Curating The Mind Is a Collection

The Mind Is a Collection is a born-digital museum of early modern cognitive models.  For the last decade or so, I have been studying the spaces in which the philosophies of the British Enlightenment were thought, penned, or put into practice.  One outcome of this research is a book, The Mind Is a Collection: Case Studies in Eighteenth Century Thought (Penn, 2015).  But this book was all along imagined as the catalogue of a museum, a collection of the things that people used to make sense of mental processes.  The Mind Is a Collection is that museum, gathering in one place roughly a hundred objects used to model the mind.  Some of these objects can be found in private collections or museums around the world, but others have vanished, are fixed in place, or never existed in the first place.  In other words, such a virtual space navigates the world in much the same way as an ideal one.  It seeks thereby to capture the essential ideality of mind as an emergent property of imaginary objects.

We generally think of the mind as something absolutely different from the rest of the world.  There is, on the one side of a bright divide, the world of stuff: intelligible and unintelligible objects, things-in-themselves, perhaps other people, maybe our own bodies.  There is, on the other side, the world of the intellect: rational and irrational objects, things as we know them, our sense of others, and some sense of ourselves.  This is the bright line of the mind/body divide: there is mind-stuff and matter, consciousness and brute creation.  This is what is meant by the catch-all term “dualism.”

The philosophers tell us again and again that dualisms are nonsense–and I’m inclined to agree.  There is (they say) no final line in the mind, no screen where ideas pop up or frontier that separates there from here.  We are embedded in the world in which we move; “mind” is a category mistake.  Yet, there is a catch.  Despite the fact that philosophical dualisms have been overwhelmingly, repeatedly, and even routinely discredited, the figures of thought cling on, turning up in philosophy and folk psychology alike.  Some of the most powerful voices speaking against these sorts of dualisms have themselves noticed the difficulty of speaking beyond them (see for instance Daniel Dennett, in Consciousness Explained); even if we accept that we are speaking nonsense, it is hard to know how to talk about mental activity without falling back on vocabularies hinging on difference.

The Mind Is a Collection focuses on one dominant instance of this habit, a mainstream cognitive model for the British Enlightenment; it is organized around a related batch of metaphors for mentation, bubbling up repeatedly at the time and place commonly named as the source of modern dualisms.  Its crucial intervention is to argue that dualisms name the state of certain forms of networks; it argues that the mind/body distinction, decried as a philosophical fallacy, arises as the proof and function of embedded cognitive systems.  Put differently, philosophical dualisms are constructed in working spaces of thought.  John Locke calls the mind a cabinet; he was a collector of books.  Joseph Addison compares thinking to a walk in a garden; Addison was a planter and an important figure in the development of English gardening.  These are metaphors foisted on working spaces of thought.

The usual way to explore this phenomenon would be to write a book about it, posing the argument that “mind” is a name for certain kinds of emplaced relationships.  But it seemed just as natural to me to pose this argument through a museum, since collections like museums were the smithies of modern mentation.  This, then, is that museum, which contains some of the critical objects of eighteenth-century philosophy.  John Locke says that the mind is a cabinet?  Well, some of the critical artifacts from his cabinet can be found in the first space of this museum, called “Metaphor.”  (The rest can be found in Oxford, at the Bodleian Library.)  Joseph Addison compares thinking to walking?  The back door of The Mind Is a Collection, located in “Digression,” lets out onto Addison’s favorite walk, the water-walks of Magdalen College.  And so on.

Taking these metaphors seriously involves recognizing a reverse vector.  We don’t just model our mind on the spaces in which we think.  We create gadgets, in turn, based on those mental models.  We invent tools that respond to how we understand our minds to work.  Call it the feedback loop of cognitive modeling.  We are the creatures of our gadgets, just as our gadgets are the creatures thoughts.  So, Locke says that the mind is a cabinet, and he becomes a minor pioneer in library science, developing indexing methods based on his library.  The pamphlet Locke authored that discusses this method is mentioned in Exhibit 1, “Locke’s Index.”  Joseph Addison claims that thinking is like walking, and he becomes a gardener, planting the walks that make his species of thinking possible.  The house he built, and walk he planted, is the subject of Exhibit 14, “Addison’s Walk.”  We, in other words, shape our environments to match our mental models.  This museum collects the traces of this sort of shaping.

