Heartless Immensity: Literature, Culture, and Geography in Antebellum America

Heartless Immensity: Literature, Culture, and Geography in Antebellum America

by Anne Baker


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As the size of the United States more than doubled during the first half of the nineteenth century, a powerful current of anxiety ran alongside the well-documented optimism about national expansion. Heartless Immensity tells the story of how Americans made sense of their country’s constantly fluctuating borders and its annexation of vast new territories. Anne Baker looks at a variety of sources, including letters, speeches, newspaper editorials, schoolbooks, as well as visual and literary works of art. These cultural artifacts suggest that the country’s anxiety was fueled primarily by two concerns: fears about the size of the nation as a threat to democracy, and about the incorporation of nonwhite, non-Protestant regions. These fears had a consistent and influential presence until after the Civil War, functioning as vital catalysts for the explosion of literary creativity known as the “American Renaissance,” including the work of Melville, Thoreau, and Fuller, among others.
Building on extensive archival research as well as insights from cultural geographers and theorists of nationhood, Heartless Immensity demonstrates that national expansion had a far more complicated, multifaceted impact on antebellum American culture than has previously been recognized. Baker shows that Americans developed a variety of linguistic strategies for imagining the form of the United States and its position in relation to other geopolitical entities. Comparisons
to European empires, biblical allusions, body politic metaphors, and metaphors derived from science all reflected—and often attempted to assuage—fears that the nation was becoming either monstrously large or else misshapen in ways that threatened cherished beliefs and national self-images. 
Heartless Immensity argues that, in order to understand the nation’s shift from republic to empire and to understand American culture in a global context, it is first necessary to pay close attention to the processes by which the physical entity known as the United States came into being. This impressively thorough study will make a valuable contribution to the fields of American studies and literary studies.

Anne Baker is Assistant Professor of English at North Carolina State University.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472115709
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 11/20/2006
Pages: 184
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

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Heartless Immensity

Literature, Culture, and Geography in Antebellum America
By Anne Baker

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2006 University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-11570-9

Chapter One

Imagining National Form

Early in Edward Everett Hale's 1863 short story "The Man Without a Country," set in the early republic, the main character, Phillip Nolan, is condemned never again "to hear of his country or to see any information regarding it." And for fifty-six years, he doesn't. At the end of the story, Nolan-now "a dear, sainted old man" on his deathbed-experiences a geographical epiphany when a young naval officer takes pity on him and tells him about the events of the past half-century. While the hour-long narrative that ensues does include information that is not strictly speaking geographical in nature-such as that Abraham Lincoln is president-even it is conveyed in a geographical framework ("I said that Old Abe was a Kentuckian like himself"). Indeed, the conversation consists primarily of the filling in of the pathetically outdated map that Nolan has drawn from memory and hung at the foot of his bed:

Quaint, queer old names were on it, in large letters: "Indian Territory," "Mississippi Territory," and "Louisiana Territory," as I suppose our fathers learned such things; ... he had carried his western boundary all the way to the Pacific, but on that shore he had defined nothing. (60)

The young officer describes the new states added to the Union and draws them on Nolan's map. He tells of phenomena that have made the rapid formalization of space possible, including distance-reducing technology ("steamboats, and railroads, and telegraphs") and the nation's first naval exploring expedition (that of Wilkes in 1838-42). This knowledge-essentially the ability to have a mental picture of the nation-in effect releases "the man without a country" from his tormented life, and, within an hour after the young officer's departure, Nolan is found to have "breathed his life away with a smile" (66).

I begin my book with a discussion of Hale's story-little read now but immensely popular in its day-because it seems to me that in Philip Nolan, Hale created a character who embodies the problem of national form and whose death dramatizes its resolution. The young Nolan's unnamed treasonous act, his susceptibility to the "gay deceiver" Aaron Burr (who dupes Nolan into assisting him in his rebellion against the United States), is a direct result of his upbringing-simultaneously cosmopolitan and provincial-on the frontier:

He had grown up in the West ... on a plantation where the finest company was a Spanish officer or a French merchant from Orleans. His education, such as it was, had been perfected in commercial expeditions to Vera Cruz, and I think he told me his father once hired an Englishman to be a private tutor for a winter on the plantation. He had spent half his youth with an older brother, hunting horses in Texas; and, in a word, to him "United States" was scarcely a reality. (9-10)

Nolan's youthful folly, in other words, stems from the kind of geographical conditions-a nation made up of culturally distinct regions separated by vast distances-that led Daniel Webster to ask despairingly, "What sympathy can there be between these New Mexicans, these Californians, and the inhabitants of the valley of the Mississippi ... or of the Eastern States ...? ... Have they any consentaneous sentiment?" As the passage suggests, the West posed a particular threat to the eastern ideas about the nation, not simply because it was perceived as distant, unsettled, and uncivilized, but also because it was a region under global influences. Although England was the United States' chief rival for territory in western North America, France and Spain continued to influence the hearts and minds of western Americans by virtue of the proximity of their colonies and former colonies.

After his trial for treason, at which the judge grants his impulsive wish to "never hear of the United States again," Nolan becomes a living illustration of the link between identity and place or nation. The sympathetic narrator (another naval officer) refers to him as "poor creature" and observes, "I dare say there is many a man who has taken wine with him once a fortnight, in a three years' cruise, who never knew that his name was 'Nolan,' or whether the poor wretch had any name at all" (2). No longer allowed access to his country or to any information about it, he becomes a "creature" or a "poor wretch" rather than a human being. When the narrator makes various futile efforts to have Nolan pardoned, he finds that "it was like getting a ghost out of prison." Nolan has gotten lost in the bureaucratic shuffle, and "[t]hey pretended there was no such man, and never was such a man" (51). The character to whom the "'United States' was scarcely a reality" actually takes on the insubstantiality of his nation. When he is first transferred from ship to ship, and the fact "that there was no going home" truly dawns on him for the first time, he looks "very blank" (26), much like the map of the nation as he imagines it in his epistemological prison.

If Nolan himself comes to embody the hazy, unformed qualities of the physical nation during the antebellum years, his death, at the height of the war that would ensure the continuation of the Union, signifies the resolution of geopolitical questions that had plagued the United States for decades. Nineteenth-century readers found Nolan's attempt to map the nation without any access to empirical data deeply moving-it sold half a million copies within a year of its publication-and the reason may have been that it was a fictional analog to their own attempts to make sense of the nation's size and shape. Like Nolan with his makeshift map, Americans had desperately attempted to visualize the nation, to make it something tangible.

Like most citizens of Europe and its former colonies during the nineteenth century, Americans were eager to feel that their nation was real. (Nations, as Benedict Anderson and others have pointed out, were novel entities in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, despite the fact that part of their powerful appeal was the way they made people feel connected to something ancient and immutable.) It was to this project of making the nation real and tangible that Jedidiah Morse-"the father of American geography"-consciously contributed in the first geography book about the United States, The American Geography (1789). Knowledge about the physical nation, he declared in his preface, was necessary to "attach [American youth] to its interests."

Maps played an important role in the process of giving the nation form. But more blatantly figurative means of imaging national space were also ubiquitous in American culture. In order to map a nation in flux, Americans, debating the appropriate size and shape for the nation, turned to metaphors drawn from a wide variety of traditions and psychological experiences, from a range of discourses including religion, aesthetics, and science. In 1820, Emerson wrote in his journal, "It is a singular fact that we cannot present to the imagination a longer space than just so much of the world as is bounded by the visible horizon." Confident in the powers of language, however, he added, "But what matters it: We can talk & write & think it out." As if to provide proof of Emerson's claim, Americans devoted vast quantities of paper to writing and thinking out the problems presented by geographical space that extended far beyond the visible horizon yet would change the nature of their nation in ways they could hardly begin to imagine.

