Here are the remarks I delivered at the Columbia Theory of Literature Seminar on Wednesday night. Slightly edited and embellished.
To be an American is to argue about what it means to be an American. That is simply true because “we” have nothing in common—no national origin, no linguistic affinity, no racial stock, no religious establishment. All “we” have are stories about where we came from, how we fit into the founding (or not), and these narratives imply proper destinations; indeed the desired ending typically determines the choice of a beginning.
Sam Haselby, following Joel Barlow and Timothy Dwight, two of the Connecticut Wits who imagined America before it existed except as Europe’s frontier, calls these stories of founding the “songs of a nation.” During the revolutionary war against Britain, Dwight liked to tell his fellow soldiers: “’Let me write the songs of a nation, and you may make its laws.’” (p. 75) Every ambitious writer since then, canonical or not—from Brown, Cooper, and Whitman to Bellow, Roth, and Ellison—and every effective politician we honor or revile, from Jackson and Lincoln to Wilson and Trump, has understood the ideological force or literary possibilities unleashed by a nation without a people, a church without a liturgy, an empire without a stable seat of sovereignty.
As Abraham Lincoln put it in a note to himself: “Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government, practically just so much. “ And in debate with Stephen A. Douglas: “In this and like communities, public sentiment is everything. . . . Consequently, he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.”
The Connecticut Wits understood, or anticipated, this fact—that a nation conceived in liberty and composed as a poem couldn’t ever be fully realized, but would always be a Protestant mission, something waiting on the other side of the present, as the faithful conviction of things unseen. It would always be a restless Empire that resisted every attempt to map it, never a unitary nation-state as per the European, Westphalian design of the 17th century. For, as Dwight and Trumbull sensed, the new residence of sovereignty was out of doors, with the people, not the state, the government, the cabinet, the generals, the leaders. They assumed the supremacy of society over the state avant la lettre, before it was inscribed as a principle in the Declaration and the Constitution.
Haselby’s quirky task, which is also a brilliant insight, is then to inquire into the deviant literary origins of a nation so conceived, as a future conjured by epic poetry and its attendant, eschatological bombast—or vice versa, to demonstrate the deviance of that so-called nation, which was always already an Empire, something that could never be imagined as a community. One question I’d like him to address is why this narrative form, the epic poem, failed so spectacularly here, in America, from Dwight to Melville (for the latter, I’m thinking of Clarel ). Is it because the epic form is too rhetorical, too declamatory—not individuated enough in terms of style, or, what is the same thing, assuming that the audience is a homogenous, educated elite rather than a variegated mass (here I’m channeling Roland Barthes and his American equivalent, Kenneth Burke)? You could ask the same question another way: is Whitman’s Leaves of Grass a parody of Dwight’s Greenfield Hill?
Here are some others. What made Protestantism in its late Puritan rendition, among these Wits, so modern, so secular, so compatible with the mission of Empire and its corollaries, the death of God and the eclipse of His providence? Put that question another way: Why did these men of faith write the deadly poetry of political economy? (see p. 92) In short: was their nationalism religious? Or had Locke already supplanted Habakkuk, as per Marx’s formula in The 18th Brumaire—is modern nationalism even conceivable as a religious project, or does modern religion always appear as an imperial mission?
Friedrich Schlegel, the court poet of German Idealism, explained these correlations, or rather answered these questions, as follows: “The revolutionary desire to realize the kingdom of God on earth is the elastic point of progressive civilization and the beginning of modern history.”
But listen now to John White, a preacher from Dorchester, the friend of John Winthrop and the ideologue of the Great Migration that transferred 20,000 Puritan souls to New England in the 1630s. This long passage is from “A Planter’s Plea,” a pamphlet published in 1630, wherein White argued that the colonization of “empty lands” would renew the broken promise of English life.
“It cannot be denyed but the life of man is every way made more comfortable, and offered a more plentiful supply in a larger scope of ground . . . a large place best assures sufficiency: as we see, by nature, trees flourish faire, and prosper well, and waxe fruitful in a large Orchard, which would otherwise wither and decay, if they were penned up in a little nursery; either all, or at best, a few that are stronger plants and better rooted, would increase and over-top, and at last starve the weaker: which falls out in our civill State; where a few men flourish that are best grounded in their estates, or best furnished with abilities, or best fitted with opportunities, and the rest waxe weak and languish, as wanting room and meanes to nourish them.
“Now, that the spirits and hearts of men are kept in better temper by spreading wide, and by pouring, as it were, from vessel to vessel . . . will [be] evident to any man, that shall consider, that the husbanding of unmanured grounds, and shifting into empty Lands, enforceth men to frugalitie, and quickeneth invention: and the settling of new States requireth justice and affection to the common good: and the taking in large Countrys presents a natural remedy against covetousnesse, fraud, and violence, when every man may enjoy enough without wrong to his neighbor. Whence it was, that the first ages, by these helpes, were renowned for golden times, wherein men, being newly entered into their possessions, and entertwined into a naked soile, and enforceth thereby to labour, frugality, simplicity, and justice, had neither leisure, nor occasion, to decline to idlenesse, riot, wantonesse, fraud and violence, the fruits of well-peopled Countreys, and of the abundance and superfluities of long settled States.”
