The Transformation of Individualism in American Fiction, 1790-1861
Siân Silyn Roberts
Jun 2014 | 264 pages | Cloth $59.95
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Table of Contents
Introduction: The Gothic Enlightenment
Chapter 1. The American Transformation of the British Individual
Chapter 2. Captivity, Incorporation, and the Politics of Going Native
Chapter 3. A Mind for the Gothic: Common Sense and the Problem of Local Culture
Chapter 4. Population and the Limits of Civil Society in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter
Chapter 5. Slavery and Gothic Form: Writing Race as the Bio-Novel
Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]
The Gothic Enlightenment
In order to make a concrete analysis of power relations, we must abandon the juridical model of sovereignty. That model in effect presupposes that the individual is a subject with natural rights or primitive powers; it sets itself the task of accounting for the ideal genesis of the State; and finally, it makes the law the basic manifestation of power. We should be trying to study power not on the basis of the primitive terms of the relationship, but on the basis of the relationship itself, to the extent that it is the relationship itself that determines the elements on which it bears: rather than asking ideal subjects what part of themselves or their powers they have surrendered in order to let themselves become subjects, we have to look at how relations of subjugation can manufacture subjects. Similarly, rather than looking for the single form or the central point from which all forms of power derive, either by way of consequence or development, we must begin by letting them operate in their multiplicity, their differences, their specificity, and their reversibility; we must therefore study them as relations of force that intersect, refer to one another, converge, or, on the contrary, come into conflict and strive to negate one another.
—Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended (1976)
Say something about objectivity and subjectivity. Be sure and abuse a man called Locke.
—Edgar Allan Poe, "How to Write a Blackwood Article" (1838)
In the introduction to An Inquiry into the Human Mind (1762), noted Scottish Common Sense philosopher Thomas Reid unleashes an animated assault on his intellectual predecessor, David Hume. Hume's A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), he says, is an "abyss of skepticism," a "ridiculous" work of "philosophical subtlety" that, like the ignis fatuus, "contradicts herself, befools her votaries, and deprives them of every object worthy to be pursued." Deeply wary of Hume's skeptical method and intentions—"he must either be a fool, or want to make a fool of me"—Reid draws little distinction between the Treatise and a common romance: "If [the mind] is indeed what the Treatise of Human Nature makes it," he warns, "I find I have been only in an enchanted castle, imposed upon by spectres and apparitions. I blush inwardly to think how I have been deluded."
Like many of Hume's detractors, Reid takes particular issue with the heretical implications of the Treatise. Hume had famously disavowed any causal connection between ideas derived from sensation and empirical proof of an objective reality, leaving his successors with the unpalatable proposition that the material world exists only as the changing impressions of a discontinuous mind and not as a stable sensory truth logically inferred from the existence of the Deity. Rejecting this challenge to rational religion and morality, Reid proposes common sense as the antidote to Hume's pyrrhonism. Common sense (a popular metaphysic that set the standard for U.S. college curricula well into the nineteenth century) is a model of perception that assumes universal standards and thus testifies to a shared material reality on the basis of direct, intuitive conviction. As Reid sees it, Hume creates nothing but a misleading fiction when he severs the mind's epistemic access to the external world. To drive this case home, Reid introduces the trope of the castle, and the contest over competing models of subjectivity takes a decidedly gothic turn.
Conventional scholarship tells us that the metaphor of the castle—the stock-in-trade of gothic fiction—betokens everything from political tyranny to gendered oppression, ancien regime decadence to psychological trauma. Its appearance in the Inquiry tells a somewhat different story. As Reid imagines it, Hume has challenged the normative epistemological "reality" of common sense by suggesting that the continuous existence of a material world is a fiction of the imagination, not an a priori rational truth confirmed by the operations of the understanding. According to the laws of common sense, knowledge must be anchored to some empirical referent lest we invest meaning in objects that mediates between perception and reality. Reid rewrites this scenario as a gothic melodrama in which Hume temporarily introduces spectral phenomena and aberrant behavior into a realist world in order to test the category of rational individualism. Persecuted by this haunting prospect that sensible objects exist only as ideas inside the mind, Reid finds himself in the position conventionally reserved for the gothic heroines of Walpole or Radcliffe: he is trapped inside the castle and subject to hostile imperatives and emotions not his own ("I blush inwardly to think how I have been deluded"). Much like the model of the individual proposed by his predecessor John Locke, Reid's perceiving subject preserves its autonomy by observing and carefully maintaining the distinction between subjects and objects. The gothic tropes of imprisonment and persecution take over the narrative when that distinction breaks down. To reassert common sense as the dominant, normative metaphysics, Reid casts Hume's skeptical alternative in phobic terms—renders it, that is, a spectacular object of fear—and banishes its brand of magical thinking to the realm of fiction.
In this example from Reid's Inquiry, there is a mutually constitutive relationship between gothic strategies of representation, modern theories of individual consciousness, and a realist epistemological order. Recent scholarship has convincingly argued that eighteenth-century British literary culture transformed this relationship into the form of the gothic novel itself. According to this line of thought, early popular romances assert a self-affirming realism by demystifying sources of terror that override personal judgment. Reid adopts a fiercely defensive position against any perceived threat to a stable sense of reality and the continuous subject that inhabits such a world. In much the same way, the eighteenth-century British gothic novel banishes atavistic energies associated with a corrupt aristocracy, distant medieval past, or supernatural agency to leave the world inhabited by characters whose desires and motivations arise solely within themselves—characters, in other words, that closely resemble the modern self. By adjudicating emotion and the operations of desire, the gothic authorizes a distinctly modern prototype of personhood defined by what Adela Pinch calls "standards of suitable emotional response." Thus novels by Radcliffe, Walpole, Reeve, and others subordinate anti-individualistic elements to an all-encompassing narrative of progression and improvement for the purposes of naturalizing the self-governing individual and, by extension, the household and civil society as its basic units of aggregation. By reproducing individuals as containers of "cultivated sensibility," the gothic distinguishes a literate middle class from other ethnicities, races, and social groups with divergent cultural practices. The early British gothic normalizes and naturalizes a modern subject defined by its autonomy and interiority and so works hand-in-glove with the sentimental tradition to modernize kinship relations at the level of the individuated subject and the contractual household. By this line of argument, nothing less than the definition of the individual and its claims to moral authority are at stake in the early British gothic novel.
Now let us now imagine the gothic traveling across the Atlantic in the 1790s to take root in the United States as a popular cultural form. Indeed, it is a well-established fact of American publication history that a wide body of imported and reprinted gothic novels became available to readers up and down the Eastern seaboard at the end of the eighteenth century. Literary evidence tells us that early American novelists such as Charles Brockden Brown, Isaac Mitchell, and Sally Sayward Barrell Keating Wood were familiar with and drew upon the narrative materials of the British novel. For the sake of argument, then, let us assume that the generic relationship between the gothic mode and the discursive reproduction of the modern individual was transplanted through the conventions of the novel into the homegrown literary productions of these authors. But it seems equally likely that the particular historical, political, and social exigencies of the new United States altered the conditions under which early Americans could imagine themselves achieving individualism or entering into contractual relations. If I am right in this assumption, then early American authors had to confront a disconnect between transmitted cultural forms and the new social setting in which they took root. This book is about how the American gothic addressed this problem and the ways it shaped late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century U.S. literary culture.
