Jacksonian man of parts Essay

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jacksonian man of parts

The recent International Poe conference saw a number of panels and individual
presentations dedicated to examining the author's works in their social and historical
contexts, suggesting that contemporary Poe criticism is moving in a cultural direction
long overlooked by scholars and critics. With no less than two full panels devoted
specifically to issues of race in Poe's writing, and other papers addressing issues of
cultural identity, gender politics, Poe's relationship to American literary nationalism,
and the author's ties to both antebellum society and Jacksonian democracy, this conference
provided overwhelming evidence of a current desire to emplace Poe more specifically within
his cultural and historical milieu. In a broader sense, such attention to the historical
and cultural dynamics of Poe's writing suggests increased attention of late to Poe's own
Americanness. This critical trend toward assessing Poe as a distinctly American writer
has, of course, also informed such excellent recent works as Terence Whalen's Edgar Allan
Poe and the Masses (1999) and the essays collected by Shawn Rosenheim and Stephen Rachman
in The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe (1995). This paper represents an attempt to
further such inquiry into the American "face" of Poe by examining the ways in which Poe's
unfortunately neglected tale "The Man that Was Used Up" complicates the author's position
in relation to American racial and national politics. One of Poe's most biting satirical
pieces, this tale raises vexing questions regarding the connections between matters of
race, masculinity, and national identity as these concepts were imagined and constructed
in Jacksonian America.

A minor tale in the canon of Poe's short fiction, "The Man That Was Used Up" was first
published in the August, 1839 issue of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine and subsequently
revised and published twice more in Poe's lifetime, first in Tales of the Grotesque and
Arabesque (1840), and, finally, in the 9 August 1845 issue of the Broadway Journal. In
this odd story, which chronicles the compromised stature of a military hero of the Indian
Wars, Poe makes what would seem to be one of his most scathing, if indirect, commentaries
on contemporary American politics. Specifically, the tale evokes the troubled relationship
between the oppressive racial policies of the United States in the Age of Jackson and the
burgeoning sense of national purpose and unity embodied in the figure of the robust,
heroic, Jacksonian "self-made man." Composed at a time when the United States was
embroiled in the Second Seminole War (1835-42), among the longest and costliest of the
Indian Wars, the story positions its central figure, Brevet Brigadier General John A.B.C.
Smith, as both a valorous hero and, ultimately, vanquished victim of a recent brutal
campaign against the "Bugaboo" and "Kickapoo" Indians.1 Both the description of this
campaign — as the "late tremendous swamp-fight away down South" — and Smith's
ambivalent status as hero and victim call to mind the brutality and the seeming futility
of the Second Seminole War. Moreover, Poe's inclusion of the character Pompey, a black
slave who ministers to Smith, complicates further the racial dynamics of the tale by
invoking the increasingly contentious issue of southern slavery. Published at a time when
the administration of Jackson's successor, Martin Van Buren, continued to struggle not
only with Indian Removal but also with the precarious balance between state's rights and
preservation of the union — particularly as this conflict was impacted by the ongoing
slavery debate — Poe's tale anticipates a thematic concern that would recur in the
writing of such American Renaissance authors as Melville and Stowe: the conflicted
relationship between a hierarchical politics of racial dominance and the building of a
unified American nation.

