Against the Uprooted Word
Giving Language Time in Transatlantic Romanticism
Tristram Wolff



Pulling Roots

Our cognition is therefore . . . not as autonomous, voluntarily choosing, and unbound as is believed . . . The wise men of our world . . . revere their reason as a congenital, eternal, utterly independent, infallible oracle . . . Let them talk and pray to their idol-words [Bildwörter] . . . The more deeply someone has climbed down into himself, in the structure and origin of his noblest thoughts, then the more he will cover his eyes and feet and say: “What I am, I have become. I have grown like a tree; the seed was there, but air, earth, and all the elements, which I did not deposit about myself, had to contribute in order to form the seed, the fruit, the tree.”


Do you understand your own language?


THE “UPROOTED WORD” OF THIS BOOK’S TITLE is akin to what Herder describes when he complains in 1778 of men of reason who imagine thought as something “autonomous” and “independent.” These ideas are elevated as word-idols, words pictured as universal, given, and fixed. Herder is then envisioning a particularly pernicious part of speech wrought by a mode of reason that fragments and alienates language from its formative environments or contexts of utterance. The formally uprooted word presupposed by this picture of linguistic reason—a word lifted out of the messy exchanges and encounters of hearing, feeling, reflecting, and speaking, by an independent and rational subject whose cognition is “autonomous, voluntarily choosing, and unbound”—is, for Herder, an enlightenment invention; as Humboldt would say of language, “the idea of its separateness is only in us.”1 Worse, the invention is of a highly selective kind, and closely related to a presumed unboundness that assumes the bondage of others. The hypocrisy of such a concept is what the Black Boston orator David Walker railed against in 1829: “Read your Declaration, Americans!!! Do you understand your own language?” Walker’s question is what we usually call rhetorical (the answer in one sense is obviously no), but its literal premise overlaps with Herder’s earlier critique. The words used in the US Declaration of Independence are revealed, by Walker, as word-idols, and the enlightenment concept of independence carries a constitutive nonknowledge of its dependencies within its “own language” of freedom.

Walker’s resounding question might be asked of any writer or reader, of all writing and reading: Do you understand your own language? This is so, even though language is never strictly our own: it is always uprooted, in the sense of being pulled between subjective and objective moments, and romanticism is often exploring this indistinct gray area. Yet Walker’s question must be asked of Herder, as he theorizes the constitutive nonknowledge shaping the subject’s sense of self-possession. “The more deeply someone has climbed down into himself . . . the more he will cover his eyes and feet”: Herder’s sightless subject is not just feeling his way around, but immobilized, thing-like in the way he is immersed in his surroundings. To try to imagine the limits of what we cannot step outside of, Herder emphasizes our blind insensibility and our bondedness to environmental conditions that precede and outlast us. We are rooted, in the sense that we are unwittingly bound up in ongoing processes of formation. Yet Herder unexpectedly uses the organic metaphor of tree growth to deemphasize the notion of a grounding origin or rooted unity; instead, Herder’s figure evokes a temporal process of first-person formation dependent on an external, inorganic environment, “air, earth, and all the elements, which I did not deposit about myself.” This subject’s freedom is better imagined as relational elasticity than as independence, as the ability to answer the attraction, or pull, of the other: “self-and other-feeling (once again expansion and contraction) are the two expressions of the elasticity of our will,” for as a human subject, Herder writes, one is bound “to love one’s way into others, and then to follow this sure pull.”2 A relation to otherness is beautifully idealized here, but—does Herder understand his own language? Figures that seek to redefine freedom by naturalizing or entangling the human within its surroundings work differently for different subjects: as Walker’s fellow Black activist Maria Stewart wrote in 1833, those others who are habitually “looked upon as things” then become responsible for persuading their observers that they are human, that is, “things in the shape of men.”3 In that same year, Pequot preacher William Apess alluded to a different tree, exhorting his readers to fight the naturalized hierarchy of the world’s peoples propagated by white Europeans, “till this tree of distinction shall be leveled to the earth.”4 The idealized pull of understanding Herder described so lovingly requires uprooting this tree of distinction. This is something Herder sometimes saw, and sometimes did not. Remaking enlightenment ideals, the writing of the romantic century is full of such gray areas.