Composing The Mind Is a Collection meant producing about 80,000 words of new prose, for the prose of the book is almost completely different than that of the virtual museum.  It also meant securing permissions for those handfuls of images not in the public domain—though even the most casual visit to the museum will show you that not many of the images in the museum involve simple photographs of things in the world.  Most of what you will find there was painstakingly worked up with architectural modeling software.  The process begins with 3-dimensional models built in Sketchup 2015—a museum inspired by multiple iconic C17 and C18 spaces (the old Bodleian, the Ashmolean, Stowe House, and so on), filled with objects modeled from scratch based on my personal viewings of various iconic C17 and C18 objects.  I then rendered this space, populated with these things, into photorealistic images, using Thea Render’s engine and studio.  Producing these images meant, among other things, developing custom materials, designing virtual “cameras,” and arranging a virtual lighting system.  I then cleaned up the resulting images in Photoshop, and built a clickable image map for each.  This leads to the final step, when image, image map, and prose are brought together in a single website, hosted by Squarespace.  It is here that the virtual museum springs into being.  Most of this work I did myself, but some involved work from some very special friends (see for instance Sir Kenelm’s Idea).  What results is, I hope, the half compellingly real, half dream-like fantasy of a virtual mind-museum.

Putting together this museum has been a labor of care.  But the labor has been about remaining true to the museum’s driving insight: that ideas are things distributed in space.  Even a philosophical dualism, so this museum argues, is the name for a certain kind of network—a network that can be seen online.  I invite you to visit, to see what I’ve been on about.  Admission to The Mind Is a Collection is always free.  You’re welcome to browse, to pursue whatever is of interest to you, and to skip what isn’t.  Leave for coffee and return.  Your ticket is good for multiple entries.  The longer, more detailed discussion of anything you find there is available in the book of the same title.  Links to places where you can find the book will be found in the gift shop.

Early Novels Database

Every reader of eighteenth-century literature is familiar with the paradox of the Google Books era: while the archive of digital texts has expanded exponentially in recent years, our ability to locate them has diminished.  Even basic bibliographic details such as complete titles, prefatory materials, narrative forms, and tables of contents are often missing from digital facsimiles.  The Early Novels Database (END) project reunites missing metadata with digital facsimiles of early fiction to make them easier to find and categorize.  Uniting twenty-first-century data structures with the sensibility of eighteenth-century indexing practices, the project creates detailed metadata about novels published between 1660 and 1850.  END captures detailed information about the organizational structures eighteenth-century readers relied on—title pages, tables of contents, author claims, narrative forms, prefaces, epigraphs, advertisements, and more.  Transforming these paratextual elements into machine-readable, searchable data, END offers researchers and readers new ways of connecting and exploring digital collections of fiction.  END’s metadata will also expand the possibilities of corpus analysis of early fiction, allowing users to create more sophisticated models of large full-text corpuses.

END is a collaborative, multi-institutional project based at the University of Pennsylvania and Swarthmore College.  Faculty, staff, and fellows from both institutions lead a team of undergraduate researchers drawn from Penn and the Tri-College Consortium (Swarthmore, Haverford, Bryn Mawr) as well as Williams College.  In Summer 2016, END is expanding to NYU’s Fales Library, whose rich holdings in early fiction will expand the END dataset significantly.  After intensive training alongside the core END team based in Philadelphia, a team of NYU staff and students will catalog selections from the Fales Collection; expansion to additional New York repositories is planned for Summer 2017.

Thomas Gray Archive

Thomas Gray is most famous for his poem “Elegy written in a country churchyard.”  It was an instant success, and even today it is the most visited page on the Thomas Gray Archive website.

There is more to Thomas Gray than just this one poem, however.  Born in 1716, he was one of the key poetic figures in the early Romanticism of the mid-eighteenth century.  The Thomas Gray Archive aims to make all his writing universally accessible online, along with important secondary works and crowd-sourced comments from today’s researchers.

The starting point for the Thomas Gray Archive was high quality digital scans of key editions of Gray’s work.  As well as the images, the texts were transcribed using a standard text encoding format (TEI/XML).  This allows the text to be searched, annotated, and analysed.

The Archive now contains the full-text of Gray’s published poetry, a selection of his prose writings, particularly his travel writing and literary criticism, and his correspondence.  There is also a digital library with digital images of key editions of his works; translations into other languages; his prose and letters; and with audio tracks of readings of a small sample of his poems.

