Mania for Freedom: American Literatures of Enthusiasm from the Revolution to the Civil War

Mania for Freedom: American Literatures of Enthusiasm from the Revolution to the Civil War

Mania for Freedom: American Literatures of Enthusiasm from the Revolution to the Civil War

Mania for Freedom: American Literatures of Enthusiasm from the Revolution to the Civil War


Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm," wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1841. While this statement may read like an innocuous truism today, the claim would have been controversial in the antebellum United States when enthusiasm was a hotly contested term associated with religious fanaticism and poetic inspiration, revolutionary politics and imaginative excess. In analyzing the language of enthusiasm in philosophy, religion, politics, and literature, John Mac Kilgore uncovers a tradition of enthusiasm linked to a politics of emancipation. The dissenting voices chronicled here fought against what they viewed as tyranny while using their writings to forge international or antinationalistic political affiliations.

Pushing his analysis across national boundaries, Kilgore contends that American enthusiastic literature, unlike the era's concurrent sentimental counterpart, stressed democratic resistance over domestic reform as it navigated the global political sphere. By analyzing a range of canonical American authors--including William Apess, Phillis Wheatley, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Walt Whitman--Kilgore places their works in context with the causes, wars, and revolutions that directly or indirectly engendered them. In doing so, he makes a unique and compelling case for enthusiasm's centrality in the shaping of American literary history.


Nothing but insubordination, eleutheromania, confused
unlimited opposition in their heads.


Mania for Freedom is a study of “political enthusiasm” in American literature and culture from the Revolution to the Civil War. That “enthusiasm” now generically denotes strong excitement, passionate engagement, or all-absorbing interest obscures its long historical usage, from the seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century, as a term linked variously to the revolutionary or Utopian passions, divine or artistic inspiration, and a wildly ecstatic or delusional state of mind. I tell a story, though, about the formation and development of the early U.S. national period that highlights cultures of enthusiasm and their close association with a politics of emancipation. At this historical moment, the concept of enthusiasm was often deployed to describe—positively or negatively—a strong democratic fervor, what Thomas Carlyle called eleutheromania (a “mad zeal” or “mania” “for freedom”); and it was most often attached to personscommoners, slaves, Native Americans, women, abolitionists—who activated dissent against institutional tyranny and forged transnational, counternational, or antinationalistic political affiliations in the process. In privileging such affiliations, I depict the early U.S. nation-state as an embattled terrain that defined itself through and against the experimental, often illegal, actions for political justice enacted by enthusiasts. Accordingly, I argue that, opposite a political and literary culture of sentimental nationalism, a distinct but overlooked tradition and category of American literature (literatures of enthusiasm) flourished from the American Revolution through the Civil War era. As a discursive form of enthusiastic publicity, literatures of enthusiasm are those texts that transform writing into a species or inciter of democratic revival and revolt.

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