The story centers on the quest of Poe's unnamed narrator to penetrate what he perceives to
be an air of mystery surrounding the General and identify the "something remarkable" he
senses in Smith' s character. Upon first being introduced to General Smith by a mutual
acquaintance at an unspecified "public meeting," the narrator immediately becomes
fascinated by him, and in particular by his manly form. In fetishistic fashion, Poe's
narrator casts his gaze over Smith's body, describing in detail the perfection of the
General's person. The narrator's fascination in the General is undiminished by the
latter's banal discourse, as Smith holds forth in vague but animated fashion on the
"wonderfully inventive age" in which they are fortunate enough to be living. Indeed, Poe's
narrator seems so taken by the grandeur of Smith's physical being that he allows himself
to be drawn in by this lecture on the "march of invention," concluding that "I was not
only pleased but really instructed. I never heard a more fluent talker, or a man of
greater general information" (49).2 Nevertheless, the narrator — who concedes that he is
"constitutionally nervous," and that "the slightest appearance of mystery...puts me at
once into a pitiable state of agitation" (46) — remains troubled by what he refers to as
an "odd air of je ne sais quoi which hung about my new acquaintance" (47). Determined to
get to the bottom of the Smith mystery, the narrator engages over the course of the tale a
series of interlocutors — all acquaintances and devotees of the famous war-hero — in
order to come to a fuller understanding of the mysterious General. In remarkably similar
phrasing, each conversant praises Smith's "prodigies of valor" in the recent "horrid
affair" with the Bugaboo and Kickapoo Indians, who are described in turn as "wretches,"
"savages," and "terrible creatures." Moreover, each interviewee shares the General's
devotion to the current "wonderfully inventive age." Exasperated after this series of
interviews over the fact that he has made no progress in solving the riddle of General
Smith, the narrator eventually decides to "go to the fountain head" himself and
interrogate the General in person.

When the narrator's quest leads him at last to Smith's quarters, he is astonished and
utterly dismayed to discover that the fabled war hero has been literally rent to pieces by
his antagonists, the Bugaboos and Kickapoos; in contrast to the magnificent physical being
he had met previously, upon entering Smith's quarters he hears the General's voice
emanating from an "exceedingly odd looking bundle of something" lying on the floor. More
troubling yet is the General's reconstruction: the narrator watches in horror as Smith,
with Pompey's assistance, "rebuilds" himself, piece by prosthetic piece, from the bundle
of rubbish into his former grandiose physical stature. Ironically, Poe's narrator has
discovered this celebrated man of magnificent parts to be precisely that: an utterly
artificial, store-bought collection of manufactured body parts, assembled for public
display by the guiding hand of the slave Pompey.

While this closing image of a suddenly re-embodied form marks General Smith as something
of a thematic counterpart to such other of Poe's revivified figures as Madeline Usher and
the lady Ligeia, several factors distinguish the closing of this story from the author's
more familiar ruminations on the death of the beautiful woman. For one thing, Poe seems to
play the ending of this tale simply for laughs, using the comical image of the dismembered
Smith — as the "odd looking bundle of something" which the narrator at one point
unwittingly kicks in his impatience and disgust — to complete his parody of an
empty-headed war-hero and his would-be acolyte. Smith also stands in contrast to Madeline
Usher and Ligeia because, of course, he is a man, and not just any man at that: as a hero
of the ongoing Indian Wars and a revered figure in the community, Smith is presented as a
man of some parts, indeed — a virile, robust figure whose heroic status and enthusiasm
for the onward march of civilization's "progress" mark him as an ideal model of Jacksonian
manhood. And it is in this characterization that we can locate the target of Poe's satire
in this biting tale: that is, through the dismembered form of General Smith, Poe offers an
image that serves as a scathing critique of the ideologies of manhood and citizenship that
held sway in the Jacksonian era. With his depiction of Smith, Poe offers a revisionary
look at the figure of the American, imagining a body — and, by extension, a body politic
— whose illusion of wholeness or unity is both compromised and tenuously held together
by contemporary race politics.

Given the rich thematic density and political relevance of "The Man That Was Used Up," it
remains a curious fate that the tale occupies a minor place in the canon of Poe's short
fiction, having garnered scant attention from scholars over the years. While a number of
critics have speculated on the possible target of Poe's satire, suggesting that the author
was lampooning any one of a number of contemporary political and military heroes — such
as William Henry Harrison, General Winfield Scott, then-Vice President Richard M. Johnson,
or even Andrew Jackson himself — others have read the tale as a metafictional commentary
on the nature of writing and criticism, seeing in the piecemeal figure of General Smith
the image of an author abused and "used up," torn to pieces by his critics.3 While each of
these approaches to the tale has its merits, neither takes into full account the force of
the final image of the story, which reveals the General - a "heroic" figure symbolizing
the robust Jacksonian American - to be nothing more than an assemblage of manufactured
parts, a contrivance reliant for his very existence on the ministrations of his slave.

