Hoeing this loquacious soil

Voicing America
November 8, 1996

No nation can more have been brought into being through proclamation, talk, an ever-burgeoning self-utterance, than the United States. The American revolutionary era positively brims with parthenogenetic acts of the word both spoken and printed - edicts, manifestos, discourses of every hue, epistolation, and dictionaries and grammars at least tacitly pledged to stabilising not only "English" but a people not all of whom spoke it.

This is a view of early America as heteroglossia, or as Christopher Looby quotes Washington Irving, a "Logocracy or government of words". So evidently diverse in speech, vernacularity, and so crossed by the conflicting idioms of loyalism and revolution, Yankee New Englandism and plantation slavocracy, puritanism and secularism, nation and region, a "free" citizenry as against those indentured or enslaved, how indeed best to make the New Republic verbally as much as politically cohere? Or was all to persist in revolutionary flux, every citizen in Emerson's phrase a first-person singular with his or her contrary satchel of opinions?

The upshot, as Looby summarises it in his wonderfully sharp, learned account, was, as it largely remains, disputation as an American norm. For America "the first new nation" necessarily involved "ungrammaticality, neology, and other kinds of deviation from the linguistic norm".

Even celebrated main players in the cause of independence like Thomas Jefferson or John Adams, George Washington or Noah Webster, patriarchically feared Babel, an America at risk of verbal and so political incoherence by the "figuration of a nation 'spoken into existence'".

What, too, of America's yet more explicitly literary-textual voices? Looby takes up this cross-ply of cultural anxiety in three key, if unashamedly canonical and male-authored, works: Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography (1771, seriatim), Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland (1798) and Hugh Henry Brackenridge's Modern Chivalry (1792-1815).

Looby persuasively interprets Franklin's Auto-biography as a paradox, on the one hand "an account of the nation's self- constitution in language", yet on the other, "a desire to contain the disruptive power of the revolution". Here was to be the "exemplary" story of unity forged from massive disunity. Yet the account itself remains "disunited and incomplete . . . anything but a single coherent document".

Brown's Wieland, ostensibly all Gothic melodrama set near Philadelphia and a story of millennial religiosity and mania, likewise reveals a rooted fear of American ventriloquy and the proliferation of voice. Carwin, the "biloquist" who causes the mayhem in the Wieland lives, expresses a counter-revolutionary impulse in Brown, his fear of too much public voice, language, spoken wizardry.

Much the same applies to Brackenridge's Modern Chivalry. Set across America's first six presidential terms, it refracts satirically (or, as Looby insists, dialogically) its author's misgivings about a "hybrid" politics of elitism and populism. Its compositional anarchies bespeak a deeply ingrained authorial will to order as much as revolutionary pastiche.

Looby follows with Patrick Henry, the Virginia orator whose "Give me liberty or give me death" speech he shrewdly challenges and problematises as the supposed transcending register in which "a vague and fractious nation could hear the wished-for tones of its original presence". It is a nicely contentious point of arrival in a gifted study of Enlightenment America desperately seeking the one historic voice only to hear the many.

A. Robert Lee is reader in American literature, University of Kent.

Voicing America: Language, Literary Form and the Origins of the United States

Author - Christopher Looby
ISBN - 0 226 49282 6
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £23.95
Pages - 287

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