Failure and Fantasy on the Banks of the Ohio

A Conversation with Benjamin Hoffmann, Assistant Professor of Early Modern French Studies at The Ohio State University and editor of a new edition of the Letters Written from the Banks of the Ohio by Claude-François-Adrien de Lezay-Marnésia (Pennsylvania State University Press, translated by Alan J. Singerman, 2017)

In 1790, Claude-François-Adrien de Lezay-Marnésia left France to found a colony on the Scioto River, a tributary of the Ohio in the Northwest Territory. Yet by 1792, he had fled, his fortune squandered and his grandiose plans for an aristocratic utopia unrealized. This new edition of his letters, penned in 1790 and 1791, reveals a man purposefully, somewhat pathetically, imagining a pastoral idyll in the Old Northwest as the realities of the Ohio Country increasingly resisted his vision.Image 1 Book cover

His letters, as Benjamin Hoffmann explains, can be read as a bridge between two very
well-known French texts about North America: Crèvecœur’s 1789 Letters from an America Farmer and Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835-1840). Together, they trace a literary evolution of the United States in French thought from a clean slate of possibility to an uncivilized, capitalist, and deeply flawed republic.

What follows is part of my conversation with Hoffmann on the themes of Lezay-Marnésia as a tragic figure, fantasy and colonization, and competing imaginaries of the Ohio Valley.


Julia: What made you want to edit and re-publish this volume?

Benjamin: This project started in 2011, as I was undertaking my doctoral dissertation at Yale. Being French in the United States, I wanted to investigate the representations of America in French Literature during the eighteenth century. The problem I immediately encountered was the extreme abundance of materials: dozens of travel narratives were written by French people about North America during the age of the enlightenment. Unfortunately, in too many cases, they are not very artfully written, and they present at best a documentary interest. Consequently, while it was easy to find texts fitting in the category of “French representations of America written between 1700 and 1800”, few writers transformed their experience in the New World into a genuine work of art. The Lettres écrites des rives de l’Ohio struck me because they are an exception to this rule. First, they are the work of a mature writer, a man who was in his late fifties when he published them, after spending most of his adult life reading the work of fellow philosophers and building his own œuvre. Indeed, Lezay-Marnésia was a talented polygraph, the author of philosophical essays, poems, short-stories, translations, even works on mineralogy. In 1790, when he traveled to the United States, he had already a long intellectual career behind him. Moreover, his Letters Written from the Banks of the Ohio pursue a dialogue with Montesquieu, Fénelon, Saint-Pierre, and Rousseau by making numerous references to their works and asking a question they all spent a great deal of time meditating: what makes a perfect society and how can you create one in the real world rather than just imagining it? This intellectual dialogue plays a major part in the literary and philosophical richness of Lezay-Marnésia’s volume, which is a late reinterpretation of some of the major preoccupations of the French enlightenment. A question immediately comes to mind after reading the story of Lezay-Marnésia’s emigration to the Northwest territory: his journey was a complete failure, a true disaster, he lost most of his fortune, two years of his life, and finally decided to go back to France at the most dangerous moment for an aristocrat, just before the terreur. And yet, despite all his hardships, Lezay-Marnésia keeps describing the Scioto region and western Pennsylvania as a true paradise, a sort of lost Eden he deeply regrets having left.

Julia: Why did French émigrés like Lezay-Marnésia choose the Northwest Territory instead of culturally “French” places in North America, like Spanish Louisiana or British Quebec?

Benjamin: Lezay-Marnésia and his compatriots chose the Northwest Territory based on false assumptions. The most important one was the assumption that it was an empty space. Indeed, we have to realize that the Northwest Territory had just been surveyed, and that very little was known about it in Europe. When Lezay-Marnésia bought lands in this region, he only knew what the Scioto Company told him about it, and most of the information he received turned out to be misleading at best, and at times completely dishonest. For example, the Scioto Company failed to mention the presence of Native American tribes in the region: in the several documents provided by the Scioto Company to its clients, Amerindians are not mentioned a single time, whereas they turned out to be the biggest challenge French settlers were going to meet in their attempt to create a colony. Consequently, the Scioto Company slyly conveyed the idea that the Northwest Territory was a clean slate where its clients would be able to organize themselves the way they wanted to, by adopting the rules and the social organization they desired. That was especially appealing for Lezay-Marnésia and his partners of the Society of the Twenty-Four, who thought an ideal French society could be realized in this isolated space: a society that would retain some of the basic structural elements of the Old Regime (especially, a strong hierarchical divide between social classes), while creating a new kind of social contract, based on philanthropy. That’s why the Scioto region had advantages over other potential spaces of emigration, such as Spanish Louisiana and British Quebec: it was more than just a space to temporarily settle and wait until the end of the Revolution before going back to France; it was seen as a permanent settlement, close enough to trade with the United States, but far away enough to create an independent society on a territory that was not yet an official part of the Union. Moreover, the land was quite affordable for French people, and a lot was for sale: if the least well-off buyers acquired only several acres, the richest ones bought thousands (Lezay-Marnésia acquired no less than twenty thousand acres!). Very astutely, the Scioto Company played with the fears of French people who were witnessing the first events of the Revolution, while offering them at an extremely competitive price a quantity of land none of them would have been able to buy in their homeland.

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A map of the Federal Territory from the western boundary of Pennsylvania to the Scioto River, Manasseh Cutler, 1788. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division. This 1788 map shows imagined townships and township subdivisions between the Ohio and Scioto Rivers, where the Ohio Company had purchased pre-emption rights. Lezay-Marnésia and his associates in France bought parts of these pre-emption rights under the false impression that they were complete ownership rights.

Julia: Lezay-Marnésia’s vision for his Scioto colony is one in which hardworking settlers are “careful to include Indians among them” (69). His pointed insistence on their inclusion – based on an imagined racial hierarchy and an expectation that Native Americans would adopt European customs – strikes me as bittersweetly naïve, especially given the incredible violence between whites and Native Americans in the Ohio Country in this era. Do you read Lezay-Marnésia’s inclusion of Native Americans as a response to this cultural climate (however impractical), or does it just further betray his disconnection from reality on the ground?

