Rites of Dissent
Rites of Dissent
Literatures of Enthusiasm and the American Revolution
Against the dominant interpretation of the American Revolution as a conservative historical phenomenon, this chapter argues for a reading of the event in which enthusiastic “rites of dissent” play a constitutive role for supporters and critics alike. The author discusses both the Loyalist and Patriot view that colonial resistance in the years leading up to and during the American Revolution was a species of mobbish English enthusiasm conjuring both the English Civil War (the specter of Oliver Cromwell) and the populist revival religion associated with George Whitefield. Through readings of Mercy Otis Warren, Thomas Paine, and Phillis Wheatley, the chapter’s claim is that literatures of enthusiasm, as a discourse of the American Revolutionary event, do indeed draw upon the Puritan revolutionary and Great Awakening revival heritage. Specifically, these literatures invent an insurgent American print culture that transforms aesthetic labor into an expression of dissent—a “theatre of action” that goads the reader to participate in a sacred drama of historical transformation. However, as a result of the post-Revolutionary backlash against political enthusiasm, Warren, Paine, and Wheatley each have had a troubled and uncertain place in American literary history.
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