IMAGINING EQUALITY IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICAN LITERATURE by Kerry Larson, Reviewed by Andrea Stone
 

IMAGINING EQUALITY IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICAN LITERATURE
By Kerry Larson
(Cambridge 2009) viii + 212 pp
Reviewed by Andrea Stone on 2009-09-26.

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Can we grasp inequality without knowing what equality means? Augmenting and complicating current literary critical preoccupations with inequality, Kerry Larson redirects us to antebellum authors' imagining of equality in the United States. Larson shows how writers of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry -- black and white, men and women, anti- and proslavery -- centralize and "naturalize" equality to varying extents. Taking its point of departure from the "equality of conditions" that Tocqueville found in Jacksonian America, this book offers a series of case studies meant to show that equality is "a social norm whose presence was already well established and pervasive in the antebellum era" (1). To be sure, this seems a daring claim. But Larson's case study approach invites us to revisit ideas about inclusion and exclusion, liberty, rights, freedom, and autonomy in American literature and in the nineteenth-century U.S. generally. While Larson admits that this is not an "exhaustive examination" (5), he works like a photographer who turns his lens away from an event and toward an onlooker in order to show what may have preceded the event and the consequent attention that obscured it.

         As the latest entry in the Cambridge Studies series in American Literature and Culture, this book examines theories of equality and inequality from Aristotle, Locke, Mill, and Marx, and compares them to Tocqueville's reading of America. But rather than just recapitulating nineteenth-century definitions of equality, Larson reveals that the foregrounding of it in literature represents a "revolution in social perception whose reverberations are still being felt" (10). He thus highlights the essentially literary task of imagining equality. While the authors he surveys are diverse, he deftly unearths the common roots of their thinking: even when their purposes and their politics diverged, he shows, they sought to promote equality as a natural and desired goal. Larson's engagement with Tocqueville is productive, therefore, though Larson's own equation of nature and equality must be questioned. Though he contraposes equality and health to inequality and pathology, he neglects to address the theoretical implications of his rhetorical framework. But future studies of equality in nineteenth-century America will surely benefit from Larson's illuminating study of how a vastly diverse group of authors imagined it, and thus imagined what Tocqueville found quintessentially American.

         Beginning with a study of antislavery literature, Part One argues that its "rhetoric actively dramatizes the naturalizing of equality as an internal presence in ways that correspond to and are clarified by Tocqueville's analysis" (12). Reading David Walker, Frederick Douglass, Hosea Easton, and Harriet Beecher Stowe along with proslavery writers George Fitzhugh, James Henry Hammond and a selection of "anti-Tom" novels, Larson not only highlights the antislavery authors' naturalization of equality but also -- and more successfully -- reveals the proslavery writers' gestures toward the same while freshly exposing the sophistry of their arguments. Similarly and counter-intuitively, he undresses paternalism to show how it, too, derives from the notion that "equality takes sanction in nature" (49). He convincingly shows where anti-slavery and proslavery ideologies (not merely rhetoric) converged, particularly in their paternalism. As Walker, Douglass, Easton, and others contend, equality is something that precedes the "equality of conditions" observed by Tocqueville. Despite the elusiveness of its definition, Larson writes, "The internalizing of equality as an instinctive need, along with the theoretical emptiness of its alternative, suggests that equality comes before the social in the sense that it is understood to be a pre-conventional, wholly natural value" (20). According to Larson, the literature he examines confirms this point. But "nature" and "natural" are terms just as slippery as "equality." Likewise questionable is what Larson does with Easton's pathologization of slavery (33). Though he loosely runs this trope through the rest of the book, he does not examine the 'naturalness' of disease or explain what is at stake in defining inequality -- and its radical offspring slavery -- as actual pathology. Furthermore, while referring to racial scientist Josiah Nott's espousal of the "scientific 'fact' of the biological inferiority of blacks" (45) in Types of Mankind (1854), Larson neglects a potentially rich opportunity to trace the manipulated French ancestry of Nott's (and Henry Hotz's) The Intellectual and Moral Diversity of Races, an 1856 translation of Joseph Arthur de Gobineau's Essai sur l'inégalité des races humaines (1853-54). A comparison, if brief, of Tocqueville and Gobineau would have enriched our understanding of what the French thought about equality as well as of what they did or did not contribute to racist imaginings of it in America. As we learn from Michelle M. Wright's revealing essay "Nigger Peasants from France: Missing Translations of American Anxieties on Race and Nation" (Calaloo, Fall 1999), Nott and Hotz excised from Gobineau's original text sections that, for one, characterized America as '"a very mixed assortment of the most degenerate races of olden-day Europe"' (qtd. Wright 836). Though Gobineau's assessment may suggest a kind of equality among this land of peasants and European castoffs, it alters and significantly compromises the "radical egalitarianism among whites" that -- according to Larson -- Nott and others sought (45). Nevertheless, Larson makes much of his immediate point, which is that both anti- and pro-slavery theorists found themselves preoccupied with equality as they attacked and defended the peculiar institution (70) -- a point that lays fertile ground for the rest of Larson's analyses, especially of proslavery ideology.

         In Part Two, Larson takes his cue from Tocqueville's observation that equality shapes the relation between the part and the whole, "when claims to representativeness cease being the sovereign's prerogative and become a common condition" (Larson 72). As Larson presents it, literary nationalism originates from what Tocqueville called a certain kind of likeness: the '"likeness of individuals, which rules them out as subjects for poetry on their own, helps the poet to group them in imagination and make a coherent picture of the nation as a whole"' (qtd. in Larson 81). By analyzing the child elegy and Whitman's Song of Myself (revisiting and expanding on analyses in his 1988 book Whitman's Drama of Consensus), Larson moves from his previous examination of the poet's active role in producing social integration to explore representativeness -- how the one exists in the many and vice versa -- and he thus dramatizes Tocqueville's observation. At the same time, Larson reveals the "long foreground" of "equalizing" strategies: "the use of rhetorical indeterminacy to blur differences between speaker and listener, the hostility to unduly idiosyncratic, non-generalizable experience" (98). Larson convincingly reads Whitman in light of "Emerson's judgment that the poet is to 'apprise us not of his wealth but of the commonwealth.'" Describing 'American bards' in the 1855 Preface to Leaves of Grass, Whitman writes, '"They shall not be careful of riches and privilege, they shall be riches and privilege."' Here, writes, Larson, "the idea that the poet means many different things by representing an object is replaced by the idea that he becomes the object, dispensing with the need for representation altogether" (105). Such a "de-individualizing ... experience," says Larson, is the project of U.S. literary egalitarianism (72).

This section also reveals that a byproduct of egalitarian culture was envy. Examining works by Caroline Kirkland, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Harriet Wilson, Larson draws on Frances Ferguson's work to explore the ways in which "[t]he affliction of the envious seems ... bound up, ultimately, not with this or that object but with their standing within the larger social field." Envy, Larson writes, is "a more destructive and far-reaching effect" than "the priority of the whole over the part" identified in Whitman (108). Just as Larson shows in Part One that anti-slavery and pro-slavery writers were equally preoccupied with equality, his analysis of envy in Wilson's Our Nig identifies Northern anxieties about race and class shows that "envy has become an all-purpose signifier of discontent, attaching itself to those in relatively powerful and privileged positions no less readily than to the dispossessed and oppressed" (135) -- a deadly sin open to all, as it were.

In Part Three, Larson examines transcendentalist notions of friendship in light of a paradox. Emerson, Fuller, and Thoreau, he notes, "codify and endlessly comment" on the paradox that "those who are equals in spirit must maintain distance if they are to maintain their standing as equals" (140). For Larson, Emerson is "American culture's evangelist of equality" (143), and what he evangelizes inspires self-reliance. Therefore, as Larson explains, if "[to] be equal is to want to be autonomous [then] ... [t]he more I am persuaded that I'm just like everybody else, the more I will be inclined to covet my own distinctiveness" (143). Larson questions those who think Emerson simply contraposed equality and self-reliance. On the contrary, according to Larson, Emerson thought the work of processing others' ideas leads us to some possession of them. While Tocqueville found that "democratic culture creates a powerful predisposition for its members to establish a proprietary relationship to their beliefs" (155), Larson argues that Emerson transcends such proprietorship. "Emerson," he writes, "offers a kind of pedagogy, wherein one learns to submit, not to society, but to the 'idea' or 'thought' that is relatedness itself" (160). Constructively challenging recent scholarship, Larson thus suggests that Emerson did not always put individual freedom before social equality.

In Larson's account of Margaret Fuller, on the other hand, "the question is not how to achieve connection but how to manage the problem of a connectedness that cannot be shaken" (167). From there, through readings of Fuller, Hawthorne, and Louisa May Alcott (whose work he thematically and topically attributes to the antebellum era), Larson studies the paradoxes inherent in the "logic of equal, but separate selves" between the worker and his or her work. Even while work came to be valued "as an expressive activity responsible for bringing forth a special or destined identity," writes Larson, "it was also regarded as a mark of the 'common condition'" (169). Unlike Marx, Larson contends, Tocqueville construed "imagined equality" as the source of an individual's desire to separate: "On his reading, the alienation experienced by the Christie Devons and Lucy Larcoms of the world is no more oppressive than liberating; rather, their distance from the meaningfulness of their work equips them with a way of believing themselves to be part of the whole without being sacrificed to or absorbed by the whole" (181).

Using Tocqueville convincingly, Larson shows that what defines and unites American authors in the nineteenth century is their imagining of equality. Though sometimes slippery in its use of key terms such as 'equality,' 'nature,' 'liberty,' and 'democracy,' this book breaks new ground in exploring revolutionary literary imagining in the United States. Larson's lens, to return to the earlier analogy, will surely enable students of the antebellum U.S. to sharpen and widen their focus within and across academic disciplines.

 

Andrea Stone is McPherson Post-Doctoral Fellow at Smith College. Her work has appeared in American Literature, Canadian Literature, and The Encylopedia of the African Diaspora.  


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