Benjamin: I believe it betrays his disconnection from reality. Indeed, Lezay-Marnésia knew very little about America before deciding to emigrate to the Scioto region, and the little he knew was taken from his reading of the Lettres d’un cultivateur américain by Saint-John de Crèvecœur, a work very much influenced by Rousseau, where Native American are depicted as “bons sauvages”, living in perfect harmony with white settlers. I think it’s difficult to overestimate the influence of the concepts of “noble savages” and “state of nature” on the writings of eighteenth-century novelists and philosophers such as Crèvecœur, Lezay-Marnésia, but also Brissot, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, and so many others. Rousseau used these concepts as thought experiments, as theoretical artifacts, in order to imagine what happened before the creation of complex human societies. But these concepts became so wildly popular that they ceased to be used the way Rousseau intended to employ them: they were taken more and more literally, as if they were describing real people, living at a prelapsarian state that one could still witness outside Europe, something believed by Bougainville and other French explorers. Lezay-Marnésia is a striking example of these disciples of Rousseau who outlived their master and saw the world through the mediation of his works. What fascinates me is the fact he did not try to communicate this troubling experience of alterity, but insisted on representing Native Americans the way he imagined them when he was still in France. Traveling, in a way, was completely useless: in his case, it did not change who he was or what he thought he knew, he even had to forget about it to repeat what he would have said if he had stayed at home. I read this phenomenon as one of the many indications of the therapeutic nature of his literary work: representing things and people as you wish they were, instead of the way you know they are, is a way to come to terms with the almost unbearable disappointments you can experiment. It also proves the outstanding power of literature, that becomes a tool to create an alternative reality corresponding to your wishes and hopes. But when you drop the quill, you have to face reality: that’s why the third of the Letters Written from the Banks of the Ohio is so long, because Lezay-Marnésia cannot bear to stop writing, which would break the spell, so he keeps describing these quite absurd (and at the same time, quite beautiful) scenes of rural banquets, where Native Americans, rich and poor settlers alike, all share a moment of common happiness, enjoying together the beauty of nature and the prosperity of their colony. Of course, this is a pure fantasy, where the point of view of the Amerindians is absolutely not taken into consideration. Lezay-Marnésia just assumes they will be kind and obedient subjects. But I think it’s an illusion he cultivated while he was writing, because it was just too hard for him to accept that he had spent nearly the totality of his once gigantic fortune, risked his life, left at home his wife and two of his children, and spent so much energy, before heading back to France, ruined and bitter. Consequently, this disconnection from reality is in a way self-induced: it’s not madness, or stupidity, it has more to do with finding a way to grieve a world he did not manage to create.

Julia: In addition to a white settler fantasy in which Native Americans had been exterminated, Lezay-Marnésia’s Ohio utopia made me think of the Native American prophets Neolin (Lenape), and later, Tenskwatawa (Shawnee), who also imagined a possible world in the Ohio Country, in which Native Americans would achieve a purified unity through their rejection of European culture and lifeways. Unlike Lezay-Marnésia’s, theirs were distinctively exclusive visions in which settlers and Native Americans could not and would not co-exist. What does it mean to consider Lezay-Marnésia’s utopian Aigle-Lys not just as part of a genre of French visions of the U.S., but as one of several competing imaginaries about the same place? His certainly co-existed in the Ohio Country with a white settler fantasy in which Native Americans have been exterminated, and a prophetic Native American vision in which whites have been expelled and their culture rejected. We might want to explain Lezay-Marnésia’s penchant for fantasy as a result of his being a distant émigré, but what if those much closer to the ground also saw Scioto as an imaginary space?

Benjamin: Not only can we read Lezay-Marnésia’s utopia as part of several competing imaginary appropriations of this land, but also as one of many competing geopolitical projects. Indeed, the vast territory where he wanted to build Aigle-Lys was coveted by several super-powers at the end of the eighteenth century. Great Britain still held several key military positions in the region; Native American tribes fought to keep the control on their ancestral lands, in particular the Miamis and the Shawnees; the American government was planning the westward expansion of the United States; even the French government had views on this place, since the Girondins aimed to create sister-republics in the region, sharing political and commercial interests with France. So, there was a fierce competition, not only of imaginaries as you observed, but also of power and political projects. To comment on this phenomenon, I would venture two possible explanations. The obvious one has to do with a sense of opportunity: the political status of this region was still uncertain, and to ambitious powers, it looked as a place free for the taking. Let’s not forget that France, just a few years later, when it got back Louisiana from Spain thanks to the treaty of San Ildefonso (1800), for a moment imagined to recreate its empire in North America. We know how things turned out – the purchase of Louisiana in 1801 definitely put an end to this dream – but for the contemporaries, there was still the sense that what we know would become part of the United States, could still belong to a European power. But there is another explanation that has to do with the specificity of the landscape, I think. This region, especially Ohio, is very flat: in a way, it is a sort of natural embodiment of the concept of the “clean slate”, a vast space, where anything is possible, where utopias can freely flourish. It has an idyllic aspect in many places, and, precisely, the comparison between the Ohio region and the garden of Eden was repeated by several French writers, including Crèvecœur and Lezay-Marnésia. It is as if the Ohio landscape was a kind of canvas where the boldest imaginations of the human mind could be projected while simultaneously leading to an association with very ancient fantasies, such as the dream of recreating the golden age. For Lezay-Marnésia, there was certainly no limit to what he thought possible: he imagined Aigle-Lys – even if he never articulates the political relation of this growing colony with the American government – as the center of a future empire, an empire he compares to a hive sending its swarms to colonize the almost boundless American space…

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Tenskwatawa (The Prophet) 1768-1837, by Henry Inman (1801-1846), after Charles Bird King, c. 1830-1833. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Julia: By way of concluding, I’d like to push this final point on the inclusion of Native American visions of the Ohio Valley a bit further. As Gregory Dowd demonstrates so well in A Spirited Resistance, broadly accepted ideas for Native self-determination and resistance—often based in theories of separate creation between Euro-Americans and Native Americans—proliferated throughout the Old Northwest from the 1760s on ( Gregory E. Dowd, “Thinking and Believing: Nativism and Unity in the Ages of Pontiac and Tecumseh,” American Indian Quarterly 16, no. 3 (1992): 309–350). Spiritual theories fused with political action in the form of, for example, the Shawnee prophet Tenskwatawa’s 1806 invitation to all Indian peoples to join him in settling the town of Greenville, Ohio. This imagined community forms an intriguing counterpoint to Lezay-Marnésia’s own planned town (ibid., 312). In reading Dowd’s writing about Tenskwatawa and his brother Tecumseh’s visions for the Ohio Country, I found that your characterization of it as a place that feels both ancient and full of potential possibility seems to fit very appropriately into what they hoped for and preached of. More generally, I’d also propose that including Native Americans as visionaries may allow a broader and more complex picture of these connections between fantasy, politics, and place to emerge. It frames Native Americans as more than reactive defenders of ancestral territories who didn’t have the power or luxury to transcend pragmatism.

The third competing imaginary for the Old Northwest during this era was, of course, the United States project of imposing the Public Lands Survey System grid. The Ohio Valley was the first place that the U.S. tried out this attempt at regular, linear township squares, and they often appeared on maps long before they appeared on the ground. Thus, the 1788 map of neatly delineated townships squares represented an imagined future, not a present reality.

