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How to Read the New Histories of Empire, Part 5

7. The new histories of empire are theory-laden.

One of the more remarkable features of Richard White’s writing is a certain idealist strain that breaks through irregularly. At one point, he informs readers that the middle ground was the site of certain “beliefs,” a kind of doctrine: “beliefs not only that the boundaries between societies and cultures were permeable but also that identities were interchangeable.” (389) It is important to register that the character of White’s argument has just shifted, by assigning to the frontier a moment of reflection or norm-generating self-consciousness. He is now claiming something more than that social and ethnic roles were up-for-grabs on the borderlands. He has added the assertion that the frontier-dwellers also knew this, or at least that they believed it, the suggestion being that they held cosmopolitan and anti-identitarian commitments. The Indians, he writes, were “attempting to prove the boundaries permeable.” (391) It’s that last phrase, with its clear echoes of the seminar table, that gives one pause, tending as it does to transform the Delaware and Shawnee into bearers of Adornian or Butlerite positions, or, indeed, to cast eighteenth-century Native Americans as undergraduate Sartreans, the ones who got As on their existentialism mid-terms, while the Anglo-Americans sit there looking slightly abashed, the square students who just don’t get it or who have read the wrong philosophers. The problem isn’t that the Virginians and Pennsylvanians were colonists—so, after all, were les habitants and les voyageurs. The problem was their identitarianism and mauvaise foi.

Perhaps Sartre and Butler are a red herring, however, because White’s real mentor in matters of political philosophy goes by a different name. Anyone reading The Middle Ground for the first time might notice that White is hung up on a couple of phrases: “The common world of the pays d’en haut” (519); “it succeeded in restoring, at least diplomatically, a common world and a common understanding.” (270); “The common world was … becoming ragged” (430); “The common world narrowed.” (432) A person might even be puzzled by this. Nowhere does White sound more like a pop existentialist than on the opening page of The Middle Ground, where he tells readers that his will be a book “about the search for … common meaning,” a phrase that, by recalling Viktor Frankl, does nothing to make the American frontier seem more benign, since Frankl, we’ll recall, was searching for meaning in a concentration camp. One of the worst things about “Indian haters,” at any rate, is that they “sought to terminate … more complicated searches for common meaning.” (389) But we can leave the word “meaning” to one side. For it is the word “common” that links the phrases “common meaning” and “common world” and thereby points us to a proper name. For “common world” is one of Hannah Arendt’s signature terms. A quick search of recent literature on Arendt turns up an essay called “How Common Is Our Common World?” (Kattago) and another called “The Idea of a Common World” (Jones). Outfitted with that unmarked citation, the reader soon spots White borrowing other concepts and arguments from a beloved philosopher. First Arendt (1972: 142 – 143): “It is, I think, a rather sad reflection on the present state of political science that our terminology does not distinguish among such key words as ‘power,’ ‘strength,’ ‘force,’ ‘authority,’ and, finally, ‘violence’…. Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert.” Then Richard White: George Rogers Clark, the head of the Kentucky militia, “was by temperament a war leader who thought that force was power”—though one notes that by “force,” White seems to mean “violence” and so becomes the target of Arendt’s argument in the very act of restating it. (426) Or again: Anyone who has read around in Hannah Arendt will know that the “common world” takes as one of its near-synonyms “the in-between,” which hereby joins those others as the fourth of the middle ground’s major connotations: the Midwest, the frontier, political moderation, and the Arendtian in-between. At this point, in order to collate these dispersed references, it becomes necessary to bring into view Hannah Arendt’s Big Story. For Arendt, politics always takes place in that intermediary zone, the public space of the polis or its agora, which we must learn to cherish for its own sake, which we must take care to distinguish from private life and which we must commit ourselves to cultivate and protect. The public and in-between is the space where we can deliver speeches and undertake actions without—and this is its signal advantage over home—having to certify these as intimate or authentic. The in-between is also the place where differences between people can be put on display and to some degree adjudicated without any presumption of unanimity. If members of a society share a common world than they need share little else—not attitudes or beliefs or ways of living. It doesn’t matter that we maintain different perspectives on x, provided we remain certain that we in some sense share x or that x is a public thing. Arendt’s philosophy can thus be read as a therapeutic program, designed to strengthen its readers’ flagging commitments to the public and active life, to remind them of all the reasons to love the common world, hence to combat the consoling lure of private life. But it is perhaps better read as a grand récit about the collapse of that common world, about the overtaking of politics by mere household concerns—what Arendt calls “the social” but what we on etymological grounds might more tellingly call “the economic.” Richard White’s least remarked upon achievement is also his most wondrous—a specimen to be admired by all collectors of rechercé academic ingenuities. He is retelling Arendt’s Big Story, her only story, the story about the death of politics, but has adapted it to a (somewhat) new location and a (sharply) new chronology, like Akira Kurosawa deciding to set King Lear in Sengoku-period Japan. In the place of ancient Greece, which was always Arendt’s paradigm of a Properly Political Place, we find Fort Detroit, as the vita activa’s womb and epitome. And the American Revolution, which Arendt took to have sponsored a temporary revival of genuine politics, translating Anglo-Americans into the active life, turns out instead to have brought about the fall of public man (because public man lives on the Midwestern frontier, and US Americans depoliticized that space via thick settlement and Indian removal). 1776, which we have been taught to see as the common world’s second chance, was instead its betrayal and shutdown. That White is also adapting the arguments of Frederick Jackson Turner should be abundantly clear by now. The Middle Ground works by superimposing upon a Turnerite story about the end of the frontier an Arendtian story about the end of the common world. “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” rewrites itself as The Human Condition.


How to Read the New Histories of Empire, Part 4

6) The new histories of empire are generically comic. Whether or not you find a given account of the frontier plausible will have a lot to do with positions you’ve arrived at, and tastes you’ve formed, before you’ve ever heard of Fort Duquesne or Blue Jacket. How do you think history typically proceeds?—except that most history-writing is narrative, so the question is better rephrased: What kind of stories do you think history typically yields? And before that: What do you think makes for a good story anyway? What kinds of stories are you drawn to? There comes a woozy moment, in any extended discussion of history-writing, when the emphasis has to shift from the history to the writing, from the conscientious checking and re-checking of paleographic fact to the fashioning of a narrative that living readers will find aesthetically satisfying and so assign explanatory effects. Informing yourself about the eighteenth-century American frontier—or about any other patch of imperial history for that matter—is not fundamentally unlike choosing a movie to watch. Your housemate turns to you and asks: “What are in you the mood for?” In the standard accounts of Pontiac’s Rebellion, the generic conventions are almost too easy to pick out. Literary critics surveying the available texts are likely to feel that they should have to try a little harder. A reader thus opens Francis Parkman’s Conspiracy of Pontiac, first published in 1851, and finds Anglo-American heroes “bold and hardy enough to venture” into Indian country in the face of “murderous attacks,” “stout-hearted” “adventurers” and men of “duty and courage” (455-6, 678, 456). Ranged against these chevaliers of the New World we find Pontiac, “the Satan of this forest paradise,” an “arch-demon,” avatar of a “murder-loving race” (508, 812, 829). The Ohio Valley becomes the stage of an American adventure story, or romance, with clearly delineated heroes, performing “memorable feats” “in the true spirit of heroism” and thereby squaring off against Indians who serve largely as obstacles to be overcome (579, 576). (Maybe your housemate has proposed that you watch an old Western. Maybe your housemate is your dad.) Of course, other genre cues can join themselves to these medievalizing ones. Parkman sometimes writes in a Homeric mode, filling his pages with war councils and martial catalogues, in a manner that suggests he meant to supply US literature with its missing epic. Similarly, he sometimes writes as the classical historian of the American colonies, with Tacitus and Herodotus as his proximate models, hence with the Indians cast as Goths or indeed as “barbarian hordes” (796). That said, the fundamentally neo-chivalric cast of Parkman’s language can be pegged to a single word, gallant, which he favors: The non-British commander of Fort Pitt is “the gallant mercenary,” supported by “the gallant Swiss, Captain Ecuyer,” a “gallant soldier” capable of “gallant conduct” (642, 734, 735, 794). Anglo-Americans used to refer to native American settlements as “castles.”[i]

To script the 1763 rebellion as a tragedy, meanwhile, is simple enough—it takes just two steps: First, Howard Peckham’s Pontiac and the Indian Uprising (1947) is the only monograph to present itself as a biography of the Ottawa leader. Chapter 1 is called “His Background,” Chapter 2 “His Early Life,” and so on. The effect of this choice is to frame a generalized anti-colonial war as the effort of a one admittedly important war-leader—or, if you prefer, to fix our attention on the program laid out by a single chief. Syntactically, this individualizing thrust makes itself felt via persistent synecdoche, in which the name “Pontiac” is made to serve as the term for the collected Indian forces: “If Pontiac could not stop the supply ships from reaching Detroit….” (210) “He [Pontiac] had failed to annihilate Dalyell’s force….” (209) Other literary conventions reinforce Pontiac’s centrality. It is Peckham’s habit to summarize the speeches given by other people only to reproduce Pontiac’s oratory in full, often over several pages, setting them off as monologues in a manner that readers are likely to experience as Shakespearean. The book’s biographical frame is thus reinforced by quasi-theatrical sequences, which Peckham can almost name as such: “The spotlight had been focused on [Pontiac] for the past several days, but this climatic appearance on the stage of Indian diplomacy was his last role of consequence.” (297) A man who never once saw a play, who in fact spent his life some six hundred miles from the nearest theater, is anachronistically described as thespian and leading player. Second, the historian, having emphasized the (theatricalized) agency of Pontiac as individual nonetheless insists on the limits of same. If we look back at the instances of synecdoche just quoted, we’ll see that they emphasize miscarriage and disappointment, rendering Pontiac as sole actor, but then announcing his inability to act or to complete an attempted action: He could not stop the ships. He failed to wipe out the British army. In his final chapter, then, Peckham reclassifies the book he has just written, swapping genres at the last possible moment. Pontiac’s has been a story about a “diminishing of power,” about “losing,” about “not attaining any of [one’s] objectives.” (319) In formulations such as these, biography yields to tragedy: The Indian leader “stood in our path for a moment and thrust us back, revealing the tragedy of his people and the cost of human progress. … From this date the real tragedy of the Indian begins.” (322) The scholar obligingly names his preferred plot-form at the moment of its conclusion. The first play written by an American to feature an American setting was Ponteach, or the Savages of America: A Tragedy (1766).

Or again, readers with more lurid tastes might decide they prefer David Dixon’s Never Come to Peace Again, published by the University of Oklahoma in 2005. That Dixon has written a kind of Gothic yarn—or perhaps a horror-Western in the manner of Ravenous or Bone Tomahawk—should be clear by Chapter 4 at the latest, when we read an interpolated “legend” about a British settler, killed by Pontiac outside of Detroit, trying twice to scrabble out of his burial ground, his “pale arm protruding from the grave.” (112) It is around that zombie-movie freeze-frame that the rest of Dixon’s book will now organize itself. Pontiac’s Rebellion was a war full of “bizarre tales,” the historian/crypt-keeper tells us in the language of the pulps, a “horrifying holy war” on the Indian side, a sequence of atrocities on the English side, outrages perpetrated by white “fiends.” Quotations from period documents obligingly make the genre argument for us: “Anything feigned in the most fabulous romance cannot parallel the horrid sight now before us.” (qtd 163) And it’s true: One wonders whether any other peer-reviewed monographs by tenured American historians feature quite so much cannibalism. Dixon even concludes his preface with a winkingly insincere warning/enticement to the reader—“I beg the reader to be indulgent through the relation of numerous horrific atrocities perpetrated by both sides during the conflict” (xiii)—a sentence that converts the academic prologue into a vintage B-movie teaser: “Do you have the guts to sit in this chair?” “Trained nurses will be available in the lobby.” “No refunds!” A reader skimming forward at this point will notice that Chapter 2 is called “A Colony Sprung From Hell,” in which the Ohio Valley becomes the stage for an American horror story. It remains to be said that an older version of literary theory would suggest that we call such hell-writing “satire” rather than “horror,” where “satire” refers to stories without heroes, stories, that is, in which the characters who would usually be regarded as heroic are merely victims or are themselves bad, hence stories in which nobody wins. Thus Dixon, in his book’s final pages: “Neither side could claim any decisive victory in the conflict.” (242) At one point he asks us to “ponder” a bit of anonymous backwoods graffiti: Nous sommes tous sauvages.[ii]

By now, anyone familiar with Northrup Frye’s short catalog of story-types or “fictional modes” will have realized that one of them is missing. Historians can fashion the stuff of the eighteenth-century frontier into an American romance; they can fashion it into an American tragedy; or they can fashion it into an American horror story. The mind now itches to ask whether they can also fashion it into an American comedy—a comedy, that is, that would include the Native Americans, since inclusion is one of the comic mode’s more important features. Can we fix our attention on the frontier and find (except—no, not “find”) there a story, not of universal savagery, but of new life, or revival and rejuvenation, a story in which there are no losers, a story of reconciliation in which everybody wins, in which nearly all the characters turn out to be good guys, in which apparent conflicts are revealed to be misunderstandings, and in which the social order remakes itself at last around a few improbable marriages? A reader can disagree with every page of Richard White’s Middle Ground and still admire the resourcefulness with which he sets about this unlikely task, point for point for point.

A story of revival and rejuvenation? White’s very first argument is that colonization was not just destructive; it didn’t merely mow down native people. Nor was it the extension unto monotony of older European social forms. Empire “creates as well as destroys”; or, better, it provokes rounds of creativity in Europeans and Native Americans alike. The last sentence of the book’s first paragraph reads: “Something new could appear”—a “new man,” “new systems of meaning and of exchange,” “new meanings and through them new practices.” (ix-x) In sun-saluting prose, Richard White summons his readers to the colonial equinox. The hard ground yields. Birds remember their song.

A story in which there are no losers? One is tempted to argue, as a discrete point, that the new histories of empire are pro-trade. The observation proves skippable, however, and not only because it is wholly unsurprising, but also because it is properly catalogued as one of the school’s comic impulses. In this regard, the most telling sentence in The Middle Ground is tucked into one of the book’s two distinct and widely separated attacks on dependency theory. White is out to contravene a group of dependency theorists, including a younger version of himself, who thought they could show that a growing reliance on European manufactures had narrowed the political options available to Native Americans in the period of westward expansion. The Europeans possessed a permanent bargaining advantage, one they did not fail to exploit, which was that they controlled access to goods that the vast majority of native people were not prepared to do without. Here, then, is that argument’s comic refutation: On the frontier, “it remained possible for both traders and Indians to profit from … exchange.” (484) Global trade under colonial conditions did not undermine Indian autonomy; it gave native peoples scope, rather, to initiative and self-reinvention. This was especially true around the Great Lakes, because trade with the French involved “love”; without that “love,” it’s true, trade risked turning “chaotic,” not oppressive, necessarily, but disordered. (265) This is an argument that White then gladly extends to military affairs: The biggest Indian uprising of the eighteenth-century sought, not an end to colonial rule, but an “accommodation between the races.” (270) Even “conflict” and “confrontation” are best grasped as opportunities to “rearrange … relationships.” (420) [iii]

A story in which apparent conflicts are revealed to be misunderstandings? White is interested in misunderstanding in two different modes. First, misunderstanding is one of the engines of imperial creativity: Forced to adapt to native lifeways, the French never fully comprehended the practices they had adopted, and so unwittingly created new ones, by force of persistent mis-emulation. That the same point can be made of the Indians, compelled to guess what the Europeans wanted from them and never quite getting it right, merely duplicates the point. American modernity is a bad translation and subtly botched rite. White’s second version of misunderstanding is more obviously of the type identified by genre theorists and directly recalls the plots of the comic stage. The Middle Ground reports on the moment when the Mingos, a breakaway group of mostly Seneca Indians who moved into the Ohio Valley in the eighteenth century, decided that the British had “bad designs” upon them. White calls attention to this instance of resentment and antipathy and then analyzes it in a manner that largely exculpates the British. The Mingos had given in to an understandable misperception. “Famine and epidemic, coupled with British trade policies, created an [Indian] image of the British not as misguided brothers, but as enemies, a malevolent people bound by neither kinship nor ritual obligations.” (275) Such is the subtlety of comic plotting, which it is easy to underestimate: A well-tooled comedy needs to be able to mimic the plots of epic and tragedy and the adventure story, simulating the conflicts and crises that are the indispensable stuff of narrative interest, and so affording, after a fashion, the basically jejune and melodramatic pleasures of the non-comic genres, all the while negating the plot’s various dangers and clashes, even as it stages them, by in the end re-classifying all conflict as misperception, transient and rectifiable. British imperial agents in North America were nobody’s enemy; they were, at worst, temporarily estranged kin: “misguided brothers.” “Misunderstandings were also the stuff on which the middle ground fed.” (383)[iv]

