Tracing continuities between literature, material culture, and pedagogical theory, William Huntting Howell uncovers an America that celebrated the virtues of humility, contingency, and connection to a complex whole over ambition, individuality, and distinction.
2015 | 312 pages | Cloth $49.95
American History | Literature
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Imitation Is Suicide
PART I. COPY-WRITING
Chapter 1. Imitatio Franklin, or the American Example
Chapter 2. Phillis Wheatley's Dependent Harmonies
PART II. EMULATION AND ETHICS
Chapter 3. Reproducing David Rittenhouse
Chapter 4. The Republican Girl and the Spirit of Emulation
PART III. CRITIQUES AND AFFIRMATIONS
Chapter 5. The Horrors of the Republican Machine
Chapter 6. The Copyist Moby-Dick
Imitation Is Suicide
In the summer of 2007, a piece of graffiti appeared on the wall of a bathroom in the Earwax Café, near the intersection of Milwaukee and Damen Avenues on Chicago's northwest side.
With the broad strokes of a blue paint marker, an artist identifying him- or herself as "Stel/Sim" had written "Imitation is Suicide." Though not the most common graffiti—I didn't see any other iterations around the neighborhood that day, and I haven't seen any since—it nevertheless distills one of the organizing principles of contemporary U.S. culture: imitation is an existential threat.
A 2008 essay in Psychology Today—one of the great barometers of American conventional wisdom—frames the problem rather starkly: "A hunger for authenticity guides us in every age and aspect of life. It drives our explorations of work, relationships, play, and prayer. Teens and twentysomethings try out friends, fashions, hobbies, jobs, lovers, locations, and living arrangements to see what fits and what's 'just not me.' Midlifers deepen commitments to career, community, faith, and family that match their self-images, or feel trapped in existences that seem not their own. Elders regard life choices with regret or satisfaction based largely on whether they were 'true' to themselves."
As Psychology Today imagines it, the injunction to "be yourself" properly structures the entirety of the American life cycle: from adolescence to senescence, living well means finding and amplifying the still, small voice of individualism; to model oneself on another ("what's 'just not me'") is to be inauthentic or false to one's "true" essence and to set oneself up for a lifetime of "regret." We might be skeptical about Psychology Today's blithe generalizations about generational difference, its reduction of existence to "friends, fashions, hobbies, jobs, lovers, locations, and living arrangements," and its deployment of a universalizing "us," but the principle of antiimitation and antidependence that it describes nevertheless saturates contemporary culture. Indeed, resistance to imitation operates over and above other deeply felt cultural fissures: "Never Follow" is both a song by the anti-capitalist punk band Naked Raygun and an advertising slogan for Audi of America.
Of course, there is more in Stel/Sim's graffiti than an evocation of American pop psychology. For one thing, in the context of guerilla public expression, the image presents an aesthetic manifesto: to be legitimate (and psychologically legitimating), the work of art must be original to its maker. That is, the art-object must be unique, exceptional in the sense that it breaks from what has come before, and recognizable as something new. Borrowing and repurposing is fine, so long as the source is somehow transformed by the appropriating artist: hip-hop DJs lift from old songs to make new beats, and therefore they are making art; Andy Warhol's Brillo boxes and Roy Lichtenstein's cartoon paintings rely on familiar iconography, but they count as art because their obvious derivativeness operates as original commentary on the bright vacancy of consumer and popular culture. Multiples and editions—as with someone like Jeff Koons—are fine, but copies of someone else's objects are imagined to be flat, pale, weak—bereft of the spark of life, dead on arrival. This is as true for the graffiti writer as it is for the piece he or she makes: dependence on the work of another compromises the creative self. The work of art that borrows the style or idiom of another is the material sign of an immature voice, a lack of imagination, a misunderstanding of cultural conventions, or bad faith. (In the language of the graffiti world, such imitation is known as "biting"—as if the copyist were a kind of parasite.) To knowingly imitate in spite of such proscriptions is to voluntarily cede membership in the community—to commit social suicide. She who would make a name for herself cannot do so in borrowed finery.
