Liberty of the Imagination

Liberty of the Imagination reveals the powerful impact of eighteenth-century theories of the imagination on American writing from the Revolutionary era to the early nineteenth century.

Liberty of the Imagination
Aesthetic Theory, Literary Form, and Politics in the Early United States

Edward Cahill

2012 | 328 pages | Cloth $69.95
Literature | Cultural Studies | American History
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Ingenious Disquisition and Controversy
Chapter 2. Poetry, Pleasure, and the Revolution
Chapter 3. The Beautiful and Sublime Objects of Landscape Writing
Chapter 4. Taste, Ratification, and Republican Form in The Federalist
Chapter 5. The Novel, the Imagination, and Charles Brockden Brown's Aesthetic State
Chapter 6. Federalist Criticism and the Power of Genius

List of Abbreviations

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


"A little formalism turns one away from history, but . . . a lot brings one back to it."
—Roland Barthes, Mythologies

Early U.S. literary culture speaks the philosophical language of the imagination fluently and vociferously. Despite the extraordinary political demands of the day, literary texts of all kinds invoke the concepts of aesthetic theory with erudition and persistence. Poetry explores the morality of pleasure and the creative powers of the mind. Natural history writing describes the beautiful, sublime, and picturesque forms of the American landscape. Political writing apprehends the beauties of republican government through the rhetoric of taste and artistic representation. Novels portray the conflicts of the imagination and the trials of sensibility. Literary criticism debates the claims of genius and taste and the priorities of literary culture. In newspapers and magazines, commonplace books and memoirs, sermons and moral tracts, private correspondence and polite conversation—in nearly every genre and medium of expression, the rhetoric of aesthetic theory is ubiquitous and insistent. As a grammar of mental experience, it gives recognizable meaning to its various objects, be they of the mind, the heart, the people, or the state. Thus, in recounting that the new nation "offered a curious subject for philosophical contemplation," David Humphreys, in the 1804 preface to his Poem on the Happiness of America (1786), insists on the centrality of the imagination to Revolutionary American writers: "Our minds, imperceptibly impressed with the novelty, beauty, or sublimity of surrounding objects, gave energy to the language which expressed our sensations." Humphreys's use of Joseph Addison's aesthetic categories, first articulated in his Spectator essays "On the Pleasures of the Imagination" (1712), registers both his debt to a British intellectual tradition and his own intellectual preparation for the experience his poem describes. But it also specifies the nature of the linguistic "energy" that connects aesthetic feeling to textual representation and literary form. "Novelty," "beauty," and "sublimity" are more than watchwords of literary refinement. Rather, they point to a set of key assumptions about the imagination, its literary powers, and their vital relation to the "surrounding objects" of nature, society, and politics. This book is about those assumptions and the ways in which they have shaped early American literature.

Scholars in the field have paid little sustained attention to the language of aesthetic theory. Although it claims to define the very foundation of literary production and reception, many have taken it for granted as a relatively meaningless mode of formal gesture. In this way, we have been guilty of a double mistake. First, we have understood rhetoric like Humphreys's to be merely derivative of the European literary culture in which it originated and was authoritatively used and, therefore, fundamentally foreign to the contexts of American culture. According to this view, to invoke Addison's categories is merely to ape British literature and to impose a genteel tradition on a republican, commercially minded society. At the same time, we have understood the language of aesthetics—even when used by European writers—as an indulgent vocabulary of privilege whose rococo formulations were suspect in their own time and have since been rejected for their rhetorical abstraction and inherent exclusion. Thus, we have seen in words like Humphreys's not argument but ornamentation, a polite performance without substance, both unworthy of critical attention and implicitly guilty of elitism. By slighting aesthetic theory as either imitative or complicit, we have deemed some of the most important theoretical ideas about art and aesthetic experience in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century American culture irrelevant to our study of that period's literature.

