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1831: Year of Eclipse Essay

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On February 12, 1831, a full eclipse of the sun darkened America’s skies. Newspapers nationwide heralded its arrival, and commentators congratulated themselves that the “idle fears and gloomy forebodings”–the past superstitions attached to such events–had been replaced by “pleasing admiration” of the wonders of nature and society’s progress in scientific understanding. However, says Masur (Rites of Execution), professor of history at the City University of New York, what unfolded in 1831 belies this chauvinistic claim of America’s advancement. Rather, he builds a case that America’s future faced inevitable upheaval directly linked to the failure of the founders to resolve two fundamental conflicts: the contradiction between a country founded on the “inalienable rights of man” embracing the cruelty and inhumanity of slavery, and the tension between a federal government intent on preserving the Union and the states’ claims of uncontestable sovereignty.

Masur draws upon an exceptionally rich array of voices, quoting generously from figures as divergent as slave rebellion leader Nat Turner, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Andrew Jackson.

Masur vividly chronicles the plight of the Cherokee, who despite their willingness to cooperate with the U.S. government, were forced from their homeland and marched west on the infamous Trail of Tears. Tocqueville traveled to the U.S. in 1831, prompting him to write Democracy in America, and as Masur notes, Tocqueville’s prescient observations illuminated not only the intractable problems of slavery and race in America but also the extraordinary uniqueness and energy of America’s citizens. Masur’s accessible and intriguing work, which appeals to a wide and diverse audience interested in American history, raises the year 1831, not necessarily one that stands out in most Americans’ minds, above insignificance.

Passing in and out of Favor

Although single-year studies fell out of favor amid the social-history boom of the 1970’s and 1980’s, they have a place in history circles. Among Mr. Masur’s favorite histories, and a work that influenced his own, is The Year of Decision: 1846, a study published in 1943 by the historian Bernard DeVoto, who went on to win the Pulitzer and Bancroft Prizes in his field. A huge best seller in its time, the volume is now seldom read or studied even by professional historians.

Now and then, other historians have made similar forays, usually concentrating on a year marked by war, bloodshed, or political upheaval, like Kenneth Milton Stampp’s America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink. Lately, though, such experiments seem to be flourishing–and the more obscure the year, the better. Hence titles like American Nervousness, 1903: An Anecdotal History, by Tom Lutz, a study of the physical and psychological illnesses that plagued elite Americans at the turn of the century. Or 1910: The Emancipation of Dissonance, by Thomas Harrison, a look at how and why harmony came to be replaced by dissonance in painting, music, and other art forms.

“We’ve shifted away from causal and exemplary history, back toward epochal history, which constructs microcosms and tells you what the whole universe is like from the standpoint of one year, or in some cases, one grand age,” says Douglas Mitchell, the veteran humanities editor at the University of Chicago Press.

Part of the reason is historians’ renewed interest in narratives as a way to create synthesis. A single year is a manageable way to narrow the scope, deal in specifics, yet still work with a beginning, middle, and end. “An annualized history is a way to bridge the gap between conventional narratives, which tend to be driven by political events, and newer histories, which have no clear linear narrative,” says Alan Brinkley, a professor of history at Columbia University. “Focusing on a year allows one to combine a narrative of sorts with explorations of many areas of life as developed by newer histories.”

Mr. Masur’s book, as well as John E. Wills Jr.’s upcoming 1688: A Global History, are colorfully written and rely on dramatic scene-setting. (1688 even does without footnotes.) Though bound by time, they range widely across place, focusing on what happens when people travel and make contact, and how similar ideas can echo in very different settings.

“Historians have long called for some kind of creative synthesis, but the problem has been how to incorporate the voices of elites and workers, men and women, Indians and slaves, celebrators and detractors, and weave them together in a coherent story,” says Mr. Masur.

Instead of talking yet again about whether to use narrative techniques in writing history, scholars will show how it’s done at a “reading slam” at this month’s American Historical Association conference. There Mr. Masur will read from his new book.

