought—and bought into—the ultimately published and publicized form (the book). 

On the one hand, Thoreau’s frugality is a lesson about simplicity and prudence; on the other hand, it offers a more environmentally friendly approach to architecture and construction while simultaneously warning about the destructive effects of what today we might call “the tragedy of commons.”  I have neither the time nor space to fully hash out my ideas about the tragedy of commons.  I will, however, quickly supply Steven C. Hackett’s definition for the term and then offer a short justification for my reference to it.  According to Hackett,

The tragedy of the commons is most likely to occur under the conditions of open-access or other poorly designed and enforced property rights regimes.  The tragedy of the commons outcome results from strategic behavior—behavior that an individual takes based on how other people are expected to behave and respond.  At the heart of the tragedy of commons is the belief that if one were to conserve the CPR, others will take what was conserved, and the CPR will degrade (116). 

Thoreau’s worries about the tragedy of commons are evident in a few abrupt asides.  Take, for instance, these lines regarding hunting: 

Almost every New England boy among my contemporaries shouldered a fowling piece between the ages of ten and fourteen; and his hunting and fishing grounds were not limited, like the preserves of an English nobleman, but were more boundless even that those of a savage.  No wonder, then, that he did not oftener stay to play on the common.  But already change is taking place, owing, not to an increased humanity, but to an increased scarcity of game, for perhaps the hunter is the greatest friend of the animals hunted, not excepting the Humane Society (329).

It seems abundantly clear that Thoreau refers here to the phenomenon—now known as the tragedy of commons—whereby people acting in their own self-interest use up a limited shared resource, in this case animal prey, despite their knowledge that doing so will be bad for everyone.  [Consider this point in light of another sentence by Thoreau: “By avarice and selfishness, and a groveling habit, from which none of us is free, of regarding the soil as property, or the means of acquiring property chiefly, the landscape is deformed, husbandry is degraded with us, and the farmer leads the meanest of lives” (257-58).]  Perhaps the tragedy of commons motivates Thoreau’s declaration that “if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown” (269-70).  After all, thieving and robbery “take place only in communities where some have got more than is sufficient while others have not enough” (270).    

Economics and morality also apply—albeit more tenuously—to what Michael Berger calls Thoreau’s “study of ecological dynamics in forests,” a “vigorous program of research” about seed dispersal and its spontaneous generation (381-82).  Although Berger does not explicitly say so, he implies that Thoreau’s scientific forays lend authority to his literary works.  This authority allows Thoreau to promote himself and his philosophical vision.  Berger analyzes Thoreau’s The Dispersion of Seeds, which was not published until 1993.  Nevertheless, Berger’s observations apply almost as aptly to various passages in Walden.  Setting out to show that Thoreau’s somewhat Darwinian ideas were not only sophisticated but also pioneering, Berger posits, “Thoreau’s seed dispersal ecology was […] rich in significance regarding the various kinds of complicated mechanisms, principles, and patterns by which species of plants succeed one another in local ecosystems” (382).  To substantiate this point, Berger quotes the following from The Dispersion of Seeds:

In this haphazard manner Nature surely creates you a forest at last, though as if it were the last thing she were thinking of.  By seemingly feeble and stealthy steps—by a geologic pace—she gets over the greatest distances and accomplishes her greatest results.  It is a vulgar prejudice that such forests are ‘spontaneously generated,’ but science knows that there has not been a sudden new creation in their case but a steady progress according to existing laws, that they came from seeds—that is, are the result of causes still in operation, though we may not be aware that they are operating. (383)

This passage recalls Thoreau’s claim in Walden that “where a forest was cut down last winter another is springing up by its shore as lustily as ever” (302).  Thoreau’s point, at any rate, is, in both cases, that forests (in all their various manifestations—trees, plants, etc.) will spring up as if on their own: independent of the botany or vegetation that preceded them.  In the “big picture,” the economics and morality at issue have to do with Thoreau’s ability to market himself and his ideas.  If he could pit himself as both scientist and writer, his writings would gain both cultural and actual currency as well as popular credibility.  This coupling of scientific sophistication with moral sensitivity produces, in Updike’s words, Thoreau’s thinginess: “the thinginess of Thoreau’s prose […] still excites us, the athleticism with which he springs from detail to detail, image to image, while still toting something of Transcendentalism’s metaphysical burden” (xxii).  Without science, Thoreau is little more than a gushing nature enthusiast; without science or the metaphysical burden, he “comes close to being merely an attentive and eloquent travel writer” (Updike xxii).  Fortunately, Thoreau recognizes the need to economize while moralizing, and to do the former well required a certain scientific literacy.  Norton is more generous than I because he casts Thoreau’s scientific observations about the forest as having nothing to do with self-promotion and everything to do with the Environmentalists’ Dilemma.  Thoreau’s self-promotion notwithstanding, Norton’s praise does tend to demonstrate the manner in which Thoreau yoked science to economics and morality:

