Imitatio Americana

By D. Berton EmersonMarch 17, 2016

Imitatio Americana

Against Self-Reliance: The Arts of Dependence in the Early United States by William Huntting Howell

HERE’S A POPULAR STORY: American individualism grew up alongside, coextensive with, the US nation. It was born in the colonial era and announced itself to the world in a ballsy declaration of independence in 1776. It survived a counterattack from elites looking to tame an unruly polis in the constitutional revolution of 1787, and it became sanctified and forever protected by the Bill of Rights. It flourished in the years when the United States came of age, survived wars civil and foreign and cold, and saturated the pores of contemporary culture. Benjamin Franklin was its first great champion, Walt Whitman wrote a song about it, and the media (or capitalism, or Coca-Cola) took it global in the last century. In the United States, individual expression is a life and death matter, so much so that, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “Imitation is suicide.”

Or so the story typically goes.

William Huntting Howell’s book of literary and cultural criticism Against Self-Reliance begins with Emerson’s maxim — which Howell finds, ironically, scrawled onto a bathroom wall. Using this small bit of imitative graffiti as a launching point, Howell sets about amending the popular story of the United States of America as the force that indelibly gave the individual, the sacred self, a position of fundamental prominence. Or at least he revises the conventional wisdom concerning the triumph of the individual in the first few decades of post-revolutionary life. Focusing on literary, political, and material culture in the young republic, Howell deftly shows how “different sorts of copying were essential to the artistic, psychological, and political projects associated with national independence.” In other words, this was an era when “imitation was pointedly not suicide — when various ‘arts of dependence’ […] were considered central to imagining, expressing, and integrating self and polity, to building a life and a country instead of tearing it down.”

Howell’s book seems a timely intervention in studies of American literary history, and it’s worth revisiting the backstory of why. In our current moment, classical liberalism — the Enlightenment-era political philosophy underpinning the championship of individuals, their liberty, and their rights — is making something of a comeback in the critical lexicon of US literary scholars after a decade or more of hibernation. Proudly cited by mid-century American intellectuals — see F. O. Matthiessen’s period-titling American Renaissance (1941) or Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination (1950) among myriad examples — liberalism served as a default for politically progressive cold warriors who institutionalized the curiously self-absorbed discipline of American Studies. The late-20th-century canon wars recast the white- and male-authored literature that Matthiessen, Trilling, et. al. had championed as the liberal imagination, but there were few challenges to the assumption that American literature of the late-18th and early 19th century bore a distinctive commitment to a classically liberal agenda.

This continuity in American literary studies — especially when considering literature of the post-Revolutionary period — might seem odd given that early American historians have hardly assumed liberalism as the default ideology, best evidenced by debates over the proper designation of the late-colonial and early national periods as primarily “liberal” or primarily “republican.” Classical liberalism, on one hand, champions the individual and the life, liberty, and happiness (i.e. dignity) of the individual as the first principle around which governments, states, and common interests are built. Classical republicanism, on the other hand, holds limited faith in the individual and promotes the virtuous suppression of self-interest.

The political economies and societies that take shape under these general conceptions do not necessarily cancel each other out, as the first century of US history aptly demonstrates. For most historians, though, republican ideals dominated the aspirations and blueprints of the founders and framers and much of early national culture. In time, liberal principles gradually overtook republican doctrine and became the primary standard once a market economy took hold and Andrew Jackson won the presidency as the champion of the common man.

The debates among historians concerning liberalism and republicanism in the early national era have seen less play in literary studies. As noted, even with its morphing canon and in its most historically inclined manifestations, American literary studies has long deferred to some version of a liberal imagination. Part of this results from the fact that we have very much remained children of Romantic sensibilities when it comes to our aesthetic criteria for assessing literature. Such sensibilities champion originality, ingenuity, and psychological investigations of the self. Despite our claims that authors are dead, we seem to still to admire them and their individual works.

Behind these critical trends, though, is perhaps something more basic: reading and writing literature are largely assumed in our culture at large to be private, individuated activities. Fiction and poetry are written by individuals in quiet spaces; readers of what has been assumed as “good literature” read it in private. Yet this assumption has always been vexing for scholars who want past literatures to capture a widespread representation of an era’s collective imaginary. Moby-Dick might be considered one of the best novels to engage and relay the American socio-political condition of the mid-19th-century, but what if only a handful of people in the 1850s read it? In other words, how exemplary is it? 

