The Urgency of Abolition


Review of History, Abolition, and the Ever-Present Now in Antebellum American Writing, by Jeffrey Insko.

New York: Oxford University Press, 2019  


“Let us compare the happenings of one hundred—two hundred years ago, with those of today. The difference between then and now, if any there be, is so slight as to be scarcely worth mentioning. The atrocity of the acts committed one hundred years ago are duplicated today, when slavery is supposed no longer to exist.” It is perhaps not difficult to imagine that these words come from a twenty-first century address or social media post by a Black Lives Matter activist. They articulate an analysis of anti-Blackness—in the vein of a scholar like Saidiya Hartman, who told us in her 1997 book Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America that the historicist technique of periodization produces false analyses rather than clarity—that refuses to piously separate the scene of Eric Garner being choked to death by an NYPD officer from the scene of Margaret Garner killing her own child rather than allowing the child to be raised under slavery. These words articulate an analysis that sees anti-Blackness as continuous, as a problem in the present which demands that we look again at history and tell it differently—tell it without recourse to progressive teleology but rather tell it with the knowledge of how it is experienced right now in this moment of the continuing repetition of Black death at the hands of state-sanctioned violence. 

But those words were not written in 2019. They come from 120 years earlier, from the pen of Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins in her Preface to her 1900 novel Contending Forces. Writing at the turn of the century, Hopkins looks back at the history of racist violence in the United States through the framework of what we might identify as presentism. She does not want to hear about the progress made since 1865. She wants to assert a history of Black experience of violence felt in her living now as her country embarks on a brand-new century. Some might call her, as they might call a literary theorist who reads her as a Black Lives Matter thinker, ahistorical. But Jeffrey Insko has something to say about that.  

To begin at the end of History, Abolition, and the Ever-Present Now in Antebellum American Writing—which I don’t think the author would mind, given his own penchant to eschew linearity even as his book is organized broadly chronologically—Insko ultimately argues that “the methodological injunction against presentism in the historical profession and in literary historicism has unwittingly helped to sustain and prolong white supremacy in the United States. It has taught us to value monuments […] over right, knowledge over experience, and has itself contributed to the very kinds of erasures of history it claims to want to prevent” (193-4). Insko is anything but ahistorical; indeed, he provides and engages with prodigious historical context for each of the literary texts he close-reads in his book. But in this final, truly earned iteration of his thesis, Insko offers his most provocative charge against historicism as—in my words, not his—ideology. For him, the dismissal of presentism (often made with recourse to the language of ethics, as if presentism were a kind of moral sin) not only, in an almost deconstructive sense, erases the very historical context it ostensibly reveres, but also actively upholds the most pernicious forms of white supremacist patriarchy. As polemical as this is, it is hard not to be convinced that Insko is absolutely correct after reading his powerful argument about Confederate monuments and renaming buildings in the coda to his book. We need presentism. Now.  

For Insko, the need for presentism is intimately connected to the urgency of that need. We need presentism not later, but now. In making this argument, Insko leans on Frederick Douglass’s phrase “the ever-present now” and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “living present” to articulate a present moment alive to itself and demanding action in the face of knowable injustice without knowable solutions. With Douglass and Longfellow as guides (though his cast is considerably larger), he brings together two threads of nineteenth-century US history: abolitionism and romanticism.  

The debates over how best to abolish slavery—gradually or immediately—provide the stakes for Insko’s argument, as he is constantly reminding readers that presentism operates hand-in-hand with immediatism. This is most painstakingly demonstrated in chapter three’s engagement with Ralph Waldo Emerson, who came late, we might say, to abolitionism but who had articulated a “romantic presentism” in his writings well before the 1850s. Essentially, when one sees history from the vantage point of one’s own “ever-present now” (presentism), that view enables the mobilization of political arguments for taking action to solve seemingly insurmountable problems even in the face of unknown consequences (immediatism). More specifically, as Insko’s move from Emerson in chapter three to Douglass in chapter four clarifies, telling the political history of the US while explicitly naming and using the present moment of narration as a framework enabled activists to call for the immediate, as opposed to the gradual, abolition of slavery.   

As I read Insko’s readings of Emerson and Douglass in particular, I am tempted to say that presentism is the methodology of the politics of immediatism. But the crucial link between presentism and immediatism, in my reading of Insko’s book, is the idea of risk as a constituting part of ethics. In fact, I would assert that Insko’s gleaning of different writers’ aversion to and/or embracing of risk and uncertainty is his most profound insight. This point is first made lucid in Insko’s discussion of Catherine Beecher’s Essay on Slavery and Abolition and Angelina Grimke’s Appeal to the Christian Women of the South. “Overcome with apprehensions about the future,” Insko writes, “Beecher all but forgets about the present” (99). In contrast, Grimke embraces a “condition of unknowing.” “Beecher and Grimke thus differ in their attitudes toward futurity: whereas Beecher seeks and insists upon a visible and knowable future, for Grimke the future is obscured and inscrutable. Yet for Grimke, that not knowing in no way relieves us of the obligation to act” (100). The obligation to act: that is the polemical crux of Insko’s book. At the core of the careful close reading, the engagement in academic debates with scholars and theorists, and the presentist storytelling is an ethical argument for taking action—now, even though the future our actions will create is unknowable—to solve our most pressing political and ethical questions.   