In an important sense, all three projects—Lezay-Marnésia’s Aigle-Lys, Tenskwatawa’s Greenville, and the PLSS.—these were all imaginative projects involving an element of fantasy, but they also represented very real geo-political designs. Lezay-Marnésia’s might seem the most fantastical because it failed so spectacularly, but even though the United States project of imposing the PLSS succeeded didn’t make it necessarily less imaginary in its nascent stage. For Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa, whose visions of the Old Northwest also met with failure, the power of fantasy and the reality of defending and protecting land were intimately intertwined. Can we ever draw clean conceptual lines between geopolitical contests and imaginative visions?

Julia Lewandoski is a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley. Her dissertation considers the impact of imperial transitions on indigenous landholding in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Quebec, Louisiana, and California.

Dispatches from the Archives

Mandate Agent, Colonial Subject, and Jewish Citizen : Jamil Sasson

by guest contributor James Casey

On a chilly winter day in 1941 Jamil Sasson, a Syrian employee of the French Mandate bureaucracy, sent a letter to the Secrétaire général du Haut-Commissariat de la République Française en Syrie et au Liban to protest his termination and loss of pension. “Permit me,” Sasson wrote, to underscore the essential French “principle of equality for all.” (1/SL/20/150) This was not merely the protest of a disgruntled former employee: Jamil Sasson was a Syrian Jew who had lost his position in the civil administration of the French Mandate after the application of Vichy’s antisemitic laws to French overseas territories. Based on the records of his  professional duties, it seems he was also a spy.

The cover tab on Jamil Sasson’s personnel file. From the Centre des Archives diplomatiques de Nantes.

The French Mandate for Syria and Lebanon (1920-1946) marked the zenith of the French empire in the Middle East but came with novel legal and political constraints. France held the former Ottoman territories that today comprise Lebanon and Syria under the auspices of a League of Nations Class A Mandate trust territory. France was obliged as the Mandatory power (in theory if not always in practice) to safeguard the rights, property, and religious affairs of the people of the trust territory and to answer for their conduct to a Permanent Mandates Commission that sat in Geneva (62-64).

Grand Rabbi of Damascus Hakam Nessm Inudbu at the Synagogue of El Efrange with three companions. (United States National Archives/RG84 Syria Damascus Embassy General Records/1950-1955/510-570.3)

Jamil Sasson was not a French citizen, but the French state that ruled Syria purged him from his profession, rendered him destitute, and sent police to toss his residence in much the same frightening way that French Jews experienced the onset of Vichy. Sasson’s situation underscores how the bureaucratic state can quickly dehumanize and dispossess; what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.” It is also a reminder of the poor practical defense that the idea of equality could offer in the face of bigotry and bureaucratic inertia. Sasson, a Francophone Arab Jew from Damascus, was a trusted interlocutor between the Muslim and Christian religious hierarchies and the French officials in the Contrôle des Wakfs. Personally and professionally, he navigated multiple overlapping and sometimes contradictory worlds. His experience offers granular insights for historians of modern Syria and the French empire. It also should interest scholars concerned with citizenship and those interested in the relationship between individuals and state power. Few individuals in the French Mandate could or did cross the borders  – geographic, political, sectarian, linguistic – that Sasson did, let alone with ease or credibility.

Sasson’s personnel records show he was nominally employed as a secrétaire interprète in the Contrôle des Wakfs et de l’Immatriculation foncière; the department charged with overseeing the administration and management of pious endowment property, or waqf. My dissertation research strongly suggests that his duties consisted of espionage and administrative surveillance, rather than clerical work. His French superior Philippe Gennardi, Délégué du Haute-Commissariat auprès du Contrôle Générale des Wakfs, saw Sasson as a lynchpin of a surveillance and intelligence gathering apparatus. This apparatus, controlled by Gennardi, functioned separately from the formal security and intelligence services of the French Mandate. Evidence I assembled from the superficially mundane ephemera of bureaucracy – performance reviews in personal files, receipts submitted for reimbursement, back-and-forth correspondence between different Mandate departments over whose budget should pay Sasson’s salary – indicate that Sasson was an integral figure supporting a sophisticated, semi-autonomous surveillance and human intelligence operation run by Gennardi, focused on waqf (Islamic pious endowments) as a surveillance space. This is a story that is essentially absent from the records of the Service de renseignement, the Mandate’s formal security-intelligence service and from scholarship on the Mandate. Gennardi explicitly described that Sasson’s duties defied his prosaic job title to justify Sasson’s salary in budgetary disputes with his superiors: Sasson was in constant communication with all local administrations and managed the French Mandate’s day-to-day relations with the heads of all of the religious sects in the Mandate. This partnership between French official and Syrian Jewish civil servant was a critical, if understudied element of the formal and informal surveillance capacity of the Mandate state. That is, until the the Fall of France, the installation of Maréchal Pétain in Vichy, and Sasson’s sacking.        

On July 20th, 1943 Sasson wrote to his longtime superior Gennardi, with whom he appears to have been close. He had yet been unsuccessful in either returning to his position in the administration or receiving a pension, even after the defeat of the Vichy-aligned administration in the Mandate by Free French and British Commonwealth forces in the summer of 1941. Since first protesting his dismissal at the beginning of 1941, “I have had to abandon all hope of justice given the circumstances and my religion.” Thus Sasson was dispatched by the security machinery of the state, of which he had once surreptitiously been a part.

It is challenging to situate a figure like Sasson in much of the historiography of twentieth century Syria. Notwithstanding more recent scholarship, the Anglo-French historiography of modern Syrian history pivots from elite nationalism under French rule to a series of military coups after independence, and ultimately to the coming of the Baʾth Party. Jamil Sasson’s biography does not fit neatly into this standard narrative. He was born in Damascus in the Ottoman province of Syria, the French Mandate state recorded his nationality as Syrian, and he frequently moved back and forth across the borders of the Mandates for Syria and Lebanon and the British Mandate for Palestine where he had family. He spoke French, worked in the Mandate administration, and was Jewish in his religion. He stood out to senior French administrators in the Mandate and local Christian and Muslim religious chiefs as someone reliable. While his nationality was Syrian, he did not enjoy the protections of citizenship.

Sasson worked for the French Mandate state in a historical context in which Jews (as well as Christians and Muslims) had been intermediaries in commerce and diplomacy during the Ottoman Empire (178-79, see also Michelle Campos, Ottoman Brothers: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Early Twentieth-century Palestine, 62-63). Many Jews in the Arab provinces, along with Christians and Muslims, embraced the Ottoman state’s fitful attempts to impose equal citizenship (147). Cast against his sectarian background, Sasson’s personal and professional profile was both complex and quotidian: he played a key role in building the Mandate state, but does not fit the profile of a nationalist hero or a collaborator. Sasson had a government job that was not glamorous on paper, but he performed specialized, sensitive work on issues of religious faith, custodianship and care of pious endowment property, and he carefully built and maintained relationships across sectarian lines, relationships that could be prickly in the best of times. Sasson’s appeal to legal and personal protection in the principle of equality for all speaks to the paradox that defined the interwar period: the vast expansion of rights and international peace-affirming institutions built on the Wilsonian idea of popular sovereignty could not be reconciled with prevailing systems of unequal citizenship, colonialism, and racism. Indeed, formal independence for Syria in 1946 did not resolve this tension, either for national sovereignty or equal citizenship: the postwar United Nations provided better but still unequal international forum and meaningful equal citizenship in independent Syria remained elusive under liberal parliamentary and military regimes alike.