A story of societies remade by hitherto disallowed marriages? There is an x here that goes by many different names. The classically minded theorists of genre call it comedy. The Victorianists call it the marriage plot. The anthropologists call it exogamy. For a while, the postcolonialists made it seem compelling again by calling it hybridity. A literary historian might call it the last two chapters of Walter Scott’s Waverley. I’m writing for the moment about colonial North America, so I’ll call it the Pocahontas motif in order to observe that Richard White deploys it with the frequency of a priest publishing the banns:

-“Indians, like the [French] commanders, saw marriage as an integral part of their alliance with the French. . . .” (69)

-“To keep the villagers loyal, French commanders depended, too, on the métis legitimes and on the Frenchmen who had intermarried and traded among the Indians.” (215)

-The middle ground sponsored “a heterogeneous mix of different peoples loosely linked by intermarriage and common loyalties.” (316)

-“The French took wives from the Indians and produced children of mixed descent; the British took land and threatened the well-being of [Indian] children.” (342)

It is this last sentence that most bolsters one’s sense that Richard White thinks in terms of literary genre, though perhaps without realizing that this is what he is doing. In two pared-back clauses, he has assigned to each of the major North American empires its characteristic plot. The British Empire generates melodrama: sociopaths with posh accents menace the cowering young. The French Empire is a library of courtship novels, a favorite book multiply re-read, at the end of which there will always be a Québécois Darcy, ever-wedding his Anishinabe Elizabeth.[v]

Comedy, it hardly needs saying, is not an obligatory mode. It is at least as plausible to describe the pre-Revolutionary frontier as, in the words of another ethnohistorian, “a place where the peripheries of two cultures merged, creating potentially dangerous situations based upon tension, hostility, fear, and insecurity between the two peoples,” a “flux area,” unusually “precarious” (Kawashima: 2) Read alongside these contrasting claims—mixture, yes, but volatile mixture, dangerous to some of its human components, ready at times to re-separate—Richard White’s version of the colonial periphery stands out by virtue of its wholly amicable stability, not the stability of particular imperial or Indian formations, but the stability of the middle ground itself, as the matrix for these others. To hear White tell it, everything fed the middle ground; everything that happened on the middle ground, no matter how death-stalked or superficially antagonistic, was an invitation for further moderation and accommodation. The French were ousted from Canada, and the British got absorbed by the middle ground even as they refused it. The Indians arranged around Pontiac launched a simultaneous rebellion against every British fort in the west—and nonetheless ended up reaffirming the Middle Ground. One consults Gary Nash, summarizing a generation’s worth of research into Native America in the 1770s and ‘80s, and finds him writing that the American Revolution was a catastrophe for Native America (Nash: 346ff.; see also Calloway). And then one turns back to White, who claims instead that “for all its clamor and destruction, [the Revolution] watered the political middle ground….” (366) Even murder fed the middle ground: Every ambushed trader provided impetus for a fresh cycle of diplomacy; every killing was a chance to reaffirm friendships and expiate wrongdoing. “In fighting and death, as well as in peace and negotiations, there were contacts, meanings to be deciphered, and understandings reached.” (387) The most important thing about a murder is the people who come calling after the funeral.

Anyone still puzzled by White’s position need merely dip back into literary theory. You can tell what White is doing if you know how comedies work. For students of the genre have often observed that Shakespearean comedy, in particular, has a thing for forests. In many comedies, characters exit the ordinary world of city or court and remake themselves, not always by choice, in the woodlands outside of Mantua or Athens. When literary historians go looking for the origins of the frontier myth, they tend to single out the more or less martial genres of early American writing: captivity narratives, memoirs of Indian war. What Richard White has grasped better than these English professors is that comedy has always been a sylvan genre, too, no less than these others. It was only a matter of time, then, before some writer seized the genre-dictated opportunity to redescribe indigenous Wisconsin as the Forest of Arden. White’s most enduring bequest to the new histories of empire, replicated serially across the continents and across the university’s many regional expertises, has been to show scholars how to look at any contested zone of timber, bush, or jungle and to see there only the green world.[vi]

[i] For “castle,” see, for instance, Middleton 2007: 29, 33, 60, as in: British “claims threatened the upper Mohawk castle of Canajoharie.” (29) By introducing the question of genre, I am, of course, following a procedure first recommended by Hayden White in Metahistory.

[iii] The full quotations might be instructive in this instance: p. 265: “When gain rather than ‘love’ ruled the trade, exchange remained chaotic.”; p. 270: “Out of the radically different British and Alognquian interpretations of the meaning of the British victory over the French, it [Pontiac’s Rebellion] forged a new, if tenuous, accommodation between the races.”; p. 420: “To portray the confrontation along the Ohio simply as a conflict between the new American state and Indian tribes misses the complexity of the relationships between the various groups involved; it neglects the extent to which confrontation itself was rearranging the organization and relationships of the region.”

[iv] See also Martin Goodman in Rome and Jerusalem (386): “Bloodshed [in Judea in the early first century] seems always to have been the result of quite specific incidents. During the festival of Passover in the late 40s or early 50s a Roman soldier bared himself, turned his backside to the assembled pilgrims and let out a noise like a fart, according to Josephus’ account in his Jewish War; in the parallel account in the Antiquities, the insult was to display his genitals. (The accounts are of course not incompatible. Perhaps this was a cultural misunderstanding and Romans felt able blithely to joke about nudity and bodily functions in a way that Jews found disgusting.)”

[v] An early review by Rebecca Kugel highlights the centrality to White’s argument of Indian women and intermarriage. See also Plane 2002.

[vi] On the literary origins of the frontier myth, see especially Slotkin 1973.

How to Read the New Histories of Empire, Part 3


Here, then, are seven points to keep in mind when reading the new histories of empire—preliminary theses that any reader should be able to confirm by reading widely in the scholarship published since 1990 or so. The first three are implicit in what I’ve already written:

1) In the contemporary academy, defenses of empire are surprisingly common.[i]

2) These often emerge from the corners of the university where you would least expect to find them—from among ethnohistorians, for instance, or critical theorists.[ii]

3) They are typically liberal or left-liberal in orientation.[iii]

The remaining four points will require a little more explanation.

4) The new histories of empire are superficially pro-indigenous and so easily misread as hostile to empire. This matter is perhaps best understood as involving a rhetorical technique. Many readers will find defenses of empire plausible only if these have been routed first through a defense of indigenous people. The initial task facing the new imperial historian is thus to show that empire brought benefits to non-Europeans or that it was in some meaningful way the latter’s choice and co-creation—that empire, indeed, was just one more version of indigenous society. The simplest way to do this will be for the historian to route his imperialism through a necessary mediation, by focusing our attention on some group of colonized people who for whatever reason elected to cooperate with the Europeans. One sides with empire by siding first with them. At the same time, arguments of this kind typically proceed by way of the negative, which is to say that their defense of one set of imperial practices announces itself as a critique of other empires. In practice, this requires little more of historians than that they identify to their own satisfaction which version of empire was best for indigenous people, hence that they posit a Good Imperialism alongside a Bad One, though if carefully written, even this simple A-B coding can masquerade for long stretches as an anti-imperialism. This antithesis, it must be noted, can work a few different ways: the early stages of empire vs. the late ones; the remote margins of an overseas territory vs. its oldest and most settled districts; weak imperial programs (indirect rule, soft power, treaty imperialism) vs. strong ones; national empire #1 vs. national empire #2, the French vs. the British, the British vs the Spanish, any of these vs. the Americans. White’s arguments, for all their archivally generated detail, are, of course, iterable. Arguments he makes about the French can be transferred at will to any other group of Europeans. One important circle of historians, headed by Francis Jennings and Stephen Saunders Webb, have asked us to admire the British Empire for its determination to protect native peoples from Anglo-American encroachment. For much of the continent, Indian survival would have required more empire and not less. In such writing, the British and Indian alliance, as forged at Albany and points north, becomes the target of our trans-historical identification, and this cathexis yields a position that, though difficult to parse in the political categories of the early twenty-first century, is nonetheless fairly common among PhD-holding historians: anti-colonial, but pro-empire.[iv]

5) The new histories of empire are Americanizing. White’s writing cultivates in the reader a disaffection towards American history. The Anglo-Americans are the ones who menace the middle ground and in the book’s final act destroy it. They are the agents of ethnic and religious immoderation; the founders of some strange, new country without a middle; the designers of its impossible geometry—a surface, vast and unbroken, that is nonetheless all perimeter. And yet it is enough to blink once, and these two seemingly opposed terms—America and the middle ground—will start to merge. America, which we have been instructed to see as the middle ground’s annihilator from the east, turns out instead to be its synonym and twin, a second name for the third term. That which is neither Indian nor European is. . . . To American Studies scholars, meanwhile, the notion of the middle ground is likely to suggest nothing so much as the chronotope of Hollywood Westerns and dime novels. Frontier stories, after all, have always rendered the US as the space in-between, carving their story-world into three vertical tiers: a Far West, wolfish and primordial; an effete and overcivilized East Coast; and a central zone, paradigmatically American because semi-civilized, on the understanding that semi-civilization is actually the preferred state. The task of the Western, as genre, is to consider how this last, easily understood as transitional and unstable, might nonetheless be maintained: how to be white, certainly, but not too white. Any backyard, toy-gun reenactment of the frontier myth—any game, I mean, called cowboys and Indians—is thus an abbreviation of what was always a more complicated narrative structure. The organizing principles of the Western are not two-term, in the manner beloved of structuralists and schoolboys, but three-term: cowboys and Indians and Easterners: dudes, greenhorns, English dandies, pedant-journalists, the shady agents of the railways. Frontier stories are to this extent always multiple and hard to summarize. Readings of Westerns inevitably yield paradox, since the master-story they tell while facing westwards will be contradicted by the master-story they tell while facing east. Stories about bringing civilization to the deserts and the badlands double as Rousseauvian parables about Europeans who regenerate themselves by exiting the metropolis. Your typical Western is at once a vernacular narrative about the coming of modernity and a story about the return to nature, in which the Easterner becomes an American by stripping away finical layers of accreted custom and luxury. No doubt: It is the genre’s anti-Indian animus that has allowed Westerns to function as so many parables of modernity into the twentieth century and beyond, re-tooling the form’s older, agrarian republicanism by harnessing it to a fully commercial ideology. Settlers in Westerns look like yeomen but are inevitably the bearers of market society. The historical cowboy, after all, nonsensical icon of American independence, was a not-at-all-autonomous worker paid a wage to drive his boss’s bovine commodity to market. Complexities abound, however. If the fictional cowboy is not simply a Lowell factory girl in disguise, then this is because the persistence, in the genre, of the East as a cursed space, even when Indians are the primary enemy, means the Western is always eager to draw distinctions among its pioneers. There are proper ways of living in a commercial society, visible only in the primal spaces of incipient modernization—distinctively American ways, as opposed to European ones—and these will still be roughly primitivist and republican, rather than bourgeois-Occidental. It is therefore misleading to describe literary cowboys and frontiersmen as the puppet-envoys of European society or as generically white. For they will count as American only if their whiteness has been modified and perhaps even compromised, if, that is, they have to some degree adopted Indian ways. White Indians were the stock figures of early American nationalism: Daniel Boone, Natty Bumppo, sundry other rangers, scouts, and trappers, all of them figures of the middle ground. In the introduction to his book, Richard White tells the reader that he “found . . . much that surprised [him]” while researching the volume, that, indeed, he “found his perspective on the period changing” in some fundamental way. (xi) Anyone reading these words might well expect White to be expounding a new paradigm. How baffling, then, to realize that this “new Indian history” (he uses the term on p. xi) is mostly a restatement of the old Western and frontier myths—more baffling still to return to the book and find that its author has admitted as much on the first page: “American myth . . . retained the wider possibilities that historians have denied American history.” (ix) In defiance of our accustomed sense that historians are among the great demystifiers, the fact-checkers of popular memory and dispellers of chauvinist legend, the new history of the West steps forward to validate the frontier myth, to renew the Leatherstocking fable by reassigning it to the French. The result is a book that just keeps repeating all the old claims about how the West was the true America, and about how this true America was eventually lost. The old West, White tells us, was the open space where “a person could become someone else.” (389) The book’s lyrics are skeptical and anti-nationalist, but its tunes have all been borrowed from patriotic songs.[v]

[i] One monograph does not a pattern make. For other instances, see the discussions below of James Merrill and Doris Sommer. Subsequent footnotes will draw attention to scholarship on west Africa, South America, the Pacific, ancient Israel, and the multicontinental British Empire. The thrust of this scholarship is especially apparent in Nicholas Thomas’s Islanders: The Pacific in the Age of Empire (Thomas 2010), whose jacket copy assures readers in its second sentence that the book will reveal to them the “gain” of empire—imperial benefits and rewards—and not just “loss,” as well as empire’s capacity for “invention.” The book goes on to claim that most native people were more interested in “creative accommodation” than in resistance and to demonstrate in indigenous societies a widespread “enthusiasm for things European and things British” (3, 24).

[ii] A belated word on the essay’s title: There was a vogue around 1990 for re-christening as “new” various subfields in the study of European expansion: the new Western history, the new American studies, the new imperial history. The last is especially instructive: The “new imperial historians” were credentialed, archivally adept historians who nonetheless avowed a disciplinarily unfashionable debt to critical theory and who to that extent gave priority to culture and discourse; who paid special attention to matters of gender, race, and ethnicity; who promised to write an imperial history without nostalgia; and who refused to take nations as given, but instead favored explanations in terms of “circuits” or “webs” or “global interconnections.” For the new imperial historians, Britain would no longer count as central, even in the British Empire. For a while, Antoinette Burton was pushing the term “critical imperial history.” (See Part II of Burton’s Empire in Question (2011: 122ff.).) What has become clear over time, as the new histories of empire have aged out of their novelty, is that these putatively critical historians have tended to restate the claims of an older imperial historiography. “New” and “critical” histories of an empire without a British center dovetail with older and apologetic accounts of British imperial absentmindedness, lack of coordination, reliance on local elites, and, in general, the limits of British power in the colonies. Conversely, when the inheritors of the older imperial history step forward to refurbish their case, often in defiance of the new imperial historians, they nonetheless avail themselves of the tropes of “networks” and “native agency” first touted by their rivals.

[iii] Thomas’s way of defending empire is to call it “cosmopolitan”: “This book has emphasized the cosmopolitanism of the Pacific during the nineteenth century.” (182) His second example of this mindset arrives in the book’s opening pages, in the form of three men from an island near New Guinea who were abducted by the Spanish in the early 1500s—forced onto a ship, made worldly by the European explorers who seized them; they are evidence of “a particular cultural condition … that of cosmopolitanism,” which the author seems to think of as to be affirmed even when involuntary. (3-4) The new histories of empire congratulate kidnap victims on the occasion of their expanded horizons. “Empire,” Thomas ends up concluding, was “replete with possibilities, marked out by travels, possible travels, and travels of the mind.” (297) John Darwin, meanwhile, introduces two more devices to the liberal defense of empire: First, he considers dropping the term empire itself. Darwin’s first career retrospective is called The Empire Project (2011), and the trick of that title is that it both uses the word empire and offers to negate it. The British pursued the project of empire, which to that extent was less than a thing: a projective empire, aspirational, underway, incomplete, in some large part imagined. In the text itself, he often refers to “the British world-system” or to “British connections” and at one point to “the Britannic association.” (159) Second, then, and already apparent in those last two formulations, Darwin describes the British Empire in a strongly horizontalist idiom borrowed from network theory: The Empire was “a large, loose, decentralized confederacy,” a “network of alliances,” “not a structure” but a “web.” (69, 97, 1) It falls to Henry Kamen (2002), then, in his work on the Spanish Empire, to combine Nicholas Thomas’s bluntly imperial cosmopolitanism with Darwin’s ontologically flattened non-empire. Kamen’s distinctive tic is obsessively to negate the word conquest: “There was, literally, no conquest of the islands.” (65) “Castilians of subsequent generations tended to assume that they had conquered Italy. There was no real basis for the belief.” (65) “When the Spaniards extended their energies to the lands beyond the ocean, they did not … conquer them.” (95) “There was never in any real sense a ‘conquest’ of America, for the Spaniards never had the men or resources to conquer it.” (121) “collaboration rather than ‘conquest’” (122) The Spanish had “never been in a position to conquer any overseas territories or plant its banner anywhere” (169) “the year 1573 marked a fundamental change of direction in royal policy that affected not only Europe but the whole empire. … conquest was no longer to be an objective.” (187) ”The possibility of ‘conquest’ did not arise, for there were never adequate Spanish men or weapons” (254) The monarchy “definitively banned further conquests in America” (255) Kamen finally just puts scare quotes around the “Spanish Empire” on p. 153, convinced as he is that the political formation he is describing was neither Spanish nor an empire—an empire “in theory,” but actually “a complex international network” “a cosmopolitan network” of multiethnic endeavor, a “vast commercial enterprise” with “the outward form of an empire,” a spur to the ingenuity and energy of people other than the Spanish. (170, 289, 297)

[iv] See, for instance Jennings 1984, Webb 1995, Webb 2013. Ian Steele (2000: 384) begins his review of Oberg’s Dominion and Civility like so: “The likelihood that promoters of empire were more humanely inclined towards Amerindians than were their colonists may be another obvious truth finally returning from banishment by indiscriminate anti-imperialists.”

