Orals Prospectus


Scientific Eloquence: Science and Imagination in the Early American Novel

At once scientific and political, historical and ethnographic, general and specific, Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia is so much more than its title may suggest. Begun in response to a questionnaire drawn up by the secretary of the French legation in Philadelphia who wished to know more about the thirteen states, these queries eventually developed into what “is probably the most important scientific and political book written by an American before 1785” (Peden xi).[1] In Query VI of the Notes, entitled “Productions Mineral, Vegetable and Animal,” Jefferson does not offer the simple statistical survey of Virginian animal life one would expect. Instead, his query takes on a much broader scope, in which he engages with scientific misconceptions about the American continent and its affect on animal life. In the query, Jefferson acknowledges the French naturalist, the Count de Buffon, who claims the American continent “degenerates” or “belittles” the animals that inhabit it. Jefferson is particularly troubled by the application of Buffon’s theories to the “race of whites transplanted to Europe” (64). He quotes the Abbe Raynal, who claims, “One must be astonished that America has not yet produced one good poet, one able mathematician, one man of genius in a single or art or single science” (64). Jefferson, once again, refutes such claims by citing Washington, Franklin, and Rittenghouse as examples of exemplar minds “produced” by the American continent.

Notes on the State of Virginia may mark Jefferson’s famed engagement with European naturalists, but his is not the only example of American interventions with European science. In fact, Jefferson’s move marks the beginning of tradition of American dissent in the sciences that continues well into the nineteenth century, that I argue, involves American authors, in addition to political figures. Charles Brockden Brown, the famed early American author, translates and annotates another European natrualist’s work: Constantin Volney’ A View of the Climate of the United States of America (1804). In this little-known annotated translation, Brown “interrupts” Volney’s text by inserting comments in footnotes. For example, Volney claims a heightened electrical composition of American air has led to seventeen deaths in the summer of 1797. Brown refutes such assertions with the following: “From the use of conductors, or from some other cause, accidents from lightning are rare in the American cities. One death, from this cause, in twenty years, in New York or Philadelphia, would be a liberal calculation” (198).

Cecilia Tichi notes how Brown biographers have dismissed this “anomalous quasi-literary interlude between his novels and his political-historical activities,” but like Tichi, I find it significant that an early American author translates and annotates a lengthy European naturalist’s text (2). Tichi argues that the modifications Brown makes to the original French are indicative of his stance on the Louisiana Purchase and the creation of an American empire. While Tichi’s work is certainly worthwhile, I will push for a different kind of reading, in which I intend to explore how Brown’s translation circles back to his novels. To do so, I rely on Bryan Waterman’s work on Charles Brockden Brown and the Friendly Society, an early American group of lawyers, physicians, and politicians who met regularly in New York City. In Republic of Intellect: The Friendly Club of New York City and the Making of American Literature, Waterman notes how the first early American medical journal, Medical Repositories, founded by three members of the Friendly society (Elihu Smith, Samuel Latham Mitchell and Edward Miller) dismantled the distinction between poetic form and scientific writing (Waterman 3). Its editors, Waterman argues, sought to strike “a balance between imaginative form and informational content,” a mode Elihu Smith, editor and friend of Charles Brockden Brown, captured in the term “‘medical eloquence’” (Waterman 221). Waterman takes his argument a step further in noting how the blurring of scientific genre went both ways: at the same time Elihu Smith publishes “medically eloquent” scientific treatises written in poetic meter in Medical Repositories, Charles Brockden Brown is writing his Yellow Fever novels, which provide useful information about the spread of the disease. (Waterman 216). While Waterman astutely blurs the boundaries between the novelistic form and the scientific journal, I complicate this reading by asking what does the novelistic form offer that the scientific treatise does not? If Brown was capable of engaging in scientific discourses in more traditional venues, as evidenced by his translation of Volney’s scientific work, why would he choose to write novels? What does the novelistic form offer that the scientific publication does not?

