The Adventures of an 18th-Century Common Post

In 2015 I wrote a Features post for The 18th-Century Common because I will never pass up an opportunity to tell the world about James Bruce, the verbose Scottish explorer who traveled to Abyssinia in the 1760s in search of the source of the Nile.  But beyond the instant satisfaction of sharing something I find fascinating, contributing to a public humanities website turned out to be worthwhile for other reasons:

It was an opportunity to practice translating my research.  In Fall 2015 I was on the job market, faced with the tasks of describing what I study to people outside my field, articulating how I make it interesting and relevant in undergraduate classes, and advocating for its intellectual and social impact.  Reworking even a small piece of my project for a public audience helped me start developing language and examples to communicate its exigency.

It was a quick and open-access way for people to see what I do.  I sent the link to people outside the academy who have been resources for me, and to friends and family who wanted to know more about what I study.  It came up when search committees looked me up online.  Students in the department that I will be joining in the fall read it, and they asked me questions about it during my campus visit.

It had a fast reach.  I recently ran across a web exhibit about the European exploration of the Blue Nile that was put together by a History class at Washington and Lee University.  I was pleased to see my post among their sources and amazed at how quickly it had an impact.

It turned out to be both fun and useful.  And how often does that happen?

Editor’s note:  Learn how you can get involved in public humanities project that is The 18th-Century Common.

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.

Sex and the Founding Fathers

Sex and the Founding Fathers by Thomas Foster

Sex and the Founding Fathers by Thomas A. Foster

Living as we do in an era in which public figures are subjected to extreme scrutiny in the form of media intrusions, we tend to think of our interest in reconciling public images with private sexual conduct as uniquely postmodern. In fact, Americans have long invested national heroes with superior moral status and at the same time probed into their private lives. If the Founding Fathers seem remote to us now, that distance persists despite the efforts of generations of biographers who attempt to take their measure as leaders and tell us what they were really like in their most intimate relationships. From the early years of the Republic till now, biographers have attempted to burnish the Founders’ images and satisfy public curiosity about their lives beyond public view. At the same time, gossips and politically motivated detractors, claiming to have the inside track on new information, have circulated scandalous or unpleasant stories to knock these exalted men off their pedestals. Looking back at the stories and assessments that have proliferated in the two and a half centuries since the Founders’ generation, we see the dual nature of these accounts and how they oscillate between the public and the private, between the idealized image and actions in the intimate realm. We see how each generation reshapes images of the Founders to fit that storyteller’s era.

On the one hand, the Founders appear desexualized. The images of the Founding Fathers that we regularly encounter—as heads on money, as reference points in discussions about political ideology, and as monuments at tourist sites—assert their status as virtuous American men. They typically appear either disembodied—as heads or busts—or in clothing that reminds us of their political or military position. Their flesh is covered from neck to wrists, with only hands and face exposed. Typically, the men are frozen in advanced age—generally gray-haired, if not topped off with wigs—further confirming their identities as desexualized elder statesman for generations of Americans who associate sexual activity with youth (1).

On the other side of the coin, curiosity about their “real” lives has continued seemingly unabated into our own time. In 1810, Mason Weems, originator of the cherry-tree myth, emphasized the importance of discussing George Washington’s personal life. Weems argues that “public character” is no “evidence of true greatness” and calls for a spotlight to be shined on his “private life.” Weems gives the compelling example of Benedict Arnold, who could “play you the great man” “yet in the private walks of life” reveal himself to be a “swindler”—including not only his political deception but his use of the “aid of loose women.” For Weems, the Founders’ intimate relationships should not be off limits for Americans: “It is not, then, in the glare of public, but in the shade of private life, that we are to look for the man. Private life is always real life.” To truly know them, their conduct in that realm is an important piece of the puzzle (2).