When we look closely at this tradition and explore the history of its development, however, a complex relation of ideas, politics, and form emerges with astonishing clarity. Liberty of the Imagination demonstrates that American writers of the Revolution and the early republic were not too busy with nation building or too ambivalent about the imagination to theorize its powers. Indeed, ideas about pleasure, fancy, association, taste, genius, beauty, and sublimity permeated literary culture. Educated Americans read about, reflected upon, discussed, and debated such ideas with remarkable frequency and intensity. They encountered them in British rhetoric textbooks, moral philosophy treatises, and literary criticism; they discussed them in college classrooms and salon conversations; they published their own aesthetic investigations in magazine and newspaper essays; they invoked them in their poems, novels, and other literary productions; and they used them to frame important political debates during the colonial crisis, the Revolution, Constitutional ratification, and the advent of Jeffersonian democracy. Like Humphreys, they turned to aesthetic ideas to describe natural landscapes, art objects, social formations, and political institutions. For writers like Fisher Ames, William Bartram, Charles Brockden Brown, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, Joseph Dennie, Timothy Dwight, Elizabeth Fergusson, Philip Freneau, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Trumbull, Mercy Otis Warren, and Phillis Wheatley, such ideas were central to the political and cultural development of the British colonies, the new American states, and the emerging nation. They offered a means of understanding, advocating, and regulating the pleasures of the imagination for a society increasingly determined to claim its share of sensibility in a transatlantic literary culture. But they also provided a means of articulating notions of liberty, equality, virtue, community, and difference during a time of political revolution and social improvisation.

To speak of aesthetic theory in eighteenth-century America is necessarily anachronistic. Alexander Baumgarten's appropriation of the word "aesthetic" in 1750 as a rubric for philosophical questions of taste had no currency in English until the nineteenth century. But it is nonetheless a useful placeholder for an otherwise diverse constellation of concepts similarly concerned with discovering truth in pleasure, emotion, and non-rational modes of knowledge. Sometimes called "philosophical criticism" or "criticism of taste," eighteenth-century aesthetic theory relates to ideas of sensation, perception, pleasure, fancy, imagination, beauty, sublimity, the picturesque, taste, judgment, genius, criticism, belles lettres, art, eloquence, passion, emotion, sympathy, sentiment, sensibility, sensus communis, and other modes, forms, and objects of affect, epistemology, and ethics. If such ideas are bound together by their central reference to the imagination, they are also united in their common interest in connecting the mind with the world around it. They comprehend the relationship between subjects and objects, the particular and the universal, the material and the ideal, and the individual and the collective. Although they derive variously from the fields of moral philosophy, rhetoric, the fine arts, journalism, theology, political economy, and medicine, these ideas cannot be understood to exist in any symmetrical or linear relation. Rather they constitute an elaborate and shifting web of affiliation, attracting, opposing, and impinging on one another in both predictable and unexpected ways.

With such diversity and range, aesthetic theory was an innovative source of explanatory power and social cohesion. It justified virtue and benevolence, imposed order on unruly nature, shored up the vulnerability of reason, gave legitimacy to forms of pleasure and desire, and raised art and literature to the highest status. By specifying the mechanics of human thought and social interaction, it also clarified the moral foundation of families, communities, nations, and empires. Theories of beauty and sublimity privileged the vagaries of private feeling but also subordinated bodily pleasures to mental ones, provided a common vocabulary of sensibility, and inspired socially binding programs of cultivation and improvement. Theories of genius celebrated the creative powers of individuals while linking them to the common capacities of the human mind. Theories of taste imposed an idea of universality on the otherwise intractable variety of pleasures and preferences, while creating a supple discourse of distinction. In these and other ways, aesthetic theory generated new conceptions of self and society whose authority was based not in coercive political power but in qualities of mind and habits of cultural practice. By elaborating the pleasures of the imagination, it both exalted the uniqueness of individual subjects and connected them to a like-minded community of perceivers.

As a philosophical discourse, however, aesthetic theory struggled against its own premises, claims, and implications. Rhetorically, we see this in ruptures between ideas of aesthetic disinterestedness and the insistence of interested pleasure, and between lofty claims of universality and a practical tendency toward exclusivity. But philosophically, we also see it in the phenomenological gap between aesthetic subjects and aesthetic objects whose uncertain topography was the persistent dilemma of eighteenth-century theorists. In connecting beauty and sublimity with the formal qualities of objects, for example, these writers gain the moral assurance of the imagination's universality but at the cost of the specificity of the perceiving subject. Conversely, in locating the source of beauty and sublimity in the imagination of the perceiver, they elevate the moral status of aesthetic perception and invention while leaving the imagination vulnerable to the moral hazard of its radical autonomy. For these reasons, aesthetic theory was fundamentally contradictory. Addison's pleasures of the imagination rise above bodily sensation to denote an infinite "Faculty of the Soul," even as he discovers their efficacy in the regulatory logic of virtuous moderation. The concept of taste articulated by David Hume, Alexander Gerard, and Edmund Burke promises to unite the judgments of all sensible subjects, but this totalizing imperative renders it less capable of particularizing the pleasures of the imagination that made taste seem so necessary in the first place. The association of ideas advanced by David Hartley, Lord Kames, and Thomas Reid gives order to the processes of the imagination, but in revealing the complexity of aesthetic subjectivity it all too clearly spells out the likelihood of their disorder. In this way, aesthetic theory's contradictory nature continually threatens to undo its syntheses and makes it a problem always in need of a solution.