Herder’s simple phrase, “what I am, I have become,” is a kind of emblem for this book: it is a phrase that tries to feel complex temporalities inside experiences of rootedness and uprootedness. Since Herder’s time, uprootedness has also become a generalized philosophical lens for global modernity, often abstracted from the brutal specificities of diaspora. Simone de Beauvoir, for instance, theorized uprootedness as a human condition: “by uprooting himself from the world, man makes himself present to the world and makes the world present to him.”5 The uprooting that produces this encounter conjures a lost language, a desire to be part of the world’s spontaneous expression: “I should like to be the landscape which I am contemplating, I should like this sky, this quiet water to think themselves within me, that it might be I whom they express.” But that desire is continually frustrated, and as Maurice Blanchot further remarked, as “uprooted creatures,” even when we do “feel rooted,” we like to “pull at this root with an uprooting force.”6 For Blanchot, the feeling of uprootedness makes us fascinated by origins, linguistic and otherwise, inventing timelines that invite “a certain conception of history” that arrives with heavy baggage: “the necessity of some provenance, of successive continuity, the logic of homogeneity, the revelation of sheer chance as destiny and of words as the sacred depository of all lost or latent meanings whose recovery is thenceforth the task.”7 The movement of our thoughts may swiftly confine itself to these timelines of successive continuity, which imply specific kinds of roots.

This book is about attempts to dissolve the timelines holding linguistic history in place, so as to give language new temporal shapes. In the process, it also reconsiders what is taken for granted in a categorically “human” condition of uprootedness. To borrow from Denise Ferreira da Silva, the writers who appear in this study aim, with varying degrees of success, “to apprehend the world anew, without separability, determinacy, and sequentiality.”8 They work through the desire to know what it feels like to be inseparable, indeterminate, nonsequential, sometimes even to be expressed by a landscape of sky and water. Each writer featured imagines what it is like “both to be a free and speaking subject, and to disappear as passive, patient” in a balance of autonomy and participatory thingy-ness, as a subject and object at once.9 I argue that these well-known writers shaped the naturalizing tendencies of romantic thought in reaction to the “uprooted word,” or the formal analytic used to classify languages according to a progressive timeline of history and a corresponding hierarchy of civilizations (and we will have to resign ourselves to mixed metaphors, because the uprooted word helps build this linguistic “tree of distinction”). Writers including Phillis Wheatley, William Blake, William Wordsworth, and Henry David Thoreau “naturalized” language—which is to say they softened, thickened, deepened, and dissolved it—to counteract the forms of knowledge that arrested and uprooted language from its active formation in the lives of speakers.10 However, as romantic and postromantic philologists historicized language in the image of a “natural organism,” natural metaphors also smoothed the way for racial determinism. Earlier experiments in linguistic naturalism become difficult to disentangle in retrospect from the determinate racializations that aimed to separate and biologize languages and cultures, to harden and sequentialize them on a historical timeline. As mid-nineteenth-century philologist August Schleicher put it, in a speciously romantic idiom that fixed even a secularized language strangely outside human agency, speakers could no more alter their language “than a nightingale can change its song.” Because of where and how speakers are located on distinct branches of human life, efforts like Schleicher’s to naturalize social categories by likening them to known quantities, fixed objects, or physical processes are still justly among the most reliably discredited bad habits of intellectual life.

