Archive for the 'Thesis' Category


Jun 10 2010

Hello again

by at 5:50 pm

Hello, blog. I know I have been careless and forgotten about you during my thesis-writing days. I’ve come to make amends. It’s the summer, I’m sitting in Tryst Cafe after having met with Dana about the introduction to my thesis, and I come groveling back to you.

I’m sorry. Really, I am. I promised I would keep up with you, but I didn’t. Now that those apologies are out of the way, let’s get down to business:

My meeting with Dana was super helpful and I’d like to include some of the key points from our conversation because it’s pretty critical to the way my thesis is shaping up. Dana has a magical way of being, “So this is what your thesis is about,” as I nod my head and scribble frantically to get it all down. Yes. Now that you mention it, that is what it’s about.

So here are the important points from my Thursday, 6-10-2010 meeting:

1. My thesis is really just an expanded meditation on the notin of epxerimentation–specifically on scientific experimentation (ie: scientific method, etc.) versus literary experimentation, and then quite larger how this all connects to the volatile experimentation of the United States a political experimentation. This is where the atmosphere and electricity and such come into play. Yes. So that’s what it’s about. For now. At least.

2. In my chapter on Charles Brockden Brown, I’m not going to say which Brown critic is right or wrong or whatever. That’s not what I’m trying to do. Instead, my point is to look at the politics of experimentation and show that that is why we’ve been so confused about Brown’s politics. He experimental form and process is what has perplexed Brown scholars and what creates competing readings of him.

3. In my introduction I talk about the “Third Culture,” but it’s not a question of the “Third Culture” but really Culutre. So Snow’s binary of Two Cultures and then there being a Third Culture is actually inaccurate. It’s all just Culture.

4. Critics in for CBB chapter: Paul Witherington looks at Brown’s stylistic experimentation in Edgar Huntly. These are aesthetics stakes and not political as such, but the act of being experimental has inherent political implications. Bernard Rosenthal and Peter Swirski: bring these two theorists in, in conjunction with Witherington, to join the literary with the scientific. They talk about literary experimentation, but join together to show how CBB is both scientifically AND literarily experimental. Jared Gardner and race too.

4. Temporality of the Literary Experiment:  Writing itself is the experiment, as opposed to the experiment in which you perform it and then write it up. So there’s this dea of the novel as an unfinished experiment that we’re cowriting with CBB as we read his novel in the 21st century.

5. The footnote: Think about postmodern footnotes in Kiss of the Spider Woman and The Complete and Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao. In Dias, we have mock ethnographic footnotes. Footnotes in books are shocking to 20th century readers but not to 21st century readers, however, Brown is doing different things with the footnote in Wieland than what postmodern footnotes are doing. Brown’s footnotes are scientific with a really straight face, but in the postmoden novel it’s tounge-in-cheek. It’s the footnote in parody. For Diaz, it’s the performance of the containment of information. So I’ll need to include a presentist paragraph or two on postmodern contemporary fiction.

No responses yet | Categories: Charles Brockden Brown,Constantin Volney,Thesis

Feb 20 2010

Martin S. Vilas, Early 20th Cent. CBB Scholar

by at 2:46 am

Martin S. Vilas publishes Charles Brockden Brown: A Study of Early American Fiction in 1904, definitely the earliest criticism I’ve read on CBB thus far.

Some great quotes from this guys:

The interest in Charles Brockden Brown and his works arises largely from his ranking positioon among American Prose Writers.  Hence, it is not expected that an estimate, somewhat extended and somewhat critical, of his writings is likely to become popular. No other than this, save very brief sketches of Brown and of what he has done is known to the writer. It may be, then, that the student of American literature will find this book, written five years ago, something suggestive, perhaps something usually called original (Vilas 4).

I find it interesting when CBB’s work is “rediscovered.” Cathy Davidson resurrects early national literature in the 80’s; Vilas apparently resurrects it in the early 20th century, although he predicts that critical attention to CBB’s work is unlikely to become popular. In a way he is right and wrong. CBB now is certainly not mainstream in the culture at large, but he’s canonical in early American studies.

But notice how Vilas, as any good scholar would, is sure to point out that this book is perhaps something original because it sheds light on the rarely explored author.

Vilas also speaks about the condition of literature when Brown writes. This is worth including here as well:

Literatures like Constitutions are not made; they grow. Like the growth of the coal mine, they form, harden and mature from the timber of other ages, of times well nigh forgotten, and from materials usually overlooked by the ninety and nine. Literature is the clear lake in which may be seen mirrored the vegetation that grows near it, the animal life that appears above and around it and the movements within its horizon (Vilas 10).

Viles emphasizes how literatures need to grow from material of the ages, and this, therefore, requires time. Viles notes how the beginning of every nation in literature has been in verse, not in prose, but the United States is one rare exception:

In the United States we note the rare exception. The rule has been true because with most nations we mark their rise from a condition of barbarism by long, slow stages to civilization and culture. The people in the early periods of progression have not the intellects capable of carrying on the successive steps in argumentative prose but their fancies are pleased by ballads descriptive of the heroism of themselves and their ancestors. But America received her origin and early development not through an Anchises and an Aeneas carrying their ” sacra patriosque penates” […], but she received them at a stage in the world’s history when the blackness of ten centuries of gloom had but fairly rolled away, when the civilized world, rejoicing anew in its rediscovered strength, was investigating and progressing as never before and had sent some of its best blood across the western seas to colonize and found new nations. The long years of evolution from the uncivilized to the civilized that marked the growth of European nations were absent here. For without the institutions of the Old World, the New yet possessed their training and influence and considered herself as good as her fathers. The United States, though her tuition has been derived from all the world, yet is in language, instituitions and laws, the child of England. To her she has ever turned to draw the inspiration that has set her alive ot the best instincts within herself (Vilas 10).

After his introduction, Vilas goes on to summarize and outline Charles Brockden Brown’s works. For the scope of my thesis, his analysis of Wieland is what is most relevant. Vilas notes how Wieland is influenced by Godwin’s Caleb Williams. I’ll have to take Vilas’s word for it because I’ve never read Godwin.

One of Vilas’s main arguments is, however, that Charles Brockden Brown did not understand the human mind. Huh? Really?