Yet it is precisely the problems of aesthetic theory that made it such an incisive means of thinking about the problems of American society and politics. For at its heart lies a language of liberty, a persistent expression not only of individuality, autonomy, and agency but also their necessary limits. Ideas about the imagination emphasize what Hume calls "liberty of the imagination"—the mind's innate and vigorous capacity for creating associative chains of images and ideas—as well as the dangers of its excess, the moral need to constrain such excess, and the opposition between liberty and the power of such constraint. This dialectic of liberty in aesthetic theory offered American writers a rich critical vocabulary for articulating the imperatives and challenges of political liberty and, thus, for confronting the social contradictions of Revolutionary and early national culture. By invoking models of virtuous pleasure and regulated imagination, they constructed and experimented with ideal proportions of liberty and constraint. But they also interrogated such ideas as a means of comprehending the pressures of revolution, constitution-making, and nation-formation, the conflicts of class, race, and gender, and the vicissitudes of political life in a republic.

Until recently, scholars have been somewhat reluctant to explore the significance of aesthetic theory in early U.S. literary culture. In the 1980s, the poststructuralist critique of aesthetics understood it as a mere prop of bourgeois hegemony and its fictions of autonomous subjecthood. Pierre Bourdieu, for example, calls the "aesthetic disposition"—the highly rarified mode of disinterested aesthetic consumption—an ideological strategy of the elite classes, the only means they have of distinguishing art from commodities in an otherwise commodified world. For Barbara Hernnstein-Smith, too, the concept of aesthetic value is "axiological" because it defines a universal realm of value as consisting of particular values that, through the discourse of taste, are realized as universal. Such arguments taught a generation of scholars that critical attention to form and pleasure could only come at the expense of historical and political specificity. As a result, by redefining our own critical values, we lost sight of the values of earlier literary cultures. Cultural paradigms that were once the chief concerns of authors—pleasures of the imagination, judgments of taste, powers of genius—were neglected as merely decorative expressions whose relevance to literary study faded with the privilege they once both upheld and disguised. In learning to interpret the political unconscious of literary texts, we became less conscious of the aesthetic ideas in which they are so often grounded. In historicizing literary culture beyond facile claims about the power of art, we ceased to historicize the claims of art at all. Indeed, in learning to be wary of aesthetic judgments, we learned to assume an opposition between aesthetics and historicism.

In the 1990s, however, a movement in literary studies offered to "reclaim the aesthetic," as George Levine puts it, with a counter-critique dedicated in various ways to a historicized, politically sensitive, even progressive idea of aesthetics. Isobel Armstrong argues for the "uncoupling of the aesthetic and privilege" and attention to the radical potential of art and imagination. Likewise, Peter Brooks and Elaine Scarry insist that, despite its bourgeois history, aesthetics plays valuable roles in culture, such as enabling hermeneutic pedagogy and inspiring social justice. Such arguments assume not only that aesthetics is a basic human need and practice, but also that it is central to the mechanisms of democratic culture and inherently committed to ideas of openness, negotiation, interpretation, and play. If aesthetics sometimes obscures politics and power, these critics suggest, it also helps us to see how they work, how they change over time, and how they might be improved. This more capacious idea of aesthetics is, in fact, more consistent with its own contradictory nature, what Terry Eagleton calls its "radically double-edged" commitment to both discipline and emancipation. For Eagleton, aesthetics is both an elite discourse of pleasure and a form of knowledge rooted in the body. It functions as both "an isolated enclave within which the dominant social order can find idealized refuge from its own actual values of competitiveness, exploitation, and material possessiveness" and a libratory discourse originating in a bourgeois critique of absolutist power. Accordingly, it implies both a flight from history and a substantive particularization of it. Its rhetoric of disinterested pleasure and hierarchical regimes of sensibility authorize political authority and social inequality, to be sure, but they also enable profound insights into the nature of political and social experience.

