Quiet Testimony: A Theory of Witnessing from Nineteenth-Century American Literature

Quiet Testimony: A Theory of Witnessing from Nineteenth-Century American Literature

Quiet Testimony: A Theory of Witnessing from Nineteenth-Century American Literature

Quiet Testimony: A Theory of Witnessing from Nineteenth-Century American Literature

Excerpt

Testimony tends to be thought of as loud: it is associated with declarations, depositions, and confessions, issued from courtrooms and soapboxes, and charged with exhorting, proclaiming, establishing, and convincing. Nineteenth-century America produced no shortage of testimonies possessing these characteristics of loudness, especially within its several reform movements. Yet testimony also circulated, in texts of this period, as something subdued, muted, and elusive. This quieter strain of testimony could be as staggering and life changing as its louder counterpart, even without any fanfare. The premise of Hugh Miller’s 1857 The Testimony of the Rocks, for instance, is that geology reveals theology. Miller’s revelatory rocks are not framed as laboratory specimens or material evidence but speaking sources, vibrant witnesses. This subtle distinction evades testimony’s loud characteristics; for Miller’s readers, testimony is not the exclusive purview of human beings or their institutions, and so the voice of truth may come from entities more likely to be stepped on than heard. Once the very earth is understood to testify, the soapbox and the exhortation become testimony’s sometimes associates, not its essential trappings.

In more explicitly political writings, too, testimonial force could derive from less auspicious sources, from slips, pauses, and fragments as much as from coherent narrative arguments. Hospital Transports, an 1863 account from volunteers caring for Civil War soldiers, is one such work of witness. It features “observations made at the time, and on the spot,” by those in service, in order to “show the scope of the enterprise”

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