It is no coincidence that the American gothic first rose to popularity in a period defined by misrepresentation, internal unrest, and an influx of foreign immigrants whose origins and political intentions were all too uncertain. In the last decades of the eighteenth century, the United States witnessed an unprecedented increase in immigration and social mobility; far-reaching changes in property, proprietary wealth, and taxation laws; crises in federal and state representation; and a mounting sense of the country's irrelevance in an international trade market. Ominous forecasts abound in the era's writings: J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur calls the post-Revolutionary years "calamitous times"; Benjamin Rush, with characteristic energy, issues a dire warning about North Americans "degenerating into savages or devouring each other like beasts of prey"; and Charles Brockden Brown's Edgar Huntly; Or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker (1799) dwells on the dangers of the nation's "mysterious and obscure" characters. North America's population, expanding from 2.8 million in 1780 to 9.6 million in 1820, largely comprised displaced young men and makeshift families that, as one cultural historian puts it, "moved and moved again." In his essay "Information to Those Who Would Remove to America" (1782), Benjamin Franklin addresses the numerous problems posed by "the quick Increase of Inhabitants" on the continent. As Franklin's essay suggests, the unprecedented population growth and restlessness that followed the Revolution was accelerated in no small part by what he calls the "Accession of Strangers" from Europe. In Kelroy (1812), Rebecca Rush's novel of pecuniary ambition and parental contrivance, the narrator captures this zeitgeist when she cautions her readers against "those beings who may be said to spring from nobody knows where; and rise in the world nobody can tell how." Rush's comment about the opacity of human origin and motive is as much product of this era as the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts, which sought to locate and discipline precisely such foreign or indeterminate elements.
The body of literary evidence assembled in this book suggests that British ideals of self-governance and contractualism came under assault in this climate of ontological uncertainty and rapid demographic change. By the end of the eighteenth century, global and local forces had moved people far beyond the traditional blood-based, ecclesiastical, and economic kinship structures that were traditionally relied upon to establish and corroborate identities in Europe and Britain. Disparate and clashing ideological regimes—including industrialization, urbanization, territorial expansion, imperialism, market capitalism, slavery, federalism, and revolution—multiplied the ways in which early Americans interpreted the concept of personal sovereignty. Under unforeseen conditions of social, geographic, and economic mobility, it fell to U.S. fiction writers to imagine ways of making this ambiguous and globally dispersed social body cohere as a political entity. The gothic provided the means to do so. For the gothic to accomplish such a task, however, the unique generic relationship between the cultural form of the early British novel and the discursive reproduction of the modern individual had to undergo a significant transformation on this side of the Atlantic.
Gothic Subjects argues that the American gothic tradition came about as authors sought to formulate in literary terms the kind of subject capable of negotiating the political, social, and demographic exigencies of the new United States. To do so, U.S. authors from the 1790s to the 1860s reshaped the cultural prototypes of eighteenth-century English modernity—chiefly the autonomous subject, contractual domestic relations, and the operations of sympathy—to account for a heterogeneous, fluid milieu of competing populations, rival territorial claims, and altogether different notions of political autonomy. To put this another way, a transformation in the cultural logic of British individualism took place over the course of the late eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries as U.S. fiction writers adapted the rhetorical figure of the modern subject to an Atlantic, Anglophone world. In doing so, authors such as Charles Brockden Brown, Sally Sayward Barrell Keating Wood, Royall Tyler, Leonora Sansay, Washington Irving, Robert Montgomery Bird, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and William Wells Brown helped post-Revolutionary and antebellum Americans think of themselves as political subjects.
To make this case, I read the American gothic's literary history as a series of successive displacements in transatlantic novel convention and modern theories of self and government. The gothic therefore participates in the rhetorical practice Leonard Tennenhouse identifies with "the cultural logic of diaspora." According to Tennenhouse's model, English colonists' efforts to reproduce a cultural homeland through the repetition of British narrative materials yields an altogether distinct Anglo-American literary tradition that both reproduces and transforms the notion of cultural Englishness. This critical approach resists the kind of nationalist literary history that locates "American difference" in autochthonous themes, settings, characters, or authorial biography. To the contrary, the culturalist notion of diaspora asks that we think of American letters as an ongoing appropriation and negotiation of literary practices that originate elsewhere. Accordingly, I regard the American gothic as a transformation in the cultural logic of British individualism that produces a complex and wholly distinct theory of the political subject in a diasporic setting.
This line of reasoning assumes that novels on both sides of the Atlantic were attempting to work out problems in theories of the subject and government, but this cultural work arrived at a fundamentally different conceptual result in America than in the British literary culture in which those theories originated. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the British gothic continued the work of the eighteenth-century romance by updating the category of the individual against a backdrop of urban growth, colonial expansion and rebellion, and a burgeoning print market. English novels went to work defending the modern subject against forms of collectivity that might obliterate individual difference. In that tradition, we see the eighteenth-century poetics of sensibility continually reworked as the dangers of alien desires and psychic energies that are channeled through the figure of the cannibal, the foreigner, the vampire, or the monster to overwhelm any aggregate conceived as a collection of individuals. The American gothic novel, on the other hand, takes the individual in a rather different direction by questioning its field of application in a diasporic setting. By detaching identity from geographic origin, consanguinity, or exemplary political status, works of gothic fiction imagine Americanness as an ability to change, adapt, travel, and even subsume individual difference and cultural particularity beneath forms of mass collectivity. In response to any number of social, economic, and historical circumstances that gravely challenged the fantasy of political and individual cohesion, the British subject takes on radically new forms in American fiction.
The result of this literary experiment is a slew of rhetorical figures I heuristically call "gothic subjects." By this I mean a constellation of different narrative personas whose mutability and adaptability make them ideally suited to a fluctuating Atlantic world. At a time when both British and American intellectuals were preoccupied with the psychology of the political individual—critics have called this "the spirit of the citizen-subject" and "the formation of civic character"—works of psychological fiction offered a testing ground for competing and often contradictory forms of human consciousness and collectivity. This notion of "psychology" denotes a specifically eighteenth-century hermeneutics of mental interpretation, where the study of the mind is inextricably tied to epistemological inquiry, moral authority, and the principles of government. To arrive at a historically informed, transatlantic understanding of the gothic's generic qualities, I recuperate eighteenth-century epistemological traditions to argue that gothic conventions yield forms of political membership better suited to an early Atlantic world bound by the fluctuations of the market, immigration, accident, chance, circumstance, and opportunity.
