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Against Self-Reliance

Against Self-Reliance: The Arts of Dependence in the Early United States

William Huntting Howell
Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 344
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  • Book Info
    Against Self-Reliance
    Book Description:

    Individualism is arguably the most vital tenet of American national identity: American cultural heroes tend to be mavericks and nonconformists, and independence is the fulcrum of the American origin story. But in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a number of American artists, writers, and educational philosophers cast imitation and emulation as central to the linked projects of imagining the self and consolidating the nation. Tracing continuities between literature, material culture, and pedagogical theory, William Huntting Howell uncovers an America that celebrated the virtues of humility, contingency, and connection to a complex whole over ambition and distinction.

    Against Self-Reliancerevalues and rethinks what it meant to be repetitive, derivative or pointedly generic in the early republic and beyond. Howell draws on such varied sources as Benjamin Franklin's programs for moral reform, Phillis Wheatley's devotional poetry, David Rittenhouse's coins and astronomical machines, Benjamin Rush's psychological and political theory, Susanna Rowson's schoolbooks, and the novels of Charles Brockden Brown and Herman Melville to tease out patterns of dependence in early America. With its incisive critique of America's storied heroic individualism,Against Self-Relianceargues that the arts of dependence wereand arecritical to the project of American independence.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-9116-2
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[vi])
  3. INTRODUCTION: Imitation Is Suicide
    (pp. 1-16)

    In the summer of 2007, a piece of graffiti appeared on the wall of a bathroom in the Earwax Café, near the intersection of Milwaukee and Damen Avenues on Chicago’s northwest side. With the broad strokes of a blue paint marker, an artist identifying him-or herself as “Stel/Sim” had written “Imitation is Suicide.” Though not the most common graffiti—I didn’t see any other iterations around the neighborhood that day, and I haven’t seen any since—it nevertheless distills one of the organizing principles of contemporary U.S. culture: imitation is an existential threat.

    A 2008 essay inPsychology Today—one...


    • CHAPTER 1 Imitatio Franklin, or the American Example
      (pp. 19-44)

      I begin with an epigraph from the early twentieth century because I mean to make an initial point about reception: since the first partial publication of the text that would come to be known as Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography (in France, in French, in 1791), it has served as a touchstone for numberless studies of the “American Character.”¹ For more than 200 years, and for better and for worse, theAutobiography’s expressions of individualist, rationalist, practical, secular, and capitalist virtues—especially when taken alongside the maxims that Franklin compiled into the preface to PoorRichard’s Almanac for 1757(subsequently altered and...

    • CHAPTER 2 Phillis Wheatley’s Dependent Harmonies
      (pp. 46-82)

      On the eve of an unappealing business trip to Plymouth, Massachusetts, in the fall of 1764, John Adams paused to write a letter to his future wife, Abigail Smith. Anticipating the company of “bauling Lawyers, drunken Squires, and impertinent and stingy Clients,” Adams imagines himself transforming such disagreeable interactions into a flirtatious moral outrage. He reserves the height of his distaste for a “Gentleman” acquaintance who does impersonations of “Dutchmen and Negroes”: “I have heard that Imitators, tho they imitate well, Master Pieces in elegant and valuable Arts, are a servile Cattle. And that Mimicks are the lowest Species of...


    • CHAPTER 3 Reproducing David Rittenhouse
      (pp. 85-115)

      At the tail end of the “Productions Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral” Query of hisNotes on the State of Virginia,not long before he dismisses Phillis Wheatley’s verse out of hand, Thomas Jefferson turns his attention to the Abbé Raynal’s charge against the “race of whites” in the New World. Without pausing to translate, he quotes Raynal’s elaboration inHistoire philosophique des deux Indes(1770) of the Comte du Buffon’s hypothesis that the animals (including the native people) of the Americas are inferior to those of Europe: “ ‘on doit etre etonné (he says) que l’Amerique n’ait pas encore produit...

    • CHAPTER 4 The Republican Girl and the Spirit of Emulation
      (pp. 116-156)

      In the summer of 1787, just a few blocks away from the Grand Federal Convention and its intensifying arguments about the tenor and purpose of a U.S. Constitution, Benjamin Rush delivered a commencement address to the newly organized Young Ladies’ Academy of Philadelphia. The speech, entitled “Thoughts on Female Education Accommodated to the Present State of Society, Manners, and Government in the United States of America,” presents both an incipient nationalism and an elegant summary of what we have come to understand as the essence of post-Revolutionary female pedagogy; it serves as a gendered mirror image of the eulogy for...


    • CHAPTER 5 The Horrors of the Republican Machine
      (pp. 159-191)

      The first two parts of this book have analyzed various arts of dependence lauded for their beneficial effects: Franklin’s designs for the perpetual incarnation of Jesus and Socrates, Wheatley’s empowerment through the submissive propagation of form, the “Americanizing” poetics of scientific reproduction in Rittenhouse and Rush, and the sympathetic politics of the needle and the grammar book each imagine virtuous copying as the ethical bedrock of the polity. As pretty as it was to imagine a universalizing republican orthodoxy born of sympathy, mutual dependence, and material discipline, though, there were always dissenters and critics—social energies that resisted harmonic containment,...

    • CHAPTER 6 The Copyist Moby-Dick
      (pp. 192-216)

      In December of 1851,Harper’s Monthly Magazinebegan its section of “Literary Notices” with an anonymous, positive review of a book written by one of its own contributors. “A new work by Herman Melville, entitledMoby-Dick; or The Whale,has just been issued by Harper and Brothers, which, in point of richness and variety of incident, originality of conception, and splendor of description, surpasses any of the former productions of this highly successful author.”¹ At roughly the same time,The International Magazine of Literature, Art, and Science—a rival ofHarper’sin New York’s robust market for literary periodicals—published...

  7. NOTES
    (pp. 217-266)
    (pp. 267-294)
  9. INDEX
    (pp. 295-302)
    (pp. 303-305)