Author: anagramsci

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“To Me In My Unworthiness”: Lampman’s Precarious “Reverse-Impressionism”

“To Me In My Unworthiness”:
Lampman’s Precarious “Reverse-Impressionism”

Archibald Lampman was a poet of the “self-in-nature” in the Wordsworthian tradition and his oeuvre is wracked by the familiar Romantic tension between gnosis and agnosticism; however, in his 1894-95 poems addressed to Kate Waddell, Lampman achieved a temporary release from this wheel of subjectivity through the development of a technique that can best be described as a form of “reverse-impressionism”. Early in his career, the poet occupied himself with the task of polishing the “colored and distorting” lens of perception—a process that culminated in the composition of “Heat”. Lampman’s subsequent work manifests a growing preoccupation with the numinous sheen of countervailing subjectivity that his phenomenological aesthetic brings to light in spite of itself. In the poems “to Kate”, the smitten lover makes far better use of this terrifying Otherness than his Romantic predecessors, the majority of whom would simply have noted a passing sense of alienation and moved on in search of the next pantheistic high or nihilistic low. Lampman, by contrast, transcends the loneliness implicit in the impressionist’s epistemological position by reifying himself. He records the effect that he has upon an alien mind that he intuits in the Other—giving us, in effect, an impression’s impression. Unfortunately, in the later poems “To Kate” this unselfconscious consciousness of Self in a world of other Selves is sacrificed to the dictates of a renewed (and increasingly pessimistic) monism.

Anne Compton was the first to make the case for Lampman as a thoroughgoing literary Impressionist, and, at least insofar as his nature poetry is considered, her claim is indisputable. As Compton notes, Lampman himself, in his critical writing, championed a poetics of “[rendering] the pure and absolute impression produced by the phenomena of material nature, and the movement and emotion of human life” (Selected Prose, 88-89). Lampman was somewhat ahead of the curve in his adherence to this idea—certainly, his aesthetic differs drastically from the more openly Idealist poetry, derived from Emersonian and Whitman, in vogue amongst his North American contemporaries, exemplified by the work of Bliss Carman.

Maria Elisabeth Kronegger traces the origins of literary impressionism to Gustave Flaubert, who presents the impressions of his protagonists without “intruding upon their world”. His impassivity and impersonality reach their greatest density in L’Education Sentimentale of 1869. The events are seen from different centers of consciousness: the protagonists assume the functions of “reflectors” or “mirrors”. They see those details which are most striking from their angle of vision. It shifts, however, according to the density of light which influences their sight. The author identifies with the illusions of the protagonists, and, ironically, the distinction between author and protagonist, between illusion and reality disappears(15).

In American fiction, Henry James began his slow march toward full-blown impressionism with the publication of Roderick Hudson in the 1870’s; and, in fact, though it is seldom recognized, there are many impressionist passages in the novels of Nathaniel Hawthorne, most notably The Blithedale Romance (1852). However, Lampman’s work predates that of Stephen Crane, Arthur Symons, and Lionel Johnson, the generally-acknowledged trailblazers of poetic impressionism in the English-speaking world.

Compton traces Lampman’s impressionism in part to an impetus derived from advances made during his lifetime in the visual arts. However, in light of the fact that the poet’s entree into painterly circles (through the agency of Hamlin Garland) came about largely as a result of the impresario’s enthusiasm for “Heat”, Compton is forced to conclude that Lampman “came to [his particular poetic theory] on his own” (39). In view of this, it is perhaps instructive to bear James Stowell’s global explanation for the rise of the movement in mind:

Literary impressionism sprang from neither theoretical constructs nor rigid ideology, but from reactions to the shifting intellectual and social currents of the age. . . . [the] stylistic qualities [that characterize the works of impressionist writers] emerged from the realization that since they lived in a prismatically impressionistic world, they must recreate that world of individualized sensory perception, epistemological indeterminacy, relativism, ambiguity, fragmentation, and surface. . . they wrote of a need to survive in this “supersensual multiverse” by having enough faith in their expanding powers of inductive perception to navigate the shoals of the unseen and unknowable (15-16).

In fact, an impressionist approach to the world had been implicit in romantic poetics since Keats’ letter of 27 October 1818:

… as to the poetical character itself. . . it is not itself—it has no self—it is everything and it is nothing—it has no character—it enjoys life and shade—it lives in gusto—be it fair or foul, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated. . . . When I am in a room with people, if I ever am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then not myself goes home to myself: but the identity of everyone in the room begins so to press upon me, that I am, in a very little time, annihilated…(Wu, 1042)

If English Romantics and American Transcendentalists were largely incapable of freeing themselves from “speculating on creations of [their] own brain[s]”, Lampman was quite successful in this endeavor. In his evaluation of Keats, the young Canadian poet focused upon precisely this aspect of his legacy:

The instinct of Keats’ imagination was to merge itself in the nature of the thing he was considering. Wordsworth’s to endow the object of his reflection with his own individuality. . . . As a personality [Shakespeare} is scarcely less shadowy than Homer. The genius of Keats was of the same assimilative quality (Essays and Reviews of Archibald Lampman, 163).

Lampman’s “Heat” fulfills, to some extent, the impressionist promise of this Keatsian doctrine. As Compton notes, the poem, through the agency of “heat and its effects” (42) achieves a remarkable fusion of content and form, subject and object. However, Lampman’s more Wordsworthian epiphany in the final stanza:

In the full furnace of this hour
My thoughts grow keen and clear
(Collected Poems, 78)

indicates that, even amidst this impressionist swirl, the poet could not help imposing a speculative frame. Desmond Pacey interprets the poem as an affirmation of the essential unity of the world:

[Lampman] has become aware of both the full sharpness and the full sweetness of life and of them both at once and as necessary complements of each other. The same applies to all the pairs of opposites in the poem; wetness and dryness, heat and cold, light and dark, near and far, fast and slow…(Gnarowski, 183).

Perhaps this indicates that the Keatsian and Wordsworthian poetic ideals are less irreconcilable than is generally thought. Certainly, in both cases, the goal is “oneness”. Keats would merge the self into the world. Wordsworth would merge the world into the self. Success in either venture does not necessarily lead to a “happy” result. In fact, though it may be in a romantic poet’s nature to seek unity with the world, that unity, once achieved, can seem barren and lifeless.

Compton asserts that “there is something appallingly lonely in the individual testament—whether in poem or painting—of the single passing moment. The impression is always a lonely affair” (42). This may explain why Lampman’s nature poetry becomes increasingly gloomy in the years that followed the composition of his greatest impressionist work. This is not, as Richard Arnold assumes, the dawning of a new skepticism that “sees nature in a more complex light than did Emerson”(41), but rather the bitter fruit of a too-lush impressionism that has overgrown the plane of reality and deprived itself of the essential Otherness necessary to sustain its faith and roots. As Emerson wrote in “Circles”: “I am God in nature. I am a weed by the wall” (280). The accomplished impressionist is both of these things.

Emerson himself recognized this on a visceral level, and his understanding of the consequences of a radically subjective outlook haunts all of his best work. Unfortunately, virtually none of Emerson’s poems fit into this category. “Days”, written in 1857, is the exception to this rule, and extremely pertinent to any discussion of Lampman’s development after “Heat”:

Daughters of Time, the hypocritic Days
Muffled and Dumb like barefoot dervishes,
And marching single in an endless file,
Bring diadems and fagots in their hands.
To each they offer gifts after his will,
Bread, kingdoms, stars, and sky that holds them all.
I, in my pleached garden, watched the pomp,
Forgot my morning wishes, hastily
Took a few herbs and apples, and the Day
Turned and departed silent. I, too late,
Under her solemn fillet saw the scorn.

The first half of the poem is comparatively straightforward: it describes the Romantic riches to be gained by mastering Time, though the fact that the Days are “muffled and dumb”, rather than “Sublime” or “untamable” immediately sounds a problematic note. The speaker, watching the procession from his “pleached garden”, is a strangely passive/Keatsian/impressionistic intruder in the Emersonian realm of omnipotence. An uncharacteristic sense of limitation is palpable in the lines: “forgot my morning wishes, hastily/ took a few herbs and apples”. Can a “transparent eyeball” be rushed? In this poem, Emerson’s persona may “see all”, but he is not “part or parcel of God” (6); nor is he “nothing”, at least not in the pantheistic sense that he had been in Nature. One hears Harold Bloom’s rhetoric of gnostic “belatedness” in the line “I, too late”; but is the “scorn” he “sees” under the Day’s “solemn fillet” the Abyss? Or is the passage a quiet admission that Emerson, in all of his phases, from his ascent into “the sky that holds them all” to his glimpse of Time’s scorn, has never confronted the Abyss; for how can one see anything underneath a “solemn fillet”? It is as if the scorn emanates from the garment itself—a stand-in for the world the impressionist seeks to describe phenomenologically—or rather is projected there by the subjective “I”, sensitized, at last, to the mocking unreality of the “solemn fillet”, an ersatz Sublime that can never be anything but a snare for the impressionist’s ego. Perhaps this explains why the poem communicates a sense that its speaker wishes not to see beneath the fillet, but to be in that privileged position; and the final line-break leaves open that possibility, leaving out the “I”.

Lampman’s “Personality” (1893) expresses a comparable desire to experience the subjectivity of the object:

O differing human heart,
Why is it that I tremble when thine eyes,
Thy human eyes and beautiful human speech,
Draw me, and stir within my soul
That subtle and ineradicable longing
For tender comradeship?
Is it because I cannot all at once,
Through the half-lights and phantom-haunted mists
That separate and enshroud us life from life,
Discern the nearness and the strangeness of thy paths,
Nor plumb thy depths.
I am like one that comes alone at night
To a strange stream, and by an unknown ford
Stands, and for a moment yearns and shrinks,
Being ignorant of the water, though so quiet it is,
So softly murmurous,
So silvered by the familiar moon.
(LOE, 264)

Here the poet concedes that the impressionist’s quest is doomed by its own contradictions. In order to convey the most precise impression of external reality, the subject must aim to merge itself with the object. However, even if this merger were possible, it would still fail to produce the desired effect, because without a “differing” other, there can be no “comradeship” between the perceiver and the perceived. In a sense, the ultimate impressionist is the poet laid to rest within the earth. Of course, this theoretical poet would no longer have the power to convey any of his/her impressions, and so we can truly describe this aesthetic as stillborn. The figure of the dead poet is the point of congruence between late decadence and early modernism: Swinburne, Symons, Pound, and Eliot all make use of this trope—to the former pair it represents something like a goal; to the modernists it became the convenient site of a mythical rebirth into culture.

“Personality” gestures toward this morbid conundrum, but is primarily concerned with a more existential question, posed succinctly by Emerson, in Experience: “perhaps [the impressionist’s] subject-lenses have a creative power; perhaps there are no objects” (359). Just as Emerson, in Nature, must cultivate a blindness to his own subjectivity in order to feel a kinship to the universe, so Lampman worries that his only access to the “softly murmurous” essence of a “differing human heart” is to “silver it” with light from the “familiar moon” of his intellect. The fear that grips him when he confronts “human eyes and beautiful human speech” is two-fold: he is disturbed by the realization that he can never “discern the nearness and the strangeness of [the other’s] paths” nor “plumb [its] depths”, but he is even more disconcerted by the possibility that the “half-lights and phantom-haunted mists/ That separate and enshroud us life from life” are in reality a light-show that he, like a bored God generating his own demonic opposition, has designed to keep himself occupied. Rather than jump to the terribly lonely conclusion of the subject’s omnipotence, the Lampman of “Personality” chooses to believe that the “strange stream” upon whose shore he “yearns and shrinks” is actually there. Unfortunately, once entertained, the “noble doubt” is not easily discarded, and a poet so afflicted will require a constant reassurance of the world’s reality. Lampman’s counterintuitive solution to this dilemma, in the lines addressed ”To Kate”, was to posit a countervailing subjectivity beneath the veil of otherness and to sculpt poems out of the reified impression of himself that this hypothetical mind might possibly record.

In “Spirit of the Shining Eyes” (1893) the poet heralds his discovery of an object that can bear the freight of his “reverse-impressionist” ambitions:

Spirit of the shining eyes
Whom we question for a sign
Waiting on thy grand replies
And that smile, austere, divine

Spirit of the shining eyes,
Still the hearts of men are glad
And thy marching banner flies
O’er a tenser myriad. (29)

Here Lampman’s “ontological sonar waves” strike “essence”—or, at the very least, something so much like the thing-in-itself that he is ready to believe in its substantiality—and he resolves to wait “on [her] grand repl[y]”: waiting to be objectified in turn by the “spirit” behind the “shining eyes” that have so impressed themselves upon his mind.

“She…A Fragment” (1895) is a fairly standard compendium of love-talk, but it plays a crucial role in grounding the “reverse-impressionist” project:

Makes all my blood and all my spirit stir
Whose lips are sweeter than my thoughts of her
Whose little bosom is more soft to me
Than any other even in my dreams could be
Whose touch is but the warm awakening…(38)

Lampman must be able to believe that the object of these lines could not be met with in his dreams, or even be a “dream come true”, because that would rob him of the assurance that “she” is a separate being, possessing a subjectivity independent of his own. It is necessary that this love be an “awakening”, and not an awakening to an ideal world either, but to the world of blood and bosoms. Lampman craves a rude awakening, such as the one presented in “Poem” (1896):

Why so coldly, so damnably
Never look, nor speak?
Dearest, you can trust me surely,
For my pain is meek.

Overmuch I love and fear you
To be madly free.
Just to see you, just to hear you,
Is enough for me(40).

Margaret Coulby Whitridge notes the heavily renunciatory tone of Lampman’s poems “to Kate” (McMullen, 9-17); but, at least in the poems before 1896, this has nothing to do with self-pity or with stoicism. It is essential (in the poet’s epistemological scheme) that no ideal union take place between the two lovers—this would be tantamount to the union of the subject and the object. Lampman surely did not relish the separation from his beloved necessitated by both his aesthetic and his ethical principles (he was, after all, married throughout the course of his love-obsession with Kate Waddell), but he doubtless preferred it to the obliteration of the object herself. All of this torturous reasoning and romancing did bear self-reified fruit. Lampman never published these poems, and when they did see print in 1975, the collection was given the title Lampman’s Kate: Late Love Poems of Archibald Lampman, 1887-1897 by its editor, Margaret Coulby Whitridge; but it might more appropriately have been named after one of the items contained within its pages: “To Me In My Unworthiness”.

Whitridge’s assessment of the poems, in the introduction to this thin volume and in her contribution to the Lampman Symposium, dwells upon the fact of this “love that could not be” without considering the uses to which such loves can be put by an opportunistic creator. In “Would You Care?” (1895), Lampman explains to Kate that his “spirit…is in very truth/ The Shadow of [her] grace” (37). He exults that her image is “in its servant’s sight/ Forever beautiful and pure,/ At every hour, by day, by night/ A sleepless lure—“. In his quest to gain a fix on this “sleepless lure”, the persona somehow passes through the subject-object divide, taking on her point of view, which is independent of his own, without deploying the wrecking-ball of monism:

Ah, couldst thou know this and descry
The sorrow and the dull despair,
Wouldst thou but smile and pass me by
Or wouldst thou care?

Here Lampman refuses to embrace the pathetic fallacy. When he imagines himself able to see what she sees, he knows she cannot see his torment. A deep chasm separates the two lovers, and she is no more able to cross it than he is—the bridge of a perfect Romantic correspondence is down. The best that can be salvaged is the knowledge that there are two sides.

“Essential Grace” presents the progression toward “reverse-impressionism” in microcosm:

They say in the world there are other women
Goodlier and more fair, perhaps, than you
More exquisite of stature, more alluring,
Of a splendour more divine to all men’s view.

Yet, Lady, in your speech and in your learning,
In the accent of your own peculiar grace,
There is something that for me—what is it?
Is like spirit to your spirit, face to face.

What beauty and what magic, what enchantment!
You possess me without willing heart and soul.
What subtlety of instinct, or what knowledge;
I am opened in your presence like a scroll.

Were the riches of a kingdom in my keeping,
Were I captor of all prizes strong and sweet,
Were I mightiest and wisest, I would reckon
All my treasures but as nothing at your feet.