Yet Against the Uprooted Word searches for imagined natural qualities of language that preceded or resisted a hardening into the insidious forms of nineteenth-century race science. It rejects the inevitability of that scientific turn, in order to recover a range of foreclosed, but still vibrant, ways of imagining language and nature. The book focuses on a period in imaginative writing and language theory roughly between 1750 and 1850, spanning the Euro-American intellectual formations we have come to call romantic. It is guided by two questions. The first question, how did theories of language succeed in formally uprooting the word from the messy realities of speech? occupies chapter 1 and shorter parts of each chapter thereafter, contextualizing its primary authors against their contemporaries’ theories of language. The second, what kinds of alternate linguistic thinking did these reactions against the uprooted word prompt romantic-era writers to seek out? inspires chapters 2–5. Each of these places a canonical author of the romantic century (Wheatley, Blake, Wordsworth, Thoreau) in proximate literary contexts, and against broader contexts of enlightenment philosophy and positivist philology. Understandably, from our perspective in the long wake of their era’s inspired ideas and slowly unfolding disasters, critics have sometimes underestimated this cluster of linguistic naturalisms; in fact, their effects have largely been mischaracterized, in part thanks to a necessary turn away from the racialized “roots” of nineteenth-century language study. Nevertheless, that neglected possibility is there still: an entire imaginative repertoire of ways to think language and nature together, offering alternatives to the civilizational and racial hierarchies that came to dominate nineteenth-century philological thought. In Phillis Wheatley’s poem “To S. M. A Young African Painter, On Seeing His Works,” for instance, language “flows” in mutual comprehension through the shared “landscapes” of an imagined afterlife, even as her own racialized lyric voice subtly politicizes that future linguistic ideal as pointedly unrealizable in the present she inhabits. Much like the later generation of writers Matt Sandler calls “Black Romantics,” Wheatley understood her poetic work to be taking part in the “ongoing realization of a universal freedom,” yet a freedom of a kind whose mistaken premise of universality endlessly deferred its completion.11 For Wheatley and—in distinct ways—the other writers I read here, naturalizing language is not a method of tracing words back to the origins of their triumphantly civilized present, but rather a way of giving language the capacity to imagine new shared futures. To say that language acted naturally was not to circumscribe or unify it, but to disperse it among agencies, collectives, and surroundings; not to fix it in place, but to set it in motion.

Wheatley plainly presents an especially charged voice when placed, as a canonical writer who was at the peak of her fame also an enslaved Black woman, at the top of a list of white men, as she is here. But the power of her writing—or, as I will argue, of her linguistic disposition—as in part a product of contending forces of global modernity, gives Wheatley an essential, and largely overlooked, role in revealing the romantic era’s efforts at rupturing, reversing, and varying a linguistic imaginary rapidly taking the form of progressive history. As an insider/outsider in several senses, she articulates in her poetry a philosophical resistance to external determination. The ways she maps her own unfreedom, linguistic and otherwise, across social and material regimes of existence make palpable what is lost under the idea of the universal, by means unavailable to—and at times, in marked contrast with—the other writers featured here. Placing Wheatley at the beginning of this story reinforces a claim that is increasingly reorienting romantic studies: that the conditioning forces of colonial and racialized social relations permeate apparently noncolonial spaces and, in a multitude of direct and indirect ways, help constitute philosophical thought and aesthetic production. One can see plainly, as Manu Chander points out, how “even the most cosmopolitan Romantics fetishized racial and cultural differences”; but it is also true that in a more diffuse sense, as Nikki Hessell writes, “the experiences of Indigenous peoples across the world were precisely the experiences that triggered Romantic literature, as the quest for land, wealth, and cultural and political domination that drove settler-imperial actions globally came to shape British and European life.”12 Not only freedom and bondage, but the subjective contours of romantic nature imagery, questions of the poetic imagination, and problems of social alienation are all conventional topics in romantic criticism that might well be viewed squarely and generatively through what Simon Gikandi calls the “symbolic economy of civility and civilization,” including the categories of race and erasure that stealthily but pervasively defined social thought in the enlightenment and revolutionary eras.13

