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Edward Sugden (ed.), Crossings in Nineteenth-Century American Culture: Junctures of Time, Space, Self and Politics

Lenora Warren
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Edward Sugden (ed.), Crossings in Nineteenth-Century American Culture: Junctures of Time, Space, Self and Politics, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2022, 265 p. ISBN: 9781474476287, £85.00.

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1For nineteenth-century scholars, the Trump years and their aftermath have proven both disorienting and invigorating by providing, if not a neat analogue to the tumultuous decades both before and after the American Civil War, at least enough resonances to call for a closer look at the politics, rhetoric, and literatures of a century that can often feel over-studied. The hubris and destructiveness of the Jacksonian era, the White vigilante violence of Reconstruction, the judicial setbacks of the Dred Scott Decision, and the anxieties over industrialization’s incursions onto the natural world, have all made for a presentist turn to nineteenth-century studies. This presentist turn has also allowed us to rethink the nature of nineteenth-century selfhood as being akin to our own sense of disorientation with our own timeframe. The feeling of whiplash brought on by the regressive policies of the Trump administration, the setback of the Dobbs decision, and—most dramatically—the January 6th Insurrection has left many feeling at cross purposes with our own identities as scholars of nineteenth-century American literature and culture.

2Edward Sugden’s edited volume Crossings in Nineteenth-Century American Culture: Junctures of Time, Space, Self, and Politics seeks to capture this sense of identity crisis by positing that, even as the dominant narrative of the nineteenth century was one of identity concretization, the literary utterances of the period spoke of uncertainty, ambivalence, and outright disintegration. The argument made by the volume is that, having interrogated, unsettled, and de-colonized the field over the last decade and a half, scholars have—paradoxically—reinvigorated the field and perhaps made a case for the nineteenth century as a still-useful category for the study of American Literature. What follows are fourteen short essays by scholars from the United States, France, and Great Britain which set out to explore what Sugden terms in his introduction “the definitional uncertainty of the nineteenth century,” by “proposing new dimensions, directions and axes for making the era comprehensible in a way that takes these moments of identity panic as a starting point” (3). These fourteen essays are divided into four sections titled “Elsewheres,” “Excess Identities,” “Chance Encounters,” and “Impossible Systems.”

3Part I, “Elsewheres,” starts us off with three essays that consider worlds outside of mappable and bodily geography. These essays engage with the role of the imagination in shaping the political rhetoric of Frederick Douglass (Cody Marrs), the Leonid Meteor Shower and its influence forming the ideas of time and space as well as the realities of its various observers and recorders (Gordon Fraser), and the role of Hicksite Quakerism in shaping Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (Rachel Heffner-Burns). In his chapter “Material/Immaterial: Frederick Douglass and the ‘Moral Chemistry of the Universe’, 1855,” Marrs opens the volume with a call for a return to “the relevance of the immaterial by way of Frederick Douglass” as a way of speculating that the field’s focus on print culture has had the unintended consequence of leaving out the necessary role of the imaginary plane in shaping his early views on freedom (20). Understanding the imaginary, Marrs argues, is essential to understanding how Douglass theorizes both the abstract and concrete differences between freedom and unfreedom. This intervention seems small but in nodding to the recent turn towards materialist scholarship, Marrs urges readers not to get too caught up in the material at the expense of the “less concrete, less corporeal” aspects of nineteenth-century literature (21). Fraser’s essay “Earth/Atmosphere: The Leonid Meteor Shower, 1833,” asks us to consider the role of the Leonid Shower of 1833 in particular, and the stars more generally, as having a role in shaping “dissident authors” like Douglass and Harriet Jacobs and their prospective views on both their futures and the futures of the United States. Finally, Heffner-Burns’s essay, “Body/Spirit: Walt Whitman’s Hicksite Quaker Poetics, 1855,” examines how Walt Whitman detaches the Hicksite notion of inner light from its “theistic dimension” and transforms it into “an egalitarian poetry of the body in which he renders Hicks’s Inner Light as the basis for his celebration of his readers’ divine inner selves and their bodily experience of revelation” (42). Hicks’s low-income background and his subsequent more egalitarian approach to Quakerism attracted Whitman with its democratic approach to spirituality.

