5-“Infamy in the Air”: Toxic Climate, Racial Atmospherics, and the Politics of Contagion in the Literature of the Nineteenth-Century United States


Abstract: This essay asks what crisis does to critique, but also how critique can help theorize, and orient ourselves in, crisis, by thinking about breathing and race in the literature of the nineteenth-century United States “in the wake” of the pandemic of COVID-19. Drawing on Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake, as well as on studies of the atmospherics of power in the field of cultural anthropology, health humanities, environmental humanities and literary studies, I seek to elaborate a critical vocabulary for thinking about the specific crisis produced by a contagious disease travelling in the very air we share and breathe and, by extension, for thinking about the power dynamics of the airy yet material atmosphere that surrounds us. Moving from “suspension” to “distribution,” from “breathlessness” and “asphyxiation” to “aspiration” and “conspiration,” I reflect on the politics of contagion, on the risk and the promise of contamination.

In the Spring of 2022, a special issue of American Literary History raised once again the very Arnoldian question of “the function of American literary criticism at the present time” (Castronovo and Hutner). While this question has arguably dogged the wider field of literary studies ever since Matthew Arnold’s landmark essay, “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” in 1864, it has gained in the past few decades, at least among American studies scholars, a sense of increasing urgency, as more and more crises—whether political, economic, environmental, or health related—have seemed to follow one another always more swiftly, to the point of “making crisis seem a permanent condition” (Masco, S73), both in our lives and for the discipline itself. The language of crisis has indeed become so ubiquitous today that it no longer seems to be capable of “constitut[ing] a future caught between a narrative of collapse and one of constant improvement,” as it used to in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Masco, S65). Because of its pervasiveness, crisis no longer seems capable of vectorizing time the way it once did. Instead, crisis names the suspension of linear time which now defines, if paradoxically, our confused sense of our own times. We live continually, and exhaustingly, in “states of emergency” (Castronovo and Gillman), which demand that we keep interrogating the object—both the methods and the aims—of our trade as literary critics and Humanities scholars. In line with the ambition of this special issue of Épistémocritique, then, this essay asks what crisis does to critique, but also how critique can help theorize, and maybe help orient ourselves in, if not respond to, crisis.

Most of the contributions gathered here approach this twofold question through a confrontation with the daunting reality of climate change and environmental disaster. I have chosen for my part to frame what follows “in the wake” of the continuing pandemic of COVID-19, as Christina Sharpe might say. I do not mean to suggest that we would already occupy—in the fall of 2022—a safe vantage wherefrom we could reflect on our most recent global health crisis with the benefit of hindsight. Quite to the contrary. For Sharpe, “the wake” does not constitute a moment of separation between a before and an after, so much as it indexes an extended time when the effects of a disturbance—as one may speak of an atmospheric disturbance—continue to be felt. Sharpe’s 2016 In the Wake is effectively driven by the effort to weave together and “activat[e] the multiple registers” of the word “wake” in order to think about the climate, or rather the “weather,” of anti-Blackness that pervades the contemporary United States (20). The wake, she reminds us, designates simultaneously the path behind a ship, keeping watch with the dead, but also coming to consciousness. Combining the multiple valences of the word thus helps to shape a conceptual metaphor, clearing a path to reflect on the modalities whereby Blackness is continually produced as a condition of death in the United States, as well as to imagine and perform practices of resistance and affirmation of Black life. I will return to Sharpe’s argument in the second section of this essay, but I want to suggest for now that the entangled images of the track left by a ship on the water’s surface, of mourning the dead, and of increased awareness are also pertinent to describe the difficult task that the pandemic of COVID-19 has compelled us to undertake as Humanities scholars, and scholars of literature in particular. More specifically, Sharpe’s vocabulary for describing Black death by asphyxiation and the difficulty to breathe in a toxic climate provides a way to reflect on the “uncanny,” but also “overdetermined,” collision between “the two epic events that upset the United States and the world in the summer of 2020—the pandemic of COVID-19 and the filmed murder of George Floyd” (Pratt, 276), that is between an airborne respiratory disease and the deadly operations of structural racism that keep plaguing the United States and other Western countries—between, in other words, epidemic and endemic conditions which are acutely felt in our troubled present and whose history, I submit, can be traced back at least to the nineteenth century. As I will argue in more detail below, I do not intend to collapse the differences between these two events. Rather, I seek to meditate on the shared lexicon that has been used to describe both and on the ways in which this “dis-analogy” (Mitchell, 377) relates to the longer history of “the politics of breathing” in the United States (Albano), one I will approach through a curated selection of nineteenth-century texts by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, Emily Dickinson and Ralph Waldo Emerson, among others, and their engagement with what we might call, after Jean-Thomas Tremblay, a “breathing aesthetics” (Tremblay).1

