Rewriting White: Race, Class, and Cultural Capital in Nineteenth-Century America

Rewriting White: Race, Class, and Cultural Capital in Nineteenth-Century America

Rewriting White: Race, Class, and Cultural Capital in Nineteenth-Century America

Rewriting White: Race, Class, and Cultural Capital in Nineteenth-Century America

Synopsis

What did it mean for people of color in nineteenth-century America to speak or write "white"? More specifically, how many and what kinds of meaning could such "white" writing carry? In ReWriting White, Todd Vogel looks at how America has racialized language and aesthetic achievement. To make his point, he showcases the surprisingly complex interactions between four nineteenth-century writers of color and the "standard white English" they adapted for their own moral, political, and social ends. The African American, Native American, and Chinese American writers Vogel discusses delivered their messages in a manner that simultaneously demonstrated their command of the dominant discourse of their times--using styles and addressing forums considered above their station--and fashioned a subversive meaning in the very act of that demonstration. The close readings and meticulous archival research in ReWriting White upend our conventional expectations, enrich our understanding of the dynamics of hegemony and cultural struggle, and contribute to the efforts of other cutting-edge contemporary scholars to chip away at the walls of racial segregation that have for too long defined and defaced the landscape of American literary and cultural studies.

Excerpt

In 1899 James H. Canfield, chancellor of the University of Nebraska, found a value in John Bascom’s work that we would consider odd today. Chancellor Canfield was “delighted” at the re-release of Bascom’s book on rhetoric, the most popular of its kind during the period. Bascom published it thirty-four years earlier to link the laws of the universe, aesthetics, and language, and Canfield found the text useful for his social mission. “I used it when a student at college with greater enjoyment than almost any other text-book in its year; and I have used it steadily as an instructor,” Canfield said. “It has peculiar moral worth, and has made a lasting impression on all who have come under its influence.” Today, we might find it curious that anyone could become a zealot for a rhetoric textbook. a “lasting impression” may be plausible. “Enjoyment” looks like a stretcher. But “moral worth”?

Yet the word “moral” is as crucial for us as it was for Canfield. ReWriting White is about how people with little moral standing in society use the performance of words—the heart of the nineteenth-century subject of rhetoric and Bascom’s book—for moral, political, and social ends that might have confounded Chancellor Canfield. the writers and orators I consider here clearly used the content of their essays and addresses to bring change. But these African Americans, Native Americans, and Chinese Americans also transcended the meaning denoted by the language. These people performed their words; they acted out their message in a manner that demonstrated command of society’s cultural capital. They exhibited their ability to create or interpret society’s aesthetic codes with the choices they made about the structure of their essays, the forum for their orations, the very identity they crafted as racialized outliers in society. These performances gave new meanings to the words on the page. These cultural conjurers drew on narrative styles or occupied forums considered above their station by popular racial ideology. They fashioned a connotative meaning that hitched a ride with their stated meaning and shaped what their authors broadcast to the auditorium or wrote on the page.

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