One especially notable variant of this position is visible in John Thornton’s Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World (1992). The book’s core argument, at least in its first half, is that West African elites were full and eager participants in the Atlantic slave trade. Before 1680 and perhaps thereafter, Europeans neither created nor even much transformed the workings of the region’s already existing trade in captives. The most important thing to know about the market for slaves is that it was well-established, distinctively African, and big enough to accommodate the entry of the Europeans as just one more set of customers. That’s the argument. Rhetorically, then, one of the book’s most conspicuous features is its reliance on the terms Africa and Africans, as the title already indicates. It is not uncommon to find other historians remarking that race was a creation of the slave trade itself—that sailors couldn’t know themselves to be white or European until they arrived on the coast of Guinea, just as the Igbo and Yoruba couldn’t know themselves to be black or African. (Among many other instances, see Rediker 2007: 261. But Thornton uses the terms European and African without comment, and the cunning of this move is that it allows a defense of Europeans to masquerade as a critique of Eurocentrism. Thornton says that his book is de-centering Europe, by asking that we hail the slave trade as an African accomplishment and a sign of the continent’s strength. Submerging the difference between slave states and their quarry is the precondition to those claims, since it is plainly impossible to see the slave trade as announcing the strength of all Africans equally. Having declared European merchants marginal to the slave trade, Thornton is now able to say that “Europeans did not pillage Africa” and that they introduced no “monopolistic distortions of trade.” (53, 65) The critique of Eurocentrism is called upon to testify to English and Portuguese virtue. Other rhetorical choices follow on from there, all made possible by the dedifferentiated word African: Thornton says repeatedly that the Atlantic slave trade was “peaceful” and that it was “voluntary”—that such, indeed, were the unappreciated hallmarks of the trade: “we must accept that African participation in the slave trade was voluntary” (124) The European relationship to West Africa was a matter of “peaceful regulated trade.” (38) Thornton’s book is improbable in at least one further respect—a book that proclaims its allegiance to Braudelian world-systems history while arguing that the linking to the oceanic system of its chosen region changed that region in no important way.


[v] On frontier stories and Westerns, see Slotkin 1973, 1985, 1992.

How to Read the New Histories of Empire, Part 2


That this major American historian is writing in defense of his preferred version of empire has been so little remarked upon that it is probably worth pausing here to establish the point separately.[i] What bothers White is not empire per se, but empire in a certain mode—not the subtle remaking of native institutions to the benefit of the French, but the blunt assertion of sovereignty more typical of the other European powers, their wholesale replacement of indigenous institutions, and the easy recourse they took to coercion. The Middle Ground thus rehearses the familiar motifs of late twentieth-century anti-imperialism only to recommend to our attention an alternative program of colonization: empire with a light touch. The book is to that extent best read as an invitation to relax one’s pro-indigenous stringency, to saunter back from yes-the-white-nationalist-but-also-the-pan-Indian margins and to rejoin the political center, which is where temperate varieties of empire live. Some of his judgments in defense of empire are so forthright that it must have taken his early readers a certain effort to overlook them: On p. 143, he describes French hegemony in the Great Lakes region as “benevolent.” In the introduction, he invites us to think of the colonial frontier as a place where “diverse people adjust their differences.” (x) [ii] The French settlers’ willingness to “create a common world” with the Great Lakes Indians went hand in hand with their determination to “sustain the French empire rather than defy it.” (316) When White pensively describes war between Indians and Europeans as “a rejection of a common world,” what we need to hear is his determination to keep Europeans in the mix, his preemptive closing off of anti-colonial struggle as undesirable and not just as ill-omened. (388) One might worry, of course, that the adjective “anti-colonial” is my own Third-Worldist back-projection in this context, the remaking of Pittsburgh into Vietnam or Algeria. But other historians are confident they can show that Pennsylvania and the Ohio Valley generated North America’s first systematically anti-European and even anti-white belief system, a millenarian and self-consciously indigenist revival movement that eventuated both in a region-wide Indian uprising against Anglo settlers and, after that uprising’s failure, persistent appeals to the British and US governments to set and enforce a fixed border, the wager being that by surrendering the East Coast, the native Americans would be able to secure the rest of the continent as a kind of greater Indiana. Historians of the Great Lakes region always have the option, at least, of centering their story on such a politics. It seems to have been a key feature of the historical scene. White, however, is nowhere closer to the Anglo settlers who are the nominal villains of his piece than in his undiscriminating dismissal of all such border talk. Racial hostility, he writes, “drew lines across which friendship could not pass”—and he makes this claim of a period in which the major Indian political demand was for the drawing of a line. (395) Later, White singles out for special praise one ethnically Irish trader and sometime squatter on Indian land as a man “to whom the boundaries meant nothing.” (393) The historian, having given every indication that he will side with the Indians against the Anglo-Americans determined to displace them, nonetheless embraces the Indian policy of Washington, Hamilton, and Jefferson: Boundaries mean nothing.[iii]

If White’s refurbished colonialism has been nonetheless easy to miss, then this has something to do with his writing style, which sometimes cops to its own imperialism, but mostly doesn’t. That The Middle Ground trades in geopolitical euphemism can be established in at least two different ways. First, one can read other historians of the eighteenth-century frontier, carefully logging the terms they use to describe relationships between Indians and their French governors, and then checking to see where White’s idiom falls on the spectrum of really existing rhetorical choices. The word to wonder about here is “allies,” which White favors: The French built an alliance in the Great Lakes region. A large and varied group of Indians became allies to the French. Turning to other books, one finds a major historian of the Seven Years’ War referring to “client communities” and “subordinated groups” (Anderson 2005: 17). An older historian of Pontiac’s Rebellion refers to “the French-dominated Indians” (Peckham 1947: 32). One important historian of Pontiac’s Rebellion refers to the Ottawa as “partners in empire,” a suggestively broken-backed term that simultaneously suggests French supremacy and rough parity for at least one group of Indians (Dowd 2002: 41). The Ottawa figure here either as coconspirators in their own subjugation or as comrades in the project to reduce other indigenous groups. One is thereby reminded that alliances with indigenous people, brokered by code-switching intermediaries, have been a regular feature of US expansion. The Americans recruited the Oneida and Tuscarora against the British; they recruited the Creek against the Seminole, the Pawnee and Crow against the Sioux; they recruited the Filipinos against the Spanish, and then recruited Spanish-trained Filipino soldiers against Filipino guerrillas and nationalists. Such alliances are not, as White would have it, the antithesis of Anglo-American empire—its alternative and eventual casualty. They have instead been one of that empire’s more persistent features (Grynaviski 2018).

But the most striking feature of White’s writing is not its penchant for euphemism, which, after all, is the coin in which imperial writing typically pays, but the latter’s tendency, in White’s hands, to de-euphemize, the tendency, I mean, for the flexible and multiracial liberalism that White posits to revert back to rigidly imperial poses. This brings us to the second way of sussing out euphemism in The Middle Ground. For that volume is often constrained to name its object in two different ways at once. It will be enough to cite the two most consequential instances:

1) What White typically names “alliance,” he sometimes calls “patriarchy”—a French patriarchy, that is, or at least a patriarchy with a French father—as when he describes the frontier as “the patriarchal union of empire and village.” (406) That he means this last as a term of praise, no less than “alliance” itself, is readily established: “Governor Duquesne … forgave [the Indians] in the manner of a stern but loving father, crediting his mercy to the intercession of his loyal children…” (232) Or there’s this, some two hundred pages later: “Patriarchy was in sad disrepair along the Wabash [River].” (424) It is the clash of these two categories, “patriarchy” and “alliance,” that sounds on those rare occasions when White uses them both in the same sentence: “the relationship of French fathers to their [Indian] children, that is, … relations of political and military alliance.” (96; see also, 104-5) What we won’t want to miss here is the flubbed synonymy, the unconvincing alignment of a horizantalist political register with the vocabulary of paternal authority and sociopolitical hierarchy. The autonomy and equality granted native people by the word “alliance” has been canceled in advance by the word “children,” which is to say, by the figuring of Indians as the Europeans’ juniors and wards, fantastic sons who will never become fathers in their own right, permanent minors in a patriarchy that has eliminated its otherwise defining principle of generational succession.

2) The Middle Ground is also fond of the word “mediator,” which is both implicit in its title and central to its argument. We thus read in the opening pages that the French gained a foothold amidst the Great Lakes only once they “became the mediators of a regional [Indian] alliance” (23)—by offering themselves as intermediaries between native groups, settling outstanding disputes, devising a shared political project, &c. The book also recommends to our attention a sequence of key figures over the course of the long eighteenth century—indigenophile Europeans, Europhile Indians, a half dozen mixed-race men—mediators of a second kind, then, the brokers who combatted the tendency of the frontier to polarize into distrust and recrimination, the go-betweens capable of discerning and need be inventing common interests between Indians and Europeans, mitigating cultural conflict, explaining each group to the other, and so on. Such people are plainly the architects and custodians of the middle ground. And yet a second term sneaks in behind “mediation” to challenge its claims. Late in the book, White praises the British for finally getting their Indian policy right during the later stages of the American Revolution: “The alliance the British had forged by the end of the Revolution was as close to the [Indian] conception of an alliance as they had thus far come.” (402) In these pages, White is especially interested in Alexander McKee, a half-Scots-Irish, half white-Shawnee trader who eventually rose to the rank of colonel in the British Indian Department and who functioned as liaison between Indians and the British in the area that would become Michigan. White calls him one of “the skilled Tory chiefs.” He also says this: “McKee, in particular, could manage ‘the Indians to a charm.’” (402) Anyone who has read enough Adorno was going to suspect all along that “mediation” really meant “management.” And yet this is a point that the critical theorist does not have to make on his own apodictic authority. White says as much: The mediator is the skilled manager of Indians. “Without the French,” Indian villages in the upper Midwest “became planets without a sun. There was nothing to keep them in their orbits, and they collided and clashed.” (274) This is how the history of the American West gets rewritten to accommodate contemporary preoccupations: Gone are the hunters and trappers and wrestlers of Arkansas bear. Into their place step culturally adroit administrators—the HR coordinators and freelance diversity consultants of the backcountry—who now become the heroes of an American epic. The result is a book that celebrates the patient recruiting of native people to European policies and priorities. Against conquest, The Middle Ground celebrates the negotiated takeover of Indian life.


[i] Historians have been busy revising and in some cases rejecting White’s account on empirical grounds. See especially the forum on “The Middle Ground Revisited” in The William and Mary Quarterly, 63.1 (2006), pp. 3 – 96. One might also consult Havard 2003 and Rushforth 2012. I would like to thank Guillaume Aubert for these references.

[ii] Fantasies of a more humane imperialism recur across the literature on colonial North America. Here’s Neal Salisbury (2000: 679), reviewing a book—Michael Oberg’s Dominion and Civility: English Imperialism and Native America, 1586 – 1685 (2003)—that takes itself to be documenting the fragility and failure of biracial society in the seventeenth century: “Michael Oberg reminds us that, from the beginning, imagined possibilities of coexistence with native peoples were as fully a part of Anglo-American public discourse as their less humane alternatives.”

[iii] That White was recommending the Middle Ground as a political model was recognized by at least one early reviewer. See James Clifton (1993: 283 – 284): “Underlying the author’s account of this Golden Age of Indian-European relationships in the Great Lakes area is an idealized, normative implication. Here may be the moral text he extracts as a lesson for our own, present consideration.” On the anti-colonial politics of many Ohio Valley Indians, see Gregory Evans Down 2002.  It is worth noting that variants of White’s position are now so common as to constitute the dominant position among imperial historians. They are more or less the Official Liberal Line on the history of empire. Tristram Hunt (2014: 9), an academic historian and Labour politician with a biography of Friedrich Engels under his belt, has remarked that the British should get out of the habit of renouncing the Empire as oppressive. Empire did more than visit slavery and famine upon vulnerable peoples; it involved “exchange, interaction, and adaptation.” John Darwin (2013: 11), senior historian of empire at Oxford, writes that imperial history is “not just a story of domination and subjection but something more complicated: the creation of novel or hybrid societies in which notions of governance, economic assumptions, religious values, and morals, ideas about property, and conceptions of justice, conflicted and mingled, to be reinvented, refashioned, tried out or abandoned.” This is the Raj as think tank or pilot program.

How to Read the New Histories of Empire, Part 1

This essay will also appear in boundary 2 later this year.

How much can a reader guess about a book just from its title? I place on your desk a volume whose title reads, in part, Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650 – 1815, and wonder what sort of expectations it raises in you, before you’ve even flipped it open.[i] There is already much that you’ll be able to anticipate, just by reading those nine words—or there will be if your old American history courses have stuck: that the book will offer an account of the French colonial Midwest, surveying the further reaches of the French sphere of influence in North America, in the regions we now call Wisconsin and Michigan and Illinois and Ohio, though perhaps you’ll have noticed that the book has already pledged to accord the native peoples a certain primacy and to make the Europeans go second: Indians, then empires. The Huron, Delaware, and Iroquois come first. French Canadians and their British rivals will have to wait their turn. The dates, meanwhile, should lead you to expect a chronicle of the long eighteenth century, and this might be enough to suggest a sequence of events: French and then British settlement in the American interior, beyond the Appalachians; the Seven Years’ War; Pontiac’s Rebellion; post-revolutionary wrangling over the British-held forts at Detroit and Niagara; the making of the Northwest Territory; early US campaigns to subdue the Indians of the Ohio Valley and beyond. Those events are no sooner listed than they suggest a classic imperial series: from the uninvaded and indigenous Midwest to the French-imperial Midwest to the British-imperial Midwest to the US Midwest, this last terminal because held in apparent perpetuity.

But what if the book in question is actually called The Middle Ground, as, indeed, it is, before the subtitle that your eyes happened upon first? The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650 – 1815 (White 2010). This is, of course, a book that one might well know about, first published in 1991, a widely acknowledged classic in the field of ethnohistory, written by the historian Richard White, then at the University of Washington, later at Stanford. White has made a career out of writing detailed, methodologically innovative books about how the US ruined its West—more precisely, about the effects of the centralized state (“the federal government”), corporate capitalism, and reckless white settlement on the old landscapes and peoples of Arizona and the Plains and the Pacific Coast. This is a story that White has told at least eight times, five times in duodecimo (in a short book recounting the eco-history of two islands in the Puget Sound, in a second book doing the same for the Columbia River, as well as in extended case studies of the Choctaw, Pawnee, and Navajo), and three times in folio (in a 700-page takedown of nineteenth-century railroad capitalism and in two wide-angle textbooks, A New History of the American West and the volume on the Gilded Age in the Oxford History of the United States) (White 1979, 1996, 1983, 2011, 1991, 2017). Generically, then, White is of abiding interest as a writer of anti-Westerns, the scholar who has figured out how to re-do Arthur Penn movies in abundantly footnoted prose.

By these standards—by the benchmark, I mean, furnished by his own work—The Middle Ground stands out as something a little different. For it is the sole entry in White’s bibliography to present an account of the American West—here the Midwest, the first West, the old Northwest—that is not programmatically demystified and downhearted. Here, for once, amidst the clear-cut forests and the buffalo carcasses, is an American social formation that seems to have gotten something right—and not a strictly aboriginal formation either, but a colonial formation, with Europeans in positions of dominance and Native Americans in positions of submission. The book’s most enticing suggestion—and this, one suspects, has been the secret to its longevity as an academic monograph—is that North America might have been colonized otherwise, or, indeed, that it was for a period so colonized. What most interests White is how the French, in the late seventeenth century, forged a successful alliance out of the otherwise hard-pressed Indians of the Great Lakes region—a looser version of the Iroquois Confederation, if you like, made up of the Iroquois’s traditional enemies to the west, and sustained by ongoing diplomatic improvisation, with the French in the role of leading tribe, hence with Montreal or Quebec City in the place of Onondaga. White means us to grasp that the French were not, under these circumstances, performing what the casual student of history assumes is the ordinary labor of colonization. They were not building Francophone courts in Indian country to enforce French-style laws issued in France. Nor were they enclosing the forests and fields of aboriginal Michigan in order to transfer that land, tract-wise and as private property, to French owners. Nor were they building the schoolhouses in which Ojibwa and Potawatomi children were expected to read Molière. Instead, the French placed themselves at the head of something that very much resembled an indigenous political formation, which they then put to French-imperial purposes, with mixed and temporary success. In the process, they introduced to the shores of the big lakes European goods and European warfare and a more or less modified version of Catholicism, and these each to be sure induced innovations in native society. But at the same time, the French leadership had to adjust to Indian understandings of justice (no trials!) and to Indian understandings of the economy (trade involves giving lots of stuff away!). The French, in other words, quickly realized they had no chance of remaking Indian villages into Little Gasconies and so learned to adapt, with the European governor of Canada functioning not as imperial sovereign, but merely as a kind of super-chief. From this baseline, the rest of White’s story is quickly told: The British eventually claimed control over the region, but didn’t have the same knack for accommodation and cultural reinvention. The Anglo-Americans, when making states out of Michigan and Illinois, rejected this mode altogether.

