Nineteenth-Century Prose

Home » Vol. 42.1 (Spring 2015)

Vol. 42.1 (Spring 2015)

Todd Nathan Thompson, “‘satire upon all of us”: The Self-Made Man as Confidence Man in P.T. Barnum’s America” (1-30)

In this essay Thompson considers P.T. Barnum’s simultaneous inhabitation of the seemingly antithetical roles of self-made man and confidence man in his autobiographical and semi-autobiographical writings. Barnum’s profit-motivated self-satire implies a broader social critique of America’s celebration of the self-made man. By highlighting his own hypocrisy in satiric productions published in popular media, Barnum neutralizes his critics by controlling, via preemptive embodiment, negative depictions of himself. But Barnum reserves a space for himself within the dominant mythology by elevating himself to the venerable positions of American success stories even as he demeans self-made men. In this way, he both mocks and claims respectability, exposing himself and others as frauds while attempting to justify or account for his own fraud as within the bounds of middle-class social norms. Barnum’s self-fashioning as a self-made con man exposes moral and cultural élites as themselves caught up in an economy of false confidence and slippery appearances, and thus no different than other two-bit operators.

Michael P. Branch, “Rip Van Winkle’s Wicked Flagon” (31-39)

It may not be coincidental that Washington Irving’s tale “Rip Van Winkle” was published at just the moment that American alcohol consumption hit its all-time peak. Rip, who we often remember as having slept for twenty years, actually passed out after drinking heavily from a flagon that contained a powerful but mysterious and heretofore unidentified liquor. This playful, historically informed essay examines the cultural history of American alcohol consumption in order to ask what kind of liquor was actually in Rip’s magical flagon. Among the contenders are beer, wine, cider, rum, gin, and corn whiskey, each of which is considered and evaluated within the multiple contexts provided by a nineteenth-century author’s fictional account of an eighteenth- century character who claims to have gone on a drinking binge with seventeenth-century Dutchmen.

Andrea K. Frankwitz, “Transforming Borders in William W. Brown’s Narrative” (40-72)

Despite its being a best seller in nineteenth-century America, the Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave in contemporary times has largely been overshadowed by the work of his better-known compatriot, Frederick Douglass. As William L. Andrews has noted in his “Introduction” to From Fugitive Slave to Free Man: The Autobiographies of William Wells Brown, however, “Perhaps more than any other text of its kind, the Narrative of William W. Brown typifies in its subject matter and development the basic plot structure of the antebellum slave narrative” (5). Because Brown was remarkably well- traveled as a slave and, as the abolitionist Edmund Quincy reminds us in a prefatory letter, additionally had an unusual variety of assigned positions working in the house, in the field, and on the river, Brown, uniquely situated, can speak to a wider range of experiences and perspectives within slavery, and, in part for these reasons, his account merits more and closer examination. While a cursory reading allows one to recognize the conventions a slave narrator follows, an in-depth analysis of Brown’s Narrative reveals that he not only writes to bolster the abolitionist movement but also works out his own freedom and his sense of self through tropes of distance and space.

Joshua Boyd, “Labor and Revolt in Mark Twain and William Morris” (73-94)

While Mark Twain enjoyed reading William Morris’s poem “Sir Guy of the Dolorous Blast” and Morris was labeled by George Bernard Shaw “an incurable Huckfinomaniac,” these men, when their names are mentioned together, are presented in opposition to one another primarily on account of Twain’s seeming distaste for Arthurian England (perhaps Morris’s favorite era) as presented in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). This essay, however, looks closely at Connecticut Yankee and Morris’s A Dream of John Ball (published serially 1886-1887) as well as Twain’s speech “The New Dynasty” and some of Morris’s essays in Commonweal to argue that these two men shared much in their thoughts regarding labor. Twain’s using “The New Dynasty” as a subtext for Chapter 13 of Connecticut Yankee resembles Morris’s own putting into A Dream of John Ball the ideas expressed in his non-fiction essays in Commonweal on labor under capitalism. Morris and Twain, then, address a similar issue in a similar way at a similar time. In their fiction they expose the exploitive tendency of consumerism, thus complementing ideas expressed in their non-fiction speeches and essays. The two novels diverge sharply in the end, however. Morris’s dreamer is renewed and cautiously optimistic about the future. Twain’s Hank Morgan dies after annihilating 25,000 knights. These conclusions, however, are not necessarily contradictory. Instead, Twain depicts through Hank the frightening ease with which a laborer himself becomes the oppressor. In this light, Connecticut Yankee is a novel far more sympathetic than antagonistic to Morris’s ideas.