Art and artistic subjectivity are not the only things at stake here, though. To the café-going public, Stel/Sim's message simply suggests that any copying activity is suspect and that all subjectivity must be an organic and sui generis expression of the psychological interior. What marks an individual identity are those aspects of the person that are not the product of duplication and that cannot themselves be duplicated. Beneath such claims is the commonplace that "personality," like the Cartesian "soul," functions as a principle of mystery or exception: the self may have sources (to borrow a phrase from philosopher Charles Taylor), but it is properly neither reducible to them nor reproducible from them. This ineffability serves as shorthand for the comforting fiction that who and what we are cannot be exhaustively defined by our histories, our education, or a tangle of electrochemical impulses—what the mid twentieth-century cultural critic Dwight Macdonald called "mere congeries of conditioned reflexes." No matter how well cultural or biological determinism may explain the nature of cognition, or memory, or desire, there is always irreproducible magic somewhere. To assert a self (as an "artist" or as anything else) through imitation is to impugn this principle of exceptionality. Put another way: to set the copy where the original should be is to undo the connection between individuality and differentiation that underwrites the popular idea of modern personality. Although Freudian psychology characterizes the process of identification as an essential tool in the delineation of the subject—whereby the subject assimilates an aspect of the Other and is transformed by the model that the Other provides—persistent, nondevelopmental imitation is pathological. Such terms can be found in anthropological discourse, too: the ethnographer Clifford Geertz defines the self as a "bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe, a dynamic center of awareness, emotion, judgment, and action, organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively against other such wholes." Copying blurs distinctions of mine and thine—both physically and metaphysically—and must be disavowed in order for the contrasts that define that "center of awareness" to hold. Imitation is suicide, in other words, because it denies the premises of what the philosopher Jean Baudrillard calls the "differential vicissitudes" and "aleatory charm" of individuality—it threatens to reduce us to clones.
In highlighting the relationship between artistic expression and assertions of autonomy, the point I wish to make here is relatively straightforward: a signed, public display of the statement "Imitation is Suicide" neatly distills the modern ideology of American liberal individualism in both its popular and more specialized forms. For all of its universalizing intent, however, the text of Stel/Sim's graffiti (and the ideas about self and aesthetic expression that it encapsulates) has a very particular history. The phrase comes directly from Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay on "Self-Reliance," first delivered in 1836 and subsequently published in 1841: "There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given him to till." Hence the punchline of the piece: Stel/Sim's clarion call for originality is about as dependent and unoriginal as can be. As an unattributed (but not especially obscure) quotation, its arguments about the artist and the self are categorically undermined by their expression.
Ironies aside, I begin with Stel/Sim and Emerson in order to make an initial claim about the ways in which the imitative, the iterative, and the derivative have been systematically devalued in contemporary culture and to locate the roots of that devaluation (at least in part) in historically specific arguments. Although it may seem to have been with us forever, the American obsession with individuation and originality is not natural or inherent but contingent; it is the product of specific nineteenth-century ideological circumstances. Attending briefly to that cultural moment in which imitation becomes conflated with suicide can help set the stage for understanding the more protean moment that comes before—the colonial and early republican periods at the heart of this book—in which different sorts of copying were essential to the artistic, psychological, and political projects associated with national independence.
Early in his 1838 address to the graduating class at Harvard Divinity School, for example, Emerson—lately resigned from his pastorate in Lexington, Massachusetts, and continuing to turn away from organized Christianity—warns his audience about the perils of preaching according to convention. "[Certain divine laws] refuse to be adequately stated. They will not be written out on paper, or spoken by the tongue. . . . The moral traits which are all globed into every virtuous act and thought,—in speech, we must sever, and describe or suggest by painful enumeration of many particulars." This is not, in and of itself, a particularly groundbreaking sentiment. Paul's second letter to the Corinthians ("Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life") makes essentially the same case: the manmade rules of grammar and logic chop up and parcel out a divinity that is rightly unitary; the true Word of God cannot be stated according to the strictures of the page and must be written, immaterially, on the heart. "These [divine] laws execute themselves[,]" Emerson continues, "They are out of time, out of space, and not subject to circumstance" until they are abjected into the temporal, spatial, and circumstantial realm of human expression.
