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St. George Tucker’s Jeffersonian Constitution

In American History, Arts & Letters, Books, Civics, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, liberal arts, Nineteenth-Century America, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on October 30, 2019 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here in Law & Liberty. 

One could argue that there are two basic visions for America: the Hamiltonian and the Jeffersonian. The former is nationalist, calling for centralized power and an industrial, mercantilist society characterized by banking, commercialism, and a robust military. Its early leaders had monarchical tendencies. The latter vision involves a slower, more leisurely and agrarian society, political decentralization, popular sovereignty, and local republicanism. Think farmers over factories.

Both have claimed the mantle of liberty. Both have aristocratic elements, despite today’s celebration of America as democratic. On the Hamiltonian side we can include John Adams, John Marshall, Noah Webster, Henry Clay, Joseph Story, and Abraham Lincoln. In the Jeffersonian camp we can place George Mason and Patrick Henry (who, because they were born before Jefferson, could be considered his precursors), the mature (rather than the youthful) James Madison, John Taylor of Caroline, John C. Calhoun, Abel Upshur, and Robert Y. Hayne. The Jeffersonian Republicans won out in the early nineteenth century, but since the Civil War, the centralizing, bellicose paradigm has dominated American politics, foreign and monetary policy, and federal institutions.

St. George Tucker falls into the Jeffersonian category. View of the Constitution of the United States, published by Liberty Fund in 1999, features his disquisitions on various legal subjects, each thematically linked. Most come from essays appended to his edition of Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England.

Born in Bermuda, Tucker became a Virginian through and through, studying law at the College of William and Mary under George Wythe, whose post at the law school he would eventually hold. On Tucker’s résumé we might find his credentials as a poet, essayist, and judge. He was an influential expositor of the limited-government jurisprudence that located sovereignty in the people themselves, as opposed to the monarch or the legislature, which, he believed, was a surrogate for the general will in that it consisted of the people’s chosen representatives.

Tucker furnished Jeffersonians with the “compact theory” of the Constitution:

The constitution of the United States of America . . . is an original, written, federal, and social compact, freely, voluntarily, and solemnly entered into by the several states of North-America, and ratified by the people thereof, respectively; whereby the several states, and the people thereof, respectively, have bound themselves to each other, and to the federal government of the United States; and by which the federal government is bound to the several states, and to every citizen of the United States.

Under this model, each sovereign, independent state is contractually and consensually committed to confederacy, and the federal government possesses only limited and delegated powers—e.g., “to be the organ through which the united republics communicate with foreign nations.”

Employing the term “strict construction,” Tucker decried what today we’d call “activist” federal judges, insisting that “every attempt in any government to change the constitution (otherwise than in that mode which the constitution may prescribe) is in fact a subversion of the foundations of its own authority.” Strictly construing the language of the Constitution meant fidelity to the binding, basic framework of government, but it didn’t mean that the law was static. Among Tucker’s concerns, for instance, was how the states should incorporate, discard, or adapt the British common law that Blackstone had delineated.

Tucker understood the common law as embedded, situated, and contextual rather than as a fixed body of definite rules or as the magnificent perfection of right reason, a grandiose conception derived from the quixotic portrayals of Sir Edward Coke. “[I]n our inquiries how far the common law and statutes of England were adopted in the British colonies,” Tucker announced, “we must again abandon all hope of satisfaction from any general theory, and resort to their several charters, provincial establishments, legislative codes, and civil histories, for information.”

In other words, if you want to know what the common law is on this side of the pond, look to the operative language of governing texts before you invoke abstract theories. Doing so led Tucker to conclude that parts of English law were “either obsolete, or have been deemed inapplicable to our local circumstances and policy.” In this, he anticipated Justice Holmes’s claim that the law “is forever adopting new principles from life at one end” while retaining “old ones from history at the other, which have not yet been absorbed or sloughed off.”

What the several states borrowed from England was, for Tucker, a filtering mechanism that repurposed old rules for new contexts. Tucker used other verbs to describe how states, each in their own way, revised elements of the common law in their native jurisdictions: “modified,” “abridged,” “shaken off,” “rejected,” “repealed,” “expunged,” “altered,” “changed,” “suspended,” “omitted,” “stricken out,” “substituted,” “superseded,” “introduced.” The list could go on.

The English common law, accordingly, wasn’t an exemplification of natural law or abstract rationalism; it was rather the aggregation of workable solutions to actual problems presented in concrete cases involving real people. Sometimes, in its British iterations, it was oppressive, reinforcing the power of the king and his agents and functionaries. Thus it couldn’t fully obtain in the United States. “[E]very rule of the common law, and every statute of England,” Tucker wrote on this score, “founded on the nature of regal government, in derogation of the natural and unalienable rights of mankind, were absolutely abrogated, repealed, and annulled, by the establishment of such a form of government in the states.”

Having been clipped from its English roots, the common law in the United States had, in Tucker’s view, an organic opportunity to grow anew in the varying cultural environments of the sovereign states. In this respect, Tucker prefigured Justice Brandeis’s assertion in Erie Railroad Company v. Tompkins (1938) that “[t]here is no federal general common law.” Tucker would have agreed with Brandeis that, “[e]xcept in matters governed by the Federal Constitution or by acts of Congress, the law to be applied in any case is the law of the state.”

In fact, summarizing competing contentions about the Sedition Act, Tucker subtly supported the position that “the United States as a federal government have no common law” and that “the common law of one state . . . is not the common law of another.” The common law, in Tucker’s paradigm, is bottom-up and home-grown; it’s not a formula that can be lifted from one jurisdiction and placed down anywhere else with similar results and effects.

By far the most complex essay here is “On the State of Slavery in Virginia,” which advocated the gradual extirpation of slavery. With admirable clarity, Tucker zeroed in on the hypocrisy of his generation:

Whilst we were offering up vows at the shrine of Liberty, and sacrificing hecatombs upon her altars; whilst we swore irreconcilable hostility to her enemies, and hurled defiance in their faces; whilst we adjured the God of Hosts to witness our resolution to live free, or die, and imprecated curses on their heads who refused to unite us in establishing the empire of freedom; we were imposing upon our fellow men, who differ in complexion from us, a slavery, ten thousand times more cruel than the utmost extremity of those grievances and oppressions, of which we complained.