That is to say, previous critical appraisals of this odd tale — or dismissals of it, and
there has been no shortage of those — seem to pay little attention to the force of
history as it impacts Poe's narrative. On the one hand, it is not difficult to see why
readers of the tale have disregarded the notion that in "The Man That Was Used Up" Poe was
offering a serious commentary on the inequities of American society, for at this point in
his career Poe was hardly thought of as a writer committed to portraying the American
scene. Indeed, J. Gerald Kennedy has argued that at least throughout the decade of the
1830s, Poe could be thought of as "the least American of antebellum authors."4 Foregoing
the native settings often embraced by his contemporaries, Poe tended to set his tales
either in Europe or in an undefined imaginative landscape whose contours nonetheless
resembled the Old World far more so than the new. Poe's critical writings only support
this sense of his willful disengagement from — even antagonistic relationship to — the
American scene. As Leon Jackson argues, Poe's attitude toward American literary
nationalism in the 1830s was essentially "one of deep and consistent contempt."5 Given
such a disposition, Poe hardly seemed a likely candidate for suddenly becoming a committed
critic of U.S. politics and culture. Nevertheless, as Kennedy has pointed out, "The Man
That Was Used Up" marks the beginning of Poe's interest in the American setting,
foretelling a shift toward increasing emphasis on American themes in his later writing.6
Given his subsequent career trajectory, it might prove instructive to reconsider the
historical and cultural contexts of this tale, foregoing an inquiry into the precise
biographical referent behind Poe's General Smith in favor of a broader reconsideration of
the historical forces that impinge upon this first specifically "American" tale of Poe's.

*
Such an effort toward an historical and cultural reading of the tale is not without its
hazards, of course. It ought to be noted, for example, that Poe's propensity for literary
playfulness and trickery — to say nothing of the often intentionally obscure settings of
his tales — works to undercut from the outset any attempt at culturally-informed
critiques of his fiction. Rachman and Rosenheim remind us of this in their introduction to
The American Face, rightly pointing out that Poe's authorial strategies present a
particular challenge to the cultural critic: "Anyone who would locate Poe's writing within
a cultural context must confront the way his work tends to advertise itself as ethereal
and otherworldly, or avowedly timeless, or preoccupied with aesthetic, cognitive, and
linguistic categories or psychopathological conditions."7 Such a caveat bears
consideration in the case of "The Man That Was Used Up," a story in many ways driven by
the same indeterminacy, self-reflexivity, and literary gamesmanship that informs so much
of Poe's fiction. Characterized by repetition, misdirection, and a dubious sense of
closure, this story hardly announces itself at first glance as a pronounced bit of
sociopolitical commentary. And yet, despite its thematic and structural open-endedness,
"The Man That Was Used Up" does reference historically specific concerns of antebellum
America, positioning the emblematic Jacksonian hero precisely between the very structures
of sanctioned racial domination — Indian removal and slavery — that both tacitly
informed and worked to undercut the Jacksonian vision of a unified, representative
republic. And if, as Kennedy has asserted, Poe's subsequent American tales would tend to
"take the form of hoaxes or quizzes on national credulity," then I would suggest that the
playful indeterminacy of "The Man That Was Used Up" belies just such a stinging social
commentary on "national credulity."8 In this, his first specifically "American" tale in
terms of both setting and concerns, Poe quite literally deconstructs his hero, in the
process figuratively deconstructing the mystique of rugged individualism central to the
Jacksonian vision of the American citizenry.

First published half way through Van Buren's term as president and ten years into the
Jacksonian era, Poe's tale bristles with anti-Jackson sentiment, emerging not only as an
indictment of the political ignorance underlying the Jacksonian tenet of rule "by the
masses," but also as a rumination on the effects of the racial oppression that
administrations of the 1830s both institutionalized and attempted to ignore. Subtitled "A
Tale of the Late Bugaboo and Kickapoo Campaign," "The Man That Was Used Up" evokes the
contemporary horrors of the Second Seminole War (1835-42), the latest and one of the most
controversial of the Indian Wars resulting from Jackson's aggressive policy of removing
Native American tribes to lands west of the Mississippi. Costing between 10 and 30 million
dollars and resulting in 1,500 U.S. casualties and devastating losses for the Seminole
tribe over its seven year span, the Second Seminole War threw into relief the
ramifications of the Indian removal policy.9 Indeed, this war offered compelling evidence
that Indian removal — a practice that had been gaining momentum since the early part of
the century and was made official U.S. government policy with the passage of the Indian
Removal Act in 1830, Jackson's second year in office — in many ways compromised the very
nation it was purported to be working toward defending and uniting.