To put flesh on this argument, let me begin with a more detailed account of that peculiar rhetorical figure known as the modern "individual" and the means by which it achieved its ideological dominance and cultural prestige over the course of the eighteenth century. Here I distinguish between individualism as a modern discourse of liberal humanism animating any number of market forces and political ideologies—perhaps most famously analyzed as the basis of modern liberal-democratic theory in C. B. MacPherson's The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (1962)—and the individual as an epistemological division of human subjectivity conceived in abstract terms. Originating in the eighteenth-century discourse of sensory perception known as faculty psychology, the kind of rhetorical formation I have in mind is the self-enclosed, autonomous, unitary, property-owning subject of the Lockean tradition, where "property" includes one's mental attributes and capabilities. This subject obeys a strict one-mind-per-body principle and matures over time and with experience in the world into a more intellectually complex and socially estimable being. Most scholars are willing to credit John Locke with the creation of the individual because he was the first to transfer social value from historically older notions of bloodline and estate to the interior qualities of the mind. As early as 1748, Benjamin Franklin remarked in Poor Richard Improved that Locke "made the whole internal world his own." Writing nearly 250 years later, social theorist Charles Taylor agrees: the "inescapable contemporary sense of inwardness" we associate with the modern sovereign subject has its origins in Locke's notion of the individual.
This distinctly modern form of subjectivity achieved its extraordinary ubiquity in the eighteenth century not only because works of political philosophy took it as their primary unit of analysis but also because the British novel adopted it as a model for character. Recent critics of the British tradition such as Wendy Jones, Adela Pinch, Pam Morris, Nancy Armstrong, and Deirdre Lynch have shown how the novel helped naturalize the Lockean individual as the modern standard of selfhood. The novel, Armstrong writes, took up "the project of universalizing the individual subject" by "transforming the body from an indicator of rank to the container of a unique subjectivity." The success of this narrative model of the individual, Armstrong suggests, lay in its unique capacity to reproduce itself in readers and novels alike. Beginning with the works of Defoe, Austen, and Richardson, the early British novel allows its protagonists to move outside a socially stratified system of kinship relations to expose the limitations of defining social value purely in economic or blood-based terms. By tipping its protagonists out of their assigned social positions, the novel transposes social value to unique interior qualities, or what in Jane Eyre (1847) Brontë calls the subject's "inward treasure." This narrative feat transforms a Crusoe, a Pamela, or an Elizabeth Bennett into the exemplary yet natural standard of the self-governing citizen. In Deirdre Lynch's terms, "At the turn of the nineteenth century characters became the imaginative resources on which readers drew to make themselves into individuals, to expand their own interior resources of sensibility." As I suggested earlier (and explain in greater detail in Chapter 1), the early British gothic participates in this modernizing process by amplifying the authority of the individual in a world where ontological order has been upset.
Unlike early modern ontologies of self that locate identity firmly in Galenic physiology, place of origin, or birthright, the "individual" offers a model of modern humanity that can thrive in different cultural milieus because it presents itself as normative even as it changes and adapts to each new setting. Daniel Defoe makes this case in literary terms when he strands Crusoe on a castaway island far removed from Britain. There, Crusoe's qualities of mind and contractual imagination matter far more than any notion of a fixed social origin. It therefore makes sense that such a versatile, mobile model of British identity would make its way across the Atlantic in the years preceding the Revolution to reproduce itself discursively in political philosophy, law, medicine, autobiography, history, and fiction—any form of writing, that is, that takes the principles of autonomous individualism as its foundation. At a moment when matters of political authority, self-determination, and autonomy took on particular urgency in the post-Revolutionary United States, it seems entirely plausible that North American intellectuals should have gravitated toward a model of human character that locates social value in a capacity for self-government and emotional control. This is, after all, one of the fundamental principles underpinning the sentimental novel, which hinges on the struggle to determine what makes a woman desirable. The woman's personal authority and interior qualities define the social rules by which a community reproduces itself. To achieve this end, sentimental novels grant their female characters a unique interiority—we might say, they are individuated—that transforms them into legitimate bearers of cultural value. Thus two people of matching interiority and equal merit—Lucy Freeman and Mr. Sumner, say, in The Coquette (1797) or Myra and Worthy in The Power of Sympathy (1789)—achieve individual perfection through marriage as each augments the other with something he or she lacked prior to the exchange. This is essentially the erotic counterpart to a political model of contractual community; in both instances, the good is constituted through shared standards of taste and judgment rather than subordination and coercion. Thus the marriage contract maintains the integrity of self-sovereign authority by regulating and enforcing the social and cognitive distinctions on which the institutional norms of individualism rest.
But as recent cultural historians have argued, from its earliest moments, American literary culture found itself at odds with the kind of "exemplary and progressive spirits" unilaterally identified with unitary, disciplined subjecthood. As David Kazanjian explains, for such a formulation to work, it had "to ignore all the myriad, particularistic differences among subjects—trade, heritage, wealth, race, gender, religion, the list is supposedly infinite—in order to apprehend each subject equally." Insofar as it measures human sovereignty strictly as the unproblematic unfolding of mental and political complexity along developmental lines, the "individual" is an elite cultural formulation. As Judith Butler succinctly puts it, "liberal versions of human ontology" have a tendency to think in the exclusive terms of "bounded beings—distinct, recognizable, delineated, subjects." Enlightenment epistemologies of the modern subject restrict civic membership to only those figures of self-sovereign authority who fit the Enlightenment definition of the individual in the first place. In Locke's original formulation, these were men who belonged to an English land-owning elite arranged within a traditional hierarchy of kinship relations. But the moment the individual enters a cultural milieu in which people have circulated far beyond that system of social stratification and share altogether different notions of self-fulfillment and political authority—a place, arguably, much like the post-Revolutionary United States—the limitations of this model become strikingly clear.
It is for this reason, I suspect, that the authors included in this study repeatedly take the individual to task as both a fiction and a fragile, defensive construct perilously vulnerable to competing measures of human life. Beginning in the 1790s, American authors started to use gothic tropes to represent the individual as an impossible fantasy wholly unsuited to an urban, cosmopolitan community of competing interests, heterogeneous cultures, and different notions of political and personal authority. As I see it, post-Revolutionary and antebellum U.S. fiction comes fully freighted with characters bearing little resemblance to the kind of internally coherent, developmental subject of the British sentimental tradition with whom Ian Watt enjoins us to identify "the rise of the novel." Arthur Mervyn, C. Auguste Dupin, Updike Underhill, Sheppard Lee, and Hester Prynne are obvious cases in point. It is fair to say that none of these characters qualifies as an "individual" as modern political theory understood that term, namely, as the ordered, continuous, autonomous self whose social value resides in its unique interiority, developmental progress, moral discipline, and capacity for critical reflection. To the contrary, the narrative personas of the American novel—especially where it appears "gothic" in character—are more often restless, indeterminate social forces inimical to Enlightenment rules of behavior but who nonetheless thrive in conditions of ontological mobility.