Despite his disdain for the institution of slavery, Tucker expressed ideas that are racist by any measurable standard today—for instance, his notion that slavery proliferated in the South because the climate there was “more congenial to the African constitution.”

On the level of pure writing quality and style, Tucker had a knack for aphorism. “[T]he ignorance of the people,” he said, “is the footstool of despotism.” More examples: “Ignorance is invariably the parent of error.” “A tyranny that governs by the sword, has few friends but men of the sword.”

Reading Tucker reminds us that for most of our country’s formative history the principal jurisprudential debates were not about natural law versus positivism, or originalism versus living constitutionalism, but about state versus federal authority, local versus national jurisdiction, the proper scale and scope of government, checks and balances, and so forth. To the extent these subjects have diminished in importance, Hamilton has prevailed over Jefferson. Reading Tucker today can help us see the costs of that victory.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Abraham Lincoln

In Arts & Letters, Historicism, History, Humanities, Law, Nineteenth-Century America, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Politics, Southern History, The South on July 10, 2019 at 6:45 am

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Abraham Lincoln, and the Civil War

In America, American History, Historicism, History, Humanities, Nineteenth-Century America, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. on April 24, 2019 at 6:45 am

Review of Paul Finkelman’s “Supreme Injustice”

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Dred Scott, Historicism, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Justice, Law, Laws of Slavery, liberal arts, Nineteenth-Century America, Politics, Scholarship, Southern History, The South, Writing on August 8, 2018 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared here in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Paul Finkelman is an anomaly: a historian with no law degree who’s held chairs or fellowships at numerous law schools, testified as an expert witness in high-profile cases, and filed amicus briefs with several courts. Federal appellate judges, including justices on the United States Supreme Court, have cited his work. Liberal arts professors anxious about the state and fate of their discipline might look to him to demonstrate the practical relevance of the humanities to everyday society.

Finkelman specializes in American legal history, slavery and the law, constitutional law, and race and the law. His new book, Supreme Injustice, tells the story of three United States Supreme Court Justices — John Marshall, Joseph Story, and Roger B. Taney — and their “slavery jurisprudence.” Each of these men, Finkelman argues, differed in background and methodology but shared the belief that antislavery agitation undermined the legal and political structures instituted by the Constitution. Had they aligned their operative principles with the ideals of liberty, equality, and justice enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, liberty rather than racism and oppression might have defined antebellum America.

Finkelman insists that the legacy of Marshall, Story, and Taney had enormous implications for the state of the nation, strengthening the institutions of slavery and embedding in the law a systemic hostility to fundamental freedom and basic justice. These are strong allegations, attributed to only three individuals. Yet the evidence adds up.

Start with Marshall, a perennially celebrated figure who, unlike many of his generation, in particular his occasional nemesis Thomas Jefferson, has escaped scrutiny on matters of race and slavery. Finkelman submits that scholarship on Marshall is “universally admiring” — an overstatement perhaps, but one that underscores the prevalence of the mythology Finkelman hopes to dispel.

Finkelman emphasizes Marshall’s “personal ties to slavery” and “considerable commitment to owning other human beings.” He combs through numerous records and presents ample data to establish that Marshall, a life member of the American Colonization Society, “actively participated in slavery on a very personal level.” Finkelman then turns to Marshall’s votes and opinions in cases, several of which challenged state laws and rulings that freed slaves. In fact, Marshall would go so far as to overturn the verdicts of white Southern jurors and the judgments of white Southern judges who, in freedom suits, sided with slaves and against masters.

Marshall could be an ardent nationalist attempting to effectuate the supremacy of federal law. One is therefore tempted to attribute his rulings against state laws in cases about slavery to his longstanding desire to centralize federal power. But that is only part of the story. Finkelman brings to light exceptions, including when Marshall selectively deferred to state law if doing so meant that slaves remained the property of their masters. Finkelman highlights these decisions to show that Marshall was hypocritical, compromising his otherwise plenary nationalism to ensure that contractual and property arrangements regarding slaves were protected by law.

Story was also a nationalist, having evolved from Jeffersonianism to anti-Jeffersonianism and eventually becoming Marshall’s jurisprudential adjunct. Unlike Marshall, however, Story could sound “like a full-blown abolitionist.” His opinion in United States v. La Jeune Eugenie (1822) was “an antislavery tour de force,” decrying slavery and the slave trade as “repugnant to the natural rights of man and the dictates of judges.”

Yet he prioritized radical nationalism over the rights of humans in bondage. In Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842), writing for the Court, he deemed unconstitutional a state ban on the extradition of blacks out of Pennsylvania for purposes of slavery. Story jumped at the chance to pronounce the primacy of federal law over state law even if it meant employing the Supremacy Clause to validate the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. “A justice who had once thought slavery was deeply immoral,” Finkelman bemoans,

rewrote history, misstated precedents, and made up new constitutional doctrine to nationalize southern slave law and impose it on the entire nation. The decision jeopardized the liberty of every black in the North, whether free or fugitive. The injustice of this opinion was profound.

Author of the notorious Dred Scott opinion, Taney is the most predictable of Finkelman’s targets. By the end of the Civil War, he was vehemently denounced and widely despised. Progressives in the early 20th century, most notably Felix Frankfurter, rehabilitated his reputation in part because progressive economic policy during that era promoted Taney’s approach to states’ rights and political decentralization. The mood has changed; most historians now probably agree that Taney “aggressively protected slavery” and “made war on free blacks.” Few law professors would recall Taney’s “early ambivalence about slavery and his defense of the Reverend Jacob Gruber,” who was arrested for sermonizing against slavery at a Methodist camp meeting and subsequently charged with inciting slave rebellion. Finkelman’s chapter on Taney thus runs with the grain, not against it.