The other thing to know about The Middle Ground is that it was a sensation when it was first published, at least in the corner of the academy where its arguments most mattered, passed around by graduate students, the immediate occasion for conference panels and redesigned syllabi. It went on to win four major awards—including, maliciously, the Francis Parkman Prize—and was nominated for a Pulitzer. In 2010, it was accorded a twentieth-anniversary edition. But none of this can be gleaned from its title alone. The list of awards you would have to look up. Just by itself, however, the phrase “middle ground,” communicates three meanings, which it thereby conjoins.[ii]

First, the term “middle ground” calls to mind the Midwest, even though that designator has been officially banished from the book as an Americanizing anachronism. Detroit didn’t use to lie in the Midwest, a term that becomes intelligible only once there are more remote American Wests to set it off against, after the US has raised its flag over Colorado and Oregon. The term “middle ground” gets close to “Midwest” but doesn’t use the word and is thus how White insinuates a certain proleptic Americanism without committing an outright gaffe. If I recall now that the term Middle West used to co-exist with Midwest, as variant, then we can see just how clearly White is flirting with twentieth-century nomenclature, though it is doubtless striking that it is the second word—the compass point—that this great historian of the West has elected to drop. This, of course, is a function of his making native Americans central to his story—of his needing us to grasp what it was that drove some people, indigenous people, to enter eastwards into Ohio—though it may also reflect the exasperation of a professor on the Pacific Coast weary of reminding his students that most of the Midwest lies east of the Mississippi.

Second, the term “middle ground” calls to mind the frontier, though this term, too, appears nowhere in the book, expunged, one assumes, for its unshakeable associations with Manifest Destiny, white supremacy, and cowboy lore. The term frontier, near-Gallicism though it is, beating out words like borderlands and marches to name territories once claimed by the French, has come to mean “the advance guard of Anglo-Saxon civilization” and so gets struck from this otherwise Francophile book. Such, at any rate, has been the polemically revisionist appeal of White’s title, which promises to teach readers how to conceive of the pioneer zones of white settlement, especially those regions where indigenous people continued to outnumber Europeans, as something other than “the frontier,” though one is obliged to note that for this substitution to take, the term “middle ground” has to preserve core features of the concept it is claiming to negate. “The middle ground,” whatever its nifty trick of turning edge into center, has to be enough like “the frontier” to fit into the slots vacated by the now superseded term. In the American context, after all, “the frontier” has always meant “regions where European-style institutions are present but weak,” and this remains one of the most salient features of Richard White’s account. The phrase “middle ground” both overwrites the word “frontier” and compulsively restates its claims. Anyone unable to appreciate this quandary might pause here to consider how the term middle ground renders its two geographical flanks, whatever is not middle—on the one side, the Indian country of Minnesota, Iowa, and points further west, on the other side, the Europeanized territories of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, &c. What we’ll want to note first is that the term “middle ground” tends to render equivalent these two outlying regions, as though white settlers occupied the Atlantic Coast on roughly the same terms that Native Americans occupied the trans-Mississippi. Each group then exited what we are encouraged to think of as its home base and entered a third space, a neutral tranche belonging to neither of them, like a family from New Jersey and a family from southern Virginia agreeing to meet for a weekend in Washington, DC. This, to say the least, is a tendentious way of conceptualizing the arrival of Europeans in the aboriginal American interior. We’ll want to note, for a start, how much the notion of “the middle ground” cedes to the Europeans, not least by conceptually giving away the East Coast, which no longer counts as “middle” and so barely even registers as colonized, even though White’s chosen period also includes King Philip’s War, the re-settlement of the Mohicans in Berkshire County, MA, colonial border wars in New Hampshire and Maine, and the creation, on Martha’s Vineyard and in New Jersey, of the northern continent’s first Native American reservations. What “the middle ground” takes away from white settlers in Ohio and Michigan, it gives back to them in Connecticut and the Carolinas.[iii]

Third, the term “middle ground” is the figure of speech most associated with political moderation—with triangulation and the Third Way and (paradigmatically Midwestern) swing voters. This gets us to the remarkable point that readers might be able to guess before they’ve even opened the book: that Richard White has produced an account of the frontier designed to make it attractive to centrist liberals. The title alone tells you as much, though the rest of the book bears the hunch out. This is a bit odd, naturally, because we can be sure that, if our subject is Lake Erie circa 1690, there were no liberals on the scene. That the task of White’s book is nonetheless to turn the frontier into the home of a certain liberalism is confirmed by dozens of formulations: “Compromise,” we read, was both “typical of” and “intrinsic in” “the middle ground.” (112, 518) When historians and anthropologists first reviewed White’s book in the early 1990s, it was the analgesic pluralism of his argument that they tended to emphasize, a pluralism that they typically framed in cultural terms: the book documents “interchange” among “the melding societies of Europe and America,” a “continual process of discovery, learning, and adaptation” or, again, a world of “intercultural experimentation and adaptation.” There was a period in the late twentieth century when a person could make his career as a historian by applying to the earliest stages of white settlement language manifestly borrowed from study-abroad recruitment literature. Even so, we can be sure that the political idiom is not foreign to White’s purposes, because he speaks openly of the “political [and not just the cultural] middle ground.” (224) The territorial middle ground hosts the ideological middle ground; the colonial periphery produces tolerance and political reasonableness. The book functions accordingly as one big sorting mechanism for dividing the imperialists who pursued what it calls a “moderate course” (the French most of the time, the British sometimes) from those who didn’t. (203) Eventually, White will conclude that the French lost their empire in North America because they “abandoned the politics of the middle ground.” (227) And with that observation, the historian discreetly delivers his communiqué to the contemporary reader. The via media is how a great power hangs on to its overseas possessions. Moderation is the imperial virtue. One is thereby reminded just how often the language of moderation coincides with the language of empire and westward expansion. A “concession” is a British trading enclave in China. If you and I have negotiated our way out of a dispute, then we have reached a “settlement.” One of the words that most often modifies “compromise” is “Missouri.”



[i] I would like to thank the essay’s first readers: Alicia Maggard, Richard King, Vivasvan Soni, and the editors of boundary 2.

[ii] Daniel Richter describes the buzz around the book’s publication in his review in the William and Mary Quarterly (Richter 1992: 715). The prizes were: The Francis Parkman Prize, the Albert J. Beveridge Award, the Albert B. Corey Prize, and the James A. Rawley Prize.

[iii] On indigenous New England in the period, see, among many others: Mandell 2010, Frazier 1994, Clark 1970, Railton 2012.

Cowper & The Missing Literature of the 1780s, Part 2




            Let’s grapple with this squarely. To begin by saying that Cowper wrote a georgic is to emphasize that the poem takes as its starting point conventions that have been laid down in advance—set procedures or narrative habits that will shape how it is able to make sense of the war. Looking hard at Cowper, then, and setting the poem alongside the accounts of the American Revolution that historians typically produce, should help us understand what kind of devices poetry possesses to bring into view planetary systems or world histories—devices, I mean, that prose fiction mostly lacks; and it also should enable us to say that current attempts by scholars to retell the Revolution as something other than a Myth of National Origins and to plumb instead the continental, hemispheric, Atlantic or global dimensions of the Event are not entirely anachronistic. The cultural historians argue that the late eighteenth century produced a nationalist turn within poetry and fiction—that it did much to fashion our now commonplace notion of national literatures, or our notion, indeed, that nations have literatures (e.g., Trumpener 1997, Kramnick 1999, Hawes 2005)—but the techniques of eighteenth-century poetry are largely out of keeping with this observation, and not the innovative techniques, but precisely the dowdy orthodoxies, whose frameworks are rarely “English” or “French” or “Spanish.” There are reasons to read poetry even if fine language does not make you sigh. If, you scan the long poems of the 1780s, you might be able to say how it is that even contemporaries conceived of the American Revolution as something other than American.

The other point to be made in advance about The Task is that there is a standard line about the poem and that this line is demonstrably wrong. The poem, again, is about a man hiking, thinking a lot about his life, about how much he loves nature, about God. This characterization immediately poses a problem, which is that none of this sounds all that global. If you look at old-fashioned literary history, it will credit Cowper with a few different innovations (Sitter 1982, King 1986). First, it will credit him with introducing into English poetry precise landscape descriptions of a minutely particularized place; then it will applaud him for his new emphasis on interior states, on the poet’s self or mind. The usual line about the poem, in other words, is that it begins someplace entirely bounded—a minor market town which to this day boasts barely six thousand people and is famous mostly for its annual pancake race—and then strikes out for someplace even more bounded, which is the brain’s concavity. The Task, this is all to say, is typically read as a document of withdrawal, enacting a pious man’s retreat from history—into the hills and into his head. Shame about the empire, but I was just headed out for a walk. It has been the tendency of critics to read The Task as the first real verse autobiography, a distended lyric, the prelude to The Prelude. Underpinning this interpretation is the simple fact that Cowper was, in fact, mad: a by all accounts decent man who was given to hallucinations and regular suicide bids; a never-marrying moralist who either was a hermaphrodite or took himself to be one; a curious mirror-world Calvinist who was entirely convinced by the doctrine of predestination and equally sure that he hadn’t made the cut—that God had ordained for all time that quiet, inoffensive William Cowper should suffer and die and then suffer on.[i] For many readers, the peculiar appeal of Cowper’s writing has been the opportunity to watch psychosis flare up from within the sedate regularities of neoclassical verse, and so to sense that aesthetic straining against its limit or facing its negation from within.[ii]

But to read Cowper’s poetry only as psychodrama is very much to miss the point. Against the tendencies of modern readers to celebrate The Task as a basically private utterance, or to slink into it like some kind of lyric hidey-hole, our errand is to insist on this long poem’s public and political valences, most of which are dictated by its form anyway, since the georgic is a species of countryside poetry, and it will always take a certain dumb ingenuity to look upon a historical landscape or agrarian economy and see only personhood, contorting these Big Objects so that they yield nothing but Subject. One of the oldest distinctions in poetic form—and it’s helpful as far as it goes—is between the georgic and the pastoral, where the first emphasizes rural work, a poetry of hoeing and weeding and threshing, and the second emphasizes rural leisure, a poetry of singing songs under shade trees while your friends eat pears they didn’t have to pick, on the understanding now that the other variants of rustic poetry, the country house poem, say, or the topographical poem, themselves come in relatively more pastoral or relatively more georgic forms depending on whether or not they draw attention to the working of the land. Mostly they don’t.

The georgic, in short, is farm poetry, verse that tends to describe Britain as a bustling nation of peasants and planters. It is also a form that we have lost the ability to read well, not least because it is entirely at odds with our own basically aestheticist and Heideggerian notions of poetic language. Dubbing itself “didactic verse,” the georgic has no interest in rejuvenating language by freeing it from its commonplace functions and petrified meanings. Poems like The Task make a big show of being useful to their readers, instructing them—or pretending to instruct them—on how to prune a diseased cherry tree or drain a soggy meadow. They are to this extent perfectly content to instrumentalize the world rather than lyrically disclose it. Even wastelands—this is Virgil—“Yield each a special product—pine wood that’s used in shipyards, / Cedar and cypress wood that go to the building of houses. … Willows provide our withes, elms leaf-fodder for cattle, / But myrtle bears tough spear-shafts, cornel your cavalry lances” (Virgil 1940: 2-442-443, 446-447). Set a georgic poet loose in a field full of daffodils, and he will figure out how to burn them for fuel. What is all the odder about the form, then, is that it isn’t actually useful; it is merely miming utility, weaving in enough sensible information, pilfered from actual farm manuals, to jostle readers from their arcadian reveries or spots of time, but never going into enough detail to amount to a genuine pedagogy. No-one ever discovered corn blight in his fields and marched back to the main house to consult James Thomson. Read alongside Hölderlin, georgics are going to sound pedestrian and scythe-minded: The poet watches a farmer hay his cattle or spots cold chickens huddling on a January morning. But read alongside, say, a poultry management guide, such verse will again seem fully poetic, interested less in communicating plain and practical facts then in linguistically embroidering such data and thereby generating a dense set of associations around farm work. A georgic poem will tell you a little something about how to rotate your crops, but it will drape its instructions in figurative language and thereby activate poetry’s full range of literary, mythic, and historical allusion, and this so as to transform agriculture into a libidinal-ideological object for readers who may or may not own farms. A georgic poem will make farming yield meanings that a seed catalog would not insist upon.

Cowper’s meanings will become clearer if you have a sense of what it is actually like to read this poem. Another thing that Cowper often gets credit for is the creation of a distinctive and personal-seeming lyric voice, an almost conversational intimacy, but to my ear The Tasks reads like a patchwork of older poetic styles and political idioms. Cowper was theologically a revivalist; he wanted to go back to what he saw as seventeenth-century forms of piety. And what’s true of his Protestantism is also true of his poetics: Long sections of the poem sound like Renaissance devotional poetry, like Donne or even more like Herbert. Sometimes he shifts over to the insolent republicanism of an Algernon Sidney. He does a pretty good Milton impression. And whole half-books read like the Tory satire of the early eighteenth century. The poem, I’m trying to say, can almost sound like automatic writing or the chatter of dead voices—a hundred years’ worth of English poetry, from maybe 1620 to 1720, conjured back to life in order to pass judgment on the 1780s. And I do mean pass judgment, because that combination of devotional poetry, republicanism, and satire yields pretty much what you would expect it to: the familiar sense that a once free and Christian England has been ruined by commerce and luxury. And Cowper, again, isn’t doing anything all that unusual on this front. If you go back and read Virgil’s Georgics, you’ll see that they already ask us to think about farming as a path to national rejuvenation. The barren world can be remade. And this is one of the ways in which the georgic was least like the pastoral: The arcadian vision of the latter tended to motivate a decline narrative, a world that had fallen away from some golden age of bounty and ease. The georgic, by contrast, was often at the center of a progress narrative, a historical vision of redemption through work.

So that’s a first important point right there: Countryside poetry is by definition a meditation on some social order and will have trouble sustaining meanings that are essentially private or personal or psychologized. And yet that point will only get us so far, since whatever sociality a market town and its outlying villages produce is going to be a sociality in miniature. The problem here is one of scale and scope. It is tempting to think that the georgic goes in for a minute localism; and this localism, despite older claims to the contrary, was decidedly not Cowper’s innovation. John Philips, in 1708, wrote 1400 lines on the West Midlands; John Grainger, in 1764, managed twice that on the sixty-eight square miles of St. Kitts (Philips 1708, Grainger 2000). This emphasis on the specificities of place proceeds directly from the genre’s agrarianist ethos: Farmers can improve or lightly modify their terrain, but they cannot fight it outright—or at least do so at their peril. No-one plants defiantly. Landforms, in other words, can only be standardized to a certain degree, at least in any historical period lacking bulldozers and explosives, and climates can be standardized almost not at all, which means that any farmer is going to have to develop a keen sense of geographical singularity, and it is this ethos—this close attention to the land’s shifting minutiae—that the georgic often seems to communicate. Each plot has its “peculiar cultivation and character” and will require “different crops” for “different parts”; “this ground with Bacchus, that with Ceres suits” (1.50-53).[iii] Formulations such as these put the georgic peculiarly out of step with the universalizing and regularizing tendencies we expect to find in neoclassical poems: the tick-tock of heroic meter, the endless recycling of a given writer’s pet rhymes, couplets compressing the poet’s every thought into the same ten-beat length, as though the language had ditched all sentence structures but one, every local observation ginned up into aphorism and abstraction. The georgic, simply by pointing out that you can’t grow pomegranates in Denmark, would seem to safeguard some sense of the world’s polymorphism against this poetry’s rote Latinity. Even Virgil writes mostly about some few crops—about wheat and grapes and not about, for instance, hops and apples—and is careful in that same spirit to include a hymn to Rome’s native peninsula, some fifty lines in Dryden’s version, which give to his Augustan verses specifically Italian and cisalpine qualities (Virgil 1697: 2-187-246).

