on Liminal Whiteness
This summer, graduate students Jordan Pickard and Max Laitman Chapnick (both Boston University) spoke with Hannah Lauren Murray, Lecturer in American Literature at the University of Liverpool to discuss her book Liminal whiteness in Early US Fiction. In the book, Murray examines the works of white men writing about whiteness in the early nineteenth-century. Not only does Murray probe representations of whiteness, and all the anxiety and anger those representations carry, she shows how these white authors took on the role of the victim (often a Black or Indigenous persona) in order to shore up their own privilege.
Besides its necessary and piercing theoretical intervention, the monograph runs through an impressive array of close readings by Charles Brockden Brown, Washington Irving, Robert Montgomery Bird, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, and Frank J. Webb. Throughout these readings Murray examines how whiteness underpins the concept of the citizen in the early Republic. She further explores how fictional depictions of white men who are pushed out of the community, who slip between races, or who linger on the verge of death dramatize the white authors' own positionally and the complex feelings associated with that identity.
In an hour of Zoom conversation, Murray discussed, with refreshing detail, how her dissertation became a published book, and her thinking behind her theoretical interventions and some of her readings. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Max Laitman Chapnick (MLC): We noticed this book includes a lot of different authors in a relatively short monograph. How did you settle on those authors? How do you sort of decide which authors to include or not?
Hannah Lauren Murray (HLM): I'll start off with the number of authors: why do I have a book about six writers? I think that's to do with academic culture, particularly in the UK. In the UK, you start a PhD program with your dissertation proposal already written. So you hit the ground running.
As I started the PhD I came in with maybe three or four authors that I definitely wanted to write about because of previous interest including Poe, Brown, and Melville. I was at one point going to have a cultural history chapter about spiritualism which ends up becoming part of Chapter Five. So I came in thinking I've got quite a lot of material, and my supervisor said, “you need more material. You need to be an expert on the first half of the nineteenth century, and the best way to sell yourself as an expert on your topic is to include more writers so that more people can look at a book and say ‘Oh, it has something to do with my work.’”
It was a calculated move to say “Okay, I would like to try and have a career in this area. I'll just have to write about some authors I hadn't really thought about.” One supervisor had just been reading Sheppard Lee and told me it fit my project. Then about halfway through the PhD my supervisor said, “you have a big gap, all the way from Brown to early Poe,” which is how I ended up writing a chapter on Irving. That explains why there are so many authors in what is a shorter book.
MLC: What was the process of moving from the finished dissertation to the book?
HLM: I finished my PhD and graduated just over four years ago, in July 2017, and I was very fortunate to go into a full time, although fixed term, job. I'd already had some advice from my supervisors, that the main thing, particularly in the UK job market, is you must have your book under contract or even in press to get the first kind of permanent position, what's considered a tenure track equivalent.
As I was putting the proposal together, I saw an email from the editors of the new book series: interventions in nineteenth century American literature and culture. So I emailed them and said, “this is the proposal and I have one sample chapter that I've been working on for a bit.” They came back and said “yes we're interested, this would be really good, we need your introduction, though.”
It took another year for me to write the introduction because of my teaching load and other responsibilities. So I initially made contact in March 2018 and sent off the full proposal and sample in 2019. Then we had conversations back and forth, which included tweaks to the introduction,the proposal, and a request that I add another chapter and that's it being a non-white author.
Jordan Pickard (JP): Now that we've talked a bit about your author selection, I wanted to ask what brought you to critical whiteness theory?
HM: I noticed a shift towards the end of my undergraduate studies that I was much more interested in topics around race and particularly around white characters and authors and how they grapple with race. I took that into my MA studies, where I was writing on Poe. I also took a step away and wrote my master's dissertation on Chuck Palahniuk. So I was still sticking with the white man, but I wasn't really bringing race into that conversation.
I was interested in ideas of hybridity which you see in a lot of these texts and that's what a lot of critical race studies and nineteenth century literature had been thinking about. Trying to bring some ideas of difference and otherness to characters who are in between or particularly characters who are perceived to be mixed race. Then, through conversations with my supervisors, I was thinking, what if it isn't about being hybrid or mixed or expressing something about the treatment of African Americans or Indigenous peoples? What if these characters are actually just talking about being white, and the experience of being white? So that's when I turned to critical whiteness studies and started thinking about that whole body of literature that is interested in how whiteness is constructed throughout the nineteenth century
And where I think critical whiteness studies is going, is to pay attention to the other side: what is the flip side of that construction? Critical whiteness studies has done that work about the construction of whiteness and how whiteness operates, but is now confronting what whiteness actually means and these anxieties and fears and an anger around it. We can see all this in the nineteenth century, but it comes up right to the present moment.
