Sunday, December 27, 2020

Christina Zwarg's "The Archive of Fear"

Christina Zwarg is a Professor of English at Haverford College where she won a Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching. After completing a Mellon Faculty Fellowship in the Humanities at Harvard University she published Feminist Conversations: Fuller, Emerson and the Play of Reading, which Choice named an Outstanding Academic Book and Cornell University Press nominated for the MLA First Book Award. Zwarg has published on 19th and 20th century authors and topics in American Literature, American Literary History, Novel, Studies in Romanticism, Poe Studies, and Cultural Critique and Social Text, and her work has been reprinted in Norton Critical Editions. She has also served as a member of the Division of Psychoanalytic Approaches to Literature on the Delegate Assembly of the MLA.

Zwarg applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Archive of Fear: White Crisis and Black Freedom in Douglass, Stowe, and Du Bois, and reported the following:
The section that we encounter on page 99 hints at the influence Frederick Douglass exerted over W.E.B. Du Bois as he was writing John Brown and his monumental study Black Reconstruction.

Douglass's influence proves central to The Archive of Fear, but this page only indirectly mentions the trauma theory before Freud also guiding my reading of his work, one involving the mesmeric "crisis" that became associated with abolition after the Haitian revolution. Throughout his life, Frederick Douglass cleverly deploys the link between mesmerism and slave revolt in his approach to the work of abolition. The Archive of Fear follows these associations across his long career and explores their uptake in the second abolitionist novel Dred by Harriet Beecher Stowe and in their later elaboration by W.E. B. Du Bois.

Douglass turns his attention to the perpetrators and enablers of slavery, noting how the dread of "black supremacy" nourished and sustained a quick resort to preemptive violence. To redirect the sense of crisis developing around the idea of abolition, Douglass rehearses its fantastic character, showing how a collision of future and past fears could falsely align the goals of abolition with race war. Stowe explores the same hallucinatory register when she turns her eponymous character--modeled on Nat Turner--into a medium for understanding white fragility. And Du Bois takes the psychic register of crisis to the next level when he interprets John Brown's famous raid on Harper's Ferry: like the general strike in Black Reconstruction, whose aim was the abolition of systemic racism, Brown's goal was the destruction of slavery's violence and not the commencement of a race war.

As we see on page 99, the hesitation Douglass expresses as he recalls his failure to join forces with Brown fascinates Du Bois, who finds in that ambivalence a powerful tool for rethinking the Black Reconstruction of Democracy. Following Douglass once more, Du Bois enlarges his Marxist reading of Black Reconstruction to consider the "psychological wage" of racism, including the unimagined futures that might have turned men like Andrew Johnson, whose fear of "race war" nourished white supremacy, into champions of abolition democracy.
Learn more about The Archive of Fear at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue