VIRTUOUS CITIZENS: COUNTERPUBLICS AND SOCIOPOLITICAL AGENCY IN TRANSATLANTIC LITERATURE by Kendall McClellan, Reviewed by Ashley Reed
 


VIRTUOUS CITIZENS: COUNTERPUBLICS AND SOCIOPOLITICAL AGENCY IN TRANSATLANTIC LITERATURE
By Kendall McClellan
(U of Alabama P, 2021) 182 pp.
Reviewed by Ashley Reed on 2022-05-22.

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This book joins recent critical attempts to expand definitions of citizenship beyond those bounded solely by the franchise and to show how politically marginalized people increasingly entered into a late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century public sphere that was dominated by upper-class men's values and voices. While many scholars have noted that women and people of color increasingly gained access to print after the American Revolution, McClellan demonstrates the crucial role of counterpublics in this process. Counterpublics are spaces of discourse formed and defined, as Michael Warner has written, "by their tension with a larger public." Made up of persons not acknowledged as citizens and yet part of a reading, writing, and speaking public, counterpublics "enabl[e] a horizon of opinion and exchange" that is "distinct from authority and can have a critical relation to power" (Publics and Counterpublics [2002], 56). Counterpublic critiques of power are precisely the subject of McClellan's analysis. Complicating theories of civic virtue expounded by J. G. A. Pocock and building on the work of public sphere theorists including Jürgen Habermas and Nancy Fraser as well as Warner, McClellan shows how the rise of colonialism and bourgeois capitalism changed ideas about civic virtue: how virtue became detached from courage in war and reattached to commercial values, including industry and honesty. In the process, McClellan shows, virtue became more feminized, since market-friendly values could be practiced by women as well as men. Furthermore, this new virtue could be practiced in the public sphere and enacted by anyone able to get their ideas into print. 

After an introduction that lays out these theoretical stakes, the book's first two chapters examine progressive and conservative uses of a public sphere expanded by means of print. Treading familiar ground, the first of these two chapters shows how English abolitionist poets, including Ann Yearsley, Harriet Falconer, and Anna Laetitia Barbauld, crossed the increasingly blurred line between public and private. In discussing national virtue (especially in regard to Britain's role in the slave trade), McClellan writes, they established themselves as arbiters of public morality. This first chapter spends too little time analyzing abolitionist poetry and too much time reviewing eighteenth-century economic and social theories--topics that ought to have been covered in the book's introduction. The second chapter, however, intriguingly reads Gilbert Imlay's A Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America (1792) and The Emigrants (1793) as reactionary responses to Britain's increasing entanglement with global trade. Imlay (now better known for his scandalous relationship with Mary Wollstonecraft than for his writing) had benefited from land speculation in the New World and sought to promote English settler expansion in North America. But McClellan shows that his writings were deeply regressive. Fantasizing agrarian utopias in which minimal labor produces abundant wealth and men and women fall easily into their "natural" roles, Imlay envisions "a nostalgic return to the era before private and political life intersected... before the bourgeois public sphere developed" (52). Whereas the abolitionist poets of McClellan's first chapter celebrated how bourgeois capitalism and mercantilism made it possible for politically disenfranchised people to participate in public debates, Imlay's works suggest that mercantile capitalism unsettles "natural" boundaries between men and women and turns them into voracious luxury-seekers, to which his only viable alternative is a return to agrarian pseudo-feudalism. McClellan thus shows how the print public sphere could become a site for critiquing the very forms of social and economic change it made possible.

The third and fourth chapters of Virtuous Citizens similarly pair conservative and progressive treatments of the public sphere and bourgeois capitalism. Chapter 3, "The Virtue of Self-Government," reads James Fenimore Cooper's The Spy (1821) and The American Democrat (1838) against Catharine Maria Sedgwick's The Linwoods (1835). Cooper, McClellan shows, clung to a classical model of virtuous citizenship that attached virtue to property ownership and martial valor and thus, in early national America, to aristocratic white men. Seeking to stuff the democratic genie back in the bottle, Cooper's depictions of United States history and society are said to have shown how "a conception of civic identity that centers around property can be used to rationalize the need for subjugation of disenfranchised citizens" (79). On the other hand, McClellan writes, Sedgwick's model of democratic citizenship celebrates "[t]hose who demonstrate privately oriented middle-class virtues" and who "are able to exercise rational self-governance, making them capable of a stable civic subjectivity" (83). Since propertied and privileged men, writes Sedgwick, are rarely called upon to exercise self-restraint, she argues that virtuous citizens are most likely to be female. Curiously, though, given McClellan's concern with antislavery activism, this chapter has almost nothing to say about Rose in The Linwoods: a formerly enslaved woman who looks forward to the day when she too can practice virtuous citizenship in an ever-improving republic.

Chapter 4, "'Possessed with an Idea,'" returns to the subject of abolitionism by comparing Harriet Martineau's Society in America (1837) and "The Martyr Age of the United States" (1838) with Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) and Sarah Josepha Hale's Northwood (1826; revised 1852). Martineau and Stowe, McClellan argues, defined virtuous citizenship as the ability to maintain a perfect alignment between private virtue and public action. In both their fiction and nonfiction, they demonstrated how state enforcement of slave codes--particularly after the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850--made virtuous citizenship practicable only in counterpublic spaces formed by political subalterns uncorrupted by economic interest and political expediency. Contrasting the works of Martineau and Stowe with Hale's Northwood, McClellan also shows how Hale bowdlerized her own 1826 novel. To preserve a patriotic vision of national unity, McClellan writes, Hale turned Northwood from mildly antislavery to anti-abolitionist, for the 1852 version links civic virtue with Anglo-Saxon supremacy. "The unacknowledged implication of Hale's discordant text," McClellan writes, "is that in the antebellum, slave-labor-reliant US, practicing civic virtue meant the sacrifice of private virtues" (116).

Virtuous Citizens makes a useful contribution to the study of English and American literature in the period after the American and French Revolutions. Its readings of Gilbert Imlay, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, and James Fenimore Cooper are particularly strong, and it also addresses timely questions about how virtue is performed in the public sphere and how counterpublics come to shape opposing discourses. Yet McClellan's discussions of bourgeois capitalism and of print counterpublics sometimes stand beside one another--or by turns submerge each other--rather than cohering into a single argument. (Chapter 3, for instance, highlights depictions of virtuous citizenship in the early national historical novel but slights the workings of the public sphere in print.) The same could be said of the book's titular focus on transatlantic literature. The only two truly "transatlantic" figures in the text are Imlay and Martineau; the rest are American or British. This may seem like a quibble, but a book about the transatlantic public sphere of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries could more thoroughly address the different but entangled economic and social contexts of England and the early US. How did the formation of publics and counterpublics in the metropole of London differ from their formation in Britain's former colony? Was there a transatlantic public sphere (and transatlantic counterpublics)? If so, what held its two halves together? Some answers to this latter question can be found in the evangelical missionary and reform activities of the Second Great Awakening, which McClellan does not address.

But Virtuous Citizens does helpfully address its own relevance to our present situation. The introduction highlights parallels between women's counterpublics of the late eighteenth century and the #MeToo movement of the last 10 years; the conclusion draws a direct line from transatlantic abolitionist writing to Black Lives Matter activism. Publics and counterpublics, McClellan reminds us, are not solely artifacts of print; they remain with us in this digital age. And they continue to offer spaces where virtuous citizenship--however we define it--may be performed.

Ashley Reed is Associate Professor of English at Virginia Tech.


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