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Master Plots: Race and the Founding of an American Literature, 1787-1845.

Master Plots: Race and the Founding of an American Literature, 1787-1845.
By Jared Gardner. Baltimore, MD, and London: Johns Hopkins University Press.
1998. xvii+238 pp. [pound]33.

'Master Plots is an examination of the intersection of racial and national discourses in the "founding" of a national literature in the United States, a national narrative that aimed to secure to white Americans an identity that was unique (not European) but not alien (not black or Indian)' (p. xi). These opening words of Jared Gardner's preface describe his intentions exactly. To this end he focuses upon texts by five writers, four of them white (Royall Tyler, Charles Brockden Brown, James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe), and the fifth, Frederick Douglass, black and of necessity faced with an altogether different challenge.

As so often with any consideration of early, post-colonial American writing, the primary question shadowing the whole discussion is that posed by Crevecoeur in 1782: 'What is an American?'. Clearly this American was not British, nor European generally, and his nascent literature, in principle if hardly for some time in practice, would thus be not English. But was he just any and every inhabitant of the continentally expanding United States, underlying whose independent nationhood was that first of self-evident truths declared by the slaveholder, Thomas Jefferson, that 'all men are created equal'? Was he the imported African slave, or the indigenous Indian 'savage', or even the recalcitrant and potentially seditious 'alien'? Clearly he was not, thought Virginian Democratic-Republican and New England conservative Federalist alike, though for unlike reasons. So in his introductory chapter, 'The History of White Negroes', Gardner charts the ways in which the founding fathers and their sons sought to define a secure American identity, of self and nation, that would also permit or indeed justify both slavery and dispossession. Such ways might take the quasi-anthropological form of the 'polygenism, the belief that the races were created separately' (p. 18), which Jefferson came close to espousing, whereby his resounding declaration might in effect be modified to assert only that 'all men of the same race are created equal', but not those of a separate, inferior race. Or they might take the political form of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, aimed by the Federalist majority in Congress at all those who, in the words of 'The Aliens: A Patriotic Poem', 'against the common weal conspire' (p. 60) and thus prove themselves unworthy of owning an American self.

It was in the immediate context of these Acts that Tyler's The Algerine Captive (1797) and Brown's Edgar Huntly (1799) were composed. Each author was at the time of this writing aligned with the Federalists, and Gardner reads both texts as being purposefully political. Tyler registers his 'commitment to defining and defending one of the most powerful inventions of the modern age, the American self' (p. 38), in a setting where the forces hostile to that self are Algerian pirates, who are thus both African and savage, and Europeans conniving at their piracy. In Edgar Huntly the alien, here specifically an Irish alien, and the Indian are virtually elided, so that 'collapsing Indian and alien together and clearing both from the land', Brown may ensure that 'a unique national identity is born' (p. 80).

Twenty years and more later, in The Pioneers and The Prairie, Cooper effectively if mournfully, he would have it appear, writes the Indian out of United States history and, subscribing to an hierarchic order, at the conclusion of the latter novel returns the upstart Ishmael Bush 'to his rightful place on the lower rungs of society' (p. 109), a society of orderly, white Americans. Far further down the purifying line, for the notoriously racist Poe, with his vision of apocalyptic race war, racial difference is absolute and original, so that the burden of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, as the final 'chasm threw itself open to receive us', is that 'to pursue the fantasy of a world without racial difference is to cease to exist' (p. 159).

Having taken early American literature to this point of universal obliteration, Gardner allows the last noble word and redeeming mission to Douglass, whose 'writing was devoted to proving that the signs of racial difference were derived of men, not of God or even nature' (p. 181), and who saw himself as one who wrote 'for the future of a nation' (p. 182), a nation truly predicated upon the belief that essentially 'all men are created equal'. Trenchant in his readings of individual texts, possessed of a broad historical sweep, and intimate with pertinent, contemporary criticism and scholarship, Gardner has given students of American literature and culture a work that in its overall argument is provoking, revealing, and convincing.
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Author:Butterfield, R. W.
Publication:Yearbook of English Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2001
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