JP: In Chapter 1, you discuss how Early American race science, pseudoscience, with its insistence on whiteness as a kind of biological superiority, has the effect of racializing Nick's disability and making him a figure of liminal whiteness. It seems like ability / disability often gets left out of this conversation. Could you talk a bit about why you decided to center it in this chapter and how you navigated that intersection of disability studies and whiteness studies?
HLM: All these ideas about who gets to be a citizen and who's treated as a citizen, it all revolves around the idea of capacity and capability. That's what distinguishes white immigrants from Indigenous people and African Americans in the nation. If you are from Ireland, from France, from Great Britain, people might not like your political views or your religion, but you, in theory, have the capability and capacity to show civic values and to at some point be granted citizenship which Indigenous people and African Americans are not granted.
In the character of Nick, Brown is showing somebody who is completely excluded from the commons, from the everyday. He doesn’t possess the capability to speak, he doesn't have regular everyday conversations. We would consider him cognitively impaired today, so what would that mean in the nineteenth century? It means to be treated as somebody who needs to be institutionalized, and if you’re institutionalized you have all your kind of civic rights stripped away from you.
MLC: In the Sheppard Lee chapter, you point this out as an Anti-abolitionist novel, but there's the double-sidedness of the minstrelsy. You’re paraphrasing Doug Jones when you describe the novel as “punching up against white respectability politics, and punching down against an enslaved and free Black population.” Could you say more about how the liminality of whiteness leads to this double-sided understanding of minstrelsy?
HLM: This chapter kind of sticks out because it's not about just feeling that you're on the edge, it's about transforming into somebody who sits completely outside of citizenship and whiteness. You can have somebody who consistently tells you that they're white and then for a whole part of the book says, “I am now Black,” and then goes back to saying they’re white. But whiteness for most of the book is also precarious and in flux. This is a man, Sheppard Lee, who goes through several changes of profession and social class, up and down. So, even as a white man, he's still on the edge.
The other way I wanted to think about Blackface working is that I looked at how white characters and authors use the language that's associated with the oppression and subjugation of Indigenous peoples and African Americans, whether enslaved or free, to describe their own situation. What Bird is doing, more broadly, is taking what is meant to be Black creativity, and instead just using it for his own ends. And he's taking any discussion of slavery and the suffering of the enslaved people and using it just to talk about his own life, or Sheppard’s own life. Blackness and Blackface becomes just another resource, slavery, the slave narrative, becomes just another resource to talk about his own suffering.
JP: That leads nicely into the next chapter on Poe, where you delve into the racialized hierarchies of nineteenth century medicine and exploitation with a particular focus on cadavers and body snatching. The irony is really pronounced here: there’s this strange reversal of the literal and figurative as white men experience aspects of “social death” when they're literally dead and dying. Could you talk about how the concept of social death factored into this chapter and the book as a whole?
HLM: Yes, ideas of social death, civic, death, what Colin Dayan calls negative personhood, were all foundational to the book. There are characters who either do experience that sense of social death, or just feel like they've experienced that social death, or maybe they only temporarily experience that feeling. What do you do with characters who maybe don't have any justification to feel that way, versus characters who do truly experience social death?
So again with the Poe, I didn't want to argue that these are analogs of enslaved figures, which a lot of Poe scholarship has said--that anytime somebody is suffering in Poe, it might be to do slavery. I wanted to say, actually, what if it's the other way around, what if it just uses the language of social death, of enslavement, of subjugation but is really just talking about the experience of being a very anxious or precarious white male citizen in the period.
JP: There's something almost perverse about it, that these characters are brought into such close contact with the structural nature of oppression and yet it just goes right over their heads.
Moving on to your Melville chapter, you mentioned earlier that you thought about having a whole section on spiritualism. How deep did you get into spiritualism and mesmerism? What was that research like?
HLM: One of my MA tutors wrote [Bridget Bennet at the University of Leeds] wrote a book on transatlantic spiritualism ... and I read that a couple of times. So I already thought, going into the PhD, I wanted to write a cultural history chapter about spiritualism because it would be really interesting to show a kind of hybridity, again, speaking in two voices. As I started to move away from hybridity, I started thinking about how the spiritualism research and reading could be used in a different way.