To contextualize, Vilas quotes Griswold who claims that Brown was “a careful anatomist of the mind and familiar with its wonderful phenomena” (22). In response, Vilas argues that while “it is true that he evidently had made a careful study of the mind, but that he ever understood its healthy workings I do not believe” (22). Vilas thus believes that Brown is more concerned with the mind in its most unstable moments. Vilas argues that CBB provides logical explanation to the seemingly supernatural occurances in the text (unlike say Macbeth, etc.) and yet “when we have finished Wieland there seems to be something ‘uncanny’ about it” (Vilas 24).

This leads Vilas to conclude that Charles Brockden Brown did not understand the human mind because the work, even with its explantions seems impossible. “We cannot make ourselves to believe that ordinary mortals would so conduct themselves,” Vilas notes, and so if Brown really understood the human mind “he must be able to show forth its workings as they are so that they seem to us possible” (Vilas 24). I find this whole question to be incredibley inrelevant and, quite honestly, poor criticism. Who cares if Charles Brockden Brown “understood” the human condition! That being said, I still must give credit to Vilas for bringing  Brown to the forefront, despite an obviously dated literary analysis. But Vilas’s argument does raise an interesting point about Brown and our perceptions of him. Was he crazy just like his books? Or was he a man of science and letters and a person that could be considered a source of inspiration the 19th century. Would 19th century Americans read Brown as Vilas reads him, or would they be more open to him as an “anatomist of the mind” and commentator on all things American? I’d venture to say the later.

No responses yet | Categories: Charles Brockden Brown,Thesis,Wieland

Feb 17 2010

American Sympathy, Caleb Crain

by at 11:00 pm

In order to get ready for some major thesis writing, I still have to do some more reading on Wieland criticsm. Sigh. I give you my first attempt at summarizing some Wieland criticism:

Informed by Freud and writings on “insanity” or imbalance behavior (as evidenced by his refernce to Dora, etc.),  Caleb Crain emphasizes the importance of the father and what he terms “copyism” in guiding the narrative’s direction. Crain defines copyism as follows: “A copyist is a self whose creative impulse has been destroyed as a sacrifice to authority. The sacrifice is in a sense a gift of love. The copyist would rather not be himself or herself than lose the approval of the one he or she copies” (Crain 107).

Crain cites a letter CBB writes to a friend of his in which he rails against the entrance of copying into the realm of art. In a discussion on music, Brown writes, “low, indeed must be the ambition, which is satisfied with pleasing by mere mimicry, but putting off every distinctive property, everything that constitutes themselves; and warbling the words of others, and running through unmeaning, unappropriate, unintelligent notes.”

Not coincidently, Brown was preoccupied with the idea of copying and imposture. His father, Elijah Brown,was a conveyancer and copied over legal documents but he often copied over documents on his own time as a kind of therapeutic technique of relaxation. Brown was also involved in lots of shady business transactions, and here is where Crain ties in issues of copyism, and issues of father figures. Brown attempts to do things differently–not to imitate his father’s shady ways, but Brown cannot help but see the links between the literary art and its “combination of imposture and projection,” which like Carwin, can “speak where he is not” (108). The idea that the novel itself is suspicious with its disembodied voice, just as Carwin’s ability to project his voice as if it is detached from his own body, is an interesting idea to think about.

No responses yet | Categories: Charles Brockden Brown,genre,Thesis,Wieland

Sep 21 2009

The Much Anticipated Cecelia Tichi Article…

by at 11:31 pm

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Cecelia Tichi could have stolen my orals/thesis thunder. Tichi got to Volney and Brown before I did, but have no fear, she is a great writer and thinker and this actually helps. A lot.  So, drumroll please, I give you  important snippets from Tichi’s article that will inform my orals/thesis:

Notice the  first sentence of Tichi’s article. I knew she had it from the first line. First line!

In his lifetime Charles Brockden Brown translated one work only: C.F. de Volney’s A View of the Soil and Climate of the United States. For the novelist-editor-critic and, as of 1803, political pamphleteer, the translation of Volney in 1804 seems an odd choice. Although he was America’s foremost litterateur, Brown rendered into English no romantic tale in the tradition of Chateaubriand’s Atala but “the first book to give an organized synthesis of the physiographic and geologic regions of the United States and of the climatology of the continent” (Tichi 1).

Some important things to note about the above passage:

  1. I like that Tichi calls Brown a “novelist-editor-critic.” I like the hyphenation. I wonder if “translator” or even “naturalist” would be appropriate additions?
  2.  I wasn’t able to include the footnote here, but that quotation in the last line of this paragraph is from George W. White’s “Introduction” to his 1968 facsimile of Brown’s translation. I know White’s “Introduction” well. I came across White’s facsimile long before I ever knew about Tichi’s article. I’d say it’s a good sign when you start recognizing random critics in obscure footnotes….
  3. Tichi makes an excellent point: why didn’t Brown translate into English a romantic tale or something more literary? It is kind of strange that CBB would translate this work on American geology and climatology, no?

Next passage:

The choice for translation seems doubly puzzling when we consider that a London English language edition was already available in America even as Brown labored at its American counterpart (Tichi 1).

Cecelia Tichi, I like the way you think! I’ve seen the original London English edition at the Library of Congress and remembered being puzzled myself. I was looking for the CBB translation because that’s why I was interested in the Volney addition in the first place. But the book I looked at wasn’t what I expected. I remember thinking, “Is this the CBB edition?” Nah, it just couldn’t be, because the CBB edition was clearly marked as such, with CBB as translator and annotator, and a translator’s preface, all of which were missing in the edition I looked at, which turns out to be the one Tichi is referring to. I make note of this first edition in an endnote in my writing sample. Hmmm, I should probably reference Tichi now that I’ve got more information…

And here it comes, Tichi’s argument:

But while his biographers have viewed Brown’s effort as an anomalous quasi-literary interlude between his novels and his political-historical activities, such easy dismissal of the translation may leave neglected a significant aspect of Brown’s thought. The Monthly Anthology reviewer had denounced Brown’s alterations of Volney as “wholly unpardonable,” both dishonorable and unjust. Yet a close look at the eccentricities of Brown’s translation suggests that Volney stimulated the Philadelphian both to define the American in relation to his nation and continent, and to attempt actuation of the territorial expansion which, as of his first political pamphlet, Brown evidently believed would insure national progress. Indeed, the special biases Brown reveals in his translation make it quite clear that the effort was no perfunctory exercise in a language self-taught, nor a task undertaken only at the urging of Brown’s fellows in the Friendly Club. Rather, Brown’s translation of Volney appears to be the work of a mind bent upon using the pen for specific nationalistic purposes (Tichi 2).