If the frame is old, though, Emerson uses it for new and particular ends. Where Paul makes a case for his own apostolic authority—the special investment of Christ with divinity lends his evangelists the "commendation" to conduct a "ministration of the spirit," in order to redeem humanity from the written condemnations of the Old Testament—Emerson makes a case for a considerably more diffuse (or democratic) experience of revelation. In the Divinity School Address, infinitude knows no privilege; it invests all selves uniquely but also equally, spontaneously; it neither brooks nor expects any sort of external or collective explanation. A sense of the unique relation in which one stands to God "corrects the capital mistake of the infant man, who seeks to be great by following the great, and hopes to derive advantages from another,—by showing the fountain of all good to be in himself, and that he, equally with every man, is an inlet into the deeps of Reason." What starts as an argument about evangelical modesty and divine ineffability, in other words, becomes an argument about the necessary sovereignty of the individual.
In the introduction to Nature (1836), Emerson had put the same point even more bluntly. He famously opens that essay with an echo of the Kantian imperative Sapere aude: when contemplating the mysteries of the world, have the courage to think for yourself. "Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?" The axiomatic desirability of this "original relation to the universe" serves as both the heart of Continental Enlightenment philosophy and the organizing principle of Transcendentalist epistemology. The wager of Emersonian thought is that the highest laws of the cosmos are present and identifiable in all things, from the most ethereal to the most concrete—that every thinking person may thus begin to recognize "the currents of the Universal Being [that] circulate through [her]" and may sense that she is "part or particle of God"—even if she can't put that sensation into words. Like his prose, Emerson's cosmology is essentially fractal: because the same laws that animate the universe animate the particular being, the individual needs nothing more than a properly tuned sensibility to begin to see how she fits into the systems of creation and to approach the cosmos's profoundest truths. Looking inward, one finds the unspeakable proofs of divinity that the consultation of other people's material expressions (written biographies, histories, criticisms) destroys.
In "Self-Reliance," Emerson frames the necessity of an "original relation to the universe" even more forcefully. Elaborating his sense of the singularity and immateriality of the self—in Nature, he divides the universe into the soul and the "NOT ME," which includes "both nature and art, all other men and my own body"—Emerson argues that "the relations of the soul to the divine spirit are so pure that it is profane to seek to interpose helps." These "helps" are things like "culture" or "society" or "convention"—whatever locates authority or wisdom beyond an individual's own power of apprehension has the capacity to disrupt (or disprove) the relays of Transcendence. "Society everywhere," he argues, "is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue most in request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion." Against this joint-stock conspiracy, Emerson posits the necessary uniqueness of Manhood—a spiritual and intellectual independence that finds looks beyond accepted names and customs to the real majesty they cannot translate. In Nature's famous claim that he has "enjoyed a perfect exhilaration" and been made "glad to the brink of fear" even when "crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky," Emerson casts himself as what he calls "Man thinking." He sees in those things that custom holds mundane and homely the deep organizing structures of Creation. To adopt the perceptions or philosophical procedures of others—to acknowledge conformity as a virtue—would be to both deny the divinity of those things that the culture abjures and to refuse your own participation in the universal.
Emerson's peroration to the Divinity School Address thus presents the six young graduates before him a very clear program:
Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil. Friends enough you shall find who will hold up to your emulation Wesleys and Oberlins, Saints and Prophets. Thank God for these good men, but say, "I also am a man." Imitation cannot go above its model. The imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity. The inventor did it because it was something natural to him, and so in him it was a charm. In the imitator something else is natural, and he bereaves himself of his own beauty, to come short of another man's.In this closing moment, we can see vividly how an argument most immediately about spirituality—the form following of imitationist piety gets in the way of personal revelation and fails to grasp how God suffuses everything—might also come to frame a broader way of imagining subjectivity; what is in one way a specific brief against the increasingly hidebound character of Unitarian thought and practice may raise much larger questions about the historical morphology of the self.
