THE WAR ON WORDS: SLAVERY, RACE, AND FREE SPEECH IN AMERICA by Michael T. Gilmore, Reviewed by Lori Merish

By Michael T. Gilmore
(Chicago, 2010) ix + 330 pp.
Reviewed by Lori Merish on 2010-11-29.

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Boldly and comprehensively, this book re-interprets the literary history of nineteenth-century America.    Gilmore's subject is censorship--specifically, restrictions on free speech about slavery and its postbellum afterlife as "race," curbs forged by defenders of the south's labor regime and accepted by northerners in the service of national unity and a national market.  Censorship,  Gilmore argues,  is a (if not the) central fact of nineteenth century political culture, and literary culture as well. Yoking free speech to anti-racist activism, Gilmore follows the work of recent legal historians who  locate in the antislavery movement the incipient origins of an ideal of free speech as unfettered individual expression -- an ideal  not constitutionally upheld until Supreme Court cases of the mid-twentieth century. 

Gilmore's tasks are twofold.  First, he aims to show that racial protest in America was suppressed throughout the nineteenth century, not just up to the civil war. Antebellum efforts to limit speech about slavery have been well-documented by historians who describe rioting against abolitionists, attacks on the post and press, the "gag rule" against antislavery petitions in the House of Representatives, the antidemocratic provisions of the fugitive Slave Law, and other restrictive measures. Postbellum efforts to stifle racial protest  are less widely known because most histories of censorship during this era focus on speech involving  sexuality and religion (the Comstock Act) or class (e.g., the Free Speech League's defense of anarchists, socialists and unions).  Focussing on racial speech,  Gilmore ranges  from the verbal disenfranchisement of ex-slaves after Reconstruction to the gagging of northern mouths in capitulation  to what Henry James called the southern "quarantine" (222) on racial dissent.    Secondly,  Gilmore shows how censorship cast its shadow over the whole field of nineteenth-century literary expression.  Because literature is itself "made up of words," he argues,  it constitutes "an unusually sensitive barometer of attempts to regulate them" and can illuminate "subtle, and not so subtle, contractions of discursive possibility" (4).  In a series of short, tightly-argued chapters on individual authors, Gilmore finds evidence of racial censorship in a wide range of texts, from "classic" texts by Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller, Whitman, Hawthorne, Stowe, Melville, Douglass, James, Twain, and Crane to less frequently analyzed texts by Helen Hunt Jackson, Albion Tourgee, and Thomas Dixon.

Tracing continuities between antebellum and postbellum, romanticism and realism, he establishes a commonality among writers "remote in historical context, generation, race, temperament, and popular reception."  All their work reflects the "perseverance of the censor's presence" (1). This repressive force,  Gilmore writes,  "left indelible marks on the literary imagination and molded some of the principal themes and strategies of American romanticism and American realism" (2).  The censor's presence is particularly evident in persistent images of dumbness, silence, and "forcible muzzling" (5) in a range of nineteenth-century  literary instances  such as  the stuffing of Frado's mouth with cloth and wood in Harriet Wilson's Our Nig (1859)  and  the conspicuous muteness of both Babo and the Spanish leader in Melville's Benito Cereno (1856).  In Gilmore's view, therefore,  the oft-noted silencing of black voices in the nineteenth-century  public sphere and courts "migrates from blacks to whites" (6);  in a memorable line quoted from Stowe's Dred (1856), the "mouth of the North is stuffed with cotton" (qtd. 111).   But in the nineteenth-century,  American writers grappled with war and Reconstruction as well as with censorship. Antebellum texts often turned prophetic, envisioning words as powerful agents of political and racial progress and thus operating in a "comic mode."  Perched on the backside of history,  however,  postbellum authors registered an acute suspicion of language, demoting it to a secondary commemorative position (9) while embracing linguistic complexity and indeterminacy. Gilmore tracks a "recoil from the verbal's agency" in post-Reconstruction texts, a swerve from comedy to tragedy that mirrored the dismantling of statute and amendment after 1877, conspicuous proof of the emptiness of language  (32).  Strikingly, Gilmore correlates this shift in conceptions of linguistic power to a shift in the center of the publishing industry from Boston to New York, a dominant power in the financial and commercial markets of the nation and a city always more closely tied, politically and financially, to the southern labor system.  Like cultural materialists, Gilmore thus presents the urban locus of cultural production as a force materially shaping literary culture--though in this case, with race rather than class as the determining social category.

