“as at a tavern, a bonfire, a picket line lunch”: a collaborative review of Red Round Globe Hot Burning (Peter Linebaugh) and The Black Romantic Revolution (Matthew Sandler). By Shelby Johnson and Joseph Albernaz
I hope you're doing well! I'm just writing with a quick note to say that I'm about halfway through Red Round Globe Hot Burning, and I'll be so interested to hear your thoughts. My short take is that I wonder if this is an impossible book -- a book defined by failure, by incomplete archives, by irrecoverable experiences …
Thanks for touching base -- that's spurred me to start reading in earnest now too! As a career’s culmination (I almost said fulmination--in the best way), Red Round Globe seems to be Linebaugh at his most exuberantly Linebaugh, where both the galvanizing, exhilarating strengths of his work, as well as its limits and occasional missteps, are on full view. But ultimately I’m on his side--or that’s the side I want to be on, in endless search of “the commons” as “the bridge linking romanticism and radicalism, philia with agape” (5). Whatever aspects of the book we could quarrel with, I think we are invited to quarrel in Linebaugh’s own manner, in a polyphonic and rousing exchange in conviviality, as at a tavern, a bonfire, a picket line lunch…
This book takes the revolutionary lives and activity of Edward and Catherine Despard (and Edward’s ultimate execution in London) as its heart, but journeys around the planet several times in tracking the general struggle for the commons and against all forms of domination. Reading Linebaugh’s bold gambits in a dizzying array of contexts continually raises questions about the kinds of writing that lend themselves to “history from below,” and the affordances, risks, and limits of those writing practices too.
Relatedly, on this question of historical style (poetics even) and method, I find myself interested in the role that literature plays in Linebaugh’s story, which is really a vast web of stories – the fact that William Blake is mentioned prominently on the first page, for instance, and the constant presence of poetry (both canonical Romantics and lesser known writers like the Irish revolutionary poet Thomas Moore) throughout the book.
Warm wishes --
GLOBAL PHENOMENA OF RESISTANCE TO ENCLOSURES have been
led by the Zapatistas in Mexico (1994), the antiglobalizers of intellectual property
at the “battle of Seattle” (1999), the women of the Via Campesino against
the corporate seizure of the planetary germplasm, the shack dwellers from
Durban to Cape Town, the women of the Niger River delta protesting naked
against the oil spillers, the indigenous peoples of the Andes Mountains against
the water takers, the seed preservers of Bangladesh, the tree huggers of the
Himalayas, the movement of “the circles and the squares” in the hundreds of
municipal Occupys (2011), and the thousands of water protectors at Standing
Rock (2017). Inspired by these phenomena, revisions of the meaning of “the
commons,” and its relationship to communism, socialism, anarchism, and
utopianism, have become part of the worldwide discourse against the effort to
shut it down or enclose it. In general the story is a couple hundred years old.
In 1793, William Blake, the London artist, poet, and prophet, came to the
conclusion that Enclosure = Death. Two of his contemporaries decided to do
something about it. This book tells a love story between an Irishman and an
African American woman, Ned and Kate, two revolutionaries, who yearned
for another world and tried to bring it about. Their love for each other and
their longing for the commons point us to a new world and a new heart.
I'm nearly finished with Red Round Globe Burning and I’m beginning to sense a few questions that I suspect might animate our review. I'm sympathetic to the palpable urgency of Linebaugh's politics—there's something really compelling about his efforts to extricate cross-racial and international solidarities in this and other work. I also appreciate his attentiveness to circulations of ideas, persons, books and pamphlets, and rumors between Ireland, Haiti, Nicaragua, England, the United States. Rather than hew to older modes of study confined to the nation-state or a specific geographic area, Linebaugh's methodology foregrounds displacement, itinerancy, missed connections, brief contacts.