Ah sweetest, be not chary of your graces,
Of your goodness that was bountiful erstwhile.
I know you in your essence as no other,
And I linger as no other for your smile. (34)

The poet spools language around an uncanny “something” that disorders his perceptions and levels the playing field between the subject and object. However, the result it is not unity. Lampman privileges an “eye-level aesthetic” here—“spirit to spirit”, “face to face”. Soon, instead of a neutral field of cognition, gathering impressions of the world, the poet is himself an “open scroll”—an object to be interpreted. In the final stanza, Lampman reverses the “God in nature” formula that began to trouble him in the late 1880’s. The world does not live in him—he subsists upon the world. The “essence” is not within him, it is always elsewhere. The once all-seeing eye now depends upon the gaze of another. There are clear echoes here of Calvinist theology: God is seen as absolutely Other and transcendent, but willing, in a few (always undeserving) cases, to make an exception by providing an incomprehensibly reassuring hint (“what is it?”) of the transcendent—ambushing the sinner with “Grace”. In this poem, Lampman’s persona needs Kate in order to prove that he is real.

The final two lines set the seal upon this epistemological revolution. He “knows [her] in [her] essence as no other” because he now knows her as a subject, rather than an object; and she now knows him (“I”) as a subject as well. Each is, simultaneously, a subject and an object—but the wires never cross, and the relationship remains operative. They become “others like no other” to each other, linked by their shared understanding of each other’s dual epistemological position, without ever partaking of the same essence. The fact that it is the poet who “lingers for [the] smile”, rather than the smile that lingers (as an impression) within the poet’s mind is perhaps the most startling feature of Lampman’s reversal. In “Man”, the poet’s reified self comes into focus:

I know that thou art of the world, O man,
And in thy moulding and ordaining breast abides,
Some glimmer of the insight that made the stars
A portion of the universal energy.
The shield of earth and of time and life,
A visible and aggressive, concrete form,
Thou hast strength, movement, will.
In thy sheer presence, therefore, I
Who have not either strength or will or movement,
Who am but a net of magical desires,
Of swift perceptions and uncaptained dreams—
A thing out of the ordered way of life,
Not marked nor portioned in the eternal chart—
Shrink, even as on a rhubarb leaf at noon
A globe of dew dissolves, and so become
The impalpable luminous dream mist that I am. (38)

Who is the persona of this poem? Lampman? Kate? I would contend that it is Lampman’s subjectivity (or “poetical nature”) divorced from his objective body; or, rather, it is Lampman’s subjectivity reflected off of Kate and redirected back upon himself. Lampman is both the subject and the object of this poem. Here is the true fulfillment of Keats’ doctrine. The poet is no longer condemned to be “the most unpoetical of all God’s creatures” (Wu, 1043)—at last he/she can simply be a person among other men and women, each of whom possesses a subjectivity of their own.

Strangely enough, “To Me In My Unworthiness”, despite the fact that it boasts the best possible title for a “reverse-impressionist” collection tinged by a Calvinist sensibility, manifests the first signs of a weakening of the poet’s will to sustain the project. Most of the poems “To Kate” written in 1896-97 show Lampman sinking ever more deeply into (as Melville would say) “Plato’s honeyed head”. He posits “the strangest likeness of the heart” (42) between himself and his beloved; more seriously, in “One Woman”, he declares that

Had Nature with her utmost art designed
To Fashion that one woman to my mind,
None other could her hand have shaped but you. (45)

With these magic words, Lampman reduces the population of his imagined community to one. He is once more a visionary doomed to wander through a sometimes beautiful, sometimes nightmarish world of his own creation. By accepting “Kate” as a “kindred spirit” and the “best” part of himself (50), Lampman eliminates the possibility of her own subjectivity from consideration. The subject is closed (off), and the drift of his impressionism reverses itself again.


WRAC 130 Syllabus: Spring 2005

WRAC 130: American Radical Thought

Section 11: Tuesdays & Thursdays 12:40pm to 2:30pm

Room: Bessey-312        

Instructor: David Fiore

Office Number: Bessey-301

Office Hours: Tuesdays 3pm to 5pm (or by appointment)

Course Description:

The thespian’s mantra, “acting is reacting”, holds just as true in the political and philosophical arenas as it does upon the literal stage. This is an indispensable insight for students of American radicals to keep in mind–i.e. what are these individuals reacting to? Is it the “power structure” (often referred to as the “military industrial complex”)? The complacency of an electorate which votes for the status quo every 4 years, regardless of which party they support? Or some combination of the two? Are these things even separable? At the heart of this question lies a radical chiasmus that marks the thinking of any proponent of a better world: in order to change the social structure, it is necessary to change the people; and yet, it isn’t possible to change the people without changing the social structure.

In this course, we will examine a number of figures, in a variety of texts, dealing with precisely this problem, in its most extreme form–and take up their cross ourselves. There is very little likelihood that we will emerge from the ordeal with any definite answers. However, it is my hope that our gain in mutual understanding will make up, at least in part, for this almost certain disappointment. You will be responsible for generating a great deal of our reading material, and, in a very real sense, your most important research this semester will be the investigation of each others’ thought. This is ideal, because our primary objective in this course will be to develop your writing skills–and writing is reacting.


Ralph Waldo Emerson — Complete Writings

Mark Waid & Alex Ross — Kingdom Come

Mark Gruenwald, Bob Hall, Paul Ryan, John Buscema, et al.Squadron Supreme

Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons — Watchmen

Frank Miller — TheDark Knight Returns

Jaime Hernandez — Locas

Grant Morrison, Chas Truog, Tom Grumett, Paris Cullins, et al. Animal Man

An assortment of on-line readings (including your own writings!)– see

Our course soundtrack (which I will distribute on the first day of class):

1. “Rebel Girl” — Bikini Kill & Joan Jett

2. “Terror Mad Visionary” — New Kingdom

3. “Freakathon” — Red Aunts

4. “Pure Massacre” — Silverchair

5. “Hate the Christian Right” — Team Dresch

6. “Killing in the Name” — Rage Against the Machine

7. “Call the Doctor” — Sleater-Kinney

8. “Have You Ever” — Offspring

9. “The Masses Are Asses” — L7

10. “By the Time I Get to Arizona” — Public Enemy

11. “DemiRep” — Bikini Kill & Joan Jett

12. “Shut ’em Down” — Public Enemy

13. “Co Pilot” — New Kingdom

14. “Spawn Again” — Silverchair

15. “Screwing Yer Courage” — Team Dresch

16. “I Like Fucking” — Bikini Kill

17. “LAPD” — Offspring

18. “Down Rodeo” — Rage Against the Machin e

19. “TGIF” — Le Tigre

20. “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” — Public Enemy

21. “Paradise Don’t Come Cheap” — New Kingdom

22. “Fight the Power” — Public Enemy


Spike Lee — Bamboozled

Frank Capra — Meet John Doe

Frank Borzage — Strange Cargo

Kimberly Peirce — Boys Don’t Cry

David Lynch — Mulholland Dr.

David Fincher — Fight Club

Plagiarism Disclaimer:

If I discover that you have used another person’s material without citing it, I will give you a zero for the assignment. No explanations will be accepted.


(I will hand out more specific instructions regarding each of these assignments in class as the semester progresses.)

1. A short introductory piece–what is your definition of “radicalism”? What does a radical commitment entail? (5% of grade)

2. “Policing the World”: discuss the ways in which Kingdom Come, Squadron Supreme and Watchmen address the connected problems of radical change/maintenance of order, with reference to Emerson, Von Clausewitz, Thomas Hobbes, and the opinions of your peers–1500 words (15% of grade)

3. Music Critique: discuss one or more of the songs/bands on the sountrack, with reference to the opinions of your peers and the links I will provide — 1000 words (10% of grade)

4. Film Critique: discuss one of our films, with reference to the opinions of your peers and the links I will provide-1000 words (10% of grade)

5. Long paper on one of our texts. Must include references to peer discussions and at least three outside sources. The choice of focus is up to you (to be decided upon in consultation with me) -2000 words (30% of grade)

6. Written Participation (20% of grade)–This course will not function unless you contribute your opinions to our discussion forum! The grade will be assessed on the following basis: a maximum of 13 points for each “letter” posted to our weekly letters page (of course you are welcome to post more than once a week!), 4 points for posts to film discussion lists (4 different films–although, again, follow-up posts are welcome and encouraged!), 3 points for posts to three separate song discussion lists. Posts must be at least 100 words in length and demonstrate some evidence of thought in action, in order to receive credit.