Tichi’s aligns Brown’s translation of Volney’s naturalistic work with Brown’s personal politics. Brown makes significant changes to Volney’s appendix; Tichi’s argument depends on these modifications. During the course of this essay, Tichi elaborates on Brown’s politics, specifically his endorsement of American expansionism (aka: the creation of an American empire). Brown’s translation, Tichi argues, is informed by such political aims.

Brown as cultural archivist; Brown’s translation as an indication of his politics:

Brown’s interest in, and encouragement of, American national self-consciousness in varied areas of life has been well documented. For example. his brief editorial tenure at the Monthly Magazine and American Review (1799-1800) had found him reviewing “more or less critically” some “one hundred and fifty American publications.” And his later journalistic ventures in editing the Literary Magazine and American Register (1803-1806) and then the American Register, or General Repository of History, Politics, and Science (1807-1809) reveal by their contents–and even by their titles–the value Brown placed upon preserving the current record of the growing nation. Moreover, as a novelist Brown had used fiction to define the American experience […] But Brown published no fiction after 1801, and Warner Berthoff finds in the “feebleness” of his last two novels an anticipation of Brown’s “abandonment of the novel as a literary instrument” […] Certainly one of Brown’s major ideas concerned American nationalism, a term whose political ramifications are perhaps best revealed in the kinds of liberties Brown took with Volney’s text in the cast his marginal notes gave that work (Tichi 2).

No responses yet | Categories: Charles Brockden Brown,Constantin Volney,Orals,Thesis,Writing Sample

Sep 17 2009

Talking Back: Charles Brockden Brown, Jefferson, and Scientific Dissent

by at 1:10 pm

My orals have been shaping into something over the past couple of days. Nice surprise, I know, but I think I need to backtrack a little to show how I got to where I am now.

James Delbourgo cites Charles Brockden Brown’s translation of Constantin Volney’s A View of the Climate of the United States of America in A Most Amazing Scene of Wonders. I read this a ways back, but never sought to find it.  Over the summer, I went to the Library of Congress and was able to see Volney’s work. Apparently, Lauinger Special Collections has a copy as well. I have to get on that.

In any case, I thought that this translation had never really been discussed, at least in relation to Brown explicitly (Delbourgo mentions Brown, but never acknowledges that he was an early American author). Well, I was wrong. I just found an article by Cecelia Tichi, published in 1973, and called “Charles Brockden Brown, Translator.” I know what you’re thinking, Cheryl is freaking out because her great, original idea has already been taken. Hold it, not so fast. Things are fine. Great actually. I’m not only writing on Brown and his connection to Volney. I’m actually more concerned with how Brown fits into a wider early American community of thinkers, like Jefferson, who counter European generalizations about their continent. Professor Rubin informed me that Jefferson translated Volney’s Ruins. Although Jefferson does not annotate Volney’s work, Jefferson does refute Buffon’s generalization about Americans and the American continent in Notes on the State of Virginia. In these examples, Brown and Jefferson engage with European scientific dialogue by assuming a scientific form. I would like to expand this approach to include the novelistic form. I am interested in how American authors embrace and contest conclusions made about the American climate in European discourses of science. Given this framework, I plan to look at Melville’s Pierre and Israel Potter, which, although 50 years later than Brown and Jefferson, invoke the language of the atmospheric sciences.

So, Cecelia Tichi, wherever you are, thanks for your article. Really. A write-up of this article is soon to follow.

2 responses so far | Categories: Charles Brockden Brown,Constantin Volney,Herman Melville,Orals,Personal Statement,Thesis,Thomas Jefferson,Writing Sample | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Aug 12 2009

Samuel Otter’s Introduction to Melville’s Anatomies

by at 7:07 pm

Typee, White-Jacket, Moby-Dick, and Pierre:

At the center of Melville’s texts in the first phase of his career is the human body, tangled in lines of knowledge and desire. In Typee (1846), a sailor hiding in a valley on one of the Marquesan islands is troubled by the tattoos on the bodies of his hosts. He violently recoils at the prospect of having his own face marked. In White-Jacket (1850), a sailor serving on a regimented naval vessel wears a white cloak that becomes unedurably scarred and burdensome. He slices himself out of his own skin. In Moby-Dick (1851), all eyes focus on the massive corpus of the whale. Associating cetology with ethnology, and especially of the head, which engrosses narrator, characters, and writer. In Pierre (1852), the narrator links the exterior landscape of the nation to the interior landscape of his young American heir. This narrator holds out his character’s heart to his readers, and crushes it (Otter 2).

Melville and the ninteenth-century imagination:

While benefiting from the invaluable work of Melville scholars, I also extend the notion of sources to include patterns of representation in which Melville participates, even if we have not been able to demonstrate that he owned or read particular volumes. I press the relationship between Melville and his sources as Melville himself does, treating them not as informal ballast or dross to be transmuted into literary gold, but as revealing structures that show how nineteenth-century Americans articulated their world (Otter 2,3).

Outline of Melville’s Anatomies:

In the first three chapters, I argue that the corporeal fascination in Typee, White-Jacket, and Moby-Dick are changed by nineteenth-century efforts to know the racial body. In these texts, Melville examines how the parts of the body–face, skin, and head–become invested with world historical meanings. In the last two chapters, I argue that in Pierre Melville explores the operations of ideology, in the visual education of the early chapters and in the narrator’s scrutiny of his protagonist’s heart and mind over the course of the book. Melville restages crucial scenes in antebellum United States culture, exposing and analyzing their characters, properties, scripts, and motivations. He brings exorbitant pressure to bear on the fraught figures of antebellum discourse. In Typee, the key figure is the sacred symbol of the Caucasian face, whose impeccable features secure identity; in White-Jacket, it is the analogy with slavery, the pivot upon which antebellum debate about individual rights turns; in Moby-Dick, it is the synecdoche of the head, seen as the key to politics, aesthetics, and history; in Pierre, it is the catachresis of the eloquent heart, the organ which comes to have a voice and to assume material form on the surface of the printed page (Otter 3).

