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Susan Manning, Fragments of Union: Making Connections in Scottish and American Writing

Saturday, December 20, 2003 - 09:11
Susan Manning, Fragments of Union: Making Connections in Scottish and American Writing. New York: Palgrave, 2002.  vii + 249 pp. Illus.: 7 halftones.  £55.00/$69.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-333-76025-5).

Reviewed by
Janet Sorensen
Indiana University, Bloomington

Scotland, once relegated to the margins of studies in Romanticism, has reemerged in recent scholarship as a geographical and intellectual site that at once anticipated key Romantic topoi and provided the conceptual basis of much Romantic cultural theory. Susan Manning's contribution to these studies is the most theoretically sophisticated and wide-ranging to date, moving fluidly between cultural politics, post-structuralist and psychoanalytic methodologies and traversing Scottish and American texts produced between the 1707 Act of Union and the American Civil War. At all points hesitant to identify causal relationships between specific political and cultural circumstances and the philosophical thought she outlines, Manning nonetheless makes a convincing argument regarding the significance of the post-Culloden Scottish intellectual milieu to subsequent Romantic motifs of fragmentation, of structural dismemberment, of incomplete memory, of unregistered mourning, and to the unstable narratives of union designed to acknowledge and sometimes overcome these threats to personal and national identity. In her discussion of the Scottish and North American literary negotiations of such fraught narratives, Manning profoundly complicates the very notion of national Romantic traditions. Temporally, she reveals links between Scottish Enlightenment and Romantic thought, particularly through her focus on David Hume and the Common Sense philosophers, such as Thomas Reid, who sought to discredit Hume but unwittingly propelled his views into the future. Spatially, she demonstrates the intricate connections between Scottish and North American writing as she describes how that most American "structure of thinking," e pluribus unum, is "characteristic of the writing of the Scottish Enlightenment" (2).

As Manning notes, she is not the first to call attention to the close ties between Scottish and North American thought, nor is she the first to track the centrality of motifs of fragmentation in Romanticism as well as in an expanded understanding of Enlightenment thought. She is, however, the first to put the two together, thinking through the implications of the troubled Scots/English union and the American War of Independence and the ever-present possibility of state secession for rhetorics of identity, fragmentation, and union. Manning invites us, for instance, to consider Hume's narrative of human understanding, in which seeming union is in fact an association of fragments of meaning, as Hume put it in his Treatise--"what we call a mind, is nothing but a heap or collection of different perceptions" (cited 37)--in relation to Queen Anne's instruction to the Marquis of Queensberry to block any move in Scottish Parliament toward a federal union. As debates raged, in both Britain and the colonies, between two models of union, aggregative and federal or hierarchical and incorporative, Hume's assertion of union as association, as an imaginary principle, a fiction, might be said to resist that latter model of union.

When Manning poses these two models of union in grammatical terms, she refers to the federal as structured by an hypotactic syntax and to the incorporative model as a paratactic syntax. These two terms inform her analysis of the multi-layered meanings of "and" or, more concretely, of intricate and multi-faceted narratives of union, throughout the book. Manning's work is particularly distinguished in its emphasis on language, grammar and rhetoric as she tracks the tensions between fragmentation and union in language and narrative structure of analogous Scottish and American texts. The emphasis on grammatical structure allows her to pursue her interest in "'transitive structures' which propagate and translate themselves as ways of thinking and formulating ideas in a more diffuse but also a more precise way than consciously held political beliefs" (9). Thus, Hume, who was "clearly pro-Union" (34), might also register resistance to an incorporative model of union--and underscore the fictionality of all unions--in his grammar of mind. Manning's focus on syntax and grammar is further validated by the peculiar self-consciousness Americans and Scots, including Hume, had about language; speakers and writers from England's "peripheries" suffered from acute anxieties regarding the "naturalness" of their use of English.

While her observation that "debates about political [and, as she argues elsewhere, personal] identity cannot be separated from questions of syntax and semantics" (10) has affinities with twentieth-century post-structuralist thought, then, that link also reflects specific historical situations, not least of which was an eighteenth-century insistence on the connection between structures of language and mind. Manning's use of language and grammatical structure as a way into her analysis of Scottish and American texts becomes a means of both situating the concepts under study within a specific historical context and broadening the discussion to more abstract terms of the promise and limitations of language and narrative. Chapters on personal, spatial, historical, and national linguistic narratives of identity elegantly include both transhistorical and historically specific approaches grounded in the writings and contexts of Scottish Enlightenment thinkers. A chapter on narratives of personal identity considers both the project of subject formation in the face of parental authority and the specifics of James Boswell's and Benjamin Franklin's different social historical contexts and respective strategies of composing themselves in distinct journal styles. Another chapter on creating identity through mapping space tracks the general project of "defining the known against the unknown, the industrious against the indolent," but the chapter also takes up peripheral writers'--be they Scots like James Thompson or American colonialists like William Byrd--concerns regarding the danger of self-dissolving incorporation by a more powerful society. One especially original aspect of this discussion is the focus on Holland and particularly its depiction in Scott's fiction as an example of industriousness without an accompanying "insatiable greed" to incorporate ever greater masses of land and peoples.