For all the polemical flair of the overall argument, the book is at its strongest and most rewarding in its close readings of particular texts. Chapter one examines the work of Washington Irving, mostly focusing on A History of New York with a discussion of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” to establish presentism as an alternativ  model of historiography already present in the early nineteenth century (despite what some current pundits and scholars would assert during arguments about whether we should judge historical figures as “racist,” there is a long history of presentism which exceeds imagining it as only a recent phenomenon of so-called “PC culture”). The chapter attends closely to the words of its texts while also situating them in their cultural proliferations; “Rip Van Winkle” is important both as a trope of nineteenth-century politics and as a character in a particular story. There is a particularly interesting engagement with Mark Cousins’s analogy between historiography and jurisprudence, which I would have loved to have seen expanded into a fuller analysis of how law (and order) is served by teleological history in ways that resonate with Insko’s concluding iteration of his thesis that I quoted above. I suspect we could have a conversation about what I have called elsewhere “law’s periodizing force.” In any case, the chapter ends, in a fashion that makes the form of Insko’s argument congruent with its content, by turning to Martin Luther King’s invocation of Rip Van Winkle in his address “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution” to arrive at “King’s ethics of impatience,” which propels the first chapter into a powerful flow for the rest of Insko’s argument. 

This propulsion takes the reader into chapter two’s engagement with Catharine Maria Sedgwick and John Neal. This chapter begins to uncover the ethical stakes of Insko’s argument by highlighting how “romantic presentism” places the self of the present and the other of the past into a coeval proximity which necessarily invokes questions of ethical relationality. It also establishes some of Insko’s favorite and strongest rhetorical moves, including his use of anaphora and the form of the “what if?” rhetorical question (76).  

While the first two chapters establish the terms of Insko’s argument, it is the book’s second part—chapters three through five—that really soars. Chapter three’s careful reconsideration of Emerson’s anti-slavery politics through an engagement with his presentist and immediatist philosophy fully opens ground to consider the risk of uncertainty at the heart of abolitionism, which is taken up more precisely in chapter four’s engagement with Douglass. Insko’s meticulous attention to grammatical tense in Douglass’s writings and speeches is particularly powerful in elucidating how abolitionism as a political project is predicated on the willingness and ability to project one’s imagination into an uncertain, unknowable future and pull that vision into the now as that which is being enacted through ethical choices. “Douglass thus directs his audience to see in the present what they can’t see in the future: the moment at which emancipation is immediately at hand” (149). The chapter ends by circling to Douglass’s changing view on the constitutionality of slavery, to highlight how Douglass’s immediatism is intimately tied to his presentist—but not a- or antihistorical!—historiography. Then chapter five analyzes Herman Melville’s Israel Potter in conjunction with Moby-Dick and “The Lightning-Rod Man” (as a presentist aside, Insko’s reading of the latter short story has convinced me to begin referring to centrist politicians pleading for moderate action on urgent problems like climate change as lightning-rod persons). This final chapter has some of Insko’s finest close readings, but unfortunately the urgency and specificity of abolitionism, which was so clear in the previous two chapters, recedes somewhat from view.  

I want to briefly address Insko’s coda, “#StayWoke” before offering a closing thought. As I wrote earlier, the coda contains what may be Insko’s most persuasive argument in the entire book as he lucidly applies the methodology of presentist historiography to demonstrate the validity of removing Confederate monuments and renaming buildings on college campuses named after racists. I especially appreciate the deserved derision aimed at the ostensibly historicist claim that it is “unfair to judge historical figures by our standards of today”—which in the content of racism assumes there were no anti-racist people, Black, white, or otherwise, alive in the past who differed from the racists in charge in their ethics and values. Whenever someone claims it is unfair to judge a nineteenth-century writer as racist, they are revealing that they don’t care about or don’t believe in the existence of Black thought.  

So even as I vigorously applaud the argument at the heart of the coda, I am left with an overall critique of History, Abolition, and the Ever-Present Now in Antebellum American Writing visible at its end. It is not until the coda, after all of the proper chapters of the book, that Insko attends to the writing of a Black woman—which particularly stands out precisely because his reading of Francis Harper’s poetry is excellent. In general, for a book signaling abolitionism and quoting Frederick Douglass in its title, the manuscript as a whole seems to be lighter on Black thought than one might expect. This is not simply to point out what is missing as an easy “aha” critique, but to genuinely ask, what happens to “romantic presentism” when it is thought in conjunction with Harriet Jacobs’s loophole of retreat, Saidiya Hartman’s theorizations of “the nonevent of emancipation,” or Pauline Hopkins’s refusal of progressive teleology? Or to add another Black male writer to the book’s archive, what happens to immediatism if one thinks through David Walker’s Appeal as presentist analysis of history and its assertion of multiple possible futures among which he is asking two separate audiences—Black and white—to choose through their actions? This is not to take away from Insko’s argument, but only to offer that its strength can only be further augmented by engaging it more fully with work in Black studies and African American literary studies. 

In the spirit of presentism, I confess that I read Insko’s book from where I stand as a twenty-first century prison abolitionist. With that, History, Abolition, and the Ever-Present Now in Antebellum American Writing, in its very employment of presentist analysis, without saying so offers a history of abolitionism that extends far beyond the nineteenth century. For it remains true that abolitionists today must dare to risk the uncertainty of dismantling prisons to instantiate an anti-carceral future based on an ethics of care that has been at the heart of centuries-old traditions like Black feminist thought and Black radicalism. The urgency of abolition persists. We are called on to take action in our own ever-present now, to trust a long tradition of romantic presentism to help us see the historical development of the carceral state as part of a continuous anti-Black project that Pauline Hopkins recognizes as one of multiple contending forces which still are not resolved. Insko’s book on antebellum American writing thus tells us that abolition time is now.   


Posted on 28 October 2019

JESSE A. GOLDBERG is Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Longwood University where he teaches courses on American literature, the prison-industrial complex, Black studies, and the legal history of racism. He is working on a book titled Abolition Time: Justice, Literature, and Queer Futures in Slavery’s Afterlife.