Otter and his departure from previous trends in Melville scholarship:

I discuss the attractions but resist the formulations of Melville as outcast, the “isolato” striving for original expression against the constraints of conventional antebellum America (the traditional critical view of Melville), and of Melville as the product of circumstance (the newer “historical” view). I argue for a Melville fascinated with the rhetorical structures and ideological functions of antebellum discourse. Melville offers neither a transcendent critique nor a symptomatic recapitulation, but an inside sense of the power of ideology, its satisfactions and its incarcerations. Thus I argue for a notion of verbal doubleness in Melville that is different from the deus ex machina of irony too often used to redeem him from the taint of his culture or from the too-easy ambivalence used to describe an author said to see “both sides.” Melville is critical but does not claim, or rather realizes that he cannot sustain, an outsider’s privilege. Instead of dismissing contemporary beliefs about race, nation, and self, he acknowledges their appeal and probes their sources and sway (Otter 4).

What Otter means by “anatomy:”

I offer the term “anatomy” to invoke the literary genre whose forms and gestures Melville drew upon, to describe Melville’s concerns with ideology, and to emphasize his examination of the body and its parts. The first Melville critic to use the term “anatomy” was Fitz-James O’Brien, who, in a sympathetic but exasperated review in 1857, laments that Melville had demonstrated that he was capable of writing “good, strong, sweet, clear English” but persists in “distorting the images of his mind, and in deodorizing the flowers of his fancy; a man born to create, who resolves to anatomize; a man born to see, who insists upon speculating.” O’Brien argues that Melville’s works register “the conflict between resolute nature and stubborn cultivation,” with nature calling for an unobtrusive representation of “the realities of life and man” and cultivation responding “No! you shall dissect and divide; you shall cauterize and confound; you shall amaze and electrify; you shall be as grotesquely terrible as Callot, as subtly profound as Balzac, as formidably satirical as Rabelais.” O’Brien’s insights about Melville’s conflicted impulses and formal mixtures will be developed by twentieth century-critics. He suggests a restless dissecting consciousness that will be the focus of this book (Otter 4).

Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism and Melville:

“Ever since Northrop Frye revived scholarly interest in the genre of the anatomy in Anatomy of Criticism (1957) and identified Moby-Dick as part anatomy and part romance, critics have placed Melville’s texts in the tradition of Lucian, Petronius, Erasmus, Rabelais, Burton, Bayle, Swift, Voltaire, and Sterne. I am less concerned here with the history of genre than with the functions of the form in the antebellum United States. My claims about Mevlille have been shaped by theoretical accounts of the anatomy provided by Frye and by Mikhail Bakhtin: the hererogeneous, omnivorous, encyclopedic, rhetorically experimental, stylistically dense form, in which linguistic features–diction, syntax, metaphor–become the vehicle for intellectual inquiry. According to Bakhtin, these features express orientations toward society, time, nation, and tradition that are laid bare in the literary anatomy (Otter 5).

Anatomy and Meville, again:

I use the term “anatomy” to describe the material analyses of consciousness conducted by Melville in the first phase of his career. From Typee through Pierre, Melville attempts to provide what Antonio Gramsci has called an “inventory” of the verbal contents of consciousness. The relentless borrowings and turnings in Melville’s prose give heft to thought: the incorporate passages, incessant allusions, layered symbols, and eerie personifcations. The excess in Melville’s anatomies derives, in part, from the scope and reach of this task. Melville analyzes what Raymond Williams has called “structures of feeling,” the complex dynamics through which form and response shape meaning and value. Such an effort elicits the remarkable intimacies of Melville’s first phase–the theatrical confessions, exuberant embrace of readers, pressing of boundaries, and bodily exposures. “Race” is a key epistemological category for Melville, as it was for his culture and continues to be for our own. In his meticulous anatomies, Melville insists that readers acknowledge “race” not as an abstract property of others but as the grammar book of graded meanings that United States culture had assigned to the features of human bodies. He details what Focault has called “the nomination of the visible.” Melville shows how a world of definition, coherence, and difference became located in the skin and in the skull (Otter 5).

Melville, antebellum discourse, and shared structures of feeling:

In inhabiting the structures of antebellum discourse, Melville comes to occupy an increasingly precarious position. He is not transcendent but an immanent manipulator, subject to entaglement and complicity. Melville’s closest attention is not directed toward the form or features of another. The face whose contours he outlines, the skin whose substance he examines, the head whose contents he inventories, and the heart whose motions he traces are his own. Laying himself open, he exposes shared structures of feeling and belief. Across the chapters, I trace Melville’s development, climax, and retreat from his anatomy project (Otter 6).

No responses yet | Categories: Orals,Thesis,Writing Sample | Tags: , , , , , ,

Jul 29 2009

Paul Gilmore’s Aesthetic Electricity Chapter and Pierre

by at 10:40 pm

Because Paul Gilmore’s chapter is so long and contains a such wide variety of information, I’ve decided to portion out the important quotes into two separate blog posts. The first post, which precedes this one, includes more general quotes on Percy and the lightning rod. These will undoubtedly feed into my thesis and orals work. This post will include the passages from the very same chapter of Paul Gilmore’s Aesthetic Materialism that deal with Melville, more generally, and Pierre, more specifically.