7. Class Participation (10% of grade)–to be assessed based upon your participation in general class discussions.

“Typical Class”:

(excepting the first 4 sessions and classes devoted to film screenings)

12:40-1:05 Small group discussions, based upon the comments submitted to class forum–which I will print up and distribute (Tues); or progress on upcoming assignments–i.e. peer editing (Thurs)

1:05-1:30 I will deliver an interpretation of the day’s assigned reading, based upon references to specific moments in the text and insights gleaned from the larger philosophical, political, and aesthetic context.

1:30-1:40 Break

1:40-2:30 Class discussion, which will grow, initially, out of your comments upon/quarrels with my interpretation/choice of contextual frame, and hopefully spread into a more general, non-Fiore-centric debate!

Due Dates:

I will not accept any papers after the specified due dates.

Attendance Policy:

I will be taking attendance. You have a right to miss 3 classes-any additional absences will result in the loss of 0.25 per absence off of your final grade. (i.e.: a student who earns a 3.5, but misses 5 classes, will receive a 3.0).

Course Schedule:

Jan 11th: Introductory lecture; formation of groups

Jan 13th: Emerson, Nature

Jan 18th: peer-edit assignment #1; Emerson “Self-Reliance”, “History”

Jan 20th: Emerson “Circles”, “Experience”; Assignment #1 due

(weekly discussion forum postings begin–due before 11am, each Tuesday)

Jan 25th: Kingdom Come and the Myth of the Hero

Jan 27th: movie screening: Meet John Doe

Feb 1st: Squadron Supreme #1-3

Feb 3rd: movie screening: Strange Cargo

Feb 8th: Squadron Supreme #4-9

Feb 10th: Squadron Supreme #10-12; discuss assignment #2 in groups

Feb 15th: Watchmen #1-3

Feb 17th: movie screening: Bamboozled

Feb 22nd: Watchmen # 4-6

Feb 24th: Watchmen # 7-9; discuss assignment #2 in groups

March 1st: Watchmen #10-12

March 3rd: movie screening: Fight Club; assignment #2 due

****Spring Break*****

March 15th: Dark Knight Returns #1-2

March 17th: Dark Knight Returns #3-4; discuss assignment #3 in groups

March 22nd: Locas pages 7-245; assignment #3 due

March 24th: movie screening: Boys Don’t Cry

March 29th: Locas pages 246-542

March 31st: movie screening: Mulholland Dr.

April 5th: Locas pages 543-704

April 7th: Animal Man #1-4; discuss assignment #4

April 12th: Animal Man #5

April 14th: Animal Man #6-11, including Secret Origins #39; assignment #4 due

April 19th: Animal Man #12-17

April 21st: Animal Man #18-22; discuss assignment #5 in groups

April 26th: Animal Man #23-26

April 28th: full class peer-editing and general discussion of assignment #5

May 5th :  class evaluations; assignment #5 due(this is our exam period)

WRAC 130 Syllabus: Fall 2004

WRAC 130: American Radical Thought

Section 7: Mondays & Wednesdays 3:00pm to 4:50pm

Room: Akers-134



David Fiore Office Hours: Monday & Wednesday 5pm to 7pm

Office Number—-Bessey 301


Course Description:


During the three decades leading up to the Civil War, a wide variety of dissenters—armed only with a set of very old concepts, refashioned into an array of startlingly new critiques—laid siege to American society as it was then constituted. Radicals are no less a part of their culture than those whom they oppose, and one of our tasks will be to keep our fingers on the pulse of ideology which contributed the bassline to all of these raucous debates. However, it will be just as important for us to consider the process through which these dedicated hearts purified the tired blood of tradition into a vital fluid that, at least for a brief period, carried hitherto unprecedented amounts of oxygen to the “American mind”.


This course is, first and foremost, an introduction to the theory and practice of academic writing, and our main objective will be to work our way into the scholarly conversation centered upon this volatile period. The ways in which twentieth century historians and artists have perceived the mid-nineteenth century can be read as prophesies for the twenty-first. Your job as a student is to assess the validity of the claims they make, and to make claims of your own. I want you to think of the final research paper—in which you will stir a number of diverse interpretations into a concoction that quenches your thirst for a “usable past”—as an “icebreaker” of sorts.




Coursepack (on 2 hour reserve in library)


Ralph Waldo Emerson, Complete Writings


Aileen Kraditor, Means and Ends in American Abolitionism: Garrison and his Critics on Strategy and Tactics, 1834-1850


Stanley Elkins, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life.


Ronald Walters, The Antislavery Appeal.


Henry David Thoreau, On Civil Disobedience.


Margaret Fuller, Woman in the Nineteenth Century.


Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom.


Albert J. Von Frank, The Trials of Anthony Burns: Freedom and Slavery in Emerson’s Boston.


Plagiarism Disclaimer:


If I discover that you have used another person’s material without citing it, I will give you a zero for the assignment. No explanations will be accepted.




(I will hand out more specific instructions regarding each of these assignments in class as the semester progresses.)


1. Religion & Radicalism in America, your initial sense of their relationship—500 words. (5% of grade)

2. “Moralizing” Politics—1500 words (20% of grade)

3. Brook Farm web site review—750 words (12.5% of grade)

4. Film Critique: discuss one of our films as an interpretive text—750 words (12.5%of grade)

5. Short Historiographical Research paper—2500 words (40% of grade)

6. Class Participation (10% of grade)— If you participate in all 5 of the peer editing sessions in good faith, you will earn a perfect score for participation. You will receive one point for each first draft you bring in on the appointed day, and one point for each peer review sheet you complete.


Due Dates:


I will not accept any papers after the specified due dates. There is no penalty for not submitting a first draft (other than the loss of 1 participation point). However, if you don’t submit one, you will deprive yourself of the benefits of my comments.



Attendance Policy:


I will be taking attendance. You have a right to miss 3 classes—any additional absences will result in the loss of 0.25 per absence off of your final grade. (i.e.: a student who earns a 3.5, but misses 5 classes, will receive a 3.0).



Course Schedule:


Aug 30th: What’s distinctive about American radical thought (as opposed to “radicalism in America”)? Is there any warrant for asking such a question?

The Hartz thesis, the “Consensus School” and a lead-in to Bercovitch.


Sept 1st: Discuss Bercovitch—“Emerson, Individualism, and Liberal Dissent” and “The Problem of Ideology in a Time of Dissensus” {coursepack}


Sept 6th: Labor Day


Sept 8th : Discuss “From Edwards to Emerson”, “The Significance of Roger Williams for the American Tradition” (Perry Miller); “Anne Hutchinson, Sectarian Mysticism, and the Puritan Order” (Marilyn J. Westerkamp) {coursepack all}

Assignment #1 due [first draft]

Peer Editing session


Sept 13th: Discuss “Self-Reliance”, “Circles“, Politics” and “New England Reformers” (Emerson)

I will return your drafts of Assignment #1, with comments. We will discuss whichever concerns you might have regarding the incorporation of sources (thematically & mechanically).


Sept 15th: Discuss “Commencement of the Liberator” (Garrison); “Public Opinion”(Phillips); “Talk About Political Party” (Child); “Speech to a Committee of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, February 21, 1838” (Grimke) and “The Patrician as Agitator” (Hofstadter) {coursepack all}


Sept 20th: Discuss “Slavery and the Intellectual” (Elkins, 140- 222)

Assignment #1 due [final draft]


Sept 22nd: Discuss Means and Ends in American Abolitionism: Garrison and his Critics on Strategy and Tactics, 1834-1850 (Kraditor)


Sept 27th: Discuss Means and Ends in American Abolitionism: Garrison and his Critics on Strategy and Tactics, 1834-1850 (Kraditor)



Sept 29th: Discuss The Antislavery Appeal, “Forms” and “Content” (Walters, 1-87)


Oct 4th: “The United States Constitution” (Garrison), United States Constitution {}; The Federalist no. 10 (Madison) {}

Assignment #2 due [first draft]

Peer Editing session

We will address the difficulties you encountered in writing historiography.



Oct 6th: Movie screening—Amistad (1998)


Oct 11th: Discuss “The Declaration of Independence” {} and David Walker’s Appeal {coursepack}

I will return your drafts of Assignment #2, with comments.


Oct 13th: “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” and My Bondage and My Freedom (Douglass); Frederick Douglass and the American Jeremiad


Oct 18th: My Bondage and My Freedom (Douglass)

Assignment #2 due [final draft]


Oct 20th: Woman in the Nineteenth Century (Fuller)


Oct 25th: Woman in the Nineteenth Century (Fuller)


Nov 1st: Web site review (assignment #3) due [first draft]

Peer Editing session

We’ll discuss the site in class.