By casting culture as a problem and dooming the imitator and the dependent to hopeless mediocrity, Emerson suggests a particularly liberal way of imagining the social order: entrepreneurship is superior to collective action, innovation trumps the preservation of tradition, and inner light rightly exceeds external authority. The ideology of self-reliance, then, can be understood as a necessary corollary to both U.S. democracy and capitalist enterprise: it supports the notion that a government should operate as a function of its individual citizens' collated wills—an expression of "We the People"—and it serves as the philosophical grounds for the cultural celebration of the yeoman farmer, the "pioneer," and the Horatio Alger-style entrepreneur.
Even the counternarratives and dissenting voices of the nineteenth century took the emergence of the organizing trope of self-reliance as a boon. In 1848, for example, the suffragist Seneca Falls Convention issued a "Declaration of Sentiments" on the model of the Declaration of Independence. Its final grievance—the one that sums up all the rest—is as follows: "[Man] has endeavored, in every way that he could, to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life." In an oration on "Self-Made Men" that he delivered regularly between 1859 and 1893, Frederick Douglass framed the cultural deployment of this self-reliant ideal as clearly as anyone:
Self-made men are the men who, under peculiar difficulties and without the ordinary helps of favoring circumstances, have attained knowledge, usefulness, power and position and have learned from themselves the best uses to which life can be put in this world, and in the exercises of these uses to build up worthy character. . . . In fact they are the men who are not brought up but who are obliged to come up, not only without the voluntary assistance of friendly co-operation of society, but often in open and derisive defiance of all the efforts of society and the tendency of circumstances to repress, retard, and keep them down.It is a story with undeniable pull, particularly for those who, like Douglass and the suffragists, had been systematically marginalized by dint of race, gender, ethnicity, language, religion, or economic status. It acknowledges the essential dignity of the abused and casts cultural power as conditional and subject to reversal—it builds into itself the possibility that those who have been denied everything may yet rise up and take it for themselves.
But there are also other stories to tell. Alexis de Tocqueville, for one, was not so sure of the cult of self-reliance. He worried about atomism and isolation: "Not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart." William Heighton, a cordwainer and labor activist from Philadelphia, argued in 1827 that a "system of individual interest and competition . . . strips man of all the noblest faculties of his mind, and the most exalted virtues of his heart, and leaves him an easy prey to hypocrisy, dishonesty, fraudulence, and injustice. It is the fell destroyer of all moral excellence." And Frederick Douglass himself, while acknowledging the power of the idea of the "Self-Made Man," also critiqued it:
Properly speaking, there are in the world no such men as self-made men. That term implies an individual independence of the past and present which can never exist. Our best and most valued acquisitions have been obtained either from our contemporaries or from those who have preceded us in the field of thought and discovery. We have all either begged, borrowed, or stolen. We have reaped where others have sown, and that which others have strown, we have gathered. . . . The brotherhood and inter-dependence of mankind are guarded and defended at all points. I believe in individuality, but individuals are, to the mass, like waves to the ocean. The highest order of genius is as dependent as the lowest. It, like the loftiest waves of the sea, derives its power from the grandeur and vastness of the ocean of which it forms a part. We differ as the waves, but are one as the sea.This book begins to navigate Douglass's "sea": it frames different sorts of interdependent begging, borrowing, and stealing as essential to the American experience in the era of Independence.