The study is divided into three sections.  The first, on the antebellum period, traces the strong belief in prophecy and what Herder called the "deedful word" among American Renaissance authors.  This belief, Gilmore contends, derives from Protestant theology's vision of the Word as Divine truth incarnate, a view secularized in republican culture and the politically-constitutive utterance of the Declaration and Constitution.  Like European romantics, Transcendentalists such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Fuller aimed to re-energize language, to (in Emerson's words) "fasten words again to visible things."  All protested curbs on articulation; all saw inspiring, unencumbered, life-giving speech as a revolutionary force; and all attributed the corruption and depletion of language to a filiopietistic fixation on the past.  Turning to novelists from the 1850s, Gilmore argues that Hawthorne, while famously uneasy about the political ferment of the 1850s and regularly depicting charismatic speakers as treacherous hypocrites, nonetheless grants the "oracular voice" (usually cast as communal gossip) real textual authority.  In Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and Dred, a sentimental aesthetics of "real presence," underwritten by scripture, establishes language as a vehicle of racial prophecy and justice.

The middle section examines three authors--Douglass, Whitman, and Melville--whose publishing careers straddled the war and who exemplify the book's critical shifts.  Douglass's three autobiographies anatomize slavery as an "ideological monolith" and a "regime of silence and repression in which the only voice permitted is that of the master" (qtd. 127, 123).  In particular,  Douglass's Life and Times (1881, rev. 1892)  testifies to the backlash against "honest expression of opinion" in the post-Reconstruction era--a backlash made official by the Supreme Court's nullification of the 1875 Civil Rights Act.  But Melville and Whitman did not share Douglass's animus against all curbs on expression.  While Douglass unambiguously assails the renewed assault on "free speech," Whitman and Melville equivocate on the moral legitimacy and political expediency of regulating discourse. In earlier works both embrace, to different degrees, what Whitman termed the "free tongues" of dissent (145);  later, both renounce the power of eloquence  as a goad  to the bloodshed of the war.  In a brilliant triptych of chapters on a Melville ever attuned to market demands,  Gilmore shows how he is both attracted to and repulsed by "risk-laden eloquence" (165).  While Benito Cereno shows  that slavery is as "silencing for whites as for blacks" (165), Billy Budd  stages the demotion of  language from "potency to morally problematic irrelevance" (173).   For Gilmore, Bartleby's "I prefer not to"  is less a gesture of resistance to the new regime of class exploitation than a sign of "submission" to the censor, a "symbol of [verbal] paralysis" (194).

The final section, on writers after Reconstruction, begins with a chapter on Albion Tourgée, whose best-selling A Fool's Errand (1879) is said to be "one of the most forthright books written in the nineteenth century about the North's craven submission to racism" (206). Then a brief reading of Helen Hunt Jackson's Ramona (1884) highlights the verbal disenfranchisement of mestizos and Indians in California as an index of the "cultural pervasiveness of the post-Reconstruction problematic that would shadow the American realists as an inhibitor of their own voices" (209).  As the center of national publishing shifted from Boston to New York,  the pursuit of a national market for books created implicit and at times explicit limitations on authorial speech. James's Bostonians (1886) perfectly allegorizes the costs of the "romance of reunion": the suppression of northern activist (here, female) speech by defenders of the "old Southern idea."

A chapter cleverly entitled "Is Twain Black?" startlingly re-interprets Twain's work, arguing that Twain addresses  race more directly than most other realists, but only by situating it in the slaveholding past--a fact that "says less about Twain's interests than about his internalized checks on directly addressing the explosive subject before a national, and increasingly 'southernized,' audience" (225).  Financial worries drove Twain's racial reticence: even as characters such as Huck practice protective "self-censorship" and dissimulation, the novelist adopted his protagonists' "(black) subterfuge of accommodation" (228), refusing to speak out forcefully against white supremacy (he never dared publish, for example, "The United States of Lyncherdom") for fear of alienating his adoring audience and risking his reputation as "America's humorist" (231). 

From Twain Gilmore turns to  Stephen Crane, Charles Chestnutt, and  Thomas Dixon.  In the story called "The Monster" (1898),  Crane's use of repetition signifies language's postbellum status as a "carceral realm ruled by the mindless recycling of communal orthodoxy, often through stereotype" (251)--an "echo chamber of racial disparagement" (255).  In Chesnutt, as in Douglass, the "disempowering of black voices forms the prelude to the throttling of white ones," a process that afflicts novelists as well; it silenced  Chesnutt after the failure of The Colonel's Dream (1905) and caused  his sponsor, Howells, to withdraw support "when the younger writer dared to tell the unwelcome truth about America's racial legacy" (257).  The final chapter, on Dixon, charts the rebirth and "seizure of verbal authority" by southern writers.  The "discursive power" once wielded by New England reformers and idealists thus migrates  to the "redeemer cause" (273)--a process that helps explain the presence of the "unreconstructed [white supremacist] voice" within "so many late nineteenth century fictions" (277).

