The Political Consequences of American Romanticism
|Professor Iris Leslie
Invited by the Prince al Waleed bin Talal Center for American Studies
and Research (CASAR), Professor Iris Leslie gave a lecture entitled "Political
Consequences of American Romanticism" on December 13 in West Hall.
In essence, Leslie argued that Frederick Douglass, the author of Narrative
of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself,
recognized the strategic value of American romanticism's rhetoric as a
crucial means of achieving a political end, the abolition of slavery.
She said that when slavery ended in 1862 and Abraham Lincoln issued the
Emancipation Proclamation, the romantic idealization of a vibrant freewill
largely spurred the economic and political progress of African Americans
Leslie described American romanticism as assigning the responsibility
of determining personal destiny to the individual self, based on the "exceptional
all-American perception of self-driven freewill." Given Douglass's
recourse to "romantic rhetoric" in his glorification of personal
will in his struggle for his own emancipation, Leslie said Douglass's
Narrative became more of an anti-slavery treatise than merely a personal
account of his experiences as a slave.
However, as he gained a more mature understanding of the social and political
structures of the white American mainstream, Douglass realized that the
"hard-sell and unadulterated sensibilities of romanticism" needed
to be significantly mitigated in order for his narrative to achieve stronger
political leverage and gain more expansive reach. Consequently, he downplayed
the level of brutality in subsequent, less graphic versions of his narrative,
while simultaneously underscoring the economic viability of freeing slaves
in the speeches he gave around the country, including those to elite white
businessmen interested in the abolitionist movement.
Leslie concluded that by recognizing the need to engage, rather than alienate,
the white mainstream in the abolitionist cause, Douglass served his people
well, succeeding where many of his contemporaries failed.
Leslie, who completed her PhD in political science at Rutgers University,
has taught at Georgetown University, the George Washington University,
and Rutgers University. She is currently working on a book, The Vicissitudes
of American Romanticism, which will examine the resistance African American
intellectuals have historically presented to mainstream American romanticism.