Righteous Violence: Revolution, Slavery, and the American Renaissance

Righteous Violence: Revolution, Slavery, and the American Renaissance

Righteous Violence: Revolution, Slavery, and the American Renaissance

Righteous Violence: Revolution, Slavery, and the American Renaissance

Synopsis

Righteous Violence examines the struggles with the violence of slavery and revolution that engaged the imaginations of seven nineteenth-century American writers--Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglass, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville.

These authors responded not only to the state terror of slavery and the Civil War but also to more problematic violent acts, including unlawful revolts, insurrections, riots, and strikes that resulted in bloodshed and death. Rather than position these writers for or against the struggle for liberty, Larry J. Reynolds examines the profoundly contingent and morally complex perspectives of each author. Tracing the shifting and troubled moral arguments in their work, Reynolds shows that these writers, though committed to peace and civil order, at times succumbed to bloodlust, even while they expressed ambivalence about the very violence they approved. For many of these authors, the figure of John Brown loomed large as an influence and a challenge. Reynolds examines key works such as Fuller's European dispatches, Emerson's political lectures, Douglass's novella The Heroic Slave, Thoreau's Walden, Alcott's Moods, Hawthorne's late unfinished romances, and Melville's Billy Budd.

In addition to demonstrating the centrality of righteous violence to the American Renaissance, this study deepens and complicates our understanding of political violence beyond the dichotomies of revolution and murder, liberty and oppression, good and evil.

Excerpt

The foundational moment in American history was marked by a gunshot, or so we are told in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous poem “Concord Fight,” also known as “Concord Hymn”—a not uncommon overlay of violence and religion in national history. In the poem, Emerson asserts,

Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

His glorification of civilian resistance to an occupying army offers us but one perspective on the event, of course. The British, obviously, had another. And Emerson’s friend and rival Nathaniel Hawthorne another. In his unfinished romance “Septimius Felton,” begun at the start of the Civil War, Hawthorne tells of the retreat of the British troops from Concord as the colonists shoot at them from behind trees and houses. One redcoat staggers and falls, and Hawthorne’s protagonist-observer shudders because this apparently righteous violence “was so like murder that he really could not tell the difference.” The same could be said of almost all political violence resulting in death, and the epistemological challenge to “tell the difference” lies at the heart of the literary movement known as the American Renaissance.

This book focuses on a series of key moments in American literature between 1830 and 1890, when the idea and fact of political violence provoked the emotions and imaginations of American authors and deeply informed their writings. Righteous Violence examines the various and variable ways that Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglass, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel . . .

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