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The Oracle and the Curse

The Oracle and the Curse

Caleb Smith
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Harvard University Press
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  • Book Info
    The Oracle and the Curse
    Book Description:

    Caleb Smith explores the confessions, trial reports, maledictions, and martyr narratives that juxtaposed law and conscience in antebellum America's court of public opinion and shows how writers portrayed struggles for justice as clashes between human law and higher authority, giving voice to a moral protest that transformed American literature.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-07584-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Law, Political Science, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. Introduction: The Poetics of Justice
    (pp. 1-36)

    In the fall of 1859, the abolitionist John Brown was captured and tried in Virginia. Badly wounded in the fighting with Robert E. Lee’s troops at Harper’s Ferry, he lay on a pallet in the courtroom, charged with high crimes—conspiracy, murder, treason. When the jury found him guilty, he took the occasion to address the court and the assembled public. “Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life, for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children, and with the blood of millions in this...

  5. CHAPTER 1 Oracles of Law
    (pp. 37-63)

    The oracle, the curse, and the estrangement of literature from law—no book knits these three stories together more tightly than Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1851 romance,The House of the Seven Gables.¹ Hawthorne begins his chronicle of the Pyncheon house at the primal scene of colonial injustice, the Salem witch panic of 1692. The corrupt, theocratic magistrates who are putting an accused wizard to death stand “in the inner circle roundabout the gallows, loudest to applaud the work of blood” (7). The condemned Matthew Maule, walking “the martyr’s path,” climbs the scaffold and curses his most eager persecutor, an eminent judge,...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Oracles of God
    (pp. 64-95)

    “If most of the law and lawyers were concerned with the civil dealings which propertied men had with one another,” Douglas Hay writes in a classic essay on eighteenth-century English legal history, “most men, the unpropertied labouring poor, met the law as criminal sanction: the threat or the reality of whipping, transportation and hanging.”¹ The ongoing debate over the moral and political foundations of law was carried out in a treatise literature designed for polite circles of educated readers. Blackstone’s lectures were delivered at Oxford, and the four bound volumes of theCommentariesfound their way into the libraries of...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Blasphemy “At the Court of Hell”
    (pp. 96-127)

    The anonymous author of an 1815 “Essay on Profanity” listened to his neighbors’ voices with a mixture of fascination and repulsion. The devil seemed to be devising ever-craftier, ever-nastier ways to possess the human tongue. “Yes, with what malignity does the swearer pursue the name or the character of him whom he feels to be his enemy. He culls new modes of blasphemous speech, not content with the old and common ones, because they do not give sufficient sway to the devil within him. Every hour he strives to use a degree higher in the scale of blasphemy—that scale...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Evil Speaking, “A Bridle for the Unbridled Tongue”
    (pp. 128-150)

    Who speaks the curse, and who responds? In Hawthorne’sThe House of the Seven Gablesthe speaker is a laborer, resentful of the Pyncheons’ wealth and privilege. The listener, the one bewitched, is the innocent maiden Alice. This choreography of intimate possession departed from Hawthorne’s earlier version of the story. In “Alice Doane’s Appeal,” the heroine’s occult cry for justice had summoned the “multitude” of the damned. In the 1835 tale, perhaps, Hawthorne was interested not only in women’s exposure to seduction but also in their public exercise of nonrational persuasion. Here, again, “Alice Doane’s Appeal” touched on the antiblasphemy...

  9. CHAPTER 5 The Curse of Slavery
    (pp. 151-175)

    Stowe’s tendency to recast public address as private influence inUncle Tom’s Cabinmight be measured against the militant religious and political speech that shakes the South in another antislavery novel from the same period. This book does not shy away from the intensities of public exhortation. The African American lay preacher who is martyred in its pages does not talk, as Uncle Tom does, in the idiom of humble entreaty. He is a lonely fanatic, haunting the swamps—“there was no recurrence of every-day and prosaic ideas to check the current of enthusiasm”—and he rants with an apocalyptic...

  10. CHAPTER 6 Words of Fire
    (pp. 176-206)

    In the fall of 1859, the memory of Nat Turner’s rebellion rose like a specter in the public sphere. Many readers returned to theConfessions,interpreting it against the grain of Thomas Ruffin Gray’s prefatory instructions and Justice Jeremiah Cobb’s oracular death sentence. Although most still repudiated Turner’s violent means, some were beginning to see him as something other than a deluded enthusiast. When New York’sAnglo-African Magazinerepublished the text of his confession in December, the editors remarked that the Southampton insurrectionist had exemplified “the mode in which the slave seeks freedom for his fellows.” The struggle, theAnglo-African...

  11. Epilogue: The Curse at Sea
    (pp. 207-216)

    By the timeThe Anglo-Africanpublished its review of Harriet Jacobs’sIncidentsand the last chapters of Martin Delany’sBlakein 1861, John Brown’s prophecy of a bloody reckoning on a national scale seemed inexorably to be coming true. With the outbreak of the Civil War, Delany turned his efforts from the prospect of a new nation elsewhere to the future of the republic, enlisting in the Union army and recruiting others to the cause. He had circled back, in a sense, from the Caribbean and African scenes ofBlake’sPart 2 to the U.S. context that dominates Part 1....

  12. Notes
    (pp. 217-254)
  13. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 255-256)
  14. Index
    (pp. 257-265)