4Part, II, “Excess Identities,” contains four essays that discuss the thorny and unexpected messiness of racial, gender, and human identities that fail to conform or map onto familiar political ontologies by Leigh Johnson, Spencer Tricker, Hannah Lauren Murray, and Michael Jonik. Johnson’s essay, “Latinx/Confederate: Loreta Janeta Velazquez as a Cross-Dressing Soldier, 1861,” analyzes the personal narrative of Loreta Janeta Velazquez, The Woman in Battle (1876), and asks readers to consider how we take for granted the relationship between radical identities and radical politics. Velazquez, a Latinx cross-dresser, who had relationships with both men and women, and who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War challenges modern assumptions on the relationship between racial or gender identity and political affiliation. In embodying so many different identities Velazquez’s text insists on “center[ing] herself in the story she tells, even if it means alienating everyone” (Johnson, 69). Next, Tricker’s essay, “Philippines/United States: David Fagen Defects to the Filipino Army 1899,” looks at the fictionalized story of real-life Black soldier David Fagen who defected from the United States Army during the Philippine-American War. The short story “Fagan” by Rowland Thomas deals in a romantic racialized depiction of the Black soldier and engages with white anxieties over the reliability of African American troops during these fights against brown people. Tricker, in looking at both Fagen’s biography and Thomas’s fictionalized account, explores how the figure of the Black soldier sits uneasily between turn-of-the-century “affirmation of Black citizenship” and the participation in imperial incursions into the countries of other Black and brown peoples. In the third essay, “White/Not White: Robert Montgomery Bird’s Racial Transformation, 1839,” Murray looks at how Robert Montgomery Bird’s 1839 novel The Adventures of Robin Day, along with his other novels of racial transformation, uses the trope of racial masquerade to resituate White people as vulnerable to oppression, should non-Whites ever get the upper hand. Through looking at these fictions of white exclusion Murray argues for a return to these early novels to trace the origins of contemporary White supremacy. Rounding out this section is Jonik’s essay, “Ecology/Radical Politics: Thoreau’s Science of Civil Disobedience, 1849,” which analyzes Henry David Thoreau’s 1849 essay “Resistance to Civil Disobedience” as expanding the definition beyond questions of resistance and abolition within the human realm and into the ecological one. In rethinking the essay’s focus on individual conscience, Jonik proposes that Thoreau’s politics of individuality implicitly assumes the individual as acting out politics within a collective.

5The three essays in Part III, “Chance Encounters,” discuss meetings and collisions between disparate figures and through those encounters question some of the assumptions we make about geography and separation between nineteenth-century subjects. In the first essay, “Mexico Britain: A History of Julia Pastrana’s Teeth, 1860-2013,” Marissa Lòpez explores the journey of Julia Pastrana’s teeth from Sinaloa, Mexico to the Odontological Collection of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons of London. Pastrana, who had congenital generalised hypertrichosis, was a figure of fascination both in the nineteenth century and now for what her life signifies in terms of the intersections between racism, sexism, and the very definition of human. Of all the essays in the volume this is the only one that considers artistic works from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries that explore Pastrana’s legacy, rather than engage with a nineteenth century text. It also considers texts in Spanish as well as English. The second essay by Erin Singer, “Matanzas, Cuba/Keswick, England: Maria Gowen Brooks Visits Robert Southey, 1831,” analyzes Cuban poet Maria Gowen Brooks epic poem Zóephiël (1833) in light of her encounter with Robert Southey two years earlier. This encounter, Singer argues, provided Brooks with the inspiration to carve out for herself a place in the American poetic tradition and as such she should be considered alongside other American poets like Whitman and Longfellow. The third and final essay of the section, “England/New England: A British Quaker and a Fugitive from Slavery Encounter Each Other On A Train, 1850” by Bridget Bennet, looks at the encounter between British Quaker abolitionist Wilson Armistead and self-emancipated African American Thomas H. Jones on a train traveling between Lynn and Boston, Massachusetts in the summer of 1850. Armistead would later publish details of this encounter in The Experience of Thomas Jones, who was a Slave for Forty-Three Years, a heretofore unknown piece of abolitionist literature. In addition to shedding light on the specific story of Jones and his companions who were escaping slavery under the shadow of the Fugitive Slave Act, Bennet argues that the as yet understudied legacy of Armistead needs to be considered, not only in light of his contributions to the abolitionist cause, but also as essential to considering the role of archival scholarship beyond the United States as shedding light on the larger geography of American slavery and abolition.

