Researching Literature Through Multiple Lenses:
A Theory of National Manhood
When Dana Nelson was a senior in high school, her parents made her a deal. They offered to pay for her wedding, when the time came, or pay half her tuition for the first two years of college. For Nelson, who had loved reading and what it brought to her life for as long as she could remember, this was an easy choice.
"I took the tuition for the first two years of college," says Nelson, an associate professor of English at the University of Kentucky. And though she had already developed a love of literature through the "dozens and dozens" of novels she'd read, Nelson went to Indiana University of Pennsylvania as a pre-law political science major.
"My parents were determined that college not be a waste of money. They were adamant that I major in something practical," she says. "The problem was, I hated the only political science class I was taking."
But Nelson loved her one writing class, which was focused on the theme of alienation in society, and her professor-a "very mentorly figure"-suggested she should consider becoming a literature major. She did just that, and four years later graduated with a B.A. in English from IU.
"I think of words as rich and messy with social usage."
From that point, her vita outlines the further trajectory of her interest and immersion in literary scholarship and research. An M.A. (1987) and a Ph.D. (1989) in English from Michigan State University. Mellon Research Fellowship. On the editorial board of two prestigious literary journals-Early American Literature and American Literature (where she currently is serving as a guest co-editor). Eighteen articles published in literary journals. And two books-The Word in Black and White: Reading 'Race' in American Literature, 1638-1867 (Oxford University Press) and National Manhood: Capitalist Citizenship and the Imagined Fraternity of White Men (Duke University Press).
In addition, Nelson has written introductions to four texts by women writers in the 19th century, novels that she felt should be reprinted and reexamined. The most recent of these is Lydia Maria Child's Romance of the Republic (1867), republished in 1997 by the University Press of Kentucky.
Approaches to Literary Criticism
As in any academic discipline, the researcher or scholar brings a framework or system of thought to the body of work at hand in order to more fully understand and explain it. In the early years of Nelson's serious study of literature, the "New Critical" approach was a dominant methodology used by many literary scholars. New Criticism, a term that is applied to the criticism written by John Crowe Ransom, Allan Tate, R.P. Blackmur, Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks in the 1930s, concentrates on a work of literature as an object in itself and examines it through a process of close analysis. Followers of this movement believe that the value of a work of art is strictly a function of its inner qualities and cannot be evaluated in terms of external influences.
"I was trained by New Critics to read literary texts as discrete, artistically coherent entities, but then in graduate school I found myself in the midst of the theory explosion," says Nelson, who became intrigued by the fact that various new literary theories extended analysis beyond the work of art itself. "What really excited me about theory was the possibility that you could use literary criticism to understand cultural, social and political issues."
That initial spark of possibility led Nelson to a wide-ranging study of various approaches to the literary text: post-colonial theory, gender theory, post-structuralist theory, and Russian formalism. The writings of one Russian formalist, Mikhail Bakhtin, particularly attracted Nelson.
"I rely on Bakhtin's linguistic model about the way language works, that words are never used in a strict dictionary sense, that no two people use a word in precisely the same way. Instead, I think of words as rich and messy with social usage." In her study of literary texts now, Nelson extends this theory of "the word"-its slippery and unique niche in each context-to an entire literary work. "Words are like magnets that attract all sorts of metal shavings to them," she says.
Developing a Wider Literary Context
Nelson has written extensively about early American literature, and this period continues to fascinate her. And to better understand the literature of this era, she has spent "just an enormous amount of time" reading non-literary works from colonial times to the mid-19th century.
"We're all shaped by what happens to us in society, what happens to us politically. What writers do is shape stories around these various experiences, so in order to better understand these stories I'm interested in extensively researching this period," says Nelson.
One book that became useful to Nelson in her literary analysis and interpretation is Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa, published around 1800 by an explorer named Mungo Park. This book became the key that allowed Nelson to unlock a previously elusive passage in Herman Melville's short novel Benito Cereno.
The novel is about a Massachusetts ship captain named Amasa Delano who boards a Spanish slave ship, the San Dominick, because the vessel isn't showing its colors. The ship's captain, Cereno, indicates that there is some kind of trouble but refuses to specify what that trouble is. And he continues to behave oddly with Delano rather than welcoming his company, which leads Delano to think the Spanish captain might be planning to take over his ship. In fact, the slaves aboard the ship have taken control, a situation that Delano doesn't discover. Unable to puzzle out the nervous and unfriendly "fellow captain," Delano remains uncomfortable for the duration of his stay on board. Tremendously ill at ease, Delano looks over to see a naked African woman playing with her baby and comments on the tenderness and love of "naked nature."
"Then Delano goes off into this anthropological rumination about African women being fierce as leopardesses and tender as doves, and thinks these may be just the type of women that Mungo Park saw on his travels," adds Nelson. "I used to get very hung up at this seemingly minor moment in the story-What did it mean? Why did Melville include this?