I wonder if it might be worth it to spend more time theorizing his reading method, which is often (and necessarily, given the archival absences he encounters) speculative. The heart of the book is Catherine—a woman of color who marries and accompanies Edward Despard to Ireland, who appears in the archive only through the words of others. In this sense, Catherine flickers along the edges of the story of Despard’s conspiracy and eventual execution. Yet without sources from Catherine, extricating an agency and interiority for her is nearly impossible—an impossibility that also forecloses the other failure that animates this remarkable work: Linebaugh’s inability to find Catherine’s grave. The tensions between his urge to see cross-racial solidarity and his need to speculate on her movements are particularly acute in his discussions of Catherine’s marriage to Edward, which often tremble with a kind of palpable conviction to interpret her travel to Britain as a form of erotic egalitarianism, an intimacy organized around mutuality and reciprocity, rather than coercion. And in reading Catherine and Edward—Ned and Kate—against Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, John Gabriel Stedman and Joanna, and Thomas Thistlewood and Phibbah, perhaps Linebaugh is correct about the terms of their relationship. Yet Catherine may have had multiple (and perhaps even conflicting) reasons for journeying to Britain, practical and otherwise, assuming that her journey was even a choice. Indeed, in a post-Mansfield Decision context, Catherine's legal position would have been different in Britain, perhaps open to her own agency in a way that it might not have been had she remained in Nicaragua.
More broadly, I think there's a tendency in Linebaugh's work to linger with—and occasionally even idealize—specific sites or scenes of cross-racial encounter and potential solidarity (i.e., the ship in Many-Headed Hydra). Scholars in Black studies, such as Saidiya Hartman and Sharon Holland, have also drawn attention to the ways intimacy, and even pleasure, can (and do) reproduce systems of power that subtend slavery and other institutions of subjection. And, of course, poetry contributes to this work too. This is all a long way of saying that your question about the affordances and risks of doing "history from below" are stark when the question of gender is centered in Linebaugh's work.
Just a quick note to thank you for these thoughts and to say I'll have a proper response to continue the conversation soon...looking forward to continuing!
I'm definitely interested in thinking more about the question of idealism, or what we could frame as optimism vs. (and?) loss/defeat in regard to Linebaugh’s book (this also bears on our common interest in Robert Wedderburn, whom Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker wrote about at length in The Many-Headed Hydra). Most pressingly, I wonder about how the very familiar question of revolutionary disappointment and disillusion vis-à-vis Romanticism gets transformed in undeniable--and unpredictable--ways when reframed through the longue durée of slavery and its afterlives. I’m curious what you make of this question, and if Romanticism is an interesting and useful category here or not? Ok more soon!
I’ve just finished Matt Sandler's The Black Romantic Revolution and I think it will fit well within our ongoing conversations about strange affective tensions inherent in revolutionary longing. Sandler's work takes at its point of departure Eric Foner's discussions of the Reconstruction movement as, itself, an "unfinished revolution," and ties it to both political tensions within Romantic aesthetics and the experiential conditions of Black life during and "in the wake" of slavery, as Christina Sharpe calls it.
What I appreciated about Sandler was the close attentiveness to the poems—especially to the ironic, surreal, strange, and grim affects that differently circulate within them. Having taught many of these writers and poems before, I was taken by his ability to read with their brutal portrayals of violence and abjection, while also remaining attuned to the political and aesthetic possibilities offered by their gestures to Black liberation as an incomplete project, an unfinished future. In a classroom setting, students are often keyed to instances of trauma and resistance in these poems, but Sandler also cultivated ways of reading for conflicting psychic and intimate themes that might, at first glance, merely entangle the poems’ addressee in the halts, impediments, and foreclosures of nineteenth-century Black life.
To that end, what I most loved about Sandler’s book is the deft way that this poetic archive theorized its own reading. While I occasionally wanted more engagement with critical theory on Black revolutionary insurgency, on poesis and the role of the poet, on the unfinished and the contingent, such a desire, I think, misses what Sandler wishes to do—namely, reveal these poems as theoretical texts that improvise Black life on the edge.
