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Reconstituting the American Renaissance: Emerson, Whitman, and the Politics of Representation

Reconstituting the American Renaissance: Emerson, Whitman, and the Politics of Representation

by Jay Grossman, Donald E. Pease (Editor)

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Challenging the standard periodization of American literary history, Reconstituting the American Renaissance reinterprets the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman and the relationship of these two authors to each other. Jay Grossman argues that issues of political representation—involving vexed questions of who shall speak and for


Challenging the standard periodization of American literary history, Reconstituting the American Renaissance reinterprets the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman and the relationship of these two authors to each other. Jay Grossman argues that issues of political representation—involving vexed questions of who shall speak and for whom—lie at the heart of American political and literary discourse from the revolutionary era through the Civil War. By taking the mid-nineteenth-century period, traditionally understood as marking the advent of literary writing in the United States, and restoring to it the ways in which Emerson and Whitman engaged with eighteenth-century controversies, rhetorics, and languages about political representation, Grossman departs significantly from arguments that have traditionally separated American writing in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Reconstituting the American Renaissance describes how Emerson and Whitman came into the period of their greatest productivity with different conceptions of the functions and political efficacy of the word in the world. It challenges Emerson’s position as Whitman’s necessary precursor and offers a cultural history that emphasizes the two writers’ differences in social class, cultural experience, and political perspective. In their writings between 1830 and 1855, the book finds contrasting conceptions of the relations between the “representative man” and the constituencies to whom, and for whom, he speaks. Reconstituting the American Renaissance opens up the canonical relationship between Emerson and Whitman and multiplies the historical and discursive contexts for understanding their published and unpublished works.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Jay Grossman powerfully demonstrates how the linguistic cohabits with the political in two of the nineteenth century’s most provocative writers. Reconstituting the American Renaissance thoroughly restructures our understanding of the Emerson/Whitman relationship. Some key, long-held assumptions about these two writers will now have to be completely reconsidered in light of Grossman’s original and compelling critiques of all the familiar encounters between these literary giants.”—Ed Folsom, editor, Walt Whitman Quarterly Review

"Reconstituting the American Renaissance will dramatically change the way scholars view the relationship of Whitman to Emerson and the character of their literary enterprises."—Jay Fliegelman, author of Declaring Independence: Jefferson, Natural Language and the Culture of Performance

Product Details

Duke University Press Books
Publication date:
New Americanists
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.00(d)

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Reconstituting the American-CL

By Jay Grossman

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2003 Jay Grossman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780822331292

Chapter One


The degree of possible overlap between representative and representation in their political and artistic senses is very difficult to estimate. In the sense of the typical, which then stands for ("as" or "in place of") others or other things, in either context, there is probably a deep common cultural assumption. At the same time, within this assumption, there is the contradiction expressed both in the arguments about representative democracy and in the arguments in art about relations between the representational and the representative. -RAYMOND WILLIAMS, Keywords

E pluribus unum, "Out of many, one": dating from 1776 (but originating perhaps with Virgil), the national motto of the United States denotes at once the challenge and the achievement of the Constitutional Convention, the results of whose labors were formally endorsed when New Hampshire became the required ninth state to ratify on the first day of summer in 1788. The motto encodes as self-evident and essential what from a preratification perspective was precisely the definingissue, for the consolidation that the motto simply declaims, the Federal Convention and then the state ratifying conventions hotly debated. Would the United States continue as an aggregate of independent states under the conditions explicitly spelled out in the second section of the Articles of Confederation, and the insistence there that "Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence"? What continuities had been retained between the Articles and the newly nationalizing instrument constructed in Philadelphia? The "E pluribus unum" that shines out from the face of the Great Seal of the United States occludes these questions, and, in their place, inserts a genealogy as teleology-making of one of a range of possible outcomes the one true outcome toward which all events necessarily pointed.

As Jay Fliegelman has argued, this national motto derives most directly in colonial times from the masthead of the popular eighteenth-century Gentlemen's Magazine and so offers, it is useful to see in this context, another example of the ways in which the "political" and the "literary" interpenetrate in the period. Under the motto's logic-in which nation-making and anthology-making tacitly overlap, and magazines are both printed and militia-ready-the Constitution might be figured as an attempt to adopt a uniform, centralized "editorial" authority where previously separate "articles" had been collected from a wide range of sources and drawn together by little more than their cover. It is not until after the Civil War that "United States" becomes, grammatically speaking, a unified nation (notion?) consistently requiring a singular verb, as the OED and the writings of the ardent unionist Walt Whitman make plain. These minor consequences of the motto's ambiguities begin to suggest the links that remain to be drawn between even this simple analogy about "magazines" and the rhetorical and political issues repeatedly raised by the published contest over ratification.