In fact, the complex racial politics of the Second Seminole War mark this particular
campaign as a challenge to national unity on a number of levels. To begin with, the very
policy of Indian removal remained contentious and divisive throughout the first half of
the nineteenth century, and its institutionalization through the Removal Act was achieved
only by a slim margin of votes and after much congressional debate.10 For Jackson, and Van
Buren after him, at stake in the removal policy was nothing less than the preservation of
the union itself; as their rigorous support and defense of a strong national removal
policy indicates, Jackson and his followers saw a strong centralized policy on the Indian
question as a means of heading off potential regional conflicts over the issue. And in a
period that saw growing regional discord over the question of slavery, as well as a
specific threat to national union in the form of the South Carolina nullification
controversy, such concerns over regional discord were no doubt warranted. Lobbying for the
Removal Act in his first annual message (December 8, 1829), Jackson argued that
institutionalizing his removal policy as federal law was a necessary step toward
maintaining states' rights within the union. Wishing to avoid a showdown between the
federal government and state legislatures over Indian claims of sovereignty in various
parts of the nation, Jackson couched his plea for a national removal policy in terms that
underscored the connections between Indian Removal and a united body politic: "A state
cannot be dismembered by Congress or restricted in the exercise of her constitutional
power," Jackson argued, suggesting that a centralized removal policy would actually
support states' autonomy by avoiding the prospect of ad-hoc federal intervention in
states' Indian affairs.11 Such circuitous logic demonstrates the precarious balance of
federal and state power Jackson was attempting to effect through the passage of the
Removal Act.12

Jackson's corporeal trope seems only fitting, given his desire to maintain a unified body
politic in the United States, albeit one predicated on exclusion and removal of the native
population. Indeed, Jackson's compulsive dedication to Indian removal — he spearheaded
the movement from his first removal campaign against the Creeks in 1813 onward —
suggests that the policy formed a foundation of Jackson's vision of national identity. In
a larger sense, Indian removal served to shore up a nascent sense of national unity
figured through unified racial identity. As Dana Nelson notes, the removal of Native
Americans was one of the processes supporting the growth a phenomenon she compellingly
terms "national manhood," or the "imagined fraternity" of American white males. Nelson
argues that a vague, as-yet ill-defined sense of "white/national manhood" that began to
take shape in the age of Jackson "found one means for stabilizing its internal divisions
and individual anxieties via imagined projections into, onto, against Indian territories,
Indian bodies, Indian identities."13 That is, the ongoing expansion into Indian
territories, with its consequent displacement/replacement of native peoples, worked to
confer upon white America increasingly "authentic" status as native Americans. In this
regard, a burgeoning sense of white/national identity was reliant upon the native Other,
even as it necessitated the removal or destruction of this Other. Ultimately, then, the
Jacksonian removal policy can be interpreted as the logical end of a process of usurping
native identity into a growing racialized sense of national identity. And if, as Leon
Jackson argues, the complex relationship between whites and Indians in this cultural
exchange was "fraught with tension as Self and Other threatened to collapse into one
another with every shift in perspective," then the national policy of Indian removal
worked systematically to deflate this tension, conferring "native" status on white
Americans by erasing the actual native population from the landscape altogether.14