By tracing how intimacy has figured in popular memory of the Founders from their own lifetimes to the recent past, Sex and the Founding Fathers shows that sex has long been used to define their masculine character and political authority and has always figured in civic and national identity (3).  Each generation has asked different questions about the Founders and their private lives, but Americans have consistently imagined and reimagined the private lives of the Founders through the lens of contemporary society. As Michael Kammen and others have argued, countries “reconstruct their pasts rather than faithfully record them” and “do so with the needs of contemporary culture clearly in mind” (4).  Gore Vidal has referred to our selective national memory as “The United States of Amnesia” (5).  It is true that we tend to embrace the the national narratives that we desire and “forget” those that we prefer to hide away. Stories about the Founders’ lives have always been told in ways that make use of the norms and ideals of the time period.  Founders can never be embraced in their late-eighteenth-century context, for, as the saying goes, the past is a foreign country—and the Founders lose their cultural utility when viewed as foreigners. Americans want to see themselves in their images, because these men, the men who created America, are by their actions the embodiment of the nation and of our national identity.

The Founders lived in a world that fit neither the stereotyped image of a Puritanical past nor a more modern sexual culture that makes them “just like us.” The problem with using sex to make the Founders relatable is that sex is not transhistorical: It can’t be used in this manner any more than medical or racial understandings of the day can be used to connect readers from early America to today.  Remembering the intimate lives of the Founding Fathers with simple tropes, hyperbolic superficialities, and meaningless romanticized generalizations prevents us from meaningfully engaging with eighteenth-century sexual variance. Doing so also trivializes sex, perpetuating our own discomfort with the topic, a discomfort with a long history. Superficial glosses relegate the subject of sex to the status it held in previous generations—one of titillation, shame, and humor—all of which rely on a certain assertion of the transhistorical or human understanding of sexuality. But the ways in which Americans have ordered their sexual lives and their sexual identities have changed greatly over the centuries.  Viewing the Founders’ intimate lives and identities as somehow accessible to us through surface descriptions, such as “love at first sight” or “healthy sexual appetites,” prevents us from taking historical sexual identities and sexual expressiveness seriously. By focusing in a sustained way on the manner in which Americans have asked and answered their own questions about sexual intimacy and the Founders of the nation, we can examine how Americans have both broached and obscured sexual realities and the cultural connections between sex and nationalized masculinity in the public memory of these men.

Collectively, these stories show how gendered sexuality has long figured in our national identity via the public memory of the political leaders of the American Revolution. By tracing these histories of public memory, we are confronted with how blurred the line has long been between sex and politics in memories of the Founders and how sex has helped tie an ever-diversifying American public to a handful of staid, lite, white, eighteenth-century men.



1.  Indeed, in recognition of this issue, several museums of Founding Fathers’ homes have launched efforts to circulate more youthful, vital images in an effort to connect to modern audiences. And recent biographies that strive to make the Founders more appealing (dubbed “Founders chic” by friend and foe alike) likewise frequently highlight the heights and musculature of the men in their youth in efforts to dispel the dusty old images held in most American’s minds. The term “Founders chic” comes from Evan Thomas (“Founders Chic: Live from Philadelphia,” Newsweek, July 9, 2001). But “Founders chic” “is really “‘Federalist chic,’” according to Jeffrey L. Pasley, who observes that the increased interest in Founders often focuses on conservatives who did not embrace democracy or the “expansion of individual rights,” such as Washington, Adams, and Hamilton. Pasley, “Federalist Chic,”, February 2002,

2.  Mason Weems, A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1927), 8.

3.  This book, therefore, builds on my earlier work on sex and masculinity and on the long history of sexual identities in America. See, for example, Thomas A. Foster, Sex and the Eighteenth-Century Man: Massachusetts and the History of Sexuality in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006); and Thomas A. Foster, ed., Long before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America (New York: New York University Press, 2007). See also George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1995); and Regina G. Kunzel, Criminal Intimacy: Prison and the Uneven History of Modern American Sexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

4. Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York: Vintage, 1993), 3. See also Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992); David Glassberg, “Public History and the Study of Memory,” Public Historian 18, no. 2 (Spring 1996): 7–23; and Patrick Hutton, “Recent Scholarship on Memory and History,” History Teacher 33, no. 4 (Aug. 2000): 533–548.

