John Mac Kilgore Introduces and Analyzes "Literature of Enthusiasm" in Mania for Freedom


In his new book Mania for Freedom, John Mac Kilgore introduces and defines a new mode of literature, what he identifies as "a literature of enthusiasm."

Kilgore points out that the definition and understanding of the word enthusiasm, and its accompanying politics, has changed from the period of his study to today. During the time from the American Revolution to the Civil War, he says, enthusiasm was associated with "antinomian religious dissenters and prophets; political incendiaries, utopian thinkers, and female revolutionaries; including the militant culture of black conjure religion under slavery, Native American pan-tribal confederations, and radical abolitionists."

Mania for Freedom (U of North Carolina P, 2016) shows how "enthusiasm – as a 'fervor for freedom' – operated in political, literary, and cultural rhetoric to describe historical movements and moments of emancipation," he says. Literatures of enthusiasm, he adds, are "texts that transform writing into a species or inciter of popular revival and revolt." Thus, in the book, he argues for "enthusiasm’s centrality in the shaping of American literary history."

Kilgore's interest in the project dates back to questions he sought to answer in graduate school. He was reading philosophy texts, especially Immanuel Kant's writings on the French Revolution, and the concept of "enthusiasm" came up regularly as part of the politics of Enlightenment. Kant, Kilgore explains, saw enthusiasm in terms of moral feeling, "specifically the spectator's disinterested response to a political event of moral progress," he says.


At the same time, he was reading early American literature -- The Confessions of Nat Turner, as one example – that uses the idea in a different way. In those readings, Kilgore says, enthusiasm is "closer to the idea of fanaticism, of a religious delusion or prophetic inspiration – depending on your point of view – that leads the slave to commit acts of violence."

"However, Nat Turner's Rebellion is actually part of the history of black revolution and resistance," Kilgore says.

"The French Revolution, in turn, is also a species of fanaticism akin to religion for people such as Edmund Burke."

Kilgore began wondering how the ideas of enthusiasm and black slave revolution and enthusiasm and the French Revolution fit together. He also considered questions such as "what about William Blake's 'dangerous enthusiasm' and the poet as prophet and revolutionary both?" He knew that Walt Whitman had the same view as well.

"When I found that critics of John Brown and Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War used the same language of enthusiasm and fanaticism, I began to see a pattern emerging, a pattern that goes all the way back to the English Civil War," Kilgore says. "I wanted to tell that story."

Reviewers praise Kilgore and Mania for Freedom, which Justine S. Murison, associate professor of nineteenth-century and early American literature at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says is "energetically argued and convincingly researched, [and] offers a literary and cultural history of the rhetorical convention of enthusiasm, one that connects the seemingly disparate political and literary writings of dissent into a coherent tradition. In offering an account of enthusiasm’s history, Kilgore fills a void in nineteenth-century literary studies." Nathaniel Cadle, associate professor of American literature at Florida International University, adds, "John Mac Kilgore uncovers and recovers a rich and important rhetorical tradition of 'literatures of enthusiasm' in American literary history, and a powerful means of expressing political dissent for minorities and other marginalized people. He makes a significant addition to a growing field of study."

For his book, Kilgore studied and wrote about certain works by authors he admires or connects to in some way.

"Phillis Wheatley, Thomas Paine, William Apess, Whitman – they are inspirations," he says. Several of his favorites – Emily Dickinson, for example – were left out, but his decisions came down to those who best illustrate the arguments he wanted to make. He also put considerable thought into making sure he had diversity in his choices.

"Socio-politically, in order to paint a round picture of the historical era, I try to show how traditionally 'major' and 'minor' authors are working through similar literary problems," he says.

After his research was finished and late into the editorial process, Kilgore had the realization that a deeper, unintended, and unexpected argument was emerging in his book.

"It became clear to me that religious cultures and sacred personalities represented the historical left – historically progressive, visionary, ahead of their time," he says. "Contrariwise, the defenders of so-called secular civil and political society were blocks to progress. It's a counter-narrative to the familiar story of secularization."

He also points out that there is a clear connection between his research findings and modern day.

"My book is a book of the present and future," Kilgore says. "It is a book about protest against injustice, about collective action, about democratic horizons, about the affective momentum of freedom movements, about the relationship between literary expression and convulsive history. Enthusiasm, in my sense, is daily news."

Mania for Freedom is Kilgore's first book-length publication, and he felt relief once the final version went to the printer. Kilgore says he was "very lucky to have worked with such great editors at UNC Press, editors who made the publishing process a rewarding and pleasurable experience." Nevertheless, the quick turnaround on necessary changes to the writing based on reader reports, copy editing, and other work was “anxiety producing” for him because it can introduce new problems and errors, both in terms of writing and the argument.

"At some point you have to just let go and be confident that you put your heart and soul into producing the best book you could under the circumstances," he says. "In that sense, yes, it does feel finished." However, don't let him know if the book contains any errors or misstatements. He says he is a harsh critic of himself – "merciless really" – so he will never read the book again.

"I absolutely love the book design – that made it feel like a real book as much as anything," he says. "So, I keep telling people, 'I'm glad I love the cover because that's the only thing I'll ever see of it.'"

Kilgore is in the early stage of his next research project, which is to write a new history of American literature from 1850 to 1855, the six years that F. O. Matthiessen originally dubbed "the American Renaissance." For Matthiessen, Kilgore says, that meant only "the Great White Male authors: Melville and all the rest."

"This has, naturally, been critiqued over the years and now the American Renaissance has come to periodize everything written from the 1830s through the Civil War," he adds. "But here's the thing: we have still failed to account for the specificity of 1850 to 1855. Beyond the famous works of Hawthorne, Whitman, Thoreau, and Melville, this short span of time is remarkable."

Kilgore points out this period includes the publication of the first African-American novel, the bestselling book of African-American poetry in the nineteenth century, the first Native American novel, and, he adds with a lighthearted tone, "a little-known novel called Uncle Tom's Cabin."

"I want to explain this phenomenon, to write this story," he says. "I already have a suggestive title, which might alert others to my working hypothesis: The Anti-American Renaissance of 1850-1855."