Drawing on a rich archive of magazine fiction, verse satires, comic almanacs, false slave narratives, minstrel song-sheets, and early literary criticism, this book uncovers the controversies over literary fraudulence that plagued the antebellum period and shows how they at once made and unmade American literature.
2011 | 256 pages | Cloth $59.95
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Table of Contents
Introduction: American Literary Fraudulence
Chapter 1. "One Vast Perambulating Humbug": Literary Nationalism and the Rise of the Puffing System
Chapter 2. Backwoods and Blackface: The Strange Careers of Davy Crockett and Jim Crow
Chapter 3. "Slavery Never Can Be Represented": James Williams and the Racial Politics of Imposture
Chapter 4. Mediums of Exchange: Fanny Fern's Unoriginality
Conclusion: The Confidence Man on a Large Scale
American Literary Fraudulence
The Fabrication of American Literature investigates a paradox at the heart of American literary history: at the very moment when a national literature began to take shape, many observers worried that it amounted to nothing more than what Edgar Allan Poe described as "one vast perambulating humbug." Scholarly accounts of nineteenth-century American literature tend to emphasize its authority, particularly its role in converting sociopolitical conflict into cultural coherence. But the period's readers and writers tell a different story—one of subterfuge, impostures, and plagiarism, in which they likened literature to inflated currency, land bubbles, and quack medicine. This book accordingly recovers the controversies over literary fraud that plagued the period in order to gain new understanding of how antebellum literature worked, or failed to do so. It examines American literature as a "fabrication" in two senses of the word—in the most benign sense, as a project under active construction and, more ominously, one that struck many as fundamentally false. While the notion of fabrication in the former sense has long undergirded the study of antebellum American literature, we have tended to overlook the latter sense, but I contend that the two prove to be historically inseparable from one another. "Formerly every Thing printed was believed, because it was in Print," Benjamin Franklin observed in 1765, but he sensed the beginnings of a change: "Now Things seem to be disbelieved for just the very same Reason." The Fabrication of American Literature takes Franklin's complaint as a prescient glimpse of a new era of print culture in which fraudulence came to be indissociable from American literature, and even definitive of it.
Historians have long noted the ubiquity of hoaxes, confidence games, and other forms of "humbug" during these years. From Richard Adams Locke's moon hoax to P. T. Barnum's Feejee Mermaid, from table-rappers to perpetual motion machines, deception, it seems, established itself as the national pastime in the nineteenth-century United States. Critical accounts of the era's humbug, however, tend either to leave literature out or to call upon it as an impartial observer. Literature thus chronicles the cultural logic of fraud without being subject to it, as antebellum writers register the national fascination with deception in their characters (con artists, social climbers), plots (subterfuge, hypocrisy, entrapment), and forms (the detective story, the exposé). When critics address the issue of literary fraud, they tend to treat it as a circumscribed genre consisting of hoaxes, forgeries, plagiarism, and similarly calculated acts of deception. But antebellum readers worried that fraud could not be so easily contained. The sheer frequency with which antebellum literary discourse slips into the language of deception stymies critics' attempts to isolate fraud as a narrative theme or literary anomaly, because both of these approaches assume that fraud could be reliably differentiated from literature itself.
In this respect, "fraud" is something of a misnomer, implying as it does a deliberate deception regarding what legal scholars call a "matter of fact." This book is less about fraud than it is about the more elusive condition of fraudulence. Frauds are specific crimes perpetrated by particular agents with intent to deceive. They are actionable because they cause discernible injury to identifiable victims. Fraudulence, by contrast, can be neither decisively located nor contained, and its effects, while palpable, are not necessarily measurable. Fraud is actual, or at least aspires to be so; fraudulence is perceptual, a matter of determination. The Fabrication of American Literature argues that the primary threat faced by literature in the antebellum United States was not fraud, such as impostures, forgeries, plagiarisms, and hoaxes, so much as fraudulence, or the hopelessness of distinguishing impostures, forgeries, plagiarisms, and hoaxes from literature proper. This difficulty stems both from a familiar problem of representation—literature cannot be said to represent or misrepresent "matters of fact"—and from a historically specific variation on this problem: in the antebellum years, Americans increasingly called upon literature to represent formations such as nationhood, democracy, and race that were not themselves "matters of fact." The expedients readers, writers, critics, and editors devised to fulfill these impossible tasks, the accusations of fraudulence that inevitably resulted, and the attempts some writers made to turn this fraudulence to account are the subject of this book.
The Failures of Cultural Work
To a certain extent, the suspicions that readers brought to bear on literature were continuous with a broader cultural obsession with deception that seemingly permeated all areas of nineteenth-century life. The era witnessed a flurry of exposés of contemporary quackery, ranging from targeted attacks on patent medicine, Freemasonry, or political conspiracies, for example, to omnibus warnings like David Meredith Reese's Humbugs of New-York (1838), which billed itself as a "Remonstrance Against Popular Delusion; Whether in Science, Philosophy, or Religion." (Even these categories cannot encompass all the humbugs that torment Reese, however, and his preface anticipates a second volume. Sadly, it never appeared.) When New England newspaper editor and author Thomas Green Fessenden first published his satirical poem "Terrible Tractoration" in London in 1803, it was a denouncement of a pseudo-medical device called a metallic tractor; when he republished it in 1836, however, he was obliged to expand it significantly to include "Phrenology, Abolition, Amalgamation, Temperance, Reformation, &c. &c."
The sprawling range of these books tells us that literature was only one fraud among many during this period. Yet literary fraudulence should claim our notice for several reasons. First, literature becomes a particular focal point for discussions of fraudulence during these years—in part because, as I noted above, its deceptions appeared at once so endemic and so very difficult to pin down. This book's archive of warnings, exposés, and denunciations provides the broadest evidence for this claim, but the history of the term "puffing," or promoting something without regard to merit—the subject of Chapter 1—exemplifies on a smaller scale literature's tendency to magnetize ideas about fraud. In the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century United States, "puffing" primarily referred to political machinations and commercial ploys; a newspaper might be induced to puff a brand of shoe polish, for example, or a candidate for election. Around the 1830s, however, literature came to monopolize the term, and "puffing" almost exclusively signified the extravagant, inflated praise of a book.
Second, the credibility problems that beset antebellum literature change the picture of literary history in a way that, say, bogus skin cream does not. Our understanding of nearly any aspect of the period's literature transforms once we recognize that it labored under the shadow of readers' suspicions, particularly given that the antebellum years are typically associated with American literature's triumphant emergence. The goal of this book is not simply to invert these celebrations into some sort of literary dystopia—indeed, it will argue that historically the two characterizations are closely related and need to be read in tandem with one another. However, it does emphasize that readers' skepticism toward American literature should considerably complicate our understanding of what this literature does at this moment. It is a national embarrassment as much as a point of pride, a hazard as much as an instrument of authority, a miscommunication technology as much as a communication technology. Moreover, because literature was the preeminent vehicle for this period's incipient mass culture, its workings—and glitches—have ramifications that extend beyond its own form to the experiences of knowledge and affiliation it mediated. This book accordingly aims to reread literature's place in the period's volatile social and political climate in light of its own fundamental volatility.
Finally, the suspicions that plagued American literature at the moment of its institutionalization require us to rethink one of most influential paradigms we use to understand the role of literature, that of "cultural work." Assessments of literature's cultural work have differed widely since Jane Tompkins popularized the phrase in her groundbreaking 1986 study, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860. Some critics have stressed its benevolent side, or its role in fostering democracy, personal and legal freedoms, and sexual equality, among other forms of social justice. Another strand of scholarship, however, approaches literature's cultural work as a disciplinary force, or as a means to manage "cultural anxiety," police dissent, and direct social relations and political commitments. Yet while these approaches evaluate the "cultural work" of print quite differently, they share a common confidence in its efficacy. Whether liberating or disciplinary, unifying or divisive, opening up political possibilities or foreclosing them, literature operates with authority. To put it more bluntly, these approaches assume that cultural work always works. But to understand literature as fully functional (whether for good or for ill) necessarily abstracts and arrests it, investing it with a stability that, in the antebellum years, at least, is far from assured. Uncle Tom's Cabin, that juggernaut of political reform, offers a case in point. Stowe's novel is probably the most frequently cited example of antebellum literature's "power to work in, and change, the world," in Jane Tompkins's words. But when we use it to measure literature's cultural work, it is worth remembering that a year after publishing Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe felt obliged to legitimate its claims by issuing The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, a book that undertakes the extraordinary task of providing evidence for a work of fiction. Stowe and her contemporaries may well have had "designs on the world," but this does not necessarily entail that their texts executed them effectually. Indeed, this book assembles a large body of evidence of literary fallibility, from scathing magazine exposés to fretful readers' marginalia, which does not conform to such functionalist paradigms. It clamors for a more disorderly account of antebellum literature.
To produce such an account, I have juxtaposed the period's proliferating ideologies of literature with the material history of how literature was actually produced, circulated, read, and discussed in print, paying particular attention to ways in which the theory and practice of literature diverged from, jostled, or even undermined each other. My sense of the instability of antebellum print culture, as well as my interest in its unpredictable outcomes, owes a great deal to recent work in the field by Leon Jackson, Trish Loughran, and Meredith McGill, who have told the history of the book in the United States as a far richer and more complex story than it appeared before. Their books, as well as Adrian Johns's and Susan Stewart's studies of print in somewhat different contexts, highlight the multiple and sometimes incommensurate registers on which print functions as an object of intense, often contradictory cultural fantasies whose efficacy depends on its being set loose from its conditions of production. Against familiar notions of literary authority, then, the following chapters aim to resuscitate a forgotten literary discourse that circulated during the antebellum period, one whose obsession with fraudulence portrays literature not as eminently functional but as troublingly dysfunctional. Alongside the celebrated print explosion of the antebellum years, this book discovers an obstinate chorus of words like fraud, imposture, puffing, sham, hoax, plagiarism, quackery, humbug, and counterfeit—a shadow history of American literature we have since forgotten.
The Print Explosion and the Print Implosion
This book argues that if American literature was a far more dubious enterprise than we tend to imagine in retrospect, ironically, its failures had much to do with its success. This paradox instructively distinguishes the antebellum uproar over fraudulence from earlier controversies over the deceptiveness of novels, for instance. While eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century British and American moral gatekeepers accused novels of encouraging false but beguiling notions of reality, the antebellum concerns over literary fraudulence measure the distance literature had traveled in the interim, as these later commentators worried that literature might be deceptive precisely to the extent that it was expected to be valid and, indeed, important to the nation's well-being. Generations of critics have noted that imaginative writing achieves an increased cultural status in the early nineteenth-century United States, and they have offered various explanations for its newfound consequence. Traditionally, most have followed a teleological narrative, in which American literature overcomes a series of obstacles (lack of precedent, inadequate subject matter, an overly practical national character, British scorn) in order to fulfill its inevitable promise. But three more material factors also emerge, whose workings—and malfunctions—I am more interested in pursuing here. The antebellum years saw, first, major developments in the production and distribution of print; second, the consolidation of a market culture that allowed printed goods to be viable commodities; and third, the elevation of printed literature, in particular, to a cultural institution. I briefly describe these factors in the establishment of American literature and how their contributions also became liabilities.
Innovations in Print Technology
A rapid succession of technological and economic innovations in the early nineteenth century transformed the early republican period's largely artisanal print shops into a major commercial industry. Improvements to the flat-bed press in the 1810s and 1820s, the introduction of horsepower in the 1820s and steam power a few years later, and the invention of the cylinder press in the 1830s greatly sped up production rates, as did the development of the stereotyping and electrotyping processes in the 1810s and 1840s, respectively. Former hand processes like paper and board manufacturing, typesetting, and binding were swiftly mechanized. By 1830 a single machine could make paper on rolls (rather than sheet by sheet, as hand production required) and cut it to size. The introduction in the 1820s of cased bindings, covers assembled separately and then sewn to the printed pages, was especially transformative. In the past, publishers had generally issued books in paper wrappers or pasteboard covers, which readers then had bound as they chose or could afford. Cased bindings allowed publishers to issue books in uniform editions with fixed prices. For sure sellers, publishers would produce books in multiple covers, each tailored to different tastes and budgets; thus in 1856 a reader looking for Irving's Sketch-Book could buy an edition bound in cloth for $1.25, with illustrations and gilt decoration for $2.25, or in elegant morocco covers for $3.50. Improved paper-making and binding techniques made possible two of the most spectacular feats of antebellum print technology: the ornate gift books, or literary annuals, which flourished at mid-century, and the "mammoth weeklies" of the 1840s. Published at the end of the year to be exchanged as holiday presents, the gift books compiled sentimental poetry, short fiction, and essays, but the real appeal lay in their alluring exteriors: heavily embossed leather or watered silk bindings bedecked with elaborate ornaments, color illustrations, marbled endpapers, copious amounts of gilding, and even mother-of-pearl. The mammoth weeklies also capitalized on visual impact. Gigantic newspapers containing fiction (usually British reprints), some news, and usually incongruous illustrations, the mammoths competed to offer the largest editions; when the Universal Yankee Nation (motto: "The Largest Paper in All Creation") emerged as the victor, it reached nearly eleven feet tall.
Clearly, the growth of the printing industries provided the material basis for antebellum literature's new cultural stature. What is less obvious is that the print explosion also tended to destabilize those foundations at an epistemic level. When scholars assume that going into print confers a sense of stability upon writing, we confuse print culture with the technology of print. As a technology, print fixes impressions, but print culture—the array of material forms, cultural discourses, economic systems, and lived practices that invest print with meaning—is just as likely to unsettle them, a distinction of which antebellum Americans were only too aware. As Adrian Johns has shown, the unmoored claims of the printed book elicited constant questions from its very beginnings: Was it a "true copy" or did it misrepresent the manuscript, intentionally or unintentionally? Did the author named really write it? Was it the kind of text its title purported it to be? Could its contents be trusted? Moreover, the print culture of the early nineteenth-century United States possessed a peculiar volatility all its own: it was a "culture of reprinting," in Meredith McGill's words, in which "circulation outstripped authorial control and editorial control." Scholars in performance studies and new media studies often define their objects of study against the inert printed word, but print was more likely to invest antebellum texts with mobility than to fasten them in place. In the whirl of reprinting, no text was fixed. Magazine editors regularly republished each other's articles, Anglo-American "bookaneers" competed to issue first editions on each shore or undersell existing editions, and writers often found their words altered, cut, rearranged, or attributed to others, or had unfamiliar words attributed to them. Printed texts cited, commented upon, and reappropriated each other to an extent that compares with the most viral internet meme, and the print/performance binary means little during a period when poems were routinely set to music and issued as songsheets, and a sign of a novel's popularity was how quickly it was dramatized. Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha (1855), for example, was almost instantly converted into music, several plays, endless parodies, an advertisement for patent medicine, captions for humorous engravings, the punch line to a joke, and a painted scene to decorate sleighs. Perhaps always, but in the nineteenth century especially, the medium of print did not decisively inscribe meaning but rather ensured that its inscriptions remained continually available for adaptation.
The print explosion could create an inverse relation between print and legibility, as the two examples of its achievements cited above, the mammoth weekly and the gift book, also illustrate. When critics worried that mammoth weeklies were printed on paper so huge and set in type so small that they would ruin readers' eyesight, they may have missed the point, because it was never clear to what extent the mammoth weeklies were actually intended to be read. One could hardly hold the weeklies, much less read them, a trade-off that one, the Boston Notion, unperturbedly publicized on its masthead. A cheerful family scene, it situates the Notion among an array of other reading materials, including books, a standard-sized newspaper, and a scrapbook (figure 1). While these texts lie conveniently on a table, however, the Notion must be spread out on the floor. The family gathers around the giant newspaper, but no one actually reads it. Instead, the adults look admiringly at it from afar (the only plausible vantage from which to admire it), while the children play on it, climbing over and under the pages. As the Notion's masthead readily acknowledges, the attraction of the mammoth weeklies lay less in their contents than in their spectacular form.
Gift books more starkly illustrate the dubious achievements of antebellum literary publishing, for next to their sumptuousness, their most characteristic feature was their spuriousness. Publishers routinely repackaged pages from old gift books in new bindings, took pages from unsold periodicals and rebound them as gift books, or erased the gilt date from the bindings of old annuals and restamped them with the current year, much as a counterfeiter would erase the dollar amount from a bill and replace it with a higher number. An 1840 letter from publisher and jobber J. A. Noble to Otis, Broaders, and Company, a powerful publisher and periodical agent, shows how the practice worked. Noble asks the company to order 500 copies of the previous year's edition of The Token, a long-running gift book edited by Samuel Goodrich, "With New Title page and fixed in every way to appear like an 1841 Annual. To be bound same style as last year except 1841 on the back instead of 1840 or the 1840 cut off entirely. . . . I give 90¢ for them in Neat Arabesque the Book to be as large at least as last year and to be called 'Token & affections Gift' for 1841 Edited by S. G. Goodrich." Noble is confident the scheme will succeed: "I bought 200 copies 1838 Token," he boasts, "got them bound & called 1840—New York [publisher's imprint]—& they sold well." Moreover, he has a plan to exploit the asymmetrical U.S. literary market: "What imprint would you put in—they must be either Boston N. Y. or Phila. Should you conclude to let me have them—every copy should be sold south of Virginia & West of the Alleghenies," regions far enough away from the northeastern publishing centers that unsuspecting readers might be duped by the bogus Token. Gift-book bibliographer Ralph Thompson estimates that "about 35 American firms indulged in this questionable business, producing nearly 150 titles of the kind." These numbers suggest that such "questionable business" was simply business as usual.
The Development of a National Literary Market
The industrialization of print was an economic transition as much as a technological one. Mechanization led to a growing division of labor inside print shops and a deskilling of much work. These developments allowed owners to exploit cheaper labor (including that of women and children), decreasing manufacturing costs and increasing production quantities. Once the finished product left the print shop (now often a factory), the steamship and the railroad carried it farther than ever before, while marketing innovations such as middlemen and trade sales likewise expanded and regularized distribution. What had been local reading and writing communities thus became incorporated into a national literary market largely dominated by northeastern metropolises (although a plurality of print cultures persisted nonetheless). In 1830, the total value of books produced and sold in the United States was $3.5 million, but just thirty years later it had more than tripled to $12.5 million. The magazine trade, in particular, exploded, helped along by favorable postal regulations; Frank Luther Mott estimates that whereas fewer than one hundred magazines were published in the United States in 1825, by 1850 six times that many existed. Such developments have led some historians to identify books as the prototypical industrial commodity, which paved the way for modern forms of both mass production and mass consumption.
Like the new technologies of print production, however, the burgeoning literary marketplace at once underwrote American literature and undermined it. We are familiar with a version of this story that has become a staple of nineteenth-century literary history, in which writers struggle against the tyrannical market, pitting their creative energies against its stultifying power. Certainly, some authors did see themselves at odds with commerce. But the predominance of this agonistic narrative tends to obscure the extent to which authorship and the market were mutually constitutive formations. Moreover, polarizing the two retrospectively invests each with a solidity it did not actually possess, overstating the conceptual coherence of authorship during these years while overlooking inherent tensions within the workings of literary capitalism itself. A national literary market did not emerge sui generis, nor did it come to organize practices of reading and writing without friction. In his eye-opening study of antebellum literary economics, Leon Jackson describes what we call the development of a national literary market as a "disembedding" of previously "embedded" economic activities, which served "multiple social functions . . . of which the merely economic is only one." On the one hand, the market facilitated the production and distribution of literature in the United States; on the other, its very structure raised new questions about how to evaluate the objects it circulated. Jackson explains that embedded economic activities "serve, typically, to create and sustain social bonds," but as "the economies through which authors worked became detached from the dense social worlds of which they were a part," "exchange became less personal and less trusting." (Susan Stewart, tracking a parallel shift in eighteenth-century London, makes a similar observation: whereas earlier systems of literary transmission had been situated in contexts that defined text and audience—the face-to-face relations of oral performance; the highly codified settings of court, club, and coffeehouse; the contractual agreements of subscription publishing—the emergent "commodification of writing" separated texts "from their grounds of intelligibility and closure.") Moreover, industrial book production exacerbated the uncertainties of market exchange by extending reading and publishing activities across a wider class terrain. Much of the mushrooming print output of these years consisted of so-called "cheap and nasty" literature, pamphlet novels and story papers reprinted from British editions or produced by a homegrown population of "penny-a-liners." Their presence in the market sharpened the generalized doubts Jackson and Stewart describe into very definite anxieties about social distinction. For many disgruntled observers, a mass-produced literature raised questions of what qualified as "literature" at all, an uncertainty that compelled the publishers Wiley and Putnam to distinguish their Library of Choice Reading series with the clarifying motto "Books Which Are Books." And such skepticism traveled both ways across class divides, so that while the high-minded literati railed against "hack" literature's "ethics of humbug," so-called "hacks" like George Lippard accused the powerful literary elite of being the "Cream of Humbug, the Skim milk of American Book Charlatanism."
These debates over aesthetic status are inseparable from the difficulties of assessing social status in a period of unprecedented class mobility, both upward and downward. But at the most basic level, they derive from the contradictions of the literary commodity itself, which brings capitalism's economic principles into collision with its ideological ones. Ideologically, the concept of literary value derives from a division of labor that distinguishes the creative from the manual and elevates the former above the latter. This distinction depends on two imaginative elisions: first, its notion of literary production must ignore the material processes that bring literature into being (paper-making, typesetting, printing, sewing, etc., as well as ambiguously literary activities like editing) in order to define literature solely as writing, and second, writing must be understood as a rarefied matter of inspiration rather than a laborious arrangement of words. Economically, however, the literary marketplace must put a price on the very values that the division of labor insists transcend it. Boston poet Thomas William Parsons's 1854 satire of the publishing industry vividly evokes the cognitive dissonance that results. Parsons contrasts what he (somewhat optimistically) sees as the dignity of literature in England with the treatment it receives on "this equalizing coast," where "this age of steam / Reduces poesy to weight and ream," converting the "tender shoots that bourgeon from the brain" into just so many wares. "How would'st thou shame to recognize thyself," he tells an English friend,
In mammoth quartos, decked with wooden cuts,
Meanly displayed 'mid candies, cake and nuts;
Thumbed by coarse hands that paw before they choose,
Whether a poem—or a pair of shoes!
American Literature Becomes a Cultural Institution
As the publishing industry expanded, the books and periodicals it produced became an increasingly prominent part of antebellum culture—not only materially, in their numbers and showy appearances, but also discursively, in the crystallization of a category called "American literature." This is not to say that literature did not exist in the United States before 1830, but that only in the early nineteenth century did imaginative writing develop into a recognizable entity (distinct from political writing, natural history, or theology, for example) with acknowledged cultural significance. An outpouring of writing about literature further helped usher it into existence as an object of knowledge. Literary criticism became an increasingly important fixture of magazines and newspapers (for reasons I explore in Chapter 1), but discussions of literature were not confined to book-review columns. Newspapers regularly reported on book auctions, bookstore openings, and publishers' celebrations. Articles touting the importance of literature, describing its ideal prospects, and worrying over its failures filled the pages of periodicals from women's magazines to labor newspapers. The growing literary nationalism movement made American literature, in particular, a favorite topic (a development I will discuss in greater detail below): Wiley and Putnam inaugurated their Library of American Books series in 1845, and the period saw an explosion of anthologies and reference works, most famously the indefatigable editor Rufus Griswold's The Poets and Poetry of America (1842), Curiosities of American Literature (1843), The Prose Writers of America (1847), and The Female Poets of America (1849), and, after many years in production, Evert and George Duyckinck's massive two-volume Cyclopaedia of American Literature (1855). At the same time, new marketing techniques helped keep literature squarely before the public eye. Publishers' advertisements—printed on handbills, placed in newspapers, and inserted in the backs of books—became a regular sight, replacing booksellers' staid lists of titles for sale with fulsome encomiums and tallies of the inevitably staggering number of copies already sold. At home, Americans stocked their shelves with figurines and candlesticks in the shapes of fictional characters; set their tables with china sets bearing literary motifs; carried handkerchiefs embroidered with memorable quotations; and hung portraits of authors and lithographs of favorite literary scenes on their walls. Whereas eighteenth-century print aspired to transparency, as Michael Warner has shown, antebellum literary print cultivated attention—publicity, in other words, rather than Warner's virtuous publicness.
Yet the cultural currency literature acquired in these years—its high visibility, the attractions it held for readers, its perceived influence on social relations—also had a tendency to backfire. One final example of literary dubiousness will illustrate the point. Enterprising businessmen used the popular literature of the day to hawk their decidedly nonliterary wares, so that even as the rise of advertising put literature on display, it also threatened to dissolve any difference between the respective rhetorical tactics of the two. Newspaper writer Fanny Fern viewed the bait-and-switch with mixed annoyance and admiration:
I am fond of poetry; my eye catches a favorite extract from Longfellow, or [William Cullen] Bryant, or [James Gates] Percival, or [George P.] Morris; I read it over with renewed pleasure, blessing the author in my heart the while. I am decoyed into the building to which it serves as a fairy vestibule. Where do I find myself?So attention-grabbing that it could be deployed as an advertising lure, antebellum literature attained the status of spectacle—and spectacle, as Barnum understood, was the defining characteristic of outright humbug. His encyclopedic Humbugs of the World explained that "'humbug' consists in putting on glittering appearances—outside show—novel expedients, by which to suddenly arrest public attention, and attract the public eye and ear." Yet antebellum literature's "outside show" also invited scrutiny, as Fern's disclosive article indicates. The resultant exposés, complaints, screeds, and satires offer a historical elaboration of Foucault's aphorism, "Visibility is a trap." While the growing visibility of antebellum literature signaled its unprecedented power, its conspicuousness also became a weakness. Like other kinds of power, literary power works best when least observed, but antebellum literature's place in the public eye brought its representational practices into focus. The attention it garnered as a result often sent representation, in its most neutral sense of depiction, into representation in its most negative sense of falsehood. This book recovers these moments of overexposure and overextension in order to reexamine the functionalist assumptions of print culture and literary studies. Its project, in short, is to reconstruct the basic strangeness of antebellum literature.
By Parnassus! in a carpet warehouse—in a sausage-shop—in a druggist's—shoemaker's—tailor's—or hatter's establishment.
Who shall circumscribe American ingenuity where dollars and cents are concerned?
Answer me, great Barnum!
At the same time that the problem of fraudulence bedeviled antebellum literature, however, I also want to propose that it simultaneously offered its own kind of rhetorical solution. Antebellum literature's credibility problems, I have been arguing, arose out of the definitional crisis it faced in the midst of its technological, cultural, and economic transformation. But the discourse of fraudulence—a discourse that is, after all, profoundly unsuited to the subject of literature—offers a fantasy of clear-cut assessment for a value that could never be satisfactorily assessed. Moreover, fraudulence holds out the possibility of authenticity, a binary opposition that replaces undeterminable claims of literary worth with the promise of clear-cut distinction. And finally, identifying fraudulence creates an impression of anomaly; in other words, it transforms pervasive fraudulence into particularized fraud. If fraud can be detected, there must be a legitimate system at work. The obsession with fraudulence generated by the print explosion makes one wonder whether Walter Benjamin's famous thesis about mechanical reproduction—that it jeopardizes "the authority of the object" that manual reproduction upheld—may get things backward. "The presence of the original is prerequisite to the concept of authenticity," Benjamin writes, and "the whole sphere of authenticity is outside technical—and, of course, not only technical—reproducibility." Yet antebellum literary culture's insistent attempts to locate authenticity and distinguish it from fraud suggest that authenticity may not be a casualty of modernity—"that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction"—so much as an invention of it. In other words, originality is a second-order phenomenon, which requires the idea of the copy to exist. It is the conceivability of the derivative that is the prerequisite for imagining, and privileging, the authentic. Thus while I began by positing that the success of American literature contributed to its failures, I want to end by giving this dialectic another turn to suggest that those failures may also have enabled its ultimate success. At times it seems miraculous that American literature survived the barrage of suspicion and assaults recounted in this book. But paradoxically, it might well have survived because of them. Pervasive as the controversies over fraudulence were, by transfiguring thornier questions of literary value, they helped establish that entity we now confidently call American literature.
Fraudulence from the Core to the Periphery
The chapters that follow track the shifting fortunes of American literature over the course of the antebellum print explosion, which began with the technological and market innovations of the 1830s and ground to a halt as the nation approached the Civil War. The first part of this study reexamines the cultural institutionalization of American literature in the 1830s and 1840s in order to show how antebellum efforts to produce an authentically American literary culture instead created one beset by accusations of fraudulence. My focus on literature's reputation for fraudulence, rather than specific acts of fraud, means that although at times I highlight particular authors, one aim of this section is to intervene in theoretical frameworks in which individual "subversion," "transgression," or "resistance" offer the only means of disrupting cultural hegemony. On the one hand, these models assign aggrandized agency to authors; while they underscore the reach of hegemony (after all, the authors they privilege must have something to challenge), they posit a kind of exemption from these strictures on behalf of select authors. On the other hand, they totalize hegemony, which while dominant, is rarely monolithic. Yet in these models, hegemony hits its limits only in response to external challenges such as the deliberately oppositional acts named above. Attention to such acts of resistance is immensely valuable, of course. But this book argues that the material instantiation of hegemony—here, in print—sometimes poses problems of its own.