At times Finkelman exaggerates or wishfully portrays the role of judges. He asserts that, prior to the Civil War, courts rather than Congress or the executive had “room for protecting the liberty of free blacks, liberating some slaves, providing due process for alleged fugitive slaves, enforcing the federal suppression of the African slave trade, or preventing slavery from being established in federal territories.” This claim may hold up in some of the cases Finkelman discusses (e.g., LaGrange v. Choteau [1830], in which Marshall declined the opportunity to enforce federal law that could have freed a slave who had traveled into free territory), but not in all of them. If a judge were faced with a problem of statutory construction, he (there were only male judges then) could have asked what the language of the statute meant, how it applied to the concrete facts and material rules before him, and whether it was constitutional, but anything more would have arguably exceeded the scope of his office.

The Constitution was silent about slavery until the Civil War Amendments, also known as the Reconstruction Amendments. Prior to them, any attempt to render slavery unconstitutional would have required appeals to natural law, natural rights, or other like doctrines that appear in the Constitution only in spirit, not in letter. The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison believed the Constitution was affirmatively proslavery, calling it a “covenant with death” and “an agreement with Hell.” If this is true, then when judges swear an oath to defend the Constitution (the basic framework of government with which all other laws in the United States must comport), they are also inadvertently vowing to defend the institution of slavery — unless the law is more than what statutes and the Constitution provide, in which case these judges could reach beyond the positive law to principles pre-political and universal.

Finkelman suggests another alternative: that certain constitutional provisions supplied a basis in positive law for antislavery strategies and stratagem. He cites, among other things, the congressional powers exercised in the reenactment of the Northwest Ordinance and the enactment of the Missouri Compromise and Oregon Territory; the admission of new free states into the United States; the due process guarantees of the Fifth Amendment; the rights of criminal defendants protected by the Sixth Amendment; the Privileges and Immunities Clause; and the guarantees of the First Amendment.

Each of these would have been problematic during the period Finkelman covers. There was not yet a 14th Amendment through which provisions of the Bill of Rights could have been incorporated to apply against the several states, although state constitutions contained protections of fundamental rights that federal judges recognized and affirmed. Moreover, the provisions Finkelman enumerates empowered Congress, not the courts, to pursue robust antislavery measures. Courts could have responded to and interpreted actions and directives of Congress, but they could not have initiated legislation or litigation. Had the Constitution enabled federal judges and the United States Supreme Court to strike down proslavery laws and regulations with ease, the Civil War Amendments might not have been necessary. But they were necessary to facilitate the demise of slavery.

Finkelman speculates about what the courts could have done to advance antislavery causes, but courts cannot do anything unless the right litigants bring the right cases with the right facts before the right tribunals while making the right arguments. Judges do not commence lawsuits but handle the ones brought before them. Finkelman could have examined some cases more closely to reveal how the facts, issues, reasoning, and holdings should have differed in rationale, not just in result. Too many cases receive only cursory treatment; lawsuits are more than picking winners and losers.

At one point, Finkelman accuses Marshall of reading a statute “in favor of slavery and not freedom,” but the statute isn’t quoted. Readers will have to look up the case to decide if Marshall’s interpretation was reasonable or arbitrary — if, that is, his hermeneutics adequately reflected a common understanding of the statutory language or intolerably controverted congressional purpose and prerogative. Finkelman chides departures from precedent, but rarely analyzes the allegedly controlling cases to verify that they are, in fact, dispositive of the later controversy by analogy of received rules.

One is regularly left with the impression that the only issue in the cases Finkelman evaluates was whether a slave should be free or not. Many of the cases, however, involved procedural and jurisdictional complexities that had to be resolved before grand political holdings implicating the entire institution of slavery could be reached. We’re still debating the ambiguities of federalism (e.g., how to square the Supremacy Clause with the Ninth and 10th Amendments) that complicate any exposition of the interplay between state and federal law, so it can seem anachronistic and quixotic to condemn Marshall, Story, or Taney for not untangling state and federal law in a manner that in retrospect would appear to have occasioned more freedom and less bondage.

Then again, it’s hard to fault Finkelman for subjecting these giants of the law to such high standards. That men like Marshall and Story have not been investigated as their contemporaries have in light of the horrors and effects of slavery speaks volumes about the willful blindness of the legal profession and the deficiencies of legal scholarship. Finkelman remains an important voice in legal education and has pushed scholarly conversations about slavery in new directions. At 68, he’s likely got more books left in him. Anxious readers await the next.

A Conversation Regarding Thomas Goode Jones

In America, American History, Books, History, Humanities, Law, liberal arts, Nineteenth-Century America, Politics, Scholarship, The South on November 8, 2017 at 6:45 am

A Brief History of Opinion-Writing Practices from Hale and Blackstone to the 20th Century

In American History, Britain, History, Law, Nineteenth-Century America, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. on August 9, 2017 at 6:45 am

This post is adapted from a law review article that may be downloaded here (citations available in the original).  

Sir Matthew Hale and Sir William Blackstone explained that judicial opinions in England traditionally were a source of unwritten law, or lex non scripta, derived from custom and read from the bench but not transcribed in official reports or indexed in a formal corpus.  Judicial opinions began as an oral medium, not a written record.  They were considered evidence of what the law was, but not the law itself.

From the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, opinions were often written down, in French, and compiled in Year Books.  Lawyers began citing opinions—some written, some unwritten—in their arguments before the courts, although there was no systematized mode of citation.  As early as the fifteenth century, lawyers produced abridgements, or digests, to review the state of the law across England.  These sketchy compilations summarized and classified opinions and could be referenced in the courtroom as authority for particular propositions.  During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, a comprehensive scheme of methodical and widespread adherence to written precedent emerged gradually by slow degrees.  However, not until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries did judges and litigants treat opinions as authoritative and binding in a manner that resembled the modern sense of precedent.  The publication of Sir Edward Coke’s Institutes of the Lawes of England over the course of nearly two decades during the early seventeenth century provided direction for both jurists and attorneys who wished to substantiate their arguments with concrete holdings.  Still there were no certified court reporters or verbatim transcriptions; the enterprise of publishing reports or digests was often personal and selective, insofar as reporters often chose to record only cases they liked and to disregard cases they disliked.