The various sections of this essay thus attempt to think about the relevance of studying the literary past in our critical present, while meditating on the purchase, or the affordance, of the critical metaphors we use to orient ourselves in the texts we read, the work we do, as well as the lives we live. To that end, I want to revisit and extend my own contribution to the ALH special issue which I mentioned at the beginning of this introduction and which I initially wrote in the spring of 2020, as the pandemic of COVID-19 was beginning to unfold. In doing so, I want to apply more pressure on some of the keywords that nineteenth-century American literary texts equip us with to perform the redoubtable task of thinking and living in critical times. Accordingly, the first section of this essay considers literature—here writings by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, and Emily Dickinson—as an inadequately comforting record of helplessness in the face of personal and historical crises, which might echo our own experience of unravelling, yet does not quite bring about solace. The second section then builds on one of Dickinson’s poems in which she meditates on the experience of “Crisis,” in order to elaborate a critical vocabulary for thinking about the specific crisis produced by a contagious disease travelling in the very air we share and breathe and, by extension, for thinking about the power dynamics of the airy yet material atmosphere that surrounds us. Finally, the third section ties contemporary critical conversations about the atmospherics of power back to nineteenth-century accounts, in Emerson, Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglass, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, of the bad air of slavery and oppression and of the utopian, though inevitably fraught, promise of free air.

I. “Where do we find ourselves?”

As a nineteenth-century Americanist, the first weeks and months of the pandemic struck a very Emersonian note, as I found myself experiencing something of the sense of disorientation that Emerson depicts at the outset of his essay “Experience” (1844), which he wrote during a time of intense grief after the death of his five-year-old son:

Where do we find ourselves? In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none. We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight. But the Genius which according to the old belief stands at the door by which we enter, and gives us the lethe to drink, that we may tell no tales, mixed the cup too strongly, and we cannot shake off the lethargy now at noonday. Sleep lingers all our lifetime about our eyes, as night hovers all day in the boughs of the fir-tree. All things swim and glitter. Our life is not so much threatened as our perception. Ghostlike we glide through nature, and should not know our place again. (Essays and Lectures, 471)

The unpleasant sensation of numbness he describes, the idea that I “should not know [my] place again,” rapidly took on a professional turn, as I wondered what literature, literary history, and literary criticism could do in pandemic times. What could possibly be the function, the value, the relevance of reading and writing about texts from the literary past, while hospital wards across the world were being overwhelmed and news cycles filled with mind-numbing tallies of infection and death rates? I felt helpless and stunned, obsessed with the rising number of victims, like so many others around me, and not unlike the character of the Chola Indian widow Hunilla in Melville’s sketches “The Encantadas” (1854). Stranded on one of the Galápagos Islands after her husband and her brother accidentally drowned, Hunilla spends her days “busy numbering” her “impassioned pain” by cutting lines into a reed to record the passage of time, waiting in vain for the arrival of the ship that she hopes will take her home (157, 155). Yet, her reed quickly becomes illegible because she attempts to chronicle and correlate on it too many orders of time that actually bear little to no relation to one another. As archives of meteorological time intersect with the numbering of the days, weeks, and months she spent on the island, and run over levels of stocks and supplies, the accumulation of unconnected and incomparable tallies—her effort at what Melville calls “misery’s mathematics”—confuses, rather than computes, the times, in whose “labyrinth” she is “entirely lost” (157, 156; see Imbert; Constantinesco, “‘I must calculate over again,’” 1737-1740). As this analogy suggests, during the first weeks and months of the pandemic, it felt of as little use to read literature as it was for Hunilla to indent her reed, unless it was to confirm my own helplessness and register the futility of reading as a professional practice worthy of interest and socially useful.