Nov 3rd: Movie screening—Little Women (1994)


Nov 8th: “On Civil Disobedience” (Thoreau)

I will return your drafts of Assignment #3, with comments.

Final Research Paper Idea Generating Session.


Nov 10th: Read “A Plea For Captain John Brown” (Thoreau) and “John Brown” (Emerson)

Movie screening—Santa Fe Trail (1940)


***Meet with me (I’ll take appointments on Nov 10th) during the week of the 15th to clear a topic for your research papers***

Nov 15th: Discuss “The American Scholar”, “History”, and “Experience“ (Emerson)


Nov 17th: “Life without Principle” and “Slavery in Massachusetts” (Thoreau); “An Address on the Emancipation of the Negroes in the British West Indies” and “The Fugitive Slave Law” (Emerson)

Assignment #3 due [final draft]


Nov 22nd: Assignment #4 due [first draft]

Peer Review Session

Discuss Research Progress in Groups


Nov 24th: Discuss The Trials of Anthony Burns: Freedom and Slavery in Emerson’s Boston (Von Frank); “Anthony Burns: The New Crime Against Humanity” (Parker) {coursepack}


Nov 29th: Assignment #5 due [first draft]

Full class Peer Review Session

I will return your drafts of Assignment #4, with comments.


Dec 1st: Discuss The Trials of Anthony Burns: Freedom and Slavery in Emerson’s Boston (Von Frank)




Dec 6th: Discuss The Trials of Anthony Burns: Freedom and Slavery in Emerson’s Boston (Von Frank)

Assignment #4 due [final draft]

I will return your drafts of Assignment #5, with comments.


Dec 8th: Full class forum for discussion of paper revisions.


Dec 15th : hand in final draft of assignment #5; Course evaluations

From The Exception To Misrule: Sectionalism and Synecdochic Strife in America

From The Exception To Misrule:

Sectionalism and Synecdochic Strife in America

The specter of sectionalism has loomed over the historiography of Civil War causation since the firing upon Fort Sumter, but it is only recently that scholars have begun to problematize the phenomenon’s relationship to its binary opposite: nationalism. This leads to a very important series of questions: what is nationalism? Can devotion to “the Union” be equated with patriotic attachment to “the nation”? Did such a thing as “American nationalism” exist prior to the Civil War? If not, then why have so many historians written in willful ignorance of this fact, and why have so many others been blind to the implications of the sectional nature of the imperative toward a “more perfect union”?

There has been a major break in the historiography since the publication of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities in 1983. The idea that all nationalisms are constructed has helped to refocus scholarly attention upon a “Union” that, for too long, was assumed (with a wide variety of consequences) to be as “self-evident” an entity as the “truths” proclaimed by the Declaration of Independence. Some of the most fruitful lines of inquiry rooted in this Andersonian paradigm shift have centered upon the emergence of an “official nationalism” in America. If the drive to bring a “new (centralized) nation” to birth can be understood as the aspiration of a part (or a struggle between several “parts”) to stand for the whole, then the important questions become: who imagines this community? Who “dreams up” this “American Dream”? Perhaps most importantly, who decides where the boundary between dream and nightmare lies? At what point in its course does “the main current of American thought” become a “backwater” (and backwards–not to mention “backwoods”); an “exception”, just as likely to be dismissed as it is to be dealt with, during the day-to-day business of governance?

The most recent scholarship on nationalism and the Civil War hearkens back, in many ways, to the work of Charles and Mary Beard, whose schematic “economic interpretation of American history” is the quintessence of what is commonly referred to as “vulgar Marxism”, but is no less important a cornerstone of the historiography for that. The Beardian interpretation stresses that:

at bottom the so-called Civil War, was a social war, ending in the unquestioned establishment of a new power in the government, making vast changes in the course of industrial development, and in the constitution inherited from the Fathers.

This view is in stark opposition to popular traditions which held that the war had been a “national tragedy”, an expiatory orgy brought down upon the Union by the sin of slavery. According to Beard, it had been nothing of the sort. Instead, it was the final round of a struggle between “Hamiltonian” money interests and “Jeffersonian” agrarians that had been operative since the time of the Constitutional Convention. It was, in short, a power grab by a small segment of the population (industrial capitalists, whose proxies–the duped and “falsely conscious” northern proletariat–did their fighting and dying for them), which resulted in the conflation of their particular worldview with the “nation’s”.

In a Beardian framework, the emergence of this new American “synthesis”, while perhaps deplorable in itself, is nevertheless seen as the inevitable result of an “irrepressible conflict” between the proponents of antagonistic modes of production; and, as “Progressive historians”, the Beards naturally supposed that it was merely a necessary step on the road to a far more desirable (i.e. socialist) synthesis. The industrialization of the South would also “radicalize” it, by fostering the growth of the “revolutionary class” (the proletariat) in that region, and this, in turn, would create the necessary preconditions for a nationwide upheaval.

The only thing more “irrepressible” than Beard’s conflict is the ebb and tide of historiographical fashion, and, naturally, in the 1930s and 1940s, a “revisionist” school arose to challenge the fundamental assumptions of “economic determinism”. This group of historians, led by Avery O. Craven and James G. Randall, maintained that, to use Randall’s famous terminology, the war had been the wholly unnecessary result of a “blundering generation’s” mismanagement of the sectional extremists. In effect, they rescued the traditional understanding of the war as a tragedy, but attributed its cause to a punishment for “stupidity”, rather than the sin of slavery. The sin qua non of the “revisionist interpretation” is that the furor over “the peculiar institution” could have been addressed without bloodshed, if more “responsible” men had held the reins of political power, during the crucial decade of the 1850s. An unavoidable corollary of this argument is that the immediate abolition of slavery was a “compromisable” position. Indeed, Randall likened Radical Republicans to Jacobins, and considered their adherence to a platform of social reorganization in the South inexcusable. In the interests of “fairness”, the revisionist argument generally included a parallel indictment of “fire-eaters”, who played a similarly wild-eyed role in provoking the Confederacy to take precipitate action in the days after Lincoln’s election, but no amount of rhetoric can conceal the fact that they placed most of the blame for the conflict upon Northern “visionaries”.

Stanley Elkins, a somewhat later historian who falls squarely into this camp, is notable for developing an actual theory in order to account for America’s collective descent into “madness and extremity” during the antebellum period. Refusing to accept a merely anecdotal explanation for the war (i.e. the particular men who came to power during the 1850s simply lacked the ability to govern that their “forefathers” had possessed), Elkins attributed the collapse to a structural defect in American society:

We have elsewhere noted that the democratization of all of the major institutions once familiar to American life had a to a profound degree worked to undermine those same institutions, and that in a larger sense such institutional breakdown was the very condition, or price, of national success. But, in at least one area, the price of democracy was very high. For a fatal process was at work, and that process was nothing less than the very democratization of the controversy over slavery. The tragic flaw of an otherwise of an otherwise singularly favored society was the absence of mechanisms for checking such a development–the absence of mechanisms which might prevent a range of alternatives in sentiment and idea to be crystallized and maintained and which might prevent the development of a lowest common denominator of feeling in each section, widely enough shared as to provide a democratic ground for war.

Once again, the theme of “tragedy” is invoked, this time as a consequence of a sort of congenital anti-institutionalism in American thought. Elkins’ betes noires, the Transcendentalists (whom he refers to interchangeably with the abolitionists, despite the considerable differences between the two groups), represent the problem of the “irresponsible American intellectual” in its most distilled form, and it is fascinating that the author traces a putatively “national” vice to the vicinity of Concord, Massachusetts–arguably one of the least typical spots on the map of the United States, during the antebellum period. We will have cause to return to this problem later on.

The Elkins thesis inspired a revisionary charge in its own right, led by Aileen Kraditor, whose book, Means and Ends in American Abolitionism, argues that the extreme form of anti-institutionalism that Elkins deplores in the Transcendentalists and Abolitionists was specifically rooted in New England culture, and was very far from the norm, even there. Perhaps more important, at least in the context of their own debate, if not for the purposes of this essay, is Kraditor’s defiant contention that

the significant point is not that American society was relatively “devoid of structure”, as Elkins correctly states, but that slavery was part of what structure it had, such an integral part that a movement to destroy it was not a reform movement but a radical one; it judged the institution of slavery not by the moral criteria of the society within which slavery had a legitimate place, but by a higher law which rejected those very criteria.

