“Mattering in the Nineteenth Century and Beyond: Transcendentalisms, Racism, and Repair in the United States,” an MFS Roundtable at MLA 2022

On Sunday, January 9, 2022, at 1:45 PM-3:00 PM in the Shaw Room at the Marriott Marquis, the Margaret Fuller Society will be hosting a roundtable at the 2022 Modern Language Association conference in Washington, DC about “Mattering in the Nineteenth Century and Beyond: Transcendentalisms, Racism, and Repair in the United States.”

This roundtable was organized by the MFS Ad Hoc Committee on Racial Justice, with Jana Argersinger taking the lead on liaising with MLA to organize the panel. Christina Katopodis (City University of New York) will be presiding.

We hope you will join us for what will surely be an exciting roundtable featuring new and relevant scholarship in the field. Below is a list of paper titles and abstracts, our presenters, and their bios. Topics include the Mammy stereotype, smell and queer fungibility in Douglass and Thoreau, Whitman’s corpses, transcendental racialism in E. P. Peabody, Black collectivist subjectivity in Malcolm X and Biggie, transcendentalists and the Black Atlantic, and democratic praxis in Du Bois’s “sketches.”

“Transcendentalists and the Black Atlantic

Transcendentalists are often considered in relation to one another, and the lines of influence and descent hover close. This project recovers the generative cross-pollination of ideas across racial lines that actually took place. Paul Gilroy’s pivotal formulation of the black Atlantic offers a crucial theoretical starting place, though it’s rarely been considered in relation to Transcendentalism. Gilroy’s work helps us address the constitutive exclusions that underwrite a construction of nature as Transcendent and wild, one that Paul Outka suggests is a recoil from plantation pastoral, but others might argue emanates from the wider global capitalist system, one that would see both nature and black bodies as outside of culture, in zones of nonbeing. Christina Sharpe and Ian Baucom, following from Gilroy, both offer models for the kind of “wake work” that engages with contemporary reverberations of violence, erasure, and systemic exclusions within canon formation and scholarship itself. Using formulations of the black Atlantic, this presentation sketches lines of affiliation between worthies such as Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Harriet E. Wilson, and William Wells Brown.

Katie Simon is an Associate Professor in the English Department at Georgia College, where she teaches courses in American literature and critical theory. She is also an Affiliated Faculty in the Program in Women’s and Gender Studies at Georgia College. Her work on Thoreau and the black Atlantic appears in ESQ. Other publications appear in Women’s Studies and Bad Subjects.

“Aunt Jemima: A Mascot for African American Femininity”

While Mammy is a mascot for black women, she also helped answer the question that Deborah Gray White examines in her book, Ar’n’t I a Woman?, when she asks “What did it mean for black women to share some identity and disability of both black men and white women and yet be very different from both?” (White 5). Sojourner Truth’s much earlier “Ain’t I A Woman?” speech at the 1851 Women’s Convention, she aids in answering this question. As a result, black women’s identities are a bit more defined. After Truth’s speech, black and white women unite in the common struggle for equality yet it simultaneously makes the dehumanization of the black woman slightly less palatable. This discussion will focus not only on the depictions of 19th Century Aunt Jemima in literary texts and minstrel shows, the ways that she connects to white women and black men, and how the tolerance of this image is a direct correlation to the consequences of the Mammy stereotype.

Andrea Walton has been an Illinois Central College instructor for eight years. While she is a Peoria, IL native, she spent most of her childhood in Wichita Falls, Tx.  She earned her Associates Degree from Illinois Central College. She went on to attain both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois.  Since earning her Graduate degree in 19th Century Gothic Women Writers, Andrea’s research, now, focuses more on Womanism. 

“Miss Peabody’s Racism”

Some of the central figures of the Transcendentalist movement were known to have held some of the common racial prejudices of their time. Ralph Waldo Emerson makes a number of comments about race and racial development in his journals, while Theodore Parker assumes a white racial superiority in some of his writings. And it would appear that another of the coterie expressed, on at least one occasion, an opinion strongly influenced by the Romantic racialism of her day.