The narrator then observes, "these natural sights somehow insensibly deepened [Delano's] confidence and ease."
"Having recently read about Mungo Park, a kind of icon of British hyper-imperial masculinity in the 19th century, helped me make a useful new connection," Nelson says, "one that coalesced with a number of other similar observations I've made since then in early American literature."
Delano enjoys looking at the African woman and her child, Nelson explains, because by contrast it fills out and confirms his whiteness and his manhood. Delano then finds a "sociable" moment, an imagined connection, with Mungo Park because he is desperately seeking one with Cereno and not getting it. "Among other things, this story delineates a crisis in the fraternity of white manhood," Nelson says.
Making this connection was, for her, what scientists who make a breakthrough in the lab sometimes call an "Ah ha!" experience. "This story just opened up for me in a new way," Nelson says. "I was so happy, I glowed for weeks."
Nelson underscores the importance of Delano's connection to Mungo Park as an imaginary alliance. In her reading of various novels and short stories from this period of American literature, she has found that white fraternity works only with dead or absent men. "Economic structures encourage competition to the point that fraternal satisfaction only comes in imagined moments, not real ones," Nelson says. "How close can you feel to someone who is struggling against you for economic gain? So this turns out be an identity that promises a lot but very seldom delivers." Nelson hopes that her book National Manhood, among other things, will help to raise "compassionately formulated questions" for white men.
The Imagined Fraternity of White Men
Using as literary touchstones Melville's Benito Cereno, Child's novel A Romance of the Republic, and Edgar Allan Poe's short story "Some Words with a Mummy," Nelson spent seven years writing National Manhood: Capitalist Citizenship and the Imagined Fraternity of White Men. A glance at the bibliography of National Manhood underscores the wide-ranging multidisciplinary connections Nelson uncovered as she delineated what she terms "national manhood." The 25-page bibliography in this book includes works that focus on biology, economics, anthropology, race, culture, gender, politics, religion, psychology, geology, evolution, medicine, feminism, the presidency, adolescence, colonialization, sex, and diet.
Dana Nelson hopes that her book National Manhood will help raise "compassionately formulated questions" for white men.
"This book describes the formulation of something I'm calling national manhood, an ideology that has worked powerfully since Constitutional times to link fraternal white manhood to civic identity," she says. Nelson goes on to explain that she was specifically trying to understand, through her extensive research, how white men's affiliations with local identities shifted in order to guarantee national unity.
"In the early United States, people didn't talk about themselves as white men," she says. "They talked about themselves as German bankers or Lutheran farmers or British merchants-identifying themselves in very local, concrete ways. But with the quickly evolving 'universalization' of white manhood suffrage-the right to vote-the concept of 'white' men cut across class divides and became a new national force."
Nelson explains that in "unpacking the concept" of the nationalization of white men, she isn't talking about anybody in particular. "Anybody who thinks he or she is white should hold their hand up against a white wall and see if it matches. What I'm talking about is whiteness as a metaphor. It's a way of organizing groups of people into a single sensation of identity," she says. "I'm not concerned with vilifying particular white men, but I am exploring how and under what conditions 'white' manhood came to stand for nation, how it came to be idealized as a representative identity in the United States."
Nelson adds that although she isn't castigating anyone in particular, the institution of white men and its correspondence with citizenship in the early history of our country are to blame for some elitist and deplorable actions. "White men, for example, collaborated for decades to take the vote away from free black men," Nelson says, citing evidence from a book titled Market Revolution by Charles Sellers. "Free blacks could vote even in many Southern states until the mid 1830s, when their disenfranchisement finally became complete." Nelson also mentions the denial of citizenship to women in the early United States. "Actually, there were a couple of states in the colonial period where women could vote or were identified as citizens. In Virginia women were citizens. In New Jersey women could vote. When the Constitution went into effect, women lost these rights."
"Few studies combine the historical breadth and theoretical sophistication of National Manhood," says Priscilla Ward, a history professor at the University of Washington, "and none puts together the topics of gender and nation, whiteness and masculinity with the efficacy of this work."
Nelson hopes readers of her book will take away "a lot of questions for themselves" about what it means to be a citizen of the United States and about the ways in which civic identity has continued to be associated with whiteness.
The Story's the Thing
With her intense interest in history, politics, societal mores and gender issues, why does Nelson "need" literature in order to try to answer the questions that intrigue her?
"I am totally driven by story. I'm fascinated with the way people learn to internalize concepts in ways that allow them to make meaning in their lives, and literature is one of the best ways to get at those kinds of structures for me, both in terms of character development and of the various dialogues that emanate from a work of literature," she says. By "dialogues," Nelson means not only the literary dialogues between narrator and reader and author and reader, but also implied dialogues between the author and various political and social institutions of the time.