This book argues that the stance developed by critics like Chander, Hessell, and Gikandi opens new paths into the rhetoric used by romantic writers to link language’s temporalities to natural processes. Across its five focal chapters, I identify a tendency, within the social thought embedded in imaginative literature of a long romantic era, to interiorize the temporal estrangement stemming from an effort at multiple position-taking, at adopting stances simultaneously objective and subjective. Poetry and poetics (and I include here the often self-conscious poetics of prose) use this cleaving of temporal positions to think about language as the observer’s active experience of reflection, utterance, and audition, and to picture how language comes to feel natural or unnatural. Against the Uprooted Word is a selective literary history of these feelings as they prepare the way for the disciplinary formation of linguistics. In its critical approach to the intertwined “roots” that have shaped modern ideas about language, nature, and race, it also contributes to ongoing conversations about chronopolitics in environmental criticism and postcolonial studies. I join recent scholars scrutinizing the colonial foundations underlying the philological and ethnographic methods of the humanities, like Silva, Siraj Ahmed, and Timothy Brennan, adapting their insights to show how major writers of the romantic canon braided the strands of language, nature, and historical agency in different combinations. It may be uncontroversial to say that, in their natural poetics, romantic-era writers point us to the quasi-material qualities of language. Yet no scholarly study has focused on how or why that attentiveness dismantles linguistic form in order to diversify historical time, in effect giving language new temporalities more intimate, shared, and expansive than the progress-driven historical imaginary that would supplant or absorb them. I argue that writers of the era sought out ways to represent language as simultaneously solid (a product of history) and soluble (still actively in play). The commonplace notion of poetically inspired living language, which many enlightenment and romantic thinkers plotted in a distant primitive past, also comes to animate linguistic experience in the “now,” as it charges and recharges the present. These writers try to generate an “element of surprise or unexpectedness” in language, which is precisely what Gauri Viswanathan has suggested is “crucial” to “the decolonization of philology”; and while it is not always clear what stakes the writers themselves may have had in decolonizing anything, the temporal estrangement they captured in images of nature did—and I believe still do—offer tools for unraveling the chronology of Eurocentric modernity.14

Again, this story is full of gray areas. “Uprooting” means a few too many things. In social histories of the era, “uprootedness” is likely first to call to mind both the “freeing” of labor power for the capitalist mode of production, in the process of dispossession, clearance, and enclosure, and the closely related forced or free migration and transhumance of bodies through colonial settlement and the global slave trade—in short, the colonial and urban resettlements of the world escalating toward the industrial age. Let me be clear: the point of pursuing alienation as a linguistic problem, and specifically the “alien word” as an uprooted word, is emphatically not to conflate bodies with language, in spite of how entangled the histories of roots and deracination are—or rather, how entangled historical accounts of linguistic change and the paths of diaspora have been. At the same time, the basic ethos of language shaping this book’s story does insist that to think about words, one must also think about bodies. And a linguistic materialism—Marxist or otherwise—that makes sense of collective utterance through embodied, mixed durations has, I think, one source in romantic-era naturalism, through a variously articulated nondualism of matter and spirit, which I associate here primarily with the radical enlightenment and with Spinozan-inspired monism. As an umbrella term, the “uprooted word” encompasses a set of practices of literacy and knowledge production whose background is European colonialism and its exportation of gradually hardening global configurations of capitalist social relations. The distanced account I offer of this “set of practices” is necessarily abstract, but is meant to suggest how that praxis impacted the pictures of language that literatures of the romantic century were willing or able to imagine.

In its overall orientation, within the transatlantic literary sphere it maps, Against the Uprooted Word seeks to redefine the widely hailed romantic desire to change how we perceive where nature ends and the human begins. I explain this desire as an aspiration to mitigate the damage done by uprooting the word from the complex relations of speakers, understood instead by the writers in my study as participants in changing linguistic worlds. If those critics of today driven to merge humanistic and natural ways of knowing—and there are many, from the environmental humanities to a multitude of new materialisms—occasionally feel obliged to disavow capital-R Romanticism, it is partly because romantic thought carries the association of mystified or racializing fallacies that have issued from primitivism and organicism, tied deeply to theories of poetry and language origin. As for what is right and wrong in such associations, this book takes a further step toward setting the record straight. It is indisputable that writers of the romantic century from Herder forward played a role in the naturalization of collective subjects of language, who could then be tracked and temporalized as closer to things than to “things in the shape of men,” or assured some gradiently human “shape” according to a governing tree of distinction. In spite of this fact, I hope to show how much we still have to learn from romantic-era writers who imagined arrangements of language and social life through the images of durability, vulnerability, and revolution they borrowed from the natural world.