Since the 1990s, scholars of British literature have brought illuminating historicist perspectives to the rhetoric of eighteenth-century aesthetic theory. In American literary studies of the period, the aesthetic turn has moved at a slower pace, but a number of useful interventions have laid a strong critical foundation. Cultural histories of eloquence and oratory, politeness and belles lettres, sympathy and sensibility, and art and taste have affirmed the relevance of aesthetic discourse to Revolutionary and early national literature, finding its most significant expressions in oratorical performance and the sentimental novel. Such histories have also charted the domestication of aesthetic theory to the uses of national politics and to questions of class, race, and gender. They have demonstrated how aesthetics sought simultaneously to naturalize elite politics and give voice to marginalized political subjects, how it offered both a reprieve from the demands of democracy and an ideal of political community. In this way, they have reoriented our critical priorities toward rhetorically rich but under-examined structures of feeling and given us provocative answers to David S. Shields's instructive prompting: "What literature would be brought to life if one studied pleasure as a mode of power?"

Liberty of the Imagination is indebted to this work and builds on it in a number of ways. Above all, it is grounded methodologically in intellectual rather than cultural history. It recovers a world in which ideas mattered as ideas, in which writers did not merely translate them into cultural practice but understood them self-consciously as philosophical constructions and objects of debate whose significance was fundamental to wisdom and virtue. For this reason, it avoids making any general assumptions about the currency of aesthetic theory for American writers. Instead, it substantiates an analytical focus on the significance of specific theoretical categories by elaborating the breadth and depth of their reception and circulation in significant domains of print culture: college curricula, book importing and reprinting, and periodical criticism (Chapter 1). It also looks beyond single aesthetic traditions by exploring a wide array of ideas and the dynamic relations between them, for it assumes that only in the context of such relations are their meanings fully realized. To focus exclusively on the idea of sympathy, for example, is to ignore the closely related ideas of imagination, taste, and beauty. Critics of the early American novel who emphasize sympathy as its primary aesthetic category thus tend to confine the novel's aesthetic concerns to social passions and the act of imagination to imagining other people. But accounting for the circulation of aesthetic ideas also demands that we look beyond the claims of an individual aesthetic theorist or text, such as Burke's Philosophical Enquiry or Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments. Readers and writers rarely responded to single aesthetic models; their views and representations invariably emerged from exposure to a variety of ideas, always in conversation, often competing, and sometimes incomplete or distorted. Accordingly, this book explores the ideas of an extensive range of aesthetic philosophers and critics: not only Addison, Burke, Gerard, Hartley, Hume, Kames, and Reid, but also Archibald Alison, Hugh Blair, William Gilpin, William Hogarth, Francis Hutcheson, Joshua Reynolds, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, August Wilhelm Schlegel, the earl of Shaftesbury, Adam Smith, Dugald Stewart, and many others.

It also explores the political valences of these ideas without assuming that they are definitively liberal or conservative. Literary scholars engaged with the politics of aesthetics have argued largely by analogy, seeing in invocations of imagination, feeling, and form corresponding ideas of political power. Alternatively, this book argues that the politics of aesthetic theory is inherent in the language of its rhetoric. Its dialectical conception of the imagination comprehends the tensions between liberty and constraint that structure aesthetic theory's main concepts and debates. It thus sees aesthetics and politics as linked more by homology than analogy, bearing not only a structural resemblance but also an intimate and original discursive relation (Chapter 1). As a result, its analyses discover in literary texts a politics that is more nuanced than definitive, alternately liberal and conservative, democratic and elitist; but it also finds that such terms often fail to describe the complex political identifications of many authors or works. This approach allows me, for example, to explore the consensual rhetoric of The Federalist without dismissing it as a merely hegemonic project of political domination, or to read in the aesthetic practices of Brown's Wieland family or in Dennie's disdain for democracy not merely guilty elitism but also highly wrought idealism. By focusing on the contradictions inherent in aesthetic theory, that is, I aim to shed new light on the contradictions of early U.S. political culture.