Gilmore offers here an extraordinarily perceptive, compelling narrative of  nineteenth-century  literary history, anchored by fresh readings of a host of writers who are mostly male (on which I say more below).   Given the vast scope of the study, he demonstrates a striking command of each author's oeuvre, balancing analyses of canonical texts with discussions of   more obscure writings (letters, essays, speeches, etc.) as well as apt references to authorial biographies and historical context. Arguments advance  with impressive clarity and force, and Gilmore's critical acumen and dexterity are evident on every page of this elegantly-written book. 

Nevertheless, its  central arguments  raise a number of questions and potential objections.  First, in essentially equating "literature" and "rhetoric" and privileging the directness and persuasive power associated with the latter, Gilmore not only limits our view of historical changes that may have contributed to the trajectory he outlines,   such as the cultural decline of oratory, the decline in rhetorical education,  and the emergence of English Departments on university campuses;  he also provides little room for considerations of genre--novel versus essay, fiction versus nonfiction--or of the historically-contested category of "literature" itself.  He cites neither Raymond Williams' comprehensive study of nineteenth-century literature and politics, Culture and Society (1958),  nor  Nancy Armstrong's  Desire and Domestic Fiction (1987).  Both books treat  the emergence of the "literary" (indeed, in Williams' case, its specialization as subset of "rhetoric" and its special privileging of "imaginative" writing) in ways that  illuminate the depoliticization of literature that Gilmore charts, the diminishment of overt political engagement from the polemical essays of Emerson, Thoreau and Fuller to the "teacup realism" (207) of  postbellum novelists.  In many ways, a more nuanced sense of what Pierre Bourdieu terms the "literary field" as a shifting, class-stratified social terrain tied to the production of social distinctions (in which Tourgée and James have been differently plotted) would have helped to clarify the pressures on speech--the "war on words"--described here.  Notably, traits that have been defined as hallmarks of the "literary"--irony, complexity, multivalency--become for Gilmore  failures of rhetoric and  forms of political evasion; heteroglossia and dialogism, which for  Bakhtin exemplified  the novel's generic resistance to a fascistic univocality, become symptoms of the novelist's "refuge" (44) from politics.  For all their centrality in the study, neither "language" nor "voice" are theorized categories. The study seems to hew to a realist, expressivist view of language and power: power equates to  prohibition, while  having a voice and defying verbal constraints are vehicles of truth-telling and freedom.   But what might this analysis do with  (for instance), a Foucauldian model of power that operates through the incitement to speak--a model in which expression and regulation are inseparable?  From one perspective, the turn-of-the-century era witnessed not the prohibition but the compulsion to speak about race (e.g., the prevalence of social Darwinist, civilizationist, and eugenics discourses that carried strong racial, and racist, meanings) that complicate Gilmore's narrative of a shift from protest to silence.

The study would also have gained  from a more theoretically-nuanced presentation of other key concepts,  including censorship itself.  What is the relationship between state censorship and what media theorists have termed "market censorship"?  Between explicit, public prohibition and hegemonic constraints on speech?  Between political dictates and the production and internalization of literary norms (of "tastes")?  Here, the history of gender and sexuality--categories central, as Gilmore acknowledges, to other studies of postbellum literary censorship, notably Edward de Grazia's Girls Lean Back Everywhere (1993)--are crucial, and arguably inseparable from the history of race recounted here. As we see in Douglass' 1845 Narrative and especially in Harriet Jacobs' Incidents (1861), where  the perils of censorship are couched in a gothic idiom, the suppressed, secret history of the south is an explicitly sexual history, riddled  with all sorts of taboo desires. 

The fact that the "press was dumb" to the lynching epidemic and other horrors of racial injustice (35) has everything to do with restrictions on sexual speech and the cultural hegemony of the "female reader."  The "feminization" of the literary, as Karen Sanchez-Eppler and others have shown, has historically operated as a rationale for the banishment of sensational content (violence, explicit sexuality) seen to offend and damage a vulnerable female readership. Gilmore uses the term "repression" interchangeably with censored; but the Freudian overtones are telling--and worth taking into account.  Recent scholars such as Julia Stern to Anne Cheng have used a historically-situated psychoanalytic approach to plumb the psychic mechanisms structuring the public disavowal and "repression" of race since the nation's founding, a national affliction driven underground and rendered unspeakable in part by the myth of national perfectibility.  In such accounts, the trauma of race and the savagery of American racism are inseparable from forms of national idealization.  A greater engagement with these studies and with questions of sexuality and gender as well as affect and desire would more fully illuminate the forces at work in circumscribing the "delica[te]" subject of race and banishing slavery's horrors from the terrain of "respectable" literature (6, 45).

Lori Merish is Associate Professor of English at Georgetown University.  Her book, Laboring Women and the Languages of Class: Sex, Race, and U. S. Workingwomen's Cultures, 1830-1860, is forthcoming from Duke University Press.

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