Literary scholars have found ways around the problem of exemplarity in a few great books: theorizing the cultural work of literature, quantifying publication and circulation details of books and periodicals, ascertaining varieties of reading practices, and extending and revising interpretative strategies to consider a more diverse set of texts with wider circulation than a handful of canonical novels. Yet literary scholars are literary scholars. The objects of study (i.e. literary texts) and the methodological practices seemingly demand an individuated approach. Exemplarity is quite helpful, and a liberal tradition within literary studies has consequently endured. Whether this critical approach has provided the best insights into early US literature, however, should be questioned.

Enter Howell’s book and its valuable reassessment of this pre-Romantic literary moment through a cornucopia of close readings of texts both discursive and material. He reads his share of novels and poetry and treats them as exemplary (as literary scholars tend to do), but he also mixes these readings convincingly with lesser-known archival treasures to construct a powerful argument about the pervasiveness of a rather non-liberal tradition in early American literature. With the typical materials, he revises a good bit of conventional wisdom about the texts and reputations of now-canonical authors Benjamin Franklin, Phillis Wheatley, and Charles Brockden Brown. The real jewels come in elucidations of lesser-known influencers: David Rittenhouse and his multiple occupations (designer of orreries and head of the US mint); teaching manuals for the education of women and their insights on varieties of female pedagogy (including some brilliant readings of needlework!). His final chapter on Moby-Dick disrupts the periodic architecture of the book and again relies upon literary exemplarity, but his reading of the dependent arts in this watershed novel, one which has typically been understood as a cautionary tale against tyrannical and totalitarian monomania, convincingly demonstrates that the imitative zeitgeist of the 1790s persisted well into the age when modern liberalism allegedly became the commonplace guide for life in the USA.

Before getting to these well-constructed readings, though, Howell’s introduction presents the only moment when this reader was left wanting more. The introduction aims to do two things: first, to overcome the historical hurdle of the 19th-century Romantics who devised the standards that still dominate our literary critical sensibilities; and second, to establish a theoretical framework by which we might understand the era’s alternative cultural values. In the category of historical obstruction, Ralph Waldo Emerson ends up being Howell’s dominant culprit, evidenced by his summations of three famous texts (“Self-Reliance,” “Divinity School Address,” and Nature). Two more examples come from “dissenting voices” (i.e. disenfranchised women and African Americans): the Declaration of Sentiments from the Seneca Falls Convention and Frederick Douglass’s speech titled “Self-Made Men.” This abbreviated set of examples stands in for the widespread 19th-century ideology of selfhood that has occluded our historical vision. The second objective of establishing a theoretical framework also seems underdeveloped, and instead ends up being a litany of terms synonymous with dependence: modeling, reproduction, re-presentation, imitation, emulation, derivation, iteration, sympathetic identification, humility, deference, well-wrought copy, hanging together, pointedly generic, personal effacement. All fit within a broad concept of republicanism as the preeminent form dictating subjectivity in the years following the revolution. What is less clear is how they come together to form an “arts of dependence.”

While one might quibble with the introduction, the well-researched and convincing arguments in the chapters that follow more than make up for its comparative thinness. It makes sense to start with Benjamin Franklin and his rags-to-riches story to demonstrate that the most famous 18th-century American individual in fact esteemed imitation above all else. The chapter on Franklin likewise establishes the book’s methodological pattern: historicized close readings of discursive texts combined with interpretations of related material objects. Howell’s next chapter on the neoclassical poetry of Phillis Wheatley follows a similar path. Wheatley and her poetry have long been treated ambivalently: praised because she was an enslaved black woman who produced formally precise poetry, yet (for many years) criticized because her poetry lacked formal ingenuity as well as subversive political content. Howell rebuts Wheatley’s critics by working through her deep commitment to Methodism and its promotion of a disciplined style of living built around the idea that self-assertion was best expressed through self-denial.