Narratives of union, even of the most triumphalist incorporations, however, always harbor the danger of the very impossibility of union, often "betrayed by grammar and syntax that focus attention on the nature of the spaces or interludes that frustrate the impulse to union" (13). In what is likely the richest chapter for students of Romanticism, Manning turns to "savaged texts," such as Macpherson's Poems of Ossian, a text of silences, fragments, and "syntactic disruptions" (149). In considering the enterprise of composing an historical national identity, Manning points out the challenge--and necessity--of translating fragments of the past into a unified national history and across cultural divides. Yet the "ruinous form" (149) if the Poems of Ossian, with its gaps and emptiness, underscores the unfeasibility of constructing a continuous narrative of national history, exposing the fiction of its many contemporary unionist historiographies in post-Culloden Scotland, including Hume's own History of England.

In her complex discussion of memory and identity in this chapter, Manning explores the figure of "ghosting" evident in Macpherson's texts and in those of compatriots such as Henry Mackenzie. In Scottish Enlightenment writing, she argues, ghosting represented the ways in which "[b]oth cultural and personal identity were projected in terms of similar processes of imagining ('raising up') the fragments of the past into wholeness" (166); Hume's narrative of consciousness again comes into play here. Manning sees the prevalence of the ghost as unsurprising in a mid-century Scotland that was at once obsessed with its past and invested in removing all traces of itself, particularly from the language writers used, for ghosts act as interpreters, connecting the present with the past with a communication that is always disjointed and often failed. Further, in Hume's version of consciousness, identity is produced through memory, and yet the act of unburial that is remembering also endangers the object of memory, bringing it back to the realm of the mutable, much as the exhumation of Pompeii was also, in some senses, its destruction. Think, here, of the corpse of Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner, or more literally of the transformations in folk song culture when translated into print. Objects of sympathy and sentiment--all important to a Scottish Enlightenment worldview--and representations of ghosts and other fragments of the past turn on corrupting translations across space and time.

Not least of the losses in such translations is the historical specificity of a particular language, and it is through the invented notion of the analogous power and eloquence of the languages of Highlanders and savage American tribes that Manning examines the connection of the Ossian poems to Jefferson's Declaration of Independence and Notes on the State of Virginia. Jefferson, too, needed to create a community of feeling out of disparate groups, and "his solution was to adopt the discursive tactics of Scottish Enlightenment affective aesthetics: the evocation of sympathetic identity through inexpressible feeling, fragmentation, natural development savaged by violated emotions" (191), available, as he saw it, in the eloquent language of Scottish Highlanders and Native Americans. Yet where Macpherson linked sympathetic identity to the cultural representatives of a fading and soon-to-be forever lost national past, Jefferson submerged the Native Americans' loss in the "proclamation of possibility" of a newly formed nation.

If images of memory, fragmentation, and loss, of spectrality and imagination, bring us close to key motifs of British Romanticism--and Manning argues that "these structurally fragmenting registers of translation in Post-Culloden Scottish and early national American writing pre-formulate some of the major concerns of Romantic cultural theory" (182)--they also offer significant and, in the end, longer-lived alternatives to the formulations of major figures like Wordsworth and Coleridge. While Wordsworth hated the non-local character of Ossian's landscape, for instance, it was that very lack of specificity that "allowed readers to bring a broad range of loss-related emotions" (186) to it and facilitated Jefferson's deployment of its structures of feeling in his own writing, making, oddly, for a transnational object and form of writing. And while the broken forms of Scottish and American writings resemble those of Wordsworth and Coleridge, Hume and those influenced by him refused the resolving organicism of Coleridge. Scottish Enlightenment writers and the Americans influenced by them in the universities populated by Scots educators re-socialized, instead, dangerous fragmentation. Sympathy became the crucial term of an open-ended series.

If the question of fragmentation was posed sooner and with more urgency in Scotland than it would be in England (by the War of Independence or the French Revolution), narratives of union would have had a greater exigency in Scotland as well. And "the preoccupation with union and fragmentation" (58) persisted in Scottish and American literature much longer than it did in English literature. Final chapters on the surprising silences in Walt Whitman's seemingly all-inclusive lists and on Emily Dickinson's compelling dramatization of gaps in meaning and the meaning of gaps foresee the continuing attention to questions of fragmentation and union in modernist aesthetics. In this ground-breaking and authoritative book, Manning shows how, when told through the perspective of Scottish and American writing, the story of the dialectical tension between union and fragmentation might be more continuous and more broadly connected than previously imagined.