A literary example from Charles Brockden Brown's Arthur Mervyn (1799-1800) will serve to clarify this point. This is the novel's description of Philadelphia in the grip of the yellow fever: "Terror had exterminated all the sentiments of nature. Wives were deserted by husbands, and children by parents. . . . Men were seized by this disease in the streets; passengers fled from them; entrance into their own dwellings was denied to them; they perished in the public ways." The novel's horrific account of the household's disintegration effectively questions the Enlightenment assumption that family feeling is an unbreakable bond and the basis for the kind of fellow feeling—among independent householders—that would create a community recognizable to Adam Smith as "sympathetic." That the family falls apart so readily here should tell us that Brown is questioning its conventional application as a model for the nation at large. Indeed, Brown suggests, the affective model of social relations is particularly ill-suited to the kind of heterogeneous community one encounters in a city. Let me suggest why.
Brown's Philadelphia is an urban space in which all manner of people are forced into close proximity with others (like the conman Welbeck) whose origins and intentions are, at best, unknowable or, at worst, outright hostile. The case can be made that, in such an environment, any assumption of fellow-feeling—that people have common ideas and emotions capable of uniting them in a single interest—can be downright dangerous. To think his way through this problem (I elaborate on this in Chapter 1), Brown uses the device of the plague to displace the self-enclosed household as the basic unit and model of society with a totally inimical model in which feeling flows unimpeded between people and even between objects and people. As the agent and representative of a society thus constituted, Mervyn refuses to observe the boundaries separating subject from object and allows feeling to pass between himself and those with whom he comes into contact. In refusing to observe the separation between himself and others, Mervyn assumes that everyone is just like him. Any domain where the logic of individualism prevails (the idyllic Hadwin household, for example) depends on unbreachable individual boundaries for its health and cohesion. Thus Mervyn's invasions prove utterly disastrous in such spaces.
In the city, by contrast, this form of human interaction comes to us as Mervyn's strikingly advantageous ability to ingratiate himself with practically anyone. His indiscriminate affability gets him out of danger, grants him access to Philadelphia's elite, and even secures him a wealthy wife. Indeed, what might be seen as a lack of discrimination in British terms might well earn the descriptor "democratic" in the new United States. By and large, criticism has tended to read the novel's notorious ambiguities as evidence of Mervyn's divided moral, economic, or political consciousness. I would simply prefer to say that the different and conflicting accounts we receive of Mervyn's actions and motives tell us that he is all things to all people. He has the potential, in short, to be anyone.
To imagine such an adaptable subject, however, Brown must redefine autonomy, self-enclosure, and fixed social position—whether in a body, a household, or a civil state—as prohibitive and static formulations that trap people and things in one place. In Lockean terms, this is both paradoxical and counterintuitive: Locke's civil society takes property ownership as the original condition of self-government, and the categories of self and contract exist to protect that property against encroachment. These are the very structures that are supposed to guarantee freedom, property rights, and independence—at least as defined by the contractual state, whose constituents meet the exemplary yet entirely arbitrary political status of the individual subject. To take this altogether restrictive notion of social relations to task, Brown reduces the sentimental household to rubble and in its place offers something to the order of a network or circuit through which information in the form of emotions can travel freely. In assuming that one mind can be any number of people, Brown builds a model of subjectivity out of the gothic energies that are absolutely antithetical to the British novel's notion of community.
To arrive at this idea, Brown exploits a loophole in the logic of personal sovereignty as mapped out in Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). Consider this remarkable passage, in which a single mind wanders between two sleeping bodies: "Let us then . . . suppose the Soul of Castor separated, during his Sleep, from his Body, to think apart. Let us then suppose too, that it chuses for its Scene of Thinking, the Body of another Man, v.g. Pollux, who is sleeping without a Soul: For if Castor's Soul can think whilst Castor is asleep, what Castor is never conscious of, 'tis no matter what Place it chuses to think in. We have here then the Bodies of two Men with only one Soul between them." Significantly, Locke brings up this imaginary case of body swapping purely for the purpose of dismissing it as an "absurdity." As far as he is concerned, knowledge comes from sensory experience to produce an internally coherent archive of knowledge, or "mind," and to think otherwise is "utterly inconsistent and impossible." Indeed, Locke obliquely acknowledges the exclusive nature of his model by adopting this characteristically defensive stance against any mode of thinking that undermines the principles of self-enclosure and internal coherency. This is much the same tactic of defensive individualism adopted by the late eighteenth-century British gothic. The self-evident absurdity of body swapping allows Locke to reaffirm his own model of the autonomous and self-enclosed individual (whose mind is housed strictly within a single body).
Locke's defensive position masks a latent tautology in his concept of sensory encounter. On one hand, the autonomy of the individual mind as mapped out in the Essay is guaranteed by the operations of reflection and understanding that are internal to that mind. These faculties shape sensory information from the external world ("Experience") into a reflection or idea within the mind. The subject's judgment maintains the distance between its ideas and the external objects they represent, thus ensuring the strict separation of subject and object. Yet the materials it receives as sensations enter the mind from external sources, and Locke is far less willing to entertain the possibility that empirical information may come already infused with affect or meaning. Rather than confront this issue directly, Locke simply insists that reason protects the mind from influences outside its control, and strictly internal causes account for individual action: "Every one, I think, finds in himself, a Power to begin or forbear, continue or put an end to several Actions in himself." Here Locke places considerable stress on the internality and autonomy of the individual mind ("in himself") to preserve the absolute separation between subject and surrounding objects.
Once Locke had opened the mind to its surroundings through the portal of the senses, however, neither he nor his philosophical successors were ever completely successful in closing it off again. Almost despite his explicit philosophical intensions, this body-swapping scenario confuses the very distinction between psychology and physiology on which his dualistic notion of mind-body relations rests. In that sense, it has more in common with early modern ontologies of self, which construe the body as a fungible container. A porous body that allows the mind to travel beyond its physical receptacle is much like the Galenic body in which, as seventeenth-century anatomist Helkiah Crooke writes, "the motion of the spirits is perpetuall" and "substances can passe suddenly through all parts." To preserve the integrity of his argument against such atavistic notions, Locke dismisses the case of the wandering mind as "a contradiction" and defines the characteristics of humanity in even more rigid terms: "The Identity of Persons," he insists, "consist[s] in the Soul's being united to the very same numerical Particles of matter." Yet the very fact that Locke needs to prove that a man's mind is bound to its physical being shows just how hard he must work to keep the contradictions in his model at bay. He relies on the self-evident absurdity of this example to negate the unsettling prospect that a single mind can exist in two or more bodies.