The book was published in 1967, at the height of the Civil Rights era, and the unspoken disagreement between Kraditor and Elkins goes beyond antislavery to an attack upon the “blundering generation”/”irresponsibility” school’s shocking failure to prioritize racial justice in their dirgelike treatments of a “needless conflagration”.

The most fascinating thing about the Elkins-Kraditor debate is that they are so close to agreement on the “facts” of abolitionism. When Kraditor notes that

to the nonresistants [largely coextensive–but not synonymous–with the Garrisonian wing of abolitionism] slavery was a symptom of a basic flaw in pervading the entire society…the abolition of slavery would be only one step toward the fundamental regeneration of American society, which would require a profound ideological reorientation and ultimately abolish the government.

she is only repeating, in substance, what Elkins had written, albeit in a more approving tone. To the extent that there is anything more than a difference in temperament between them, their disagreement centers upon the question of Garrison’s representativity as a symbol of American abolitionism. Elkins wants to maintain that all abolitionists were, at heart, Garrisonians (and Emersonians), a fact which Kraditor, for whom the real tragedy of the nineteenth century is not the Civil War, but Reconstruction, fervently denies:

the antipolitical abolitionists [Christian Anarchists of the Garrisonian persuasion] predicted that if antislavery sentiment became popular without being accompanied by real progress on the race question, the reflection of that sentiment in Congressional action would create a frightful danger to the nation. Abolition of slavery could conceivably be forced eventually by a white North aroused to protect its own interests, but that very abolition would make the achievement of the abolitionists’ other goals more difficult. It could be argued that that is precisely what happened.

On the other hand, Elkins is clearly closer to the truth of the public’s perception (particularly in the South) of abolitionism at the time of the crisis. Kraditor’s demonstration that Garrison spoke only for a small faction of movement and had virtually no followers outside of New England matters little when weighed against the manifest truth of his significance, as a symbol, to Southern politicians who felt compelled to withdraw from the Union upon the accession to power of the “Black Republican party”. Ignoring the official platform of this Northern coalition (which was anything but radical), “fire-eaters” did see the new party as the political incarnation of “Garrisonism” (or, perhaps, “Sumnerism”, which came to much the same thing, from a white supremacist perspective).

Most influential Southerners assumed that the Republican party was the ultimate vehicle for the realization of New England’s (not “the North’s”) “sectional aims”. Whether this is borne out by the record is a question that will preoccupy us in the final stages of this paper, but what concerns us, at this juncture, is the very notion of “sectional consciousness” itself. Most scholars have agreed that New England constituted a “distinct society”–an exception–within the context of the early Republic; but what this difference consisted of, and, more importantly, what the region’s “interests” might have been, has been hotly contested. At the same time, New England sectionalism has tended to be treated in a subtly different manner from the Southern variant–the classic example of this is Hans Kohn’s contention that, of the “founding sections”, only the South developed a sense “national identity”–and this seems to be more a consequence of the distortions of hindsight than anything else.

It is perhaps not surprising then that the most aggressively political demonstration of New England exceptionalism since the Puritan settlement itself, the Hartford Convention, has attracted very little scholarly attention. Shaw Livermore Jr. deals tangentially with the event, as one of the major causes for the demise (or, rather, the retreat) of the Federalist Party, claiming that

although relative moderates controlled the convention, the circumstances, together with the long list of demands that touched the fundamental nature of the union, convinced many that the delegates were threatening secession. Such a threat made during war was easily equated with treason.

The remainder of the book gives a fascinating account of the spectacle of a party called “Federalist” whose subsequent chances of winning any election outside of New England quickly converged upon nil.

James M. Banner’s To The Hartford Convention remains the only “full-length” study of this event, and its treatment of the crisis as something of a “tempest in a teapot” (in effect, he reduces it to a failed electioneering ploy, fomented by a cabal of Massachusetts politicians, which never constituted any threat to the union) may explain why there has been no follow-up, in the thirty-four years since its publication. Banner’s admirable reconstruction of the event from the inside may have done more harm than good, from an historiographical perspective. His exclusive focus upon the instigators of the convention–men such as Harrison Gray Otis, who were almost certainly not serious secessionists–has somehow blinded historians to the fact that, again, as in the case of Kraditor’s subjects, the public’s perception of these “conspirators” (and their representativity of New England attitudes) was quite different from the facts that Banner presents the reader with. After all, as Livermore demonstrates, “Hartford” did kill a national party organization, and no politician that made an appearance there (most notably Daniel Webster) was ever permitted to forget this fact, come election time. It would seem that a great opportunity has been passed up, by scholars of the antebellum period, to examine the Convention’s role in helping to prepare the ground for Southern paranoia concerning “Yankee” moral aggression and its relationship to the Union and the Constitution–it should not be overlooked that one of the major items on the Hartford docket was the immediate abolition, not of slavery, but of the “three-fifths” clause.

There were “proto-Garrisonian” voices at the Convention, most notably Timothy Pickering’s, and these were precisely the ones that echoed forth most resoundingly upon the national stage, but political historians have instead tended to focus upon Banner’s “moderates” and their attempts to live down the embarrassment of their complicity in an enterprise which became notorious. Daniel Webster has been the most representative figure here. Scholars such as Norman D. Brown and Richard Dalzell have done an admirable job of charting the Massachusetts senator’s ascent from “Federalist conspirator” to the famed “Defender of the Constitution” of the Webster-Hayne debates. Harlow W. Sheidley’s Sectional Nationalism: Massachusetts Conservative Leaders and the Transformation of America, 1815-1836, bids fair to become the definitive treatment of this difficult period of readjustment for New England’s commercial elite. The author contends that

Webster consciously exploited the opportunity of Hayne’s “abuse” to place New England’s agenda for national development and New England’s previous near-treasonous sectionalism squarely within the frame of nationalist rhetoric. Posing as the disinterested defender of a nation threatened by dangerous southern constitutional doctrines, he was able to transfer the burden of defending a disunionist sectionalism, which had been New England’s for so many years, to the South. New England’s own defensive sectionalism was thus recast as an aggressive nationalism whose sole concern was to support and defend the Constitution and the Union, albeit in terms honored by the conservatives in the past years.

While this is undeniably true, it begs the question: what became of the content of New England sectionalism, once the region’s political leaders made their bid to cast their lots with the fate of the Union and the various compromises that were necessary to maintain it? Did the moral exceptionalism that had been such a threatening aspect of the Hartford Convention simply evaporate?

As the struggles of the sixties forced the academic establishment to perform a wholesale reevaluation of the ethics of “compromise” that had been so foundational to the Craven/Randall thesis (and even Stanley Elkins admitted, in the third edition of Slavery, that his condemnation of abolitionist anti-institutionalism had perhaps been overhasty, given that “the civil rights movement and the intransigence which it encountered ha[d] permitted [him] to empathize” more fully with these activists than he had been capable of in 1959), a new flurry of “two civilizations” studies exploded the old historiographical paradigm on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. Eugene Genovese’s work in The Political Economy of Slavery revived the Beardian notion that the South’s unique variation on the “feudal mode of production” placed the region in a state of implacable hostility vis-a-vis the capitalist North. As Genovese’s career progressed, and as he embellished his materialist portrait of the South with borrowed concepts (such as Gramsci’s theory of “hegemony”) and problematic, but psychologically complex, tools of his own invention (most notably “paternalism”), “vulgar economic determinism” flourished into a Marxist interpretation of Southern life that was at least capable of explaining why masses of non-slaveholding whites might have been willing to die in defense of the institution–and why planters could never have given it up without a fight.

Eric Foner, a contemporary of Genovese’s, and a fellow practitioner of “depth-Marxism”, delivered a similarly powerful explication of Northern ideology in Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men. Foner’s understanding of the mental world of the masses of voters who handed control of the Union to the Republican party in 1860 continues to serve as the basis for many, if not most, of the studies on this subject that have followed in its wake. At the thematic core of the book is the concept of “free labor”, which, according to Foner

involved not only an attitude toward work, but a justification of ante-bellum northern society, and it led northern Republicans to an extensive critique of southern society, which appeared both different from and inferior to their own. Republicans also believed in the existence of a conspiratorial “Slave Power” which had seized control of the federal government and was attempting to pervert the Constitution for its own purposes. Two profoundly different and antagonistic civilizations, Republicans thus believed, had developed within the nation, and were competing for control of the political system.