Background on electricity, revolution, and the electric myth:

 Percy Shelley’s interest in electricity as signifying that the relationships among the individual mind, language, and society are unstable yet possibly productive of political change may have also derived from his hope in the revolutionary potential of electric technology. As Thomas Jefferson Hogg recalls in his remembrance of Shelley at Oxford, he contended that ‘The galvanic battery is a new engine; it has been used hitherto to an insignigicant extent, yet has it wrought wonders already; what will not…a well arranged system of metallic plates, effect?’ Linking Voltaic electricity to the balloon, Shelley concludes that such inventions would virtually emancipate every slave, and would annhilate slavery for ever.’ As I described in chapter one, with the invention of the telegraph, the emancipatory effects of electricity were elaborated at length as it either emblematized humankind’s ability to conquer nature (and primitive humans) and create a harmonious world or mirrored a spiritual community in which all were already one. James W. Taylor’s The Useful and the Beautiful perhaps best illustrates this point, demonstrating  how figures of art as electric merged with techo-utopian spiritualist accounts of the telegraph to produce a kind of aesthetic utopianism where all humankind would be joined together both by the network of wires encircling the world and by the cultivation og an enlightened, universal taste (Gilmore 77).

How Melville engages with the electric myth in Moby Dick:

Taylor’s lecture epitomizes the view of the telegraph as an emblem of American inventiveness and American promise, yet some dissenting voices, echoing Carlyle’s critique of the mechanical age, began to suggest that this network would destroy the individual self, with its particularized history, interests, and perspectives, by subsuming the self into a larger group. Thoreau’s comments in Walden are perhaps the most famous dissent from the nearly universal acclaim for the telegraph, but more to the point here is Herman Melville’s use of electric imagery in Moby-Dick. In ‘The Quarter-Deck,” Melville describes Ahab as attempting, by ‘some nameless, interior volition,’ to ‘have shocked into them [his crew] the same fiery emotion accumulated within the Leyden jar of his own magnetic life,’ going on to have Ahab refer to ‘mine own electric thing.’ The aesthetic nature of Ahab’s power over the Pequod’s whalers, hinted at throughout the text and especially in this scene, recalls Melville’s positive use of electric imagery in is celebration of Hawthorne’s genius as providing a ‘shock of recognition [that] runs the whole circle round’ the ‘brotherhood’ of genius. Ahab seems ot suggest the dark side of electric genius, the possibility of a charistmatic, magnetic personality leading the easily swayed for his own ends. With this attention to Ahab’s ability to manipulate the sailor’s economic interests, Moby-Dick emphasizes how the capitalist revolution tended to reinforce hierarchies instead of producing radical equality. Rather than creating a universal harmony based in human commonality, aesthetic electricity will transform the masses, as the imperialist language of techno-utopian discussions of the telegraph similarly hinted, into merely a reflection of one controlling personality, parts of a body controlled by one central authority, or as Ahab megalomaniacally puts it near the end, ‘Ye are not other men, but my arms and my legs; and so obey me’ (568) […] Electricity, in this way, not only served to represent the potential of aesthetic connection; it also registered fears about the aesthetic’s coercive potential to subordinate individuals in a league against their own interests (Gilmore 78).

Pierre, gaps, and aesthetic electricity:

…Parker’s story reiterates the importance of the mind/body, soul/physical self distinction to both spiritualist and techno-utopian readings of the telegraph, while suggesting that it is in the gaps themselves that we might find an alternative understanding of the telegraph’s potential. Those gaps, I want to argue, gaps created by the very materiality of the bodies, technologies, and codes involved in any sort of communication but shaped by the specific historical forces producing any cultural event or aesthetic experience, are at the center of what I am calling aesthetic electricity. No text I know of more fully invests those gaps with meaning (and indeterminacy) than Herman Melville’s Pierre, or the The Ambiguities (1852). In fact, the only ninteenth-century text that I’ve ecountered that employs electric language and imagery more than Pierre is John Neal’s Logan (1823), a bizarre gothic novel featuring multiple Byronic heroes, whose stories unveil the troubled foundation of Anglo-American claims to North America while featuring oedipal violence and incestuous desires. Pierre shares much in common with Neal’s nvoel, and in this and the following sections, I focus on Pierre in order to flesh out the ways that, despite the dominant faith in its reliability and speed and its ability to link the world together, the telegraph gave rise to questions about the limits of communication and sympathy. While Melville, often seen as the most Byronic of the canonical American renaissance writers, emphasizes those limitations, I return to Thoreau at the end of this chapter to outline how those limitations actually enable a re-reading of the telegraph as figuring the problematic of aesthetics, of what Kant defined as its subjective universality (Gilmore 86).

Electric power and its ambiguities:

Earlier, I described Melville’s use of electric imagery in ‘The Quarter-Deck’ to figure Ahab’s power over the sailors on board the Pequod. But that chapter in Moby-Dick not only indicates the dangers of a kind of aesthetic, charismatic electricity; it also begins to reveal the ambiguity of this electrical power. Ahab attempts to ‘shock into them [his crew] the same fiery emotion accumulated with the Leyden jar of his own magnetic life’ (165), yet he recognizes, when his mates refuse to return his gaze, that has not fully succeeded, commenting that ‘ ’tis well. For ye did three but once take the full-forced shock, then mine own electric thing, that had perhaps expired from out me’ (166). The danger, for Ahab’s monomaniacal quest, is that in electrifying the crew he may fully discharge himself. In a complete electrical circuit, a circuit wherein Ahab’s electricity is returned to him in full by his crew, Ahab’s Leyden jar, rather than serving simply as a kind of re-chargeable battery, will be somehow depleted of its energy. These passages suggest that human contact, true connection with another, threatans to weaken Ahab’s quest to prove himself invulnerable to the world. This possibility comes to the forefront in ‘The Symphony,’ where, for a moment, Ahab actually identifies with Starbuck and seems swayed from from his course, before again turning inward (literally ‘avert[ing]’ his ‘glance’) to ask ‘Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it God, or who, that lifts this arm?’ (545). A complete electrical circuit of hatred or any other sentiment jeopardizes Ahab’s attempt to strik through the mask” (164), to answer or erase the metaphysical questions that torture him, because it reminds him of “that mortal inter-indebtedness which will not do away with ledgers” (471-472), a problem Ahab describes as intrinsic to having a body–“I would be free as air…and yet I owe for the flesh in the tongue I brag with” (472). For Ahab, the solution seems to be to make the electrified crew an extension of his body, and in the final chapter, as the conclusion approaches, Ahab proclaims that his sailors are “not other men, but my arms and my legs (568). Yet, if the primary problem lies in his interdependence upon his body, his connection to the world of pain thorugh that body, then the crew, rather than solving his problem, exacerbates it. Electrifying the bodies of his sailors with his own hatred will extend his body, making him more vulnerable to pain, while fostering his recognition of his interdependence on the world and other men.

