Skip to content

Carrie Hyde, "Civic Longings: The Speculative Origins of U.S. Citizenship" (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2018), 320 pp.:


Carrie Hyde, Civic Longings: The Speculative Origins of U.S. Citizenship (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2018), 320 pp.

“Citizenship” continues to be an intensely debated concept not only in politics and political sciences, but also in literary studies. A number of monographs in the past twenty years have begun to systematically explore the complex ways in which literature relates to legal constructions and political discourses of citizenship, both historically and contemporarily; Dana Nelson’s Commons Democracy (2015) is only one of the more recent examples. In this context, Carrie Hyde’s Civic Longing is a timely and important book that seamlessly combines the reconstruction of important discursive strands with astute close readings of a range of texts and genres in the Early Republic. Civic Longing takes as its starting point a seeming incongruence: before the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Fourteenth Amendment of 1868, there was no juridically codified American citizenship; the few passages in the Constitution that mention citizenship leave it undefined with regard to whom it may apply and what it may entail. At the same time, the language and terminology of “citizenship” held immense cultural currency and was broadly deployed in societal debates about belonging. This simultaneous “terminological prominence” and “juridical impoverishment” of citizenship (22), argues Hyde, rather than being an obstacle to citizenship debates, offered a unique possibility for imaging different models of belonging (24), the potency of which cannot be understood by looking exclusively at the law. Rather—and this is the main argumentative thrust of Civic Longing—what Hyde broadly calls “imaginative traditions” (4) were central for the conceptualization of American citizenship. The objective of this insightful new rendering of U.S. citizenship’s pre-1866 history, then, is not to recover definite meanings of “citizenship” in the early United States; it is an exploration of the different ways in which citizenship functioned to conceptualize, circumscribe, and legitimize political belonging, or the denial thereof.

The first of the book’s three parts, “Reading Citizenship,” sketches the complex constellation of “Citizenship before the Fourteenth Amendment” (introduction) and provides a careful terminological discussion of “The Retroactive Invention of Citizenship” (ch. 1). Hyde does not approach her topic with a normative understanding of citizenship, but with a focus on textual layering, dynamics, and interpretative histories. The extralegal traditions that shape understandings of citizenship, she suggests, are “speculative” and “subjunctive,” and herein lies their power and political effectualness: “The ‘political subjunctive,’” writes Hyde, “concretizes different ways of envisioning political membership that have clear implications for how it might or should be defined, but nonetheless lack the law’s coercive power” (16). This is a highly productive approach. As Brook Thomas has pointedly put the different questions that a law-focused approach would bring to the table in contrast to a literature-focused approach, “laws can grant or deny someone citizenship. Works of literature cannot.” But works of literature may “help us identify stories about national membership and national values that are only implied by citizenship laws” (13). Hyde would probably concur, but she goes even further in her argument: Given the time frame she focuses on, the function that she ascribes to extralegal imaginative and interpretative traditions of citizenship before its legal codification is emphatically formative and formal rather than reciprocal and referential. In effect, Hyde reads the different materials she examines—novels, short stories, sermons, ruling opinions, etc.—as a kind of political theory.

Part II, “The Higher Law of Citizenship,” is concerned with two central legitimization strategies of personhood and accompanying rights (or the denial thereof). “Citizenship in Heaven” (ch. 2) discusses post-revolutionary translations of the New Testament that resorted to the language of citizenship as well as David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829), and Harriet Beecher Stow’s novel Dred (1856), the former discussed with regard to the political ambivalence and openness of reception, the latter two explicitly with regard to their political and abolitionist agenda. Different as these texts and genres are, Hyde convincingly draws out a shared basis of legitimizing political belonging: “divine law.” The following Chapter 3—“Citizens of Nature”—identifies the related but secular imaginative tradition of “natural law” in the debate surrounding the revolt on the slave ship Creole in 1841. Hyde uses the dispute over the territorial application of “personhood” as a case study to highlight the controversy over “the relationship between civil rights within the states and the ‘natural rights’ that regularly were identified as its foundation” (87). Materials in this chapter include Daniel Webster’s diplomatic letters to claim the Creole under U.S. jurisdiction and abolitionist literature, most prominently Frederick Douglass’s novella “The Heroic Slave” (1852). All in all, the two chapters in this second part impressively illustrate the way in which discursive traditions of divine and natural law (and their intricate link) were actualized to negotiate both the limits and possibilities of citizenship; as Hyde highlights in her detailed discussion of the infamous Dred Scott ruling (35-39), the semantic malleability of “citizenship” did not only benefit reformers. Both chapters with good reason take the debates about slavery as their central issue regarding the contested boundaries of personhood and the contradictory link between citizenship and nativity in the early United States. It would be of further interest, though, to see if and how these traditions were actualized with regard to gender, e. g., in the feminist debates of the time, an aspect, which Hyde largely bypasses.

