Slavery, Philosophy, and American Literature, 1830-1860
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005
Reviewed by Donald P. Gagnon
In examining American literature in the decades before the Civil War, Maurice S. Lee has discovered that for some antebellum authors, "the slavery crisis required, among other things, extraordinary words" . Lee's Slavery, Philosophy, and American Literature, 1830-1860 is itself a collection of extraordinary words about the titular subject, but more precisely, it is an extraordinary collection and presentation of ideas that delineate how antebellum writers successfully, if inconclusively, interrogated interrelationships between slavery and philosophy through literature. Acknowledging the literature of slavery to be "both shortsighted and forward looking" , Lee categorizes the subject of his inquiry as being less about a set of practical paradigms for establishing reform than it is about how leading intellectuals and artists of the day managed to parse the issue as they stared, full-face, into the maw of slavery's atrocity. While the authors under study may dissemble and skirt some of the most perplexing social and cultural codes functioning with the shadow of the peculiar institution, the book itself is a rigorous, scholarly and passionate examination of writers who were unable, if not unwilling, to philosophize the horrors of slavery—including its historical reverberations—out of existence.
Lee begins examining the period literature of slavery within a philosophical context by attempting to validate his inquiry: "To say that literature uses philosophy to intervene in politics is to invite a host of definitional questions, though the general tendency of this book is to complicate, not make, such distinctions" . Indeed, Lee largely succeeds in illustrating exactly how the authors under scrutiny found themselves—consciously or otherwise—unable to circumvent the limitations of the national debate, suggesting that as the ideological and philosophical debates intensified, "America's supposed empire of reason lacked philosophical clarity" . From this establishing position, Lee serially addresses some of the major writings of some of the major authors of that period: Edgar Allan Poe, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, Herman Melville, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. With the exception of Emerson's placement at (and as) the climax of Lee's study, the chronological arrangement of the authors provides not only a clear, valid structure but also historical context that limns the primary locus of reference for the book: the focusing on the slavery debate as a broad-based cultural problem and how its chroniclers engage both idealist and materialist ideologies. Lee contextualizes philosophical abstraction within a historical framework and illustrates how the materialist—the "practical work of politics" —is inseparable from the idealist and its theoretical underpinnings, claiming the slavery of literature as the site for a potentially more comprehensive aesthetic union. That he does so in language that is both adept and engaging contributes significantly to Lee's ethical and logical appeals.
The writers under scrutiny are not a particularly exhaustive group, and they represent primarily a canonical response to the issue of slavery, though the demographic range they encompass is reasonably broad. Lee begins with an exploration Poe and his seemingly contradictory materialistic and idealistic concerns. Poe, an avowed anti-abolitionist, avers claims to a transcendental unity, as reflected most notably in his concept of the unity of effect. According to Lee, Poe strives to resolve the philosophical contradiction by creating narratives that postulate a metaphysical iteration of slavery as an aspect of the unconscious. Focusing his study primarily on the aesthetics of Poe's "Metzengerstein," Lee illustrates how Poe reveals "subtle though recognizable patterns of anti-abolitionism"  even as he tries to bring philosophical order to the debate over slavery. Indeed, Lee excerpts a passage from the story, highlighting Poe's reliance on the functional dynamic of dichotomous quantities and then concludes that "Poe cannot celebrate a transcendentalism that synthesis black and white" , adding that Poe, unlike other writer/philosophers such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "renders the union of subject and object in an idiom of racial horror as absolute identity becomes an analogy for amalgamation and slave revolt" . Lee then broadens the scope of his study, locating his conclusions with a more expansive philosophical context. Suggesting that the conflation of black and white subjectivity recalls that of Hegel (whose dialectic of lord and bondsman establishes a central argument that a subject can only recognize itself via a dominant other ), he adds that Poe is also sensitive to the politics of power and contingency, simultaneously challenging the concept of a transcendental unity. However, Lee exculpates Poe's racist philosophies by suggesting that Poe, as with the other authors in Lee's study, understands and acts on his own awareness of the limits of philosophy and its inability to successfully reckon with the intricacies of the slavery crisis.