Not all of Gray’s poetry is as seemingly accessible as the “Elegy” or his humorous verse.  In fact, given Gray’s background as a scholar poet, most of his poetry has always posed a considerable challenge even for professional readers of his works.  In order to make his works more accessible to a wider readership, the Thomas Gray Archive includes a large number of explanatory notes and offers readers the opportunity to add their own notes and interpretations. This not only helps other readers access Gray’s work, but also demonstrates how an online archive such as this can transcend the single authority of a printed book, by presenting a range of authorities and readings.

Today, the Archive contains more than 3,500 notes on Gray’s 74 poems.  These range from basic notes on the meaning of obsolete or obscure words to elaborate interpretative glosses on the use of figurative language, or references to places, people, and events that have influenced or shaped his works.  Any contributions of notes or queries on any level and of any length are very welcome and will enhance all readers’ enjoyment of Gray’s work.

2016 marks the occasion of Gray’s 300th birthday, and anyone interested in Gray’s life and work is welcome to follow the hashtag #Grayat300 on Twitter where any talks, exhibitions, and events in the UK and beyond will be announced during the tercentenary year.

Adverts 250 Project

We live in a world saturated with advertising.  In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, new technologies and new media have been created or adapted to deliver so many marketing messages to potential consumers that sometimes it has become impossible to recognize advertising when we encounter it.  Other times advertising is blatant, obvious, and even infuriating as it infringes on the rest of our daily activities.  Many of us tend to think of advertising as a modern invention, something that became ubiquitous in American life as a result of radio, television, and the Internet.  Sometimes we assume that widespread advertising got its start in the twentieth century.

The Adverts 250 Project, however, offers a different story of advertising in America.  This blog features a new advertisement every day, an advertisement that appeared in a newspaper printed in colonial America exactly 250 years ago that day.  Each advertisement is accompanied by short commentary providing additional context, explanation, and interpretation.  I guide readers through the world of buying, selling, and promoting products in colonial America.  On occasion, students from my Colonial and Revolutionary America courses at Assumption College join me as guest curators, bringing their own perspectives and curiosity to the project as they select and research everyday life as revealed in the advertisements.

Although colonists placed advertisements for a variety of reasons, the Adverts 250 Project primarily focuses on commercial notices for goods and services in order to better understand how products were marketed in eighteenth-century America.  In comparing advertising then and now, the Adverts 250 Project often discovers that many of the strategies considered innovative today actually had precursors in the colonial era, such as limited time only sales and money-back guarantees.  In addition, some standard marketing practices were already in place or being developed in eighteenth-century America.  The Adverts 250 Project documents a variety of standard appeals–such as low prices and high quality and cutting-edge fashion–that continue to be central components of modern marketing.  It also examines the origins of other familiar marketing strategies, including “Buy American” campaigns that emerged in the decade prior to the Revolutionary War.  Colonists promoted merchandise they had made themselves instead of importing from England as a means of resisting Parliament’s abuses.

On occasion, the Adverts 250 Project features other kinds of advertisements, including domestic squabbles revealed in runaway wife advertisements.  Such advertisements appeared frequently.  Husbands warned merchants and shopkeepers against extending credit to disobedient wives, sometimes prompting responses defending the wives.  In an era before reality television or primetime dramas, readers followed complicated and messy family dynamics revealed in newspaper advertisements.  Other advertisements from the period expressed frustration about thieves who stole merchandise from shops or listed the amenities included in houses or land for sale or announced what we would consider garage sales when colonists wished to get rid of things they no longer wanted or needed.

Every advertisement tells its own story.  The Adverts 250 Project connects modern readers to some of the stories told in the advertisements printed in colonial newspapers, demonstrating in the process that advertising has been a part of American life since before the Revolution.

Home Subjects

“I put historical Art out of the question of course, for alas!  There’s no employment in it—nor are our houses, if there were a taste for it, adapted to receive large pictures, but for our comfort, where is it practiced nowadays, with success? . . . but in Portrait, Landscape, Seaviews, Home Subjects—animals, and in every branch for which there is a demand I am proud to say—and I am sure you will agree with me—we yield to no country.”  –British sculptor Richard Westmacott, 1834

Home Subjects is a website and blog that brings together those interested in exploring an alternate history for the display of art in Great Britain:  its important role in decorating the private interior, c. 1715-1914.

