Is Our Era a Return to the Divisions of the 19th Century? An Interview with Professors Dan Malachuk and Tim Helwig

Plate 172 of the Atlas to Accompany the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, containing illustrations of uniforms worn by Union and Confederate soldiers during the American Civil War.

It is hard to escape news stories or posts on Twitter and Facebook that compare 2020-2021 to the national divisions that defined the United States in the nineteenth century and culminated in the Civil War, Reconstruction, and its aftermath. Professors Dan Malachuk and Tim Helwig specialize in nineteenth-century American literature and culture. The Mirror & the Lamp reached out to ask them to share their thoughts on what we might learn by attending to the culture and literature of the nineteenth century.

M&L: Why do you each focus on the nineteenth century? What makes it so fascinating and relevant that you choose to devote your scholarly life to it over, say, the Renaissance or modernism?

DM: A bright line in human history can be drawn in the late eighteenth century. Before, people thought humans could be ranked from low to high as in Alexander Pope’s notorious “great chain of being.”  The ancien régime exemplified this hierarchical ranking of life. After the Age of Revolution, people began to think all human lives are of equal value. Politically, that changes everything, and nineteenth-century literature provides the hottest take on this equality, the most important political concept in human history.

TH: The antebellum period, with its glaring contradiction between national narratives of exceptional democracy and the facts of chattel slavery in the South and growing class stratification in the North, inspired canonical and popular authors alike to measure the degree to which lived reality fell short of the Founding Fathers’ ideals. And many of the writers that today are credited with the flowering of American letters—such as Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Frederick Douglass, and Fanny Fern—did not like what they saw. Interrogating American society in order to improve it, an essential exercise for a healthy democracy, is a central component of our foundational literature of the early nineteenth century and remains instructive today.

M&L: What is one way studying the nineteenth century can help us understand some particular aspect of all that is happening today in the United States?

DM: The three biggest movements for equality all began more or less in the nineteenth century so; when the literature of that period wrestles with hierarchies based on race, sex, or class, it often does so rawly, even clumsily, and in so doing really illuminates what’s at stake. Read contemporary literature to learn about microaggressions; the nineteenth century is where to learn about the macro ones!

My scholarly focus has long been on how metaphysical claims were made for equality back then during those turbulent early days of democracy: for example, when the proslavery politicians clarified the US Constitution was on their side in the 1850s, the abolitionists and transcendentalists did not hesitate to say, “Well, then there’s a ‘higher law’ that’s antislavery!” The humanities’ greatest contribution over the last fifty years has arguably been postmodernism, which looks down on higher law and things like this as a kind of magical thinking. I get that, but I think we’ve underestimated the political savvy of appealing to a higher law on behalf of equality.

TH: I absolutely agree with Dan about the divisiveness of the period, particularly the decade leading up to the Civil War, and I believe it is important to recognize the less likely alliances that were encouraged and sometimes formed in the interests of broader socioeconomic justice.

Whether it is the so-called radical democrats, white writers of sensational fiction like George Lippard and Augustine Duganne who argued against and fought in the Union Army to end chattel slavery, sought to reform the prison system, and founded cooperative and mutual aid organizations to help ameliorate the growing class inequality wrought by emergent capitalism, or a leading intellectual like Frederick Douglass who insisted on the dignity of every individual and reached out to hostile constituencies like non-slave-owning Southern whites in an effort to broaden political resistance to chattel slavery, there were inspiring American writers who appealed to our better angels and did not simply demonize those who disagreed with them. While there are reactionary voices on the far right and the far left today just as there were in the 1850s, the constructive actions taken by multiracial working-class advocates and the rhetorically effective writing of Frederick Douglass are inspiring and worthy of our emulation.

M&L: In his essay “On the Concept of History,” the German cultural critic Walter Benjamin wrote that “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was.’ It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” Is there a “memory” of the past that has suddenly “flashed up” for you this year, becoming more vivid and useful to understanding our present?

DM: This is a good question, but, honestly, no. On reflection, I think I know the reason why.  I’m a big believer in Benjamin’s point about the past illuminating the present, but the scholars who illuminate the political present for me nowadays focus on the twentieth century, not the nineteenth. I’m thinking of people like Timothy Snyder, author of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Because democratic citizenship was so much more restricted in the nineteenth century, the defenses of hierarchy then were much more blatant.  Imagine the kind of racist or sexist language a white male citizen in the US might use in 1821 versus 1921, for instance. In 1820, there is literature advocating outright patriarchy and slavery and colonialism. In 1921, you might still find these, especially for colonialism, but there are also new languages, very innovative at the time, where those at the top of a hierarchy actually write as if they are being persecuted, all to maintain their dominance, or what’s called “resentment.” Resentment writing was key to fascism’s rise in 1921 and you can hear it every night on Fox in 2021; I don’t think you’ll find it in 1821.

TH: In light of so much mob violence reported in the news this past year, I was reminded of the Astor Place Riots in Manhattan of 1849, when over twenty protesters were gunned down by the military amidst the chaos. A group of American populists were protesting the performance of Macbeth by English actor William Charles Macready over their preferred choice of American actor Edwin Forrest, turning the conflict into an expression of their class grievances. I have always been curious about Herman Melville’s decision to sign the petition in support of the English Macready to be allowed to perform at the Astor Opera House in peace. Working on his class-inflected novel Redburn that would be published six months after the riot and occurring four years prior to writing his celebrated proletarian story “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” Melville must have felt conflicted between the mob’s nativist animus directed at Macready and its justified frustration with growing class divisions in America. How did he feel about having signed the petition after the senseless bloodshed on the streets? Melville was a complicated figure, but his decision to eschew nativism without compromising his sympathy for the working classes strikes me as principled and courageous.

M&L: What work of nineteenth-century literature would you recommend students, professors, and alumni read this year? How will it help us in the present?

DM: That’s another good question, but I’m afraid I don’t have any good answers lately. My own research and teaching interests have changed. I personally think Henry David Thoreau’s Walden is still worth your time, and I have enjoyed talking with students about Emily Dickinson’s poetry in various classes recently.

TH: I can’t think of a more powerful and relevant text than Frederick Douglass’s autobiography of 1855 My Bondage and My Freedom, a text that echoes in contemporary novels like Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad that I teach and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s The Water Dancer. Through masterful use of Aristotelian rhetoric that is especially attentive to audience, Douglass documents his heroic escape from chattel slavery as well as the systemic racial prejudice he experienced and resisted in the north. Douglass advocates justified antislavery violence against the national sin of slavery and brings attention to historical African Americans like Madison Washington in his writing of the 1850s, and he works tirelessly at pragmatic reform efforts like starting an industrial school in Rochester, New York, for African American and white children to learn useful skills and improve their lives.