Even as Locke relegates this negated form of consciousness to the realm of the preposterous (much as Reid does with Hume's magical thinking), it nonetheless makes its way directly from the Essay into the gothic through the trope of metempsychosis, where one mind controls a number of different bodies. A mind thus constituted has to lack the self-control, not to mention bodily control, that the British subject possesses in spades. In Sheppard Lee (1836), for example, Robert Montgomery Bird uses this trope to shift the terms of subjectivity from an elite ontological state of being to a model of the self that can only be described as an incessant state of "becoming." Bird's body-snatching protagonist is less a continuous coherent self than a Humean series of mental associations that turn the mind into a by-product of the body's physical and repeatable habits. Bird challenges the normativity and naturalness of the individualistic model by allowing his protagonist to proliferate exponentially beyond restrictions of geographical place, point of origin, or blood. As I show at greater length in Chapter 3, this feat successfully reconfigures the human mind for a national imaginary that conceives itself as a cluster of disparate and discrete parts. Indeed, one simply cannot imagine Sheppard Lee producing a territorially bounded community calculated as the sum of its individual members. What we have instead is a body politic characterized by the infinite potentiality—indeed, personality—of its constituents.
Gothic Subjects therefore begins with Charles Brockden Brown because I believe he was the first American novelist to put flesh on a latent problem in Locke's model—namely, that the human mind is permeable and that emotions can travel unimpeded between people. I then show how the American gothic breathes life into other negated forms of Lockean consciousness to test them as viable (noncontractual) forms of collectivity. Such negations include, for example, two minds in one body, which Brown stages as sleepwalking in Edgar Huntly. One mind is housed in two or more bodies in the preternaturally connected twins of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839), Bird's Sheppard Lee, or Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Alice Doane's Appeal" (1835). In the latter tale, "the similarity of [the] dispositions" between Leonard Doane and Walter Brome "made them seem like joint possessors of an individual nature." Objects that fall outside the generalized categories of experience known as "common sense" disrupt the physical world in "The Man of the Crowd" (1840), and so Poe creates in Dupin a model of perception that does not rely on universal categories of thought. Objects that act like subjects come to us as the return of the dead in Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" (1820), while a world in which the subject cannot control the information entering his mind takes the form of ventriloquism in Wieland; Or, The Transformation (1798). The ability to turn such gothic scenarios into workable models of social unity, I argue, is the extraordinary rhetorical feat that sets the American gothic decisively apart from its British counterpart. By modifying the conceptual cornerstones of Enlightenment thought, the American gothic tradition validates precisely those idiosyncratic, fantastic notions of the individual that the British tradition goes out of its way to render phobic and transforms them into the basis of political membership.
To perform this sleight of hand, the gothic had to take for granted the eighteenth-century proposition that structures of political association proceed from the mind's cognitive processes. This cultural logic entered the gothic by means of the Lockean common and moral sense tradition that traveled from Scotland to the United States to inflect nearly every aspect of American intellectual life from the mid-1700s onward. Early Americans trained in this branch of philosophy assumed that communal associations such as sympathy, contractualism, or common sense confirm psychological faculties such as reason and judgment. Mutual participation in those communal associations makes it possible to imagine a unified, democratic nation as the sum of its rational, self-sovereign individuals. In her definitive study on Lockean liberalism and early American literary culture, Gillian Brown puts it in these terms: "The citizen of the liberal state emerges in the processes of thought, which, in Locke's view, distinguish humans from other animals. Hence, the psychology and pedagogy of human understanding help delineate the state . . . [Locke's model of psychology] defines all activities of human understanding as social conduct." When Benjamin Rush, for example, remarks in 1792 that "the dimensions of the human mind are apt to be regulated by the extent and objects of the government under which it is formed," he thinks in terms of the eighteenth-century relationship between mental and political constitution. Indeed, ever since John Locke transformed the individual's capacity for reason into "the common bond whereby human kind is united in one fellowship and society," many early Americans tended to see a sustained connection between the human mind and the social formations that naturalize and guarantee its operations.
My purpose is to establish a historical link between the gothic novel and this political philosophical tradition to pose the following question: given that the gothic is preoccupied with unconventional psychologies, what social formations does it thereby create and authorize? In seeking an answer to this question, I aim to contribute to our understanding of early U.S. political culture and the conventions of the novel form. I therefore ask that we think of the American gothic as taking part in an unresolved literary debate over political and psychological constitution in the post-Revolutionary decades. I am, in a sense, returning to the notion of the "American Mind"—not, however, from the transcendental perspective of F. O. Matthiessen or Perry Miller, but by exhuming the psychological and epistemological standards of the period and putting them back into service as guiding narrative structures. I thus share with Christopher Castiglia's remarkable Interior States (2008) an interest in the counterintuitive phenomenon by which the arena of subjectivity in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries became "a site for negotiating the contradictions and conflicts of the state's myriad ideologies—as well as models of association and social interaction beyond the interests of the state—in ways that belied the coherence of national or market interests." In Gothic Subjects, the Lockean individual is a crucial actor in this history: transplanted into early U.S. literary culture as a British fictional convention, it offered novelists the means to explore problematics of freedom, experience, interiority, community, and government even as they rewrote its conceptual foundations for a circum-Atlantic world.
In reading the American gothic novel from the perspective of British theories of the individual, I must be clear on one point: it is not my intention to reestablish an originary account of American culture that takes as its starting point Locke's liberal subject. It is a well-known fact of U.S. political history that Locke's works on selfhood and government were essential to the Revolutionary writings of the 1760s and 1770s, even though the connection between his political writings and a national liberalist ideology has been subject to very different, often conflicting, emphases and interpretations in the last forty years. Few scholars of the Revolutionary era now dispute the pervasiveness of Lockean ideas—even though, as Jerome Huyler notes, we have "only rarely and recently begun paying adequate attention to the strikingly complex body of thought that Locke left behind." Nor do historians of eighteenth-century U.S. culture dispute the important influence exerted by Scottish political philosophy over American college curricula and ecclesiastical training. As Eric Slauter reminds us, this was an age "obsessed with the social contract," so there is every reason to take seriously Perry Miller's contention that Scottish Lockean philosophy achieved "absolute domination of academic curricula by about 1820" to become "the official metaphysic of America." The evidence compiled by political historians therefore gives us ample reason to assess early U.S. literary culture in terms of transatlantic political philosophy, but it would be a mistake to read one tradition against the other by analogy or homology. Rather than impose British categories of thought on American literary culture, I want to consider the mutually constitutive relationship between literary form and modern epistemologies of selfhood and political association that took shape as these discursive materials were transmitted through the Atlantic world. To do so, I take my cue from current revisionist historians such as Samuel Fleischacker, Mark Hulliung, T. H. Breen, and Mark E. Button, who have made us increasingly attentive to the complex transformations—through time, displacement, and repetition—that Lockean epistemologies underwent on U.S. soil. As I see it, fiction had an important role to play in these transformations.