The purpose of Against Self-Reliance is to explore an epoch in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century America in which imitation was pointedly not suicide—when various "arts of dependence," as I will call them, were considered central to imagining, expressing, and integrating self and polity, to building a life and a country instead of tearing it down. Broadly speaking, these arts include any spiritual, artistic, or personal practices that find modeling, reproduction, or representation at their core. Imitation, emulation, derivation, repetition, iteration, and sympathetic identification are the most important for my analysis, but any actions that value the following of examples over unalloyed origination, that promote humility over pride or ambition and deference over a strictly policed individualism, or that insist that the well-wrought copy can be as valuable as (and potentially even more valuable than) an original would serve just as well. Dependence, then, as I will use it here and throughout, is not helplessness, or hopeless second-orderness, but rather a way of acknowledging contingency and connection—of hanging together. The elements of a mobile are not to be disparaged because they are part of a larger work; their necessity and dignity is not compromised by the fact that they do not stand on their own or by their connection to a complex whole. In its broadest strokes, Against Self-Reliance revalues and rethinks what it meant to imitate, to emulate, to be repetitive, derivative, or pointedly generic at the time of the founding of the United States and beyond; it takes a series of cultural forms and moments that have typically been understood as obsessed with independence and looks at the ideological, artistic, and subject-making processes that such sui generis fantasies occlude.
Although mine is a fundamentally literary project, the conceptual framework for my inquiry has roots in political history, philosophy, and material culture studies. In some ways, Against Self-Reliance extends the historiography of republican subjectivity. This last may be tautological: as Gordon Wood has pointed out, republicanism as a political philosophy "ideally . . . obliterated the individual"; it placed the abstract ideal of the common good above personal interests, desires, or needs and imagined individuality not as an oppositional or isolated state but as a function of community. Under such a system, he who becomes more like all of the other republicans in working for harmonious improvement of the whole becomes properly himself; the subject grounded in the essentially republican ideals of imitation, iteration, and personal effacement works together with other like-minded subjects to create a new nation-state. A nascent quasi-Emersonian liberalism operates alongside this republican ideology, of course—as numerous historians have argued, the philosophies of personal ambition (in which working for the private good should increase the public good) and self-effacement (in which working for the public good should increase the private good) run closely together in the Early Republic. Part of the wager of this book, though, is that focusing on liberalism's now-disdained opposites—imitation, dependence—can help us see how the negotiations of these two modes of being American gave rise to what we now know as the United States. More recent accounts of republican subjectivity—like historian Sarah Knott's "sensible selfhood—socially constituted, socially turned"—offer particular points of departure for my interest in individuality without individualism. The arts of dependence, I will argue, can help us to think more about what such a selfless self might look like and how it might operate in the world.
Beyond intervening in the historiography of republican personhood, Against Self-Reliance serves as a complement to recent work in transatlantic cultural history on the American imitation and appropriation of British and Continental objects and forms. As Leonard Tennenhouse puts it, "What we mean by American is most likely a reproduction of cultural practices that originated somewhere else." This is undoubtedly right and is borne out abundantly by the historical archive: from the shape of houses and gardens to the preparation of meals to the cut and finish of clothing, from geographical naming to the conventions of storytelling, from mercantile practice to religious philosophy, there's very little that might count as strictly original about the behavior of the early American middling and elite classes. Even after the American Revolution brought an end to the legal relationship between England and its former colonies, and even in the face of real political tensions with other European powers (particularly France), Americans looked abroad for direction. Some scholars have found in this state of affairs the cause for profound cultural anxiety. Kariann Yokota, for example, argues that even as such borrowings helped to reinforce the "legitimacy" of those on the postcolonial periphery, "the extent of [that] borrowing fueled insecurities about the derivative nature of what was ostensibly an independent society"; they would have to "unbecome" British in order to take their rightful place in the world. Others, like Elisa Tamarkin, have found in what she calls "imperial nostalgia" more a cause for celebration: the emulation of the British in the nineteenth century helped Americans figure out how to cathect to otherwise noncharismatic state apparatuses or political ideals, make better sense of the trauma of revolution, and generate support for abolitionism.