I wonder if décalage and belatedness are not good thematic points here as well, especially picking up on your comments about the “unfinished,” what began or ended too soon, or the kairos missed belatedly. The strange temporalities of failure are everywhere here in these two books, and have been on my mind increasingly for a lot of reasons (just today, for instance, thinking about the Bessemer union vote). Failure, loss, defeat, disillusionment, abandonment, melancholy, all the rest. There's a way in which Romanticism as such is only possible because of failure--if the French Revolution had "succeeded" in some real sense, would we "need," or even have Romanticism? It would seem not. As I read Sandler’s book alongside your responses, I'm excited to see how he develops this question in the specifically nineteenth-century African-American context of what he calls "Black Romanticism" – and the ways that this Black Romanticism might pick up on but transform (but how?) these questions of the unfinished work, the unfinished, revolution, and the fleeting temporalities of loss and love across Romantic and Black radicalisms.
There is the famous (maybe apocryphal, or misquoted) remark of Zhou Enlai when asked in the 1970s about the outcome of the French Revolution: “It’s too early to tell” (I hear Celeste Langan's voice in my head reminding me of this). We could say the same about Haitian Revolution, as your own work has been developing (not to mention the Civil War and Reconstruction as Sandler points out, after Foner, Du Bois, and the Black Romantics themselves). I must say I love Linebaugh and got so much from this book, but you raise some important questions about his optimism, not in an affective or even necessarily always in a political register, but in a conceptual, methodological, and archival one. One feeling I get reading Linebaugh's works, Red Round Globe Hot Burning especially, is the sense that the revolution was (and is) always right around the corner: "the wide-spread possibility in 1802 of a multiethnic, nonsectarian, transatlantic project of a republic composed of citizens and commoners, the people of no property, sharing common things" (62), always just thwarted at the last second, almost victorious--and yet the losses keep accumulating. It is both exhilarating and exhausting, in a way. While he is ever attentive to the centrality of racial slavery to the Atlantic world he so thrillingly conjures, you’re right that other recent work suggests different strategies of dwelling with the longue durée of slavery's world-making temporality and violence, some of which point toward neither hopefulness, "no[r] a politics of despair brought about by a failure to lament a loss, because it is not rooted in hope of winning," to quote Jared Sexton (who notably invokes the Haitian Revolution just before saying this), but another kind of inhabitation of time and earth. "Not rooted in the hope of winning," perhaps, because not rooted in anything, the axe laid to every root.
I keep thinking of Linebaugh’s claim in RRG about the role of stories: "Stories…make sense of historical defeats” (14), and the ways he links his history from below to folk traditions and storytelling commons—deploying his own poetics of counter-history (the title of the book comes from Blake’s prophetic poetry after all!) to recuperate resources from these “historical defeats.” On this note: I'm really curious what you made of the extraordinarily strange, haunting, and ultimately to me, powerful last three pages of the book. At first it seemed so abrupt and confusing, to end this long saga seemingly out of nowhere with four grim micro-stories: four different women searching for four different corpses in separate circumstances...What did you think?
“Two Stories” has four chapters. “The Whole Business of Man” concerns
Blake and Despard—neighbors and contemporaries of each other. They
summarized this epoch in the history of mankind, the former with the
poetry of prophecy and the other by prophetic deeds. In so doing, they
pointed to roads not taken. The following two chapters tell actual stories.
The first (“The Red Cap of Liberty”) is a ghost story from famine times that
recollects the revolutionary times of Despard’s era of the ’98. It is a tale in
which hopefulness is firmly footed in county Laois, Ned’s Irish birthplace.
The second is an animal story (“Red Crested Bird and Black Duck) that arose
in the Great Lakes of North America and was retold in 1802 among Dublin’s
antiquaries, who compared it to Homer. These stories, from nations of storytellers,
make sense of historical defeats. Red Round Globe Hot Burning concludes
with a question. “What Is the Human Race?” starts with Ned and
Kate’s gallows speech. To ask the question reasserts the power of human
agency, of freedom.