The concept of “free labor” ideology allows Foner to deliver a plausible (i.e. psychologically sensitive) account of how white supremacist Northerners could have become powerfully enough invested in the idea of abolition that they were willing to die for an enslaved people that most would not have flinched from classifying as second-class citizens, when they thought of Black Southerners at all.

One of the many objectives of David M. Potter’s massive The Impending Crisis was the reconciliation of Foner’s exegesis of northern “political religion” with the more conservative, nationalist track followed by Webster and his supporters. In this book, the author contends that

functionally, there is a standard way for preserving two or more views which cannot coexist in the same context: they must be kept in separate contexts. And this is what the northern public learned to do, thus finding a way both to oppose slavery and to cherish a Constitution and a Union which protected it… they placed their patriotism in a context of inherited obligation to carry out solemn promises given in the Constitution as an inducement to the South to adhere to the Union. By emphasizing the sanctity of a fixed obligation, they eliminated the element of volition or of personal responsibility for slavery at the federal level, and thus were true to the value of the Union in this context.

In Potter’s view, the struggle to assimilate the new territories of Kansas and Nebraska into the Union caused the barrier between these two separate contexts to rupture. On this point he is substantially in agreement with Foner, who maintains that, as Kraditor had lamented, the quest to secure the West for free (white) labor provided the basis for the formation of a coalition against slavery that had scarcely any interest in promoting racial justice.

Hot on the heels of the posthumous publication of The Impending Crisis came an attack on its central thesis by Michael F. Holt, a political historian who rebuilt a new, improved version of the “blundering generation” theory on a foundation of voting records and the insights gleaned from the “ethnocultural” interpretation of the second party system propounded by Ronald P. Formisano. Holt’s analysis depends upon a rigorous emphasis upon the timing of the Civil War:

Ideological differences, after all, do not always produce wars… To be more concrete, there most certainly was sectional conflict between North and South over slavery-related matters, yet that conflict, or cold war, had existed at least since the Constitutional Convention of 1787… If slavery or even the slavery extension issue caused the war, for example, why not in 1820 or 1832 or 1846 or 1850 or 1854? The basic problem concerning the war, in short, has less to do with the sources of sectional conflict than with the war’s timing. The important question is not what divided the North from the South, but how the nation could contain or control that division for so long and then allow it suddenly to erupt into war.

Holt’s “blunderers” are not guilty of any lack of statesmanship or ability to compromise, but rather of a failure to hold the general public, North and South, mesmerized by the old issues (the tariff, the National Bank, “internal improvements”) that had largely kept sectional issues from predominating, even during the the Mexican War and its aftermath. According to the author, neither of the two root causes for the demise of the Second Party System–unprecedented concurrence between the parties on economic issues and the explosion of nativism in the wake of massive Catholic-European immigration–had anything to do with slavery.

Holt’s contention that “party competition” is the health of the state is deeply indebted to the scholarship of Richard Hofstadter and Richard P. McCormick; and his supposition that a “conspiracy theory” (in this case, a sectional one; a twinned pair of them, in fact: fear of “The Slave Power” and “Black Republicanism”) will always fill a political vacuum also nods in the direction of Hofstadter’s seminal exploration of “the paranoid style” in American politics. It is an inspired performance, the study denies that any kind of conscious “sectional agency” drove the politics of the 1850s, and treats the eruption of these regional passions as a kind of “return of the repressed”.

Very few of the most recent studies of the resultant conflict have accepted Holt’s central thesis, but all of them have made some tactical use of his ideas. One of the most influential of these has been Richard Bensel’s Yankee Leviathan, which details the process by which, in the author’s estimation, New England made its long deferred bid not merely to affirm its attachment to the Union, but to make its own particular value system synonymous with the nation’s. Bensell examines the Federal-North’s attempt to impose Foner’s “free labor” ideology upon the South, dwelling most profitably upon those factors which, in the final analysis, thwarted the proper implementation of the “modernization” program nationwide. The book advances the deeply ironic (and depressing) thesis that, in seizing the opportunity afforded by the “Crisis of the 1850s” to capture uncontested federal power, proponents of centralized government (and potentially of social-democratic reform) squandered a golden opportunity to annihilate the legacy of a decentralized republic by reabsorbing an economically unassimilable region (the South) back into the fold, before a new tradition of “economic planning” could take hold in any portion of the country. In effect, the nascent “Yankee Leviathan” destroyed itself by prosecuting the War too effectively and swallowing a reactionary Confederacy whole; which eventuated in a retying of the same inter-sectional knots between local elites with incompatible economic interests that had prevailed before the war, and virtually undid any progress toward a rationalization of the economy that had been made during the war and the early stages of Reconstruction.

Susan-Mary Grant takes a far more cynical view of the same events in North Over South, arguing that Northern/Yankee ideologues used the conflict as a cover for realizing their most cherished ambition: the birth of a “new nation” whose ideals would be of New English origin, and whose failures and hypocrisies could inevitably be blamed on a chastened and necessarily “backward” South. Grant deploys the deconstructionist theory of the interdependence of all signs, beginning with the proposition that the existence of a “Southern nationalism” necessarily implies its Northern counterpart, and that, moreover, the Yankee-ized federal government’s failure to effectively subjugate economic and racial reactionaries in the South served the needs of Northern state-builders perfectly. According to Grant, there was no serious attempt to “modernize” the South. In fact, victorious New Englanders consciously strove to maintain the status quo in the region, which they hoped to hold in perpetuity as a nightmarish fiefdom to which they could banish all of the monstrous social inequalities that their “American Dream” was unequipped to deal with on the plane of reality.

Grant’s dialectical understanding of the conflict is, in many ways, a return to Beard, and certainly to Foner; but the elimination of a Marxist base from the interpretation takes with it the sense of material progress which, despite their acknowledgment of the costs of this advancement, had brightened the work of these earlier scholars. Her dialectic is purely rhetorical, with the North emerging as the privileged term, and maintaining this status upon the sufferance of the South’s continued embodiment of all that is wrong with America. However much one might be tempted to disagree with this argument, it is hard to ignore the fact that cultural anthropologists and intellectual historians, from Margaret Mead through Louis B. Hartz to Joyce Appleby, have fallen into exactly the snare that Grant describes–treating the South as an exception, when it might at least be closer to the truth to comprehend it as the exception that proves (national) misrule.
Works Cited and Consulted

Abzug, Robert H. Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and the Religious Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities : Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verso, 1991.

Appleby, Joyce. Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 2000.

Auer, J. Jeffrey, ed. Antislavery and Disunion, 1858-1861: Studies in the Rhetoric of Compromise and Conflict. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.

Banner, James M. To The Hartford Convention: The Federalists and the Origins of Party Politics in Massachusetts, 1789-1815. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970.

Beard, Charles, and Mary Beard. The Rise of American Civilization. Two volumes. New York: Macmillan, 1927.

Bender, Thomas, ed. The Antislavery Debate: Capitalism and Abolitionism as a Problem in Historical Interpretation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Bensel, Richard Franklin. Yankee Leviathan: The Origin of Central State Authority in America, 1859-1877. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990.

Blight, David W. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 2001.

Brown, Norman D. Daniel Webster and the Politics of Availability. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1969.

Clarfield, Gerard H. Timothy Pickering and the American Republic. Pittsburgh, PA. : University of Pittsburgh Press, 1980.

Cowden, Joanna D. “Heaven Will Frown on Such a Cause As This: Six Democrats Who Opposed Lincoln’s War. New York: University Press of America, 2001.

Cox, John H. Politics, Principle, and Prejudice, 1865-1866: The Dilemma of Reconstruction America. New York: Atheneum, 1969.

Craven, Avery O. The Coming of The Civil War. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1942.

Dalzell, Robert F. Daniel Webster and the Trial of American Nationalism, 1843-1852. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1973.

DuBois, W.E. Burghardt. Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880. New York: Russell & Russell, 1935.

Elkins, Stanley M. Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional Life (Third Edition). Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1976.

Foner, Eric. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1970.

—-, ed. The New American History. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1997.

Formisano, Ronald P. The Birth of Mass Political Parties, Michigan, 1827-1861. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971.

Genovese, Eugene D. The Political Economy of Slavery: Studies in the Economy & Society of the Slave South. New York : Vintage Books, 1967.