Front and back cover of an identification booklet issued to citizen members of the national guard of the Syrian Republic under French tutelage.

Ideas about “equality for all,” like the institution of responsible French trusteeship of the League of Nations Mandate for Syria seemed to support broad rights, representation, and protection. In practice, they overpromised and underdelivered. The “principle of equality for all” amounted to little practical protection for Sasson by the time he wrote his appeal, yet the idea of equality remained the basis for his case. Equality, as a legal framework, was not sufficiently institutionalized to provide tangible protections. However, equality as an idea persisted.

A number of contemporary tensions reflect the the interwar period that produced the French Mandate in Syria: inadequate yet expanding possibilities of legal personhood and protections for more people; an international system invested with such promise and possibility for peace, but seemingly defined by its inability to prevent conflict; chilling attempts to legally enshrine “extreme vetting” of purported traitors within and enemies without. The discourse of human rights, legal personhood, and citizenship that Sasson invoked in 1941 resonates now with even greater urgency. We would do well to take heed of the experience of a man who found that his world no longer had a place for him.

James Casey is a PhD candidate in the History Department at Princeton University. His dissertation examines the relationship of pious endowment properties to the development of state surveillance capacity in Syria between 1920-1960. He holds an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from The University of Texas at Austin and was a Fulbright Fellow in Syria from 2008-9.

Think Piece

The Other Samuel Johnson: African-American Labor in the Vicinity of the Early U.S. Book Trade

by guest contributor John Garcia

Much of the pleasure of studying the economics of book publishing comes from the various minor personages who appear and disappear before the historians gaze. Sometimes patterns emerge from these fragmented discoveries, perhaps not enough for an article, but worth sharing as a provocation for others tilling similar ground. The anecdotes and interpretations supplied below represent a book historians contribution to recovery work in early African-American print culture. The study of early black print has benefited from new archival discoveries and interpretations, led in part by Cohen and Steins 2012 edited collection Early African American Print Culture. Rather than seek forgotten black authors or readers, or under-appreciated connections between print and racialization, I ask a set of questions that focus on the labors behind book culture in the early American republic: What happens in the vicinity of book production and consumption? Is there a black presence in the mundane life of making books (as opposed to writing, printing, or reading them)? How did African-Americans contribute to the various activities that support a printing operation or bookstore?

Focusing on activities occurring in the vicinityof book production directs attention to the still-unknown history of African-American labor, both free and enslaved, in relation to the early national book trade. Could indentured labor in a print shop allow enslaved persons a pathway to freedom? Was working for the book trade particularly amenable to emancipated African-Americans, even if they were illiterate?

Not long ago, while studying letters exchanged between Mathew Carey and his traveling agent Mason Locke Weemsthe most successful American publisher prior to 1830 and the early republics most successful book marketer, respectivelyI was given pause by the following query written by Weems in 1797:

If you see my Sam (freed Negro) be so good as to tell him I want to employ him.

This note was the first tantalizing clue I had ever seen about the presence of African-American workers in the print shops and publishing houses of Careys Philadelphia.

Samuel Johnson was a slave Weems had inherited as part of his fathers Maryland estate. Sams unusually literary name immediately brings to mind the famous English writer and biographer, and Weems may have personally chosen this name, given his own reputation as biographer and hagiographer of George Washington and others. Weems deserves credit for having freed Johnsonhe elsewhere boasts to Carey of being an early Liberator of my Slaves”—and he seems to have taken special care to ingratiate the ex-slave into the community of Philadelphia printers and publishers. Four years after receiving that first note from Weems, Carey paid Johnson twenty dollars on Weemss account. Throughout the rest of the decade, Samuel Johnson appears in the financial records of Philadelphia publishers as a paid laborer, usually in the form of receipts bearing his mark. Johnson was illiterate.

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Receipt of payment from Mathew Carey to Samuel Johson, Nov. 26, 1801. (Account #6710, Matthew Carey Papers, American Antiquarian Society)


Although sometimes portrayed as an ideologist of slavery and nationalismhere Im thinking particularly of François Furstenbergs compelling reading of Weems in In the Name of the Father (2006)surviving evidence of the relationship between Weems and Johnson suggests that the former went out of his way to treat his ex-slave as an independent agent in the world of print.

Further evidence comes from a letter Weems wrote to the Philadelphia publisher C.P. Wayne:Dr Sir. Of the little monies of mine now in your hand, please pay my Freed Man, Samuel Johnson Esq., sixty dollars & forever oblige two of your very obt servts. Poor Sam & his Quondam Sovereign, M.L. Weems.

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Receipt of C.P. Wayne, Oct. 17, 1804 bearing Samuel Johnson’s mark (American Antiquarian Society)

On the verso of this letter, Wayne had Johnson sign his mark to acknowledge receipt of the sixty dollars. This large sum of money was for services Johnson performed in relation to Waynes publication of John Marshalls five-volume Life of George Washington (1804-07), one of the most ambitious publication events of the decade. More evidence of Johnsons labor can be found in the records of the female printer Lydia Bailey. In 1808, Bailey paid Sam $1.50 for additional paveing in the yard in north alley(Lydia R. Bailey Receipt Book, 1808-1824. American Antiquarian Society). This small sum, and the kind of labor expended to earn it, demonstrates that Weems was not exaggerating in calling his friend Poor Sam.Johnson undoubtedly took on the most menial, unskilled jobs from his Philadelphia employers.

Taken together, these documents give oblique information about the book trades reliance upon African-American labor. As early as 1797, Johnson seems to have frequently hung around the vicinity of Careys business. Johnsons continued usefulness to Philadelphias printers is proven by the range of years (1801-1808) represented by the receipts. Illiterate men could perform valuable work in early U.S. print shops, binderies, bookstores, and paper mills, down to the mundane (but still necessary) work of building maintenance. These peripheral activities remind us that book historians should always consider the non-textual labors behind print culture that dont end up on the page. Personal connections mattered as well, since its clear that Weemss extensive contacts enabled Johnson to find employment and to be eventually paid. The men and women of the Philadelphia book trade comprised a close-knit community, as Rosalind Remer discusses in her 1996 book Printers and Men of Capital, and all three of Johnsons employers had longstanding ties with Weems and with one other. This networkof booksellers and printers kept Johnson involved, even though he couldnt read the very books that his work helped to produce.