Then I realized these women were doing what Linebaugh is trying to do -- to raise the dead, or at least to preserve the dead (what is at stake in the difference?). After all, he begins the book with his search across the British Isles for the buried body of Kate Despard, a little-known revolutionary woman of African descent, to no avail. The book itself, then, becomes the resting place whose physical marker is lost or unknown. So, in a way, this book is a commons, a shared and shareable field of resources and radical sustenance, of (sometimes questionable!) information, investigations, connections, speculations, dimly recalled traditions, movements, songs, tokens, freedom dreams, etc. But this book is also a corpse, or a grave. “A grave in exchange for the commons” reads a line in Fred Moten’s hughson’s tavern, a book of poems named after Linebaugh’s work. The context for this particular poem is whiteness’s disinvestment and disavowal of the commons, but the line also highlights the links between commoning and burial--and with Linebaugh’s closing stories, the often gendered work of social reproduction that goes into care of and for the dead.
I also remember that Linebaugh’s much earlier work dealt thematically and figurally with dead bodies (The London Hanged), and the image of a regenerating wounded body that grows stronger as it is seemingly defeated (The Many Headed-Hydra). If storytelling means re(ac)counting stories of loss and defeat, so too is the commons stitched together from catastrophe: "We can see commons as remnants from a defeat" (256). The dead are not safe from the enemy—and yet, neither is the enemy safe from the dead.
I’ll stop there for now. At least one other thing about which I’d love to exchange thoughts, something that shows up in the first part of Sandler’s book, is the question of "conspiracy," especially because it provides a great connection to Linebaugh's RRG, which is largely also about a revolutionary conspiracy...
Warm wishes from New York,
I'm sorry for my belated response. Part of the reason for my delay, I think, came from how moved I was by your reflections on the contrapuntal rhythms of revolution, of how the desire for revolution requires a kind of messianic expectation (the revolution is nigh, just around the corner) accompanied with a clear-eyed recognition that the work is (and will remain) unfinished. Given the failures that organized Linebaugh’s research, I think one critical opening for making sense of it might be Fred Moten's turn to exhaustion in The Universal Machine. Moten calls “exhaustion” “a mode or form or way of life,” one that nonetheless refuses “to believe […] in social death" (193). Yet even earlier in the discussion he says something that resonates palpably with what I think Linebaugh is grappling with in Red Round Globe Hot Burning: "Exhaustion is a condition that expresses, once again by repudiation, the necessity and necessary relation of preservation and of revolution” (190).
Other scholars have turned to similar modalities to think through revolution’s temporal recursivities and political possibilities. But what I find so provocative about Moten’s point is that exhaustion locates revolution’s agonizing belatedness not always or even necessarily within a kind of sublime, transcendent theology (as in some genealogies of a revolutionary tragic) but within something more modest and local, in the weary endurance of singular bodies and embattled collectivities. Maybe this is why stories are so important to Linebaugh and to Sandler: if the body is exhausted, then perhaps stories—fantasies, speculations, rumors, conspiracies—endure, “stitched together from catastrophe,” as you put it.
Your point that Linebaugh’s book and its intricate methodology might be, itself, an (unsuccessful?) attempt to “raise the dead” or “preserve the dead”—a “grave in exchange for the commons,” as you reminded me of Moten’s words. It brings to mind a moment from Pequot writer William Apess’s A Son of the Forest, a narrative keenly attuned to Indigenous practices of commoning, and their survivance and violent erasures by the settler state (“and they held all things in common” is a line that Apess included in the 1829 edition but then removed in 1831). For Apess, burial grounds are commons: English settlers have “wronged them out of their lawful possessions—that land, where reposed the ashes of their sires," as he puts it (7). Or maybe said differently: commons ought to include burial grounds, our connections to the dead, to kin, to histories. Of course, denial of burial or destruction of burial grounds is perhaps the action that unmasks the very exceptionality of sovereignty, as many scholars in African American studies have argued.