The decoration of and display of art in the private home have become the focus of a tremendous amount of academic energy during the past five years.  Yet much scholarship of the past two decades has posited that British art developed primarily in relationship to the growing number of art institutions and exhibitions that captured the public imagination.  This compelling narrative has overlooked the persistence of a cultural ideal premised on private and domestic spaces for exhibiting and experiencing art.

Though the quote from Richard Westmacott that headlines our page focuses on the display of painting, the parameters of this working group are much broader.  The goal is to explore the display of art in all media, especially the decorative arts and their interaction with the “fine arts.”  Domestic display also hinges on the related subjects of collecting, marketing, and even new developments in architecture, to name only a few of the directions this research could take.

Home Subjects grew out of a conversation enabled by the Humanities Institute at Wake Forest University:  in April 2012, Dr. Anne Nellis Richter visited Wake Forest and presented her research on the display of art in the home to my eighteenth-century European art class.  We talked to students about this new direction in the field, about the challenges of researching and recovering decorative schemes, and about the ways in which social class and institutional histories inflected these endeavors.  These concerns fascinated the students, who were familiar with some of these issues from their class visits to Reynolda House Museum of American Art.  At that time, Anne and I began to talk about a way to bring together interested students and researchers to create an online scholarly community, and our conversations soon grew to include Melinda McCurdy.  As a curator at the Huntington Art Collection in San Marino, California, Melinda added a new perspective to our conversation.  Her audience is the general public, rather than the college student, and the art under her care is displayed in a way that addresses both the domestic interior and the museum gallery.  We launched Home Subjects in April 2014.  We have presented at conferences in New York and London, and we have gathered nearly 2,000 views of the blog.  Our posts are cross-posted by professional organizations like the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Art, as well as research centers and museums.

In the Fall 2015, the Wake Forest University Humanities Institute sponsored a redesign of the Home Subjects site to allow for the creation of a network of researchers working on related topics.  Please visit us at homesubjects.org.

Manuscript Fiction in the Archive

The Life of Frederick Harley by Lady Katherine Howard

The Life of Frederick Harley by Lady Katherine Howard, Chawton House Library

“As these sheets will never appear in the form of a book, and I have not the fear of the Reviewers last before my eyes . . .” writes a wise older friend in the introduction to a novel written to a young woman in the middle of a years-long lawsuit.  Another young woman writes a novel in 1799 as a gift to a friend she loves so much that over forty years later they will be buried side by side.  These novels—and many others—survive in single copies, often all-but lost in the corners of unlikely archives, never brought together.  Until now.

This project will create a vocabulary and taxonomy for discussing manuscript fiction in the age of print (c.1760-1880).  While significant and exciting research has been done on the process of manuscript circulation and “publication” by scholars such as Margaret Ezell, Harold Love, and others following in their wake, those accounts of manuscript culture do not extend themselves very far (if at all) into the eighteenth century.  Moreover, studies of later eighteenth and nineteenth-century manuscripts concentrate on those that achieve fame by association (the Brontë juvenilia, the Dickinson fascicles, the working manuscripts of various published authors) or those that have value as social documents (friendship books, copybooks, etc.).  The 2015 conference “After Print: Manuscripts in the Eighteenth-Century” at the University of California Santa Barbara gathered together those interested in manuscript in this period, but most of those researchers worked on manuscripts that ultimately saw print, political, or scientific nonfiction, and the literary form most common in manuscript culture:  poetry.

Where is fiction in manuscript during the age of print?  While difficult to find the archive, it exists, and I collect it.  Since 2009, I have collected examples of what I call “manuscript fiction”:  a term I use to describe works (complete or incomplete) of fiction that survive during the age of print culture, despite never seeing print.  (You can see my early work on this here).  Some are found in the archive bound and resembling print in sizes ranging from heavy tomes to tiny packets, while some survive only in fragments.  Some resemble print editions closely and include elaborate title pages, while others are barely decipherable without intense deciphering.  Some contain chapters and a clear plot, and some ramble in ways worthy of Smollett or Richardson (or are, indeed, parodies of those famous novelists).  Some are written by those famous in other fields (such as playwright/actor Charles Dibdin or Governor-General of India, Warren Hastings), while some linger just on the edges of the historical record.  While a few may have been imagined as future printed books, none of them made that leap.  Most challenging, none of it appears in obvious ways in any cataloguing system.

