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Civic Indignation: The Empathies and Resentments of American Literature, 1767-1826

Lead: Frank Kelleter

Civic Indignation investigates a key feature of the literature of the American Revolution and early republic: its rhetorical vacillation between sentimentality and indignation. The project asks: What does it mean when colonial elites speak in assumed roles of wounded humanity, in a language of universal protest that is at the same time a language of civic self-sentimentalization? Reconstructing the emotional performances and language games of enlightened revolutionaries, Civic Indignation argues that the historical meaning of 18th-century (proto-)liberalism resides not only in its political philosophy, but also in its media rhetoric.   

The book project pursues this issue in two parts with altogether three chapters. Part I (“Infrastructural America and the Media of Public Impersonation”) consists of one chapter which clarifies the media-historical foundations of the rhetoric of civic indignation in the 18th century. Part II (“Empathies and Resentments”) consists of two chapters which analyze the rhetorical shift from liberal civility to its opposites (scorn, contempt, invective, revenge fantasies, etc.) in revolutionary pamphlets, semi-public letter exchanges, republican documents, and self-reflexive literary works.

Chapter 1 (“Enlightened Medialities of the Early Republic”) argues that the founding of the United States was animated by enlightened theories of infrastructure and media. The chapter confronts these theories of national infrastructure with the actual media practices of the acrimonious newspaper debates of the 1790s, arguing for a performative understanding of “public” communication in the new nation.

Chapter 2 (“Lists of Grievances”) explores the relationship between public role play and a militant rhetoric of human liberty in revolutionary pamphlets and in Judith Sargent Murray’s serialized, multi-modal drag performance The Gleaner (1792-98). Building on these readings, the chapter reconstructs the publication strategies with which non-elite (especially nonwhite) authors navigated the infrastructural constraints of a liberal – or “forcelessly forceful” – public sphere.

Chapter 3 (“Self-Sentimentalization in a Nation of Strangers”) discusses white-liberal imaginations of Blackness and Indigeneity in post-revolutionary epistolary exchanges (Jefferson, Banneker, Grégoire), early Romantic poetry, and in sentimental, Gothic, and historical novels between the 1790s and the 1820s.