We are on the verge, then, of declaring the georgic proto-nationalist. “England,” Cowper whispers, “with all thy faults, I love thee still” (Cowper 1968: 2.206). And yet these localizing tendencies are undercut by some other of the poems’ persistent features. Grain fields and vineyards do boast a certain centrality in Virgil, but his poem nonetheless hops cheerfully from growing zone to growing zone, often letting the agricultural regions of Europe and beyond pass in review: Austria, southern Bulgaria, Ethiopia briefly, India more than once. The very emphasis on the earth’s geographical variation encourages readers to think of provinces in terms of their distinctive products, monocrops destined for export—variety, yes, but imperial variety, barely distinguishable from tribute: western Turkey “gives us” perfume; Georgia “sends from afar” the groins of beavers (Virgil 1940: 1.56; Virgil 1697, 1.87). The poem’s method is less localizing than it is encyclopedic and comparative, and this commits it to a language that is flexible and unspecified, even when it is enjoining readers to tend to the earth’s specificities: the language, that is, of “sundry places”—various places, no particular places (1.93). “The nature of the several soils now see, / Their strength, their colour, their fertility” (2.247-248). One might wonder, in fact, how extensive your landholdings have to be before you need to worry about “the nature of their several soils.” The georgic, that is, does not submerge us in some lexical byway, in the manner of later dialect poetry or regionalist fiction. Instead, it imagines as its ideal reader the kind of person who is able to shuttle between localities, precisely not a smallholder, but a traveler or imperial administrator. Poet and reader are joined together instead as explorer-colonizers, itinerant prefects surveying the agrarian empire in tandem. Virgil’s geopolitical aesthetic is to that extent not really agricultural at all, nor even terrestrial, but maritime, in a manner that cannot help but recall the epic: “Embark with me, while I new tracts explore, / With flying sails and breezes from the shore.” The georgic isn’t so much the epic’s competitor genre or land-lubbing opposite number as it is the latter’s amphibious extension: “coasting along the shore in sight of land” (2-57-8, 64).

For Cowper we can just repeat the point: It makes no sense to see The Task as four thousand lines of ardently recollected feeling, and just because the poem is rooted in Buckinghamshire, it is not thereby closed off to the rest of the world. This should be entirely evident from the passage in Book 4 in which the poet describes tucking in on a winter’s night to read a newspaper. What immediately jumps out about these lines is that their register is not, in fact, journalistic, not even by eighteenth-century standards, but is high-flying and, again, epic. The entry into the poem of some provincial ledger or gazette is marked by an unexpected eruption of Dantean language: The argument at the head of the book calls this passage “The world contemplated at a distance,” as though every time we leafed through the morning edition we were out in the Beyond or the All, skimming towards the earth alongside Milton’s bad angel. If you turn to the politics section, you will see statesmen perched on the “mountainous and craggy ridge” of their ambition. If you read the reports from the floor of Parliament, your ears will ring with “cataracts of declamation.” If you so much as peruse the advertisements, you will find “Heav’n, earth and ocean plunder’d of their sweets” (Cowper 1968: 4.82) A newspaper, we read, is a “map,” its scope “vast,” its every article a landmass (4.50-100). And the poet, while he reads the newspaper, is in the position of the epic hero at the top of a summit: He is “peeping at the world … sitting and surveying [while] at ease / The globe and its concerns.” Cowper, in sum, has declared the newspaper—and not the novel, and nothing in couplets—to be the eighteenth century’s distinctive reinvention of the epic; or if you prefer, he has actively converted the one into the other by synthesizing its fragments into a vision of what the poem itself calls “the globe.” And if you notice this, then suddenly there will light up, throughout the poem, meditations on various un-English places: The poet describes the Bastille; he thinks out loud about India; he imagines himself as a native walking along a beach on a Pacific island. And most important for our purposes, he looks west into the Atlantic: “Yes, we have lost an empire—let it pass” (2.263). And, at the very end of the poem’s first book, hence in a highly stressed position: Behold “our arch of empire”—“a mutilated structure, soon to fall” (1.773-774).

The poem, in other words, has a sharp sense of political crisis; the American war is at least the most obvious symptom of that crisis. What we have to see now is that the georgic—the poetry of rural labor—is a way of imagining a way out of the disaster. One of the many things that puzzles me about the scholarship on Cowper is how seldom it bothers to account for the poem’s title, which, after all, is “the task”—as in, the chore, the job, the business at hand. Yes, we have lost an empire; now here is the task. I think this is the conception with which the poem is best read. But Cowper’s achievement here is actually rather hard to name. Much about his procedure is pedestrian or genre-bound: We can’t exactly congratulate Cowper for having produced detailed descriptions of rural work or for teaching us to prefer the working countryside to the consuming and imperial city, since this is in some sense simply what georgics do. That a georgic ethos of toil should be a regenerating alternative to the corruptions of empire is not in the least surprising. The best thing about the countryside in February is that all nabobs have left for London. But Cowper has nonetheless written one weird georgic, since this poet was not a farmer and does not even pose as one. Where Cowper is most interesting is in the deviations he introduces to the form. His georgic remains a poem of rural work, but what those words mean has now changed rather drastically, as Cowper devises a way to anchor the form in other country types—not quite the farmer—but the hiker and the gardener, who will function now as the former’s cousins or utopian proxies.

That a hiker could claim membership in utopia should be clear to anyone who has ever donated money to the Sierra Club. The Task begins with a teasing history of Things You Sit On: rocks, rough stools, chairs, cushions, and eventually, in the eighteenth-century present, couches, which Cowper turns into the emblem of a corrupt consumer economy, a symptom of “pamper’d appetite obscene,” furniture’s equivalent of the gout (1.104). Hiking, then, enters the poem as one term in an organizing antithesis, as the anti-consumerist option, the opposite of upholstered recumbence. You pack into the uplands because they take you further away from the balls and the card tables and the rococo rotundas of urban pleasure gardens. As soon as the poet sets off on his ramble, then, The Task begins working in two historical modes at once. A contemporary antithesis—the choice between consumer culture and rural virtue—comes in to supplement what up until that point had been a historical succession (of economic stages as reflected in their representative  movables). The image of the weather-hardened, pillow-hating rustic obviously activates a familiar republican critique of luxury—and, in 1785, would have easily called to mind the home-spinning and import-boycotting Americans—though perhaps the more precise way to conceive of the matter is to say that Cowper is grafting a contemporary antithesis onto a historical progression. The poet’s walks keep alive some earlier period in history, before luxury. Indeed, his own biography replays the Story of the Ages. I used to hike a lot when I was a boy, the poem says. “No SOFA then awaited my return, / Nor SOFA then I needed” (1.126-127). Both his childhood and the pre-capitalist epochs were the ages of no-sofa, and he time-travels back to these days every time he treks across his neighbors’ fields.

This all seems plain enough, and yet it is really quite puzzling. The georgic typically comes to us as the poetry of work; work is thought to be its defining feature, the engine of its own anti-consumerist energies, and the service that this ancient form rendered to England’s rural party in the eighteenth century’s running battles between Country and City or Country and Court. The georgic view of history is basically Hegelian or Baconian or Stakhanovite, describing as it does how early, post-Arcadian humanity established its toiling dominion over the earth. The genre’s major poems are clangorous with what Dryden was as early as the 1690s already calling “industry” (Virgil 1697: 1.207) which names both human diligence and a certain power over the earth’s resources. Georgic humanity works and puts everything else to work, these geroii truda of the Neolithic, who devise “toils for beasts,” and make trees “swim,” and who would, given the chance, teach horses to hammer their own shoes (1.211). Here’s Virgil in a twentieth-century translation: “Yes, unremitting labor / And harsh necessity’s hand will master anything” (Virgil 1940 1.145-146). Dryden calls this labor “endless” (Virgil 1697 1.218).

Judged by these standards, the rambler is a peculiar figure around which to launch a critique of luxury or consumption, because he is not a worker, not productive, which means that once you’ve spotted hiking’s centrality to The Task, you might wonder whether the poem is really a georgic at all. The poet may be walking across other people’s farms—and so retain some kind of sentimental attachment to or even physical connection with them—he may have in some entirely elective sense aligned himself with a rural social order and its culture—but he is the non-working term within them. He is not saying to the consumer-elite: You neglect your duties while I work. He is saying: I prefer a more strenuous form of leisure. At one point he boasts that, though old, he remains energetic. He can walk fast and climb steep hills, and this effort is “no toil to me” (Cowper 1968: 1.139) But that line is of course unintentionally literal. He really isn’t working. Getting winded is his play.

Here’s one way to solve the puzzle: It would be possible, at least, to see the figure of the hiker as a platform from which to launch a radicalized critique of consumption, in which case we could think of The Task as a kind of georgic in extremis. Hegel, when introducing his “System of the Individual Arts,” tries to explain why the appealing idea that each sense produces its own art form is in fact wrong: Only some senses manage to produce art. There is no taste-art, for instance, and no smell-art either, the claims of chefs and perfumiers notwithstanding. The distinction for Hegel is a straightforward matter of consumption: Nothing that you stick in your mouth could be art, since to eat an object is to destroy it, and Hegel declares such violence to be incompatible with the aesthetic attitude. Smell, too, is a kind of unhurried consumption; it involves the object’s decay, the gradual detachment of its molecules, their noseward wafting. You snuffle an aromatic object at its slow expense. Sight, in these terms—in terms, that is, that we ordinarily associate not at all with Hegel—is the one fully utopian sense, the one that does not negate its object, that takes in the world and still leaves it lovingly inviolate (Hegel 1975:2.621-622).

It is this claim that we find Cowper making on behalf of his rambler, a claim that both allows for a political reading even of the eighteenth-century picturesque and readmits historical considerations into Hegel’s uncharacteristically ahistorical divvying up of the body. Cowper says that he is allowed to hike on properties that are off-limits to other townspeople:

“The guiltless eye”: There’s a lot to be said about this, since the passage preemptively situates Hegel’s claim within the history of enclosure and by extension the battle over the commons. The hiker-aesthete is welcome where the cottager or smallholder, pursuing some customary right, can no longer go. The aesthete is to that extent a substitute for the peasant—he occupies roughly the spot where we would expect to find a peasant in a georgic poem—and yet he does not simply replicate the peasant’s position; the aesthete (in proper Heideggerian or Adornian terms) has a non-extractive, non-instrumental relationship to the land, and so is no competitor to the enclosing landlord. These lines insert a language of ease where a georgic is otherwise obliged to discover toil,  but it makes that leisure redemptive, if also unthreatening, generating a notion of Gelassenheit or aesthetic appreciation in opposition to work and consumption both, which become just two forms of “wasting.”

Still, there is one way in which production returns even into the poem’s hiking passages: As a boy, Cowper writes, he liked to root around for food while he was hiking—crabapples, say, or plums—“hard fare,” he calls it, in ways that make the memory visible as a variant of the poem’s anti-consumerism: honest vittles rather than the sugary tea of the double Indies (1.123). If the hiker isn’t a farmer, then, if he doesn’t seem properly a part of England’s agrarian economy, then he might instead be an echo of some earlier history or alternate present: of gathering and foraging economies, as witnessed by English settlers in the Americas, or of commoning economies as they survived in England well into the period of enclosure. He remembers as a boy doing what commoners and Indians did (or continued to do): collecting berries and mushrooms and puffballs and nuts.

So what can be described as arduous play can also be described as the kind of agreeably light work suited to boys and aesthetes. It is one of the signatures of Cowper’s poem that it is drawn to such intermediate categories: “industry enjoy’d at home” or—the most telling phrase, this one—“laborious ease” (3.356, 361). This is all rather interesting, and dialectically entertaining, but none of it is clean, since it is the fate of such medial categories to be messy and unstable, and it is Cowper’s plight that other figures can plausibly be included under these headings, alongside the hiker: gypsies, whom he doesn’t like, because they “prefer / … squalid sloth to honorable toil” (1.578-579); or Tahitians, whom he does like, because they make do with “simple fare” and “plain delights” (1.646); or a crazy, homeless woman, who is The Task’s other designated hiker and as such the poet’s most conspicuous double: “There often wanders one,” who “roams / The dreary waste” (1.535, 546-547) It’s worse than that: Cowper often seems to be attacking the gentry, sometimes on behalf of what he himself calls “the poor and the despised” (3.286-287). But sometimes he writes unmistakably from the position of a landholder: It’s good to get up, have your woman feed you, read a book, sometimes out loud. Or you can work outside—except he doesn’t really mean work outside. A man can go into the garden “conscious how much the hand / Of lubbard labor needs his watchful eye, / Oft loit’ring lazily if not o’erseen” (3.399-401). Cowper, in other words, is fond of that intermediate category—whatever is neither leisure nor work. And to anyone who is drawn intuitively to the liminal, this is going to smack pleasantly of the dialectic. But one of those things that is cheerfully in-between—that is neither leisure nor work—is the management of other people’s labor. Cowper gives us the poet-aesthete as overseer; the work of the eye, which we were earlier asked to understand as the fond gaze of aesthetes, now turns out to be the boss’s humorless squint. Maybe we can take the point further still. The poem’s many picturesque passages communicate a certain mild Spinozism, but they also suggest a stance of delectation, which we can’t quite call a consumer relationship to the landscape, but which is nonetheless haunted by its similarity to consumption and ease. One of the earliest things the poet tells us, upon first attempting a landscape description, is that he has kept his “relish of fair prospect,” at which point the hiking boy-savage who has been spared the corrupting ease of Sofa England comes dangerously close to reversing into his world-devouring opposite (1.141). A reader thinks the poem is setting up a distinction between consumer luxury and yeomanly toil; this turns out to be a distinction between indolent play and more strenuous play, which in some ways resembles work; but then that latter stops even resembling work and becomes simply an elevated form of indolence.

The Task, in sum, seems to give us the rambler as utopian figure, but is finally more interested in the oscillations that creep into the gap between the hiker and the farmer, as the hiker tries, and fails, to ward off his sundry semi-industrious doubles. The poem is to this extent less an early exercise in eco-consciousness or the ideology of the backwoods trail than it is an examination, perhaps unwittingly, of that ideology’s instability. A poem that seems to be organized around a clear antithesis—the corrupt, commercial, and imperial metropolis vs. the plebian countryside, where nature still harbors the power of renewal—turns out to be a work that marks the near impossibility of this pantheist position, preemptively blocking the very Wordsworthian stances which Cowper is generally regarded as having made possible.

Here, at last, we might think we’ve found something distinctive in Cowper—that he makes the georgic wavery and self-interrogating. But then it turns out that these qualities, too, were there in the genre all along. At its most overtly political, the georgic often goes in for legends of the rural golden age: in the beginning, the world was all an orchard, and there was no war, and god himself lived on earth, and even he was vegetarian. A recent anthology of Virgil in English reproduces from Book 2 of The Georgics only that volume’s famous glimpse of paradise, but this it gives in four different translations (Virgil 1996). These lines are plainly describing something more than the remote past; it can come as no surprise to find the poet claiming that the Augustan-era countryside still retains something of its primal blessedness, that it is, compared to the imperial metropolis, a less lapsed place, spared the pathologies of the city, relatively calm, austerely content. What should surprise the reader, however, is that The Georgics’ figurative language, in the balance of the poem and there pervasively, is impossible to square with this vision of the countryside as peace-loving and serene. Virgil often wants to describe his Italian farm country as the anti-imperial term within the empire, and yet he habitually describes the farmer as an emperor—as a war leader or strongman or colonizer, and all the more so in Dryden’s landmark translations from the 1690s. If a farmer’s plantings are growing too quickly, he can bring in his sheep and goats “to invade / The rising bulk of the luxuriant blade” (Virgil 1697: 1.165-166). He will need, in fact, to be permanently on his guard, since “sundry foes the rural realm surround” (1.264). A herdsman, meanwhile, will have to play cop or sovereign to his fighting bulls: “The stooping warriors, aiming head to head, / Engage their clashing horns: with dreadful sound / The forest rattles, and the rocks rebound. / They fence, they push, and pushing, loudly roar: / Their dewlaps and their sides are bathed in gore” (3.340-344). A beekeeper, for his part, presides over a “nation” made up mostly of “trading citizens”; if he establishes a new hive, he can be said to have planted a “colony” (4.10-28). And a farmer moving into wastelands can make oaks and elms, the “tribes of trees in forest” “change their savage mind / Their wildness lose … / Obey the rules and discipline of art” (2.72-74). You can think of The Georgics as an ongoing meditation on the ways in which the backcountry was and wasn’t part of Rome’s militarized trading empire. Officially, they had nothing to do with one another, but every simile confesses their continuity.