Thoreau quite explicitly recognized that the forest, a dynamic system, had a ‘language of its own, and that the transition form the immature state was both literary and scientific. […]  He saw that one learns more important things by relating an organism to its environment than by dissecting an organism into parts.  This indicates that Thoreau was on the right track, seeking the secret of life and its organization in the larger systems in which species live.  Especially, he thought we learn more important things about human behavior, and the evaluation of it, by observing organisms in environments.  He believed that if he could unlock the code of nature’s language, it would provide the key to a new, dynamic and scientific understanding of nature.  The key prerequisite for this change to a more contemplative consciousness was development of a new ‘language’ of human values based on analogies from the ‘language’ of nature. (40)

If Norton is right, as I believe he is, then the Environmentalists’ Dilemma is not so paralyzing as some would suggest.  Indeed, Thoreau’s Walden shows how economy and morality can participate with each other in unique and even scientific ways. 

–Allen Mendenhall

For further reading, see the following:

Berger, Michael.  “Henry David Thoreau’s Science in the Dispersion of Seeds.”  Annals of Science.  Vol. 53 (1996:  381-397).

Hackett, Steven C.  Environmental and Natural Resources Economics:  Theory, Policy, and the Sustainable Society.  M.E. Sharpe, 2001.

Norton, Bryan G.  Searching for Sustainability:  Interdisciplinary Essays in Philosophy and Biology.  Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Thoreau, Henry David.  Walden.  Houghton Mifflin Company, 1893.

Updike, John.  “Introduction.”  Walden.  Princeton University Press, 2004.

Edgar Allan Poe and Mesmeric Possibility 4

Sidney E. Lind, writing in the 1940s, said of the “mesmeric lexica” of nineteenth-century America:  “It is safe to say that the terminology of mesmerism was bandied about in much the same manner as the language of psychoanalysis was to be eighty years later, and with, in all probability, as little real comprehension on the part of the public.”

Lind’s reference to psychoanalysis—signified, at that moment, by Austrian physicist Sigmund Freud—is particularly telling for 21st century audiences, who have witnessed an avalanche of criticism of psychoanalysis, a pseudoscience, according to the naysayers, the results of which are un-testable at best and bogus at worst.  Lind’s aim is not to destabilize the practices of psychoanalysis but to interrogate three short works by Edgar Allan Poe in which mesmerism features prominently:  “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains,” “Mesmeric Revelation,” and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.”  “These three stories,” Lind submits, “constitute a series within which the mesmeric experiment becomes more profound, irrespective of plausibility or implausibility, or of whether or not Poe in at least two of the three was hoaxing his readers.”

Lind’s point is well-taken.  In Poe’s day, the subject of mesmerism was “in the air” and therefore “it was logical that Poe, as a journalist sensitive to popular interest, should have exploited it.”  True, these three stories exhibit, often wryly, a profound familiarity with mesmeric techniques and influences.  But more is going on in them than Lind lets on.  Indeed, Lind goes to great lengths to contextualize these stories within scientific (or other) discourses on mesmerism in Poe’s era, but he overemphasizes their “unity,” “theme,” and “intention” (always mimetic) instead of their singular dialogic contribution.  That is to say, Lind treats the stories as “echoes” or “reiterations” of other thinkers rather than as unique theses in their own right.  For Lind, the stories are indebted to other sources because they derive their vocabularies and methods from these sources.  I would suggest that Poe’s stories are in conversation with various dissertations on mesmerism rather than mere signs of cherry-picking or copying.  Although Poe’s modus operandi or preferred genre is fiction, his supposedly plagiarized passages lend substance to the notion that he might actually have been dissertating on mesmerism, animal magnetism, or hypnosis.  The luxury of storytelling is that the storyteller can dismiss unverifiable data as hoaxes or products of imagination; nevertheless, the storyteller can at least hope to hit on something real, novel, or scientific.  Two examples, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, writing well after Poe, conceived of technological advances—most notably space travel—long before such advances were practical.

Lind’s work, at any rate, is impressively researched, laying the foundation for future analyses of Poe and his infatuations with mesmerism.  But why does Lind downplay Poe’s role in developing pioneering work?  All arguments are indebted to previous arguments; indebtedness does not take away from the originality or force of their articulation or genre.