Against Self-Reliance operates on a smaller scale. To the extent that they are extricable from one another, I am interested less in the broad strokes of American cultural dependence—the ways in which the artists, writers, and artisans of the United States borrow from Europeans—and more interested in the intimate mechanics of individual artistic, linguistic, and behavioral dependence. Scholars have taken up this question before but have tended toward a developmental model that tracks precisely a traditional academic trajectory, where people imitate until they don't have to anymore; copying is a stage on the road to mastery and invention, to be abandoned as a strategy once such sufficiency has been achieved. As Eric Slauter puts it, the Age of Revolutions marks the waning of a culture of deference and the blossoming of intertwined notions of originary genius and capitalist self-sufficiency, in which the limited emulation of better examples is rejected in favor of the untutored, the "natural." Under such conditions, dependency becomes a source of anxiety, not celebration. One of the claims of this book is that these sorts of stadial accounts insufficiently express the facts on the ground—that the arts of dependence persist and remain essential beyond what Immanuel Kant calls the "tutelage" of the man, the woman, the poet, the artist. Indeed, these practices of personal dependence represent active (and actively theorized) attempts to forge coherent social patterns and to locate the individual in a lucid cultural narrative—they were, in other words, critical to the project of American independence.
To make these claims, the archive of Against Self-Reliance is intentionally diverse. Indeed, formal and generic diversity is part of my argument—one of the things that the book wants to do is position the arts of dependence as a way to see commonalities between the putatively distinct discourses of literature, psychology, science, material culture, and politics. That said, there is a curatorial rationale for the objects constellated here: although it is possible, I think, to mount a similar argument with different texts, I have tried to use works that illuminate as vividly as possible those aspects or versions of the arts of dependence that seemed to me most critical for understanding the first years of the United States. In some cases, that means taking up familiar texts—Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography, Herman Melville's Moby-Dick—in what I hope are new ways; in other instances, it means taking relatively less-studied material (Phillis Wheatley's occasional verse; schoolbooks and samplers; Charles Brockden Brown's Ormond) and exploring the dynamics of dependence that they encode.
The first part of the book, "Copy-Writing," concerns the arts of rhetorical and literary dependence—theories of imitative textual production and their relation to different kinds of selfhood. The texts of the first section, Franklin's Autobiography and Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects, offer complementary strategies for claiming cultural and personal authority through deference; I argue that they each work to imagine the power of imitative or iterative (as opposed to strictly creative) writing. Such a pairing may appear unusual at first glance. Begun in 1771 but published in full only after Franklin's death, the Autobiography is perhaps the most canonical eighteenth-century literary articulation of an independent "American" subjectivity (the "self-made man"). It is also, however, a complex brief for the ethics of dependency. Franklin's Autobiography provides an account of his own imitative development to both set himself up as a representative man and provide those who come after him with a blueprint for achieving the same: he follows (and theorizes following) so that you may follow too. The fact that there is so much in the way of recipe in Franklin's account of himself makes explicit the reformist/model-for-imitation instrumentality that remains implicit in so many other eighteenth-century autobiographies. In everything from dramatizing his process of learning to write by reproducing pieces from the Spectator to his dissemination of an Art of Virtue to his fond defense of the single-subject poetry contest, Franklin aligns derivative writing and copyist action with moral probity and self-possession. This alignment of dependence with virtue informs his ideas about unifying the interested, squabbling populations of the United States: casting the self as a textual effect to be compiled—to be copied down from others, to be copied into others—Franklin expressly imagines a national feeling in terms of perpetual reprintings and new editions.
Although pointedly excluded from such national feelings by virtue of her enslavement, her gender, and her poverty, Wheatley too writes of the worldly (and otherworldly) power of copying. Her embrace of a derivative aesthetics has long been a problem for critics looking to place her at the head of an African American literary tradition: her appropriation of "white" poetic forms (like heroic couplets); her mobilization of classical allusions, structures, and conceits; and her crafting of poems sympathetic to aspects of the slavery system (especially its paternalist pretext of bringing Christianity to the enslaved) can make her seem a mouthpiece for interests that cannot be her own. If she produces art that both fails to capture her peculiar situation as a slave or as a person and refuses to give voice to some kind of transcendent black experience, what does she actually have to offer? Chapter 2 offers the beginnings of one answer: not all art seeks origination, individuation, or timelessness; there are other registers of signification and other metrics for success, including instrumentality, historicity, and the assertion of common cause. This becomes especially true with respect to political art—as art must necessarily be when it is addressed to questions of race, piety, and performance (textual and otherwise) and produced at the crisis point of the global slave trade in the second half of the eighteenth century. For Wheatley, I argue, poetic imitation becomes a complex act of self-assertion through self-effacement—an expression of a higher Methodism and a counter to an emergent racialized aesthetics itself bound up with liberal individualism. Wheatley, in other words, extends (or anticipates) the story that Franklin begins to tell about the cultural power of rhetorical conventionality and works to imagine terms for a viable American subjectivity beyond the confines of an atomistic self.
The second part of the book, "Emulation and Ethics," considers in greater detail the behavioral arts of dependence: the theory and practice of the mimetic imprinting of character. Operating under the materialist assumption that the mind is a blank slate subject to inscription through sensory input, most eighteenth-century psychologists in the West imagined "personality" to be in many ways the product of iterated actions, gestures, and expressions. Identifying proper exemplars and imitating their characteristics was, therefore, the surest route to ethical subjectivity. My work to understand the links between repeated physical performance and ethereal (if deeply held) morality begins in Chapter 3, which shifts from humanistic and religious considerations of personality to the realms of natural philosophy. More particularly, I analyze Benjamin Rush's post-Revolutionary efforts to establish the natural philosopher David Rittenhouse as a shining model for American imitation. Rush describes a Rittenhouse whose passion for experimental replicability—immanent in everything from standards of natural-philosophical observation to clear handwriting to circulating specie—serves as a critical engine for imagining "disinterested" "republican" subjects. Analyzing Rittenhouse's clockwork solar systems and specie-minting devices in the context of essays on education and on the nature of mind by Rush, I argue that the principles of repeatability inherent in scientific method and the principles of behavioral repetition inherent in materialist ideas of the self come together in the 1780s under the sign of the national subject. In casting orreries, coin stampers, and schoolchildren as what he calls "republican machines," Rush imagines personal disinterest and political consensus as problems in precision manufacturing; only the endless reproduction of similarity can moderate the spiraling animosities of the postwar moment. The rhetoric of scientifically modulated republican disinterest, in other words, produces the expedient illusion of national consensus amid the intractable political divisions of the early United States.
Chapter 4, "The Republican Girl and the Spirit of Emulation," considers the material culture of post-Revolutionary female education as a gendered expression of Rush's and Rittenhouse's fantasies of ideological common ground. My archive consists of compiled readers, writing books, and embroidered samplers—ubiquitous objects well documented in other fields but comparatively understudied by literary historians. The reasons for this neglect are instructive: such objects immerse the subjective into the rote, the machinic, the objectified. Because they place passivity and sensation (feeling and appreciating the "beautiful"; reproducing it again and again) over activity and "reason," we have tended to think of these "ornamental" arts as the tools of oppression, the impositions of a patriarchal ideology that insists that an "educated" woman know only that which is unnecessary to the functioning of the polity. Readers, samplers, and handwriting exercises divert the originary, potentially radical intellectual and affective energies of the young into derivative, palliative, and emotionally vacuous frippery. Narrower categories of accomplishment like oratorical performance and expressive writing have fared much better in our histories: the discursive and disputatious girl can subvert dominant ideologies of feminine silence, modesty, and invisibility; to borrow the title of one of the best and most recent works on female education in the years after the Revolution, "Learning to stand and speak" affords women not only a place in public life but a new, rich privacy as well. But what of the rest of the stuff that young women had to make and do?
Reading a number of schoolgirl embroideries and a textbook that might have been assembled by the important sentimental novelist and schoolmistress, Susanna Rowson, I argue that the thoroughly derivative, endlessly recycling material products of early U.S. female pedagogy actually have quite a bit to teach us, too. More particularly, these objects allow us to see how contemporary understandings of sympathetic identification—the ability to imaginatively replicate another's feelings in one's own body—emerge from aesthetic considerations. They also help to trace the shifting contours of subjectivity and intersubjectivity in practical terms. I argue that the "ornamental" texts created by and for young women can offer critical insight into the twinned processes of individuation and de-individuation at the heart of "republican" theories of the subject. That is, I contend that "women's work" and theories behind it afford not only an important purchase on pre-Emersonian genealogies of the self but also more inclusive perspectives on the political history of the Early Republic.
