Controversy over Freudian approaches to Charles Brockden Brown’s Edgar Huntly (1799) has obscured the novel’s sensory politics. Psychoanalytic readers like Leslie Fiedler, in Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), discovered in Brown’s novel a striking confirmation of their theories because they were looking at a text in dialogue with psychoanalysis’s antecedents. By recovering these antecedents, the essay shows that states of insensibility like sleepwalking—which Fiedler takes as figures for the unconscious—in fact had social and political meanings that even postcolonial critiques of psychoanalytic readings have tended to miss. Psychoanalysis has its roots in animal magnetism, or mesmerism, a practice of mental healing that in Brown’s day presented “magnetic somnambulists” who entered a semiconscious state identical to natural sleepwalking. In this state, they had privileged access to knowledge, just as Clithero does in Edgar Huntly. By treating somnambulists as knowing figures, Brown’s novel, and animal magnetism itself, transvalued an eighteenth-century sensory pathology: insensibility. In a period when the ability to produce public knowledge and even to claim to be human flowed from having the right kind of nervous sensitivity, being called insensible—sensorially deficient— was a serious charge: it meant having one’s experiences discarded as fantasy or blankness. Treating insensible somnambulists as epistemically valuable rebuts the charge of blankness that clung to insensibility, as well as the social marginalization this charge portended for idiots, hysterics, and the sensorially disabled—a promising gesture that, in Edgar Huntly, finally runs aground in race.
Emily Ogden; Edgar Huntly and the Regulation of the Senses. American Literature 1 September 2013; 85 (3): 419–445. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00029831-2079278
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