Unlike Lind, Matthew A. Taylor calls attention to the distinctiveness of Poe’s contributions to “mesmeric theory” (for want of a better phrase) and its progeny.  He locates Poe in contradistinction to Herbert Mayo:  “Unlike Mayo, […] Poe radically deviated from the utopian utilitarian, or benign notions of mesmerism at play in most contemporary discourses on the topic, picturing instead the unsettling implications for human ontology consequent upon the idea that persons are less sovereign entities than manipulatable effects of external powers.”  In short, Poe considered mesmerism a bad thing, or at least a dangerous thing that did not lead down a road to human improvement.  “Poe concluded,” Taylor opines, “that an all-encompassing cosmic energy inevitably troubles human-being by suspending the autonomy and interiority of individual humans; the disorientation of normal, corporeal functioning and the literal loss of self-possession attending mesmeric practice illustrated for Poe the fact that people are little more than occasions for the demonstration of an impersonal power.”  If Taylor is right, then Poe’s take on mesmerism is not only unique but also quite sophisticated; it demonstrates a full understanding of mesmeric theory while simultaneously rejecting that theory.  More to the point, if Taylor is right, then Poe’s take on mesmerism stands on its own and demands critical attention.  Unlike Lind, Taylor seems to acknowledge Poe’s special role in shaping mesmeric theory—or, more precisely, mesmeric counter-theory.  In fact, Taylor seems to think Poe’s ideas about mesmerism reflect an entire cosmology about human nature and the imperfectability of humankind.  This is a tall claim.  For present purposes, it shows that Poe might have been worried about more than entertaining readers with fanciful mind-candy.  He might have been positing a worldview that flew in the face of prevailing physics (that “perverse yet consistent calculus that unites everything in existence under a single, universal law that, by definition, eliminates all difference—including, of course, the human difference”).  Poe, the relativistic Renaissance man, might have been demonstrating his facility as both scientist and philosopher.  To further establish Poe’s uniqueness, I might add to Taylor’s observations the theological dimension of “Mesmeric Revelation,” which accounts for evangelical objections to mesmerism without plainly endorsing or rejecting them.

Besides the three stories that Lind interrogates, there are, Martin Willis claims, “many other tales that exemplify [Poe’s] abiding interest in the contestation between the science and the human, as well as his fascination with the borderlands of scientific achievement, both in terms of their advancement to new states of knowledge and their place within the scientific pantheon.”  Poe’s interest in scientific trends was not a passing one.  Willis points out that Poe spent years studying science in general before turning to mesmerism in particular.  Whether Poe “believed” in mesmerism is unclear.  It seems plausible that his stories about mesmerism were meant, in Willis’s words,  to “consider mesmeric debates in the realm of fiction rather than that of science.”  I would argue that Poe collapses any distinction between science and fiction by teasing out various theses—which, for all he knew, might one day be proven—through the medium of imaginary characters.  In doing so, Poe forges a distance between theories and their authors: if the theories turn out to be “true,” future generations will consider Poe a genius; if they turn out to be bogus, future generations will claim Poe was merely hoaxing.  Thus the dual-advantage of employing fiction to hash out scientific hypotheses.  Regardless of whether Poe is ultimately “right” about any of his dissertations, which he dresses up as fiction, he demonstrates an impressive breadth of knowledge that should not be ignored.

Not all scholars have ignored it.  Antoine Faivre takes pains to explain how Poe appropriated scientific knowledge and then inserted it into fictional narratives.  He suggests that many readers have mistaken or misread Poe’s tales as “factual, non-fictional case studies,” which in turn has led to a “flurry of reactions and debates.”  My point is not to argue that Poe treats his stories as factual case-studies but to suggest that he left open the case-study possibility.  In other words, Poe might have wanted readers to misread his tales as factual, or else to have some later scientist come along and verify the “truth” of his hypotheses, notwithstanding whether they were in fact his, or whether they were intended as reasoned argument at all.

Lind allows that Poe might not have been hoaxing readers in writing about mesmerism.  “Mesmerism as a theme for fiction,” he explains, “was, like metempsychosis and the exploration of the realm of the conscience, so well suited to Poe’s principles of literary composition that it was natural for him to work this new field, to attempt to achieve the sensational without deliberately attempting to mislead.”  More than simply avoiding misleading commentary, Poe might have been dissertating with the hopes that, one day, scientists would look on his fiction as a catalyst for new and innovative practices.  While not aspiring to complete verisimilitude, Poe’s stories about mesmerism are highly sophisticated tracts, informed by trendy scientific theories (and their counter-discourses), and very probably marked with the faint expectation that their subjects, though fictional, might somehow contribute to future systems of knowledge.

See the following for further reading:

Faivre, Antoine.  “Borrowings and Misreading:  Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Mesmeric’ Tales and the Strange Case of their Reception.”  Aries, Vol. 7, No. 1 (2007: 21-62).

Lind, Sidney E.  “Poe and Mesmerism.”  PMLA, Vol. 62, No. 4 (1947:  1077-1094).

Torrey, E. Fuller.  Freudian Fraud:  The Malignant Effect of Freud’s Theory on American Thought and Culture. Lucas Publishers, 1999.

Taylor, Matthew A.  “Edgar Allan Poe’s (Meta)physics:  A Pre-History of the Post Human.”  Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 62, No. 2 (2007: 193-221).

Willis, Martin.  Mesmerists, Monsters, and Machines:  Science Fiction and the Cultures of Science in the Nineteenth Century. Kent State University Press, 2006.