5. Gore Vidal, Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia (New York: Nation Books, 2004).


Read more about Thomas A. Foster’s work on sex and the Founding Fathers:

George Washington’s Bodies

Intimate Lives on Display: Monticello and Mount Vernon

The Tercentenary of the Birth of Laurence Sterne: a Man for Our Times

by Sir Joshua Reynolds oil on canvas, 1760 NPG 5019 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Laurence Sterne, by Sir Joshua Reynolds
oil on canvas, 1760
NPG 5019
© National Portrait Gallery, London

From July 8th to 11th the tercentenary conference celebrating the birth of Laurence Sterne was held at the Royal Holloway University, attended by 68 delegates, mostly professors from universities around the globe. Over 60 papers were presented about Sterne and his works over four days, revealing not only his genius but also his appeal, providing adequate interpretation is given. Yet Sterne is little known outside of academia, and from my reading of him and my understanding of today’s world, there are, I believe, distinctive connections which make him a man for our times regarding religion, personal identity and human rights.

First: religion. Sterne’s time was one of spiritual unrest following the civil war of the previous century and there was a charismatic phenomenon taking place in the Methodist movement sweeping the country. Today, religious unrest has led to the expression of religious observance in many new forms, while fundamentalism in all its forms, suffused with charisma, is flourishing. Sacred texts provide the backbone for most religions and it is here that we find Sterne’s focus most relevant. Sterne’s sermons have a unique, free flowing style; in one instance he inserts, into a short passage of twenty lines, the paraphrases of seven Biblical texts, Mtt. 5.44 and 6. 14-15, I Pet. 2.11, Cols. 3.2, Hebs. 11.10 and 13.14, and Ps. 50.9, and no other preacher would have turned one of the most lurid and gory of Old Testament stories, “The Levite and his Concubine” into an example of the beauties of companionable friendship between the sexes. To treat scripture like this was a daring and audacious thing to do and singles him out as representing an approach diametrically opposed to the literalist and dogmatic.

Second: personal identity, a peculiarly modern concern. Fifty years ago, Helen Moglen in her essay for the bicentenary conference writes: “Tristram seeks with the anti-hero of the contemporary world an answer to the unanswerable question, ‘Who am I?’”[1] Sterne lived at a time of emerging scientific discovery; he refers to that “great harvest of … learning…now ripening,” and “icals” were appearing as distinctions were recognized. Among these “icals” he refers to the “physical,” “physiological,” and the “chemical” (Tristram Shandy 1.21.57). Neuro-science today is making new discoveries at a brisk rate and at the same time they are discovering their ignorance about it. When we think of the brain and the workings of the mind, we can only say with Tristram: “———Endless is the search of truth” (TS. II.3.80). Such humility is needed today as we learn that every scientific discovery opens a door onto yet another mystery, the biggest being that of our own minds.

Personal identity is inextricably bound up with sexuality, and Sterne speaks to us with particular relevance about this most basic of subjects.[2] Today its nature is being re-evaluated, with the undermining of taboos and inhibitions and the recognition that it is much more complex, with the masculine and feminine capable of interchange and multiple categories of sexuality emerging. Jesse Molesworth refers to Sterne’s “feminized men of feeling in Toby and Yorick and his masculinized women like the Widow Wadman.”[3]

Lastly, for me Sterne connects with our times in his espousal of human rights. Today religion is involved, often in a negative way, with human rights, and in society at large discrimination, injustice and cruelty are only too painfully alive and kicking. How does Sterne relate to this? Sterne favored abolition; Donald Wehrs and Molesworth find material in support of it in the Sermons, Tristram Shandy, The Letters and A Sentimental Journey, anticipating abolitionist thought.[4] He is against the excessive floggings that were administered in the army, sometimes on trumped up charges as noted in the case of “the poor grenadier … so unmercifully whipped … about the ducats” (TS. IV.4.247). Sterne was no religious controversialist: his criticism of the Catholics is for their cruelty in the inquisition, namely their violation of human rights, and his comments about the “enthusiasm” of the Methodists is in line with his cautionary word about those “who govern this mighty world and its mighty concerns with the engines of eloquence, — who heat …cool …melt and mollify, —- and then harden it again to your purpose —- .” With regard to women’s rights, Sterne has been read as a misogynist author, marginalizing them and reflecting the view of the division of the sexes in his day, but Tristram’s excruciating account of his birth and the way in which his mother was treated by her husband and Dr Slop, with her narrow escape from the lethal caesarean knife, reveals an acute awareness and concern for women’s lot in the 18th century.