From approximately 1600 to 1800, the British House of Lords enjoyed supreme appellate jurisdiction over cases in common-law and equity courts.  During that time, the House of Lords did not publish reports of its decisions, seriatim or otherwise.  Most cases were ultimately determined by intermediate appellate courts, including the Exchequer Chamber, the Court of Common Pleas, and the King’s Bench, which regularly issued seriatim opinions that were transcribed by reporters.  Prior to American independence from Great Britain, appeals from colonial courts went before the Privy Council in England.  The Privy Council reached decisions by majority vote but issued those decisions as unified pronouncements, regardless of dissenting views.  Because all decisions of the Privy Council were subject to the King’s review, and the King, the site and symbol of the law or body politic, could not articulate simultaneous, contradictory positions, the appearance of unanimity within the Privy Council was paramount.

In its early years, after the adoption of the Judiciary Act of 1789, the United States Supreme Court (“the Court”), following the practice of English common-law courts—specifically the King’s Bench—typically rendered decisions in the form of per curiam and seriatim opinions.  The near obligatory practice of rendering written opinions was an American innovation and a departure from the English custom of residual orality.  The fact that the United States Constitution was written perhaps necessitated the textual documentation of judicial opinions in books, digests, and reports.

During the tenure of Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth (1796–1800), the third Chief Justice of the Court, seriatim opinions became less common and were abandoned during the tenure of Chief Justice John Marshall (1801–1835), who orchestrated consolidated opinions among the justices, much to the chagrin of Thomas Jefferson.  Justices who concurred with the prevailing rationale no longer authored a separate opinion to express their agreement.  Justice William Johnson, a Jeffersonian Republican, was the notable exception, authoring nearly half of the dissents that were produced by members of the Court during his tenure on the bench.  Chief Justice Marshall, for his part, authored most of the Court’s majority opinions, which were issued with the phrase “opinion of the Court” to lend the impression that the justices spoke with one voice.  Collegiality and consensus-building must have been a high priority because, after work hours, the justices resided and dined together in a small boardinghouse on Capitol Hill, away from their families, where court conflicts could have incited personal quarrels.  Abandoning the seriatim mode and dissenting opinions also quickened the publication process; over a quarter of the cases decided by opinion between 1815 and 1835 were published in no more than five days.

The period late in Chief Justice Marshall’s tenure to approximately 1905 involved the rise of dissenting justices.  Chief Justice Marshall himself began to author dissents as the Court increasingly decided cases through majority rather than unanimous opinions.  Dissents proliferated during the mid-nineteenth century and into the twentieth century.  Justice John McLean and Justice Benjamin Curtis authored memorable dissents in Dred Scott v. Sandford.  Forty-eight years later, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s three-paragraph dissent in Lochner v. New York became one of the most influential legal writings in American history.  Blackstone’s conviction that opinions were evidence of law but not actually law continued to some extent throughout the nineteenth century, yet it had been diminishing since the mid-eighteenth century.  The notion of “caselaw,” or the idea that judicial opinions constituted law, did not gain currency until the twentieth century.  Today it is mostly accepted without question or qualification.

The twentieth century ushered in the era of the “Great Dissenter,” a label that has been conferred on Justice Holmes and Justice John Marshall Harlan.  By the 1940s, most cases involved separate opinions.  Dissents and separate writings are now common.  A jurist’s reasoning and argument typically enjoy precedential effect, but historically, under the English tradition of the common law, the judgment of the opinion was authoritative, and later courts could disregard the analysis from which that judgment followed.  The results of an opinion, in other words, took priority over its reasoning.

Varieties of Emersonian Pragmatism: Synthesis in Justice Holmes

In Academia, America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Creativity, Emerson, Historicism, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Poetry, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, Scholarship on April 20, 2016 at 6:45 am

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There is a long tradition of scholarship regarding Emerson’s pragmatism. Among those who have written about Emerson’s pragmatism are Russell B. Goodman, Giles Gunn, Poirier, Cornel West, Joan Richardson, Levin, and James M. Albrecht. Even earlier Kenneth Burke noted that “we can see the incipient pragmatism in Emerson’s idealism” and that “Emerson’s brand of transcendentalism was but a short step ahead of an out-and-out pragmatism.”

Goodman analyzed Emerson as “America’s first Romantic philosopher,” the counterpart to Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Carlyle whose idealism would influence William James and later John Dewey and Stanley Cavell.

Gunn examined while contributing to the critical renaissance of American pragmatism in the 1990s; he suggested that Emerson cast a long shadow “at the commencement of the pragmatist tradition in America” and that Emerson belonged to a family of writers that included Henry James, Kenneth Burke, John Dewey, Frank Lentricchia, and others.

To reach this conclusion Gunn adopted a more diffuse definition of pragmatism that went beyond the philosophical tradition of Peirce, Dewey, George Herbert Mead, Sidney Hook, Morton White, Richard Bernstein, John McDermott, and Richard Rorty. He attended to aesthetically charged political texts presented not only by Emerson but also by W.E.B. DuBois, James Baldwin, Flannery O’ Connor, Elizabeth Hardwick, Poirier, Cornel West, Clifford Geertz, and Stanley Fish. Gunn left behind James’s “somewhat restricted focus on the nature of knowledge and the meaning of truth” and turned instead to literary and cultural works that affected social issues.

Gunn’s focus on the social indicates a debt to Dewey, and his valuation of Emerson must be considered in a Deweyian context. That Emerson is a pragmatist is somewhat implied or tacit in Gunn’s account; his discussion is not about what elements of Emersonian thought evidence pragmatism but about how Emerson influenced Henry James Sr. and his sons William and Henry, who in turn influenced a host of other writers; how Emerson spearheaded an American tradition of strong poets and transmitted optimism to subsequent writers; and how Emerson cultivated aesthetic rhetoric and anticipated progressive sociopolitical thought.

