ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance
"Passing Current: Electricity, Magnetism, and Historical Transmission in The Linwoods."
This essay maps an early U.S. cultural nexus of revolution, sympathy, and electricity and situates Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s novel The Linwoods within it. Insko argues that electricity in the novel serves as more than just a metaphor for the spread of the spirit of liberty. It locates the novel discursively in the two historical periods—the revolutionary past and the 1830s present—that Sedgwick’s historical romance sets out to connect. On the one hand, during the revolutionary period, the new science of electricity, taken up in the political arena, provided a useful language with which to describe the revolutionary impulse and the spirit of republicanism. On the other hand, the 1830s, during which a similar set of figures flourished in newly revolutionary Europe, marked a revival of interest in the eighteenth-century pseudoscience variously known as galvanism, mesmerism, or animal magnetism. This discourse equates electricity and sympathy—as does The Linwoods, as a means of expressing the invisible bonds that link individuals together, romantically, socially, and politically. Examining the cultural contexts that inform the novel’s rhetoric of electricity and sympathy, the essay reveals how the text’s rejection of British-style hereditary transmission necessitates the transmission of republican virtue and the love of freedom by means other than inheritance. In The Linwoods, to transmit is not to pass on or pass down; rather, it is to pass through, to conduct. “Passing current” thus forms Sedgwick’s attempts to hypostatize the kind of transmission that her novel describes.