Revolutionary Claims: Transatlantic Agency in the Fictions of Godwin, Brown, and Irving Open Access

Sellountos, Jessica Demetra (2012)

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"Revolutionary Claims: Transatlantic Agency in the Fictions of Godwin, Brown, and

While the revolutions in America and France began with different goals and ended with
different results, the people of the eighteenth century who felt their influence in Britain
and America shared a common experience: a loss of social tradition and order caused or
greatly accelerated by the experience of political and social upheaval. Anglophone
literatures of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century responded to this crisis in
works reflecting on the shift from monarchy to democracy in which subjects found
themselves without a king, lord, or sovereign. I argue that William Godwin's Caleb
offers a model for early American Gothic, captivity narratives of Charles
Brockden Brown and Washington Irving as they stage the emergence of an uncertain,
revolutionary subject suspended between feudal and democratic orders. But Godwin is
not merely an influence on Brown and Irving: rather the revolutionary subject at stake in
their work is necessarily transatlantic--not engendered by any particular nation per se but
rather by the phenomenon of revolution experienced as a suspended event occurring
across continents in the eighteenth century.

Godwin, Brown and Irving use the motifs of curiosity, indecision, and paralyzing
uncertainty to allegorize the emergence of this revolutionary subjectivity but also to show
its failure to found itself as an authoritative agency with a claim to direct representation.
As a number of critics have shown, revolution creates a paradox by founding the very
conditions that are necessary to give it political legitimacy. The problem for the subject of
democracy then, as these transatlantic authors show, becomes the need to receive
legitimacy as agents from the very sovereigns they had severed themselves from. The
protagonists in these texts remain uncertain, as they repeatedly encounter the aporetic
impossibility of their revolutionary claim and become caught in the political and moral
dilemmas of saving or eradicating the monarchs who have ruled over them.

Godwin, Brown and Irving present this uncertainty as a repeated interruption disturbing
their protagonists' testimonies of tyranny and disrupting their ability to control their
revolutionary impulses for violence and compulsive self-analysis. These interruptions
appear in the literary texts as ellipses, anachronisms and scenes of suspended
consciousness; they paralyze the construction of a coherent, reliable narrative and
narrator. Ultimately, the protagonists of these narratives simultaneously construct and
deconstruct their subjectivities by their unsuccessful attempts to claim autonomy through
the act of narrative. Revolutionary subjectivity is never completely attainable, and thus
becomes the basis for a larger, transnational allegory questioning whether national
narratives and national identities are themselves completely attainable.

Table of Contents



Revolutionary Claims: Transatlantic Agency in the Fictions of Godwin, Brown, and
Irving 1

A Transatlantic and Transnational Approach: Framing the Project Within American
Studies and Comparative Literature 2

Why These Authors, Why These Texts and Why Now? 11

Subjectivity as Event, Revolution as Event: the Problem of the Founding Act,

Defining the Revolutionary Event, and Understanding its Connection to
Subjectivity 17

Godwin and the Model of Revolutionary Agency 30

Charles Brockden Brown: Deconstructing Revolutionary Subjectivity 34

Washington Irving: Re-staging Ruptures in the National Consciousness 38

Chapter 1

Textual Prefaces and Intertextual Uncertainties 45

The Origin of (Uncertain) Agency: Subjectivity and the Revolutionary Turn 50

Curious Beginnings, Novel Turns 62

Uncertain Subjectivity: Caleb and the Feudal Contract 74

A History of Violence: Doubles and the Failure of a Plebeian Subject 82

Broken Promises: The Claim to Rights 100

Truth on Trial: a Witness to the Claim and a Failure to Declare 106

Paranoid (Undecidable) Subjects, Nervous (Unreliable) Narratives 121

Uncertain Subjects, Uncertain Endings 133

The End is the Beginning of a Revolution(ary) Tale 138

Chapter 2

A Godwinian Inheritance 143

Divided Subjects: Edgar and Clithero 148

Curiosity and Uncertainty: The Legacy of a Godwinian Crisis 165

Godwinian Dilemmas and the Search for a Cause 174

Caught in a Dream: Suspended Subjects 186

Talking Subjects, Missing Words; Violent Events, Missing Subjects 201

Traumatic Returns 224

Chapter 3

National Truths and Legitimate Fictions 231

Colliding Narrative Forces: Truth Against Fiction and a Narrator's Collapse 241

Sleeping through the Revolution: Inhuman Revolutionary Agency and Textual

Evidence 252

Between Colonial and Postcolonial Identities: Suspended Certainty in Rip 260

State of Infantia: The Absence of an Other and the Exclusion of Subjectivity 272

Traumatic Subjectivity: Bearing Witness to Revolution as a Traumatic Event 280

Works Cited 295

Notes 307


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