Simply put, I do not read the American novel as the symptomatic expression of, or reaction against, Enlightenment categories of thought. Rather, I regard the fictional works in this study as continuous with—as opposed to reflections of—eighteenth- and nineteenth-century epistemological speculation. Like Huyler, I am interested in "the strikingly complex body of thought Locke left behind," but I assume that the genre of the novel engages specific categories of political selfhood associated with British notions of individualism, and the representation of "gothic subjects" therefore relies on conventions of the novel form. American authors found themselves working with the cultural materials of individualism and contractualism because the form of the novel demanded it. I am therefore convinced that authors' "awareness" of these philosophical materials is most satisfactorily grasped as the rewriting of transatlantic literary convention, not some a priori familiarity with the principal tenets of Enlightenment philosophy that was intentionally reproduced, whole and entire, in novel form. Context, as Fredric Jameson puts it, is "not some common-sense external reality" but "the rewriting or restructuration of a prior historical or ideological subtext." By emphasizing the continuity between the American gothic and British categories of thought, I am following the lead of a growing number of scholars, including Theo Davis, Ezra Tawil, Ed Cahill, Gretchen Woertendyke, Laura Doyle, and Gillian Brown, who identify the emergence of a national literary tradition as part of a transatlantic transmission of ideas that appropriates and reinterprets British cultural forms. Mark Hulliung and Leonard Tennenhouse have called this process the "Americanization" of British letters. Rather than project back onto the Revolutionary period a decisive break with English culture, these scholars and others have argued that America's republic of letters took shape as part of "an international movement that transcended all national boundaries." As the contributors to a recent special issue of Novel: A Forum on Fiction have argued, the disciplinary field of the early American novel is necessarily bound by this principle: "No author writing fiction in English from North America could write outside a transatlantic system of exchange, even if he or she wanted to."
To make my own contribution to this body of work, I question the long-held critical assumption that early Americans conceived civil society almost exclusively in terms of the sovereign individual. This assumption has shaped much of the scholarship produced on American literary culture since the 1980s that configured early literature in terms of nationalism and familialism. That work has vitally enriched our understanding of the importance of race and gender for American selfhood, but it has nonetheless inherited from the deeply influential republican-synthesis school of thought an underexamined and overemphasized faith in the progressive logic of developmental cultural systems. There has been a tendency to assume, for instance, that the constructive project beginning with the 1776 Revolution reaches its apotheosis in the "nation" and its idealized synecdoche, the "citizen-individual." We should, as Louis Althusser cautions, treat "the concepts of origin" with circumspection "because they always more or less induce the ideology which has produced them." In other words, this approach to American cultural history naturalizes the romance plot of the nation's progressive self-making by drawing a straight line from the Founders' vision of a democratic political collective to a fully realized national body united by its constituents' mutual commitment to Whiggish values and virtues. The same progressive logic recuperated the sentimental novel as a nationalist endeavor. In the work of Jane Tompkins, Julia Stern, Richard Brodhead, and others, the sentimental novel reproduces citizen subjects as carriers of democratic Republican ideology by miniaturizing the nation-state in the paradigm of the family.
Gothic Subjects seeks to revise the familial-nationalist accounts of American cultural history by questioning their chief underlying assumption, namely, that subjects are disciplined ontological totalities and political community proceeds from and reaffirms the attributes—or "properties"—of those constituents. Indeed, our critical commitment to nationalist interpretative structures grows out of modern political philosophy's largely unquestioned assumption that "property" is the originary matrix within which social relationships are cast. Liberal ontologies of selfhood and collective identity take for granted the proprietary basis of human subjectivity, where "ownership [is] the governing term in the constitution of personhood." As Roberto Esposito explains it, this proprietary paradigm forces community into "a conceptual language that radically alters it." When we think in terms of the individualist paradigm, that is, we are compelled to imagine community as a "'property' belonging to subjects that join them together [accomuna]: an attribute, a definition, a predicate that qualifies them as belonging to the same totality [insieme], or as a 'substance' that is produced by their union. In each case community is conceived of as a quality that is added to their nature as subjects." This assumption in turn reproduces the "hypertrophic figure" of the self as the axiomatic component of a national body. As Esposito argues, any model of community that takes the individualist paradigm as its basis is held in thrall to the correlative principles of unity and totality. To think in such terms is, by implication, to reaffirm what Fredric Jameson calls the "vast interpretative allegory"—or "master narrative"—of the "nation" as literature's referent and primary unit of analysis.
Taking a contrary view, the authors included in this study question what recent political theories have called "the theoretical privilege of sovereignty" by repeatedly refusing to reaffirm or reinvigorate an originary, ordered, proprietary self. Indeed, the American gothic often thinks of subjectivity less as an ontological status and more as a mode of relation among reciprocally implicated social entities. The members of a social body thus constituted are not individuated, property-owning subjects but porous, fluid singularities that circulate through wider networks of information and feeling. These are entities, in other words, that exist in and through their relation to others rather than as ontologically ordered beings that exist prior to social relationships. In making this case, I see myself contributing to a recent body of revisionist scholarship that has beneficially shown the concept of American subjectivity to be a historically contingent, malleable construct. By drawing attention to the variety of physiological, affective, and political discourses that were central to the rhetorical construction of private character in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, work by critics such as Christopher Castiglia, Justine Murison, Christopher Lukasik, Nancy Ruttenburg, and Stacey Margolis has convincingly demonstrated that early American literary culture did not regard liberal versions of human ontology as either axiomatic or necessarily teleological.
Thus my most concrete intervention into criticism of American gothic fiction is to consider how it contributed to the period's conceptualization of self and social membership. To be able to pursue this inquiry, I am indebted to those critics who placed the gothic mode squarely at the center of American literary history, from Leslie Fiedler, Philip Fisher, and Donald Ringe to more recent work by Teresa Goddu, Eric Savoy, or Allan Lloyd-Smith. In several important respects, however, my own project is distinct from this body of scholarship. In particular, I depart from conventional accounts that tend to read the gothic in psychoanalytic terms or historicist terms that reinscribe a psychoanalytic framework. That critical methodology has its origins in Leslie Fiedler's Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), which famously pathologized the American gothic as a distinctly guilty form. By this account, the gothic sublimates the repressed anxieties of a nation traumatized by its historical crimes. More recent criticism tends to repeat Fiedler's claim or at least adopt its central psychological thematic as a starting point: the American gothic is "intensely preoccupied with the pathology of guilt"; it signals "the inescapability of the past"; it encodes "history's horrors" and exposes slavery as "America's greatest guilt"; it expresses "a profound anxiety about historical crimes and perverse human desires"; it is "intimately tied to the history of racial conflict"; it is "simply, the imaginative expression of the fears and forbidden desires of Americans." In these accounts, to dig through the works of Poe, Melville, or Hawthorne is to unveil the ugly truths of America's liberal promise, chief among them "the frontier experience, with its inherent solitude and potential violence; the Puritan inheritance; fear of European subversion and anxieties about popular democracy which was then a new experiment; the relative absence of developed 'society'; and very significantly, racial issues concerning both slavery and the Native Americans." We might think of this as the "anxiety model" of reading, whereby the critic decodes the gothic as a coy repository of shameful historical truths and cultural guilt. From here it is a short step to the suggestion that the critic, with the inexplicable privilege of modern insight, directly confronts histories of injustice that nineteenth-century readers could themselves only articulate obliquely.