—-, The World the Slaveholders Made: Two Essays in Interpretation. New York: Pantheon Books, 1969.

—-, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Pantheon Books, 1974.

Grant, Susan-Mary. North Over South: Northern Nationalism and American Identity in the Antebellum Era. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000.

Hartz, Louis B. The Liberal Tradition in America: An Interpretation of American Political Thought Since the Revolution. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1991.

Hofstadter, Richard. The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1965.

—-. The Idea of A Party System: The Rise of Legitimate Opposition in the United States, 1780-1840. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.

Holt, Michael F. The Political Crisis of the 1850s. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1978.

Howe, Daniel Walker. Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1997.

Kohn, Hans. American Nationalism: An Interpretive Essay. New York: Macmillan, 1957.

Kraditor, Aileen S. Means and Ends in American Abolitionism: Garrison and his Critics on Strategy and Tactics, 1834-1850. Chicago: Elephant Paperbacks, 1989.

Livermore Jr., Shaw. The Twilight of Federalism: The Disintegration of the Federalist Party, 1815-1830. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1962.

Maizlish, Stephen E. The Triumph of Sectionalism: The Transformation of Ohio Politics, 1844-1856. Kent: Kent State UP, 1983.

McCormick, Richard P. The Second America Party System: Party Formation in the Jacksonian Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1966.

Mead, Margaret Mead. And Keep Your Powder Dry: An Anthropologist Looks at America. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1942.

Nash, Howard P. Third Parties in American Politics. Washington: Public Affairs Press, 1970.

Newman, Richard S. The Transformation of American Abolitionism: Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Nimtz, August H. Marx, Tocqueville, and Race in America: The “Absolute Democracy” or “Defiled Republic”. New York: Lexington Books, 2003.

Potter, David M. The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 (completed and edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher). New York: Harper and Row, 1976.

—-. The South and the Sectional Conflict. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1968.

Randall, James G. The Civil War and Reconstruction. Boston: D. C. Heath and Company, 1937.

Schlesinger, Arthur M. The Age of Jackson. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1945.

Sheidley, Harlow W. Sectional Nationalism: Massachusetts Conservative Leaders and the Transformation of America. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1998.

Taylor, Anne-Marie. Young Charles Sumner and the Legacy of the American Enlightenment, 1811-1851. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001.

Taylor, William R. Cavalier and Yankee: The Old South and American National Character. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1979.

Watson, Harry L. Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America. New York: Hill and Wang, 1990.

Wills, Garry. A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999.


Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities : Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. (New York : Verso, 1991)

There are many different “nationalisms” in Anderson’s book! His discussion of this particular variant relies mainly upon a discussion of its emergence as a reactionary weapon against “popular nationalism” in Tsarist Russia, but I would argue that, with some modifications to account for “local color”, particularly “official nationalism’s” greater complicity with the reactionary urges of “the common (white) people” themselves, it is just as valuable a tool for understanding developments in mid-19th century America.

see Charles Beard and Mary Beard. The Rise of American Civilization. Two volumes (New York: Macmillan, 1927), passim

Charles Beard and Mary Beard, The Rise of American Civilization. Two volumes (New York: Macmillan, 1927), 53

Avery O Craven, The Coming of The Civil War (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1942); James G. Randall, The Civil War and Reconstruction (Boston : D. C. Heath and Company, 1937)

Stanley M. Elkins, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional Life(Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1976)

Elkins, 178

see Elkins, “The Abolitionist as Transcendentalist”, in ibid., 175-193

Aileen S. Kraditor, Means and Ends in American Abolitionism: Garrison and his Critics on Strategy and Tactics, 1834-1850. (Chicago: Elephant Paperbacks, 1989)

ibid., 20.

Kraditor, 103.

Kraditor, 32

Hans Kohn, American Nationalism: An Interpretive Essay (New York: Macmillan, 1957), 94-107

Shaw Livermore Jr., The Twilight of Federalism: The Disintegration of the Federalist Party, 1815-1830 (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1962), 11

Banner, James M. To The Hartford Convention: The Federalists and the Origins of Party Politics in Massachusetts, 1789-1815. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970). Garry Wills deal with the Convention, in some detail, in A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999), 153-162, but only to reiterate Banner’s thesis.

For a discussion of Pickering’s extremism–both moral and sectional–see Gerard H. Clarfield, Timothy Pickering and the American Republic (Pittsburgh, PA. : University of Pittsburgh Press, 1980)

Norman D. Brown, Daniel Webster and the Politics of Availability (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1969); Robert F. Dalzell, Daniel Webster and the Trial of American Nationalism, 1843-1852 (Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1973).

Sheidley, Harlow W. Sectional Nationalism: Massachusetts Conservative Leaders and the Transformation of America, 1815-1836 (Boston: Northeastern UP, 1998)

Harlow, 148-49

Elkins, 253

Eugene D. Genovese, The Political Economy of Slavery: Studies in the Economy & Society of the Slave South (New York : Vintage Books, 1967)

see Genovese, The World the Slaveholders Made: Two Essays in Interpretation (New York: Pantheon Books, 1969); Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Pantheon Books, 1974)

Foner, Eric. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1970)

Foner, 9-10

David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 (New York: Harper and Row, 1976)

Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850s (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1978); Ronald P. Formisano’s book The Birth of Mass Political Parties, Michigan, 1827-1861 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971) problematized the traditional view of the Whig/Democrat binary–the classic iteration of which can be found in Arthur M. Schlesinger’s The Age of Jackson (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1945)–by emphasizing the extent to which ethnic/religious (rather than class) identity determined voting patterns in Michigan.

Holt, 2

Richard Hofstadter, The Idea of a Party System: The Rise of Legitimate Opposition in the United States, 1780-1840 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969); Richard P. McCormick, The Second America Party System: Party Formation in the Jacksonian Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1966).

Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and Other Essays (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1964).

Richard Franklin Bensell,Yankee Leviathan: The Origins of Central State Authority in America, 1859-1877 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

Grant, Susan-Mary, North Over South: Northern Nationalism and American Identity in the Antebellum Era (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000)

Margaret Mead, And Keep Your Powder Dry: An Anthropologist Looks at America (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1942); Louis B. Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America: An Interpretation of American Political Thought Since the Revolution (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1991); Joyce Appleby, Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans(Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 2000)

Could be interesting?

Could be interesting?


Wish I could find a way to blip more often (about comics or anything else!)–but I’ll definitely do something on Seaguy: Slaves of Mickey Eye after it’s done.

Also–I want to write an appreciation of Gerry Conway’s solo-protagonist superhero books of the ’70s and ’80s… We’ll see if that happens…

hope you are all well!

good afternoon friends!


Cancel Heroes, Save the World?

Cancel Heroes, Save the World?


So I finally decided to take a look at Heroes–after avoiding it for as long as I could (as you may know–I’m the guy who likes to read the “heroism” out of superhero comics).

I’m into the third season (on avi files)–and I’ve made a staggering discovery.

I actually have a bad-plotting threshhold!

And Heroes has disclosed it to me. I actually CANNOT engage this thing at the thematic level. I don’t think it has one. Anyway, I can’t find it.

I never dreamed this could happen to me–I’ve reveled in incoherence my entire life!

Am I reacting this way because I’m deeply immersed in writing a time-travel novel that actually has a comprehensible narrative line? (Which I then hope to sell?)

Have I lost my ability to appreciate storytelling that gives the lie to the myths of cause and effect?

Or is it just that the show’s creators are unprecedentedly incompetent?

Nothing anyone does on this show EVER makes any sense. Nor does it make NON-sense in any way that makes an impact.

My friend Nikki warned me that the show sinks ever deeper into “bad time travel.” I never knew there could be such a thing until I met Heroes. Now the best time-travel I can imagine would be the kind that takes me back to where I was before I decided to watch the pilot episode.

This is very bad time travel indeed. And the secret organization paranoia is even worse. If most genre narratives have “storytelling engines,” this one seems to be powered by “storytelling bombs.” (Except that makes it sound so much cooler than it is–how about “storytelling fucking voids of repetitiveness and pointless reversal”?)

I did like one episode quite a lot–the one during the first season that focuses on Hiro and Charlie (the doomed Texan waitress). That’s pretty much it. And now they’ve taken Veronica Mars and made her into an electrified twit.


Why have I kept going?

Can it be that I long to see the end of the horrible world these people are forever trying to save?

Good afternoon friends!