If Civic Longing’s Part II in its focus on abolitionism foregrounds the moral component of speculative citizenship debates, Part III, “The Lettered Citizen,” shifts its focus to more narrowly “literary” questions and to citizenship’s “possibilistic scope” (117; emphasis in original). The two chapters in this part ask, with different foci, how understandings of literary autonomy, literary form and genre, and the educational function ascribed to literature played into conceptions of citizenship. In “The Elsewhere of Citizenship” (ch. 4), Hyde centers on fictionality as a crucial component of how texts can function to imagine citizenship. Hawthorne’s chapter title-inspiring “I am a citizen of somewhere else,” his distinction between the novel and romance, and his understanding of romance as “a kind of treason” (125, 122) serve as a starting point to explore how the notion literary autonomy and its analogy to political defection allow for a denaturalization of the nation and for imaging a right not to belong, at least temporarily; fiction is read as a mode of disaffiliation and reorientation, not as a mode of integration into the (denaturalized) national body (145)—and this resistant relationality is cast in terms of citizenship. This trope of disaffiliation—that finds its culmination in expatriation—is then also at the center of the final chapter 5, “Stateless Fictions.” Here, Hyde combines a detailed contextualized reading of Edward Everett Hale’s allegorical “The Man Without a Country” (1863) with a discussion of literature’s didactic function. In contrast to imitative models of civic instruction (a model still very much alive, as Hyde points out), she foregrounds a republican tradition of negative instruction which she sees “concerned foremost with regulating sentiments towards citizenship, rather than the actions of citizens,” with citizenship concerning not so much the “protocols of civic life, but the abstract ideals that give political membership its emotive meaning” (159). Negative instruction foregrounds crises and conflicts of allegiance; characters make mistakes in the reader’s stead (168). The necessary skepticism that Hyde identifies as an educational effect of negative instruction points, of course, to the common ground of the different models: literature as a medium of citizens’ education.

But Hyde’s is not a celebratory account of the relation between the imaginative traditions she explores and notions of citizenship, neither historically nor with regard to her analyses’ contemporary implications. Narratives of citizenship oscillate between idealization and constant disappointment of a promise of equality, as she states in her “Coda.” Evaluating some of the contemporary debates in light of her discussion of the “pre-history” of U.S. citizenship, she reveals herself to be skeptical of citizenship as a viable term of progressive politics; she ends her book with a question about the centrality of the “person” in the Bill of Rights as an alternative avenue to conceptualizing political rights. Hyde thereby opts for a similar conclusion than political theorist Lindsey Kingston will in her monograph Fully Human a year after Hyde’s publication. Hyde’s skepticism and disillusionment are politically understandable, this conclusion—no doubt strongly shaped by the nativist resurgence during and the reactionary politics of the Trump administration—retroactively narrows the focus of “citizenship” to that of civil rights. While this is, of course, vital to understandings of citizenship, Hyde’s brilliant analyses throughout the book illustrate the complexities of, as she calls it, civic longing. This is an excellent, well-written and compellingly argued book that is of interest to anyone invested in questions not only of citizenship, but also in the relation between literature and world, and the power of imaginary traditions in the early Republic.

Katja Sarkowsky (Universität Augsburg)

Works Cited

1 

Kingston, Lindsey. Fully Human: Personhood, Citizenship, and Rights. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2019. Print.

2 

Nelson, Dana. Commons Democracy: Reading the Politics of Participation in the Early United States. New York: Fordham UP, 2015. Print.

3 

Thomas, Brook. Civic Myths: A Law-and-Literature Approach to Citizenship. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2007. Print.

Export Citation