If Gunn is a bridge between classical philosophical pragmatism and neopragmatism of the aesthetic variety, Poirier was neither classical philosophical nor neopragmatist, eschewing as he did the logics and empiricism of Pierce and James as well as the political agitating of some of Gunn’s subjects. Poirier concentrated above all on the literary and cultural aspects of pragmatism: not that these aspects are divorced from politics, only that their primary objective is aesthetic or philosophical rather than partisan or activist.

Poirier sought to “revitalize a tradition linking Emerson to, among others, Stein, and to claim that new directions can thereby be opened up for contemporary criticism.” He, like Gunn, was frank about his attempt to expand the pragmatist canon that purportedly began with Emerson. “As Emerson would have it,” he explained, “every text is a reconstruction of some previous texts of work, work that itself is always, again, work-in-progress.”

This constant, competitive process of aesthetic revision gives rise to a community of authors whose mimetic activities gradually form and reform a canon that resembles and functions like the constantly reformulating legal principles in a common-law system: “The same work gets repeated throughout history in different texts, each being a revision of past texts to meet present needs, needs which are perceived differently by each new generation.” Within this revisionary paradigm, Poirier heralded Emerson as the writer who “wants us […] to discover traces of productive energy that pass through a text or a composition or an author, pointing always beyond any one of them.”

Cornel West explored the radical implications of pragmatism to democracy in the works of Emerson, Peirce, William James, Dewey, Sidney Hook, C. Wright Mills, W.E.B. DuBois, Reinhold Niebuhur, Lionel Trilling, Roberto Unger, and Michel Foucault. Unlike the interpreters of pragmatism discussed above, West extended the pragmatist canon from America to the European continent and professed a radical preoccupation with knowledge, power, control, discourse, and politics. Like the previous interpreters, however, he acknowledged the family resemblances among disparate pragmatist thinkers and their ideas and so, in Nietzschean or Foucaultian fashion, undertook a “genealogy” of their traditions.

Recent work by Colin Koopman has run with the historicist compatibilities between genealogy and pragmatism to articulate novel approaches to cultural studies. Although the topic exceeds the scope of this short post, genealogical pragmatism might serve as a promising methodology for future studies of the common-law system.

“My emphasis on the political and moral side of pragmatism,” West explained, “permits me to make the case for the familiar, but rarely argued, claim that Emerson is the appropriate starting point for the pragmatist tradition.” West’s emphasis on pragmatism as a “new and novel form of indigenous American oppositional thought” has an interesting valence with Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s new and novel form of dissenting from the majority and plurality opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court. Holmes’s jurisprudence was oppositional, in other words, although not radical in the sense that West means.

West credited Emerson with enacting “an intellectual style of cultural criticism that permits and encourages American pragmatists to swerve from mainstream European philosophy,” and Holmes’s dissents likewise moved American jurisprudence away from its British origins—especially from Blackstonian paradigms of the common law—and towards an oppositional paradigm modeled off theories of Darwinian struggle.

Richardson borrows a phrase from Darwin, “frontier instances,” which he borrowed from Francis Bacon, to trace the continuity of pragmatism in American life and thought. Her argument “proceeds by amplification, a gesture mimetic of Pragmatism itself, each essay illustrating what happened over time to a form of thinking brought over by the Puritans to the New World.” She treats pragmatism as a uniquely American philosophy and more impressively as an organism that develops through natural selection: “The signal, if implicit, motive of Pragmatism is the realization of thinking as a life form, subject to the same processes of growth and change as all other life forms.” Her diverse subjects signal the definitive expositors of pragmatism for their respective eras: Jonathan Edwards, Emerson, William and Henry James, Wallace Stevens, and Gertrude Stein.

Richardson’s Emerson is a visionary who retained a ministerial or spiritual philosophy but who repackaged it in less conventionally Christian terms than his Puritan, evangelical predecessors. She explains that Emerson imperfectly replicated the work of Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles to make it apprehensible in the rapidly changing American context. Her latest book, Pragmatism and American Experience, endeavors to untangle the knot of pragmatism and transcendentalism, searching Cavell for illumination regarding the perceived mismatch between these two prominent schools of American philosophy.

Albrecht interrogates the term “individualism” and describes its currency within a pragmatic tradition that runs from Emerson, William James, and Dewey to Kenneth Burke and Ralph Ellison. Unlike the aforementioned scholars of Emerson, who “do not resolve the question of how far, and to what purpose, one can claim the ‘pragmatic’ character of Emerson’s thought,” Albrecht comes close to a practical answer that is made more insightful and understandable in light of Holmes’s judicial writings that appear in media (opinions and dissents) that control rather than merely influence social patterns.

Albrecht strikes a balance between radical and conservative characterizations of pragmatism, “which gets accused of […] contradictory sins: it optimistically overestimates the possibilities for reform, or it succumbs to a conservative gradualism; it is too committed to a mere, contentless method of inquiry that undermines the stability of traditional meanings, or its emphasis on existing means places too much weight on the need to accommodate existing customs, truths, and institutions.” The same could be said of the common-law tradition that Holmes adored and about which he authored his only book, The Common Law, in 1881.

Albrecht never mentions the common law, but there is a mutual radiance between his analysis of Emerson and the longstanding notion of the common law as the gradual implementation and description of rules by courts, aggregated into a canon by way of innumerable cases and in response to changing social norms. Nor does Albrecht mention Holmes, whose Emersonian contributions to pragmatism only affirm Albrecht’s contention that “there are important benefits to be gained not by calling Emerson a pragmatist, […] but by reading Emerson pragmatically—by applying the fundamental methods and attitudes of pragmatism in order to highlight the ways in which similar attitudes are already present in, and central to, Emerson.”