I currently have thousands of pages of this material from the American Antiquarian Society, Chawton House Library, the National Library of Scotland, the British Library, and the London Metropolitan Archive.  At the time of this writing, I am preparing to collect more examples from the University of Pennsylvania, the New York Public Library, and Princeton University,  and I know of examples at Newberry Library and Yale University.  From meticulous searching of various finding aids, I also have evidence of more in various libraries, public records offices, and other archives in the United Kingdom and the United States.  Together, this growing collection provides exciting and illuminating insights into the writing and reading lives of the period.

Dr. Freidman and Kelsie Shipley

Dr. Friedman and Kelsie Shipley

Thanks to in-kind support from Auburn University’s College of Liberal Arts information technology and digital projects departments, as well as internal grant funding from the College, a two-year University-level seed grant, and support from the Caroline Marshall Draughon Center for the Arts & Humanities, I am creating a database that includes full-text transcriptions of these texts.  These texts will be fully encoded according to best practices so that they can be used for the full range of digital projects, including easy interface with many other projects in eighteenth and nineteenth-century studies, such as the aggregation tools 18th Connect and NINES.

The first phase will use the currently collected material to create a text-only proof-of-concept database, designed to include later images of the manuscript pages themselves in another phase if possible.  In fall of 2016 Auburn’s metadata specialist Dana Caudle has pledged at least 40 hours of her time to create the data dictionary that is the foundation of the project.  During the 2016-17 academic school year, I will be training (with assistance from Dana) both undergraduate and graduate students in the finer points of transcription, TEI markup, and metadata tagging.  One student, Kelsie Shipley, was awarded an Undergraduate Research Fellowship, while others are members of my year-long Honors Research Seminar and will receive course credit for their contributions to this project.

In the summer of 2017, I will return to the UK to access relevant manuscripts I know to be in the collection of the Yorkshire Archeological Society.  The holdings of the YAS are being moved to the University of Leeds and will not be available in any form until the transfer is complete in 2017.  I am hoping by that time I will have still more leads for further collection.  This is the challenge of this project:  because these are works that are not often catalogued specifically in library holdings, I often rely on word of mouth from the knowledgeable archivists and librarians who know their collections.

James Gillray: Caricaturist

James Gillray (1756-1815) was one of the greatest caricaturists of the 18th century.  From around 1775 until 1810, he produced nearly 1,000 prints—including brilliantly finished portrait caricatures of the rich, famous, or frivolous, wonderfully comic caricatures of people being awkward, and unquestionably the best satiric caricatures of British political and social life in the age of Napoleon.  His preeminence in graphic satire, especially in the 1790s made him both sought after and feared.  No sooner did a new Gillray print appear than it was sure to be plagiarized or imitated by contemporaries both in England and abroad.  And even today, there are few political cartoonists who would not admit to some debt to Gillray’s work.  For those interested in the development of English caricature and especially the prints of James Gillray, I have created a web site you can visit for a comprehensive overview of his work–James Gillray:  Caricaturist.

The site includes, first and foremost, a chronological listing of his known prints–both satiric and otherwise.  But it also contains a list of major museums and archives where his work can be seen, information about Gillray’s life, working methods, and techniques, and links to short biographical sketches of many of the people he caricatured.

Here is the background.  A couple of years ago, I decided to return to a book I had long since planned to write on the development of 18th-century caricature.  But, of course, anyone hoping to talk about caricature must confront the monumental presence of James Gillray.  So I began to look carefully at Gillray and his own development as a caricaturist.

I was soon frustrated, however, by the lack of a comprehensive and chronological catalog of his work.  Most of the books devoted to Gillray offer only a selection of his work, or, like Thomas Wright and Dorothy George, divide his work into political or satirical prints and social, personal, and miscellaneous prints.  And none of them include the prints Gillray created in his bid to be recognized as a “serious” artist and engraver.  I wanted to see Gillray’s work as he saw it, as a day by day effort at making a living and honing his craft.

Using the British Museum Catalog as a point of reference, I began doing searches of major Gillray archives online and visiting some of the non-digitized collections near my home in central New Jersey.  I will spare you the tales of my additional frustration while searching online for prints whose spelling and punctuation are highly idiosyncratic, and whose dates are sometimes difficult to decipher even up close.  Needless to say, I discovered that search results are only as good (or bad) as the very human process of cataloging the prints in the first place.  And I came away with a deep respect and appreciation for the heroic efforts of the staffs at the British Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Lewis Walpole Library, and other institutions who have made it immeasurably easier (though still challenging) for someone like me to come along and build upon their work.

The first result of my efforts, then, was a spreadsheet of over 900 rows containing a chronological listing of the prints and at least some of the collections where they could be found.  After months of labor, I realized I had only arrived at a starting point.  I could now begin to look at and think about Gillray’s development as an artist.  And that’s when I thought:  no one should have to go through this again.  And that’s when I also realized that I should make a website so that people could easily see what I was seeing–the wonderful artistry of James Gillray.

It was a natural enough thought for me.  I spent most of my life outside of academics at a major technology company, AT&T Labs (the successor of Bell Labs).  And the last part of my career there was managing a website design and development group.  Thinking in terms of web publishing, then, was almost second nature to me.  So I began to design a website around the idea:  what would I want to see and know if I were trying to get acquainted with Gillray and his work?  And that is still the guiding principle of James Gillray:  Caricaturist.  I launched the site on the 200th anniversary of Gillray’s death on June 1st, 2015, and its basic design has not changed.  But right now I have a goal of providing commentaries on at least a representative sample of the 900+ prints Gillray created over the course of his career.  About 50 are now up on the site, and I am continuing to add more.

If you wish to be alerted when I add more commentaries or make a substantive change to the site, I have included a form to subscribe to updates on my contact page.  I welcome feedback, corrections, and suggestions, and I have provided my email address on the same page.

Circulating Enlightenment: The Andrew Millar Project

MillarProject

Circulating Enlightenment: http://www.millar-project.ed.ac.uk/

Recipient of the 2016 Digital Prize from the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, Circulating Enlightenment introduces users to historical sources that document literary culture in eighteenth-century Edinburgh and London, along with e-learning modules for teaching.  A growing suite of otherwise unpublished primary documents, largely correspondence between authors and their London bookseller, Andrew Millar (1705-68), can be downloaded and used for teaching and research—as scans of the original manuscripts, as direct transcription, and as edited materials. These are suitable for teaching at secondary and post-secondary levels, and for scholarly research.  These have been marked up using TEI, which allows users to create their own editions of these materials, which we have sourced from a growing list of repositories in the US and the UK.

Circulating Enlightenment is an extension of an AHRC-funded research project, which collects, edits, and will publish (with Oxford University Press), the correspondence and business ledgers of Andrew Millar, one of the most important publishers of the eighteenth century.  Born in Glasgow, apprenticed in Edinburgh, and in business in London between 1726 and 1768, Millar enabled the publication and circulation of major and minor works of the Enlightenment and counter-Enlightenment.  His financial and legal dealings facilitated the movement of books between two great urban centres, Edinburgh and London, and his name is on the title-page of the first editions of the most influential works:  from novels to poems, to plays, to theology, to philosophy, to medicine, to science.  His legacy continues to shape the cultural, economic, social, and intellectual history of this period.

Haiti’s First Novel: Expanding the Study of the Age of Revolutions

We might say that of the many topics we 18th-centuriests study, the “Age of Revolutions” tops the list.  The French and American Revolutions have long been examined as crucial turning points in the history of the modern world, and we tend to think of the “before” and “after” as two distinct periods.  However, for almost as long, we in the West studied the “Age of Revolutions” without paying much attention to what is arguably the most important of the era’s political transformations:  the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804).

In recent decades, important work has been done to deconstruct processes of “silencing” the Haitian Revolution and to reconstruct the Haitian archive.  The most successful revolt by enslaved persons in history, the Haitian Revolution resulted in a completely autonomous antislavery, postcolonial nation in 1804, and shocked the wider world.  Haiti has struggled to deal with this shock for most of its existence.  It took decades for Great Britain and France to recognize Haitian independence.  The United States waited over half a century.

Unsilencing Haiti’s Revolution and inserting it into the intellectual framework of the “Age of Revolutions” requires conceptual as well as material reexaminations.  An important step is the recovery and reading of Haitians’ own words about their country’s history.  For example, until now, few students of the Revolution have read the first novel written by a Haitian author, Stella (1859), which is also a text about the Haitian Revolution.

Émeric Bergeaud wrote Stella hoping that the form of the novel would draw more interest to his country’s history.  Describing a tension between history and literature, he writes:

History can tell only what it knows.  Its sight, limited to the horizon of natural things, has trouble knowing the truth that shines behind that horizon.  The miraculous is not within its domain.  History leaves the field of mystery to the Novel.  (86)

In his explanation, Bergeaud was being clever even as he was being poetic.  Tired of reading the slanderous accounts of the Haitian Revolution published in France, Great Britain, and the United States, the novelist wanted to be sure that his readers would instead know Haiti’s great foundational myth and recognize the story as the miracle that it was.

A note providing clues as to the provenance of one of the rare copies of the second edition of Bergeaud's novel, published at the behest of his widow in 1887. This copy was acquired by the University of Florida in 1961 from the Librairie d'Histoire d'Haïti, which was a famous library and bookstore in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Thanks to this note, we know that the work did circulate in Bergeaud's homeland even though both of its nineteenth-century editions were printed in Paris.

A note providing clues as to the provenance of one of the rare copies of the second edition of Bergeaud’s novel, published at the behest of his widow in 1887. This copy was acquired by the University of Florida in 1961 from the Librairie d’Histoire d’Haïti, which was a famous library and bookstore in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Thanks to this note, we know that the work did circulate in Bergeaud’s homeland even though both of its nineteenth-century editions were printed in Paris.

Out of print for over a century, Stella has often been overlooked.  This neglect is partly due to a nineteenth-century colonial mentality that denigrated Haiti and Haitians, constantly judging them against standards established for the purpose of exclusion.  It is also due to Bergeaud’s own obscurity—he died in exile in 1858—and the fact that few, if any, physical copies of the original editions survive.  These circumstances have meant that literature by early postcolonialists like Bergeaud has never received the attention that it deserves.

A new English translation of Émeric Bergeaud’s 1859 novel aims to aid in the unsilencing processes and to invite Anglophone readers to examine this period more fully.  Bergeaud’s insistence that Haiti is the true inheritor of republicanism helps us to understand how Haitians viewed their history in terms of the “Age of Revolutions” well before Western academics began making similar connections.

Recovered texts and new translations like this one offer a means to chip away at the power of the colonial mentality and to challenge the silencing of what we might call the most significant of the age’s revolutions.

Appropriating the Restoration: Fictional Place and Time in Rose Tremain’s Restoration: A Novel of Seventeenth-Century England

King Charles II by John Michael Wright. oil on canvas, circa 1660-1665 NPG 531 © National Portrait Gallery, London

King Charles II by John Michael Wright. oil on canvas, circa 1660-1665 NPG 531
© National Portrait Gallery, London

The historical proliferation of authors “borrowing” the works of other authors has led to numerous critical studies in appropriation, what Christy Desmet characterizes as “literary influence . . . grounded in metaphors of conflict.”  The concept may also be defined as taking possession of a text for one’s own, often cultural, purpose.  In doing so, the author creates a “dynamic intertext:  the works reflect the cultural charge that produced them, but the works may go on to affect the culture once they are re-produced.”[1]  But while authors have appropriated literary works for centuries, they have also appropriated historical settings and places well outside their own realities, creating new works in historical settings that reflect a new cultural purpose.  “Both the Elizabethan age and the Restoration,” explains Martha Rozett, “are frequent subjects of popular formula-fiction romances due to their distinctive, easily replicated atmospheres; both also have inspired a great deal of serious, traditional historical fiction and fictionalized biography as well.”[2]  However, comparisons between historical fiction and actual history, contends Alan Marshall, often reveal that the two have little in common, “yet both genres possibly still have much to learn from one another.  Indeed if popular and just occasionally academic history has become more novelistic in tone at times, then sometimes historical novels have become more academically serious.”

Certainly, scholars have long had a love/hate relationship with Restoration England’s excesses as well as with its political heavy-handedness.  Alexander Pope’s rather unflattering reference in Imitations of Horace to “Days of Ease, when now the weary Sword / Was sheath’d, and Luxury with Charles restor’d” plays on those excesses as well as on the fickle masses, as Dryden says, “Now Whig, now Tory.”  The restoration of Charles II, however, was a momentous occasion, celebrated certainly by a large majority for bringing order—a prerequisite for eighteenth-century political and cultural stability.  This “spirit of order” was essential to a cultural harmony following years of Civil War and its absence of a controlling monarchy—whether good or bad.  This harmony, however, argues Gerald Marshall, was bought at the price of personal identity, making the Restoration not unlike the Protectorate in some ways.[3]