Samuel Johnson was likely an anomaly as a free African-American worker in the trade. My second example offers a glimpse into slave labor in a New York printing establishment. The records of the printer Samuel Campbell reveal 1790s New York as a city of print still rooted in the craft relations of the hand-press period. Campbell employed numerous apprentices, a practice documented by extant indentureship papers such as one contracted with a white boy named Alexander McLeod, aged fifteen, to learn the art of bookbinding. Also among Campbells papers is another indentureship for Charles a negro man,aged thirty-eight, to serve after the manner of a servant.Both contracts, for McLeod in 1791 and for Charles in 1793, reveal the different modalities of unfree labor used in early U.S. printing establishments.

How did Charles come to work for Campbell? A separate sheet of paper mounted to his indenture bears the signature of a previous owner, Casper Springsteen, who transferred the right to bargain, sell, and dispose ofthe slave to a relative David Springsteen, of Long Island, New York. On November 9, 1793, David Springsteen signed the papers that made Charles a servant of Samuel Campbell. The verso of the contract has a further note from David Springsteen directing Campbell to no longer consider Charles as the property of the Springsteen family after the expiration of seven years: Provided the said Charles within named shall & do well and truly fulfill the written Indenture I do hereby remiss release and for ever quit claim unto the said negro slave & forgo any right of property over him.Could this mean that Charles became a free man after termination of the indentureship? Unfortunately, the trail of evidence ends here, and I have not seen further mention of Charles in Samuel Campbells papers.

Campbell saw fit to use the same printed form for a black slave that he used for his white apprentices, even as the manuscript annotations and alterations made to Charless papers display his liminal status. As the property of another, slaves couldnt legally bind themselves to an indenture, and yet his previous owner, David Springsteen, seems to have purposely inserted language endowing Charles with a provisional right to fulfill the written Indentureand work his way to freedom after a stated number of years. The difference between the contracts signed by Alexander McLeod and Charles, therefore, resides in different degrees of being bound to a master, with racial difference (in the case of Charles) calling for contractual finesse that was both emancipatory, in one sense, while also barring enslaved laborers from specialized training.

Alexander McLeod also reminds us that free and enslaved labor existed in a continuum that included indentured white workers as well. McLeod was specifically assigned the craft of bookbinding, and successful completion of his apprenticeship would have prepared him for work in New Yorks thriving book industry. Charles, on the other hand, had no specialized assignment in the world of print. That said, given Campbells extensive business (which included a New Jersey paper mill), its likely that Charles may have performed the kinds of odd jobs undertaken by PoorSamuel Johnson.

Does paving the sidewalk outside a printers shop merit inclusion in early African-American print culture? Emphatically yes, so long as we understand print cultureas a cluster of practices and mediations that are not divorced from human labor. As Robert Darnton once argued in his essay “The Forgotten Middlemen of Literature,” the historical analysis of literate culture must be expanded to include all the agentseven illiterate onesresponsible for the book as a cultural artifact. The two African-Americans described in this essay teach us that the making of books could potentially set one man free or help another ex-slave maintain a livelihood, however meager. Both men worked in the vicinity of the early U.S. book trade, even though they were likely unable to read the printed matter that was the end goal of the businesses for which they worked.

John Garcia teaches humanities courses at Boston University. His research in early American book history has been supported by the Ford Foundation, the Library Company of Philadelphia, and the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship in Critical Bibliography.

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Keeper of Language Games: G.H. von Wright at 100

by guest contributor David Loner

This past month I attended a symposium held at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge in memory of the Finnish logician and Cambridge professor of philosophy G.H. von Wright (1916-2003), who this June would have been 100. Titled “Von Wright and Wittgenstein in Cambridge,” the event was organized by Bernt Österman, Risto Vilkko and Thomas Wallgren (University of Helsinki) and sponsored by the International Ludwig Wittgenstein Society, the Antti Wihuri Foundation and the Oskar Öflund Foundation. For four days, philosophers and intellectual historians from Europe and the United States met at von Wright’s former residence of Strathaird to discuss topics from intellectual biography to metatextual analysis, forging a greater historical appreciation for von Wright’s life and work. In particular, by discussing his legacy as Wittgenstein’s student, participants reflected not only on von Wright’s place in the history of analytic philosophy but also his postwar ambivalence towards what I have elsewhere termed Wittgenstein’s absent-minded training regime.

Von Wright and Wittgenstein at Strathaird. By permission of the family of Knut Erik Tranøy.
Von Wright and Wittgenstein at Strathaird. By permission of the family of Knut Erik Tranøy.

Georg Henrik von Wright (pronounced von Vrikht) was born June 16, 1916 to a Swedish-speaking family in Helsinki. Influenced early in his training by the scientific philosophy of the Vienna Circle, von Wright first enrolled as a post-graduate student at Cambridge in March 1939. A student of the Finnish psychologist Eino Kaila, von Wright held an interest in the logical justification of induction, a topic he wished to continue studying as a Ph.D. student. Thus, with intelligence and affability, he would quickly gain the attention of a number of noted dons, specifically the Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy Charles Dunbar Broad. As faculty chair, Broad encouraged von Wright to attend courses and colloquia in philosophy and the philosophy of mathematics. Most notably he suggested those lectures held at Whewell’s Court in Trinity College by the recently-elected Professor of Philosophy Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Though by no means a traditional logician, Wittgenstein, by 1939, had accumulated in his Cambridge talks a retinue of devotees, each one taken by both his “overpowering personality” and cant critique of scientific philosophy as “diseases of the understanding”. In his 1990 biography of Wittgenstein, Ray Monk describes these devotees as never ceasing in their thinking “seriously and deeply” about philosophical problems. Yet, in point of fact, many of his students can be said to have strayed from their master’s treatment of the subject. To be sure, von Wright was no exception. Appreciative of Wittgenstein’s sincerity as both a philosopher and “restless genius,” von Wright nevertheless maintained scholarly priorities which stood in stark contrast to the Spenglerian pessimism of Wittgenstein’s later thought, towards a more optimistic discussions of the purchase scientific philosophy held for humanity.

Indeed, throughout his intellectual life, von Wright is said to have held a “profound respect for the achievements of the exact sciences.” This, at least, is according to Ilkka Niiniluoto, whose “opening words” on behalf of the organizers of the symposium testified to the ambivalent tone von Wright took in his reception of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy. Beginning with his 1941 Ph.D. thesis, “The Logical Problem of Induction,” and continuing well into his later studies in “deontic logic,” von Wright is said to have entertained in his research, pace Wittgenstein, questions of not only logical form but as well normative propositional coherence. What is more, due to his lifelong collegial connections with older Cambridge luminaries, including Broad, G.E. Moore and Richard Braithwaite, von Wright is known to have acquired in his role as lecturer a “fatherly” affect—quite the departure from the vociferous Wittgenstein.