I have to thank those readers who pressed me to consider whether the speculative claims I make here for and against romantic-era writing are anachronistic, that is, imprinted by questions of the moment. The answer is: yes, they are. I assume throughout that poetry holds within it theories of language; that these theories study linguistic temporalities; and that these temporalities may or may not distinguish or rank forms of human life. Any clause of that cluster of assumptions may seem to go out on a limb, and each is informed by contemporary theoretical preoccupations. But with this book, I want precisely to produce gaps, or hold open possibilities, by rejecting the inevitability of a historical association that has linked romantic-era ideas identifying language and nature with later ideas identifying language and race. And in that speculative spirit of returning to moments of possibility held in suspension, not yet sedimented, I hope to make a virtue of the critic’s always anachronistic situation, drawing on Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s contention that “pastness” is a position never really past, as well as Walter Benjamin’s critical posture of unsettling linear history-keeping. While the primary authors appear chronologically, the shape of each chapter interleaves these writers with “before” and “after” texts, modeling the congealing of an idea of history as cultural progress against which romantic-century thinking tried to offer possible alternatives. Each chapter holds imaginative writing up alongside more explicitly linguistic thought ranging from the late seventeenth to the mid-twentieth century, and I have become ever more willing to disturb conventional periodizations of romanticism (here by bringing nuance to its supposed differences from its “others,” like enlightenment or positivist idioms). My aim is a critical historicism that acknowledges its own productive poetics. It has taken a lot of pulling to loosen even my own entrenched senses of romanticism. In this project of pulling or stretching what I think I know, anachronism and eclecticism continue to be a big help.

Chapter 1, “Giving Language Time,” provides an overview for the book, challenging received accounts of how, around 1800, language came to be seen and studied as a historical phenomenon. I begin by discussing a brief text called “A Mende Song,” recorded by the Black US linguist and literary scholar Lorenzo Dow Turner. In thinking about the song as a product of romanticism, I suggest that Turner’s example, published in 1949, offers a submerged alternative to existing romanticisms, and thereby a model for adjusting how scholars practice the field of romanticism today. From here, the chapter goes on to show how poetic bonds between language and nature constituted a more diverse chronopolitics than influential discursive and intellectual histories of language study have recognized (as in Michel Foucault, Hans Aarsleff, or Edward Said). Against a more familiar green romanticism, defined by the apparent desire to return to origins in a simpler state of nature, I focus on a “gray romanticism,” which activates language across different kinds of time, often by introducing inorganic images. From a gray or indistinct place, romantic writers may choose not to choose between language imagined as subjective experience and objective history. I argue that the linguistic politics of gray romanticism stand out against the colonial logics of philology, or the ways European theories fixated on archaic language origins to build an idea of history that strengthened language’s extractability from its actual, ongoing production. The extractable or uprooted word would culminate in philological ideas about reconstructing roots; before that, however, I propose that it constitutes a major, underrecognized object of critique for imaginative writers of the romantic century. The notion of a gray romanticism thwarts the identification of romantic nature with self-contained organicism, attending to romanticism’s reliance on radical strands of enlightenment thought. I close with an account of Herder’s role in that tradition, shifting attention from linguistic organicism toward a language ecology. Rather than organically bonding language to race, Herder’s naturalism attacked an enlightenment linguistic voluntarism that interpreted “civilized” language as willfully abstracted from its surroundings. Taking up a widespread recent critical reassessment of Herder in postcolonial studies, I argue that there was no reason why the linguistic naturalism Herder espoused should necessarily have consolidated, for the philologists he influenced, into nationalism or nativism. Herder emphasized surprise, or the gradual and involuntary changes in linguistic forms of life. While scholars have long grappled with his interpretation of Spinoza, I argue that Herder’s adoption of monist ideas is focused not on the suppression of agency, but on its dispersal among collectives, dismantling the myth of the sovereign, self-contained will by foregrounding formation, reception, and re-creation. These dispersed agencies offer a far more radical and nuanced picture of what it means to theorize language in a “Herderian” tradition.