Not long before she was embroiled in the controversy surrounding Bronson Alcott’s Conversations with Children on the Gospels, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody created a controversy of her own in the pages of the Boston Observer and Religious Intelligencer (1835). In a “Sunday School Lesson,” Peabody tells several young children a shocking anecdote about the “badness” of enslaved people in Cuba who, according to Peabody, commit infanticide because their conscience is “so little and weak.” After a letter to editor George Ripley objects to her lack of sympathy, Peabody defends herself by saying her comments were not “said in scorn of the race,” but “stated as facts” that attest to the “appalling moral result” of slavery’s “denaturalization.”

While it is clear that ideas on racial equality do not always square with the Transcendentalists’ antislavery commitments, it may be worth considering how racist assumptions might inform more generalized constructions of race, especially as they serve the perfectionism of Transcendentalism’s moral vision. In her early devotional “The Life of Christ in the Soul of Man,” for example, Peabody states that Jesus undertook “a moral renovation of the race.” Moral transformation reflects a change in “the race” rather than in individuals, a view that would be indicative of Peabody’s Transcendentalism.

Mark Gallagher is a lecturer in the UCLA English Department, where he received his Ph.D. in English in 2021. He also teaches in the Rhetorical Arts program at Loyola Marymount University. His primary research interests are in nineteenth-century American literature, with a focus on Transcendentalism, religion and literature, and book history and print culture. His current book project examines the “affective transcendentalisms” of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller. 

Empire of Smell: Douglass, Thoreau, and Queer Fungibility 

In his “Sounds” chapter in Walden, Thoreau rhapsodizes the commodities of global market capitalism through the smells of the Fitchburg Railroad. Thoreau writes: “I am refreshed and expanded when the freight train rattles past me, and I smell the stores which go dispensing their odors all the way from Long Wharf to Lake Champlain, reminding me of foreign parts, of coral reefs, and Indian oceans, and tropical climes, and the extent of the globe.” This bucolic representation of smell contrasts with two important moments from Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom: when he enters New York City only to feel a “sense of loneliness” and later when he describes the “Keen . . . scent of the slaveholder” who pursues fugitive slaves for profit. As a roundtable participant, I propose to frame the spatial and sensorial organization of smell as it constrains the movements of these two nineteenth-century figures. Their contrast highlights how particular affects make visible nineteenth-century racial structures of feeling. Thoreau configures smell as emitted from commodities on a global capitalist network whereas Douglass emphasizes how his own personhood is surveilled as an object in that market, one that marks a queer fungibility that elaborates insights from scholars Thomas Roach and Shannon Winnubst about neoliberal racism.

Ben Bascom is assistant professor of English at Ball State University where he teaches and writes about early and nineteenth-century American literature and culture and queer studies. He is currently working on a book manuscript titled “Feeling Singular: Queer Masculinities and the Early United States,” which tells an alternative account of the founding decades of the United States through focusing on the stories and writings of an eccentric and motley set of characters. Departing from the likes of Benjamin Franklin, whom tradition positions as a paragon of self-production, this book offers instead typologies of the failed inventor, the tragic outsider, the flamboyant pretender, the farcical exhorter, and the disaffected exile to make room for queer conceptualizations of early America. 

“Whitman and the Republic of the Dead”

Primarily as a result of his radical poetics of inclusion, Walt Whitman has been refashioned into a posthumanist whose work is inclined toward a material monism that transcends racial and gendered differences. Yet the inconsistencies between his poetry and his life present a serious challenge to this view. As a workaround, critics have suggested that the racist views he espouses in his journalism, for example, simply open up new interpretations of his poetry as a complicated attempt to confront his own prejudices. In this paper, I want to take a closer look at these inconsistencies and suggest that his free and unrestricted engagement with the material do not mitigate Whitman’s practices of racialization—they compound them. In fact, I contend that the treatment of base matter in his poetry is precisely where his democratic vision falls apart. I read his poetic treatment of corpses in particular as an assimilationist move to neutralize the threats of gendered and racialized difference. The corpse appears, in Whitman, as a type of othered body that puts his abilities and ideals of kinship to the test. Despite sharing in the view that death is the great equalizer, where “we lie beyond the difference,” his limited gaze when it comes to corpses ends up disrupting his egalitarian fantasies and, by extension, his literary legacy.

