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The introduction to the volume canvasses the history of studies of American literature between 1820 and 1860 and makes a case for a singular endurance: that it is a literature dedicated to democracy. The introduction also frames the volume’s contribution as pointing to new directions in the field and summarizes the essays.
The essays in American Literature in Transition, 1820-1860 offer a new approach to the antebellum era, one that frames the age not merely as the precursor to the Civil War but as indispensable for understanding present crises around such issues as race, imperialism, climate change, and the role of literature in American society. The essays make visible and usable the period's fecund imagined futures, futures that certainly included disunion but not only disunion. Tracing the historical contexts, literary forms and formats, global coordinates, and present reverberations of antebellum literature and culture, the essays in this volume build on existing scholarship while indicating exciting new avenues for research and teaching. Taken together, the essays in this volume make this era's literature relevant for a new generation of students and scholars.
This chapter examines the critical discussions of Walt Whitman by Richard Chase and Jane Bennett in order to show how critics have used the poet to address the disenchanting political, social, and cultural conditions of their own times, particularly Cold War normativity and drastic climate change respectively. Beyond offering critiques of their times, however, critics have discussed Whitman to suggest alternatives that foster positive attachments to social and environmental justice. Contending that critics always create a “Whitman” to suit their own investments, the chapter urges critics to be explicit about those investments in the poet. Doing so, the chapter argues, frees Whitman from the need to speak the critic’s investments, while allowing criticism to play a more positive role in the present.
For much of the nineteenth century, the nervous system was a medical mystery, inspiring scientific studies and exciting great public interest. Because of this widespread fascination, the nerves came to explain the means by which mind and body related to each other. By the 1830s, the nervous system helped Americans express the consequences on the body, and for society, of major historical changes. Literary writers, including Nathaniel Hawthorne and Harriet Beecher Stowe, used the nerves as a metaphor to re-imagine the role of the self amidst political, social and religious tumults, including debates about slavery and the revivals of the Second Great Awakening. Representing the 'romance' of the nervous system and its cultural impact thoughtfully and, at times, critically, the fictional experiments of this century helped construct and explore a neurological vision of the body and mind. Murison explains the impact of neurological medicine on nineteenth-century literature and culture.
Their box, their great common anxiety, what was it, in this grim breathing-space, but the practical question of life?
Henry James, The Wings of the Dove (1902)
By 1880, the argument between spiritualism and neurology ultimately turned on methodology as much as on the question of faith. What counts as evidence of experience, whether that experience is of internal symptoms or external events? In answer, spiritualists championed human testimony while neurologists such as Beard saw in it only conscious and unconscious deceptions. Reflecting on his own experiences with mediums such as Leonora Piper in “The Confidences of a ‘Psychical Researcher’” (1909), William James confronted these issues as a scientist fascinated by the supernormal. He laments that, though he has spent the last twenty-five years trying to understand psychical phenomena, he is no closer to an explanation. He remains baffled by the quandary of evidence in spiritualism, the purported need to delineate “honest” occurrences from fraudulent practitioners. How can scientists make this distinction with a straight face, James asks, when they themselves often fudge their public performances? He recalls a time he did just this as an assistant for a lecture on nervous physiology at Harvard University. The goal of the lecture was to display the reflex action of a turtle's heart, but the heart's muscles and nerves were so exhausted they could no longer even perform the reflex. All they could do was arrest motion, and they did that much too perfectly.
If I were seriously to propose to Congress to make mankind into sausages, I have no doubt that most of the members would smile at my proposition, and if any believed me to be in earnest, they would think that I proposed something much worse than Congress had ever done.
Henry David Thoreau, “Slavery in Massachusetts” (1854)
One can easily imagine that Edgar Allan Poe experienced a jolt of recognition as he sat down to read Robert Montgomery Bird's Sheppard Lee; Written by Himself (1836). Published anonymously by Harper and Brothers, Sheppard Lee is a novel of metempsychosis in which Lee's spirit inhabits and reanimates a succession of corpses, including a gouty brewer, a dandy on the make for a rich wife, and a Virginia slave hanged for insurrection. Not only playing on Poe's favorite terrain of unmoored souls, Bird turns this potentially gothic conceit into comedy. As it turns out (and much to Poe's displeasure), the metempsychosis in Sheppard Lee is all a dream. Poe's review of the novel for the Southern Literary Messenger judges Bird's handling of the transmigration of souls to be both a literary and medical problem. “The chief source of interest in such narrative,” chides Poe, “is, or should be, the contrasting of these varied events […] upon a character unchanging – except as changed by the events.” Rather, Lee “partially loses, and partially does not lose, his identity, at each transmigration,” robbing the narrative as a whole of consistency.