10/02/22 – Matthew Redmond: “No Country for Old Men: Age in the American Republic”

Matthew Redmond’s area of research is the US literature in the nineteenth century. He chooses an interdisciplinary approach and has a particular interest in the field of age studies. He recently finished his doctoral dissertation entitled “Living Too Long: The Politics of Lifespan in American Literature between 1820 and 1880.” He is also an instructor in a program of writing and rhetoric at the University of Stanford and hopes for a Marie Curie post-doctoral position at the University of Lille with the research project “Living Too Long: The Republican Time in American Literature.” During his talk, he dealt with getting old in the United States and the United States getting old. He looked at the intersection between American literature and politics and considered the relationship between age and the American Republic through literary works. 

He started by introducing Emma Willard (1787-1870), one of the most interesting social reformer figures of her generation and founder of the first school for women education. He referred to her work An Address to the Public Particularly the Members of the Legislature of New York, Proposing a Plan for Improving Female Education (1819) in which she exposes her project of prolonging the life of the American Republic. Redmond argued that her ingenuity lies in her clock-ward thinking, asserting that the analogy between nations and individuals is not reliable:

“The existence of nations cannot, in strictness, be compared with the duration of animate life; for by the operation of physical causes, this, after a certain length of time, must cease: but the existence of nations, is prolonged by the succession of one generation to another, and there is no physical cause, to prevent this succession’s going on, in a peaceable manner, under a good government, till the end of time.” 

Her claim that the Republic can live forever is shared by many foremost American thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson (whose father-in-law left him considerate debts) embraced the position that every American generation must have its right to free itself from the tyranny of the past and also insisted that the US Constitution should provide a solemn opportunity every twenty years for each generation to accommodate its inherited government to the circumstance of the present era. 

Matthew Redmond suggests that in a national tradition such as the American one – which defines itself in this rebellion against the dead – there is a kind of suspicion or even paranoia that is cast upon the livings. He developed his point by assessing that in the nineteenth century, the belief that America will survive because every generation dies and the next one is enabled to have its day disguises the fear that one generation might not die at the “proper time” and quit the political and social fields. Instead, this “old” generation might overstay and even establish a tyrannical ruling of the Republic. Redmond presented literary works that reflect on the following questions: what would happen if the Republic was not handed on peacefully? How this fear is manifest through the literature of the century? 

The scholar’s main viewpoint is that individual human lifespan was integral to the way the Americans of the period imagined their Republic’s life and possible death. He also wanted to present a series of literary transgressions against the deeply-rooted ideology of generational succession and the idea that the young nation fetishized its youth. 

Redmond explained the origins of this research project about human lifespan and national lifespan. In the last decade, a swirl of scientific works such as Lifespan: Why We Age – and Why We Don’t Have To (David A. Sinclair, 2019) highlight the distinct possibility that ageing may cease to be a factor in our life while scientific and medicinal progress further. That dynamic implies that these questions are only related to our own historical moment as if they were never been asked before. Redmond showed there have been asked in the nineteenth century. He pointed out that these questions raised in the American literature arose in the English and continental stories which had influenced the American schools of thought. He mentioned Nicolas de Condorcet (1743-1794), defender of the constitutional government and a liberal economy and known as an Enlightenment thinker. His work A Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind (1795) describes how steady improvements and accumulations of knowledge would allow human lifespan to increase: 

“Certainly, man will not become immortal, but will not the interval between the first breath that he draws and the time when in the natural course of events, without disease or accident, he expires, increase indefinitely?”

He also referred to William Godwin (1756-1794) who suggested that humankind will eventually gain mental control over involuntary actions of the body such as ageing, allowing people to prolong their lives without any limit. Godwin points out his own lack of evidence for such claims and does not put too much faith in his theory about human longevity. The last example he gave was Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) and his work Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) in which he makes clear that lives getting longer is not to be hoped for those who want to see improvement in society. He asserts that a very long life would exacerbate the population in a society that has already difficulties regulating itself with natural death. Thomas Malthus makes explicit the link between society welfare and the length of individual human life within the collective imagination. Redmond underlined that each of these writers struggles to reconcile what seems a potential endless future filled with increasing time to the scale in which people live and die. Nevertheless, they share the view that America is the testing ground where their theories will be validated or not. 

Matthew Redmond focused on one novel entitled The Pioneers (1823) written by James Fenimore Cooper and part of a collection called The Leatherstocking Novels. Cooper is one of the most important American writers and his five historical novels revolve around one single character (the eponymous character Leatherstocking) whose real name is Natty Bumppo. He is the child of white parents but he grew up among Delaware Indians and was educated by Moravian Christians. In this novel, he is an old man living in the wood with his indigenous companion Chingachgook. Natty is one of the few old characters in American literature to have his existence consistently defined around oldness and can’t stop reminding people how old he is. His most reliable tool in the novel is his grammar: he is mastering the present perfect tense to prove himself and to increase his authority. To illustrate the link between language and the experience of oldness, Matthew Redmond analyzed Natty’s use of present perfect in several excerpts as reminding those around him of the most inappropriate aspects of his character – his stubborn, ridiculous longevity. The collection showcases how Natty is hunted down because he represents the old order yet, shows how symbolically the old can survive in a young nation.

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