Academic journal article Early American Literature

Conflict Management: Jeremy Belknap's Committed Literature

Academic journal article Early American Literature

Conflict Management: Jeremy Belknap's Committed Literature

Article excerpt

In recent years, studies of Federalist-era conversation circles have provided a new way to map the intersection between early national print culture and urban intellectual networks. Through explorations of such circles as the Friendly Club and the Anthology Society, scholars including Catherine O'Donnell Kaplan and Bryan Waterman have shown how these groups served as nodal points in a lattice of cultural exchange that strove to cultivate a civil sphere that rose above the factious partisan debates of the period. (1) Believing that the disinterested circulation of ideas had the potential for social reform, they produced and exchanged information through a broad range of literary forms, including medical journals, magazines, newspapers, plays, poems, and novels. Scholars have thus identified a symbiotic relationship in which conversation circles relied on publishers to print their writings while publishers relied on these circles to purchase and circulate texts. (2) Within this hodgepodge of genres and formats of publication, texts acted as an assemblage of raw materials, open to collaborative emendation and critique. Less invested in maintaining a coherent textual structure, intellectuals remixed and recirculated a broad range of literary output. By focusing on the exchanges within these intellectual networks and on the individuals that constitute them, this scholarship has offered a means to connect a seemingly disparate body of texts and to consider how different genres and formats of publication function.

Since this scholarship primarily considers intellectuals who wished to transcend immediate political disputes in favor of broader and deeper epistemic debates, it is less concerned with the intellectuals who were directly involved in the burgeoning state apparatus. This is largely an issue of periodization: most of the men who made up the conversation circles belonged to the first post-Revolutionary generation and did not come of age until after the constitutional debates. (3) If we shift our gaze a few years earlier, however, another intellectual network emerges that is closely involved in the debate surrounding the ratification of the Constitution, especially in the wake of Shays's Rebellion. Royall Tyler, for example, served as an officer in General Benjamin Lincoln's anti-Shaysite militia before penning his play The Contrast (1787), which mocks the Shaysites in its portrayal of Yankee Jonathan. The quick suppression of a similar uprising in New Hampshire was mobilized by Nathan Gilman and a committee of Exeter elite that included Samuel Tenney. Gilman was the father and Tenney the future husband of Tabitha Gilman Tenney, whose Female Quixotism (1801) also parodies backwoods agrarians. Similar representations can be located in such diverse works as the Connecticut Wits' The Anarchiad (1786-87), William Hill Brown's "Shays to Shattuck" (1787), and Peter Markoe's The Algerine Spy in Pennsylvania (1787). (4) Much like the members of the Friendly Club and the Anthology Society, these intellectuals constitute a network of cultural exchange where diverse genres and formats of publication were circulated, revised, and remixed. However, instead of attempting to create a space that transcended immediate political engagement, this network operated in the service of a largely urban class coalition that achieved political and cultural hegemony following the ratification of the Constitution.

Jeremy Belknap, a minister, historian, and writer on the periphery of early American literary studies, is a fruitful case study of the intersection between print culture, intellectual networks, and political and class affiliation. On the one hand, Belknap was a prominent intellectual: he belonged to the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of the Arts and Sciences--two early, learned associations known for their discussion and publication--and was the principal founder of the Massachusetts Historical Society. …

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