One such benefit involves the sober realization that Holmes’s Emersonian pragmatism cannot be or ought not to be distorted to mean an equivalence with contemporary and coordinate signifiers such as “Left” and “Right,” “Liberal” and “Conservative,” for there are as many self-proclaimed “Conservative pragmatists,” to borrow a term from the jurist Robert H. Bork, as there are Cornel Wests: thinkers “concern[ed] with particularity—respect for difference, circumstance, tradition, history and the irreducible complexity of human beings and human societies—[which] does not qualify as a universal principle, but competes with and holds absurd the idea of a utopia achievable in this world” (Bork’s words).

Due to the long line of scholars celebrating and studying Emersonian pragmatism, Albrecht is able to remark, “The notion that Emerson is a seminal figure or precursor for American pragmatism is no longer new or controversial.” He extends and affirms a scholarly tradition by depicting “an Emerson whose vision of the limited yet sufficient opportunities for human agency and power prefigures the philosophy of American pragmatism.”

More important than Albrecht’s being the latest link in a chain is the clarifying focus he provides for examining an Emersonian Holmes by attending to two ideas that comport with common-law theory: first, that Emerson prefigured James by walking a line between monism and pluralism and by emphasizing the contingency and complexity of natural phenomena; and second, that Emerson considered ideas as derived from past experience but open to creative revision in keeping with present circumstances.

Regarding the first, Albrecht seeks to undermine a prevailing assumption that Emerson was some kind of absolute idealist, as even William James suggested. Albrecht’s argument is based on the position that Emerson rejected essentialisms and envisioned a cosmos consisting of competing forms and ideas that grow and evolve because of their competition.

Regarding the second, Albrecht seeks to show that although Emerson imagined himself as breaking from past forms and ideas, he also regarded the past as indispensable to our understanding of the present and as necessary for generating and cultivating creative dynamism; the past is inescapable and must be utilized to shape the present, in other words. “All attempts to project and establish a Cultus with new rites and forms, seem to me vain,” Emerson preached in this vein in his Divinity School address, adding that all “attempts to contrive a system are as cold as the new worship introduced by the French to the goddess of Reason[.] […] Rather let the breath of new life be breathed by you through the forms already existing.”

Albrecht promises an Emerson who recounts the mimetic and derivative nature of creativity and genius; yet his portrait of Emerson is incomplete without Poirier, who describes an Emersonian stream of pragmatism flowing with idiomatic, resonate, sonorous, and figurative language. Poirier’s notion of superfluity is central to understanding Holmes’s Emersonian role within a common-law system where “[e]very several result is threatened and judged by that which follows” (Emerson, “Circles”). In the common-law system according to Holmes, a “rapid intrinsic energy worketh everywhere, righting wrongs, correcting appearances, and bringing up facts to a harmony with thoughts” as they are permutated in case precedents (Emerson, “Divinity School Address).

Poirier’s notion of Emersonian superfluity involves a thinker’s “continual effort to raise himself above himself, to work a pitch above his last height,” and to push the syntactical and intellectual boundaries so as to avoid having “the same thought, the same power of expression, to-morrow” (Emerson, “Circles”). Superfluity is an attempt to realize in language the restive impulse to drive forward and reenergize, to prophesy and transcend. It characterizes language that is designed to “stir the feelings of a generation” (Holmes, “Law in Science and Science in Law”), or less grandiosely to compensate rhetorically for the inability of the written word to realize the extraordinary power of an idea or emotion.

 

Paul H. Fry on “African-American Literary Criticism”

In Academia, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Rhetoric, Scholarship, Southern History, Southern Literature, Teaching, The Academy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on February 10, 2016 at 8:45 am

Below is the next installment in the lecture series on literary theory and criticism by Paul H. Fry. The previous lectures are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Harold Bloom’s American Sublime

In Academia, America, American Literature, Art, Artist, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Creativity, Emerson, Fiction, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Novels, Philosophy, Poetry, Rhetoric, Scholarship, The Novel, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on August 12, 2015 at 8:45 am

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This review originally appeared here in the American Conservative.

What can be said about Harold Bloom that hasn’t been said already? The Yale professor is a controversial visionary, a polarizing seer who has been recycling and reformulating parallel theories of creativity and influence, with slightly different foci and inflections, for his entire career, never seeming tiresome or repetitive. He demonstrates what is manifestly true about the best literary critics: they are as much artists as the subjects they undertake.

Bloom’s criticism is characterized by sonorous, cadenced, almost haunting prose, by an exacting judgment and expansive imagination, and by a painful, sagacious sensitivity to the complexities of human behavior and psychology. He is a discerning Romantic in an age of banality and distraction, in a culture of proud illiteracy and historical unawareness. Bloom reminds us that to be faithful to tradition is to rework it, to keep it alive, and that tradition and innovation are yoked pairs, necessarily dependent on one another.

Bloom has been cultivating the image and reputation of a prophet or mystic for decades. His stalwart defense of the Western canon is well known but widely misunderstood. His descriptive account is that the canon is fluid, not fixed—open, not closed. It might be stable, but it’s not unchangeable. The literary canon is the product of evolution, a collection of the fittest works that have been selectively retained, surviving the onslaught of relentless competition.

Bloom’s prescriptive position is that, because human agency is a controllable factor in this agnostic filtering process, serious readers can and should ensure that masterpieces, those stirring products of original, even genius minds, are retained, and that the latest works are held to the highest aesthetic standards, which are themselves established and proven by revisionary struggle. The merit of a work is not found in the identity of its author—his or her race, gender, or sexuality—but in the text proper, in the forms and qualities of the work itself.

Bloom’s latest book, The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime, examines ambitious and representative American authors, its chapters organized by curious pairings: Whitman with Melville (the “Giant Forms” of American literature), Emerson with Dickinson (the Sage of Concord is Dickinson’s “closest imaginative father”), Hawthorne with Henry James (a relation “of direct influence”), Twain with Frost (“our only great masters with popular audiences”), Stevens with Eliot (“an intricate interlocking” developed through antithetical competition), and Faulkner with Crane (“each forces the American language to its limits”). This mostly male cast, a dozen progenitors of the American sublime, is not meant to constitute a national canon. For that, Bloom avers in his introduction, he envisions alternative selections, including more women: Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Marianne Moore, and Flannery O’Connor. Bloom’s chosen 12 represent, instead, “our incessant effort to transcend the human without forsaking humanism.” These writers have in common a “receptivity to daemonic influx.” “What lies beyond the human for nearly all of these writers,” Bloom explains, “is the daemon.”