For my thesis project, I intend to explore Charles Brockden Brown’s Weiland, Robert Montgomery Bird’s Sheppard Lee, and Herman Melville’s Pierre or the Ambiguities and the “Lightning Rod Man”. Weiland and “The Lightning Rod Man” play on stereotypes about the dangerous American climate: Weiland’s father, an English émigré dies in the United States as the result of spontaneous combustion; Melville’s lightning-rod man, a traveling salesman, sells his lightning rods during electrical storms. I will be interested to see how each text invokes these stereotypes about the American continent. I am especially interested to see if Brown, in invoking these stereotypes with characters who spontaneously combust on the American continent, both reaffirms and dismantles them. Melville’s Pierre will provide another example of how an American author engages with nineteenth-century sciences. In the case of Pierre, Melville invokes the language of personal and general atmospheres to complicate scientific notions of race and nation. As the only formally trained scientist, Robert Montgomery Bird’s Sheppard Lee will be a particularly interesting work to explore. A work of nineteenth-century antebellum science fiction, Bird employs notions of animal magnetism and galvanism to create a reality in which body jumping and the reanimation of corpses is possible. Whether it be the nineteenth-century chemical science in Weiland or the galvanic sciences in Sheppard Lee, I am interested in asking why these authors choose to invoke the science that they do and for what purposes. Why does an Englishman die on the American continent via spontaneous combustion? Why is Pierre described in electrical terms? Why must Sheppard Lee’s body-jumping be grounded in concepts of animal magnetism? As part of this inquiry, I coin the broader term “scientific eloquence” to refer to those moments when science is imaginatively invoked in the novelistic form. Elihu Smith originally uses the term “medical eloquence” to emphasize the need for scientific writing to employ a more imaginative form. With “scientific eloquence,” I refer to the novels themselves and the imaginative science they employ to explore the messy categories of race and nation.

In order to understand the ways in which early American authors employ nineteenth-century science as a way of imaginatively working through messy conceptual categories, I will need to ground myself in the sciences of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Current critical discussions in the field of Science and Technology Studies and nineteenth-century literature, which range from Paul Gilmore’s work on “aesthetic materialism” to Jason Rudy’s work on electrical poetics, have emphasized the importance of electricity as trope. While my current work is indebted to such initial inquires, this critical discussion would certainly benefit from taking a more expansive view of nineteenth-century science that includes the broader field of the atmospheric sciences and not simply the very specific concept of electricity. With this in mind, I would like to add to critical discussions on electricity by noting the ways in which nineteenth-century American novelists employ more general theories of the atmospheric sciences—including, but not restricted to, the concept of electricity.

As part of this work, I will read Antoine Lavoisier’s and Joseph Priestley’s scientific work on the chemical and atmospheric sciences, in addition to Franz Anton Mesmer’s work on personal atmospheres and the bodily gaze. Once I have developed this foundation, I will ground myself in the nineteenth-century molecular sciences. As part of this survey of nineteenth-century science, I will explore John Dalton’s and Theodor Schwann’s work on atomic theory, in addition to Louis Pasteur’s experimental analysis of the air. I intend to treat these texts as “literature,” and as such I will pay close attention to the language scientists use to describe the so-called objective world. I will be keenly aware of the use of certain metaphors to describe both the visible and invisible world. I am particularly intrigued by Schwann’s description of “cell-walls” and “cell-cavities,” which infuse rigid architectural metaphors to these membranous walls and am curious to see what else I may find along this inquiry. An ecocritical framework, which emphasizes human mastery over the environment that develops in tandem with Enlightenment and the advent of scientific thought, will help me situate this archival research within existing critical discussions.

I emphasize that my aim in reading these texts is not to simply catalogue how Brown, Bird, and Melville incorporate Lavoisier’s, Priestley’s, or Dalton’s scientific findings. Charles Brockden Brown may have translated an eighteenth-century scientific text, Robert Montgomery Bird may have been physician turned author, and Herman Melville may have been influenced by the atmospheric sciences, but Weiland, Sheppard Lee and Pierre are not scientific treatises and I do not intend to treat them as such. The novelistic form, unlike the scientific treatise, allows for the existence of competing, contradictory, and oftentimes imaginative science, which, I hope to argue, provides a useful space for talking about such complicated categories of race and nation that necessitate a messy, and often unsolved, discussion. Sam Halliday, in his work on electricity and the nineteenth-century American novel, verbalizes this very phenomena when he notes the “imaginative uses” of electricity in nineteenth-century discourse, in which this scientific principle is used in “discursive contexts far removed from those in which it was technologically applied, and where science could scarcely demonstrate its actual presence” (2). I intend to explore these very moments in early American literature when science is invoked in discursive contexts far removed from their scientific sources.

[1] See Peden, William. Foreward. Notes on the State of Virginia. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1955.

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