The literary significance of aesthetic theory, however, extends beyond politics and intellectual history to matters of genre and form, both of which this book foregrounds in its organization and analyses. It assumes that the representation of aesthetic ideas depends on the conventions of literary language and that specific literary genres tend to engage with specific aesthetic categories and express specific political concerns. But it also explores how the discursive tensions within and across aesthetic categories alert us to the rhetorical patterns and formal energies of the genres in which they are represented. Ideas of pleasure in Revolutionary poetry help us to locate its divided moral, epistemological, and political priorities, while accounting for its dramatic tone and cautious meter, sudden reversals and monotonous diction (Chapter 2). The discourse of beauty and sublimity in post-Revolutionary landscape writing not only manifests its debt to theories of painting and relevance to federal land politics but also defines its dynamic perceptual logic and engenders its most poignant moments of transcendence and crisis (Chapter 3). In Constitutional-era political writing, the language of taste recapitulates the challenges of republican polity as it constructs a flexible rhetoric of political form and normative models of political judgment (Chapter 4). The novel's engagement with theories of the imagination dramatizes late eighteenth-century philosophical conflicts of materialism and idealism, thereby illuminating its tendencies toward verbal excess and narrative incoherence, rigid determinism and unsettling indeterminacy (Chapter 5). In early nineteenth-century literary criticism, debates about genius and taste clarify the reactive politics of Federalism in a rising democratic culture but also help us to understand the tradition's rhetoric of nostalgia, melancholy, and dispossession (Chapter 6). Thus, although it pays close attention to individual literary texts, the book's larger goal is to define persistent patterns of formal representation within and across genres, to uncover what might be called the deep form of early U.S. writing—its dramatic peripeteia, metaphors of enslavement and liberation, figures of tragedy and transformation, and rhetorical investment in the discontinuous, chaotic, and obsessive.

Finally, this book demonstrates not only that early U.S. literary culture was a transatlantic phenomenon but also that U.S. nation formation was utterly dependent on British (and sometimes even French, German, and Italian) intellectual materials.a Such transnational borrowing, as Leonard Tennenhouse argues, allowed Revolutionary Americans to steer a course between independence and authority. The tension in aesthetic theory between such forces made it particularly suitable for use and adaptation by American writers, most of whom rarely understood their engagement with it in narrowly national terms. As the language of aesthetic pleasure ponders the relation between selfish and social passions, for example, it confronts the paradoxes of political collectivity. Ideas of beauty and sublimity vividly allegorize the tenuous balance between liberty and power. Theories of taste and genius signal conflicted visions of cultural identity. As a paradigmatic discourse of the eighteenth-century public sphere, moreover, aesthetic theory generally subordinated national identities to affiliations of class and ideals of universality. To comprehend and communicate its concepts was to participate in the republic of letters and to claim membership in an elite transatlantic community of feeling. For this reason, the primary focus of my argument is less the emergence of a national culture than the ideas that produced and contested its various articulations. My analyses turn not on questions of literary nationalism but those of political power and social class, to which the language of aesthetic theory offers especially expressive answers. Although it was sometimes used to celebrate the nation, it was more often used to trace its tentative development and confront its limitations. In short, the propensity to scrutinize the meanings of nation and resist its teleologies is inherent in the language of aesthetic theory itself.

Liberty of the Imagination begins with the transformation of aesthetic discourse in the late 1760s and early 1770s by ambitious undergraduates who embraced the new Scottish moral philosophy and rhetoric to recast the pleasures of the imagination as central to America's culture of liberty. Then it explores pivotal moments in the history of aesthetic theory, literary culture, and politics along a parallel trajectory from the anxious empiricism of the colonial crisis through the emergent subjectivism that marks the rise of democratic populism in the 1820s. It concludes with a brief discussion of the aesthetics of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Jacksonian era. But it is not a Whig history of aesthetics. By reading early American literary culture through the lens of aesthetic theory, it rejects a linear progression from republican neoclassicism to liberal romanticism. Instead it reveals an insistently dialectical narrative of cultural development, one that understands the nineteenth-century emergence of the romantic aesthetic subject and the democratic state as highly contested and contingent. Humphreys's preface to the Poem on the Happiness of America recalls that the Revolution "presented a momentous and awful spectacle to mankind," marked by "threatening prospects" and "distressing apprehensions" and pointing to a "doubtful" outcome. Although, nearly two decades after writing the poem, he boasts of "the establishment of a general government" and other "scenes of happiness" and looks forward to "national prosperity," his account of its earlier history is rooted in profound uncertainty. That he understands the language of aesthetic theory as uniquely capable of representing such uncertainty exemplifies its rhetorical efficacy. But as the following pages seek to demonstrate, it also reminds us that effective formalism, far from turning us away from history, brings us back to its richest particularities.