What is this daemon, you ask. As always, Bloom is short on definition, embracing the constructive obscurity—the aesthetic vagueness—that Richard Poirier celebrated in Emerson and William James and Robert Frost, Bloom’s predecessors. Bloom implies that calling the “daemon” an idea is too limiting; the word defies ready explanation or summation.

The daemon, as I read it, is an amorphous and spiritual source of quasi-divine inspiration and influence, the spark of transitional creative powers; it’s akin to shamanism, and endeavors to transcend, move beyond, and surpass. Its opposite is stasis, repose. “Daemons divide up divine power and are in perpetual movement from their supernal heights to us,” Bloom remarks in one of his more superlative moments. “They bring down messages,” he intones, “each day’s news of the metamorphic meanings of the division between our mundane shell and the upper world.”

What, you might ask in follow up, is the American sublime that it should stand in marked contrast to the European tradition, rupturing the great chain of influence, revealing troublesome textual discontinuities and making gaps of influence that even two poets can pass abreast? “Simplistically,” Bloom submits, “the sublime in literature has been associated with peak experiences that render a secular version of a theophany: a sense of something interfused that transforms a natural moment, landscape, action, or countenance.” This isn’t quite Edmund Burke’s definition, but it does evoke the numinous, what Bloom calls, following Burke, “an excursion into the psychological origins of aesthetic magnificence.”

The Daemon Knows is part memoir, a recounting of a lifetime spent with books. There are accounts of Robert Penn Warren, Leslie Fiedler, and Cleanth Brooks. Bloom’s former students and mentors also make brief appearances: Kenneth Burke, for instance, and Camille Paglia. And Bloom doesn’t just analyze, say, Moby Dick—he narrates about his first encounter with that book back in the summer of 1940. He later asserts, “I began reading Hart Crane in the library on my tenth birthday.” That he remembers these experiences at all speaks volumes to Melville’s and Crane’s bewitching facility and to Bloom’s remarkable receptivity.

Bloom has not shied away from his signature and grandiose ahistorical pronouncements, perhaps because they’re right. Melville, for instance, is “the most Shakespearean of our authors,” an “American High Romantic, a Shelleyan divided between head and heart, who held against Emerson the sage’s supposed deficiency in the region of the heart.” Or, “Emersonian idealism was rejected by Whitman in favor of Lucretian materialism, itself not compatible with Indian speculations.” Or, “Stevens received from Whitman the Emersonian conviction that poetry imparts wisdom as well as pleasure.” These generalizations would seem to service hagiography, but even if they’re overstatement, are they wrong?

My professors in graduate school, many of them anyway, chastised Bloom and dubbed him variously a reactionary, a racist, a misogynist, a bigot, or a simpleton; they discouraged his presence in my essays and papers, laughing him out of classroom conversation and dismissing his theories out-of-hand. Or else, stubbornly refusing to assess his theories on their own terms, they judged the theories in the light of their results: the theories were bad because certain authors, the allegedly privileged ones, came out on top, as they always have. This left little room for newcomers, for egalitarian fads and fashions, and discredited (or at least undermined) the supposedly noble project of literary affirmative action.

They will be forgotten, these dismissive pedants of the academy, having contributed nothing of lasting value to the economy of letters, while Bloom will live on, continuing to shock and upset his readers, forcing them to second-guess their judgments and tastes, their criteria for aesthetic value, challenging their received assumptions and thumping them over the head with inconvenient facts and radical common sense. The school of resentment and amateurish cultural studies, appropriate targets of Bloom’s learned animus, will die an inglorious death, as dogmatic political hermeneutics cannot withstand the test of time.

Bloom, on the other hand, like his subjects, taps his inner daemon, invokes it and rides it where it travels, struggles against the anxiety of influence and displays all of the rhetorical power and play of the strong poets he worships. Dr. Samuel Johnson and Northrop Frye reverberate throughout his capacious tome, and for that matter his entire oeuvre. Bloom’s psychic brooding becomes our own, if we read him pensively, and we are better off for it.

Those who view literary study as a profession requiring specialized and technical training, who chase tenure and peer approval, publishing in academic journals and gaining no wider audience than groveling colleagues, do not possess the originality, the foresight, or the brute imagination necessary to achieve enduring appeal. Reading, done right, is a profoundly personal activity, an exercise in solitary contemplation and possible revelation; writing, done right, is transference: the redirection of complex states of consciousness and knowing from one person to another. A few sentences of Bloom’s contemplative questioning, such as the following, are worth the weight of whole academic articles: “At eighty-four I wonder why poems in particular obsessed me from childhood onward. Because I had an overemotional sensibility, I tended to need more affection from my parents and sisters than even they could sustain. From the age of ten on, I sought from Moyshe-Leyb Halpern and Hart Crane, from Shakespeare and Shelley, the strong affect I seemed to need from answering voices.” Here Bloom invites Freudian investigation of himself, summoning the psychoanalytic models he uses on others.

Bloom is now 85. He claims to have another book left in him, making this one his penultimate. His awesome and dedicated engagement with the best that has been thought and known in the world appears to have left him unafraid of the finish, of what comes next, as though literary intimacy and understanding have prepared him, equipped him, for the ultimate. It seems fitting, then, to quote him on this score and to end with a musing on the end: “We are at least bequeathed to an earthly shore and seek memorial inscriptions, fragments heaped against our ruins: an interval and then we are gone. High literature endeavors to augment that span: My twelve authors center, for me, that proliferation of consciousness by which we go on living and finding our own sense of being.”