Isabel-Pierre’s relationship and the ambiguities in of telegraphic electricity:

Pierre uses the telegraph and electricity to materialize the broader fields of ambiguities at the center of the novel. After referring to Pierre as having a “heavenly magnet” which “draws all [her] soul’s interior” to him, Isabel describes the hurt she suffered at the words and insinuations of the other farmers’ “girls.” At this point, she speaks of Pierre looking ‘so sadly and half-reproachedly upon” her, which leads her to contradict what she takes him to be thinking by stating that “Lone and lost thought I have been, I love my kind, and charitably and intelligently pity them, who uncharitably and unintelligently do me depsite.” In response, Pierre claims that his looks are “vile falsifying telegraphs of me,” for his “heart was only dark with ill-restrained up-braidings against heaven that could unrelentingly see such innocence as thine so suffer.” In this scene, Isabel misreads Pierre as questioning her sympathy for others who may have harmed her, when instead Pierre reveals his own lack of sympathy for those people she identifies as her kind. The telegraphic reference reveals that, despite the electrical connection Isabel and Pierre feel, they remain equally unable to fathom the depths of each other’s hearts (Gilmore 88).

Pierre’s imagination and possible misreading of Isabel as electrical:

Melville sets up this telegraphic misreading by inundating this scene, Pierre and Isabel’s second encounter with one another, with electric imagery. Amidst “the mild heat-lightnings and ground-lightnings” (149) of a summer evening, Pierre comes to view Isabel as electric herself: […] Melville clearly draws on the discoruse of spiritualism and mesmerism that Hawthorne uses in The House of Seven Gables, but reverses Hawthorne’s gendering, as it is the mysterious Isabel who nearly “deprive[s]” Pierre of “consciousness” (150). As with Hawthorne, this spell seems to melt their two souls in an eroticized union, but, where with Phoebe and Holgrave Hawthorne describes the encounter as the domination of a stronger (masculine) soul over another, his penetration into the most inner reaches of her soul, Melville emphasizes the role Pierre’s imagination plays in producing the electrical sensation. Pierre’s reading of Isabel as his sister is based less on any firm data or on any confirmation her story really offers than on his own desires–erotic and otherwise–for a sister. With the repeated use of “seemed,” the “as it were,” and the allusion to Pierre’s enthusiasm, Melville refuses both Pierre and his readers any firm knowledge of Isabel’s electric self. The telegraphic nature of the false signals Isabel recieves a few pages alter, then, not only indicates their electric nature, but reiterates the fallibilty of the earlier electric signals Pierre has recieved, emphasizing their codedness, their status as a knd of language in need of interpretation and liable to be misinterpreted (88-89).

The paragraph above makes me wonder about the question of Isabel’s electricity. The reader never knows for certain if Isabel’s electric state is a mere figment of Pierre’s imagination, yet the heightened electricity in the surrounding atmosphere, spefically in the American landscape, seems to be true. That does not seem to be imagined. Electric storms seem to be occuring in these scenes, so what do we make of Pierre possibly transfering the outside environment onto Isabel in-doors?

Another important quote:

In this extended scene, [when Pierre reads Isabel as an electrical woman] Melville begins to hint at a very different picture of the telegraph from the one dominating antebellum American discourse and contemporary historiographical discussions. As described in chapter one, the spiritualist faith in the universal telegraph granting direct communication between disembodied souls corresponded with a techno-utopian idea of the telegraph creating a perfectly coherent, unambiguous, universal language that would enable a global commerce in ideas and goods, that would, in turn, lead to world harmony. But Melville’s figurative language suggests that rather than simply erasing differences and fostering the complete identification of interests and tastes, the telegraph and its network of bodily, technological interconnection were struck at the core by dissonance. If the telegraph potentially linked all of humanity in one network or one body, that network did not, as both utopian and dystopian accounts suggested, eliminate all noise, all miscommunication, all competing interests and interpretations (Gilmore 89).

Morse’s utopian idea that the code would eliminate all problems of miscommunication by reducing language to the most basic code:

Most historians of technology ascribe Morse’s success to his system’s use of just one line, rather than multiple ones as most plans called for. Morse’s one wire telegraph was advantegeous for it cut the largest cost in building a line–the expense of the wire itself. But this desire for cost-effectiveness came into tension with Morse’s republican-Enlightenment focus on perfect clarity, on eliminating all possible noise from the system in order to foster didactic ends. It quickly became evident that what made the telegraph revolutionary was its speed and its ability to reduce language through truncation, puns, suggestiveness, the fact that, like with instant messaging today, thoughts, ideas, data, could be transformed into an even more minimal code (Gilmore 90).

In actuality:

While the reliability of the telegraph became central to its success, stories of its unreliability, of the fact that reducing language and meaning to the opening and closing of a circuit increased rather than decreased possibile ambiguities, appeared with a regular frequency […] Fictive acounts similarly underlined the technology’s possible unreliability. Ella cheever Thayer’s herione-telegraphist in Wired Love (1879) repeatedly engages her over-the-wire interest in puns dependent on the fluidity of language Morse’s code was meant to circumvent, and her initial encounters, over the wire, with her eventual lover reiterate the technology’s limitations due to the human body and its senses, as she is simply not able to hear and respond to his message quickly enough. More significant, she tells her friends of a message that was supposed to read “John is dead. Be home at three,” but instead was read as “John is a deadbeat. Home at three,” a problem arising because “the sending operator did not leave space enough between the words” (Gilmore 91-92).

What developed, then, with the system of dots and dashes referring to different letters and numbers (as well as selected diacritical marks), while regulated and normalized by international conventions, was, despite its overall reliability, open-ended to possibilities for manipulating and transforming the code as well as more prone to miscommunication, misunderstanding, and misinterpretation (Gilmore 93).