In chapter 2, “The Transported Word: Wheatley’s Part,” I propose that what Phillis Wheatley calls a “softer language,” linking images of poetry, freedom, and the afterlife, offers a vision of language in motion through “scenes of transport.” In emphasizing the texture of language softened by free movement, Wheatley intervenes in the monolithic chronology of language that emerged through the enlightenment’s stadial theories of civilization. Drawing on Black feminist theory, I argue that Wheatley’s Afro-British-American linguistic standpoint, in and beyond her volume Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773), expresses a slanted version of the participatory or “submerged” subject we find elsewhere in the era. In her conscious role as exceptional yet representative lettered, Black lyric subject, Wheatley’s cautious management of her own audibility instructively differentiates her balance of license and constraint from the compromised agency celebrated in later romantic formulas (whose prototype for my purposes is Wordsworthian “wise passiveness”). That negotiation of freedom and unfreedom helps establish the blind spots of eighteenth-century naturalism with respect to an increasingly racialized subject of history. Against influential theories of language and stadial civilization, like Adam Smith’s organicist conjectural essay “Considerations on the First Formation of Languages” (1761), I show how Wheatley, described as a once “uncultivated Barbarian,” breaks open enlightenment discourses to unravel the primitivist timeline of linguistic modernity. The chapter culminates with Wheatley’s rewriting of Ovid’s Niobe, in whose failed metamorphosis, I argue, we glimpse the geological imagery that would shape romantic-century conceptions of the human, but this time from the “partial” angle of a racialized lyric subject whose humanity was, for some readers, precisely in question.

Chapter 3, “Voices of the Ground: Blake’s Language in Deep Time,” turns to the political force of William Blake’s exemplary poetic investment in radically expansive temporalities and mixed durations. In the context of his mediation of Britain’s possessiveness over the literary “property” of its colonies, I recover Blake’s desire to rewrite how we think about history and historical agency against the background of long eighteenth-century European philosophic discourses concerning geologic agency (in Spinoza, Diderot, Hutton, and Goethe), extending in the process a reading of Blake’s “The Clod and the Pebble” into several illuminated books, The Book of Thel (1789) and The Book of Urizen (1794). In these visual texts, I show how the geological strata in Blake’s poetry give language deep time and an ongoing actualism resonant with his anti-imperial politics. For Blake, the poetic possibility of another world is always on the point of dismantling the oppressive order of this one (hence his stubborn present-tense cry, “Empire is no more!” offered in the midst of Britain’s rise to imperial superpower). I join scholars like Saree Makdisi in imagining that Blake, like Herder, represents a poetic articulation of radical enlightenment, nondualist thought, and that this unorthodox materialism helps to situate the chronopolitics of Blake’s revolutionary stance as well as his attachment to the products of orientalist encounter (such as Charles Wilkins’s 1785 translation of the Bhagavad-Gita). Blake’s open linguistic subject, whose “every Word” famously varies with its “Expansion or Contraction,” imagines a materialist poetics of embodied voice that redraws the temporal horizons of enlightenment humanism. I argue that Blake’s affinity for a form of Spinozist materialism is, however, also filled with images that express how what looks like nature is not given, but continuously remade in the “language” of everyday life. In his commitment to unheralded forms of liberation, Blake makes sure “nature” is not mistaken for compulsion.

Chapter 4, “Radical Diversions: Wordsworth’s Overgrowth,” places the much debated desire for the vernacular in Wordsworth’s early poetics—or the infamous “real language of men”—in the context of a dissolution of linguistic categories under way in 1790s British radicalism. Following the undersung work of Olivia Smith, I recount the stir caused by John Horne Tooke’s immensely influential etymologies in The Diversions of Purley (1786–1805), which grafted political radicalism onto linguistic roots. This philological lens leads to new insights into the grayer undertones of Wordsworth’s so-called “green language.” I argue that, in tense collaboration with Coleridge, Wordsworth displaces etymological thought into intimate yet alien natural environments, anchored by the eerie opacity of language reimagined as a rock-strewn landscape. Examining the relationship of linguistic naturalism to the loosely ethnographic (or as Makdisi has argued, elliptically racializing) project of Lyrical Ballads, the chapter culminates in a reading of “Hart-Leap Well,” building on recent work by critics like Maureen McLane and Alan Bewell, who have shown anew how native antiquarianism drew on a broader colonial imaginary. I suggest we can see this more clearly if we recall the ideas of Anglo-Saxon freedom underlying the radical idiom Wordsworth turned to his own purposes. Looking back across the Atlantic, this is confirmed by a rereading of Wordsworth’s ambivalent radicalism through a contrast between approaches to Haiti and history in Wordsworth’s sonnet “To Toussaint L’Ouverture” and an ode to liberty by the Haitian poet Antoine Dupré.