At this point, I was also confronted with other intimations of the irrelevance of literature, or at least of the fraught question of its possible relevance in a time of crisis. In the weeks preceding the first lockdown in the United Kingdom in March 2020, in the fast-emptying buildings of the English Faculty at Oxford where I then worked, literature was for a time symbolically relegated to the kitchens and the restrooms, where various poems by Emily Dickinson papered the walls, accompanied by injunctions to read silently these twenty-line or so lyrics so as to perform properly the now civic task of handwashing—that is, by devoting enough time to it. Here was the function of literature in critical times, then: to help guarantee proper hygiene in order to stem the spread of contagion. But the reverse side of this pseudo-valuation of poetry-as-cleanliness was also, and obviously, a lingering sense of the very demotion of literature, as something to be flushed down the sink after use. Literature had become, quite literally and if only momentarily, sanitary paper in all senses of the phrase.

II. “To suspend the Breath”

At the same time as Dickinson’s poems were unintentionally repurposed as hygienic products, however, another of her lyrics kept coming back to me, which seemed to capture adequately the helplessness that many of us felt, as the ground appeared to shift from under our feet:

Crisis is a Hair
Toward which the forces creep
Past which – forces retrograde
If it come in sleep

To suspend the Breath
Is the most we can
Ignorant is it Life or Death
Nicely balancing – (F1067)

I want to linger again with these lines, in order to think further about the critical work they perform, as well as the ways in which crisis might compel us to read literature anew. As I have argued elsewhere, this poem imagines and images “crisis” as a moment of suspension, and more precisely as a moment of suspension of breath. On this reading, suspension means interruption, the temporary interruption of living itself in that moment of confrontation—or “balancing” as Dickinson says—between “Life” and “Death” that “Crisis” names (Constantinesco, “American Literary Criticism in a Time of Pandemic,” 67-68).

Yet suspension is also the name for a specific chemical and atmospheric reaction. As such, it may provide a template for thinking about the political conditions in which we can, or cannot, breathe together. “In the chemical sciences,” cultural anthropologists Timothy Choy and Jeffrey Zee observe, “suspension names a form of mixture in which particulates are carried as a distribution in the fluid body of something else,” which then becomes the “moving medium” in which these particulates circulate and settle (213). Drawing on this definition, Choy and Zee note how “suspension is a becoming-atmospheric,” but also how suspensions—as opposed to other chemical reactions like colloids, for instance—are inherently “unstable once formed,” since “particles in suspension will eventually settle out of their medium” (213). Paying attention to “the mechanics of suspension” thus brings into view “how things lift and settle in mediums” and “how things exist in atmospheres” (211). “Suspension” is therefore inextricable from “distribution,” that is, from how things are arranged in a given medium. The atmospheric conditions of suspension and distribution index scientific questions, to be sure, but they also have a social and political valence, insofar as they flag for us “the problem of accounting for differential concentrations and relative densities” (Choy, “Distribution”). Suspension and distribution therefore become avenues for thinking about “atmosphere’s politics” (Choy, “Distribution”), about the politics of the air we breathe, of the climates we live in, thus bringing to the fore questions of (environmental) justice. The way Choy and Zee describe suspension and distribution thus intersects, if it does not entirely align, with Jacques Rancière’s elaboration of politics as the practice of “distributing” what he calls “the sensible.” For Rancière, “the distribution of the sensible”—in French, le partage du sensible—is a double-edged phrase that designates at once to the conditions for sharing that establish the contours of a collectivity for some (“partager” as sharing) and the conditions for excluding others from that collectivity (“partager” as separating). Such distribution is not always, or even necessarily, democratic, however much we might aspire for it to be, but it is the result of human action. This understanding of the work of distribution helps include our surrounding atmosphere, however intangible it may be, as part of the “sensible” that human agents produce and subject to the practice of distribution—or partitioning—that politics effects, more often than not unequally. In this sense, suspension and distribution become avenues for thinking about “atmosphere’s politics” (Choy, “Distribution”), about the politics of the air we breathe and the climates we live in, bringing to the fore questions of (environmental) justice. As Crèvecœur already observed in his Letters from an American Farmer (1782), linking climate and power, governmentality and atmospherics, “[we] are nothing but what we derive from the air we breathe, the climate we inhabit, the government we obey” (45). Individuals and collectives (Crèvecœur’s “we”) are subjected to and shaped by the aerial medium they inhabit, which is not a natural state, pre-existing and unchanging, so much as the product of human activities and power relations.