Thus what might be termed the guilt thesis characterizes much of the significant work produced on the American gothic after Fiedler. This body of criticism was written at the height of the cultural studies movement of the 1990s, when literary scholars tended to mine American novels for evidence of their political or historical engagements. The success of this critical paradigm may be attributed to its ability, on the one hand, to redress the ahistoricism of the postwar mythopoetic school of criticism (which sidelined social context in favor of ideological ambiguity) and, on the other, to counter poststructuralism's attack on the integrity of language by turning to extra-literary sources of meaning. For all its advantages, however, this approach has pitfalls—specifically, a tendency to naturalize a "realistic" or "referential" reading practice that reduces literary texts to "bundles of historical or cultural content." Put another way, the guilt thesis has contributed to the tendency among critics of the novel to rewrite American literary production always as the symptomatic (or sublimated) expression of American history.
A growing number of critics agree that this conventional approach to the American gothic tradition is due for reappraisal, in no small part because the anxiety model rests on a tautology that goes something like this: early Americans were fearful of their social, political, and racial Others, so if these Others appear encoded in gothic form, those forms reflect early Americans' fears. This tendency toward allegorization or symptomatic reading in turn obscures an important discursive principle: gothic horror fiction "has a generic obligation to evoke or produce fear." In other words, the gothic defines rather than reflects the object of fear. Indeed, one of the gothic's most distinctive formal features is its self-referentiality, or a conscious awareness and theorization of the form's aesthetic obligations and effects. As Clara Reeve puts it in her preface to The Old English Baron (1778), "The business of Romance is, first, to excite the attention; and secondly, to direct it to some useful, or at least innocent, end." This metaliterary dimension makes the gothic, in principle, "the least reliable index of supposedly widespread anxieties" insofar as it generates the very thing it is supposed to reflect. As I see, this simple principle changes the way we are meant to read American gothic fiction.
Let us assume that the gothic produces its objects of phobia (which include, but are not limited to, Indian violence, race, expansionism, etc.). I am therefore reluctant to treat these objects as reflective of historically grounded anxieties because to do so risks overlooking the fact that they are, first and foremost, figures of speech. If I am correct that the gothic was an important cultural site for the formation rather than merely the reflection of phobic categories, then it serves as such in order to normalize or update existing categories that stand in opposition to those phobic constructs. That is to say, the gothic recruits its readers into the ideological defense of the threatened category, presumably to render any alternative abhorrent or create a discursive space in which existing categories of thought are loosened or reconfigured. For an example of this way of thinking, we need look no further than Washington Irving's famous mock-horror tale, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."
In this familiar story, America's benign national landscape is literally haunted by a spectral icon of the country's violent Revolutionary past. The horseman, we recall, is the ghost of a German mercenary killed "in some nameless battle during the revolutionary war." In this regard, "Sleepy Hollow" would seem to confirm the more conventional guilt thesis—namely, that the American gothic is about "the inescapability of the past" and its traumatic interruption into the present. To my mind, however, the most striking feature of this story is not the headless specter of Revolutionary violence that disturbs the Catskills' byways but the rigorously defensive manner in which this drowsy little town wards off any potential threat to its autonomy. Sleepy Hollow, we are told, is a wholly static community where "population, manners, and customs, remain fixed," putting it at odds with the "great torrent of migration and improvement" characteristic of the rest of the nation. We might think of Sleepy Hollow, then, as an anachronism that nonetheless persists and flourishes by tenaciously resisting the larger social organism. The town preserves its sovereignty by expelling any force that threatens to dissolve the enduring ties of family and property on which this community is founded. Put another way, Sleepy Hollow seeks to protect a recognizably British notion of property, where women—like Katrina van Tassel—are transferred between families for the purposes of preserving an estate across generations. Pitted against this model is the "half itinerant" Ichabod, the agent of the "great torrent of migration," who plans to convert the Van Tassel farm into cash and transport Katrina to "the wilderness." Should this fantasy be allowed to play out, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" would transform into something closely resembling a captivity narrative, in which a rapacious man removes a woman from her paternal home and threatens her cultural value, hence the grounds on which her community of origin reproduces itself. Instead, the unwitting Crane finds himself quickly driven out of town, disappearing back into the modernizing world—presumably to acquire social capital as a lawyer and a judge. Thus Irving preserves this vital local culture by proposing that one's membership in such a community depends on the degree to which one learns and adopts the rules governing social behavior there.
As I see it, the "Americanness" of this quintessentially "American" story lies in its attempt to reconcile a clash between heterogeneous cultures, one of which is modeled according to an English understanding of community. In "Sleepy Hollow," British notions of property relations and individual sovereignty are presented as incompatible but nonetheless conterminous and coexistent with a larger, more diverse population that thinks in terms of movement and exchange. A British cultural logic, Irving suggests, can only work under conditions of ontological and social mobility by maintaining itself as sequestered, anachronistic, and wholly cut off from the rest of the nation. This suggests a national imaginary that, by the 1820s, has come to think of America as a cluster of discrete local cultures with competing rules of behavior (I discuss this at greater length in Chapter 3). Thus the cultural work of the American gothic is indicated less by its themes, characters, settings, or authorial biography—and still less by sources of historical guilt—than by its attempt to work out a complex problem of how the subject is conceived and what forms of social collectivity that conception implies.
I therefore resist reading the gothic as the disruption or destruction of some continuous narrative, whether self, history, or the nation. As I see it, this approach succumbs to the mimetic fallacy that the gothic reflects deeply embedded social and political anxieties that precede their articulation in writing. Rather, my interest in the formal proximity between literature and epistemology brings questions of historical formalism back into our discussion about gothic fiction. In the last decade, critics have reinvigorated the study of aesthetics by considering how literary forms are shaped by historical circumstance to perform specific ideological functions—to consider a text's formal qualities, in other words, "not simply as containers for extrinsic ideological content, but as practices with an ideological significance of their own." The field of early American literature—which has long been dominated by a "politically engaged historicism" that has largely divorced questions of social relations from aesthetic forms—is currently recalibrating around this revitalized interest in aesthetics. Ed Cahill's Liberty of the Imagination (2012), for example, participates in this recent revisionist turn by adroitly demonstrating that complex debates about political collectivity inhere in the eighteenth-century language of aesthetic theory. Similarly, I read the American gothic's decision to blend, reconfigure, rearrange, and reject British categories of thought as an indication of the social function of form, namely, to produce narrative innovations in subjectivity and collective association. Through this kind of emphasis, I aim to contribute to our understanding of antebellum literary production by revising the conventional division of cultural labor that grants sentimental fiction and the frontier romance a monopoly on nation making. Rather than view the gothic as interrupting, subverting, or otherwise inhibiting such a nationalizing project, my reading places the gothic squarely at the center of a larger literary debate over political psychology and social relations.