Chapter 5, “The Primitive Today: Thoreau in the Wild,” acknowledges and situates the complex primitivism of Henry David Thoreau’s writings, under the influence not only of Emerson but also of European figures like Goethe and Coleridge. In this chapter, I bring into focus an American inheritance of radical enlightenment linguistic naturalism that is a far cry from Wheatley’s earlier position (and further removed still from the renovation of history in Haitian romanticism). I show how Thoreau plots imaginary language “origins” through present-day poetic renewal, exulting in the participatory experience of speaker, language, and environment reciprocally transforming one another; and yet how, paradoxically, in this exultation, his attachment to an idea of wilderness retains and reproduces an attachment to purity. Against exquisite readings of Thoreau’s wildness (Sharon Cameron) and materialism (Branka Arsić), I critique the positive valences often attached to Thoreau’s occupation of the wild. With scholars in Native Studies (Jean O’Brien, Lisa Brooks), I situate Thoreau’s desire for proximity to Wabanaki languages of the Northeast, like Penobscot, alongside his inability to understand them as contemporary with his own utterance. The chapter locates the contradictions that stem from the persistence of Thoreau’s racialized primitivism with respect to Indigenous life, in the face of his regard for variation, mixed durations, and regeneration in the natural world. Among other texts, I examine The Maine Woods, Walden, the Journal, and the unpublished Indian Notebooks, drawing as well on nineteenth-century studies of Indigenous American languages (John Heckewelder, Peter Du Ponceau). I close by looking ahead to Franz Boas—who in his landmark proto-structuralist essay, “On Alternating Sounds” (1889), used a scientific idiom to expose and disarm the racializing arsenal of ethnographic data-gathering practices, which guided the application of comparative philological tools to so-called “oral cultures”—as well as to his contemporary, Odanak Abenaki linguist Joseph Laurent.

Finally, the conclusion, “Deracination,” completes the book with a glimpse of romanticism’s afterlives in language study, following the romantic century. I address some of the forgotten ironies in the gradual turn away from a bluntly racializing organicism, which had already been censured as a suspect romanticism by earlier antiracist linguists. A concise example of these ironies comes in 1907, when Boas’s student Edward Sapir invoked the idiom “grow like Topsy” to describe the newly expanded temporality of language change. Sapir’s reflexive recourse to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), in order to reroute language away from originary “roots,” actually collapsed language with a literary caricature of nonwhite otherness, ironically demonstrating the enduring power of literary language to shape racial time. Setting such instances aside, I return to linguist and literary scholar Turner, whose fieldwork on the creole Gullah from the 1920s through the 1940s treated seriously the elasticity and mobility of linguistic phenomena resulting from the forced migration of speakers of African languages overlapping with the romantic century. Looking back from Turner’s vantage point serves several purposes: it points us toward other, submerged romanticisms, only hinted at across the pages of this book, while also showing how the romantic chronopolitics described here may actually help generate alternatives to the Eurocentric historicism standard for periodizing academic objects of study.

The itinerary through well-known writers in this book—Wheatley, Blake, Wordsworth, Thoreau—follows a transatlantic path that might seem designed to move from righteous to culpable. I am not seeking racist impulses in individual writers, however, but rather shifts in metaphorical usage that give expression to broader cultural sensibilities. At the same time, I would not have written this book if I didn’t think there were things we can learn from these writers, lessons both positive and negative. Already in Wordsworth’s moment, and much more so in Thoreau’s, we find varieties of racial thinking pressing on their radical speculations about language and its intimate relations to time, place, and circumstance; I am interested in reading them for the resulting complexities. To look ahead to the book’s end, by taking the example of Thoreau: around 1852, in his “Indian Notebooks,” Thoreau wrote, “Morton (in his Crania) quotes Sir Wm Jones [indirectly] as saying ‘The Greeks called all the southern nations of the world by the common appellation of Ethiopians, thus using Ethiop and Indian as convertible terms.’ Query—the origin of the word Indian?”15 As a minor instance of Thoreau’s etymological pursuits, this is perhaps hardly significant; but in its compaction, in a scant few phrases, of a whole trajectory of Euro-American racial thinking, it is fascinating. Oddly commingled, in Thoreau’s question, are linguistic markers of race that merge far-flung regions of the colonized world together into a kind of proto–Global South (orientalist views of the East Indies, the nonspecific Africanness of “Ethiopian,” the undifferentiated New World “Indian”) as though to lay bare the rhetorical artifice of race and its distinctions. The lines embed a quotation—Thoreau citing Samuel Morton, citing Sir William Jones—that encapsulates retrospectively a story I will recount, piecemeal, over the course of this book: the absorption of a racial analytic transmuting the eighteenth-century enlightenment desire to historicize a differentiated human race (exemplified in Jones’s “Anniversary Discourses” of the 1780s–90s) into the positivist ethnological impulse to measure, quantify, distinguish, and define (exemplified in Samuel Morton’s 1839 Crania Americana).16

What emerges in Thoreau’s speculative question is a monolithic alterity, projected etymologically onto American Indians.17 But his ideas about Indigenous language and locality were not consistent—that is, they changed. Through much of his writing life he would collect arrowheads and Native American place-names as analogous relics, mentally locating northeastern Wabanaki speakers in the past. But primitivist though he certainly was, his feel for language was complicated. In a recent lecture titled “Penobscot Sense of Place,” Penobscot tribal historian James E. Francis Sr., after reminding his audience of the racially polarizing cultural idioms in which Thoreau was educated, cites an 1858 Journal passage in which Thoreau writes, “it was a new light when my guide gave me Indian names for things for which I had only scientific ones before. In proportion as I understood the language, I saw [things] from a new point of view.”18 Reclaiming that flexibility of view, from detachment to a new and grounded perspective, Francis moves past the “scars of colonialism” audible in Thoreau’s own language (“when my guide gave me Indian names”); he reorients Thoreau, by making him newly available as a backdrop for explaining how Penobscot language is in touch with its surroundings, and by repurposing him as a resource for encouraging the language’s revitalization. Residual primitivism would have prevented Thoreau himself from anticipating this kind of linguistic renewal in his own lifetime. But why shouldn’t he help us anticipate it, today?


*Epigraphs to this introduction are drawn from Herder, Philosophical Writings, 212–13; and Walker, “Address,” 78.

1. Humboldt, Basque Writings, 171.

2. Herder, Philosophical Writings, 214.

3. Stewart, “Address,” 99.

4. Apess, “Looking-Glass,” 160.

5. Beauvoir, Ethics of Ambiguity, 11.

6. Blanchot, Disaster, 86.

7. Blanchot, Disaster, 97.

8. Silva, “Reading the Dead,” 43.

9. Blanchot, Disaster, 20.

10. In The Age of Phillis, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers offers a compelling argument for referring to Wheatley by her full, married name, Phillis Wheatley Peters. While I have begun to follow this suggestion in describing the book, I have kept “Wheatley” in the text itself, for clarity’s sake.

11. Sandler, Black Romantic, 5.

12. Chander, Brown Romantics, 2; Hessell, Sensitive, 11.

13. Gikandi, Slavery, x.

14. Allan and Viswanathan, “Heterodox Philology,” 246.

15. See Sayre, Thoreau, 115 (though I have amended slightly, based on consulting the notebooks themselves). What Jones actually wrote—in the “Eighth Anniversary Discourse” (delivered in Bengal in 1791)—was this: “It is very remarkable . . . that the Greeks gave the appellation of Indians both to the southern nations of Africk and to the people, among we now live [sic]; nor is it less observable, that, according to EPHORUS quoted by STRABO, they called all the southern nations in the world Ethiopians, thus using Indian and Ethiop as convertible terms” (168, Works Vol III). See Vasunia, “Ethiopia and India,” for critical treatment of this confusion.

16. Crania Americana was a source-text for various disciplines in formation preceding scientific theories of race ascendant in the mid-nineteenth century, including what is usually called the “American school” (as in Josiah Nott’s Types of Mankind, indebted to Morton’s work), but also a wider transatlantic sphere: see Poskett, “National Types,” 265.

17. Morton explains that “Ethiopian” has historically been “applied to any country whose inhabitants were of a very dark complexion” (86).

18. Francis, “Penobscot”; Thoreau, Journal, 5 March 1858.