On this account, then, “suspension” indexes, but also determines, “a mode of relation” (Choy and Zee, 211), or rather modes of relation in the plural. Indeed, because of the fundamental instability of the mechanics of suspension and distribution, “atmospheres do not equalize, and […] breathing together rarely means breathing the same” (Choy, “Distribution”). The unequal distribution, as well as the unequal concentration, density, and quality, of the air we breathe, of the suspensions we inhale, are not merely a function of chemistry. They are also a function of race, gender, and class, which inscribes this set of questions within a larger conversation about what scholars have recently and variously called “settler atmospherics” (Simmons) or the “socio-atmospherics of power” (Choy and Zee, 211), where “racism and colonialism are understood not (only) as discursive constructs, but as material phenomena that imprint on bodies (like all weather)” (Neimanis). To put it differently, “it is not the case that ‘physical and psychological breathlessness’ is everywhere for everyone. Such a narrative of universal breathlessness masks the quotidian and differentiated forms of breathlessness endured by racialized populations” (Bain, “Still Breathing,” 72). Building on Hsuan Hsu’s notion of “atmospheric differentiation” (Hsu, 12), which designates the production and reproduction of inequalities in and through the air we breathe, Jean-Thomas Tremblay similarly cautions that breathing’s “enmeshment of vitality and morbidity” always already implicates “an uneven distribution of risk,” thereby calling on us to attend to the situated precarity of individual and collective experiences of breathlessness (Tremblay, 2; see also Tani).2

Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake, with which I began, is part of that larger conversation about the situated precarity of breathing. There, she theorizes the “weather” in the United States as a “total climate” of anti-Blackness, structured and punctured by what she calls “archives of breathlessness” (109)—that is, by Black iterations of the inability to breathe, by white supremacy’s repeated suspensions of Black breath. Her examples range from the stifling space of the ship’s hold during the Middle Passage, to Franz Fanon’s claim, in Toward the African Revolution, that Blacks “revolt simply because […] [they] can no longer breathe” (quoted in Sharpe, 108), to Eric Gardner’s suffocation at the hands of a New York Police Officer in 2014, whose dying words, “I can’t breathe,” have since become the rallying cry of the Black Lives Matter movement. In other words, and as Kimberly Bain argues, “breathing and its apparatus—the air, the nose, the mouth, the lungs, the neck—have emerged as a means for defining Blackness in the United States” (“Didn’t Need, to Know” 242). This long history of Black breathlessness explains that, for Sharpe as well as for Bain, slavery in the United States is not to be understood as an event from a now distant past, so much as a historical climate whose pervasive effects continue to imprint Black bodies to this day. As Sharpe explains, the weather of slavery originally hinged on an atmospheric contradiction: while the plantation economy required the production and the maintenance of a healthy labor force, it simultaneously precipitated the deterioration of enslaved people’s health through the imposition of coerced labor. In other words, “slavery […] exhausted the lungs and bodies of the enslaved even as it was imagined and operationalized as that which kept breath in and vitalized the Black body” (112). Investigating the long history of respiratory colonialism, Lundy Braun has likewise demonstrated how antebellum medicine routinely equated lung capacity with “vital capacity” in order to justify enslavement in the plantation world of the Southern United States, even as slavery irreversibly damaged those very lungs it relied upon for the reproduction of capital (Braun, xiii-xxx and 27-54). From this perspective, Dickinson’s notion of “suspend[ing] the breath” in critical times reads very differently. For racialized populations, it is not a reflex gesture designed to prolong, or preserve, living during a temporary moment of upheaval and of interruption of “Life.” Rather, it is the impossible condition of possibility of life itself, the inescapable effect of a biopolitical weather, or naturalcultural climate, which turns “Crisis” into a chronic and deadly condition.

III. Bad air / Free air

The murder of George Floyd by asphyxiation in the Spring of 2020 and the wave of demonstrations it set off instantiated once more, and once more tragically, the breathless weather of anti-Blackness that Sharpe and others have described. Because it took place at the high point of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, it brought starkly into view the entanglement of what pundits and scholars alike were quick to characterize as the “two public health crises”—or “twin pandemics”—that plague the United States: an epidemic caused by a new airborne disease and a systemic or structural racism that denies people of color the right to breathe (Altschuler and Wald, “Language of Racism”). “The disproportionately high morbidity and mortality rates in communities of color” revealed that these threats were not separate but combined (Altschuler and Wald, “Language of Racism”). Elsewhere, Sari Altschuler and Priscilla Wald also remind us that “Floyd’s autopsy revealed antibodies for COVID-19,” before commenting that “the knee of a policeman accomplished what the asphyxiating virus might have but did not” (Altschuler and Wald, “Pandemic Reading,” 682). I find their sobering gloss revealing, or rather symptomatic, of the rapidity and the ease with which the pandemic also served as a working analogy to describe structural racism as a virus endemic to the United States—an analogy already at work in Sharpe’s account of the weather, for instance in her notion of an “epidemic of violence” as a consequence of the total climate of anti-Blackness that envelops the United States (96), as the deleterious effect of the toxic air Americans are, and have been, breathing.3 In a useful turn of the critical screw, however, W. J. T Mitchell has compellingly argued in favor of the notion of “dis-analogy” to describe the co-imbrication between epidemic contagion and endemic racism, inviting us to think about their differences, as well as their damaging collision (Mitchell, 377-378).4

The contemporary emphasis on the toxic air of racism, on the unbreathable atmosphere of anti-Blackness, actually returns us to the nineteenth century, before the invention of germ theory in the 1870s. It returns us to a pre-bacteriological era where, on the one hand, miasma theory was still the dominant model for thinking about disease proliferation through the inhalation of supposedly bad or rotten air (Waples) and where, on the other hand, slavery was often figured as a contagious, airborne disease. The metaphor of contagion was indeed a commonplace of abolitionist literature, as in Harriet Jacobs’s narrative of enslavement, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, published in 1861, where the enslaver, Dr. Flint, is portrayed as a pathogenic agent “whisper[ing] foul words in [Linda Brent’s] ear” and “pollut[ing] [her] mind with foul images,” that is also, literally, blowing foul air into her lungs (26, 46). Despite his profession as a physician, Dr. Flint forces his enslaved laborers to “breath[e] his contaminating atmosphere” and subjects them to his “treatment,” which is simply another name for the brutalization of Blacks (93). While this vocabulary speaks to the harnessing of medicine as an instrument in the service of slavery’s biopower, it also images enslavement itself as a naturalcultural climate and indexes the violence inherent in the racial atmospherics of power of the nineteenth-century United States.

Emerson’s antislavery lectures also illustrate the pervasiveness of that contagion, of that contaminating atmosphere, which eventually affects everyone irrespective of race, even though its material effects are obviously racial-, gender-, and class-specific. Emerson’s abolitionist commitment was largely prompted by the adoption, in 1850, of the Fugitive Slave Act, as part of the California Compromise that allowed California to join the Union as a free state. Under the terms of the law, which Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster had explicitly backed, US citizens across the country were compelled to assist slave hunters in the capture of fugitives from enslavement, even when those fugitives had reached free territories. This extended de facto the weather of anti-Blackness that Sharpe describes to the Northern states, so that no one, even in Massachusetts, could think of themselves as immune to slavery’s contagious atmosphere anymore. A few months after Congress passed the law, Emerson delivered a lecture entitled “‘Address to the Citizens of Concord’ on the Fugitive Slave Law,” in which he registered his difficulty to breathe now that the climate around him had suddenly changed:

We do not breathe well. There is infamy in the air. I have a new experience. I wake in the morning with a painful sensation, which I carry about all day, and which, when traced home, is the odious remembrance of that ignominy which has fallen on Massachusetts, which robs the landscape of beauty, and takes the sunshine out of every hour. I have lived all my life in this State, and never had any experience of personal inconvenience from the laws, until now. They never came near me to my discomfort before. I find the like sensibility in my neighbors. And in that class who take no interest in the ordinary questions of party politics. There are men who are as sure indexes of the equity of legislation and of the sane state of public feeling, as the barometer is of the weight of the air; and it is a bad sign when these are discontented. For, though they snuff oppression and dishonor at a distance, it is because they are more impressionable: the whole population will in a short time be as painfully affected. (Antislavery Writings, 54-55)

Implicitly troped as malaria—literally, bad air—slavery becomes a miasma, a material phenomenon causing “a painful sensation” as well as “personal inconvenience,” “discomfort,” and “discontent[],” and progressively affecting “the whole population.” The increased “weight of the air,” which evidences the changing climate, imprints and leaves its mark on “impressionable” bodies, at the level of both discreet individuals and entire populations. Emerson’s language here resonates with Kyla Schuller’s recent account, in The Biopolitics of Feeling, that the management of “the varied impressibility of the national population” was indeed a key strategy and regulatory operation of biopower in the nineteenth century (3). In the context of Schuller’s argument, impressibility names the nexus of vitality and vulnerability through which living bodies are “acted upon by the animate and inanimate objects of [their] environment” (6), including, per Emerson, the very air they breathe.

The adoption of the Fugitive Slave Law thus suspended—to return to one of the keywords of this essay—the difference between slave states and free states and simultaneously between bad and good air, between what Harriet Jacobs later called the “stifled” atmosphere of captivity and the “free” or “pure air” that she was hoping to find in the North after her flight from enslavement (96). What largely remained, for the white abolitionist Emerson, a critical metaphor and a rhetorical tool—slavery as bad air—was however for Jacobs a lived experience. Her narrative is indeed in a large part a record of the seven years she spent locked up in a garret above the attic of her grandmother’s house, in which she could not stand and could only barely breathe. “There was no admission for either light or air […] The air was stifling; the darkness total,” she recalls, until she succeeded in boring “one hole about an inch long and an inch broad” using a gimlet her uncle had left (92, 93). From this point on, she was able to “watch[] for [her] children,” as well as to “enjoy the little whiff of air that floated in” (93). She was also able to exert her surveillance over her enslaver and to meditate on the difference between their respective atmospheres, which, however close, definitely did not equalize: “the laws allowed him to be out in the free air,” she observed, “while I, guiltless of crime, was pent up here, as the only means of avoiding the cruelties the laws allowed him to inflict upon me! I don’t know what kept life within me” (96, emphasis in the original). Jacobs’s overlapping oppositions between enslaver and enslaved, guilt and innocence, captivity and freedom, testify to the racialization of crime and the criminalization of race in the nineteenth century, as well as to the unequal distribution of the air itself, to the unequal access to free air in the Southern United States.5

Yet, her subsequent account of her flight from enslavement reads as a cautionary tale against the very utopia of “free air” that abolitionist rhetoric often deploys. After finally escaping and reaching the North, she was taken in by a white family whose daughter Mary she looked after:

But when summer came, the old feeling of insecurity haunted me. It was necessary for me to take little Mary out daily, for exercise and fresh air, and the city was swarming with Southerners, some of whom might recognize me. Hot weather brings out snakes and slaveholders, and I like one class of the venomous creatures as little as I do the other. (136)

Free air has given way to “fresh air” here, yet one which she cannot avail herself of, racked as she is by “the old feeling of insecurity” which continues to hover over her and to impress on her body-mind, and even more so after she learns of the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law a few chapters later. As gender studies scholar Mel Chen instructs us, and as Jacobs’s narrative evidences, we ought to be wary of “‘free air’ ideologies” (“Feminisms in the Air,” 26), which routinely index privileges of race, gender, and class—as, for instance, in Sinclair Lewis’s 1919 novel by the same title, Free Air, one of the first road trip novels of the American literary canon, in which a sign hanging above a garage and advertising for “Free Air” to pump up car tires becomes a “motto” for the white, middle-class protagonists’ “pilgrimage,” understood as a utopian “voyage into democracy” (47). Writing sixty years before Lewis, Jacobs bitterly discovered that her own “voyage” away from enslavement did not usher her “into democracy.” As racial segregation continued rampant in the North, she remained deprived of the free and fresh air that the little white girl she looked after could breathe. Hence the bitter conclusion of Jacobs’s narrative: there is, it seems, no escaping the climate of anti-Blackness.

Yet it does not mean that we should not try. Quite to the contrary: it is precisely the recognition of the pervasiveness of that climate that renders the effort to resist it an imperative. This is why Sharpe eventually pits “asphyxiation” against “aspiration” as a way of “putting and keeping breath back in the Black body in hostile weather” (113, 130, 108); why Tremblay seeks to identify aesthetic practices that “rearrange, reconfigure, reorder” atmospheric threats to “produce a breath that exceeds […] its status as evidence of vulnerability to violence” (Tremblay, 8); or why Bain insists that “it has never been the case that the relations that persistently produce, construct, and manage Blackness travel in one direction. Black people and our cultural productions have alchemized the violence of modernity time and again” (“Didn’t Need, to Know,” 240). Frederick Douglass’s famous account of his fight with the plantation overseer Covey is only one instance among many others of such processes of alchemization.6 Here is the initial rendition in the 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass:

[…] from whence came the spirit I don’t know—I resolved to fight; and, suiting my action to the resolution, I seized Covey hard by the throat; and as I did so, I rose. He held on to me, and I to him. My resistance was so entirely unexpected that Covey seemed taken all aback. He trembled like a leaf. This gave me assurance, and I held him uneasy, causing the blood to run where I touched him with the ends of my fingers. (50)

Offering a narrative of masculine empowerment and emancipation through violence, Douglass turns against the white oppressor the blows he was inflicted in the first place, which enables his resurrection (“as I did so, I rose”). By aiming precisely for “the throat,” Douglass silences Covey and puts the overseer’s life in jeopardy, threatening, by metonymic extension, the very “infrastructures of the plantation” that Covey upholds and embodies, while affirming his own aspiration to life (Bain, “Didn’t Need, to Know,” 240). Insofar as they strive to alchemize asphyxiation into aspiration, narratives of emancipation like Douglass’s and Jacobs’s operate under a logic of conversion that animates contagion literature more generally, where contamination often oscillates between a peril and a godsend, as writers seek to invest “the utopian possibilities of contagion” (Davis, 831). On this account, contagion literature delineates a model of contamination as conspiration, which names “a commitment to breathing together from and in an unequally shared milieu” as a way to effect social and political change, “where the distribution of harms and hopes … may draw us together otherwise” (Choy, “Distribution”).

