Democratic Dissent and the Cultural Fictions of Antebellum America

Article excerpt

Democratic Dissent and the Cultural Fictions of Antebellum America. Stephen J. Hartnett. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2002. 312 pp. $34.95 hbk.

In his new book, Stephen John Hartnett, assistant professor of speech at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, examines the use of communicative discourse (debate) in the nineteenth century to create, maintain, and perpetuate the period's cultural fictions (cultural norms and ideologies). He offers four case studies of rhetoric that address some of the nineteenth century's most pressing social issues: abolition, capitalism, slavery, race, Manifest Destiny, and conceptions of self. Specifically, Hartnett's purpose in writing this book is to determine how Americans constructed the norms on which they justified their political actions and which they used to help make sense of the world.

Hartnett's book is less a history of antebellum ideological debate than it is an extended rhetorical analysis of certain ideological texts (speeches, poems, photographs, novels). The analysis is intended to provide insight into the "mind" of the nineteenthcentury American from the postmodern and Marxist perspectives. While the book accomplishes this, it is difficult to assess the accuracy of his interpretations since Hartnett never really seems to explain the criteria by which he chose the various works he analyzes. Perhaps the explanation is there, but if so, the opaque and jargon-ridden narrative, characteristic of much work written in the postmodern perspective, makes it impossible to uncover. A postmodern rhetorician may feel perfectly at home with Hartnett's persistent use of jargon, but a historian will find it off-putting.

Further, the work virtually overlooks some of the most important works and speeches of the period, including, for example, the sermons by Thornwell and other prominent Southern clergy to justify slavery, or, in particular, Hinton Helper's important anti-slavery tome, The Impending Crisis of the South. The lack of attention to The Impending Crisis is peculiar, given the work's influence. Not only was the book banned in the South, it led to John Sherman's failure to be confirmed-after a two-month long battle-as speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives in 1859. Thus, the fact that Hartnett gives the book only two paragraphs is perplexing, as is his apparent reading of The Impending Crisis. …