This portrayal of von Wright as both erudite and accommodating was re-emphasized time and again throughout the event’s proceedings, not least by Niiniluoto’s Cambridge colleague Jonathan Smith. In his talk, “Why Cambridge?: A Historical examination of the ‘living tradition in inductive logic’”, Smith marshaled Tripos examination papers and biographical material in order to suggest that alongside Wittgenstein’s well-known absent-minded training regime there existed in Cambridge a far richer tradition of learned, mathematical-based knowledge-making, remembered as much for “its pursuit of science” as its social utility. This tradition, Smith argued, appealed as a corrective to past atomistic assumptions about logic and to Wittgenstein’s own scurrilous depictions of scientific philosophy. For, as he noted, “[t]he primacy of mathematics [in the Cambridge Moral Sciences at 1939] both starved it of students…and yet provided high-quality graduates schooled in mathematics who were drawn to logical aspects of philosophy.”

It is no coincidence, then, that while von Wright admired Wittgenstein as a great man of talent, he stood opposed to his teacher in terms of both character and method, preferring instead what can be viewed as the more congenial and practical folkways of the day. Yet despite their differences, Wittgenstein is said by all accounts to have remained fond of his Finnish pupil, who in 1948 would briefly succeed Wittgenstein as professor of philosophy at Cambridge (later resigning in 1951 in order to return to Helsinki.) “In Cambridge von Wright gained the impression that Wittgenstein greatly appreciated the substantial differences of their philosophical methods and personalities,” Bernt Österman and Risto Vilkko remarked in their memorial piece, “Georg Henrik von Wright: A Philosopher’s Life.” In fact, “Wittgenstein is reported to have said that von Wright was the only one of his students who he had not spoiled with his teaching and guidance, the only one who made no attempt to imitate his way of thinking or mode of expression.” (Osterman and Vilkko, 53). While not quite an accurate representation of Wittgenstein’s devotees, this rendering of von Wright’s post-graduate study did afford presenters a historical template from which to further problematize his later work, most notably as literary executor and editor of the Wittgenstein Nachlass.

A key facet of contemporary research in Wittgenstein studies, presenters Joachim Schulte and Susan Edwards-McKie both commented in their respective talks on the interventionist approach von Wright took to compiling Wittgenstein’s posthumous papers, following the philosopher’s April 1951 death. Culling from letters and correspondence belonging to fellow literary executor Rush Rhees and maintained at Swansea University, Edwards-McKie’s paper, “The Charged Dialectic: Von Wright and Rhees” confirmed that mathematical certainty (rather than any overriding attempt at an anti-intellectual moral epistemology) drove editors in their initial postwar conversations on composition and publication of Wittgenstein’s later writings. Meanwhile, in his talk “Georg Henrik von Wright as editor of Wittgenstein’s writings”, Schulte recalled from his own experience as a pupil of von Wright’s the numerous exegetical “modifications” the philosopher would take in pairing together such otherwise under-developed texts as Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics (1956) and Philosophical Grammar (1969). Altogether, presenters attested that under von Wright, Wittgenstein’s original aspiration—to establish a thoroughly non-academic form of “doing philosophy”, divorced from the “mental cramps” which persisted throughout the practice of logic—would by 1969 transform into a sub-discipline of its own—a discipline which was at once specialized, routinized and authorial, all those things which Wittgenstein, in life, had denounced as unbecoming of philosophy.

Speaker Christian Erbacher giving his talk. Author photo.
Speaker Christian Erbacher giving his talk. Author photo.

How exactly such a transformation was allowed to occur in the first place was thus the topic of speaker Christian Erbacher’s concluding keynote address, “The correspondence between Wittgenstein’s literary executors—a source for studying the work of philosophical editors”. Convinced of the presence of an “asymmetry” in the correspondence shared between von Wright and fellow editors Rhees and Elizabeth Anscombe, Erbacher identified in his talk several key moments in the “history of reproducing Wittgenstein” wherein von Wright took a decisive lead. Chief among them was the 1968 codification of Cornell University’s Wittgenstein microfilm collection. Fascinated by the “externalities” of Wittgenstein’s writings, most notably their classification and historical “strata”, von Wright was said to have, in his concern for curation, shared affinities with the archivist, setting him well apart from Rhees and Anscombe, each of whom were often overwhelmed by the task of deciphering and setting to order Wittgenstein’s unfinished manuscripts. In cooperation with Wittgenstein’s most renowned American pupil, Norman Malcolm, then, von Wright, in 1966, would set to work on a Cornell edition of the Wittgenstein Nachlass. Reproduced via microfiche, the Cornell set enabled von Wright to at once disseminate Wittgenstein’s posthumous papers to a much wider audience of philosophers and accommodate those academics already committed in their own work to the further elaboration of his and Anscombe and Rhees’s published accounts. According to Erbacher, all of this, in addition to von Wright’s own enumeration of the Nachlass’ contents, provides insight into the mechanisms of Wittgensteinian philosophy’s disciplinary formation, insofar as it offers a “‘blackbox’ of paradigms in the humanities”; that is, von Wright’s efforts bear witness to students’ active rehabilitation of Wittgenstein’s work well after his teacher’s own failure to codify his adversarial ethos of discipleship as a viable teaching method in philosophy.

The ambivalence von Wright held towards Wittgenstein’s absent-minded training regime thus points to a tension within the history of analytic philosophy that no metaphilosophy of “family resemblances” can adequately describe without mistaking real institutional upheaval for a “robust distinctive phenomenon”. For while philosophers and intellectual historians may insist that Wittgenstein’s later philosophy reflects a continued attempt to do away with “the sickness of philosophical problems,” at the same time they remain staunchly opposed to the idea that analytic philosophy’s postwar “web of beliefs” failed to convey a congenial and scientifically-conscious means of doing philosophy. As I hope my remarks on this symposium have shown, greater attention to the international academic culture and reputation of Cambridge at mid-century, and to the influence it held over students’ own professional identity formation, might very well offer the means by which to begin to circle this. For in treating von Wright on his own terms, we begin to recognize the greater curricular space that acolytes of Wittgenstein straddled in their careers as keepers of the language games.

Conference participants gather outside Strathaird. Author photo.
Conference participants gather outside Strathaird. Author photo.