It’s in the middle two chapters that Howell’s arguments become most powerful, as he moves beyond exemplarity and reads activities and cultural artifacts that had a wider reach than literary texts and private commentary about them. The first case study takes on the 18th-century veneration of natural philosopher David Rittenhouse as the ultimate republican machine. Celebrated for his craftsmanship of orreries — mechanical models of the solar system — and determined to be the perfect candidate to head the US Mint, Rittenhouse was lauded by notables like Benjamin Rush and Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson and Rush were impressed because Rittenhouse’s entire life — his mechanical genius as well as his eminently imitable appearance and personality — demonstrated the paradoxical fantasy of republicanism: that his singular achievements came with the erasure of his individuality. But earning Jefferson’s praise in private correspondence doesn’t necessarily prove that he was universally esteemed, and Rush’s noteworthy eulogy, even though printed and circulated, only reached a small number of auditors and readers.

To move beyond this historiographical limitation and demonstrate Rittenhouse’s influence, Howell adds the material text of Rittenhouse’s work at the US Mint to show his attempts to spread the arts of dependence to an entire nation through choices made in the manufacturing of US coins. When Congress mandated the development of a system of material integrity (that all coins of a certain denomination should be made of the same materials and should look and weigh the same), Rittenhouse led the massive engineering project. But more than just designing, manufacturing, and distributing this new monetary system, Rittenhouse’s aesthetic choices, as Howell shows, “worked to impress the paradoxes of republicanism into people” throughout the states.

The following chapter builds off a pedagogical guidebook produced by Susanna Rowson (of Charlotte Temple fame) to consider discourse and practices in the field of female education. Rowson’s guidebooks are often taken as exemplars of so-called “republican motherhood” — a mode of liberal female subjectivity in which domestic maternal labor feeds directly into the development of individualized private citizens — but Howell uses them to shape our understanding of what that term might mean. The guidebooks forged a deep connection between the period’s “spirit of emulation” and theories emphasizing sympathy in female education as the crucial virtue for developing republican forms of community.

Put differently, such guidebooks considered both reading and writing as collective rather than individual activities. They made the case that good reading depended upon reading aloud, and on stirring auditors’ feelings. Handwriting was equally necessary to proper schoolgirl education, and the erasure of self-distinction and the development of uniform script were held in the highest esteem. But reading and writing only made up a portion of female education, and here comes perhaps the best moment in Howell’s study: his reading of embroidery as a physiological practice of imitative aesthetics. Needlecraft was apparently a major element in many curricula, and the combination of pattern and copy made embroidery a socializing practice precisely consistent with Howell’s broader arguments about the era. 

The final two chapters on Charles Brockden Brown’s Ormond and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick work through fictive meditations on the potential dangers as well as the persistence of the arts of dependence. Brown’s novels definitely seem iconoclastic in the early national period, and Howell shows that the novel’s gothic critique of copying and the dependent arts demonstrate how widely these ideas circulated. Moby-Dick initially seems an outlier, but Howell crafts a logical conclusion to show that the principles of imitation and dependence in no way disappeared into the ether when most histories suggest they did.

Ultimately, Howell’s book stands as a crucial contribution to understandings of the late-colonial and early national periods, and one that deserves some imitation of its own in this particular historical moment. In addition to moving beyond the limitations of exemplarity and to refocusing on collective instead of individuated approaches to literary studies, investigations of classical liberalism and its alternatives seem increasingly necessary as neoliberal practices tighten their grip on university and scholarly life. Whether it’s Scott Walker’s assault against the tenure system at the University of Wisconsin or wealthy donors pushing the right buttons to have Steven Salaita’s appointment at the University of Illinois rescinded — or any number of events evidencing the increasing private influence on the institutions supporting public intellectualism in the 21st century — it seems that studies focusing on cultures of liberalism in the 18th and 19th centuries should become a higher priority in literary and cultural studies.


D. Berton Emerson teaches American literature and culture at Pomona College.

LARB Contributor

D. Berton Emerson teaches American literature and culture at Whitworth University. He has written essays that have appeared in American LiteratureESQ: A Journal of the American RenaissanceNineteenth-Century Literature, and Avidly. He is working on a book titled Local Rules: Antebellum Misfits and their Alternative Democracies.


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