It occurs to me that our conversation is less in the mode of a traditional review and more a series of reflections about how these books have become companions-in-thought for both of us in this strange, difficult semester (and year). But if we’re pondering the stories we wish to carry with us in a post-pandemic world (whatever the extent such a thing is imaginable), then I think Linebaugh and Sandler’s meditations on transatlantic commoning may gesture towards possibilities for thinking the unthinkable.
Thank you for these beautiful reflections; your words resonate across a lot of different folds for me. Exhaustion, certainly, at a time like this. And your evocative thoughts on burial, commoning, and memory, and their presence in both the histories of colonial and racial violence and in knowledge-making practices prompt me to remember, and to do better at remembering, the ways that the modern research university still profits from the remains and artifacts of the downtrodden dead. This kind of grave-robbery is the opposite of the kind of knowledge practices that the best of Linebaugh models.
I think what you so elegantly wrote about exhaustion and tarrying with “revolution’s agonizing belatedness” as “something more modest and local, in the weary endurance of singular bodies and embattled collectivities” is right on, and helps us think these struggles outside of any transcendent history or teleology; except that I wonder if I’d rather say “nonlocal” instead of “local” (knowing that this word “nonlocal,” playfully borrowed from quantum physics, occurs often in Denise Ferreira da Silva and Moten’s recent work)—where nonlocal here would not be a negation of the local or singular, but rather an attending to how struggles tend to migrate and constellate, connected across time and distance by spooky actions and forces, all not despite but because of the intensity of their local singularity, their fragility. All these doomed, damned “spots of time,” to use a phrase Linebaugh draws from Wordsworth.
I think this kind of cosmological speculation—thinking with the cosmic freedom dreams of nineteenth-century Black Romantic poets—occurs in Sandler’s book at various points, and it’s one of my favorite aspects of this remarkable work (which I hope British Romanticists will read, even if their research doesn’t focus on the Americas or trans-Atlantic currents). For instance, regarding the intricate poetic romances of Albery Allson Whitman, with their bracing “apocalypse of sentiment” (Whitman’s phrase), Sandler writes: “Whitman imagines the struggle for freedom as not just world-historical, but cosmological” (176). (Compare, perhaps, Linebaugh on the “planetary” in his book). The Black Romantics wrote, thought, and struggled their way out of slavery and white supremacy’s cosmos of death, and Sandler powerfully shows how their struggles speak with (not to) the contemporary, carving starlit little paths from one abolitionist moment to another, f(l)ight lines out of the present, part of a “squall line in a longer struggle” (4).
Playing yet again on the “eternal bass,” Whitman imagines the
struggle for freedom as not just world-historical, but cosmological.
Hard as it may be to square with the unabashed sexuality
and violence of his poetry, Whitman’s working life as an itinerant
preacher reappears in this messianic liberation theology. The
figure of the “veil” anticipates Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk,
with its mix of secular and theological prophecy. In Whitman’s
reckoning, what he calls at the poem’s outset an “apocalypse of
sentiment,” historical romance can unveil the victims of colonial
progress. In this distinctly syncretic and aesthetic moment of judgment,
the claims of contemporary “civilization” would be settled
against the “nations that perished” on its rise. The Rape of Florida
itself acts as a symbolic fragment of the revelations promised in
“the book of fame” which would record the heroism of the conquered.
In telling stories of Indigenous and maroon communities
in residual literary forms, Whitman’s historical romances make
an aesthetic argument against settler-colonial theories of progress.
He rewrites the self-aggrandizing invented traditions of American
frontier mythology to begin with slavery and dispossession.
Maybe to close, a final thought on a key connection between these two fascinating, bracing books on revolutionary hopes and loss across the last two and a half centuries of racial capitalism: both books are, at their heart, about conspiracy—Linebaugh on the thwarted revolutionary conspiracy of Ned and Kate Despard and the United Englishmen, and Sandler on the Black Romantic lyric as “the medium of the conspiracy” of the unfinished revolution against slavery (10). A con-spiracy is literally a collective breath, a common wind, and poems are infused with the breathing of the dead (I am inclined to think that the dead do breathe, but according to a different rhythm than the living; poems can help us align the two rhythms—in this way a poem is a “medium” in the nineteenth-century spiritualist sense too, communicating or communing with the dead).