This is true of Emerson’s abolitionist lectures, for example, where the miasmas of slavery that caused him to experience breathing difficulties eventually become the seeds of activism and political change (see Constantinesco, “American Literary Criticism in a Time of Pandemic,” 74-75). It is also true of one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s early tales, “Lady Eleanore’s Mantle” (1838), with which I want to end. The story is set during a devastating epidemic of smallpox in eighteenth-century Boston, which begins soon after the titular character arrives from London. The reader is invited to locate the origin of the epidemic in the infected mantle she wore during a ball given in her honor and to interpret her death as retribution for her aristocratic pride. From this perspective, the epidemic functions as a warning against the dangers of aristocratic power and a defense of the democratic feeling of sympathy, which Lady Eleanore’s unsuccessful suitor, Jervase Helwyse, encourages her to embrace, to no avail. The end of the tale seems to confirm this allegorical reading, since the story concludes with “a procession” led by Helwyse, whom we see “waving the red flag of the pestilence” (Hawthorne, 666). After “the mob burned the effigy [of Lady Eleanore], and a strong wind came and swept away the ashes […], the pestilence abated, as if its sway had some mysterious connection, from the first plague-stroke to the last, with Lady Eleanore’s Mantle” (666). “[The] red flag of pestilence” allegorizes the red flag of revolution and the promise of freedom and equality eventually replaces a monarchical and colonial rule now declared obsolete, as the epidemic foreshadows nothing less than the American Revolution a few decades later.

Yet the political utopia of contagion that the story seems to articulate remains ambiguous to the end, for “the red flag of pestilence” continues to figure revolutionary frenzy as a dangerously contagious fever, easily transmissible through the operations of sympathy, and threatening America with the dystopian specter of conspiratorial plots and political chaos (see Colacurcio, 424-448). With “Lady Eleanore’s Mantle,” Hawthorne thus provides us with a sobering reminder that a thin line separates virtuous conspirations from viral conspiracies, that the microbes of oppression may be lurking within the very germs of democracy, and that it may well be the task of reading, of interpretation—that is, of critique—to attempt to sort one from the other.

Works Cited

Abramson, A., Novel Atmospheres: Air, Affect, and Literary Modernism (forthcoming).

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1 The pandemic of COVID-19 has given even greater visibility to important, recent work on the history, the politics and the aesthetics of breathing and breathlessness, at the crossroads of health and environmental humanities. In addition to studies by Braun, Choy, Crawley, Bain, and Tremblay referenced in this essay, see also, among others, Timothy Choy’s Ecologies of Comparison (2011), Mel Chen’s Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (2012), Magdalena Górska’s Breathing Matters: Feminist Intersectional Politics of Struggle (2016) and Rebecca Oxley and Andrew Russell’s guest-edited issue of Body and Society, entitled “Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Breath, Body and World” (2020).

2 On the aesthetics and the politics of atmosphere, see also the various issues of the journal Venti: Air, Experience, and Aesthetics, which has been exploring since 2020 “the indexical qualities of air and our awareness of it through effects and affects” (https://www.venti-journal.com/about). For a discussion of atmosphere, climate, history, and politics in modernist literature, see Anna Abramson, Novel Atmospheres: Air, Affect, and Literary Modernism (forthcoming). I thank Pierre-Louis Patoine for this reference.

3 For a lucid account of the analogy, or rather “dis-analogy,” between COVID-19 and racism, see Mitchell.

4 For a useful critique of the “virus of racism” metaphor, see also Wald, 292-293.

5 On the reversibility of crime and race in the nineteenth-century United States, see DeLombard.

6 For other, more recent, examples of affirmation of Black breath and Black life despite of, and even from, the very conditions of its impossibility, see Ashon Crawley’s exploration of Black breath as an “aesthetics of possibility” (Crawley) and Jessie Cox and Isaac Jean-François’s “Aesthetics of (Black) Breathing.”

Thomas Constantinesco

Thomas Constantinesco is a Professor of American Literature at Sorbonne Université. His research interests lie in the fields of nineteenth-century American literature, literature and philosophy, literature and history, and medical humanities. He is the author of Ralph Waldo Emerson : l’Amérique à l’essai (Rue d’Ulm, 2012) and Writing Pain in the Nineteenth-Century United States (Oxford, 2022), as well as several essays and book chapters on the Transcendentalists, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Henry James, and William James in such venues as ESQ, American Periodicals, Textual Practice, Transatlantica, and RFEA. He also translated works by Emerson, Melville, James, Washington Irving, and Mark Twain into French.