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Title:Feeling singular: masculinity and desire in the early republic, 1786–1822
Author(s):Bascom, Benjamin D.
Director of Research:Loughran, Trish
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Loughran, Trish
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Foote, Stephanie; Murison, Justine; Somerville, Siobhan
Department / Program:English
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):Early national U.S. literature
American studies
Queer studies
Gender and sexuality studies
Book history and authorship
Abstract:What did it mean to feel masculine in the early United States? Although the norms of early national masculinity oriented men toward the genres of life writing—to build written monuments to themselves—that republican convention also set the stage for others to express troubling affects and orientations that positioned them on the outskirts of normative republican belonging. To trace that dynamic, this dissertation explores the life narratives of four early republic figures who aspired to become important citizens through print publication but failed to attain that status: John Fitch (1743–1798), a struggling working-class mechanic; Jonathan Plummer (1761–1819), an itinerant peddler and preacher; Jeffrey Brace (1742–1827), an emancipated slave and blind Revolutionary War veteran; and William “Amos” Wilson (1762–1821), a reclusive stonecutter known as “the Pennsylvania Hermit.” In distinct but related ways, each of these marginal figures represents a deviation from early American norms, being too prone to transgress public/private boundaries and too attached to social prohibitions. While each aspired to public legibility and social renown, all failed to secure for themselves the disinterested public influence that became a hallmark of republican masculinity, and they dwindled, instead, into cultural neglect. That neglect finds its roots in these writers’ avid expressions of private desires through public mediums. More successful early republican subjects maintained an entirely different relation between public life and interpersonal desire: Benjamin Rush, for example, wanted to have his personal life narrative limited to his family, and Alexander Graydon used his Memoirs to try to “smother that obtrusive thing called self.” But the eccentric and marginalized individuals here under consideration were, each in his own way, figures of excess rather than reluctance: they felt the need to share their written lives and textual bodies with completely uninterested, sometimes hostile reading publics. These republican ‘deviants’ not only have their own interesting stories to tell but, when placed next to their more stable and well-known early national brethren—the Washingtons and Franklins—they expose how personal life writing in the early republic transgressed public and private divisions and troubled individual and collective identifications. Each chapter focuses on how a particular life narrative assembles a larger array of alternative social and intimate relations. Chapter One, “‘[T]his is my desire’: John Fitch and the Gender of Failure,” examines the manuscript of the contested first inventor of the steam boat, John Fitch, who complains of an interpersonal falling-out with his business partner and his partner’s lover in his multi-volume life narrative. Calling himself “one of the most singular men perhaps that has been born this age,” Fitch relies on a rhetoric of individualism that challenged normative conceptions of republican masculinity; in fact, this excessive attachment to declare publicly his own singularity led figures of actual renown to ignore him. Chapter Two, “Jonathan Plummer’s Perambulations in Print: Norms and Normativity in the Early Republic,” turns to the only remaining copy of Plummer’s life narrative (1796–98) to argue that his local notoriety as a “hermaphrodite”—a charge he helps to disseminate by choosing to deny it in print—articulates a masculinity in conflict with the norms he actively tried to achieve. Having spent the early years of his poetic career as the bard to the eccentric “Lord” Timothy Dexter, Plummer attempts later in life to distance himself from the very figures and tropes of non-normative belonging that had once attracted his notice. Chapter Three, “Jeffrey Brace and the Trouble with Belonging in the Early Republic,” focuses on the memoir of a former slave and black Revolutionary War veteran to argue that his desire to embody “the full authority of representative legitimacy,” in Michael Warner’s terms, brought him to identify with the very norms that marginalized him. Although that misidentification could be read as a failed assimilation, I instead show how this understudied anti-slavery narrative subverts masculine norms of republican belonging through insisting on black settlement in North America. The last chapter, “The Queer Hermit: William ‘Amos’ Wilson and the Antisocial Republic,” examines how the story of an eighteenth-century infanticide and execution transformed into a narrative about the executed woman’s brother. William Wilson became a hermit and left behind a life narrative, entitled “The Sweets of Solitude” (1822), that demonstrates changing notions regarding masculinity in the public sphere. Specifically, Wilson’s narrative suppresses the account of female sexual agency to focus on a man’s willful choice to live alone, away from the “unfeeling crowd.”
Issue Date:2017-04-18
Rights Information:Copyright 2017 Benjamin D. Bascom
Date Available in IDEALS:2017-08-10
Date Deposited:2017-05

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