Gaps in connection, again:

The analogizing of the nervous system with the telegraphic network resulted, for some at least, not in substantiating a mechanical model of the human body, of human communication, and of human society, but in problematizing any reading of the body communication, and society dependent on simple one-to-one correspondance or determinacy. The nerves, as media for stimuli to reach the brain, and the telegraph, as the medium for conducting thoguht from mind to mind, refused to disappear, insistently reuturning to give the lie to fantasies of complete identification, of sure communication of the mind with the world, of the individual with another self. The telegraph might render the United States one body, but that body, instead of being a unified whole, consisted of fragmented organs, nerves that never fully connected and inconsistent and unpredictable lines of communication, influence, and connection. Melville’s figurative uses of electricity to indicate both the possibility of connection and the incompleteness of that connection echo and build on these readings of telegraphy, as Pierre’s falsifying telegraphs and his electric presentiments foreshadow Benjamin’s [Walter Benjamin’s] account of modernity (Gilmore 99).

Some thoughts on Pierre’s aristocratic background:

Melville takes great care to establish the socioeconomic situation giving rise to Pierre’s (and Isabel’s) feelings of belonging and alienation. The last in a long line of artistocratic Americans, Pierre, in his youth at Saddle Meadows, seems to stand oustide the America “where all things irreverently seethe and boil in the vulgar caldrom of an everlasting uncrystalizing Present” (8). Echoing Marx and Engel’s description in The Manifesto of the Communist Party that in capitalism “all that is solid melts into air” (adter Pierre reads Isabel’s letter, in fact, “the physical world of solid objects now slidingly displaced itself from around him” [85], Melville contrasts the aristocratic veneer of the Hudson Valley patroons with the urban center of New York where “families rise and burst like bubbles in a vat. For indeed the democratic element operates as a subtile acid among us, forever producing new things by corroding the old” (9). (Gilmore 101).

Isabel’s lack of identity and ambigous history, in contrast to Pierre’s known lineage:

For Pierre’s mother, his marriage to Isabel constitutes “Mixing the choicest wine with filthy water from the plebian pool, and so turning all to undistinguishable rankness” (194). Yet Melville suggests this “undistinguishable rankness” already reflects the reality of American society, a fact embodied by Isabel’s very existence–if we beleive her claims about her paternity–as well as by Charlie Millthorpe, Pierre’s childhood friend who is a product of the “political and social levelings and confoundings of all manner of human elements in America” (275). Pierre delineates an American society in flux, where the social, economic, and political upheavals of the age destabilize any and all individual identities. Isabel’s constant feeling of “vacant whirlingess of the bewilderingess” (122) of her life is, in fact, a product of her flotsam life of being tossed back and forth across her near lack of identity as an orphaned working-class girl, who barely discerns the difference between herself and the object-world around her. In accepting Isabel as his half-sister, Pierre recognizes that the “Revolutionary flood” (11) reveals his life in Saddle Meadowns to be a lie, and this it is Pierre’s willingess to cross those class boundaries–boundaries enforced by sexual standards–and his mother’s unwillingess that finally leads to his leaving Saddle Meadows and despairing over the”heart-vacancies of the conventional life” (90). (Gilmore 101, 102).

 Aristocracy versus Democracy:

Pierre empahsizes the damage of literal and figural deterritorializatin, as it is Pierre’s removal from his ancestral home, the anachronistically feudal structures there, and the libidinal flows unleashed by breaking from his mother that lead to his, Isabel’s, and Lucy’s deaths in the topsy-turvy urban environment of New York. Yet the moral center of the nvoel guides us to sympathize with Pierre’s Quixotic journey to becoming a “thorough-going Democrat” (13) and to view his mother and Glen Stanly, the most through-going aristocrats in the novel, as the chief villains. Drawing yet again on electrical imagery, Melville fleshes out this tension between a democratic erasure of boundaries and an aristocratic defense of them most fully in his famous letter to Hawthorne from May, 1851. There, he muses that one can be “earnest in behalf of political equality,” while still believing in an “aristocracy of the brain,” an idea he associates with Schiller.  Melville believes he can see “how a man of superior mind can, by its intense cultivation, bring himself, as it were, into a certain spontaneous aristocracy of feeling…” (Gilmore 103).

While Gilmore doesn’t track the materiality of the atmosphere in Pierre (which I find surprsing, by the way, given that this is ALL over Pierre), this passage on Thoreau and the materiality of the atmosphere particularly relevant to my argument in my writing sample and overall thesis, in which I’ve become particularly interested in the “invention” of the “air” or “atmosphere” for understanding Americaness:

Speaking, in “Sounds,” of the trains as “bolts” shooting to “particular points of the compass,” Thoreau contends that these bolts make the people of Concord “steadier,” a positive effect because “The air is full of invisible bolts. Every path but your own is the path of fate. Keep on your own track, then” (118). This idea of invisible bolts humming through the air calls to mind images of the spiritualist invisible telegraph, an image Thoreau more explicitly invokes in his journal on the occasion of the first telegraphic message conveyed through the Concord: “The atmosphere is full of telegraphs equally unobserved. We are not confined to Morse’s or House’s and Bain’s line.” “Atmosphere,” here, seems to correspond with its use in spiritualist conceptions of the universal teleraph. Yet the quotation form “Sounds,” where there is something “electrifying” in the “atmosphere” of the train depot, hints that that atmosphere might be the physical product of the actual technology and its commercial uses” (Gilmore 108).


Creating new desires, extending the body out in new directions, the telegraphic system within capitalism defies the idea of the natural, contained self; becoming a model for exploring the diffusion of the self through material forces, language, commodities, the body itself, electricity represents the potential of this new self. It is this new self and its reconfigured relations of body, society, and world, that lie at the heart of what I call aesthetic electricity. By recognizing how that aesthetic electricity unites figures as various as Percy, Shelley, Herman Melville, and Henry David Thoreau, we can begin to recover American romanticism, specifically transcendentalism, asn an endeavor at grounding transcendence in the material, social, biological realities, and can thus open up our long-standing definitions to see the influence of American romanticism in new ways (Gilmore 110).