I’d been reading Pierre and I thought, Isabell is a dark-haired young woman, she got out a guitar, the guitar seems to be magical, she's like shouting and screaming, and it seems there’s this kind of presence in the air. I’d also been reading about the Fox sisters and then I went to the University of Pennsylvania, to visit the archive, to look at Montgomery Bird material and they have a fantastic spiritualism collection as well. As I was reading, there were mentions of the wailing, the passivity, the loss of control, musical instruments, guitars, the atmosphere people felt in the air, that heavily charged atmosphere.
So I kept all those ideas in mind and I thought, what was the purpose of spiritualism? It was partly entertainment. And it had a lot of personal connections, people talking to relatives and friends. But it also had this political edge, which was to make points about abolition, Indigenous land rights, and women's rights as well.
The irony is that Isabel doesn't use her spiritualism to put forward any political message, she doesn't want to be an independent woman, and she just wants to tell a story about her mother and herself and to be part of the family. I was really interested in how Melville is using spiritualism and this seance to give voice to somebody who's really on the edge; she's one of the more precarious figures that I looked at in the book. And, as I argue she's the one experiencing the social death, she's the one who doesn't know her family. How can you express this feeling of being on the edge, of being liminal, precarious or rejecting any of those kind of civic expectations like with Bartleby, when maybe conversation doesn't really cut it to explain all those things.
MLC: Why did you choose Webb in particular, and then also, more generally, why include Webb, if “this is a book about dead white men,” which is a great first line?
HLM: Oh, so it does come across as a bit of a contradiction to say, this is a book about dead white men, this is my reading strategy, or my pick of authors, primarily white men writing about white men, and then here is an African American man writing right at the end. In part, it's to show more coverage. I'm thinking about this idea of liminal whiteness as being more expansive, not just in the writing of white men, but in other writers too.
The other reason I chose Webb is that I saw him, with his attention to white characters, as formulating this idea of critical whiteness studies. As I put in the introduction, you can look at Du Bois as this first kind of theoretical, critical voice that is telling us about whiteness from the outside. But we can actually see a lot of these arguments already being made in somebody like Webb, the idea that whiteness is constructed, and whiteness is maintained through particular kinds of violent acts and that a whole load of white Americans are particularly anxious about losing their status and losing their whiteness.
So in Webb’s novel you have the idea that whiteness can be performed because you have characters who pass as white, you have the idea that whiteness can be stripped because you may be an abolitionist, you may be in a relationship with a Black woman, and also the idea, going back to stuff I mentioned in the Sheppard Lee chapter, that you could actually temporarily change your race. You could be perceived as another race, you could be Black. And these are all experiences that white characters have in the novel.
MLC: If somebody were to teach the book, how would you recommend they do it? How would you have someone else teach this?
HLM: I would suggest that for Poe you could take a range of Poe stories and you could think about who is the victim here and who is the perpetrator? You could then look at Valdemar as this kind of liminal white victim and think about why Poe is subjecting this educated white guy to such horrific violence. Do you think he's saying anything about what it means to be a white male citizen in the 1840s? Now I’ve tried this with students before. Some students really go with it, and say this has flipped the perspective: that here we have this victim in the shape of Valdemar who we don't actually normally expect to be a victim. And other students just refuse, they don't want to, or they can't see the social context around Poe, which is the traditional kind of Poe scholarship until the last 40 years is to not see that context of race and class and gender around Poe.
It’s about asking the question: the person you're talking about is white, does that matter? If a character is white can we think about white as its own racial and social identity or are we only going to do that when we look at African American, Indigenous or other people of color. The same goes when we talk about male characters or straight characters or cis characters or abled characters--are we going to talk about them as having an identity or are we just going to apply identity questions to people who don't fit any of those categories?
Hannah Lauren Murray is Lecturer in American Literature at the University of Liverpool. Her first monograph Liminal Whiteness in Early US Fiction (Edinburgh University Press, May 2021) examines fluid and precarious white male citizenship in works from Charles Brockden Brown to Frank J Webb. She has also been published in Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, and The Oxford Handbook of Charles Brockden Brown, and she sits on the steering committee for the British Association of Nineteenth-Century Americanists (www.branca.org.uk).