Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943


Remembering Drew Cayton as a scholar and a friend

Two memorial funds have been created in Drew’s honor,
below are links to both funds should you wish to contribute.

   


Nicole Eustace

In 1998, Drew Cayton published a seemingly idiosyncratic article called “‘Noble Actors Upon the Theater of Honor’: Power and Civility in the Treaty of Grenville.” At that time, there were not many historians of early America with interest in the history of emotion and still fewer intent on analyzing emotional interactions as a form of power negotiation. So, when I stumbled across that article in his wonderful volume Contact Points (co-edited with Fredrika Teute), in the early days of researching my dissertation on emotion and power, I was electrified by the sense that I had encountered a kindred mind. I immediately emailed Drew; he replied with what I soon learned was his characteristic openness and generosity. Thus began a friendship that lasted nearly twenty years and was conducted almost entirely by correspondence, a mode that we joked was exactly appropriate for two eighteenth-century specialists.

Given the depth of Drew’s scholarly contributions to more conventional histories of war and empire, from studies of the Ohio frontier (as in The Frontier Republic) to analysis of the United States (as in The Dominion of War) few people would probably then have predicted that an interest in emotional sensibility was, far from a minor and fleeting interest, actually foundational to Drew’s analytical outlook. But any doubts on that score have been put to rest by his utterly captivating final book, Love in the Time of Revolution: Transatlantic Literary Radicalism and Historical Change 1793–1818, a work that makes exploring the connections between the personal and the political its raison d’etre.

In the acknowledgements to that book, Drew called attention to the book’s “blend of history and literature, scholarship and passion” while letting readers know that the work represented his best effort to come to terms with questions he began struggling with as young as age three in his grandmother’s kitchen. Love in the Time of Revolution offers a multi-generational biography and extended meditation on the lives and letters of three major writers who were first-hand witnesses of the French Revolution—Mary Wollstonecraft, Gilbert Imlay, and William Godwin—as well as their assorted children. Drew summed up their collective project by explaining that, “making their case within the realm of personal intimacy rather than politics, they began to argue that friendship and love were the firmest foundation of a new social order.” (6)

In the midst of a revolution to overturn the old pillars of church and state, Wollstonecraft and her contemporaries demanded, Drew tells us, “why challenge the power of patriarchs in public but not in private?”(7) They believed that men and women could change the world by changing themselves and that they could not do so in isolation, but only through sustained interactions with each other. The idea they advanced, “mixed-gender social commerce,” was “a sentimental solution to a patriarchal society.”(42) Drew found himself captivated by this effort to reform the world through the work of love.

Drew tells readers that, “in 1796, Godwin wrote a manifesto about the need to transform existing literary genres in order to capture new perspectives.”(176) Clearly Drew pursued this very project in offering us a singular book that combines highly insightful psychological portraits of its biographical subjects, probing analysis of their literary productions, and judicious assessments of the historical impact and enduring import of their lives and work. Of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin’s daughter, Frankenstein author, Mary Shelley, Drew explains, for example, “in novels, writers and characters could…live out the imagined possibilities and perils of mixed-gender sociability. History was tied to examination of the world as it was; fiction discussed the world as it might be.”(318-19) As a scholar and writer, Drew wanted to give us both, and this book represents his most sustained effort in that direction.

Drew recognized the failures of “social commerce” clearly, yet he also wanted us to remember that this dream had once existed. On the one hand he admits explicitly, “Sentimental fiction, to be sure, was a discourse of liberalism that deflected attention away from the structures of patriarchy, colonialism, and market capitalism to revel in the personal problems of individuals.”(199) On the other hand, Drew remained captivated by the unique possibilities of the genre: “novels elaborated on the notion that social commerce was more likely to promote morality and progress than institutions.”(195) Whether or not we find ourselves persuaded by this vision of the sources of social progress, we can well understand Drew’s desire to document it.

Drew himself was never more than wistful on this point; towards the close of the book, he quotes the critic William Hazlitt who said of Godwin that he had “raised the standard of morality above the reach of humanity, and by directing virtue to the most airy and romantic heights, made her path dangerous, solitary, and impracticable.”(331) Looking at the sum of Drew’s life and work, I would say that Hazlitt scored two out of three. Basing human moral progress on romantic and airy ideas of human virtue was certainly both dangerous and impractical. But it was not solitary and this was exactly Drew’s assessment.

“Members of Wollstonecraft’s generation,” Drew tells us, “assumed that progress was less about identifying structures, labeling categories of human behavior, and prescribing specific remedies through legislation than about endlessly engaging with others.”(22) This endless engagement with others (even with obscure graduate students who contacted him out of the blue) was the animating principle of Drew’s own life.

In the closing paragraphs of Love in the Time of Revolution, Drew leaves us with a parting thought that I think offers both consolation and lasting provocation. Drew recounts there, that, “Godwin argued for the value of communing with ‘the Illustrious Dead’ literally on their graves. The dead are ‘still with us’ he insisted, ‘in their stories, in their words, in their writings, in the consequences that did not cease to flow fresh from what they did.’” Drew himself admonishes us in the too-prophetic very last line of the book: “As long as we engage with them, the dead are not really dead. They live, if only in our imaginations, because we wish them to be necessary to us.”(333) In that fundamental way, Drew Cayton, though taken from us much too soon, still remains very much in our midst.

Nicole Eustace, New York University