Nevertheless, whatever its political and social flaws, the Restoration presented authors who had distance from it a picture of relief—a tyrant removed and his right-wing religious conservatism with it.  It was the sixties—albeit the 1660s—a time for tricksters, rakes, subversive women and sexual energy on the stage.  It was a time of fun for those with the means to partake of it.  The “good old days” are, of course, always better from a distance, but writers on through the twentieth century found the Restoration an apt setting for their fictions about prostitution, political intrigue, and tragic or comic historical events, especially for the cinema.

restorationcoverRose Tremain’s 1989 bestselling novel Restoration; A Novel of Seventeenth-Century England, made into an Oscar-winning film for Best Art-Direction/Set Decoration and Best Costume Design in 1995, embraces both the excess and the tragedy of Restoration England.  As Marshall concludes, Tremain’s Restoration

. . . is not Scott by any means; it is very readable for one thing, has engaging characters and is not that improbable in its story. . . .  Instead it is really a novel about ideas, which happens to be set in the past, and it can lead us to ponder and then go on to explore many of these ideas in a genuine historical context, which is perhaps what the really good historical novel should do.  (2)

Wedding Scene, Restoration, 1995; Sam Neill, Robert Downey, Jr., Polly Walker

Wedding Scene, Restoration, 1995; Sam Neill, Robert Downey, Jr., Polly Walker.

Restoration follows characters such as the rakish Robert Merivel and Quaker John Pearce through life-forming events as a paradoxical Charles II exudes an omniscient presence over them and the nation.  The King replaces God in his consuming power, sensitive to all things, and he demands order in his kingdom and a particular skill from his subjects, stressing that no man should rise above his own talents.  Tremain’s novel capitalizes on the plague and the fire to move the story as well, but she relies particularly on the opulence of the court and on stories about Charles II’s personality for particular scenes.  When the King arranges a loveless marriage between Merivel and Celia, one of the King’s mistresses, in order to have her close by, he also presides over the lavish arrangements.  “For the King,” Merivel tells us, “moves like God in our world, like Faith itself.”[1]  Merivel relates, “How shall I describe my wedding?  It was like a tolerably good play, a play of which, long after the thing was over, certain lines, certain scenes, certain arrangements of people and costume and light return vividly to your mind, while the rest remains dark” (25).

Theatre images like this one abound in the novel.  Once he becomes a ward of the King, Merivel becomes an actor in an elaborate scheme, abandoning his love for and skill in medicine for the pleasures at court, also ignoring the King’s warning that no man should rise above his own talents.  Merivel fails at learning to play the oboe, at painting, etc.; but the King accepts Merivel’s exploits, at least for a while, because, as he says, “You are utterly of our times.”  When the King gives Merivel and Celia his house at Bidnold, Merivel delights in this newfound wealth—wealth that will prove to have many strings attached:

Now, I had thirty rooms in which to spread myself.  In one almost circular room in the West Tower, I let out an involuntary yelp of delirium, so perfect did the space seem—for what, I didn’t know or care. . . .  I had come at last to . . . ‘the divine banquet of the brain’.  And the banquet was mine!  I sat down and took off my wig and scratched my hogshair and wept for joy.  (27)

Finally, Tremain’s novel appropriates time and place for a story that depends on the political climate, the social hierarchy, the scene at court and the many eccentricities prevalent in Restoration London.

So why “romanticize” the Restoration, a time rife with crime, disease, poverty, and discrimination, and a period with no antibiotics, no human rights, and no social mobility?  Maybe we are nostalgic because it was a new beginning, a move away from civil war and religious oppression.  It introduced women on the stage and a savvy, if not sexy, King.  After the Puritans, opulence was fun again, sex was fun again.  It was, after all, the 60s.

Notes

[1] Robert Sawyer, Victorian Appropriations of Shakespeare:  George Eliot, A. C. Swinburne, Robert Browning, and Charles Dickens (Madison:  Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003):  16-17.  Sawyer quotes Desmet from their earlier co-authored study.

[2] Martha Tuck Rozett, “Constructing a World:  How Postmodern Historical Fiction Reimagines the Past.”  CLIO 25 (1996).

[3] W. Gerald Marshall, ed., Introduction to The Restoration Mind (Newark:  University of Delaware Press, 1997):  8-9; 11.