Indian removal thus served both political and psychological functions in the building of a
unified American nation. The adherence to a strong national removal policy by the Jackson
and Van Buren administrations — and its continuance under the subsequent administrations
of Whigs Benjamin Harrison and John Tyler — suggests the central role Indian removal
played in the development of American nationhood in the first half of the nineteenth
century. In the case of the Second Seminole War, the psychological and racial politics of
removal became more tangled and complex, due to the large numbers of escaped black slaves
living with and fighting alongside the Seminoles. From as early as the late-seventeenth
century, Florida lands that would later become Seminole strongholds had been a safe haven
for escaped slaves from Georgia and South Carolina.15 By the time of the Second Seminole
War, Seminoles and escaped slaves enjoyed a relatively harmonious coexistence, and escaped
slaves fought vigorously in the war to defend their freedom.16 Because of this unique
racial and political situation, the Second Seminole War excited regional concerns over the
status of fugitive slaves as much as over the removal of Indians. As historian Michael
Paul Rogin notes, American commander Winfield Scott was charged with a dual mission in the
campaign; he sought not only to secure the surrender and removal of the Seminoles, but
also to capture and return to slave holders all blacks living in Seminole lands, including
children of escaped slaves.17 Subsequent American commander General Philip Jesup, in a
Dec. 9, 1836 letter to U.S. Secretary of War Benjamin F. Butler, spelled out the
centrality of race issues in the war, as well as their possible ramifications: "This, you
may be assured, is a negro, not an Indian war; and if it be not speedily put down, the
South will feel the effects of it on their slave population."18

A controversial campaign from the outset, the Second Seminole War only highlighted the
fractious racial politics of the era, exacerbating regional and ideological disputes that
in turn threatened the union itself. Nevertheless, against this troubled backdrop of
divisive national politics, the Jacksonian mystique of masculinity posited a unifying
image in the figure of the robust common man, committed to diligent labor and national
progress. Indeed, as Michael Kimmel has argued, the ideology of Jacksonian masculinity
served to efface the brutal racial politics of the age by implicitly sanctioning the
"annihilating or controlling" of threatening "others."19 As a case in point, Jackson
repeatedly cloaked the brutal policy of Indian Removal in paternalistic rhetoric; as Rogin
has demonstrated, this rhetorical strategy, while infantilizing Indians and thus
justifying their removal from the culture at large, also reflected a broader,
psychological desire to envision the young nation in distinctly masculinist terms.20 At
the center of this vision was, of course, Jackson himself, who from his ascent to the
presidency onward became, in the words of David Pugh, "this nation's first official
prototype of the manliness ethos."21 With his humble beginnings, staunch spirit of
individualism, and heroic war record, Jackson emerged as the ideal figurehead for a new
cult of masculinity that served as a uniting force for the growing nation. And yet, the
very policies Jackson pursued for the sake of preserving the union — Indian removal and
the tacit support of southern slavery — only heightened regional conflicts within the
nation. What this growing regional discord revealed was that the Jacksonian mystique of
rugged masculinity — however pervasive and influential it was — could not fully
conceal the realities of the exploitative and even genocidal racial policies upon which it
was reliant. It is precisely at this confounding nexus of racial politics and gender
mythology that Poe situates his critique of Jacksonian citizenship in "The Man That was
Used Up."

*
In the figure of Brevet Brigadier General John A.B.C. Smith, Poe fashioned a character who
serves to expose the contradictions inherent in the ideology of Jacksonian manhood. Of his
status as a model of Jacksonian masculinity, the case seems clear enough: given the
General's fondness for mouthing encomiums to progress and to the rapid "march of
invention," and the narrator's own fascination with the perfection of Smith's manly form,
it requires not much of a stretch to identify the General as the epitome of Jacksonian
manhood: a virile and energetic — if unreflective - adherent to the mercantile,
progressivist ethos of the day. Nevertheless, by revealing the utterly compromised nature
of Smith's masculinity — he has been "used up," dismembered by the Indians he was
charged with removing, and he relies on the manipulations of his slave to achieve
wholeness again — Poe gives the lie to the Jacksonian mythology of the "self-made man."
For Smith, unmade and unmanned by his warfare with the Indians and continually remade by
Pompey, serves to reflect in a larger sense the contradictions of the Jacksonian body
politic. That is, Smith's dismembered form suggests Poe's revisionary take on the evolving
mystique of "national manhood": the General is a representative figure after all, but a
figure reflecting a union compromised by its own racial divisiveness, a vulnerable
illusion of wholeness whose fragile stability is undercut by its own oppressive racial
politics.
Continues for 15 more pages >>




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