"We live our lives through stories and use storytelling to construct our sense of self," she says. "Stories help us solidify our human ties to one another. Why do you have these time-honored stories when your family gets together? You retell these stories to magically recreate the family bond. It's a ritual." And beyond the personal or familial, stories seem to generate, almost magnetically, an interest in other people's lives.
"It's just fun to listen to other people's stories-that's why there are all these bar sneaks who sit at their table with their ears extended," she says. "We're interested in how other people's lives brush up against our lives, and literature is a place to navigate all those desires."
One of the best reasons to read novels, to read widely, she adds, is to get ideas about living our own lives. "Literature isn't only entertainment. I think it's absolutely fundamental in enriching our lives."
The Humanist and the Scientist
Both the literary critic and the scientist are involved in research that, if all goes well, leads to new discoveries. The scientific process involves experimentation, replication of results, analysis of cause and effect, and documentation. How is this similar to, and different from, what the literary scholar does?
"I'm obviously concerned with factual correctness in my work," Nelson says, "and I share with the scientist a concern for rigor and replicability," adding that both the humanist and the scientist share a willingness to do a lot of "plain hard work" and to risk that this time spent becomes a worthwhile investment. But the scientist, she points out, is trying to pin down material facts and to document phenomena. Humanists are trying to get at something which is slipperier in trying to understand the history and culture of a certain time.
"More often what we do is what I'd call carefully reasoned and substantiated opinion," she says. "But I did a heck of a lot of research in order to come to the conclusions I did when I was writing National Manhood, to nail down facts. I worked to bring to this project a scientific rigor in the sense that I tried very hard to test my own assumptions against the literature and history and political writings of the time."
Though the historian can locate dates for the beginning and end of an event, and it's true that some facts are indisputable, Nelson says that her interest always returns to the "story" half of the word "history."
"There's no way we know our history apart from the narrative form in which it must be presented. Although there are indisputable historical facts, how you make sense of those facts is another question entirely and-like the scientist-you're making inferences, analyzing cause and effect, and drawing conclusions."
Nelson says that the scientist may come to feel reassured that his findings are more stable than those of the humanist, but the fact that "paradigms get replaced" needs to always be acknowledged. "Scientists once thought that the Earth was the center of the universe, that man was the center of everything," she says.
"We live our lives through stories and use storytelling to construct our sense of self. Stories help us solidify our human ties to one another." --Dana Nelson
Linus Pauling, winner of the 1954 Nobel Prize in chemistry, called the modern scientific method the "search for truth." Nelson believes this also applies to the literary scholar. "But what I like focusing on is the word 'search' rather than the word 'truth.' The process is what I think is important. Through the process of searching you test your ethics and your abilities and your knowledge."
A Jury of Her Peers
The process of putting her thoughts down on paper is another exciting, if daunting, challenge of scholarship and research, Nelson says. In this endeavor, it's been essential for her to be involved in writing groups-colleagues who understand what she's trying to accomplish and help her state her ideas in the clearest way possible.
"I was involved in a writing group when I was at LSU, and it was simply a life-changing experience," Nelson says. "We were together long enough to get to know each other's writing tics and insecurities and patterns, and there was something really magical about everybody sitting down together with the writer and delving into a chapter or article."
Nelson has also been involved in a writing group at UK, a core of faculty interested in social theory. "I came to love the work of research and writing most when it became a community effort rather than solitary enterprise," she says. "For me, writing groups take all the loneliness out of research because there's a whole group of people who not only care about my writing but help me make my ideas clearer and sharper."
"Dana is a superb colleague, a gifted reader, and a theorist who has productively integrated powerful traditions of literary criticism, social and cultural theory. It has been a joy witnessing the development of her book and other projects in shared teaching and research venues," says Wolfgang Natter, a member of the UK writing group who team-taught, with Nelson and three other colleagues, a multidisciplinary social theory seminar on whiteness. Natter is director of the UK Committee on Social Theory.
The input from her writing groups has also helped Nelson become a much better teacher, she believes. "When my graduate students here are trying to work out difficult arguments in their writing, I am much more useful in helping them as a result of my experience in the writing groups," she says. "It's also made me much more aware of how 'layered' writing is. No one should expect to write a wonderously clear first draft. My students sometimes become angry with themselves or blocked when their first draft needs a lot of work. I tell them the truth: 'My first drafts are always, always a mess.'"
"Dana's first book on the impact of ideas of race on early American literature has already established her as an important scholar of this period," says John Cawelti, a professor in UK's English department. "Her new book is a dazzling blend of materials and methods, and it will undoubtedly have a major impact on the way in which other scholars understand the political and cultural development of early American literature and history."