This “argument [is] from godlinesse,” White notes in a sidebar. He goes on to explain how the political economy of righteousness works.
“But the greatest advantage must come unto the Natives themselves, whom we shall teach providence and industry. . . . Withall, commerce and example of our course of living cannot but in time breed civility among them, and that by Gods blessing may make way for religion consequently, and for the saving of their soules. . . . wee hardly have found a brutish people wonne before thy had been taught civility. So wee must endeavor and expect to worke that in them first, and Religion afterwards.”
In concluding, White sings of “competence”—by which he and his contemporaries meant not skill, but just enough property to be self-sufficient, self-determining—exactly as Timothy Dwight would a century later in Greenfield Hill, the key work, according to Haseby, in the Wits’ corpus (see p. 97: “Where Competence, in full enjoyment flows/Where man least vice, and highest virtue knows”).
“Objection: But the Country wants meanes of wealth that might invite men to desire it; for there is nothing to bee expected in New England but competency to live on at best, and that must be purchased with hard labour.
“Answer. Now wee knowe nothing sorts better with piety than competency, a truth which Agur hath determined long agoe, Prov. 30.8.”
Translation: Only a man whose will is free can choose to live righteously, and, in this society, this “civill State,” only a man with property has free will. All others are bound by the will of their masters, their employers, their husbands, or their fathers. In this sense, John White might have agreed with Gerrard Winstanley, the millennial, messianic preacher who spoke for the Diggers twenty years later: “A man knowes no more of righteousness than he hath power to act.”
Fast forward to the Great Awakening, roughly a century later, and listen to the radical itinerant preacher Gilbert Tennant, whose sermon of 1742, “The Dangers of an Unconverted Ministry,” circulated throughout the colonies, as a proto-bestseller along the lines of Paine’s Common Sense. Here too the social philosophy derived from religious belief was framed in and by the language of political economy. Like Dwight and Trumbull, and for that matter like John White of Dorchester, Tennant insisted on inverting the inherited relation between the sacred and the profane, demanding that the care of our souls was neither more nor less significant than the care of our properties. It was a mundane and material concern.
“To trust the Care of our Souls to those [ministers] who have little or no Care for their own, to those who are both unskillful and unfaithful, is contrary to the common Practice of considerate Mankind, relating to the Affairs of their Bodies and Estates [their property]; and would signify, that we set light by our Souls, and did not care what became of them.”
These men did fear the rich, but they were themselves bourgeois individuals who, as R. H. Tawney pointed out as early as 1926, were accustomed to a modern market society. It was, however, a simple market society, to borrow C. B. Macpherson’s designation, already a money economy where the exchange of goods was an everyday event, but where a market in labor power had not yet developed. Simple commodity circulation, Marx called it, C-M-C: money was not the goal of goods production, so the consumption of goods served as both the purpose of and the limit on economic growth. The acquisition or ownership of property was the means to the end of a self-determining personality—“Now wee knowe nothing sorts better with piety than competency”—rather than an end in itself.
The bourgeois society uniformly imagined by these writers, from White to Tennant to Dwight and Trumbull, on towards the Populists of the late-19th century, was an ideological bulwark against capitalism, an unholy system that turned personalities into proletarians, into the means of acquiring more property, more money, more wealth in the abstract. Yes, capitalism couldn’t have developed absent the groundwork of bourgeois society and its perfection of the commodity form, but since the 17th century, the locus of resistance to the hedonism of capitalism, including its persistent commodification of sexuality, has always come from this bourgeois place, where small holders (and now, I would argue, mere consumers) want a competency, not more land, property, or riches—beginning with the Puritans, continuing with the Connecticut Wits, but not ending there, not even in our own time.
The irony of this opposition is of course that the patriarchal household economies that typify bourgeois societies are, historically speaking, the intellectual epitome of misogyny. No wonder the Wits depicted the encroachments and enticements of wealth or luxury as the Sirens’ call of feminine guile (see pp. 98-102). Their ideas in this respect were unexceptional.
So the questions come down to these. Did the Wits grasp the difference between Empire and Nation? If so, how so? Do we? Did they defend bourgeois society as against capitalism? Did this defense animate and regulate their fear of slavery? Why did their choice of epic poetry as a narrative form fail so miserably, at this moment? And finally, what story of origins, of founding, would serve present political purposes? What genre would it require?
These are the questions Sam Haselby lets us ask, and maybe answer, by telling the story of forgotten men. For that, he deserves not just our thanks, but our praise.