Academic journal article Early American Literature

Something Else: The Politics of Early American Literature

Academic journal article Early American Literature

Something Else: The Politics of Early American Literature

Article excerpt

Early American literature is as dry as it is dusty, arcane as it is archival. sThese cruel prejudices have meant that intellectual interest in aesthetics has often been ceded to later periods such as modernist studies and postmodern culture, each with its own eponymous journal, where the likes of Marcel Duchamp overturned urinals along with conventional ideas about what was beautiful and functional. Aesthetes were to be found strolling along the avenues of European capitals, not struggling for subsistence in the backwaters of the New World. Americanists, and especially early Americanists, might be forgiven for thinking that aesthetic concerns were merely ornamental matters when they already had such meaty issues as mercantilism and colonialism on their plates. On those rare occasions when literary historians ventured to discuss aesthetic concerns, the discussion seemed invariably to include apologies for the deadening couplets of iambic pentameter or the turgidity of neoclassical prose. Few introductory courses in American literature wade into the dense sea of allusions found in Mercy Otis Warren's poetry.

Although something of an exaggeration, this portrait has given critics permission to ignore frilly distractions and concentrate directly on the politics that have been part of a New World landscape ever since Columbus first sent a postcard back to Ferdinand and Isabella and reported that the natives of the West Indies seemed docile enough to make good slaves. By this account of the field, the steadfast commitment to the historicity of early American literature has been a fortunate necessity. The consequence, however, has been to push aesthetics to the wings, and in the process a looser notion of politics, one intimately bound up with aesthetics, has been overlooked. This looser politics consists neither of legislative governmental acts nor other means of governing, such as war. Phrased in more positive terms, this more porous but harder-to-detect politics encompasses a wide range of human activity, including but not limited to matters of popular culture, sexuality, feeling, race, the bios, and, of course, aesthetics. These concerns take shape as "the politics of," a phrase indicating diverse zones of inquiry that might seem only marginally related to the empirical or theoretical work conducted in departments of political science (Chuh 194). Ancillary perhaps but politics all the same: the "politics of" entails more than Max Weber's definition of politics as the legitimation of state violence, since the focus on cultural politics and not just state politics opens out onto formations of power that often only become visible within aesthetic representation.

Visual spectacle, sexual seduction, the imagination, and stylistic matters, just to name a few of the instantiations of aesthetics examined in this special issue, exemplify the importance of widening politics to cultural politics. But if, as Edward Cahill argues, aesthetics are "both a type of political discourse and something separate from politics" (12), it also has been the case that the second half of this statement has exercised more influence over the practitioners of early American studies. When conceived as strawman arguments that equate the beautiful and other sensate categories with excuses for class hierarchy and depoliticization, aesthetics are crudely dismissed as a political dodge. Elizabeth Maddock Dillon challenges this view by conceiving aesthetics as a material repository that creates "shared pleasure and recognition" (387) even among antagonists as sharply opposed as a British colonial officer and a Native American of Pontiac's army. Her effort extends beyond politicizing what had been depoliticized by previous generations of academic readers; instead, like her colleagues here, Dillon looks to repoliticize aesthetics, expanding its register to include cultural practices such as bibliomancy and gift exchange. Other essays complement this trajectory, using aesthetics as wedge to enlarge the zone of the political to encompass theatergoing (as in Wendy Bellion's essay), moral calculations of freedom (as in Abram van Engen's essay), and imaginative speculation (as in Christopher Castiglia's essay). …

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