Jess Elkaim is a PhD candidate in the English department at the University of Toronto. Her paper is a modified version of the first chapter of her dissertation, which analyzes representations of corpses in nineteenth-century American writings. Her research interests include critical theory, necropolitics, narratology, and media studies.

“Dark Vistas: Circles, Sketches, and The Penumbra of the Future in the Thought of W.E.B. Du Bois”

This paper considers “the sketch” for W.E.B. Du Bois as a Romantic-Tragic mode of vision that engages the conflicting temporal and spatial scales of democratic engagement. Exploring the implications of Du Bois’ recurrent and consistent attempts to self-identify his writing as “sketches”, Walters reads Du Bois with and against Ralph Emerson’s Romantic “circle,” his metaphor for enlarged/idealist vision in the poem “Circles”, as well as William James’ critical, post-transcendentalist turn away from enlarged/idealist vision (what James calls the flattened “pictures” produced via idealism and illusions of imaginative transcendence). Rejecting either a Romantic vision of natural harmony and visual-enlargement or the Tragic focus on the irreducible difference between small-scale particulars, Du Bois offers a visual grammar for democratic praxis that is tragically-utopian. A democratic vision of transcendence, here, suggests not the final achievement of a transparent plane of knowledge but, rather, an opaque engagement with the pleasurableness of difference, where the critical self is sketched and re-sketched actively through engagements with perceiving and sensing others. Sketchiness, in turn, invests people and images with potential energy that signals no guarantees but offers critical resources for kinetic pictures of possible futures.

Jake Walters is a 5th year PhD student at Cornell University focusing on African-American intellectual and cultural history. He is currently writing a dissertation, tentatively titled “Strange Twistings of Soul: Emancipatory Experimentalism, Interdisciplinary Incalculability, and the Revolutionary Unknown in the Writings of W.E.B. Du Bois”, focusing on W.E.B. Du Bois’ theories of experimentation and experimentalism in their scientific, literary, and political guises at the turn of the 20th century. His dissertation examines connections and tensions between American and black diasporic engagements with the fluctuating border of scientific truth at the turn of the century, especially its implications for thinking about democratic praxis and metaphysical notions of human togetherness that emphasize affective energies over philosophical principles. He also explores connections between ideas of experimentalism and traditions of African-American cultural and intellectual production, particularly focused on the role of narrative emplotments – Romance, Tragedy, and Comedy – in the way experimental, speculative, and/or “risky” activity is framed and understood by African-American writers. 

“Until Somebody Kills You: Transgressing Black Transcendentalism in The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Life After Death”

Malcolm X and The Notorious B.I.G. (Biggie) produced seminally revered textual artifacts that were published after their tragic assassinations thirty-two years apart: Malcolm, his autobiography co-authored by Alex Haley (1965) and Biggie, his final studio album Life After Death (1997). As the legacies of both Malcolm and Biggie’s public and cultural work reflect a social impulse to periodize Black cultural history into binary conflicts (East Coast hip-hop versus West; Malcolm’s self-determination versus Martin Luther King, Jr.’s non-violence), scholars have adamantly worked to disrupt these binaries by assessing areas of collaboration and overlap. I read both The Autobiography and Life After Death in the Black transcendentalist tradition by highlighting how these cultural products emphasize the unity of the divine and human; these texts underscore the importance of subjectivity in the configuration of Black material experience.  By transgressing aesthetic and temporal boundaries to place these two texts in conversation with each other, I demonstrate American transcendentalism’s failure to accommodate the parallel subjectivities of Black American experience. I suggest that the threat of retaliatory violence in TheAutobiography and inner-city violence in Life After Death frame these texts’ unique rhetorical anxieties while conterminously organizing their exploration of the interstices of justice and personal redemption as purely subjective notions. I propose that Malcolm and Biggie’s respective expressions of Black American subjectivity that manifest from the mid-1960s to the present demonstrate the need to regard the repair and reclamation of Black identity and freedom as an ongoing and incomplete process whose revision and refashioning are constantly under review by these disparate cultural modes of Black expression.

Zachary Johnson is an English PhD Candidate at Southern Methodist University.