In conjugating C.L.R. James with revolutionary Romanticism, Sandler shows how African-American poets in the nineteenth-century like Georges Moses Horton and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper worked though the contradictions of their present, “the personal and cosmological dimensions” of slavery and abolition (45): “The lyrics of the Black Romantics took the temperature of their moment, check its revolutionary heat, and then turned it up” (91). I love this image of the poem or poet as both a thermometer and a heater (for a red round globe hot burning, in more ways than one). Sandler makes good on such stirring formulations through his dazzling close readings, as you mentioned, his soundings of a poem’s variegated potentiality. It’s this kind of close attention that also helps take the temperature of a different – but not so different – moment now, and it seems fitting that the book ends with contemporary movements for Black liberation. If this history is a “squall line,” a series of storms, then the poem is not just a thermometer, but also a barometer (emphasis on meter).
The lyrics of the Black Romantics took the temperature of their
moment, checking its revolutionary heat, and then turned it up.
The songs of the “propagandist group” emphasized emotional
cognition, in opposition to racist notions of Black hypersentimentality
and the systemic reduction of Black people to what
Hortense Spillers called “flesh.” They focus on the brain as a
machine for processing psychic pain, a place where screams were
recorded and resignified. It also functions as an organ for music-making;
the Black Romantics represented cognition as rhythmic,
and music as ideological. The seething brain also draws its heat
from nature, and works through signs from nature that the so-called
“white republic” had run afoul of natural law. The brain
was thus an instrument for tuning the spiritual, both for mourning
the enslaved or abolitionist dead and for anticipating the direction
of the spirit of the age. The free-born Black poets of the 1850s
hoped the expressions of their seething brains might provoke the
long delayed, but now increasingly “irrepressible conflict.” They
also hoped to communicate, through song, across the divide of
freedom and slavery, literate and illiterate. Their work makes up a
network of nervous reaction to the atrocities and political tumult
of the Civil War era, lamenting the present and calling down God’s
vengeance on the powerful, in new anthems and epics for nations
not yet ratified.
So, both books track the persistence of Romantic freedom dreams into the unfinished present, as a force that not only endures from the unfinished revolutions of the past, but that is itself a force of unfinishing, fragmenting any present totality or world. To let them have a last (though never final) word:
Linebaugh: “Yet the idea of the commons persisted. It found fugitive expression in the Gothic, in the dream, in the hidden, in the surreal, in the utopian, in the communist, or in the indicted felon” (304)
Sandler: “Life in a state defined by its unfinished revolution means feeling the simultaneity of dreams and nightmares.” (204)
 I'm thinking here specifically of Wordsworth's poem about Henry Christophe's widow.
 “The Vel of Slavery: Tracking the Figure of the Unsovereign,” 11.
 C.L.R. James, Raymond Williams, Cedric Robinson, and David Scott with various modes of the tragic.
 I wonder if the archive Linebaugh and Sandler are assembling might gesture towards formations of solidarity beyond the foreclosures that Derrida so delicately traces in The Beast and the Sovereign II : “The other, the others, are precisely those who always might die after me, survive me, and have at their disposal what remains of me, my remains […] That’s what is meant, has always been meant, by ‘other’” (II. 126-27).
 Regarding the topology and cosmology of rebellion, abolition, “little paths,” defeat and loss, and starlight, I’ve been ruminating on this gorgeous, prophetic essay by Keno Evol: https://mnartists.walkerart.org/daunte-wright-a-billion-clusters-of-rebellion-and-starlight. “In organizing circles, one could say—and historians often do—that the history of the left is the history of failed utopias. To be a utopian thinker is to be one interested in the study of failure. The poet often has to say to the historian: There were friendships at that site of failure, at the rebellion that didn’t succeed. If you look at the clusters, there was poetry you missed, music you can’t seem to hear. Starlight often isn’t a part of the historical record.”
 An idea reformulated from C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins.