A Transnational Temperance Discourse? William Wells Brown, Creole Civilization, and Temperate Manners

Posted in Articles, Biography, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Slavery, United States on 2011-05-14 03:03Z by Steven

A Transnational Temperance Discourse? William Wells Brown, Creole Civilization, and Temperate Manners

The Journal of Transnational American Studies
Volume 3, Issue 1 (2011)
Article 16
27 pages

Carole Lynn Stewart, Assistant Professor of English
University of Maryland, Baltimore County

In the nineteenth century, temperance movements provided the occasion for a transnational discourse. These conversations possessed an intensity throughout Britain and the United States. In America temperance often became associated with strongly nationalistic Euro-American forms of identity and internal purity. Nonetheless, African American reformers and abolitionists bound themselves to temperance ideals in forming civil societies that would heal persons and provide communal modes of democratic freedom in the aftermath and recovery from chattel slavery. This paper explores the possibilities of temperance as a transnational discourse by considering its meaning in the life and work of the African American author and activist, William Wells Brown. Brown expressed a “creole civilization” that employed the stylistics of the trickster as a unique mode of restraint that revealed a peculiar power of passivity that was able to claim efficacy over one’s life and community. This meaning of temperance diverges from and dovetails with certain European meanings of civilization that were being forged in the nineteenth century. Brown was in conversation with temperance reformers in America, Britain, and Europe. He imagined the possible meaning of temperance in African, Egyptian, Christian, and Islamic civilizations. He speculated upon the possibility of temperance as a defining characteristic of a transnational civilization and culture that would provide spaces for the expression of democratic freedom. Brown reimagined temperance as a form of corporeal restraint that offered a direct and sacred relation to the land, space, people that appeared in between an ethnic nationalist ethos and the European imperialistic civilization.

And when the victory shall be complete—when there shall be neither a slave nor a drunkard on the earth—how proud the title of that Land, which may truly claim to be the birthplace and the cradle of both those revolutionaries, that shall have ended in that victory.

Abraham Lincoln, “An Address Delivered before the Springfield Washingtonian Temperance Society”

In the mid‐nineteenth century, temperance movements throughout Britain and the United States strove for universalist and international goals of individual sovereignty, restraint, and enlightened freedom. As with many international movements of civil societies emerging from the formation of modern states, they expressed themselves in strongly nationalistic forms of identity. American temperance movements often assumed many of the middle‐class, domestic, and individualistic values associated with the Protestant work ethic and its inner‐worldly asceticism. Temperance in general became prominent in the United States in the period that corresponded with the Second Great Awakening in the early 1800s, though examples of temperance organizations predate this surge of social movements in the revivalistic atmosphere. American temperance movements were simultaneously concerned with defining the purity of self and establishing a coherent national identity. The notion and practice of temperance has also been a salient orientation of many religions; however, in the colonial period, not even the New England Puritans were temperance activists. On the one hand, the birth of American temperance seemed to initially appear as a result of the nationalist revolutionary ethos, expressing the desire for widespread civil societies: “temperate” behavior suggested a type of rational, restrained, and public character. On the other hand, temperance movements acquired an evangelical character in the context of the affected and enthusiastic social spaces of “awakening.”

The opening epigraph from Abraham Lincoln captures the contiguity between concepts of slavery and intemperance, as well as the exceptionalist ethos prominent in the United States and brought to bear on issues of individual freedom of the “land.” Indeed, many temperance groups were nativist and virulently racist even when temperance was linked to antislavery. Notably, beyond popular goals of moderation, total abstinence, and prohibition, temperance also expressed different promises and civil ideals for many African American abolitionists who conjoined temperance and antislavery. For the former enslaved, temperance seemed to promote and encompass national values like the Protestant work ethic, self‐reliance, and individual restraint, particularly for the poor and those who were striving for social elevation by inculcating the values of the middle class…

…The word “civilization” does not grow out of American democracy and its revolutionary founding, but rather from modern European imperialism and its emerging structures of civil society. The word is particularly Eurocentric and was not in frequent use until the eighteenth century, first in France and then in England. Historian of religions Charles H. Long observed in his paper “Primitive/Civilized: The Locus of a Problem” that “the meaning of this term cannot be understood apart from the geographies and cultures of the New World that are both ‘other’ and empirical.” While an empirical other—recognized negatively as an enslaved person—Brown consistently wrote of such figures as the “tragic mulatta” and the predicament of one‐drop racism in the United States, with positive views of the eventual “amalgamation” of the “races.” Moreover, discussions of Brown’s work commonly allude to the self‐consciously constructed aspects of his identity—from the lack of a fixed identity, his biracial, nearly outwardly “white” identity that made it possible to almost pass, to Brown’s multiple roles in actual life and his writing. These roles begin with his name William as a child on the plantation being changed to Sandford because another white child had the same name, and his eventual renaming as William Wells Brown. The name was “bestowed upon” him from the Quaker, Wells Brown, who helped him escape. From that fluid and uncertain position, he assumed various vocational and activist roles as a steamboat operator, a barber, a banker, a husband and father, a gentleman among the ladies, a radical abolitionist and republican revolutionary, an anglophile, a temperance activist, a consummate man of letters, a historian, a playwright, a novelist, and, in the 1870s, a medical doctor of uncertain qualifications.

This intermixture of roles and identities also disrupted the familiar binary of primitive/civilized. Brown conceived of the inherently Eurocentric concept of civilization in creolized ways—living an intermixture that opposed the opposition of terms. Indeed, rather than necessarily leading to the situation of the empirical other, what some have understood as Brown’s liminal “trickster” identity could be viewed as a restrained orientation characterizing a basic revolutionary structure out of which Brown saw a modern civilization emerging. This notion of civilization not only came to fruition through Brown’s European travels (1849–1854) and direct reflections on the harbingers of “civilization,” but through his postbellum reflections on African civilizations and his pilgrimage for “home” to establish a dignified relation to the land in My Southern Home (1880). In Brown’s travels, temperance remained the locus for a new, creolized civilization, expressing a manner and style of behavior that resembles a sociogenetic and psychogenetic meaning of restraint forged in light of the history of transatlantic slavery and an imagined revolutionary founding, as well as countering the excesses inherent in modern “civilized” exchanged…

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