Vesna Kuiken, “The Impersonal Lives of Margaret Fuller: A Problem of Biography” (95-112)

This review essay proceeds from considering two most recent biographies of Margaret Fuller – John Matteson’s The Lives of Margaret Fuller (2012) and Megan Marshall’s Margaret Fuller: A New American Life (2013) – as commendable contributions to Fuller scholarship that productively urge us to translate the multifariousness of Fuller’s life onto her work. In the second part, this essay offers one such translation: by unfolding the consequences of Marshall’s and Matteson’s initial premise, according to which the singleness of Margaret Fuller is dissolved into her many faces, it investigates the instrumental role this impermanence of identities plays in engendering Fuller’s most original philosophical project – her theory of ecstatic impersonality.

Jennifer Cadwallader, “Women in the Workplace in the Long Nineteenth Century” (113-121)

This essay reviews Economic Women: Essays on Desire and Dispossession in Nineteenth-Century British Culture and Crafting the Woman Professional in the Long Nineteenth Century: Artistry and Industry in Britain. Both essay collections offer rich and varied accounts of women’s economic position during the nineteenth century: Economic Women, through its attention to women’s relationships to capitalism, and Crafting the Professional Woman, through its focus on women as amateur and professional artists.

James Finley, “Measuring Thoreau” (122-135)

Much of Thoreau scholarship over the last two decades has responded to two shifts, one based in theory and one in the archive. The first has to do with the rise of ecocriticism and the environmental humanities. The second development reflects the recovery of late career manuscripts. Two recent publications, Thoreau the Land Surveyor (2010)and Thoreauvian Modernities: Transatlantic Conversations on an American Icon(2013), represent the increasingly sophisticated and productive intersections of these two shifts in Thoreau studies. These texts deepen our understanding of Thoreau’s engagement with scientific, technological, and philosophical developments in his period; they add to our understanding of Thoreau’s biography; and they provide new modes of theorizing Thoreau’s writings and their continuing importance.

Laurence W. Mazzeno, “Darwin Under the Microscope” (136-144)

Although Paul Johnson’s revisionist assessment of Darwin’s career is more muted than most of Johnson’s conservative revaluations of important intellectual figures, many reviewers find fault with his portrait, accusing him of writing agenda-driven scholarship. The book is polemical, challenging those who have elevated Darwin to the status of sage and saint. Johnson uses details from Darwin’s life to explain why he was able to become not only the leading scientist of his day, but in some ways the most influential scientist of all time. Johnson believes Darwin achieved his fame by being keenly observant, relatively intelligent, particularly diligent, and exceptionally lucky.

Sara Atwood, “‘Then they will find my letters useful, and read them’: Persistent Ruskin” (145-162)

Persistent Ruskin is the culmination of a three-year AHRC-funded research project, “John Ruskin, Cultural Travel, and Popular Access,” led by editors Keith Hanley and Brian Maidment, in partnership with John Walton and assisted by Rachel Dickinson. The collection reflects a growing effort by Ruskin scholars to demonstrate the vital and ongoing influence of his ideas, to map his lasting contribution to our under- standing of modern civilization. The essays explore the influence of Ruskin’s ideas upon such disparate fields as women’s education, theatre, museology, print culture, social and political movements, and aesthetics. As the editors themselves put it, the essays examine “the wide-ranging and abiding implications of Ruskin’s engagement with his contem- poraries and followers into the present” (145), suggesting the enduring value of Ruskin’s ideas.

Laurence W. Mazzeno, “Taking Exception to American Exceptionalism” (163-170)

Two recently published studies of foreign commentators who wrote about the United States during the nineteenth century, Arthur Kaledin’s Tocqueville and His America and Frank Prochaska’s Eminent Victorians on American Democracy, evaluate the contributions of influential writers whose work also helped shaped attitudes about the United States during the century. Kaledin focuses on what he calls Tocqueville’s increasingly “dark vision” of America; this great champion of America’s experiment with democracy saw clearly that the political and social framework of the nation contained within it the elements that could easily lead to its demise. Prochaska offers brief commentary on the writings of four men recognized by their contemporaries as leading intellectuals: John Stuart Mill, Walter Bagehot, Henry Maine, and James Bryce. Uniting the four is a belief that the best of American democracy can be traced back to British sources. Both studies suggest that the works of these foreign observers call into question the much-revered notion of American exceptionalism.

D.A. Shojai, “FitzGerald’s ‘Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám’ Reconsidered” (171-178)

This review essay is an assessment of the book based upon conference papers present at the FitzGerald bicentennial celebration held in 2009 at Trinity College, Cambridge – FitzGerald’s college – commemorating the bicentenary of FitzGerald’s birth and the sesquicentennial anniversary of his anonymous and small private printing of his first edition of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.

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