Digging Deep into a Single Year

If nothing else, digging deep into a single year can lead to nifty juxtapositions. The portentous eclipse that gives Mr. Masur his title turned up in Nat Turner’s confession, New England sermons, and newspaper editorials opposed to the reelection of President Andrew Jackson. In 1688, as the English seaman William Dampier was sending vivid descriptions home about the “miserablest people in the world”–Australian aborigines–two Jesuit missionaries joined a thousand Chinese cavalrymen on a sophisticated expedition to survey northern China.

For a world historian, looking at a year like 1688 is a way to avoid Eurocentrism while still capturing the flow of people and commodities, contends Mr. Wills, a professor of history at the University of Southern California. “The making of the modern world is the result of worldwide processes in which the Europeans are not the only active originators,” he says.

Of course, Mr. Wills admits in his introduction that many of the people he describes wouldn’t have known the year as 1688 at all, given their varied calendars. Even so, “signs of the basic shifts that created our own very different world” are there: “The rise of science; the growth of cities and commerce; government policies to promote economic growth; an immense variety of writing and publishing, some of it for broad urban audiences; some very individual and idiosyncratic acceptances and reinterpretations of the great religions; protests against slavery and the subordination of women.”

“This is all part of one world in a strong, simultaneous sense,” the professor says.

Text and Context

English professors, too, have been bitten by the one-year bug.

While historians try to write with more literary flair, literature scholars have returned to history, doing archival research to put novels and poems in political and cultural context. Yet many scholars believe that move has gone too far; literature simply gets reduced to historical evidence, and the particular qualities of certain literary genres get lost in the shuffle.

Studying a single year helps to keep both text and context in focus, says Michael North, a professor of English at the University of California at Los Angeles. “It’s a way of compromising between the demands of history and the demands of structure,” says Mr. North, the author of Reading 1922: A Return to the Scene of the Modern.

“There is an element of trying to define a zeitgeist,” adds Marshall Brown, a professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Washington, and the editor of Modern Language Quarterly. “Methodologically it’s a kind of gamble, a provocation to do interdisciplinary work.”

Often such writing projects begin as classroom experiments. James Chandler, a professor of English language and literature at the University of Chicago, found that his graduate courses in Romantic poetry tended to be clustered around works published in two years, 1789 and 1819. Yet 1819 stood out for the remarkable poetry produced in a single year. Over time, Mr. Chandler decided to concentrate on that year, teaching the leading poets alongside historical novels and political texts important in their day. The result is England in 1819: The Politics of Literary Culture and the Case of Romantic Historicism, an ambitious volume that Mr. Brown calls the most-cited recent book in the field.

1819 is well known to Romanticists as the year that Shelley and Keats wrote much of their greatest poetry. But that’s not all. Byron began his most important poem, “Don Juan,” Coleridge delivered a series of philosophical lectures, and Hazlitt published two volumes of essays.

Why so much good stuff? According to Mr. Chandler, writers for the first time were self-consciously speaking to and about their historical moment. 1819 was an extremely volatile year, marked by the Peterloo Massacre that nearly toppled the English government, leading to restrictions in freedom of the press and the right to assemble. People training for other work began to put words to paper.

“People of extraordinary talent were drawn to the literary field because so much could happen there,” says Mr. Chandler, whose book takes its title from a pro-radical Shelley sonnet of the same name. The idea that you could sum up the spirit of the age in a single year, instead of, say, by citing the reign of a king or queen, was new to England. “You didn’t have year-end reviews in the 14th century. You didn’t really have them in the early 18th century,” the professor explains.

By building the Romantic canon around poets, scholars have tended to ignore the historical novels that were popular at the time. Mr. Chandler gives them their due, featuring a chapter on Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe and The Bride of Lammermoor. “You do cultural history in this period and you realize that the entire country was obsessed with Scott,” says Mr. Chandler.

For modernism, 1922 was the year to remember. James Joyce published Ulysses that year, and T. S. Eliot The Waste Land. The world of literature was never the same. “The world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts,” wrote Willa Cather, who found her own brand of realism falling out of favor in the wake of the self-consciousness of high modernism.

Works Cited

Masur, Louis P., 1831: Year of Eclipse. Hill & Wang, 2001

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