Book Review

Riss, Arthur. Race, Slavery, and Liberalism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 238 pp. $80.00. Arthur Riss's Race, Slavery, and Liberalism challenges many influential contemporary critics of antebellum literature, arguing that they have based their readings on an ahistorical idea of the liberal "person." Riss understands liberalism as "an ensemble of discursive practices constituted and bounded by a particular account of the priority of the 'person.'" Liberalism insists that all rights emerge from the "person" rather than from "some power above and beyond" (11). While liberalism precedes the Declaration of Independence, the question of who qualifies as a liberal "person" has changed dramatically over time. Two hundred years ago, it was broadly assumed that "personhood" only encompassed propertied sane white men. Today an account of the liberal "person," which encompasses all human beings and insists that "contingent" qualities such as race are insignificant to "personhood," has become so hegemonic that critics have forgotten that it was constructed (7). Therefore, when liberal antebellum thinkers have understood differences like race as fundamental rather than "contingent" to identity, critics have seen them both as violating the tenets of liberalism and as making a false claim about human nature. Riss argues that reading contemporary definitions of the "person" into antebellum liberalism is both wrong, because it assumes that our current view of "personhood" is true in some absolute way, and unproductive, because it prevents critics from recognizing the cultural labor that nineteenthcentury thinkers put into constructing the "person." Riss applies his ideas to five popular topics in antebellum literary criticism: Harriet Beecher Stowe's views of race, the significance of Little Eva's distribution of locks of her hair on her death-bed, Hester Prynne's reattachment of the letter "A" to her chest, the nature of Hawthorne's Donatello, and Frederick Douglass's fight with slave-breaker Edward Covey. He explores both how each participates in the work of defining "personhood" and how critics have mistaken this work. Two chapters, "A is For Anything: US Liberalism and the Making of The Scarlet Leuer" and "The Art of Discrimination: The Marble Faun,
Nathaniel Hawthorne Review'ii, no. 1 (Spring 2007)




'Chiefly about War Matters' and the Aesthetics of Anti-Black Racism," are devoted to Hawthorne. "A is for Anything" is much more a critique of Sacvan Bercovitch's The Office o/The Scarlet Letter than it is of The Scarlet Letter itself Riss does not offer his own reading of the "A." Instead, he shows that readings by Bercovitch and others have approached the topic with the assumption that "surface markers of identity are contingent," and have wrongly imagined Hawthorne as sharing this assumption, rather than exploring how Hawthorne's text participated in an ongoing discussion about whether surface markers were in fact contingent (133). The next chapter reveals Riss's own understanding of Hawthorne's position on "surface markers of identity" and how it informed his views of black "personhood." While some have seen The Marble Faun as exemplifying Hawthorne's refusal to engage in politics, Riss claims that it engaged deliberately in the critical battle over whether liberal "personhood" ought to include slaves. Riss first demonstrates that "aesthetic" claims were central to antebellum arguments excluding black men from personhood: racists maintained that visible differences between the races and Blacks' inherent "ugliness" reflected the unbridgeable chasm between the races and whites' innate superiority in qualities like intelligence and morality. In Riss's account, Hawthorne was anxious that external appearance, which is changeable, could not be a reliable marker of race, and sought a more "secure foundation" for excluding the "Negro" from personhood (149). Riss reads The Marble Faun as fundamentally about the threat that aestheticism poses to individuality. Hawthorne warns that participation in the abstractions of the aesthetic requires self-abnegation and blindness to the particularity of one's situation and therefore undermines individuality (156). Simultaneously, Riss claims that Donatello, "a purely aesthetic creature, who incarnates the epistemological uncertainty of the romance" is also a figure for the black man (136). Two years after the publication of The Marble Faun, in "Chiefly about War Matters," Hawthorne would describe freedmen crossing from South to North as "fauns" (136). He understood freedmen as embodying the perils of the aesthetic because their current state was so distinct from the status to which they laid claim. To imagine "Negro 'manhood'" was "to think beyond the Negro's obvious lack of education, civilization and preparation



for life in the North . . . to forget the literal, existing world and enter the ethically perilous and essentially foreign realm of the Romance" (160). If many racist thinkers of the day excluded "negroes" from the category of "person" because their racial characteristics marked them as permanently distinct from whites, Hawthorne, according to Riss, excludes them from personhood because he saw their "embodiment" as dangerously unstable (160-62). One weakness of his reading of The Marble Faun is that Riss ignores nativism. Perhaps it is too obvious to mention that, while Donatello is arguably Black, he is definitely Italian. Yet because the antebellum period had neither our tidy distinction between "racial" and "ethnic" categories, nor that between "biological" and "cultural" traits, it is problematic to analyze how the book configures race entirely apart from the anti-Catholicism that is so manifest in it. Much of Hawthorne's argument about the dangerous allure of the aesthetic, for instance, was pure nativist rhetoric' Riss made an unfortunate choice in his use of the term "person" throughout the text rather than the dominant nineteenth-century term "man." Apparently, he feared that using the now-jarring term "man" when discussing many of his antebellum sources and "person" when discussing contemporary texts would unnecessarily complicate his discussion of what is in essence a continuous concept. In contrast, he chooses to use the nineteenth-century term "Negro," hoping that "the tension between the transcendence (and thus innocence) of the term 'person' and the clear historicity (and thus distortion) suggested by the term 'Negro' will 'animate' his argument about the produced nature of 'personhood'" (187). It is surprising that Riss, who is committed to understanding the historical specificity of the term "person," should have so casually (he explains the significance of the substitution only briefly) replaced a word so heavily freighted with the exclusion of women from liberal "personhood" with a term much more amenable to gender-inclusiveness rather than using the term as a way to open up connections between exclusions based on race and those based on sex. Even if his readings are uneven, Riss succeeds in his efforts to ground the historical specificity of the "person" in a more accurate understanding of nineteenth-century American culture. At the same time, he has done impressive work placing his readings of Stowe, Hawthorne, and



Douglass into the context of political and scientific writings of their day, such as slavery apologetics and ethnology. Probably the most fascinating example of this is his argument that hair served as a racial marker in Little Eva's deathbed scene. Riss draws from the little-known antebellum field of "trichology" (the study of hair) to show that many considered hair as a reliable physical sign of race even when skin color deceived (97-106). In exploring the problems caused by the reification of contemporary notions of "personhood," this book invites scholars to resist the temptation to project their own understandings and interests onto the antebellum world, reminding them of its essential difference. It is an exciting and bold, if imperfect, rethinking of the field, and deserves serious attention. Elaine Parsons Duquesne University

^ Jenny Franchot, Roads to Rome: The Antebellum Protestant Encounter with Catholicism (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994), 12.