One symptom of this wish to justify the nation's ever-changing form was a tendency to compare themselves to other growing empires. Thus John A. Dix, arguing for the justice of the American claim to Oregon in 1846, suggested that Great Britain's far-flung empire would ultimately be its downfall: "I know," he declared confidently, "that her inordinate distention contains within itself an element of vital weakness. It is not in the order of human society that so extended a dominion should remain long unbroken." He goes on to acknowledge, however, that he has "not yet been able to detect, in the condition of her body politic, the unerring symptoms of that decay which precedes and works out the dissolution of empires." Most importantly, Dix reassures his American readers that their own nation is in no such danger:

Our contest for territorial rights, which we consider indisputable, has no object but to enable our citizens to extend themselves to our natural boundary,-the Pacific. Her [Great Britain's] interest is remote and contingent; ours is direct and certain. Hers is the interest of a State in a distant country which she wishes to colonize; ours is the interest of a country in its own proper territory and settlements.

The imagery he uses to describe Britain's imperial form-"overgrown and unwieldy possessions held by a thread"-represents not so much an accurate picture of that empire (which Dix himself acknowledges to be strong rather than weak) as what Dix and other Americans hoped was the antithesis of their own national form.

Charles Boynton-a minister from Cincinnati-took a different tack in The Russian Empire: Its Resources, Government, and Policy. By a Looker On from America (1856). The book is a Romantic nationalist ode to the increasingly powerful Russia. Boynton argues that the "American and Sclavonian races," which are "just now stepping upon the arena of national life," have "vitality" and "vigor" that will make them the great powers of the future. But he also pushes his expansionist agenda for the United States by comparing it favorably to Russia. Boynton points out that "the Russians are subduing a continent, expanding themselves on every side, and redeeming the wilderness, after the manner of the Americans here" (31). And, basing his observations on both Russia and the United States, he suggests that technological advances make it possible for nations to become far larger than the great empires of the past. At times his own nation even seems to supplant Russia as the subject of the book, as when he argues that "the magnitude of our country will never destroy the efficiency or unity of the government." A single "central power," he declares, might now control "the two Americas." In addition to their expansiveness, Russia and the United States also share, according to Boynton, the enmity of the great European powers: "The Gulf of Mexico and the adjacent waters, are the 'Black Sea' of the West, and France and England are determined that we shall neither control it, nor obtain its Sebastopol, even by honorable purchase." Cuba is the subtext of this comparison. (In 1853 President Franklin Pierce had offered to buy Cuba from Spain and was refused. The following year, three American diplomats issued the Ostend Manifesto, which declared the United States' right to buy or conquer Cuba despite Spanish opposition.) In his eagerness to see the United States annex that Caribbean island, Boynton turns Russia into his own nation's spatial doppelgänger: "The central homogeneous mass of Russia, its compact and vigorous nationality, as compared with the various tribes that skirt its wide frontier, may be regarded as a mighty continent with a fringe of islands scattered along its shores."

Another widespread manifestation of the yearning for national form is the phenomenon that historians have named "geographical predestination." As various scholars of American culture have pointed out, the belief that the United States had a special role in God's plan pervaded American culture from its earliest beginnings. The idea that the nation's boundaries have been providentially drawn is a natural corollary to this belief, and was invoked numerous times during the expansive years between the nation's founding and the Civil War, as Americans designated successive geographical barriers (the Alleghenies, the Mississippi, the Rockies, and finally the Pacific) the natural, God-given boundaries of the nation. Albert K. Weinberg, the historian who named this procedure "geographical predestination," called American expansionism a "motley body of justificatory doctrine," and there is no doubt that geographical predestination served as one means by which expansionists justified further territorial acquisition. This has certainly been the way that most twentieth-century scholars of the antebellum period interpreted such rhetoric. But the need to feel enclosed by divinely established barriers also suggests that a kind of agoraphobia as well as an anxiety about incorporating other races into the nation were additional motives for the doctrine of natural boundaries. Fear of the possible results of expansion, it seems, may well have been as powerful an impetus behind "geographical predestination" as the desire to justify territorial acquisition. As Weinberg himself points out, "The principle of the natural barrier is ... concerned not with the unifying territorial features but with those which clearly and securely separate peoples."