Those familiar with Cathy Davidson's argument in Revolution and the Word (1986) may see some affinity between my proposed line of inquiry and her chapter on the gothic, which she aptly subtitles "the limits of individualism"—a phrase I have taken the liberty of reworking somewhat in the subtitle of Gothic Subjects. Davidson argues that the gothic critiques "the inherent problems of so-called modern society, especially progressive philosophical or economic theories (liberalism, deism, rationalism) based on a notion of human perfectibility." For Davidson, the gothic collapses "the liberal ideology of individualism and the Smithian ideal of personal freedom" into "perversions of the self and corruption of the society." I agree with her proposition that the gothic challenges the American fantasy of self-determination by taking aim at "the interpretative propensities and ideological premises of the individual," but as I see it, this only tells half the story. To take Davidson's idea one step further, I argue that the gothic exposes "the limits of individualism" in order to put ideologies of the citizen subject and society up for grabs, thereby creating a space of potential in which other models can take shape.
In Democratic Personality: Popular Voice and the Trial of American Authorship (1998), Nancy Ruttenburg asks that we conceive such a space as "a dynamic symbolic system or theater" in which different notions of sovereignty and government compete but do not necessarily cancel one another out. Drawing on early Puritan conversion narratives and accounts of the Great Awakening of the 1730s, Ruttenburg explains that public performance reconstituted "the conditions of personal autonomy granted a priori to the liberal subject" as the nonliberal, "supraindividual authority" that she calls "democratic personality." This radical form of democratic subjectivity granted disparate and politically disqualified people the means to constitute themselves as a community: it was, as Ruttenburg puts it, "conspicuously transferrable; it individuated without necessarily individuating those who appropriated it." Important to my purposes, Ruttenburg regards competing forms of popular sovereignty as contradictory but not incompatible, coexisting not despite but by virtue of their contradictions. Democratic personality and liberal individualism do not invalidate one another; rather, they coexist in a mutually defining relationship that distinguishes the ideological complexity, even incoherence, of early American political culture.
Ruttenburg makes it possible to imagine contradictory models of personhood and sovereignty coexisting in the United States by separating them into different cultural arenas. In much the same way, I assume that different generic modes propose related but often incongruous models of subjectivity that participate equally in a "dynamic symbolic system" of early American political culture. Thus my readings of gothic literature explore the tensions between the popular and enduring ideal of the sovereign individual and the speculative alternatives worked out in literary form without granting hegemonic status to any single unencumbered, dominant political formation. Ruttenburg's methodology also yields in nineteenth-century literary works a politics more nuanced than the terms conventionally invoked to express such concepts: liberal, conservative, democratic, elitist, consensual, radical, normative, and so on. I find this approach compelling because the competing forms of selfhood and community I explore in this book do not fit neatly into preexisting categories of U.S. political experience. For example, the metaphor of contagion in Arthur Mervyn imagines a fundamentally continuous social body ideally suited to conditions of ontological uncertainty and urban proximity (Chapter 1). I read the act of "going native" in the captivity narrative less as an atavistic regression from culture to nature than as an incorporation of the self into a cosmopolitan circuit of information and feeling (Chapter 2). A circuit connects disparate people and even people and things and transforms them into a single heterogeneous organism with the capacity to circulate freely through a circum-Atlantic world. In the Jacksonian era, a gathering sense of national identity conflicts with increased political sectionalism, so the gothic shifts its attention from the challenges of cosmopolitan circulation to the problem of regional difference in a nation comprising discrete local groups whose cultural norms are entirely relative and impenetrable to outsiders (Chapter 3). As we see in Sheppard Lee and Poe's short stories, this problem poses a challenge to the influential Scottish American metaphysic known as "common sense," which popularized the democratic and nationalizing fantasy that all men share a common set of convictions about material and moral reality. In the years immediately preceding the Civil War, American authors confront the increasingly urgent task of reconciling a contractual model of society with large, displaced, migratory groups of people that arguably seemed on the verge of overwhelming the civil state (Chapter 4). A novel such as Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850) registers a tension between civil society and this larger form of unprotected life that exists both figuratively and literally beyond the pale of the state. This is the measure of humanity that Foucault and others have called the "population." This biopolitical formulation also allows us to revisit the grounds on which we have conventionally assumed that race and slavery are central to the gothic tradition (Chapter 5). William Wells Brown's Clotel; Or, The President's Daughter(1853) revises the conventional binaries of racialized American (white supremacist) culture in the figure of the white slave population to reconstitute antebellum American community as a single biological mass. I call Clotel a "bio-novel" for its theorization of the "population" as the novel's effect as well as its object.
In many ways, the argument I have outlined so far may seem somewhat unfashionable insofar as I am interested in what makes American gothic fiction distinctly "American." Indeed, the prevailing critical impulse of the last several decades has been to displace national distinction from its customary central place in literary study. It is not my intention, however, to assume that a drive toward literary autonomy produced an indigenous body of works in response to exceptional forms of national experience. I think of the U.S. gothic tradition less as a coherent body of autochthonous works and more as a triangulated relationship between intellectual history, the transatlantic circulation of ideas, and literary form. The "American" gothic novel emerges out of this relationship as a complex, changing theory of political subjecthood.
I therefore imagine this book as a response to a question first posed by Leslie Fiedler that directed the course of scholarship on the gothic novel in America. Why, he asked in Love and Death in the American Novel, "has the tale of terror so special an appeal for Americans?" As I have already indicated, Fiedler famously accounted for the gothic's appeal on the grounds that it encodes, in narrative form, the "special guilts" of American experience, chiefly slavery, land dispossession, and revolutionary patricide. From a purely commonsensical perspective, I find it hard to believe that American readers flocked to this cultural form out of a compulsive urge to revisit the sublimated activities of a guilt-ridden national conscience. That seems like the very antithesis of an appealing pastime. Nonetheless, Fiedler's query remains vitally suggestive, as generations of critics—myself included—have taken seriously his contention that the American novel is "almost essentially a gothic one." In devising my own response to Fiedler's enormously generative question, I find it plausible that the gothic form thrived in the decades following the Revolution because it offered new narrative possibilities at the level of social relations and psychological life. From this perspective, the continuous, Enlightenment subject of the American liberal tradition emerges as just one epistemological formulation among many contending models in a theater of possibility.