But the creation of united states is not by any means the only work of consolidation toward which "E pluribus unum" points. For there is another historical consolidation that has taken place since the adoption of the Constitution, one that has rewritten not simply the inevitability of the outcome of the debates that preceded formal ratification, but also the role and significance of the various printed materials debating ratification during the Constitutional episode. The principal documents in this category are the eighty-five essays that comprise The Federalist, the first of which appeared on 27 October 1787, in one of New York's five newspapers, the Independent Journal. By consolidation, I am referring to a historical process that has over the course of two centuries come to see The Federalist as a virtual substitute for the whole of the process of Constitutional consolidation that Publius's essays themselves take as their overarching subject matter. These essays, concerned at their heart with the necessity of energetic governmental consolidation, now themselves are sometimes seen by scholars to consolidate the cacophony that resonated during the period of Constitutional debate. From the multitude of published essays, letters, and broadsides that circulated as part of the ratification controversy, The Federalist often stands alone (as in the latest Norton Anthology of American Literature) and removed from this argumentative context. Compared against the late publication date of Herbert Storing's The Complete Anti-Federalist in 1981, the first collected Federalist appeared simultaneously with the completion of serial publication and essay No. 85 on 28 May 1788; roughly the first half of the series was published in a collected volume on 22 March 1788. Publius seems from the start to have had his eyes on that much larger potential audience called posterity, the same mentioned in the Constitution's preamble. Indeed, as Michael Warner has shown, "through various machinations [Publius] was able to appear simultaneously in four newspapers in New York and another in Virginia, with occasional appearances elsewhere to boot-a strategy of blanketing the public space of print that was warmly resented by his opponents" (Letters 113). Thus these multiple sites of reprinted Federalist essays reproduce one of the claims about the import of the new Constitution that opponents most feared and against which they declaimed most vehemently; indeed, "suppression of Anti-Federalist writing facilitated ratification in a number of states" (Cornell 104). Out of many (newspapers), one.

Patrick Henry's denunciation in the Virginia ratifying convention, decrying what he understood to be the central change in America's self-definition, addresses just these issues:

When the American spirit was in its youth, the language of America was different: Liberty, Sir, was then the primary object.... But now, Sir, the American spirit, assisted by the ropes and chains of consolidation, is about to convert this country to a powerful and mighty empire.... (F/A 122-23)

Henry may well have taken his evidence for these quasi-imperial ambitions from the opening lines of Federalist No. 1:

After an unequivocal experience of the inefficacy of the subsisting federal government, you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America. The subject speaks its own importance; comprehending in its consequences nothing less than the existence of the UNION[,] the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world.

Publius's use of the word "empire" importantly shifts the term away from the connotations that had helped to underwrite the break from Britain. Sheldon Wolin has labeled this change the "feudalist" groundwork at the base of the "progressive" American Revolution. In his reading, the confederated states adhered to, and worked to maintain, feudal systems of "imperial" governance marked specifically by "difference, pluralism, and the dispersion of power among several centers" (130) against the imposition, especially after 1763, of increasingly centralized and uniform British administrative measures. As is well known, these measures were warmly resented as attempts by Parliament to legislate more and more intensely about "internal" matters the colonists believed fell outside that body's traditional prerogative.

But with the break from Britain achieved, Publius's use of "empire"-like the Constitution itself-retreats from the revolutionary insistence against centralization and endorses instead a single, defining power able to "extend the authority of the Union to the persons of the citizens-the only proper objects of government" (15: 149) in place of "a number of unsocial, jealous, and alien sovereignties" (2: 91). This is the ground of Henry's fervent objection, which relies on the same definition of empire employed by Dr. Franklin in a speech at the Federal Convention that not only banks on his status as senior sage but also carries traces of the rhetoric of Manifest Destiny that grow only more numerous over the course of the nineteenth century:

I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth-that God Governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? (Madison, Notes 209-10)

Thus message and medium coalesce: the imperial publishing strategies of The Federalist align with the imperial vision for a consolidated nation that the Papers (in their own "comprehensive" treatment of the issues that themselves comprehend "the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world" [1: 87]) endorse as the primary justification for ratification.