Review of “A Late Encounter With the Civil War,” by Michael Kreyling

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Historicism, History, Humanities, Nineteenth-Century America, Scholarship, Southern History, Southern Literary Review, The South on July 1, 2015 at 8:45 am

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This review originally appeared here in Southern Literary Review.

Now that it’s 2015, the sesquicentennial of the Civil War has come to a close. Those who don’t follow such anniversaries may not have noticed it was ever here, but it was, although without the fanfare or nostalgia that marked the commemorations at the semi-centennial and the centennial.

Michael Kreyling, a professor of English at Vanderbilt University with an endowed chair and several books to his credit, brings a literary touch to his brief history of the Civil War—not of its battles and heroes and victims and villains but of the manner in which Americans have recalled those things over time. A history about history, conceived as a series of lectures, A Late Encounter With the Civil War bears a title that seems to apply as aptly to Kreyling (he’s had a long and distinguished career in literature but hasn’t worked extensively in the field of Civil War studies) as it does to the current era’s strained connection with the bloodiest conflict the nation has ever experienced.

Kreyling focuses on “collective memory,” a concept he purports to borrow from Maurice Halbwachs and Emile Durkheim and the premise of which is “that humans assemble or construct memory in the context of social life: we remember what our social groups require us to remember in order to maintain historical continuity over time and to claim our membership in them.” Collective memory is participatory rather than commanded, evolutionary rather than fixed, fluctuating rather than static; it emerges out of the conversations people within a given territory have regarding a particular event.

Kreyling is, of course, concerned with our collective memory of the Civil War. It is unclear which individuals enforce or control the regime of collective memory according to his paradigm, but presumably he means to suggest that all members of the community are at least partially complicit in the narrative perpetuation that becomes collective memory.

From the premise of collective memory Kreyling sets out to establish the constructedness of Southern narratives about the war and thereby to refute the assumption of Pierre Nova, who once claimed that “[d]ifferent versions of the Revolution or the Civil War do not threaten the American tradition because, in some sense, no such thing exists—or, if it does, it is not primarily a historical construction.” Kreyling submits, contra Nova, that historical memory is constructed because it involves both gradual initiation and exclusion: those who understand and promote the validated, official account are admitted into the group, members of which celebrate a shared past, whereas those who challenge the authorized narratives are marginalized or altogether excluded from the group. What the approved story of the Civil War is at the moment of the sesquicentennial remains unknown because, he says, only years after such a landmark can we objectively evaluate its cultural reception and narrative production.

Collective memory is not the same thing as personal memory. It is a “kind of complicated puppet theater” inasmuch as “we are the puller of strings” as well as “the figures pulled.” We not only “set dates for ceremonies of public memory and fill the ceremonies with choreographed activities” but also allow ourselves to be dragged along with such ceremonies; we resort to ritualistic commemoration to project the past onto our present, he explains, and to attempt to define ourselves both by and against our past.

Kreyling argues in his opening chapter that “the United States that formally remembered the Civil War at the semicentennial was different from the America of the centennial and sesquicentennial by one very powerful theme we can identify in retrospect: blood.” The subject of blood leads Kreyling into meandering discussions of The Great Gatsby and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This chapter becomes less about the memory of the Civil War and more about early 20th-century eugenicist fascinations with blood, an element of romanticized fiction that is “latent symbolic” or “cultural” because it “invades or pollutes the endangered citadel of whiteness.”

Theodore Roosevelt used the term “race suicide” to express a widely shared fear of racial degeneration, which was linked, Kreyling alleges, to a perceived collapse of civilization. Kreyling ties Roosevelt’s term to both the creation of and reaction to popular works by D. W. Griffith and Thomas Dixon Jr. He even implicates Woodrow Wilson in the rapid proliferation of racism—and not just by recalling Wilson’s oft-discussed response to the screening of The Birth of a Nation in the White House.

The second chapter maps the shift from memorialization to mass anxiety as race-relations in America forced the nation to reconsider the meaning and purpose of the Civil War. Here Kreyling considers an array of figures, from Bruce Catton and Robert Penn Warren to Edmund Wilson and Flannery O’Connor, to substantiate the proposition that public interest in the Civil War was on the wane and overshadowed by the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War. All of this is very interesting, but we shouldn’t be surprised that most of the population at that time was more interested in its present moment than in a war that had occurred a century earlier.

The third and final chapter speculates about those “negotiations” that we have “between what did happen” during the Civil War and “what we would prefer to remember.” I say “speculates” because Kreyling is careful not to seem rash or conclusory about our own moment. Rather than giving an answer, for instance, he says that “we need to ask” the question “[w]here is the South now?” That we may ask that question at all shows how much different our generation is from those which came before, as Kreyling demonstrates by surveying recent literary scholarship on the matter.

Wherever the South is now, it seems to have traveled far from “pure ancestor worship.” That doesn’t mean our memory has become unproblematic. Kreyling sees in the historical fiction of Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen, for example, a disturbing turn to a counterfactual mode of ritual that distorts our understanding of past events. Kreyling rounds out his discussion of Gingrich and Forstchen (among other people and texts) with an upsetting observation: “we commemorate past wars with new ones.” Such a strong and ambiguous claim demands clarification, yet Kreyling doesn’t elaborate, perhaps because long explication would detract from the lasting force and profundity of the closing remark.

As smoothly as this book reads, one wonders what its chief contribution will be. It’s certainly unique and innovative to, as Kreyling does, compare vampire fiction with the racist notion of thoroughbred whiteness that was in circulation at the semicentennial. On the other hand, there might be a good reason why this approach hasn’t been tried, and it’s not because no one has thought of it.

When a book doesn’t move professional historiography in a direction that unearths obscure details, that adds to the sum of knowledge on a precise topic, or that sheds light on events by examining them from the unexplored perspective of cultural outsiders, it can rely too heavily on style and creativity and entertainment value. Kreyling’s book isn’t devoid of scholarship, but it does push the bounds of that genre. Perhaps its greatest achievement is its capacity to raise provocative questions about our present relationship to a conflict that in some ways seems so distant, but in others so familiar.

 

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