This opens up into a larger observation. We might want to think that the epic and the georgic are competitor genres, and sometimes, indeed, they are, not least of all in the epics themselves. Homer’s imitators, from Virgil onwards, have almost always said that they would rather be writing about farms or landscapes. I had been hoping to sing a song about goatherds, but I have to talk instead about war and rage and the flight of refugees. If we simply assimilate the georgic to the epic, which is the contrary temptation, we are likely to read right past this stance of reluctance. Most epic poets, even as they push unenthusiastically out to sea, are haunted by a rustic wish. What is at stake in the choice between epic and georgic is—or can be—two fundamentally different ways of understanding the land: who owns it, who should own it, how it should be used. Wordsworth’s “Female Vagrant” (1798), which is another rare work on the American war, turns on that distinction. The poem tells of an English peasant woman whose father loses his customary rights to fish in certain waters and is then forced off his land; she heads off and marries a worker; he can’t feed the family and so joins the army; and she joins him when he is sent to fight in North America, where he dies; the rest of the poem she spends wandering the Atlantic, spectral and catatonic. What is perhaps most intriguing about the poem is the way in which Wordsworth pulls from earlier English writers in order to mark the changes in his wanderer’s life; it’s as though the stages of her biography corresponded to moments in literary history, which in turn corresponded to major period’s in the progression of the English economy. When she describes the customary economy at the moment of its historical eclipse, the economy her father belonged to before he was expropriated, when she was a child, Wordsworth adopts a pastoral-georgic idiom borrowed unmistakably from Robert Herrick. But when she describes her life in the Atlantic, the poem starts citing Milton instead, and at a clip. From smallholding to oceanic exile; from Herrick to Milton; from rural poetry to epic: The important point is that these shifts are at once ingenious and completely typical of the century. The poetic genres themselves seem to insinuate a social history or a periodization, where country poetry describes a pre-Atlantic farm economy and the epic describes the commercialized and militarized ocean. The two genres seem to encode different ways of making sense of the British social order, which means that modern scholars are themselves forced to choose between literary forms, though they almost never conceive of their writing in these terms. The social historians, after all, have never settled on a term to describe whatever it is that preceded industrial capitalism. If you prefer terms like “mercantilism” and “empire” and the “fiscal-military state,” then you are writing history as epic. If, however, you prefer a term like “agrarian capitalism”—or if you write about the American colonies’ imperfectly capitalist western back settlers—then you are writing history as prose-georgic.[iv]

And yet what Cowper and Virgil and indeed most of the other major poems in the genre all demonstrate is that the georgic and the epic need not compete; that they are easily intergrafted; or, at the very least, that the epic will tend to endure in the georgic, as a persistent and globalizing instability within the form’s poetic sheepfolds and willow stands. The Virgilian collapse of the georgic into epic is an event that the genre undergoes time after time and as it were compulsively. There are at least three different ways the two muses can coincide: Often in an epic, some character, usually in the company of a guide, will summit a peak or tall hill and survey the territories stretched out below; at moments like this, the epic mutates into something like a higher-order topographic poem, in which modes of lyric description usually reserved for single valleys or river bends open up to encompass entire continents and hemispheres. Alternately, one form can absorb the other. When Joel Barlow wrote The Vision of Columbus, he incorporated the georgic as a way of describing advanced agricultural society in the Americas. Other poetic modes describe other modes of production: The pastoral describes hunting-gathering Indians; the epic in its martial and heroic guise describes both the Spanish and the British; but the georgic describes the English and German settlers and helps the reader feel why colonization has been necessary: because it brought to the new world people willing to improve the land. Barlow’s is something like a georgic epic, a vision of world farming.[v] But then equally, nearly all the long georgic poems contain passages, as in Virgil, where they shift into an epic register—and that’s because they nearly all have their imperial moment, where they imagine Britain’s farm economy exporting some agricultural commodity or, more vaguely, envision Britain’s farms as the source of the nation’s naval might. The English will export cider around the world, and it will replace wine. Or as Philips has it: “to the utmost bounds of this / Wide universe, Silurian cider borne / Shall please all tastes” (Philips 1708: 2.668-669). The poetry in question adds up to a kind of imperial georgic, and it is rampant, one of the dominant idioms of early eighteenth-century verse: at once heroic and yeomanly, countrified and earth-spanning (O’Brien 1999).

Knowing this should allow us to say why it is important that Cowper has in large part taken the georgic away from the figure of the farmer and reassigned it to the gardener, because the latter—the man who actively and individually tends his fragile plants—enables The Task to rebuild the accustomed joint between the georgic and the epic to new specifications. If I tell you now that Cowper’s solution to the American crisis is to grow cucumbers, you’re going to think I’m being silly, but I’m not. We need first to reckon with one more fundamental fact about Cowper. He has written a winter poem. It’s a georgic, but it’s a winter georgic, which is itself a little unusual, because winter is the season least hospitable to the georgic as a form; winter is the farmer’s imposed downtime. And if you know the literature of winter, and you spot early on that Cowper’s poem is about winter—the books mostly have names like “The Winter Evening,” “The Winter Morning Walk”—then you’re likely to begin the poem with certain expectations. When the poet James Thomson describes winter, some half century or so before Cowper, he makes the season sound like an annual dose of Armageddon. Every winter rehearses in advance the coming ruin of Europe; the land is laid waste; storms and wolves attack the farms like Indians or Goths; the cosmos itself seem to degenerate into strife or chaos, as though there were no God. It’s a remarkable poem in its own right, and an ingenious one. To the observation that in winter no-one can farm, Thomson appends the observation that savages also don’t farm, and sums these together into the idea that winter turns Englishmen into Mohawks, with the further consequence, therefore, that spring repeats the history of colonization every year, by turning winter’s savages back into farmers.

A person picking up Cowper for the first time could reasonably expect Cowper to have absorbed some of this language: It is winter. We have lost an empire. It is England’s winter, a blow to settled life. But here’s the thing: What most stands out about Cowper, when we compare him to Thomson, who is his proximate model, is that he does not describe winter as the end of civilization, which would have been easy to do given the sense of imperial crisis that prevailed in Britain in 1785. The most sustained georgic passage in the poem describes the poet’s efforts to grow winter cucumbers by planting them in manure under glass—lines, that is, that will teach you how “To raise the prickly and green-coated gourd / So grateful to the palate” (Cowper 1968: 3.446-447). There are at least two different ways to read the passage:

If we follow the poem’s literal and referential meanings—and there’s good reason to; the language is close and detailed and not, in these lines, much given to allegorical overlay—then we can take it seriously as a description of farm work, in a manner beloved of Marxist literary critics, who, indeed, have often liked such poems because they seem to de-fetishize agricultural commodities. They remind readers that even seemingly natural objects require human labor, and to that extent are the opposite of all those old pastoral poems about fruit that flings itself from the trees into the open mouths of passing dukes.

But then so much of the poem up until this point has been historical and moralizing that it is impossible not to carry the political concerns of the rest of the poem over to these descriptions. The greenhouse becomes the key image of reform. Cowper will show you how to make something grow in down time, in the period of death, winter or two years after Yorktown, teaching “th’ expedients and the shifts / Which he that fights a season so severe / Devises” (3.559-561). The winter farmer—like the Calvinist evangelical—is the one who can make something valuable grow in a dung-heap. There is, of course, one type of farm-work that does get done in the winter, and that’s pruning, which Cowper describes like this:

I just want to point out that it is overt allegory of lines such as these which prompt a political reading of the entire passage on gardening. England will get through its imperial winter if it finds new ways to grow and also if it gets out what Cowper calls “the knife.”

We can connect the two—the poem’s literal meanings and the allegorical overlay—since the political reform the poem is implicitly recommending is, as ever in the georgic, agrarianist, an England returned to honest agricultural labor. But here we have to ask: What, other than cucumbers, does Cowper want a reformed, post-imperial England to grow? Cowper, we still have to keep in mind, is describing a gardener and not a farmer. More to the point, he is describing a green-house—he actually uses the term—and at times, he seems to be laying out a poetic program of import substitution. A green-house, after all, will not only allow a winter farmer to grow summer crops. It will allow an English farmer to grow tropical fruit, as well. It is thus a way of contracting the economy without giving in to a cultural nativism, of dealing with the loss of empire and turning that crisis into its own solution. The greenhouse, often enough outside of poetry turned into a permanent imperial shop window, will now substitute for the colonies.

These lines, and the glassed-in cornucopia they describe, overturn a half dozen settled views at once. They call into question literary history’s portrait of Cowper as the period’s premier headcase and literary gloom-smith, modeling as they do, in the middle of the official emergency of the 1780s, after Britain’s worst military defeat in generations and the collapse of three successive ministries, a buoyant disregard for bitter winds or bad circumstance—a “not needing to fear.” The passage will not on its own invalidate our sense that British nationalism ramped up in the eighteenth century under this or that Pitt, and yet Cowper’s unlikely and antithetical image of an internationalized boondocks, not cosmopolitan but cosmoagrarian, does make clear that English writers were at the very least capable of imagining a different Britain, even while most were busy wave-ruling and not-being-slaves, a hospitable island open to “foreigners from many lands.” More: If, a generation back, you had examined the historiography of the American Revolution—if, I mean, you had read extensively around in the career-summarizing monographs produced by major scholars—a certain divide would have obtained: American historians, at least before the Atlanticizing and trans-nationalizing turn, have almost always thought in nationalist terms and have usually competed to tell the most saleable origin story. And it is the British historians who, less drawn to the event anyway, were until recently more likely to think of the Revolution as an imperial occurrence, or even as a world war, inserting the American struggle into a global perspective.[vi] But in the 1780s, it was the Americans who were writing epics—there were those two important ones—and these both foretell, in that genre’s accustomed prophetic mode, the rise of US global power: the founding not of a nation but of a world order. Collectively, then the long poems of the decade reverse our current expectations, and the result, to most readers, will sound more like 1960 than 1785: Britain has lost an empire and will need to re-ground itself as a polity. America, henceforth, will rule the world. But then even Cowper’s regionalist Anglo-georgic is evidently not a poem of retreat or of nationalism-on-the-backfoot. It is a poem of localization and containment, which is something rather different—a poem that describes a new way, in the wake of imperial crisis, to get the globe into an English locality—and this is true simultaneously at several different levels: pineapples in the greenhouse; the newspaper in the country cottage; the epic in the georgic, but now in an anti- or at least post-imperialist mode, rather than an expansionist one. “The Azores send their jasmine”: That’s Virgil’s language, for sure, and yet Cowper has nonetheless devised a way to get his epic roll-call of the world’s plant life to model an openness to the globe and not a Cyclops-blinding hostility to it. Cowper undertakes the familiar articulation of the epic with the georgic, but via an unfamiliar revision: not the georgic’s imperial apotheosis, which leads to the world dominion of marchland apple juice, but just the opposite, which is empire-and-epic’s knee-capping diminution, its shrinking back to uncolonial proportions. If you build enough greenhouses, then South Africa need send only a single shrub or specimen, and the English, like a country poet in a snowstorm, can stay home.

[i] Cowper’s madness is the central concern of all the biographies. In addition to King 1986, see esp. Cecil 1930.

[ii] See, for instance, King 198: 115: “In many ways, Cowper is a lyric poet … who strayed into narrative poetry. The Task’s finest moments are in brief, intense passages where the poet speaks directly of his finest subject: himself.”

[iii] See also Dryden’s translation of the same passage, at 1.81 (Dryden ????).

[iv] Military and colonial history borrow so routinely from epic poetry for their stock formulas and scenes that no handful of examples could document the debt. Anyone wanting to follow out this point, though, should inspect the work of Arthur Quinn, who attempted, in the early 1990s, to translate the scholarship back into a prose epic (Quinn 1994). The ideology of the eighteenth-century English georgic is agrarianist almost by definition and often yeomanly. The stock scenes that carry these doctrines—of farmers clearing land, figuring out new crops, &c—recur in almost any popular treatment of colonial America and even flare up in a book like Changes in the Land (Cronon 1983).

[v] For the Native American pastoral, see, for instance, 2.19-28; for the British military epic, see 5.211-222; the white settler georgic runs throughout, but is especially conspicuous at 4.383-386.

[vi] For the latter, see Mackesy 1964 or Bayly 1989. And against them we can almost shout a roll call of American revolutionary historians: Beard, Jensen, Main, Young, Wood, Middlekauf, Breen, Nash.

William Cowper, The Georgic, and the Unwritten Literature of the 1780s



This essay original appeared in boundary 2 (August 2017).


Here are some titles that literary historians will not find in their databases and library catalogues: They will not find British Literature and the American Revolution Crisis. There is no monograph on The English Anti-Federalist Novel. John Adams and English Romanticism has yet to be written.[i] These missing volumes point, in turn, to some novels and poems that never appeared: works like Charlotte Smith’s Ellery; or The Rebel (1786), a novel about an English republican who leaves for Pennsylvania in 1773. Over the course of a decade, he sends letters home defending the conduct of the Americans against their British governors; he has a lot to say about the management of farms in the mid-Atlantic, though he also, in the novel’s mooniest pages, describes cascades on the outskirts of Philadelphia; in Delaware once he stares down a panther; the entire time he is trying to woo a young English woman away from her monarchist family, former Dissenters who have returned to the Church of England and grown rich by selling sauerkraut to the Royal Navy. In the final volume, he is captured by Clinton’s soldiers and delivered over to a prison ship anchored off of Long Island, from which he nonetheless continues to send letters; these finally dislodge Fanny-best-of-women from her crooked family; she makes the hard passage across the Atlantic, secures Ellery’s release from British custody, and nurses him back from starvation. With the war winding down, the two marry and move to a Washington County homestead.

That novel was never written, though it probably should have been. Its nonoccurrence, like the stubborn nihility of all the other long works on American themes, presents a real puzzle to the scholar. Where is the missing literature of the 1780s? Anyone studying the fall of the French monarchy doesn’t have this problem. To say that “English Romanticism was about the French Revolution” is as good a way as any to start thinking about it. It’s what a teacher might tell the students on the first day of a seminar: that innovative English poetry in the 1790s was a response to 1789, a cross-Channel heralding of the Great Event, maybe even an attempt to re-do it in verse.[ii] But then where are all the titles to flatter an American? If Southey and Coleridge eventually decided not to establish a communist utopia on the Susquehanna, couldn’t they have at least gotten a few major poems out of the idea? Couldn’t Wordsworth have fathered a bastard in Virginia? Literary historians have discovered the French Revolution all over British letters in the 1790s, right down to the children’s books. Partisans of the American war, meanwhile, hoping to discover their revolution in print, are stuck scouring the minor works of Samuel Johnson, or reverting back to reliably forthright political pamphlets, or discussing novels so forgotten you need a travel grant to Yale to so much as read them (Giles 2009). Eliga Gould has recently confirmed an old point about the American Revolution, which is that it had remarkably little effect on British politics; it didn’t much change the way that Britain’s political class thought about its empire; a basically depoliticized British populace did eventually register a certain war weariness, but defeat did not harden them against their own institutions; and crown and Parliament dusted themselves off by simply consolidating their power over Britain’s remaining holdings (in India and Canada and the Caribbean) (Gould 2000; see also Dickinson 1998). Wanting to read what the British poets had to say about the American Revolution, and finding ourselves in front of an all but empty desk, we might venture a properly literary version of Gould’s point: It was always going to be hard to find a rhyme for “Saratoga”; apparently no-one thought it important enough to try.

If you’re part of the transatlantic or globalizing turn in eighteenth-century studies, you might find such observations petty, smacking as they do of nationalist jealousies, the resentment of one writing from Vermont and wanting something more to read than Blake’s belated America (1793). But the cosmopolitans have it even worse than the literary patriots, since hard though it is to find long poems and fictions from the eighteenth century that take the American Revolution as their object or even their backdrop, it is harder still to find ones that describe the Revolution as a global event. This, in turn, opens up to a more general point: There are lots of compelling reasons one can give to study eighteenth-century literature from a transnational vantage. Early American writers obviously didn’t start from scratch, devising entirely new literary genres and forms to consecrate the nation. They mostly adopted British models. We know that Brockden Brown was William Godwin’s biggest fan and that the Connecticut Wits had studied their Pope, which suggests that we can study the circumatlantic pathways of poetic forms as we would those of Quakerism or salt cod. Similarly, we can find a certain Americanism, in Britain, among republican writers in the generation after 1776, hitching a ride on their French enthusiasms and perhaps half-hidden by them; this is best thought of as a geopolitical mutation in older traditions of radical English dissent—Milton by way of Massachusetts. Alternately, literary internationalists can lay out the ways that godly writers in early New England began puzzling out their relation to Atlantic capitalism. Or they can point out that the local situations that American fictions describe themselves had transnational or global determinants (Giles 2009, Shapiro 2008, Burnham 2007).

But what the Atlanticists will almost never find are fictions that actively and obstrusively de-localize their own narratives, following concurrent events in (or on) multiple colonies, states, and continents. It is a hallmark of the new Atlantic history that it crosses old borders in unexpected ways—that it excitedly discovers Scots living in seventeenth-century Panama and Basques on the coast of Newfoundland. But the period’s own novels and romances almost never cross such borders. Historians, it turns out, are much better than fiction writers at reconstructing spider-web diasporas. Even the most obvious candidates for the title of Atlantic novel resist that description: Robinson Crusoe, for instance, is precisely not a novel about the globe. Its hero is first offered various forms of provincial success—he could set up as small merchant or farmer in northern England; he could become a tobacco planter in Brazil—and in each case he rejects such landedness in favor of the new forms of global aspiration: he wants to make his fortune by adventuring at sea and around the colonies. And yet the novel ends up punishing this maritime Crusoe, which is to say that it ends up rejecting his planetary adventurism, both ideologically and narratively, and it does this by as it were grounding him, confining the would-be epic wanderer to some pinprick of Caribbean earth. A novel that on the face of it looks like a global story turns out to be resolutely anti-global, especially in the long middle section for which it is most famous: artisanal—Crusoe learns how to make pottery, Crusoe learns how to bake bread; minutely territorial; among the most geographically circumscribed novels in the English canon. The historians of empire argue that the American colonies were commonly seen as simple extensions of Britain in the eighteenth century, a Fringe more-than-Celtic, the Outermost Hebrides.[iii] They have a lot of evidence for this, but then we are still obliged to point out that there were in the period almost no fictions that depicted a fused Atlantic, an interlocking but multi-territorial British nation. Our erudition allows us to spot the transatlantic borrowings in eighteenth-century American letters, but the works in question do not flag those borrowings qua borrowings or encourage us to see them as oceanic. They silently transplant whatever conventions they have imported: Godwin masquerades as Pennsylvania-born. Twickenham rebuilds itself in the Litchfield Hills. An Atlantic history of literature imposes its frame on a body of writing that is itself almost never transatlantic.

