"Melancholy Wildness": The Failure of Cross-Cultural Engagement in Rousseau's Discourse on the Origin of Inequality and Brown's Edgar Huntly

By Alpert, Avram | Early American Literature, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

"Melancholy Wildness": The Failure of Cross-Cultural Engagement in Rousseau's Discourse on the Origin of Inequality and Brown's Edgar Huntly


Alpert, Avram, Early American Literature


Contact between cultures opens up a moment of reflection on settled practices. Choices that have been forgotten are recalled and questioned, and ways of life that have been taken for granted are suddenly juxtaposed with other modes of organization. This has particularly been the case in contacts between so-called primitive and so-called advanced civilizations. The simplicity of the former, even if imagined, contrasts sharply with the anxiogenic complexities, even if also imagined, of the latter. The sudden knowledge of a new continent, on both sides of the Atlantic, raised these sorts of questions for both Amerindian and Euro-American thinkers. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro has recently called the early colonial moment "the American (mis)(sed) encounter" (30). What the parentheses here signal is that this was both a "misencounter," in which the Europeans largely failed to understand the civilizations of the Americas, and a "missed encounter," in which the potential for cultural reflection and exchange led instead to conquest and mass murder.

The fact of this dual option--exchange or decimation--had a pronounced effect on the history of canonical U.S.-American letters. It is indeed hard to find a writer from the early colonial period to the early Republic who did not write about contact. Roger Williams, William Penn, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and others all have some reflections on what Euro-American civilization meant in light of these other ways of life. And again, more literary writers such as Mary Rowlandson, Hector St. John de Crevecouer, and Charles Brockden Brown explored these topics in their narratives. And there is no need to think of these as one-way currents of thought. Ideas, modes of writing, and beliefs about cultures were formed in both transatlantic and transcultural exchanges. (1)

This essay looks at two of the figures who engaged these questions from the Euro-American side--Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Charles Brockden Brown. I am particularly concerned to show how reading Brown's novel Edgar Hun@ can be aided by comparison with Rousseau's Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (also known as The Second Discourse). Several recent studies have brought Brown into conversation about these issues with other thinkers of his time (Immanuel Kant, David Hume, and Benjamin Rush, for example); (2) while earlier scholarship has shown some of the thematic overlaps between Brown and Rousseau without directly engaging these questions of contact and how it affects the philosophy and politics of Brown's novels. (3) Ultimately, I argue that Rousseau and Brown have different visions. Rousseau infamously imagines a pure savage life that can reignite European civilization, if Europeans can only figure out how to integrate this purity. (4) Brown, to the contrary, gives us a vision of failures in all cultures, which have only been exacerbated by contact. Nevertheless, each seems to hope that representing these failures might spur us on to imagine new forms of thought, politics, and relations between cultures. Furthermore, both of their texts can be profitably read as arguing that any possibility of change will come from new capacities of global understanding--an understanding, albeit, that these authors can more gesture toward than bring into being. (5)

It is this shared relation to the "problem-space" of the colonial encounter in Rousseau and Brown that interests me. (6) What they both exhibit is a commitment to thinking about the relation between cultures, and a sense that relations as they are currently practiced have gone astray. Their texts, I argue, can be productively read as explorations of the failure of the engagement, both at the level of philosophical reflection and in the lived experience of property relations. This leads both texts to pessimistic conclusions about the state of thinking and politics. Each, in its own way, suggests that the solution they are seeking is to be found in both philosophy and concrete social relations. …

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