In the penultimate chapter of the last volume of Tristram Shandy, we find:

HUMANITY – – – – thus. (TS. IX.31.584)

The word humanity screams at us from the page and sums up his unique contribution.

So is Sterne a man for our times? I believe that he is, and that his voice, speaking of a humanity dominated by benevolence, is urgently needed to remind the religious of this basic component of their religion; to direct people towards their common humanity; and, in the course of this to help us to determine what, in fact, it means to be human.

[1] Helen Moglen, “The Philosophical Irony of Laurence Sterne,” in The Winged Skull, Essays On Laurence Sterne.

[2] See Elisabeth Harries, “Words, Sex and Gender in Sterne’s Novels” in The Cambridge Companion to Laurence Sterne.

[3] Molesworth, “Sterne Studies on the Eve of the Tercentenary,” Literature Compass. 9: 453-463. doi.10.1111/j.1741-4113.2012.00897.x

[4] Donald R. Wehrs, “Postcolonial Sterne,”in The Cambridge Companion to Laurence Sterne, and W. B. Gerard, “Laurence Sterne, The Apostrophe, and American Abolitionism, 1788 -1831,” Swiftly Sterneward: Essays on Laurence Sterne and His Times in Honor of Melvyn New.

Poetry with a Different Purpose: Resurrecting Britain’s Bard

In September 1792, on the day of the autumnal equinox, a Welshman named Iolo Morganwg met friends on Primrose Hill near what is now Regent’s Park in London.  There, they made a circle out of stones.  The largest stone was fashioned into an altar.  On this altar was placed an unsheathed sword.  Standing on these stones and dressed in wildly colored robes, the company recited Welsh history and poetry.

They were pretending to be ancient Welsh bards.

A meeting of bardic performers (called gorsedd) from Britanny in 1906. This Breton meeting provides a modern example of earlier Welsh models of the festival.

A meeting of bardic performers (called
gorsedd) from Britanny in 1906. This Breton meeting provides a modern example of earlier Welsh models of the festival.

The meeting might sound like a pagan ritual or a group of overzealous Lord of the Rings enthusiasts, but this performance was serious business.  The goal was to revive the customs of an almost forgotten Wales.  Morganwg, the organizer, called these performances gorsedd, which he translated as “voice convention.”  He imagined these meetings as communal poetic voices reasserting a unique Welsh culture, different from that of England or Scotland.  Morganwg kept these performances going for decades, and elements of these early meetings made their way into the Welsh National Eisteddfod, an annual poetry and folk singing festival that still goes on today.

I came across Morganwg and his merry band of guerilla poets while researching Sounding Imperial: Poetic Voice and the Politics of Empire, 1730-1820.  I wanted to offer an unorthodox history of English poetry that looks at the other side of the eighteenth century’s reputation for polite, dainty verse.  Instead, I sought out the century’s wild and bellicose figures, the majority of whom are now forgotten.

Many of them were like Morganwg, who fashioned himself into a national poet.  He wanted to write and perform poetry that was like heroic medieval epics.  This meant recreating ancient ceremonies, such as the one on Primrose Hill, but also composing poems that established intimate connections with readers that many worried had become distant because of mass-market publications.  For him, to be a bard meant to sing “native songs” of “Britons bold and free.”

We haven’t paid much attention to these rowdy vocal experiments because we’ve forgotten what poetry used to be like.  In the twenty-first century, we have two attitudes toward poetry, both of which come to us from the 1800s.  Those who adhere to the first attitude perceive poetry to be moody and introspective, written and read by people in touch with their emotions.  For them, poetry is revelatory; it’s something that changes your life.  Think William Wordsworth and Dead Poets Society.

The second attitude sees poetry as the domain of bad boys and rebel artists who fight against social norms and devote their life to art.  They are a version of Lord Byron, the dashing, drunken nineteenth-century poet who (may have) seduced his half-sister, fled Britain in disgrace, traveled through Europe and the Mediterranean, and was said to be “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”

But poetry wasn’t always this way.  Sounding Imperial captures what it was like in the decades before these modern attitudes toward poetry took shape.  The 1700s were a time when no one cared about how poets felt.  Poetry was supposed to be about politics, nation, empire, and history, not something as small and mundane as personal feelings.

