In the third installment of our series of "Notes on the Making of A New Literary History of America," adapted from a talk given by co-editor Greil Marcus last month at the International Conference on Narrative, Marcus considers a challenge raised at the symposium Writing Cultural History Today, held in 2009 to coincide with the publication of the book, and what that question reveals about the book’s composition and (accidental) structure. At the symposium, a participant said: “This book covers all sorts of subjects. It ranges all over the place. But what it ignores are the great social movements—the Industrial Revolution, the Civil War—that truly shaped the history of the country.” Part 1 can be found here; Part 2 is here; and Parts 4 and 5 will appear soon.
Thinking about the book in front of us, it became instantly clear that there was one great social movement that more than any other had shaped the country—and that was slavery. The War, Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address, might have to continue “Until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn by the sword”—and it is small-minded to think that that challenge ended when Lee surrendered to Grant. That is a story that began long before Lincoln spoke, and continues to this day.
Slavery and its legacies are not only addressed in the book—they turned out to be the spine of the book. And that spine is what holds it together, if anything does—that spine is what allows all of its limbs and appendages and internal organs and even its mind to work.
We never set out to make that book. This was something the book revealed to us. George Grosz, speaking of his time as a Dadaist in Berlin in 1920, said that “the point was to work completely in the dark.” We were working in the dark. If there was an engine powering the discussions that led to a choice of what subjects to include and which to leave out, the body of that engine might have been knowledge, but the fuel was ignorance. Again and again, as ideas and arguments flew around the table, we were amazed at the stories we were being told, thrilled by what we didn’t know.
There was no intention to make a point by setting Beverly Lowry’s essay on Uncle Tom’s Cabin next to Winfried Fluck’s on Brook Farm and Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance next to Liam Kennedy’s on Frederick Douglass’s address “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July”—we didn’t think through the connections between the mid-1840s denial of original sin and the depravity of man, the idea of human perfectionism, spiritualism, and abolitionism that thread through the three essays. The writers didn’t work together to draw their themes together. Working on their own—in the scheme of the book, which no one, the individual authors least of all, could see—they were working in the dark. But they were all, it turned out, sitting around the same table, and they all heard the same spirits knocking.
Lowry begins by talking about the family Harriet Beecher Stowe grew up in, where her father, the great preacher Lyman Beecher, had his ten children sit around the dinner table each night to debate the issues of the day. That table reappears in 1851, when readers waited for each issue of the Era for the next chapter in what began as “Uncle Tom’s Children”—the title, 87 years later, of a book by Richard Wright—the table where, in the words of one letter to the editor, “When the Era arrives, our family, consisting of twelve individuals, is called together to listen to the reading of 'Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’” The table reappears in the common dining hall of Brook Farm; it reappears with Margaret Fox’s spiritualist table in Rochester, New York, in 1852, where Frederick Douglass was a visitor—and, partly because of the impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, that table explodes into what in 1852 was the largest auditorium in the nation, Rochester’s new Corinthian Hall, where on July 5th—because he refused to speak on July 4th—Douglass gave his great speech to an audience of 700 people.
Lowry’s essay is about the focusing of a national mind, and the search for forms of speech everyone could understand—because in the American republic, in a democracy, that was the task of the American democratic writer. Incensed by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (the Bloodhound Bill, abolitionists like Harriet Beecher Stowe called it), Stowe slowly began to write, and found her way into a story, Lowry says, “that would rock the country and then the world.” Stowe was afraid to write the story of slavery, to make it real, to, in Lowry’s words, do “the unthinkable”—to affirm or even create that national mind, to transfer “her own sensibility, as a privileged, educated white woman into the consciousness of an enslaved black person,” presenting “the radical notion that slaves were capable of thoughts and feelings similar to hers, and, by extension,” to those of anybody else. “I dreaded to expose even my own mind” to the story she was going to tell, Stowe wrote later—and here again Georges Bataille’s curse against those afraid of the noise of their own words comes into play. And Lowry’s essay becomes a dramatization of how Stowe conquered her fear:
Sometimes a writer doesn’t know what she’s up to. Sometimes work makes its own demands. In cahoots with the work itself, the mind plays its own tricks. To calm our fears and uncertainties, it creates the notion of an attainable task ahead, easily completed. Under that illusion, we begin. And then the job asserts its demands. A short poem becomes a three-act play. A character sketch insists on stretching itself out to become a short story, a novella, sometimes even a novel. Such is almost certainly the case with Mrs. Stowe, who had already begun writing her sketches but perhaps could not imagine herself—a woman, after all, and the mother of seven—the author of a full-length novel.
With Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe searched for the speech that would speak to everyone: in her essay, Lowry emphasizes the way Stowe addresses her readers directly, as “you”—
“If it were your Harry, mother, or your Willie, that were going to be torn from you by a brutal trader,” Stowe wrote, trying to turn her readers into Eliza, “ . . . how fast could you walk? How many miles could you make in those brief few hours, with the darling at your bosom . . .?”
And so it is both a shock of recognition, planted just pages before, but also not really a surprise, to find Liam Kennedy, with no knowledge of the essay that would precede his, emphasizing the same form of address, the discovery of the same national speech, in Douglass’s overpowering address in Rochester. The Fourth of July, Douglass says, “is the birthday of your National Independence, of your political freedom.” But Douglass distances himself from his audience of white abolitionists only to, finally, perform the same act of communing with the dead—in this case, the dead ideals on which the country was founded and that the fact of slavery has so completely betrayed—only to perform the same act of transference Stowe performed, from the other side. At the same time as he distances himself from his audience, he speaks to its members as his “fellow citizens.” As Stowe did, and as Twain would do in Huckleberry Finn, he dramatizes a slave auction, to, Kennedy writes, lead his audience into an “identification with the plight of the slave”—but that is only half of the equation. “In doing so,” Kennedy writes, “he treats the Fourth of July as a symbolic repository of national memory and retells its narrative significance so as to record his own presence and that of Southern slaves within the origins and present crises of the body politic.”
Slavery and its legacies comprise the great social movement of the nation—what has, socially, moved it—and the book is, in part, and in a certain way as a whole, the literary history of that movement. But the cards were thrown up in the air and as they landed they made patterns, and laid themselves one upon the other, in a way that was implicit in the national narrative—but the narrative that emerged was never anyone’s explicit intention. As the book took shape, it wasn’t even necessarily recognized.