David Loner is a third-year Ph.D. student in history at the University of Cambridge. His research focuses on the disciplinary formation of Wittgensteinian philosophy and the changing parameters of student-instructor collaboration in the twentieth century Moral Sciences at Cambridge. He can be reached at

Think Piece

(Prison) Note(book)s Toward a History of Boredom

by guest contributor Spencer J. Weinreich

Act III, scene iii of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (c.1596) sees the imprisoned Antonio following his creditor, Shylock, through the streets, in hopes of mercy. Unmoved, Shylock expostulates, “I do wonder, / Thou naughty gaoler, that thou art so fond / To come abroad with him at his request” (III.iii.8–10).

But sixteenth-century English audiences would not have been surprised at Antonio’s freedom, for early-modern prisons “were not hermetically sealed sites of discipline; they were instead physically and socially enmeshed with the surrounding city” (Freeman, “The Rise of Prison Literature,” 135–36). Friends, relatives, and servants could come and go with relative ease. Moreover, prisoners might purchase from their jailors whatever luxuries they could afford: the Catholic printer Stephen Vallenger’s cell contained, inter alia, “a feather bed, silver and pewter spoons, money, jewelry, and a library of 101 books” (141). Texts circulated within and through prison walls—even into printing presses.

Faced with such evidence, it is understandable that the abundant recent scholarship on early-modern prisons sees these institutions as defined by contact, both personal and textual. Peter Lake and Michael C. Questier regard the prison as “the venue for the most exciting and imaginative battles” between Catholics and Protestants, whether in interrogation, proselytization, or disputation (196). Molly Murray and Thomas S. Freeman have both gone so far as to call it “a site of culture, one that ought to be considered alongside the court and the university as a place of significant textual, and literary, production” (150).

If we regard the prison as characterized by contact, we are predisposed to regard prison writings as the products of contact, and as fundamentally discursive. That is to say, as communicating something to someone, some audience beyond the author’s cell. Thus, scholars have concentrated on letters, life-writing and other forms of self-presentation, and polemics or apologetics. Even ostensibly private or non-discursive forms of writing, such as personal poetry or graffiti, are interpreted along these lines, as directed (if obliquely) to jailers, future inmates, or God.

Yet to normalize the prison as a site of cultural production risks glossing over a critical feature of its intellectual landscape: constraint. Rivkah Zim identifies constraint as the commonality unifying “prison writings” as a category: “though the experience of different centuries and regimes varies greatly and there is no single category of space implied […] being a prisoner or captive in any period means being cut off and kept apart from the continuities of normal life” (2). Even the most lenient carceral regimes included controls on communication and the movement of texts and persons, circumstances absent at court or within the universities. But if we take seriously the isolation Zim places at the heart of the carceral experience and look for its presence in the early modern English prison, new approaches to literary history, and the history of ideas more generally, become possible.

My case study is Stephen Gardiner, Tudor bishop of Winchester. In the reign of Edward VI, Gardiner was twice imprisoned for resisting the radical Protestant agenda of the young king’s regents. In September 1547, he was confined to the Fleet, probably to prevent him attending the coming parliamentary session. Released in January 1548, Gardiner was not to enjoy his freedom for long: in June, after months of more or less open defiance, he was again arrested and sent to the Tower,

“a dankish and uncomfortable house,” as his servant Wingfield called it, for one ‘much given to rheums’—and lodged for the first month “in a place called the Garden Tower… fast locked in, without coming abroad in all that space.” Then […] he was removed to “a place in the same Tower called the King’s Lodging.” Here he was kept no less closely, not even being permitted to exercise in the gardens. For eleven months more he saw no one save the Lieutenant of the Tower, the jailors, a physician who came when he was sick of a fever, his chaplain, William Medowe, who was permitted to visit him once in his fever and again on Easter Day, and two servants of his household, who waited on him and who were not allowed to leave the Tower confines. (James Arthur Muller, Stephen Gardiner and the Tudor Reaction, 183)

As we have seen, this was severity entirely out of keeping with sixteenth-century English norms. In October 1549, Gardiner protested to the Privy Council,

[I] have continued heere in this miserable prison now one yeere, one quarter, and one moneth, this same day that I write these my letters, with want of aire to relieve my bodie, want of books to releeve my minde, want of good company, the onely solace of this world, and finally, want of a just cause, why I should have come hither at all. (442)

Although eventually permitted occasional walks in the gardens, Gardiner’s systemic isolation continued. He was to be denied books, paper, and writing implements, but this stricture, at least, was not observed—as evidenced by the six treatises and numerous letters produced during his captivity. Gardiner also kept notebooks, two of which survive as Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, Parker MS 127, fols. 167–342. He filled page after page with quotations from Desiderius Erasmus’s Adages, Plautus, Martial, Juvenal, and Virgil, as well as his own Latin elegiac verses (mostly biblical paraphrases).

These notebooks are not easily read as the product of interpersonal contact and or as a medium of communication—they do not cohere into a message or reveal an intended audience. To take the pages of Plautus as an example, to all appearances Gardiner is simply copying out lines from the playwright’s collected works, as edited by the French humanist Robert Estienne and published in Paris in 1530 (identifiable by textual variants). The quotations are ordered according to their appearance in each play, the plays according to the arrangement of the edition. As a result, adjacent verses seem to bear little relation to one another. An excerpt from folio 177, drawn from Pseudolus (191 BCE), gives a sense of the organizational incoherence:

“Imbrem in cribrum gerere” (“pouring water into a sieve,” l. 102)
“supercilium salit (“my eyebrow is twitching,” l. 107)
“dictis facta suppetant” (“your deeds support the words you speak,” l. 108) (all translations by Wolfgang de Melo).

Some lines could be interpreted as responses to Gardiner’s situation (“Animus equus optimum est arumne condimentum” [“That’s why self-possession is the best seasoning for sorrow,” Rudens, l. 402]), but others seem irrelevant at best (“meas opplebit aures sua vaniloquentia” [“she’ll fill my ears with her idle chatter,” Rudens, l. 905]) (fols. 172, 185). Some quotations are abbreviated past the point of potential relevance: from the line “so that I’d be treated a little bit more neatly at last” (Pseudolus, l. 774), Gardiner has copied only the word “gnitiudscule” (“a little bit more neatly”) (fol. 179).

Perhaps the apparent absence of a message simply is the absence of a message; perhaps the content of these pages was of no more than incidental interest to Gardiner. Instead, I suggest the key to understanding these compilations lies in the prisoner’s own words: his continued “want of books to releeve my minde, want of good company, the onely solace of this world.” Gardiner was a celebrated scholar of canon and civil law, the master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, a distinguished diplomat, and, until his deposition in 1551, a prominent bishop. He was a man at the center of English intellectual and political life. And, locked away in the Tower, he was bored. Copying out quotations occupied his eyes, hands, and mind, at once ameliorating the tedium of endless hours alone and distracting him from the frustrations and anxieties of his isolation. In this instance—and in many others as yet unidentified—the act of writing was more important than what was written.