Put differently, in addition to its archival and analytical projects, this book has designs on a methodological intervention. It aspires to a materialist approach that would fuse two senses of the word: historical materialism and the study of material texts. Despite their shared commitment to the primacy of material objects and practices, these approaches have historically had little to say to each other. As a result, book history has acquired a reputation as a depoliticized field that focuses on material texts and the processes that produce them in isolation from the broader economic and social systems of which they form a part. There are certainly important exceptions to this rule, but it is generally true that the field has tended to privilege fine-grained detail over systemic analysis. At the same time, Marxist historical materialism often pays equally scant attention to the actual materiality of its material basis. Thus although Marxism posits materialism as an alternative to idealism, its often frictionless sense of the material can itself tend toward the idealist. Marx's discussion of money offers a case in point. For Marx, money functions as the "universal equivalent form" of commodities. By contrast, in the antebellum United States, the decentralized printing of banknotes, massive inflation, and rampant counterfeiting significantly compromised money's efficacy as a medium of exchange, as we will see in Chapter 1. As I suggested above, however, these tendencies toward idealism are most pronounced in discussions of ideology, especially in the foundational statements of Louis Althusser (ironically, the most truculent critic of Marxist idealism). "Ideology has a material existence," Althusser asserts in "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation)"; it "always exists in an apparatus, and its practice, or practices." But despite Althusser's insistence on materialized "apparatuses" ("a small mass in a small church, a funeral, a minor match at a sports' club, a school day, a political party meeting, etc."), materiality proves strangely transparent in his account. In other words, although ideology must take material form, those material forms never modify ideology; they just obligingly transmit it. From a literary critical standpoint, one might say that ideology has become the last refuge of intentionality, with its assumption that the printed page contains an imprint of the writer's desires. Although few critics would argue that ideology is a sure thing, they tend to assume that its breakdowns occur through their own analytical interventions. By contrast, I propose that when material forms mediate ideologies, they do not always do so as intended. As such, while I trace the development of certain ideologies of literature, I am especially interested in how these ideologies overheat, recoil, or founder when they take form in print.
The first chapter of The Fabrication of American Literature is set among the largely northeastern, urban, white, and middle- to upper-class writers, editors, and critics who dominated the national literary market. From there, the book follows the story of fraudulence as it moves from this literary core to the subordinated groups on its economic, regional, racialized, and gendered margins. I borrow the terms "core" and "periphery" from Immanuel Wallerstein's world-systems analysis, where Wallerstein uses them to describe an integrated system of capitalism in which elements "seemingly outside the system are in fact inside it." Wallerstein's world-systems analysis is not, of course, congruent with the study of antebellum literature. But the notion of an interdependent core and periphery aptly characterizes the relations between mainstream and marginalized literary cultures during these years, for even as women, people of color, and rural populations gained new footholds in literary culture, their incorporation ultimately helped consolidate the mainstream's own authority as it came under attack for being rotten at the core.
The production of a literary periphery served the literary core in two apparently contradictory ways: by embodying authenticity and by embodying fraudulence. Lacking cultural clout, literary productions from the margins could be seen as more natural (and thus more appropriately national), and the literati eagerly hailed them as embodying the authenticity they themselves were perceived as lacking. Indeed, the allure of the margins proved so strong that the antebellum years saw a profusion of fake peripheral productions manufactured in metropolitan publishing centers, including the minstrel performances, ersatz backwoodsmen's tales, and false slave narratives I discuss in Chapters 2 and 3. At the same time, if writers in the mainstream commented on one characteristic of peripheral writings more frequently than their authenticity, it was their fraudulence. Thus while the productions of backwoodsmen, slaves, and women assumed new cultural currency as repositories of genuine literary expression, they also became indelibly associated with imposture, tall tales, and artifice. It is not difficult to detect in these characterizations a displacement of the fraudulence that dogged the literati's own efforts. But it is important to emphasize that this was less a matter of expunging fraudulence than moving it somewhere else. Troubling at the center of literary culture, fraudulence proved salutary at a safe distance because its presence there instituted a principle of difference that produced a normative authenticity at the center. In this way, the expanding literary marketplace transformed fraudulence from a national dilemma into a sorting mechanism that helped define racial, regional, and gender identities. Yet fraudulence was not reliably subjugating, either, and the second half of the book also explores how a number of figures turned their dubious reputations to account, solving the problem of fraudulence by making a virtue of it.
Chapter 1, "'One Vast Perambulating Humbug': Literary Nationalism and the Rise of the Puffing System," revisits the literary nationalist movement of the 1830s and 1840s in order to read it against its troublesome historical counterpart: the system of critical "puffery" that many readers accused of propping up a sham American literature. Literary nationalism promoted American literature on the basis of its unprecedented natural qualities, which supporters contrasted favorably with the stifling conventions of European tradition. But skeptics argued that the very preponderance of support given American literature made it "one vast perambulating humbug," as Edgar Allan Poe put it. The second half of the chapter expands from specifically literary nationalist puffery to the full scope of the puffing system, whose impressive repertoire of underhanded promotional tactics dominated literary criticism during the period. Even when puffery did not serve explicitly literary nationalist aims, I argue, it was nonetheless seen to pose a threat to national identity, because it contravened the nationalist shibboleth that literary criticism would embody the distinctly democratic approach to literature in the United States. Guiding the reader through this profusion of puffery is Poe, who at once excoriated the system in his reviews, parodied it in his fiction, and was perhaps inevitably incorporated into it. In the last part of the chapter, I propose that he also allegorized it in the numerous figures of balloons that fill his work, most notably in the seldom-read tale "The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall." In contrast to the abstract public sphere theorized by Jürgen Habermas, I argue, these balloons image a more particular, even peculiar, kind of public sphere, one filled not with rational-critical discourse but with hot air.
Chapter 2, "Backwoods and Blackface: The Strange Careers of Davy Crockett and Jim Crow," acts as the hinge between the suspect literary nationalism discussed in the first chapter and the construction of a literary periphery in later chapters. Building on the ironies of Jacksonian democracy outlined in the Introduction and Chapter 1, this chapter establishes the double casting that governed the mainstream's investment in the marginalized, whom the literati recruited simultaneously to authenticity and to fraudulence. It examines how two figures defined by their alterity, frontier legend Davy Crockett and minstrel character Jim Crow, became surprisingly enmeshed both in each other and in the supposedly distant cultural mainstream. I use the historical links between the two figures to interrogate the secret to their success—not only their popularity among the working classes, already the subject of considerable study, but also their considerable appeal among the literary elite, who lit upon these two outlandishly fabricated creations as evidence of a genuine native literary spirit. In Jim Crow and Davy Crockett, the literati discovered (or, more accurately, devised) a revitalizing national vernacular, one that would rehabilitate the intractable problem of fraud by recasting it in the regionalized, racialized forms of backwoods tall tales and black posturing. Unpacking the fabrication of subaltern fabricating, the mainstreaming of marginality, and the authentication of falsehood, this chapter shows the operations of antebellum fraudulence at their most tortuous. In a rather dizzying train of cultural logic, it argues that Crockett and Crow's fake alterity promoted the idea that alterity was prone to fakeness; remarkably, this fakeness could also provide the authentic American literature that literary nationalism failed to produce.
Extending Chapter 2's discussion of the intersecting antebellum constructions of race and fraudulence, Chapter 3, "'Slavery Never Can Be Represented': James Williams and the Racial Politics of Imposture," examines the slave narrative's neglected relative, the pseudo-slave narrative. This chapter investigates the very different ways in which fraud played out across the color line by juxtaposing examples of the genre from white authors Richard Hildreth and Mattie Griffith with the only known (or believed) false slave narrative by an African American author, The Narrative of James Williams (1838). The first slave narrative published under the auspices of the American Anti-Slavery Society, The Narrative of James Williams was discredited soon after its publication in a scandal that assumed national proportions. The abolitionist movement's suspicion of African Americans' truthfulness and the influence of these suspicions on the writing of fugitive slaves are well known, but the controversy over Williams gave an unexpected twist to this story: abolitionists actually balked at suggestions that Williams had fabricated his narrative, refusing to attribute to him creative capacities that they considered inconceivable in an African American writer.
Chapter 4, "Mediums of Exchange: Fanny Fern's Unoriginality" further pursues the volatility of fraudulence by turning to a writer who converted fraudulence's stigma into a wildly popular product. Focusing on the pseudonymous best-selling author Fanny Fern, whose newspaper columns and fiction made her a celebrity in the 1850s and 1860s, this chapter investigates the language of artifice and imitation that supervised the influx of women into the mid-century literary marketplace. Yet I argue that Fern, who trafficked in convention and dropped her given name in favor of her pseudonym, embraced such associations so forcefully as to splinter the disciplinary logic they initially sustained. Rather than defining female identity in the literary marketplace, Fern's enthusiastic artifice left readers wondering, not only "Who is FANNY FERN?" as one newspaper put it, but even "What is FANNY FERN?" The transition from "who" to "what" suggests that fraudulence worked to reify its perceived subjects, and the previous chapters indicate that it enjoyed considerable success. But Fern's collaboration in her fraudulence demonstrates that its reifying effects could not be guaranteed—or more accurately, that reification might have pleasures and possibilities of its own.
Finally, the Conclusion, "The Confidence Man on a Large Scale," turns to perhaps the most famous account of antebellum fraud, Herman Melville's commercially disastrous final novel, The Confidence-Man. This may seem a strange place to end, given that I have tried hard to distinguish this book's subject from the kinds of crimes perpetrated by "confidence men," a phrase that originated eight years before the publication of Melville's novel as the moniker given a New York swindler. But despite the title's promise of particularity, the greatest obstacle to reading the book lies in determining what differentiates the confidence man from the other people he encounters. Melville's contemporaries might not have been surprised. When the city police arrested the swindler, commentators expressed little satisfaction, protesting that New Yorkers had been tricked once more: the real criminal was not the Confidence Man but what one newspaper called "The Confidence Man on a Large Scale," the everyday machinations of business and politics. Counterintuitively, then, The Confidence-Man formally registers the broadest argument of this book, that antebellum fraudulence cannot be embodied in individual acts and persons. More specifically, Melville continually threads meditations on the nature of literature through his swindling plot, to the point that the two endeavors prove difficult to distinguish. Yet even as The Confidence-Man in some ways epitomizes the pervasive fraudulence of the antebellum years, its own reception also marks the end of this era, for as dismal as it was, it was in no way disruptive. In 1837, an objectionable book like The Confidence-Man would have been pronounced a fraud. In 1857, it was simply ignored. To some extent, this shift reflects the saturation of literary capitalism, which increasingly organized a questionable business into more neatly defined niches of high and low, romantic and realist, commercial and artistic. Perhaps, too, it testifies to the success of the efforts to manage fraudulence described in Chapters 2 through 4. Or we might see it as evidence of the possibility I raised earlier: that the panic over fraudulence itself helped eradicate the problem by giving the impression that modern critics have indeed taken away from The Confidence-Man—that fraudulence is an anomaly that can be satisfactorily detected.