Part III, "Critiques and Affirmations," begins with resistance to intersubjective harmonics through imitation in the work of novelist Charles Brockden Brown and ends with the reinscription of the arts of dependence in the work of Herman Melville. Brown underlines the potential for Gothic horror—the murderous impersonator, the mass grave—inherent in the culture of dependence and repetition. He is particularly interested in the way that personal externalities may be duplicated or forged in order to work some kind of violence. The falsifiability of identity is a relatively common literary concern at the turn of the nineteenth century. A number of early American tales make use of the trope of uncanny doubling or impersonation as a way of dramatizing the danger posed by emergent Chesterfieldian (or Franklinian or Rushian) ideas of the malleability or performativity of personality. From sentimental novels such as Rowson's Charlotte Temple (where the villains look noble but act like cads) to Stephen Burroughs's roguish Memoirs of Stephen Burroughs (where the protagonist inhabits various subject positions—teacher, preacher, farmer—as a way of deflecting attention from his other kinds of counterfeiting), uncanny doubling or impersonation threaten to upset both intimate relations and the cultural order. Brown, though, seems especially worried: he makes dissimulation and Gothic imitation the master tropes of his fictional career. It is at the heart of the problem of his four biggest novels: Carwin in Wieland destroys lives with his mimic voices; forgery is an engine of evil for Arthur Mervyn's Welbeck; and in Edgar Huntly, the main character finds his conscious life to be a thin and failing veneer for what lies beneath.
That said, it is Ormond; or the Secret Witness (1799) that takes on dissimulation in writing and in repertoire most pointedly over the course of its narrative; I have included an extended treatment of it here because it is so vehement and detailed in its case against republican subjectivity without positing any kind of stable alternative. More particularly, I argue that Ormond refutes popular claims about American polity building as a function of the ethical copy: these texts align imitation with forgery, drudgery, mimicry, and dissimulation, casting all such derivative behaviors as a serious threat to the social contract. Where Rush finds the possibility for republican virtue in the essential mechanicity and reproducibility of the subject, Ormond finds heartlessness and murder; where Franklin imagines morality to inhere in repeated behavior, Ormond casts routinization as a kind of living death; where Wheatley celebrates the mastery of literary genre as authorizing and humanizing, Ormond presents such conventional virtuosity as a weapon of terrible power; where Rowson sees the concurrences of sympathetic identification as the grounds for building a moral polity, Ormond sees the possibilities for exploitation, fraud, and rape. Brown's work paves the way, in other words, for the Emersonian narrative of exceptional individualism outlined above.
Even so, Against Self-Reliance concludes by underscoring the perseverance of the arts of dependence into the middle of the nineteenth century. Using the reprint culture of antebellum periodicals as a heuristic lens, I argue that the textual compilation and copying that structure Melville's Moby-Dick; or The Whale (1851) offer us a new framework for understanding what we have come to call the "American Renaissance." Against persistent claims that Moby-Dick represents a triumph of a self-reliant (and peculiarly American) genius—what Michael Warner calls the "Cold War readings" of Melville, in which "the American individual is pitted against a demon of ideology that is identified with everything except the American individual"—I argue that the novel's programs for democracy and for humanistic inquiry rely on various sorts of productive dependency, including sympathetic identification and artistic appropriation. In place of Ahab's prophetic liberalism and bourgeois individualism, I argue, Ishmael's different species of borrowing frame anticapitalist and antiimperial models for making texts, subjects, and nations. In weaving a book from bits of other books and in building a personality from persistent identifications, Ishmael places a copyist ethics at the heart of a more perfect union. He insists, in other words, that an internationally viable United States cannot spring from singularity: imitation and the other arts of dependence may be suicide for the atomistic self, as Emerson and Stel/Sim would have us believe, but they may also be the very life of the culture.