The point is especially true of novels. Indeed, one of the many surprises of eighteenth-century writing is how much easier a time poetry has talking about global affairs, mostly, I think, because poetry remained comfortable with forms of linguistic compression or abstraction that prose fiction had already, for the most part, given up on: “With what an awful world-revolving power / Were first the unwieldy planets launched along / The illimitable void” (Kaul 2000; Thomson 1727: 32-4). This is perhaps reason enough to be interested in a long poem published in 1785: a poem that lots of people once loved, by William Cowper, called The Task, which basically records a set of meditations entertained by the poet while hiking around Buckinghamshire. The poem was published less than two years after peace was announced between Britain and the United States; it addresses the war directly; it was, in fact, one of the first long poems to do so. Among British poets, Cowper is pretty much what we’ve got by way of literary first-responders. More curious, The Task is an oddball instance of what’s usually called the georgic, which is species of countryside poetry, designed for describing local landscapes, which means it seems singularly ill-suited for reckoning with global events. A quick comparison will underscore the problem: When American authors began drafting long poems after the revolution, they took to writing epics, not georgics: Joel Barlow published the Vision of Columbus in 1787; Timothy Dwight published The Conquest of Canaan in 1785, the same year as The Task.[iv] And epics, of course, can seem ready-made for recounting war and the founding of nations; if you’re going to write a poem about a revolution, the epic is the go-to genre, which makes a person wonder what Cowper thought he was doing writing landscape verse.

More: Cowper was a fervent evangelical; he saw himself as trying to revive the seventeenth-century modes of piety that we used to call Puritan; and he came from a prominent Whig family and himself spoke in the accents of a radicalized Whiggery, the kind of idiom that was central to revolutionary politics in North America. A neo-Puritan and Commonwealth man: to speak crudely, Cowper can easily seem like an American figure, fully part of the Atlantic constellation in a way that not all Britons were. Indeed, Cowper was, by the standards of Warburton-era evangelism, unusually republican, unwilling to follow eighteenth-century Puritanism’s royalist and authoritarian turn. The point is: If you want to figure out what is distinctive about Cowper’s poem, it’s not much use looking at his biography or his stated convictions, because a man of his cast could easily write in other poetic modes. Cowper and his American allies held similar beliefs, but they had different ways of telling a story, which means different ways of making sense of history or of making the recent past intelligible. They came to the American war with different temporal schemes. The Americans made the easy choice; they each wrote an American Aeneid, a kind of Carolina Liberata, which means we can put them to one side so as to ask the harder question: Do poems others than epics have ways of making sense of planetary events? How exactly did the globe enter into British poetry in the years of imperial crisis? And how can you even talk about a distant revolution in a poem that seems to be mostly about gardening?



[i] Here are some titles a scholar will find: America in English Fiction, 1760-1800: The Influences of the American Revolution (Heilman 1937); Atlantic Republic: The American Tradition in English Literature (Giles 2009);  Americans in British Literature, 1770-1832: A Breed Apart (Flynn 2008); and perhaps most saliently, Entertaining Crisis in the Atlantic Imperium, 1770-1790 (Quinn 2011), which is a kind of The War for America and the London Stage.

[ii] For a comprehensive bibliography on this subject, see Grenby 2006.

[iii] For one important account of this British America, as seen from its western shores, see Greene 1988.

[iv] Modern editions of all three poems are available: The Task in Cowper 1968, but in many other places besides; The Conquest of Canaan in Dwight 1969; and The Columbiad in Barlow 1970. I discuss Barlow at length in Thorne 2006.

The Old Adam, After All

A review of The Other Adam Smith by Mike Hill and Warren Montag (Stanford University Press 2014)

This review first appeared in Historical Materialism 26. 3 (2018)


A book promises The Other Adam Smith, and the title is already something of a puzzle. Scholars writing about much read philosophers have, after all, a few established ways of declaring their revisionism. If the line you are taking is programmatically modernist and decontextualizing and perhaps even contraindicated, you can signal this by saying you have made your philosopher “new”: the new Nietzsche, the new Hume, Montag’s own New Spinoza, published in 1997. If, conversely, you are resolved to scrape away decades worth of interpretive accretions and polemical anachronisms—if you have just about had it, I mean, with the neo-Kantians and not-really-quite Marxists—you can choose from a few different options: X in Context, What X Really Said, The Authentic X, as in The Authentic Adam Smith, published by James Buchan in 2006. By these standards, a book calling itself The Other X can seem hard to parse, lackadaisical and itemizing. The adjective announces a lateral move, a secret life, maybe another person altogether. A Harley Davidson dealer in Texas? A cryptographer at Penn State?  An ecologist with the Missouri Botanical Garden? You know—the other Adam Smith.

So who exactly do Hill and Montag mean to put before us? Have they written a New Perspectives on Adam Smith? An Adam Smith Reloaded? Or have they given us Adam Smith in the Eighteenth Century? Other to what?, in other words. Part of the problem is that it is no longer clear what counts as Smith’s received image. I announce the other Adam Smith, but no-one can be sure with what settled perceptions this double is being asked to share the room. Outside the academy, Smith is still widely regarded as the preeminent theorist of an austere and deregulated capitalism, the house philosopher of the IMF, Ayn Rand’s Scottish uncle. But this is precisely the view that the last forty years of Smith scholarship have been out to defeat. A person gains entry into contemporary Smith studies by offering to identify one more way in which he disagreed with Friedrich Hayek. You can begin by pointing out that Smith propounded a moral psychology of considerable scope and complexity, discerning in social actors a wide variety of motivations, ethically charged feelings, and modes of judgment. Rational utility-maximizers barely feature. You might go on to point out that when Smith defends deregulated markets, he typically does so on the grounds that they will help the poor, generating plenty and higher wages and the equitable allotment of scarce goods. The anti-capitalists might scoff that Smith has been wrong about this, but the modest point remains that his framework of justification for that error is more or less Rawlsian—that Smith is not the Malthusian or social Darwinist we have been led to expect. Next, a person goes on to read The Wealth of Nations and is surprised to discover how hostile it is to merchants and manufacturers; far from modeling the bourgeois takeover of the state, Smith’s most famous work issues an unmistakable call to roll back the power of the commercial classes. That there were identifiable Left Smithians by the time of the philosopher’s death in 1790 is now well established—proven critics of the eighteenth-century state who greeted Smith as a brother radical, an anatomist of corruption and aristocratic privilege and colonial misrule. Nor were these last some negligible eddy in the crosscurrents of Georgian politics. There were Smithians in the French revolutionary assembly for one, deregulators who considered free markets wholly compatible with famine relief and social insurance schemes, best understood in this context as innovative proposals for protecting artisans, farmers, and workers without falling back on late-feudal modes of market manipulation. One occasionally still runs into radical Smithians of this vintage. As recently as 2007, Giovanni Arrighi’s Adam Smith in Beijing was making the case that it was wrong to think of Smith as the theorist of “capitalism,” which a Scot who died before 1800 could not have had access to (either as concept or mature social formation). Nonsense, you think, except if you’re the kind of person who insists that Marx was not a Stalinist, nor even much of a Bolshevik, you might want to grant the point. Reading Smith alongside Marx should teach us, indeed, to tell the difference between “capitalism” and “commercial society,” on the understanding that the latter is not the utopian misdescription of the former, but a historical rival in its own right, no less than the socialism whose vacated place it might now assume. Adam Smith should help us discern the underconsidered possibility of a market society without colonization or rule-by-investment-bankers or the de-skilling and devaluation of labor. Such, at least, was Arrighi’s pitch. Among intellectual historians, regular reminders that Marx had a lot to say in defense of capitalism are now matched by explanations that Smith had a lot to say against it.

It is this Adam Smith that Hill and Montag’s book is out to sideline—the Left-libertarian Smith, the social-democratic Smith, the anti-capitalist Smith. It will be hard for readers to appreciate what the authors are up to, then, unless they are willing to correct what is most misleading in the volume’s prefatory material—that word “other,” for a start, since the book’s chief aim is in fact to vindicate the textbook image of Smith as the ideologue of market society. The Other Adam Smith summons the philosopher back from Beijing and relocates him instead in the accustomed precincts of Vienna and Chicago. This Smith is the pensioned intellectual willing to let the poor starve, a philosopher at one with von Mises, himself discussed at length in Hill and Montag’s Chapter 4 (312 – 41); an ontological individualist who thinks the most pressing purpose of government is to protect the market from the intemperate demands of the starving; the originator, therefore, of a now dominant politics of abandonment. Hill and Montag’s alterna-Smith is the old Adam, after all.

But then the words “Adam Smith” are hardly less misleading than the word “other” and will need correcting in their own right, since Hill and Montag are interested in Smith only intermittently and mostly as the member of a movement or a scene. The authors boast early on that they have consulted all of Smith, and not just the two big books on which his reputation rests, and indeed, one important part of their case is that nothing you can read of Smith will adjust your accustomed sense of him as the arch-bourgeois philosopher: not the lectures on rhetoric and jurisprudence, not the early essay on Newtonianism, certainly not The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Hill and Montag might return the reader to an orthodox understanding of Smith, but their trick is to reach that point by less familiar routes. There’s no reason to believe them, then, when they promise not to impose an artificial coherence on Smith’s corpus, offering contrariwise to identify those passages where his writing is most multiple and unsettled. They pay tribute, it’s true, to the philosopher’s “complexity and contradiction” (3), and yet their Smith is fully of a piece, as witness this typical sentence: “The virtues of self-command so important in The Theory of Moral Sentiments ground Smith’s condemnation of prodigality in The Wealth of Nations” (235). And that underlying boast (to have read the complete Smith) is in its own way rather timid, since Hill and Montag have read much else besides: Henry Home, David Hume, University of Edinburgh principal William Robertson, Samuel Johnson, Henry Fielding. The book contains extensive commentary on each, its implicit claim being that the continuity that runs across Smith’s un-varied writings extends to these several figures, as well. Smith, Hume, and the others all speak in one voice or are engaged in the same project, albeit a many-sided one—the project of “moderate Enlightenment,” premised on the love of harmony, order, and consensus, backed by repression, discipline, and “liberal indifference,” content to “pacify particularity” and build safeguards against “disruption” (75, 54, 63).

Adam Smith stands accused, in other words, of loving system too much, which is the charge automatically leveled by critical theory against any eighteenth-century philosopher. Such, indeed, might be the small innovation of Hill and Montag’s book—that rather than making Smith the apologist of liberal capitalism, they cast him instead as just another enlightener and thus trade in the perhaps overfamiliar Marxist positions on The Wealth of Nations for the stances of a barely less familiar Enlightenment critique. Sometimes the shift from one theoretical vantage to the other is rhetorical, an ornamental swapping of idioms, as when Hill and Montag propose that Smith’s economic writings, like those of his twentieth-century followers, are haunted by a certain human type, a new, quasi-legal category of person they name le malheureux, and whom they define as “the one, the many, who may, with impunity and without consequences, be exposed to starvation and allowed to die, slowly or quickly, in the name of the rationality and equilibrium of the market” (307). This Unfortunate Man is plainly a cousin to Giorgio Agamben’s homo sacer and is to that extent the translation of some old Marxist claims into the language of biopolitics. One can credit the elegance of the repackaging and still note that the substance of the underlying argument hasn’t much changed. The point remains that laisser faire mostly means “let ‘em die” and that Smith was the sort of philosopher who dismissed persistent malnutrition as an “inconvenience” to the hungry (302).

And yet Hill and Montag do have a case to make, as their low-key reliance on the dialectic of Enlightenment manages to flush out some under-remarked aspects of Smith’s output. Most readers, for instance, wouldn’t think to consult Smith on the topic of aesthetics, even though he had a lot to say on the subject, or at least on the subject of sublimity, whose escalations and upsurges were central to eighteenth-century conceptions of the field. As surprising as Smith’s aestheticism is, though, even more surprising is its popping up in an essay called the “History of Astronomy.” A philosophy of art intrudes itself upon the domain of science—is that what anyone associates with Adam Smith? But it’s true: When you read his reflections on Newtonianism, you will find that Smith was not interested in physics qua physics. He was interested, rather, in how the mind responds to “surprise” and “wonder”—and, indeed, in the defense mechanisms the mind possesses to cope with these latter, which Smith urges the reader to treat as threats. Smith is emphatic that we confront astonishment as a menace. Granted, this argument won’t make much of sense until one realizes that Smith’s philosophical skepticism goes much deeper than casual readers ever suspect. In the astronomy essay, he says openly that “all philosophical systems” are “mere inventions of the imagination to connect together the otherwise disjointed and discordant phenomena of nature.” It is when philosophy fails us that we briefly encounter the authentically disorganized world. Sometimes we perceive a traumatic gap in the cosmos or are made to contemplate a glitch in our experiential timelines. “Surprise” and “wonder” are the anodyne names we give to these small shocks, and philosophical explanation, some more or less contrived argument to order, is how we cope. Wonder unmitigated, by contrast, can easily kill us or drive us mad. This last is perhaps the most remarkable feature of Smith’s essay—that it is making the case against sublimity. Prolonged exposure to novelty and the unexplained will destroy us, and it is the task of thought—in this case, of astronomy—to “invent connections” where none are evident. Philosophical system is the shock-absorbing fiction of balance and pattern.

It is this argument that Hill and Smith have seized upon as the key to decoding Smith in toto. Their book’s most ingenious stroke is simply to take Smith’s word on this front and so to read The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations as producing not systems, but fantasy systems—make-believe non-structures whose unreality has been conceded to the attentive reader in advance. Three arguments follow on from here, and together these make for a nifty refinement of Enlightenment critique in its Adornian and Foucauldian modes:

  • If Smith holds that intellectual systems are inventions, then the critique of system widely regarded as the central plank of Counter-Enlightenment thought has to some degree been anticipated by Enlightenment philosophy itself. Smith is no doubt promoting system, and yet he doesn’t in any ordinary sense of the word believe in it. This is bound to be a problem for the skeptics and anti-systematizers, who will never get much leverage over Smith by insisting that system is a permanent intellectual lure, the mind’s built-in tendency towards metaphysical overreach, its preference for order, even when deceptive, over the world’s inevitable mess and shifting difficulty, for the simple reason that the philosopher has already granted the point. More important, the status of system in Smith’s most famous writings will henceforth be in doubt. Do the ethical sensibilities of my fellows and me really merge in equilibrium and consensus, as described in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, or are these, too, nothing more than fabricated connections? And what of capitalism’s “system of perfect liberty”? That’s Smith’s own lustering gloss on the free market, but by the time he wrote that sentence, he had already committed to the idea that “system” was a (salutary) “invention of the imagination.” So when Smith speaks of the system of perfect liberty, don’t we have to bracket the word “system”? Does Smith himself take deregulated markets to be make-believe?
  • Hill and Montag are also eager to catalogue the many terms that Smith’s commitment to imaginary system compels him to repress. The list is rather extensive: tumult, “corporeal labor,” sedition, writing, “the noise of numbers,” “material infinity,” and the multitude (104, 147, 87). What we won’t want to miss is the binary, zero-and-one character of this operation. The authors argue that there are only two positions in Smith, System and Anti-System, at which point that entire incommensurate list (tumult &c.) gets shunted into the second slot.
  • There is a name from the philosophy of history that gets to stand in for these many anti-systemic others: Spinoza. Hill and Montag’s final complaint against Adam Smith is that he was neither a materialist nor a monist—or worse, that his addiction to fake system could only bury the period’s Spinozist wisdom. One good way to read The Other Adam Smith, then, is as forcing Spinozism into a showdown with some of its eighteenth-century rivals. For us, meanwhile, it presents an opportunity to reckon with Left Spinozism in its early twenty-first century guise, to measure it against its current rivals, and in the process to consider how illuminating it is to project back into the late Enlightenment a neo-vitalist philosopheme like “the multitude.”

