Working Notes on Disintegration, pt. 1

Some of the strangest, most violent, most reality-twisting American novels are also some of the least known. They include Sheppard Lee (1836) and Nick of the Woods, or The Jibbenainosay (1837) by Robert Montgomery Bird and The Down-Easters (1833) by John Neal. There are many more by these two authors and others, some in print and some not.

With or without knowing it, these novels document the disintegrative forces that by the 1860s would culminate in the Civil War. The novels are rough, experimental (especially in terms of bending reality and attempting to render regional and ethnic speech in the vernacular), and far less controlled than the canonical works of their contemporaries James Fenimore Cooper and Edgar Allan Poe. Here are notes (part 1, and a few images) in preparation for a longer proect. They are rough, impressionistic, mostly primary source quotes sometimes with notes pointing toward a fuller argument. I first encountered these and other strange pre-Civil War works in graduate school at Penn State while working on my dissertation on Charles Brockden Brown the Englightenment and never quite concocted a way to write about them that did justice to their fragmented, reality bending style. It might just be that the Web–and the capabilities it offers for mixing text/image, and for leap-frogging across time and space in terms of hunting down primary sources–is the best forum for writing about these marvelous texts in a fashion that somehow performs their strange magic.

SHEPPARD LEE (here is the plot summary blurb from the back of the 2008 New York Review Books edition): “the story of an incorrigible loafer who inadvertently discovers the power to project his soul into dying men’s bodies and to take over their lives. So gifted, Sheppard Lee sets off in pursuit of happiness, only to find himself thwarted at every turn. In growing desperation he shifts from body to body, now a rich man and now a poor man, now a madman and now a slave, a bewildered spirit trapped in the dark maze of American identity.”

Sheppard Lee’s journey begins when he accidentally kills himself–without knowing it; he believes he has merely knocked himself unconscious and then awoken–while digging for treasure: “I returned to the spot, but only to be riveted to the earth in astonishment. I saw, stretched on the grass, just on the verge of the pit, the body of a dead man; but what was my horror when, perusing the ashy features in the light of the moon, I perceived my own countenance! It was no illusion; it was my face, my figure, and dressed in my clothes; and the whole presented the appearance of perfect death.” // The fatal, persistent existence of the self. Sheppard Lee suffers from hyper-consciousness; even death can’t stop him from existing.

Also Emerson, from “Experience” (1844): “It is very unhappy, but too late to be helped, the discovery we have made, that we exist. That discovery is called the Fall of Man. Ever afterwards, we suspect our instruments. We have learned that we do not see directly, but mediately, and that we have no means of correcting these colored and distorting lenses which we are, or of computing the amount of their errors. Perhaps these subject-lenses have a creative power; perhaps there are no objects. Once we lived in what we saw; now, the rapaciousness of this new power, which threatens to absorb all things, engages us.” // Emerson: surface, illusion, optics, (“I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all”) the result of the “subject-lenses” that create–rather than record–reality.

According to the Library Company of Philadelphia (from which the image below is taken), “with all his other accomplishments, Bird was also an important early experimenter in photography, specifically in the making of calotypes, or paper prints made from paper negatives. He took the same picture over and over and noted the different exposure times, light conditions, and developing formulas on the backs of both prints and negatives.” This image dates from the early 1850s:

This takes us to near the end of Sheppard Lee where Lee, in the body of Arthur Megrim, discovers that his “original” body (i.e., Sheppard Lee) had not been dissected after it had been hanged (long story), but was, in fact, in one piece, which he discovers at a lecture by a German doctor named Feuerteufel, who reveals a mummy that turns out to be Sheppard Lee: “I looked upon my face–that is, the face of the mummy–and a thousand recollections of my original home and condition burst upon my mind. . . . I seized upon the cold and rigid hand of the mummy, murmuring, ‘Let me live again in my own body, and never–no! never more in another’s!”

From Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956): You’re jumping to a bizarre conclusion that this man you live with has been replaced by somebody else.

From eXistenZ (David Cronenberg, 1999)
PIKUL (Jude Law)
I mean, where are our real bodies? Are they all right? Are they hungry? What if there’s danger?
GELLER (Jennifer Jason Leigh)
They’re just where we left them, sitting quietly, eyes closed. Just like meditating.

Civil War Photo (via memory.loc.gov), July 1863, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Soldiers’ bodies, sometimes moved and staged by photographers:

Andrew Jackson, Farewell Address, 1837:
The first line of separation would not last for a single generation; new fragments would be torn off, new leaders would spring up, and this great and glorious Republic would soon be broken into a multitude of petty States, without commerce, without credit, jealous of one another, armed for mutual aggression, loaded with taxes to pay armies and leaders, seeking aid against each other from foreign powers, insulted and trampled upon by the nations of Europe, until, harassed with conflicts and humbled and debased in spirit, they would be ready to submit to the absolute dominion of any military adventurer and to surrender their liberty for the sake of repose.

About Nicholas

Writer. Professor.
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