Apocalyptic incarnations: The aesthetics of fear and catastrophe in the nineteenth-century literary imagination
Pelletier, Kevin D.
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Whether it appears in the fire and brimstone rhetoric of Jonathan Edwards' sermons, the doomsday paranoia of the Nuclear Age, or the season-to-season calamities of television's Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the apocalypse has endured in the American popular imagination. Indeed, it is one of America's foundational conceptual categories, and ever since the Puritans arrived in New England, American writers have employed it as the central organizing concept of their thinking. Not simply the event that marks the glorious fulfillment of providential history, the apocalypse is instead a much more elastic category that writers employ to unfold an alternative way of reading "America," not as a story of millennial progress and hope, but as a narrative filled with fears and fantasies of a catastrophic end. This study specifically attends to the nineteenth century and asks why, at a time when most Americans believe they are completing the covenantal mission that was inaugurated in New England and that now promises to be a nationwide accomplishment, are so many writers at the same moment imagining disaster on such a grand scale? I demonstrate how both canonical and non-canonical authors employ the category of the apocalypse as a structuring concept for various political and social crises of the time. I consider, for instance, the way in which Nathaniel Hawthorne envisions an apocalypse that indexes the concerns he and others feel over changes in speed and movement that occur with technological innovation. Hawthorne is part of a culture that is beginning to think about the merits of improvements in industry, particularly the development of the train, the telegraph, and steamship. Hawthorne participates in this debate by asserting that any abrupt transformations in movement can have apocalyptic consequences. Alongside deep misgivings about mechanization, antebellum America is also grappling with mounting sectionalist tensions over slavery, and much of this project is dedicated to a consideration of slavery, but along radically different vectors. I explore Uncle Tom's Cabin, specifically the way in which Stowe uses the fear of God's impending retribution as a way to motivate Americans to oppose slavery. Although compassion and sympathetic love are often thought by critics to form the sole affective registers of Uncle Tom's Cabin, love actually holds a secondary place to the power of fear, especially fear of the apocalypse. In addition, I explore the literary production of black manhood in David Walker's Appeal, the "confessions" of Nat Turner, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Dred, and Martin Delany's Blake. These authors attempt to undo the legacy of racist representation that has excluded black men from the normative category of "ideal manhood." In order to accomplish this task, each of these authors represents the apocalypse, not simply as a cataclysmic event, but as a force that can be incarnated in black men. I conclude with a reading of Frances Harper's post-Reconstruction novel Iola Leroy that demonstrates how Harper is far more dubious than many progressive black thinkers who were writing at the same time that the black community can reunite itself after the war and establish a black modernity. The novel imagines a future for black Americans that is always in danger; it theorizes this future apocalyptically. This is not the Biblical apocalypse; rather, the apocalypses of Iola Leroy inhere in those racist elements that threaten to undo the black community the way the Civil War threatened to undo the nation, elements that the war failed to purge from the national landscape. Harper revises, in other words, conventional, Puritanical models of apocalyptic history in order to bring this structure to bear on the historical moment that these newly freed black citizens are living in.