That’s why my book moves from England to Wales to Scotland and India, seeking out authors who were culture warriors, nationalists, radicals and revolutionaries, and avid colonialists as well.  Their enthusiasm was electric, and their sense of poetry’s possibility was enormous.  For these eighteenth-century artists, composing poems meant communing with the dead, making ancient bards speak again, and preserving cultures that were going extinct.  It required gathering in the early morning light to stand on stones and recite poems in Welsh.  No moody introspection for these performers and no self-serving, brooding rebellion.  Instead, for them, poetry makes the nation sing, fulfilling a mission driven by the grand arc of history.

[This piece was originally published by James Mulholland on the Johns Hopkins University Press Blog:]

Sounding Imperial

Collaborative Reading of Simon Gikandi’s Slavery and The Culture of Taste

gikandiThe Long 18th, a scholarly blog devoted to 18th-century literature, history, and culture, is conducting a week-long collaborative reading of Simon Gikandi’s award-winning Slavery and the Culture of Taste (Princeton UP, 2011), from May 13-20, 2013. We have been reading approximately one chapter a day, with posts from a variety of eighteenth century literary scholars and historians. Please visit, and consider contributing to the discussion, at  For additional information, please email David Mazella.

Who Is a Terrorist? “Terrorism” in the Long 18th Century

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries. jacques-Louis David, 1812.

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries. jacques-Louis David, 1812.  [Source]

Who is a terrorist?

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving Boston marathon bomber, will be tried as a civilian and not as an enemy combatant.  Tsarnaev is an American citizen, but he’s also a suspected terrorist – hence debate over the mode of trial, and a related controversy over his Miranda rights. We tend to reflexively identify terrorists as international operatives, despite instances of (and increasing anxiety over) “homegrown” terrorists.  But what we call homegrown terrorism – plotting within a target nation – is in fact somewhat closer to the original English use of the word, which dates from the eighteenth century, and which was coined to describe the (potentially violent) thwarting of political participation.

“Terrorist” first entered the English language in Edmund Burke’s Letters on a Regicide Peace, written and published throughout 1795 and 1796 –the politician and philosopher’s extended argument against England ending its war with France, and his last reaction to the French Revolution. It came directly from the French “terroriste” and “terrorisme,” both of which came into use in 1794, during the most violent phase of the Revolution. The French Constitution of 1795 had been widely opposed; riots were put down by a young Napoleon Bonaparte.  “Twenty thousand regular Troops garrison Paris,” wrote Burke. “Thus a complete Military Government is formed…To secure them further, they have a strong corps of irregulars, ready armed. Thousands of those Hell-hounds called Terrorists…are let loose on the people.” He concluded: “The whole of their Government, in its origination, in its continuance, in all its actions, and in all its resources, is force; and nothing but force.”

Terrorism here is associated with government coercion, with wielding illegitimate power – illegitimate because it had no consent from the people: “This year’s Constitution…is the only one which in its very formation has been generally resisted… It never had a popular choice even in show.”

Burke’s usage was echoed by Jeremy Bentham some twenty years later in his Plan of Parliamentary Reform. Bentham listed “the Terrorist” as a figure “by whom freedom of suffrage is destroyed…The terrorist is he who obtains his seat by the motive of fear…he who repels, quells, subdues, or excludes any competitor.” For Bentham, too, terrorism represented a perversion of the political process.

In this emphasis on the nature of unsanctioned power, however, we can see that the emotional resonance of the word was the same then as now: unpredictability, violence, and fear.


“The Mechanical Turk” and Automata of the 18th Century

The Mechanical Turk. Windisch, Karl Gottlieb. Inanimate Reason, 1784. Houghton Library, Harvard University. SG 3675.94.10 Source: John Overholt.

The Mechanical Turk.
Windisch, Karl Gottlieb. Inanimate Reason, 1784.
Houghton Library, Harvard University. SG 3675.94.10
Source: John Overholt.

In a recent article for the BBC News, Adam Gopnik reflects on the persistent allure of the Turk, a chess-playing automaton that fascinated eighteenth-century spectators across Europe and America.  The Turk was created by Viennese inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen and first appeared in the court of Empress Maria Theresa. Essentially an early type of robot, the contraption featured a large wooden cabinet with a chessboard on top behind which sat the torso of a mustached man dressed in oriental robes. Before every performance, in order to convince the audience that the Turk really was a machine, the operator, first Kempelen and then later Johann Maelzel, would go through an elaborate demonstration of opening the cabinet doors to reveal the complex, whirring jumble of wheels and cogs that powered the machine. Once the cabinet was closed, an audience member would be invited to challenge the Turk at a game of chess. Impressively, the Turk was able not only to move its own chess pieces but also to recognize if its opponent made an illegal move and even to win a large portion of the games it played. The automaton was a sensation. Before being destroyed by a fire in New York in the 1850s, it toured throughout Europe and North America and played against such opponents as Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte. Most impressive, though, is the secret that the Turk managed to keep for over 50 years: it was all a fraud.

In reality, the Turk’s impressive chess skills were the result not of elaborate, mechanical clockwork but of a human operator, usually a random chess-player from the town where it was currently performing, cleverly hidden in a secret compartment behind the display of clockwork parts. It is this ability to fool its eighteenth-century audience for so long, or rather the willingness of the eighteenth-century audience to be fooled by the automaton, that Gopnik focuses on in his article. Although there were several people who doubted the machine early on – Edgar Allen Poe, for example, discusses how it must be controlled by a hidden chess player in his essay “Maelzel’s Chess-Player” – the majority of spectators were happily convinced that it was just an impressive piece of machinery. Gopnik argues that the spectators who were so willing to believe the lie did so because they wanted what we still want to this day: a beautiful, elegant solution (an extraordinary automaton) rather than a cynical, ugly one (a hidden chess-player). Gopnik also points out that the real genius of the machine’s inventor was not fooling his audience but realizing and harnessing the mastery that is available in the modern world but that often goes unnoticed. The chess-players who ran the machine were not chess-masters, but they were good enough to beat the majority of people they played against.

Fascination for the Turk isn’t limited to the eighteenth century, though. Several scholars in both the humanities and the sciences have studied and written about the Turk and other popular automata of the eighteenth century, including Gerald Levitt’s book The Turk, Chess Automaton, that gives detailed analysis of the machine’s hidden operation as well as the literature written about it. Likewise, Julie Park discusses the connection between general automata and the novel in the eighteenth century as part of a consumer-driven desire for novelty and self-representation in her book The Self and It: Novel Objects in Eighteenth Century England. In his book The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine, Tom Standage discusses how this mysterious machine played an important role not only in the development of the power loom and the computer but even in current debates about machine and artificial intelligence. The fact that it was fairly recently reconstructed by John Gaughan, though it no longer requires a hidden human operator, speaks to its lasting appeal to and effect on modern society. Interestingly, and as if to support Gopnik’s argument for realizing the world’s untapped potential for mastery, Amazon has launched an online crowdsourcing service that helps computer programmers connect and collaborate in order to accomplish a variety of tasks that computers still can’t do. They named the service, which they categorize as “artificial artificial intelligence,” The Mechanical Turk, after the eighteenth-century fraud automaton that was actually man-powered.

Pride & Prejudice at 200

Pride and Prejudice, First Edition. Z. Smith Reynolds Library, Wake Forest University

Pride and Prejudice, First Edition. Z. Smith Reynolds Library, Wake Forest University.

Jane Austen scholars are currently marking the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice.  Here are just a few of the many commemorations from around the web:

Megan Mulder, Special Collections Librarian at Z. Smith Reynolds Library, Wake Forest University, describes the novel’s long path to publication, its reception by critics, and the larger context of Austen’s publishing career in a post for the Z. Smith Reynolds Library Special Collections Blog.  Her informative post includes several photographs of Wake Forest’s first editions of Austen’s work, as well as those of her predecessor Frances Burney.

Devoney Looser, in an essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books, reviews two recent scholarly books that attempt to make sense of Austen’s enduring appeal:

The permeable boundaries between the popular and sometimes absurd Austen and the scholarly Austen surely matter in ways that will be long in unraveling. Recent Austen scholarship has capitalized on this high-low traffic, mirroring the marketing of “I [Heart] Darcy” bumper stickers more than we might like to admit — and I don’t exempt myself from the charge of opportunism. I am an English professor who has the good fortune to teach Jane Austen by day. By night, I skate on the local roller derby team as my alter ego, Stone Cold Jane Austen. As a result, I regularly field such farcical questions as “What would Jane Austen think of tattoos?” and, from my son, “Mommy, who is Jane Austen? Are you Jane Austen?” So I do not speak here from on high. The shrines to Jane Austen in my life involve sweat-stained wrist guards, not 19th-century editions of her works. But even I find myself asking on occasion, “What is the point of our sifting through and documenting all of today’s Austen-infused dreck?” It is especially heartening, then, to find emerging work on Austen and popular culture that moves beyond recounting how she has been mashed up with zombies, vampires, or porn. The best new work asks not only the multivalent, unanswerable question, “Why Austen? Why Now?” It also carefully charts “How did we get here?”

Both Claudia L. Johnson’s Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures and Janine Barchas’s Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity are exemplars of this more sophisticated work on Austen and popular culture. Johnson’s book makes sense, directly and indirectly, of the factual-fiction impulse behind novels like Pattillo’s Jane Austen Ruined My Life, telling the fascinating story of how the mystique of Austen was gradually created, maintained, and spun out in unpredictable ways in the years after her death in 1817. Johnson unearths both the many-sided truths and the wide-ranging implications of our false fantasies of Austen, drawing conclusions from evidence ranging from portraits and memorials to fairy tales and relics. By contrast, Barchas makes a compelling case for our acknowledging some of the real-life 18th- and 19th-century people who may stand behind Austen’s fictional characters, in order to reveal long occluded ways of seeing Austen’s relationship with history and celebrity culture.

Elsewhere in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Susan Greenfield and Audrey Bilger offer an engaging account of the fate of Pride and Prejudice over the past 200 years, and Ted Scheinman reviews a new biography of Austen.

In 2006 Linda V. Troost published an analysis of three film interpretations of Elizabeth’s visit to Pemberley in Eighteenth-Century Fiction.  You can read the entire article without charge here.

Want to celebrate?  Pride & Prejudice 200 collects listings of commemorative events worldwide.

An 18th-Century Argument Against the Death Penalty

Murder in the Carriage (Probably a Design for The Tyburn Chronicle) by Samuel Wale, 1721-1786, British

Murder in the Carriage (Probably a Design for The Tyburn Chronicle) by Samuel Wale, 1721-1786, British. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794), Enlightenment philosopher and Italian jurist, is back in the news. Lawyers for convicted murderer Jody Lee Miles in Maryland have used his argument against the death penalty.

Beccaria thought punishment was effective when it was certain and swift, but not necessarily when it was violent. “If I can demonstrate that it is neither necessary nor useful,” he wrote, “I shall have gained the cause of humanity.” The emotional appeal may be compelling, but it actually hinges on an important argument about rights and power: Beccaria didn’t think the state had the right to punish by death. No individual had the right to take another’s life, and if the state derived its authority from the people, capital punishment amounted to “a war of the whole nation against one citizen.” You can read the whole thing – along with his exception for treason, which provided the loophole in the Maryland constitution – in his Essay on Crimes and Punishments. (It’s interesting to note how his reasoning on the subject of government power also leads him to side with the gun rights lobby.)

Beccaria’s was very much an Enlightenment project – an attempt to remake corrupt institutions by explaining and justifying the limits of their power. It was Beccaria who first explored the concept of “utility,” later codified in Utilitarianism. He was a major influence on English philosopher and liberal Jeremy Bentham, who gave us the Panopticon. If you’re interested in exploring the eighteenth-century justice system first hand, at least in the English context, check out London Lives. It documents the crime and social policy that Beccaria and Bentham were concerned with.