The Procession and the Wayside in Nineteenth-Century American Writing
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I argue that the procession is a deliberate, desirable, and destabilizing social formation. In scholarship of the American nineteenth century, the procession is lost among the clutter of other urban assemblies—crowds, parades, riots—and never fully articulated as a unique vehicle for collective expression. The procession is an attractive alternative to tyrannical majorities and unwise crowds because of its linearity, rationality, and encompassment. Central to the trope of the procession, however, is the wayside or the periphery, adjacent spaces which are often discarded or suppressed by the procession’s forward movement. I trace the variations of this American allegory—national progress and its exclusions—across different genres in the writing of Nathaniel Hawthorne (domestic-cosmic sketches), Walt Whitman (war-time poetic fantasies), Emily Dickinson (regal satires), and as an informing but repudiated element of Martin Delany’s novel Blake; or The Huts of America. These authors critique chaotic and gaudy groups, and instead propose gentle and haptic ones. Whitman, Dickinson, and Delany also have in common their oblique contemplations of the Civil War and President Lincoln’s assassination. Although Lincoln’s multi-state funeral procession is an overwrought spectacle, the procession is so often virtuous because it is the opposite of the state funeral: the authors I consider presuppose, in their sporadic ways, an austere nature to the procession, as fundamental as the dictums “We, the people” or E pluribus unum. Yet, the “grand difficulty,” in Hawthorne’s words, is that in reality and on the streets, the procession’s conceptual intuitiveness—as all-inclusive and leveling as a “procession of life”—recedes from view, deteriorates into chaos, and must be constantly rehabilitated. My tropological analysis of American literature grapples with a vision of democratic organization and process that is not conceived of as the result of collective self-articulation and -determination. What is startling about membership in a procession is how often it does not respect individual choice. It is coercive; you are participating. The procession’s “measured and beautiful motion,” in Whitman’s words, topples assertive modes of authorship, leadership, and ownership because ever-present waysides flatten the hierarchy of center over periphery.