Indeed, Poe's stories rely on the disjunction between the material and the ideal, according to Lee, who also claims that Harriet Beecher Stowe's antebellum work was similarly unable to overcome inconsistencies in her philosophy. In chapter two, Lee draws a distinction between the "sensational and transfixed glee"  that Poe imposes on the exploration and documentation of his philosophical disjunctions and the "more perfectionist"  Stowe's efforts to overcome her self-contradictions, or "how to master the epistemology of the right feeling" . Lee clearly classifies Stowe's aesthetic and personal quandary into two distinct concerns, as illustrated in Uncle Tom's Cabin. The first is the challenge in the epistemological problem of differentiating between sympathy and passion. The second addresses the question of agency: "If everyone possesses moral sentiment . . . how does one account for abiding iniquity, for the no that Uncle Tom's Cabin represses even as the novel's polarized reception made the failure of sympathy more palpable?" . It is this second item that draws most of Lee's attention, theorizing that Stowe's writings after the massive success of her sentimental novel may have become an end in themselves as she posited absolute truths within a largely sentimental philosophy. Again, here Lee is able to draw out clearly the line of demarcation, the subtle yet powerful acknowledgement of inherent and ironic contradictions that bind Poe and Stowe to the pattern of antebellum writers that comprise his study's subject of inquiry.
Lee draws similar—and similarly valid—conclusions in his subsequent discussions of Douglass, Melville and Emerson, establishing the authors' unique locus in their philosophical approaches to slavery and their concomitant relationships with the other authors in the book, a kind of rhetorical double-consciousness whose application to the subject is both subtly ironic and thematically appropriate. In particular, Lee's examination of Frederick Douglass, whom he refers to as "the fugitive philosopher" , posits that Douglass understands how discursive reasoning, as exemplified in My Bondage and My Freedom (the 1855 re-telling of his original Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass), is philosophically and politically limited, thereby demanding an alternative epistemology to establish his own subjectivity within the culturally-read ethnically-dominant philosophy. Lee successfully iterates the need for Douglass to establish himself as a valid philosopher as a living metaphor for all other black slaves, just as he makes a case for Stowe to be validated as a female philosopher. Douglass achieves his aim, according to Lee, by committing himself to metaphysics: recognizing the indispensability of reflection within his revised narrative, Douglass demonstrates how his mental faculties place him securely within the sphere of humanity and that slavery has failed to supersede the common sense afforded him by his natural intellect. Clearly, in addressing the importance of reflection (as interpreted by early modern philosophers such as Rene Descartes and John Locke), Lee establishes Douglass' place in the development of intellectual history as he connects Douglass' reflection to Emerson's "man thinking" in "The American Scholar."
However, Lee's greatest success in his deconstruction of Douglass' narrative lies in how he paints Douglass as being torn between objectivity and subjectivity, between material practice and ideal theory, or "the quandary of self-consciousness"  as a result of that reflection. “Theoretical abstraction turns out to be culturally embedded and prejudicial, while Douglass's commitment to enlightened self-knowledge traps him within a liberal individualism as reflection, egoistically pursued, forms the basis for a concept of freedom understood as self-possession” . In making this claim, Lee situates Douglass not only at the center of the moral debate but, perhaps more significantly in terms of intellectual history, as representative of the cadre of philosophers struggling to mitigate the contradictory metaphysics central to the slavery debate within American literature. Indeed, Lee's investigation nets the important realization that in making subjectivity objective, Douglass employs metaphysics as "one intellectual tool among many" to further his practical goal of emancipation and equality.
Lee successfully locates Douglass not as simply a minority voice echoing that of the majority, but rather as a voice that succeeds at least as well as those of his white contemporaries in limning the inescapable philosophical vagaries of the peculiar institution of slavery.
Lee's most distinguished analysis constitutes much of the final two chapters, those focusing on Herman Melville and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Since these two literary giants are also widely considered to be two of the century's finest philosophical giants, it seems only fitting that Lee should use them and their ideas to simultaneously conclude and expand the scope of his inquiry. In these two chapters, Lee locates the topic of slavery as political philosophy. Relying predominantly on analysis of Melville's "Benito Cereno" the author develops the subject of antebellum politics beyond the limits of slavery and race and engages the politics of language as employed by Melville, "carefully constructing a theory of government beneath the San Domenick's events to suggest that America's political estate is, in fact, a world of lies" . Beyond the ironic timeliness of the implication, the skeptical depiction of political discourse in the book "helps us to talk about how we talk about politics" . In analyzing the development of Melville's political voice from Typee through Omoo, Redburn, and Mardi, Lee concludes that his subject's hermeneutics are more focused on the future than on the past, though contemporary readers may still seek out political commitment to match their own convictions. Indeed, a contemporary sensibility may work against a valid political interpretation of Melville, particularly in "Benito Cereno," for as Lee suggests, readers may be rewarded more appropriately by looking for a Melvillian epistemology of honest speech in a historical context in which speech itself—at least the speech at the crux of Lee's study—may be the message.
Lee's final chapter addresses Emerson's wide-ranging contributions to political philosophy during the American nineteenth century. Acknowledging that "the intersections of philosophy and the literature of slavery cannot be centripetally structured around a single writer" , Lee makes Emerson the "star" of his book, a possibility he posits in the general sense early in the final chapter. Clearly, Lee is setting up the reader to see Emerson, even as an idiosyncratic and occasionally informal philosopher, as the writer whose work spans the entire antebellum era, more so than Melville, Douglass, Stowe and Poe and suggests the various "potentials"  of political philosophies of the time. The success of this final chapter lies primarily in Lee's decision to address the dichotomous aspects of Emerson's contradictory actions as both antagonistic abolitionist and as a transcendental thinker averse to partisan politics. Lee suggests that Emerson's contradictory positionalities are irreconcilable in two ways: first, that Transcendentalism itself is at odds with the practical nature of political discourse, especially in the applied form that abolitionism absolutely demanded; second, that Emerson's political activism was "a kind of moonlighting" , an aberration that was not inherent in Emerson's philosophical pursuits but was simply a reflection of his interest in the overarching political concerns of his time.
In this chapter, Lee examines a much wider range of the subject's work than in other chapters, emphasizing Emerson's unique place in the literature and philosophy of the period. In doing so, Lee also supports his idea of the endemic dichotomies within Emerson's work and thinking. He does not chastise Emerson's Transcendentalism for not being transcendental enough. Rather, he asserts that even Emerson's privileged upbringing and education—formal and informal—never divested him of his connection to the reigning political questions of the day.
Lee's epilogue ends somewhat disingenuously with the claim that his book ends "with a bang, a whisper, and a box" , for it may be more accurate to say that the period of study ends in such a way. It is more realistic to claim that the book itself ends with a bang, summarizing the author's findings that the literature of slavery indicated the failure of ideas per se before the Civil War, and that the world of the writers under scrutiny was one that saw the failure of rational authority and the anticipation of a system of exhausted philosophical systems. Lee paints a detailed, well researched and finely crafted picture of an endlessly vexing political dilemma in precise prose, exacting detail, and scrupulous research. The title of his epilogue is "An unfinished and not unhappy ending," one which has been anticipated in the stubborn complexity of issues and ideas Lee explores in the preceding chapters. Yet far from leading to a sense of anti-climax, Lee and his intimate investigation of some of the greatest of nineteenth century American writers allows the unfinished business to speak for itself, to show that after almost a century and a half, "their efforts to put ideas to practical use seem neither happy nor entirely a failure" . However, Lee's book brings an invigorating and rigorous perspective to antebellum literature and philosophy, synthesizing cultural studies with intellectual and literary history to clarify a vision developed historically by authors whose varied literary specialties all spoke to, if not against, the peculiar American institution of slavery.