Apart from renewed attention to the isolation that did exist in early-modern English prisons, Gardiner’s notebooks beckon toward the possibilities of a history of boredom. Scholars are not unnaturally attracted to the firmly-held conviction, the engrossing passion, the fascinating and the fascinated. But these are often exceptional cases, and their more ordinary fellows are no less deserving of our attention. What of the listless student alongside the prodigy, the listless churchgoer alongside the zealot? Disinterest, tedium, and rote are the mirror images of intellectual history’s more usual fare, and offer a very different way of thinking about the production, dissemination, and uses of knowledge.

Spencer J. Weinreich is an M.Phil. student in ecclesiastical history at the University of Oxford, where he is an Ertegun Scholar. His dissertation examines the prison writings of Stephen Gardiner in the context of early modern intellectual history. His work has appeared in Early Science and Medicine, Names, and The Journal of Ecclesiastical History.

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Claude Eatherly, the Bomb, and the Atomic Age

by contributing editor Carolyn Taratko

In late May, President Obama laid a wreath at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, making him the first sitting U.S. President to visit the city that was the target of the first atomic bomb on August 6th 1945. He called for the pursuit of “a future in which Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known not as the dawn of atomic warfare but as the start of our own moral awakening.” The mere suggestion of the President’s visit proved incendiary to many Americans, who argued that it would be seen as an apology for acts that official consensus holds ended the war and saved hundreds of thousands of lives in the process. Obama made no such apology, though. After expressing generalized remorse at the devastation, he used the occasion to call for non-proliferation, albeit on a timescale outside of his lifetime. It was a poignant moment of remembrance, but then there were other pressing issues to attend to. The survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are, after all, the reminders of the immediate dangers of these weapons. At home, in the US, who feels this fear acutely and every day?

Major Claude Eatherly, 1966 (Waco Tribune)

On June 3rd, 1959, an Austrian philosopher addressed a letter to a former US Air Force pilot from Texas. The Austrian, Günther Anders, initiated this correspondence after learning through the media that the American, Claude Eatherly, had once again been committed to the psychiatric ward of the V.A. Hospital in Waco. Eatherly had flown the mission to scout the weather above Japan before giving the ‘ok’ to drop the atom bomb on Hiroshima. After returning to civilian life, he was wracked by guilt over the consequences of his mission. Multiple suicide attempts and petty crimes ensued over the years that followed. Each time he was acquitted on psychiatric grounds. These offences and his outspoken insistence on his own guilt in partaking in the bombing mission left the Air Force and V.A. administration unsettled. Unwilling to risk another incident and wary of Eatherly’s growing media presence, he was to remain under medical supervision in the Waco hospital, at first voluntarily and then against his will. The Anders-Eatherly correspondence bears witness to this difficult time for the man who wanted to draw attention to the perils of nuclear warfare by making himself the first example.

It also bears witness to an attempt between two men of vastly different backgrounds to grapple with moral questions haunting the postwar world. In Anders’ first letter, he outlines his philosophical schema in which he sees Eatherly as an improbable hero. Anders dismissed the claims of Eatherly’s psychiatric disturbance and instead praised his vigorous moral health. He described the way that humans can become “guiltlessly guilty” as a result of the vast and complicated technology that humans have created (Letter 1). This condition is unprecedented; the imaginations of our forbearers outpaced their ability to act, whereas in modern times— which he alternately calls the “Atomic Age” and the “Age of the Apparatus”—the opposite proves true. Technology is increasingly complicated, danger lurks at a new scale, and miscalculation threatens the existence of humans at a planetary level. This new epoch distinguishes itself from previous ones in that it is the first time that “the capacity of man’s imagination cannot compete with that of our praxis. As a matter of fact, our imagination is unable to grasp the effect of that which we are producing” (Anders, Commandments in the Atomic Age). For Anders, this new age called for, above all else, the widening of man’s moral fantasy to encompass his new technological aptitude and both its intended and unintended effects. Eatherly had grasped this and the two men discussed the implications of this new moral burden in their letters over the course of two years.

Straight flush
Eatherly’s plane, the Straight Flush

The epistolary form is ideally suited for viewing the ethical challenges of nuclear proliferation. The letters are at once intimately private and also global in their concerns. Through them, Anders outlines his view of the problem of increased specialization and expertise, which cultivates a feeling of helplessness among the lay population. His warning that nuclear proliferation should not be left to the military and politicians because of its effects on mankind serve to further justify his activism on Eatherly’s behalf. Questions of morality recognize no neat divisions, and concern for others must lie at the heart of an ethical project (a view later elaborated by Philip Kitcher, who elsewhere takes up the subject of the compatibility between increasingly complex science and democratic values). The degree of intimacy which develops between Eatherly and Anders, who never met in person, is striking. United not only by their concern over nuclear proliferation, but out of concern for humanity and its many faces, Eatherly quickly accepts Anders as a trusted friend and advocate. Anders comes across a bit pedantic at times, and Eatherly naïve and rendered helpless by his situation. In spite of this, Anders’ treats Eatherly with respect. With his mental health called into question repeatedly, Anders shows a willingness to pull out all stops to defend the freedom and sanity of his interlocutor.

The letters center upon Eatherly’s personal drama, but events out in the world make their mission more pressing. The capture of Adolf Eichmann in May of 1960 and his subsequent trial works its way into the letters. Although Anders despairs at this point, having not heard from Eatherly in five months, he writes to deliver the news of his capture and delineates how Eatherly is the “antipode of Eichmann” (Letter 65). While Eichmann defended his complicity in the planning and execution of genocide by calling himself a “cog in the machine,” a man who lacked agency, and therefore culpability, in an expansive system, Eatherly rejected this excuse in his own situation.

Having secured Eatherly’s permission, Anders published their exchanges (with commentary, and some redaction) in 1961 in Germany, then one year later in the US in an attempt to gain recognition for Eatherly, who was still fighting the V.A. for his freedom, and for the cause of proliferation. The publication aligned with Anders’ twin convictions: that Eatherly’s “problem” was not a private mental health issue, and that nuclear proliferation was not only for a cadre of experts, but touched every citizen. Turning their letters out into the reading public, Anders assumed a position at the center of the anti-nuclear movement of the 1960s. Despite the urgency with which Eatherly saw the need to halt nuclear proliferation, both his story and the issue of proliferation itself have largely faded from public discourse. And, despite growing resistance to the idea of nuclear weaponry, the majority of Americans still believes the dropping the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was justified, and that it spared American soldiers. Even beyond the exigencies of wartime, Eatherly was rejected as the conscience of a generation. Nuclear weapon states and their stockpiles survive, insulated from serious criticism by the rhetoric of security and national prestige. All the same, the public cannot, and should not refrain from asking the question of whether these weapons serve as a means of self-regulation or rather, to paraphrase the warning of former US Secretary of Defense, an invitation for an inevitable catastrophe.