The word "interesting" in Publius's call for the nation's full attention connotes a range of meanings that taken together also explicate his rhetorical position in the papers as a whole. In the first place, the notion of "interest"-or more precisely, "disinterest"-is tied to the ancient notion of republican virtue on which the success of representative government was said to depend. Despite rumblings in the period that such expectations of a virtuous citizenry were unrealistic within a commercially vibrant and expanding domestic economy that at the time of the Revolution already exceeded the scope of Jeversonian agrarianism, the notion of disinterested virtue opposed to luxury remained a touchstone in the republic's imagination of itself, as the debates over ratification repeatedly demonstrate.

The notion that the imperial fate of the United States is "interesting" also draws on a lesson Publius might have learned from the contest with Great Britain marked first and last by the vigorous disagreement over virtual representation. If the claim that the colonists were virtually represented in Parliament had been so thoroughly deflated by the early 1770s that not even the King's ministers could resuscitate it, in Federalist No. 1 Publius is drawing on another aspect of Parliament's argumentative, counterrevolutionary strategy. British theorists argued that the doctrine of shared interests between Britain (or Parliament) and the colonies (or their traders and merchants) justified taxation, on the assumption that Parliament would never upset the harmony of these favorable fiscal relations (see Reid, Concept 119, 45). But not even this argument was dependable, as a widely circulated pamphlet by Daniel Dulany observed:

It is indeed true, that the interests of England and the colonies are allied, and an injury to the colonies produced into all it's [sic] consequences, will eventually affect the mother country; yet these consequences being generally remote, are not at once foreseen; they do not immediately alarm the fears, and engage the passions of the English electors; the connection between a free-holder of Great-Britain, and a British American being deducible only thro' a train of reasoning, which few will take the trouble, or can have opportunity, if they have capacity, to investigate; Wherefore the relation ... is a knot too infirm to be relied on as a competent security.... (quoted in Jensen 100)

When Publius recalls the "interesting" nature of the ratification decision that the (white, male, property-holding) citizens of the newly united states have been called on to deliberate, he is also implicitly reminding them that, unlike the spurious doctrine of shared interest Parliament had concocted to betray the colonies, there is in these debates only one genuine "interest": whether "societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice" (1: 87). Thus Publius posits universal "interest" as a figure for all the other unanimities Federalist No. 2 delineates: "With equal pleasure I have as often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people-a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion ..." (2: 91). Publius's invocation of this universalized notion of "interest" in relation to his nevertheless partisan account of the urgency and necessity of the federal plan may be seen as a touchstone of the consensual mode in eighteenth-century writing, a mode that refigures debate and dissent within a language of consensus and common sense.

These centripetal tendencies also gain significance in relation to the place The Federalist has come to occupy in American literary and political history. The consolidation of the dissensus of the ratification debates into the monologic figure of The Federalist occurs not only because these essays come down to us sanctioned by the pronouncements of a long line of statesmen and scholars, from Thomas Jeverson to Lincoln to the present. Rather, there is another, profoundly material basis for the prominence of The Federalist, related to the publishing monopoly Publius and the network of Federalist printers sought to achieve: as Albert Furtwangler writes, virtually alone among the many documents of the period, The Federalist has come down to us as "a bound volume that emerged from the welter of ephemeral debates, one that has endured in a fame reinforced by the long history of the Constitution" (43). The exegetical paradigm that this bound book reinforces comes full circle when, to a greater and lesser extent, the Constitution and The Federalist become virtual versions of each other.

But while history may be written by the winners, the story and the interpretation of the texts that comprise it are rarely as straightforward as the aphorism permits; as if to endorse this book's genealogical interest in the shifting interpretations of "stable" texts over time, the uproar of Jeversonian opposition to Federalist rule at the turn of the nineteenth century produced "a distinctly Anti-Federalist reading of The Federalist"; as Cornell argues, "Publius was reincarnated as the first strict constructionist" (244) and became an authority for the party whose interpretation of the Constitution he had originally opposed. Such shifts only gain further resonance in relation to the single aspect of the history of The Federalist about which many historians remark: that The Federalist, whatever its prominence today, actually seems to have played almost no significant role in influencing the eventual vote in favor of ratification taken at the New York Constitutional convention. Furtwangler calls the impact of the papers "marginal," and the author of a detailed account of the debate in New York uses the word "negligible." Like some of the "literary" texts treated in later chapters, The Federalist's present-day centrality when viewed in relation to its relative insignificance when Constitutional ratification remained undecided calls our attention once more to the shifting nature of canons, both literary and political, as well as the ways in which the impress of "representative" standing marks the contingent work that the present always actively produces out of a usable past.


Excerpted from Reconstituting the American-CL by Jay Grossman Copyright © 2003 by Jay Grossman. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Jay Grossman is Assistant Professor of English at Northwestern University.

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