6The final section, “Impossible Systems,” “explore[s] the coexistence of modes of organising the world that seem, on the surface at least, very much at odds with one another” (11). In the first essay, “Slave Labour/Wage Labour: reading Bartleby’s Refusals, 1850,” Tomos Hughes reads George Fitzhugh’ pro-slavery tract A Sociology for the South in the context of the emerging rhetoric surrounding the “wage slave” in the 1850s and the way it both suggests and fails to produce solidarity between abolitionists and the “emergent white working class” (178). In Hughes’s reading of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” the title character at once embodies the wage-slave and the chattel slave (despite his vivid whiteness) by simultaneously being on strike and unfireable. In the second essay, “Antiquity/Modernity: An Issue of Puck Magazine, 1889,” Mark Storey explores the tensions between a cartoon by Joseph Keppler which appeared in Puck, a pro-Democratic party magazine in 1889, and a short sketch by Charles Chesnutt. The cartoon satirizes the Republican stance on trade tariffs with a crude master-slave image using imagery of the Ottoman Empire, and Chesnutt’s sketch, “A Roman Antique” depicts an “old white-haired Negro” who claims to have been the favored slave of Julius Caesar (197). Storey uses these competing timeframes to show how the political “now” collapses into several different historical contexts, raising questions about the specificity of grounding texts in time and space. The third essay by Cécile Roudeau, “Democracy, State: James Fenimore Cooper on the Frontier, 1826/1757,” interrogates the so-called binary between Democracy and the State that dominated cold-war era American literary scholarship by reading James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans as seeing the state as an ally to individual freedom rather than an enemy. In the last essay and chapter in the volume, “Ulster, 1785/Pennsylvania,1817/Ulster, 1845: James McHenry’s Palimpsest of Anglo Settler Colonialism,” Jared Hickman looks at the romances of Irish American writer James McHenry and how, in overwriting the American settler experience with the history of Irish oppression by the English, indigeneity is displaced in favor of reifying a secular and capitalist future. By showing McHenry’s there-and-back-again trajectory between Ireland and the United States, Hickman argues that the multiple historical contexts of both Irish and American Colonial history obscure a pernicious emergence of settler colonialism and implicitly White supremacy.

7For the most part this volume is successful at what it sets out to do. The essays crackle with energy and even somewhat familiar texts are given a fresh perspective. For example, Marr’s invocation of the imagination manages to give a respectful nod to the work of scholars like Jonathan Senchyne while also advocating for a turn away from the material in key moments. The most powerful essays were in Parts II and III, “Excess Identities” and “Choice Encounters,” with the high points being the essays by Johnson, Tricker, and Lòpez. In her exploration of life and work of Velazquez, Johnson makes a compelling case for looking at nineteenth-century texts and figures that go against the grain of what we think we understand as “the political.” Tricker’s analysis of the politics of empire and race in the early twentieth century productively troubles assumptions one might make about cross-racial solidarity in the era of Jim Crow and American imperial incursions into the Philippines. In Part III, Lòpez’s essay also makes a compelling case for the work of present-day artists in revisiting and, in this particular case, re-humanizing Latinx-Indigenous figures from the nineteenth century, and implicitly raises the question of the problem of monolingualism in the field. These essays best expressed the thesis of the volume in that they “nourish the definitional uncertainty of the nineteenth century, proposing new dimensions, directions and axes for making the era comprehensible in a way that takes these moments of identity panic as a starting point” (3).

8I am aware of the considerable trouble assembling an edited collection such as this is, especially given the added constraints of the pandemic, so in highlighting what I see are missed opportunities in the collection, I hope it is understood that I view these not as explicit lapses in the editorship but as ongoing issues with which the field needs to contend. The emphasis on the transnational dominated the collection at the expense of other kinds of “crossings,” leaving the collection feeling somewhat unbalanced. Moreover, the transnational element focuses rather narrowly on Europe and the Americas and a nod to work done in the realm of the Pacific studies as well as Africa would have showcased the ways in which the field has shifted focus in the last several years.

9I was somewhat surprised that Michael Jonik’s essay on Thoreau was the sole piece of ecocritical work in the volume and I wonder at the omission of more scientific engagement as done by Brit Rusert and Sari Altschuler, specifically since Sugden cites Rusert’s book Fugitive Science: Empiricism and Freedom in Early African American Culture as one of the texts which animated the desire to put this collection together. Finally, the material circles around rather familiar decades of the nineteenth century, begging the question to what extent we need to rethink the micro-periods within that century. All that said, it is a worthy and timely collection showcasing some of the most thoughtful work coming out in the field.

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ALTSCHULER, Sari. The Medical Imagination: Literature and Health in the Early United States. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018.

RUSERT, Britt. Fugitive Science: Empiricism and Freedom in Early African American Culture. New York: New York University Press, 2017.

SENCHYNE, Jonathan. The Intimacy of Paper in Early and Nineteenth-Century American Literature. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2020.

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Lenora Warren, « Edward Sugden (ed.), Crossings in Nineteenth-Century American Culture: Junctures of Time, Space, Self and Politics »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2023, consulté le 26 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Lenora Warren

Cornell University

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