Mississippi senator Robert J. Walker's "Letter ... relative to the Reannexation of Texas" is a popular example of "geographical predestination":

If the Creator had separated Texas from the Union by mountain barriers, the Alps or the Andes, these might be plausible objections; but He has planed down the whole valley, including Texas, and united every atom of the soil and every drop of the waters of the mighty whole. He has linked their rivers with the great Mississippi, and marked and united the whole for the dominion of one government and the residence of one people; and it is impious in man to attempt to dissolve this great and glorious Union. Texas is a part of Kentucky, a portion of the same great valley. It is a part of New York and Pennsylvania, a part of Maryland and Virginia, and Ohio, and of all the western states, whilst Tennessee unites with it the waters of Georgia, Alabama, and Carolina.

Thomas Jefferson's argument that "Nature" (rather than God) had decided that the United States should have a port of deposit at the mouth of the Mississippi (because its territory alongside the river entitled its citizens to navigate the river) is the more secular, pantheistic, Enlightenment version. But another example of the rhetorical gesture-one that supports Weinberg's claim that geographical predestination is primarily concerned with "territorial features ... which clearly and securely separate peoples"-was Representative C. J. Ingersoll's claim that the deserts south of the Rio Grande would function as "the natural boundaries between the anglo-Saxon [sic] and the Mauritanian races." According to Ingersoll, it was natural that the races should be divided by obstacles such as deserts and rivers, and the preordained boundaries established by God would surely, he supposed, be contiguous with such obstacles.

The invocation of religion to oppose what was often seen as the nation's out-of-control expansiveness was not limited to geographical predestination. Scripture also seemed to offer important lessons about the nation's proper form. When the Reverend Burdett Hart gave a Thanksgiving sermon in New Haven in 1847, he chose as his text Proverbs 22:28: "Remove not the ancient land-mark which thy fathers have set." The fact that no boundary in the United States could be considered "ancient" apparently wasn't important. What was important for Hart, who was very much a believer in the United States' special millennial role in the world, was that the shift in the nation's earlier geographical form-brought about by the lawless aggression of the Mexican War-signified a deviation from the scripturally dictated path of righteousness: "But now we too are like the nations! When will other days again return-the days of our former glory and happiness? May god speed them and that right early! May the ancient land-mark be no farther removed, and may we still cling to the principles of our fathers!"

Reverend Samuel Harris's 1846 Thanksgiving sermon also invoked scripture to deplore the Mexican War. But where Hart saw the United States as a tragically fallen ideal, Harris saw the nation as courting disaster. Citing Habakkuk 2:12 ("Woe to him that buildeth a town with blood, and establisheth a city by iniquity"), he declared, "In the very act of grasping new territory by violence and blood, we are grasping the curse of the Almighty and hugging destruction to our bosoms." Harris was particularly concerned that "[t]he enlargement of our territories, by increasing the dissimilarity of our population and the diversity of our local interests, by leading to a larger standing army, and by the direct and indirect military influence of the conquest, must make our government more difficult to be administered and our liberties more precarious." As an example of the consequences of enlarged territories and increased diversity of local interests he cited the fact that "[a]fter taking Santa Fe, Gen. Kearny and his staff, in full dress, bearing lighted tapers, accompanied through the streets a Popish procession in honor of some saint or relic." For Harris, such an exhibition of "jesuitry" and "idolatry" by the nation's military officers was proof that disaster predicted by Habakkuk 2:12 was already coming to pass.


Excerpted from Heartless Immensity by Anne Baker Copyright © 2006 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: An Empire in Denial....................1
CHAPTER 1. Imagining National Form....................16
CHAPTER 2. Mapping and Measuring with Ahab and Wilkes....................30
CHAPTER 3. From Salt Lake to Walden Pond....................44
CHAPTER 4. Word, Image, and National Geography....................64
CHAPTER 5. Views from the Edge of Empire....................81
CHAPTER 6 Body Size and the Body Politic....................102
CHAPTER 7. Geography, Pedagogy, and Race....................118

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