Much of Hill and Montag’s accomplishment on this front is appealingly odd. You can figure out whether you should read The Other Adam Smith by asking yourself right now whether you’re willing to entertain a fondly Deleuzian apology for eighteenth-century Jacobitism, the movement, if that’s what it was, to restore the exiled House of Stuart to the throne by overthrowing some sitting George or another. According to Hill and Montag, Jacobitism involved “a complex intra-dependency among multiple political players, … ‘mixed multitudes,’ who [were] not subject to traditional ideological borders” (212). Where a more conventional political historian might labor to work out why some regions went Jacobite and others didn’t, to separate out the multiple constituencies in the loose Jacobite coalition, to identify who had the authority to mobilize others into rebellion even when these latter were not committed anti-Hanoverians, to reconstruct what the Jacobites said they wanted and how they might have remade Britain had they prevailed, Hill and Montag content themselves with the claim that the Stuart party were a rhizome, the Young Pretender a sprouting potato eye.

The Jacobites were a multitudinous and borderless mixture. Even readers able to appreciate the larky quality of that claim are likely to be put off by the Manichean grind of the authors’ broader case. The seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries, they tell us over and over again, were “divided into two opposing camps” (240). In this corner, Spinoza, novels, rioters, and the body’s barely processed stimuli. In that corner, Scotland’s urban gentry, philosophy, stadial history, and doctrines of Providence. The problem is this: Hill and Montag do not hide their distaste when summarizing Adam Smith’s account of concept formation, which holds that the mind has an innate talent for producing genera—a knack, that is, for making categories. No-one particularly needs an education on this front; the mind is the Great Sorter. Hill and Montag’s eye-rolling over this argument is one of the more obvious ways that they perpetuate an older line of Enlightenment critique. Adam Smith, they want us to know, was yet another of schematism’s dupes. But the book they have written is itself one big sorting mechanism. Their writing, it’s true, is aswarm with hard-to-follow detail, and yet all this shimmering data eventually gets subjected to an A-B coding. One balks a bit at being conscripted into this antithesis, and especially at being asked to watch as Spinoza puts a beatdown on Adam Smith. Can Spinozists consistently frame their Spinozism in these terms? Hill and Montag never ask us to think of Spinozism and the Scottish Enlightenment as eighteenth-century assemblages in their own right, complexly living ensembles capable of recombining unpredictably with other such ensembles, including, one presumes, with each other. If Hill and Montag are right, “Spinoza” and “Smith” are names for mere positions, between which the reader is expected to choose. Spinoza was right, Adam Smith rather a dummy. The Spinozism that Hill and Montag endorse as a matter of doctrine is thereby abandoned as a matter of method. Around its Spinozism, The Other Adam Smith generates a series of increasingly expansive abstractions, all of which name the multitude without having to tally its number—“popular contention,” “the mixed and the multiple,” “life”—just so many brisk flattenings of profusion. “Popular contention” is a formal category that asks us to disregard the politics of any particular movement or event, indiscriminately encompassing the Porteous Riots, the Gordon Riots, the Wilkes Riots, the ’45, “the vulgar, Jacobites, Puritans, republicans, savages and barbarians, alike” (155). “Life,” meanwhile, is Spinozism’s only agent, hence the secret subject of Hill and Montag’s every sentence: “That which resists … is perhaps nothing other than life itself” (342). Artisans and factory workers don’t (sometimes, under specifiable circumstances) resist. Peasants don’t resist (sometimes, under specifiable circumstances). Women don’t resist (sometimes, &c). The colonized don’t resist. Only life resists, and these others are at most its avatars and transient objectifications. “Network” is the word favored by those who don’t have patience enough to plot the points.



Buchan, James 2008, The Authentic Adam Smith, New York: Norton.

Montag, Warren and Stolze, Ted (eds.) 1997, The New Spinoza, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Rothschild, Emma 2002, Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the Enlightenment, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Stedman Jones, Gareth, An End to Poverty?: A Historical Debate, New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

Smith, Adam 1980 [1795], “The History of Astronomy”, in Essays on Philosophical Subjects, edited by W. P. D. Wightman and J. C. Bryce, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

The Other Hanoverians


On Simon Dickie’s Cruelty and Laughter




Chances are that you are going to enjoy Simon Dickie’s Cruelty & Laughter quite a bit more than you were meant to, or, perhaps, that you are going to find yourself wanting to like it more than you do. Or both. Liking it to the proper degree, at any rate—and in just the manner that it demands to be liked—is going to prove difficult. Dickie’s subject is eighteenth-century England’s sense of humor—its comic literature, for a start, the books you have probably read (Tom Jones, Roderick Random), alongside a great many others that you almost certainly haven’t (the downmarket imitators of Fielding, Smollett’s pedestrian rivals, the scores of clowning Adventures published at midcentury), and also the jokes that its people cracked even when they weren’t reading and the capers they cut on the streets. One of recent cultural history’s niftier stunts has been to get the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to trade places—to get Victorian England to swap its received image with its Georgian predecessor, like two schoolkids each hungry for the other’s lunch. It has become possible, indeed, to forget that we once associated the nineteenth century with primness and moral fervor, so often have we been reminded that it was actually full of crossdressers and sadomasochists and ten-year-olds who drank gin. Eighteenth-century studies, in the meantime, having first developed a reputation for pissing boozily into any corner, has since retrieved for its students what we might call the other Hanoverians: polite, sentimental, Richardsonian, proto-evangelical—Victorian, in a word, if that word hadn’t come to mean “secretly pornographic.” But perhaps these revisions have by now gone as far as they were ever going to go. For Dickie’s is part of a recent group of books—the list includes Jessica Warner’s history of Gin and Debauchery in the Age of Reason (2002) and Vic Gatrell’s City of Laughter (2006)—that mean to reinstate older perceptions by resurrecting the hard-living eighteenth century, an Enlightenment bibulous and syphilitic, less an Age of Johnson than an age of johnson. Cruelty and Laughter is the kind of book you can consult if you want to learn the many nicknames for noses devised by eighteenth-century men and women, always eager to draw attention to a drinking companion’s peculiarities—to turn their fellows into animate caricatures: Saddle Nose, Razor Nose, Ruby Nose, &c. It is an almanac of boisterousness.

 The next thing you need to know about Simon Dickie, then, is that he is daring you to find any of this even the least bit amusing. His list of topics is easily named: a chapter each on joke books; on humor directed against the misshapen and the halt; on humor directed against the poor; on the compulsive malice of Henry Fielding’s humor, which pretends to a benevolence that it cannot put into practice; on rape jokes and the insistent smirking that overran even court transcripts of sexual assault trials; and on the vogue in England in the 1750s for cut-rate picaresque fiction. What really distinguishes Dickie’s work, though, more than its chosen subjects, is the unrelieved contempt with which he treats them. As early as the second page, he calls his materials “abhorrent,” and the rhetorical pelting never lets up from there; the jokes he discusses are variously “awful,” “vicious,” and “ghastly.” “Appalling” is one of his favorite words, as is “nasty.” Dickie’s stance might best be described as a pseudo-Marxist moralism, which finally doesn’t amount to much more than the unedifying insight that rich people in the eighteenth century were unkind. I could put the point in a somewhat fancier way: There are few literary critics now writing who identify more closely with the social historians. Dickie more than once refers to himself as a “historian” and keeps naming the “social historian” as his implied reader. But he is entirely stuck between his literary training and his historian-envy. He despises the archive he has made his own and so cannot even be bothered to pose any of the interesting literary questions about it. The loathing he feels towards his bibliography terminates in an intellectual weariness or indifference towards that writing’s inevitable intricacies. Dickie has obligingly read a great many noncanonical novels that you are never going to get to, but working through Cruelty and Laughter, you won’t learn much about them except that first, they existed, and second, you probably won’t like them. The literary historian longs to ask: Did laughter really only come at the expense of the lowest and most vulnerable? Is there really nothing to be said in defense of the carnival and people’s laughter? What about satire or hilarity directed against the great? Does knowing about the culture of cruel laughter change our views on those forms? Was there no affirmative laughter or Shandeism—rehabilitating laughter, that is, or laughter that defied misery—and if there really wasn’t, how did Laurence Sterne manage to convince himself that there was? Even if we agree to discuss malign laughter exclusively, then what do we make of its uneasy compound of delight and disgust—its high-spirited repugnance or mood-lifting hate? Does such laughter develop unwitting investments in the baseness and abnormality that it seems to scorn? How exactly do we know what in such laughter is contempt and what celebration?

 Alternately, we could take Dickie’s commitment to social history at face value and thereby allow a second round of questions to emerge. When we think about European fiction in the several generations before the major innovations of the 1740s, the books that spring to mind are mostly comic: Rabelais, the Spanish picaresque, Cervantes, Swift. If we conclude that this was not just some belated canonization effect—and Dickie gives us good reasons to think that it wasn’t, by suggesting that literary historians if anything downplay the preponderance of comic literature in earlier periods—then the question poses itself: Why was comic fiction once so widely read? What is the relationship between laughter and the formation of the nation-state? Or between laughter and colonization? Or between laughter and early capitalism? Will major social upheavals tend to produce the human anomalies or mock-epic incongruities—the mushroom and mimic men—on which comic fiction thrives? But Dickie shies away from these questions, too. He is not, finally, trained as a historian and will not, as a discourse-minded English professor, allow himself the kind of sophisticated speculation from multiple evidence streams that is the hallmark of good social history. So instead he compiles endless lists of verbal bullying: Eighteenth-century writers made fun of deaf people; they made fun of blind people; they made fun of the crippled, amputees, the pock-marked, and on and on and on. The book is a forceful exercise in anti-patrician counter-repugnance, but one begins to suspect that this is all it is.

  The matter is perhaps more curious than that. Dickie’s single most consequential argument is that the historians of sympathy, sentiment, and moral sense theory have tricked us all into according too much centrality to those topics—that a bourgeois culture of compassion and decency was very long in coming. One does not have to disagree with Dickie on this score to want to point out that Dickie is not, in fact, writing against sympathy. Quite the contrary: He is writing against the historians and critics of sympathy and sentimentalism, but those concepts—and the cultural formations they name—remain entirely uninspected. One expects, indeed, that it has to be that way. For Dickie is himself a sympathetic writer—a practitioner of benevolence and striker of sentimental stands—more perhaps than he is either literary critic or social historian, striving to put back in place a set of mid-nineteenth-century judgments against the vulgarities of the dram shop and the pleasure garden. He objects to jokes as “desympathizing.” “One wonders how anyone could have laughed.” He says things like: I don’t want to sound too Victorian, but Horace Walpole really was kind of an asshole.

  Of course, such judgments are not alien to social history. One can still hear in that last sentiment the ricochet of E. P. Thompson’s writing—the working-class historian’s animosity towards “the creatures of Walpole’s …circle” (that’s Walpole père in Thompson’s case), or his disbelief that the English aristocracy could have ever concluded that it was justified to execute a man for stealing a fish with his face covered. At his best, Dickie not only channels the spirit of Thompson and Hobsbawm and Hill, but also devises inventive ways of cross-breeding their arguments with disability studies and so of extending the concerns of English Marxism beyond field preachers and radical mechanics and towards the ragged and the abject. Foucault closes ranks with the Communist Party Historians Group. The category of the poor laborer merges with the category of the freak. Dickie, who possesses a social historian’s eye for the telling detail, takes as his subject “the anonymous, wretched victims of the consumer society so lavishly evoked by recent historians.” In one eighteenth-century version of charades, party-goers would imitate various trades for their companions to guess: Are you a baker? A tailor? A weaver? Successful imitations would typically hinge on reproducing a given tradesman’s characteristic deformity: his stoop, his squint, his abbreviated life.


And yet even here there are difficulties. Dickie’s emphasis on disability eventually changes the character of the English Marxism he often ventriloquizes, or, if you like, blocks some of its signature arguments. The status of class in Dickie’s argument is finally rather unclear, as it is, of course, in histories of humor more generally. The now orthodox position on rude laughter is Mikhail Bakhtin’s, which holds that low comedy is leveling and liberating—a suspension of the rules, an upending of accustomed social hierarchies, a joyful reduction of the body back to it mostly widely shared functions. Mardi Gras, if you believe this account, is the one space in otherwise regulated cultures where grotesque bodies are fully welcome, the one space, that is, in which beauty doesn’t move you to the front of the line, the space where half-naked fat men can dance with dwarfish women and find delighted onlookers cheering them on. This, tellingly, is an argument that Dickie doesn’t even consider long enough to dispute. One question we might now ask is: What do we say back to Bakhtin once we realize that the gentry also liked a good fart joke? Such is the importance of Gatrell’s City of Laughter, which reproduces hundreds of comic prints from the late eighteenth century and the Regency, all of them to varying degrees goatish and none of them within the budget of a saddlemaker’s apprentice. This prompts the student of comedy to modify Bakhtin’s case in two ways: In the eighteenth century, carnival was if anything more the property of the great than of the plebes—the low laughter of the high-born—and for some of them it was permanent and hence not just a holiday mood. Scurrility wasn’t so much the overturning of hierarchy as its habitual and sodden mode. Gatrell is a historian, but philosophically his account presupposes a kind of untutored Nietzscheanism or even a light vitalism: He asks us to think of London’s aristocratic crapulence as a culture without negation, a capacity for taking pleasure in just about anything without having to worry about who sins and who suffers. The visual arts produced a different, more joyous, less alienated city than the Londons one finds in literature, which is condemned to moralism by the simple fact of narrative sequence—compelled, in other words, to care about actions and their consequences. To note the Nietzscheanism in City of Laughter, a book so unbridled one suspects that Gatrell wrote most of it with his pants off, is at the same time to draw attention to the grindingly un-Nietzschean qualities of Dickie’s work. And this is worth dwelling on because the latter has affiliated himself with disabilities studies, a field which typically positions itself as fully beyond good and evil. Or to be more precise: Disability studies is an unlikely compound of Nietzschean and anti-Nietzschean—Christian and universalist—arguments, but from this synthesis Dickie has stripped away the Nietzscheanism (the cruelty, the laughter), and so fashioned a wholly prayerful version of the disability project, preoccupied with fragility and the beleaguered preeminence of the meek. At the same time, then, that he is injecting a set of Foucauldian concerns into English Marxism, he is terminating the Foucauldian thread in disability studies itself: “Scholars have been far quicker to acknowledge the sexual freedoms of early modern libertinism than the equally important freedoms of violence and destruction.”

  And yet Dickie’s very universalism keeps eating itself. His book’s basic position is that eighteenth-century laughter came mostly at the expense of the poor. Gentlemen chuckled into their cuffs while watching worn-down old women shit into ditches. An instability is then introduced into his argument when he notes, as rigor demands, that the laboring classes often laughed along with their betters. Cheap joke books contained the same malicious jokes as their expensively bound counterparts. A butcher was just as likely as a baronet to mimic a cripple’s limp or lead a blind man smack into some wall. And eventually Dickie pulls the plug on E. P. Thompson altogether: “No one can now overlook the nastiness of early modern plebeian life: the violence and long-held grudges, the insults and catfights in alleyways, the elaborate vengeance for unpaid debts or borrowed goods not returned.” The English Marxism which had seemed to furnish Cruelty and Laughter with its guiding ethos turns out to be one of its sadder casualties. “Cruelties in Common,” he might have called this book, in which the beautiful soul compiles its ever-growing catalog of the eighteenth century’s universal wantonness.

  And yet this moral stand is probably something of an intellectual dead end. That the problems attending rude humor are not simply ethical ones, but are rather formal and rhetorical, is amply demonstrated by Dickie’s own book, which itself falls into nearly all the traps that he has identified in eighteenth-century comedy. The only novel that Dickie discusses at any length is Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742), about which he makes two points: first, that Fielding, despite his professed intention to reform humor and elicit from his readers an un-cruel laughter, compulsively reproduces the knockabout of his own earlier stage comedies; and second, that eighteenth-century readers mostly appreciated Fielding’s novel as a bit of silly fun—a farce between covers—and thought of Parson Adams, in particular, not as an amiably eccentric paragon, but as a comedic butt and scapegoat, just another foolish old man to be swatted on the back of the head. We can, on Dickie’s behalf, extrapolate his argument into something of a method: We should be bothered whenever an attack on low comedy replicates what it critiques, and we should take bad readers as authoritative in this regard and so remain vigilant against an amoral audience’s ability to laugh for the wrong reasons. Any “instability of tone,” Dickie often insinuates, is just an unforgivable moral foot-dragging, a reluctance to condemn. I am only demonstrating my fidelity to Dickie’s project, therefore, if I now point out that Cruelty and Laughter extensively reproduces eighteenth-century jest-books in the process of attacking them, and that the book’s jacket promises that its collection of rape jokes and pranks perpetrated upon the sick will be “wildly enjoyable”—“entertaining,” the back cover calls the book, a work of “verve” and “joy.” Dickie himself pauses to explain what eighteenth-century people called it when a person soiled himself: “buttered eggs in the breeches,” they said. He also, in that Fielding chapter, tells us to be on our guard against elite figures who unconvincingly perform their solidarity with the eighteenth-century poor. One can learn a lot from Cruelty and Laughter and still wish that it weren’t so haplessly self-hoisting. If you are convinced of Dickie’s argument, then the only consequent way of showing this will be not to read his book.