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Jul 28 2009

Chapter 4 of Paul Gilmore’s Aesthetic Materialism

by at 12:09 pm

All passages from Chapter 4 (Aesthetic Electricity) of Paul Gilmore’s Aesthetic Materialism: Electricity and American Romanticism. These are passages related to the lightning rod, poetry, and Enlightenment. While this does not seem related to my paper on Pierre, these quotes will definitely be useful for my orals and for my thesis.  :

Here, Shelley echoes Friedrich Schlegel’s image of poetry in ‘On Incomprehensibility’ (1800). If Coleridge’s view of electricity parallels that of naturphilosophie, contributing to his organic and transcendent understanding of language and poetry, Shelley’s development of Schlegalian irony produces, as Marc Redfield has argued, a poetry which ‘poetic words do not understand what they express, or feel what they inspire,’ so ‘that poetry opens aesthetics to the contingency of history, and the constitutive uncertainty of futurity.’ Schelgel’s use of lighting hints at a kind of jouissance, paralleling Redfield’s de Manian-materialist understanding of language: ‘For  along time now there has been lighting on the horizon of poetry…But soon it won’t be simply a matter of one thunderstorm, the whole sky will burn with a single flame, and then all your little lightning rods won’t help…Then there will be readers who will know how to read. In the nineteenth century everyone will be able to savour the fragments’ (Gilmore 73).

Rather than invoking an idea of organic wholeness or mechanical determinancy, Schlegel uses electricity to convey both the intense, nearly physical emotion of ecstatic, shocking encounter with poetry and its ineffable ambiguity and open-endedness. Instead of comprehending or understanding poems, readers will come to have a sensuous, appreciative connection to poetic fragments. This intense feeling, sensation, flavor is contrasted, by Schlegal and others, with Enlightenment rationalistic technique, the attempt of such thinkers as Benjamin Franklin to tame these wild impulses through instruments like the lightning rod. The lightning of poetry belies the Enlightment dream of containing poetry, the human mind, nature itself by displaying the indeterminancy of language and history in its ability to constantly destabilize any attempt to delimit its meaning and use. As oppsed to merely mechanical readings of poetics, mind, society, Schlegel’s electric romanticism proposes a type of unstable materialism, a materialism built less on a Newtonian notion of individual atoms (including atomized individuals) in motion thant in the flow of forces disrupting, impinging upon, and reconfiguring the boundaries separating atom from atom, person from person (Gilmore 73).

While the preface [of Percy’s Prometheus Unbound] seems to embrace the idea of the great artist, out of time and out of place, by contrasting the writers who simply imitate by reflecting their age and those of genius who create ‘lightning,’ he insists that all poets ‘are, in one sense, the creators, and, in another the creations of their age: Every man’s mind is, in this respect, modified by all the objects of nature and art; by every word and every suggestion which he ever admitted to act upon his consciousness’ (2:174). Largely the product of its environment, especially of language, the mind is not finally determined, but rather modified, by that environment. Electricity provides a model for exploring a more fluid materialism of the mind as its lightning is not merely the mechanical product of its environment, not simply generated by the stimulus it receives, but rather the explosive culmination of the creative tension between the mind and stimuli acting upon it. Just as lightning does not simply flow from the clouds, but in fact creates an electric current between the clouds and the ground, so electric thought rebounds between the inner self and the outer world (Gilmore 75).

Lightning-rod and social change:

In ‘Defence,’ for example, Shelley indicates that it is poetry’s embeddedness in what we might now call social discourse that gives it its ‘electric life,’ as that life is ‘less [the poets’] spirit than the spirit of the age’ (7:140). Similarly, in the preface to Prometheus Unbound, in further developing the figure of lightning thought, Percy elaborates this relationship between mind and the world, gesturing to its political implications: ‘The great writers of our own age are, we have reason to suppose, th ecompanions and forerunners of some unimagined change in our social condition, or the opinions which cement it. The cloud of mind is discharging its collected lightning, and the equilibrium between institutions and opinions is now restoring, or is about to be restored’ (2:173). Echoing Schlegel’s prediction about the lightning charge of poetry, Percy at once envisions political revolution and at the same time insists that the changes to come are unpredictable, are ‘unimagined.’ Thus, in concluding his preface to Prometheus Unbound, Percy acknowledges his ‘”passion for reforming the world,”‘ but insists that his poetry does not contain a ‘reasoned system on the theory of human life” (Gilmore 76).


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Jun 30 2009

The Island Race and American Identity

by at 12:42 pm

I’ve, once again, decided to change my topic for my writing sample. I’m interested in exploring how Americans deal with 18th century scientific scholarship (particularly European scholarship) that emphasizes a difference between the climate of the Americas and Europe. In The Island Race, Kathleen Wilson cites Ben Franklin who claims that colonial Americans are the same race as the English, that Englishness is static–despite their location to a new climate, Americans are still Englishman. Franklin’s assertion is in direct opposition to eighteenth century climatic theory, which claims that physiognomy and behavior are affected by the surrounding climate, thereby making race much more fluid. 

I’m interested in looking at how American authors deal with European naturalists who emphasize American difference via climatic difference (ie: maybe beginning to talk about Volney’s assertion of the heightened electrical compositions, etc…I could use the Kathleen Wilson portion of Dominique’s paper to contextualize some of my arguments, showing how Americans both embrace and resist an othering of themselves). For my writing sample, I plan on looking at Pierre, but this analysis could be expanded, enlightened, developed, etc. by my research on the lightning rod and the paranoia that creates. For that, I would be looking at 2 short stories (Melville’s “The Lightning-Rod Man,” and Twain’s “Political Economy”), which both invoke American paranoia about a heightened electrical environment and the lightning-rod salesman figure, who banks on these fears (hrrrm….personal statement worthy?).

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May 27 2009

Nineteenth-Century Americans, Out of their Heads?

by at 9:54 am

I just came across Thomas Baily Aldrich’s Out of His Head. A Romance and it looks really interesting. From a first scan, it looks like there’s a lot of scientific language in here. Also, the main character is clearly “out of his head” which reminds me very much of Sheppard Lee and his questionable mental stability. That animal magnetic characters are inherently prone to mania is a thread that I’m noticing. I will, of course, have to read Out of His Head to make sure this makes sense. Also, the trope of the insane American is intriguing–Rip Van Winkle, Sheppard Lee, Edgar Huntly, Wieland, this Thomas Baily dude….hmm, and this could possibly connect to the work I was doing on American Nervousness and Beard’s work. Very interesting…

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