Uncertain Chances: Science, Skepticism, and Belief in Nineteenth-Century American Literature

Uncertain Chances: Science, Skepticism, and Belief in Nineteenth-Century American Literature

Uncertain Chances: Science, Skepticism, and Belief in Nineteenth-Century American Literature

Uncertain Chances: Science, Skepticism, and Belief in Nineteenth-Century American Literature

Synopsis

The role of chance changed in the nineteenth century, and American literature changed with it. Long dismissed as a nominal concept, chance was increasingly treated as a natural force to be managed but never mastered. New theories of chance sparked religious and philosophical controversies while revolutionizing the sciences as probabilistic methods spread from mathematics, economics, and sociology to physics and evolutionary biology. Chance also became more visible in everyday life, as Americans attempted to control its power through weather forecasting, insurance policies, military strategy, and financial dealings.

Uncertain Chancesshows how the rise of chance shaped the way nineteenth-century American writers confronted questions of doubt and belief. Poe's detective fiction critiques probabilistic methods; Melville's works struggle to vindicate moral action under conditions of chance; Douglass and other African American authors fight against statistical racism; Thoreau learns to appreciate the play between nature's randomness and order; and Dickinson works faithfully to render poetically the affective experience of chance-surprise. These and other nineteenth-century writers dramatize the inescapable dangers and wonderful possibilities of chance. Their writings even help to navigate extremes that remain with us today-fundamentalism and relativism, determinism and chaos, terrorism and risk-management, the rational confidence of the Enlightenment and the debilitating doubts of modernity.

Excerpt

Maybe modernity began in Ellington, Connecticut on July 30, 1804. a minister working on the roof of the town’s meetinghouse slipped, fell sixty-eight feet, and survived, in part because he crashed through a plank suspended in the framing and, lower down, landed on a workbench that further broke his fall. He had a nail driven into his skull and crippled a leg for life, and when reflecting on the incident in his memoirs, he praised the “special interposition of a kind Providence.” a doubter with a taste for theodicy might wonder why God would allow such an accident in the first place, but for a Calvinist minister (named Diodate Brockway, no less) the invocation of heaven’s design was a deeply felt and powerfully conventional response, even as such providential explanation came under increasing duress. Like the minister himself, the Middlesex Gazette discerned in the extraordinary fall from the meetinghouse a “preserving providence, superior to any human calculations,” and yet an urge to analyze Brockway’s salvation—or was it dumb luck?—remained: “Calculating upon the doctrine of chances, his out of any proposed number, appears to be the only favorable one. If we view the hand of Providence, it seems that he was to fall, but yet to be preserved.” Much depends upon the word If. Perhaps the unnamed author of the article knew of Abraham De Moivre’s Doctrine of Chances (1717), a pioneering work of probability theory purchased by Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin and advertised in the early American press. Or maybe the author had heard of the doctrine of chances through its occasional treatment in the period’s scientific literature, philosophical works, sermons, and newspaper articles. Whatever the case, the Middlesex Gazette’s wavering between providence and probability registers the beginnings of an uneven shift from faith in Christian teleology and confidence in rational certitude toward a more modern, more skeptical worldview in which chance, long dismissed as a nominal concept marking the limits of human knowledge, came to be regarded as an actual force subject to degrees of human control.

To read nineteenth-century American literature with an eye toward chance is to broach some unfamiliar questions that turn out to have broad interpretive use. What exactly does Poe mean in his detective fiction when he refers to the “Calculus of Probabilities”? If Moby-Dick (1851) is about free will versus fate, why does Ishmael identify three principal agents—“chance, free will, and necessity”? Can Thoreau in his literary . . .

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