Outsider Theory, Ruggles of Red Gap, and unforgetting: On the unfinished, ongoing work of political and intellectual struggle.

Pennsylvania State University

When I was in graduate school, an acquaintance of mine introduced me to a movie called Ruggles of Red Gap. Released by Paramount in 1935, the film—a quirky comedy—features the Canadian actress Maude Eburne (no relation), who made a career playing characters named “Ma.” Ruggles of Red Gap is perhaps most notable for the scene in which the titular Ruggles, an English valet played in condemned-veal deadpan by Charles Laughton, recites the Gettysburg Address. The scene is memorable not only for Laughton’s line reading of the speech, which rises from a nearly inaudible murmur; it is also memorable because nobody else in the scene can recall its words.

The Gettysburg Address scene takes place in a dusty saloon in the gold-rush era town of Red Gap, Washington. As Laughton’s recitation unfolds the other patrons gather around him in awed silence, a cluster of enormous moustaches, each one more remarkable than the last. The fact that Laughton’s Ruggles knows Lincoln’s speech by heart is poignant, the film suggests, because Ruggles is himself a servant. Though a fish out of water in Red Gap—whose butler’s livery is mistaken by the locals for English finery—Ruggles is not only a servant; he is also property. The premise of this 1935 comedy is that his master, the dissolute Earl of Burstead, has wagered his faithful valet in a late-night Parisian poker game and (I’m terribly sorry, old chap) lost the bet. The victors are a gold-enriched Wild West couple on a Yerpeen bender, Ma and Pa, who somewhat awkwardly import Ruggles back to Red Gap with them.

The film thus becomes a loose allegory for slavery—at least for a few spellbound moments at its center, when Ruggles begins muttering the Gettysburg Address in a bar. But in doing so it also becomes a story about the way knowledge circulates, even—or perhaps especially–when it might otherwise seem to be failing to circulate. Ruggles of Red Gap certainly gestures toward the all-too-ready tendency for American settler colonists to forget the founding proposition “that all men [sic] are created equal,” whether in the era of Manifest Destiny, or during the Depression, or during the so-called age of Trump. It’s not the most subtle gesture in the history of film. Ruggles of Red Gap offers neither a sustained critique of US imperialism and white supremacism, nor, for that matter, a lament for the closing of the American mind. Its credibility as an allegory for civil rights is sketchy, even offhand. But the barroom scene is significant for the way it smuggles Lincoln’s speech into the heart of an unsuspecting madcap comedy.

For the film also saliently demonstrates a scene of unforgetting, reversing a collective amnesia whereby Pa comes to wonder, now, what did he say that day at Gettysburg? Ruggles, declaring his own independence from servitude, recites Lincoln’s speech to a roomful of increasingly eager listeners, including Maude Eburne’s Ma. What is remarkable—and of course, staged as a coup de théâtre for the benefit of the viewing public—is that everyone pays attention. The message of Lincoln’s speech likewise hinges on this attention: on visiting the Civil War battleground, Lincoln refused to consecrate the ground, calling instead for his listeners to dedicate themselves to the “unfinished work” he associated with democracy: to unforget, in perpetuity.

I had occasion to recall this scene over the recent Labor Day weekend, which was punctuated by two very different efforts to capture public attention in the name of democratic politics. One involved the craven—and hastily withdrawn—gesture of inviting a neofascist blowhard to drum up public “debate” at the New Yorker Festival. Another involved the Nike corporation’s decision to center an advertising campaign on the quiet but reverberating antiviolence campaign of Colin Kaepernick. Both decisions were efforts to solicit attention, and both the New Yorker and Nike would claim to do so in the name of democratic principles—if not the explicitly governmental terms of Lincoln’s “government by the people, for the people,” then at least in the terms of the right to free speech, a gesture of enshrining or hallowing certain kinds of speech acts, whether loud ones or quiet ones. The New Yorker Festival invitation briefly sought to extend the magazine’s aspirations toward “big tent” democracy into a veritable three ring circus; but as the tent collapsed it disclosed little else than the whiteness of the tent itself. As for the Nike campaign, it was not immediately clear whether the shoe corporation was championing Kaepernick for his perseverance in protesting the silencing of Black lives and the persistence of anti-Black and anti-Brown police violence in the US— or whether it was merely upholding him as “controversial.” There was, of course, no need for Nike to clarify their position; the advertisement works either way.

Meanwhile, on the Senate floor, Kamala Harris and a handful of other Democratic senators sought to disrupt the hearings for the lifetime appointment of a new Supreme Court Justice. They did so not only to protest the nomination of a judge known for his right-wing, pro-corporation interests, but also to demand the time necessary for paying attention to delayed and withheld papers documenting his former White House activities. As Harris explained, “The committee received, just last night, less than 15 hours ago, 42,000 pages of documents that we haven’t had an opportunity to read, review or analyze.” Another call for attention, this time not only in the interest of democratic processes but also, curiously, in the interest of minutiae, of the circulation of records and archival documents, of reading, of public knowledge.

What brought Ruggles of Red Gap to mind was the way in which it dramatizes living memory, rather than formal monuments, as the stuff of democracy. Charles Laughton’s recitation of the Gettysburg Address proposes that Lincoln’s project of emancipation was to be kept alive not by capturing or enshrining attention, but by performing the “unfinished work” of unforgetting itself. Not, in other words, from sensationalism or mass appeal, but from the slower, more deliberate work of repetition, repertoire, and recursion.

In my new book I take up analogous questions, examining how facts and nonfacts alike circulate and take on meaning as elements in a historical process. An intellectual history of outlandish ideas, Outsider Theory studies the processes and media through which errant, unfashionable, or otherwise unreasonable thinking circulate and take form within the intellectual life of the present. Rather than erecting monuments to “great thinkers,” I am interested in the extent to which speculative inquiry extends beyond the work of professional intellectuals to include the work of nonprofessionals, whether amateurs, unfashionable observers, the clinically insane, or populations not commonly perceived as intellectuals. The book features the work of a variety of such figures, from popular occult writers, gnostics, and “outsider artists” to the Marquis de Sade and pseudoscientists such as Immanuel Velikovsky. It accounts for how and why such ideas have left their impression on twentieth-century thinking and continue to exercise a role in its continued evolution. The ambition of this project is therefore not to enforce the demarcation between good and bad theories, but to dramatize the stakes of their intelligibility. And those stakes are especially urgent today: not because every piece of unread documentation is important, but because the repercussions of not reading are severe.

In spite of the vogue for reboots and recursions in Hollywood (A Star Is Born has, apparently, just been reborn, or born again), I doubt if there will be plans to remake Ruggles of Red Gap anytime soon. One might lament the shallowness of the public repertoire of such films: the difficulty of getting one’s hands—nevermind one’s eyes—on such films, of coming to know them in the first place. To what extent have we, the public, been recast as the gawking, amnesiac saloon patrons? It is an image of the shrinking public sphere that innumerable journalists, education reformers, pundits, and scholars have been lamenting for at least the past decade, if not since the height of the Culture Wars of the late 1980s. Is it not Ruggles who, in his borrowed livery and ready access to the Western Canon, puts The Closing of the American Mind to shame?

But Ruggles—I maintain—does not cite Lincoln in order that we might genuflect before the Great Men of history, as if to enshrine great political leaders or the great geniuses. Ruggles repeats the Gettysburg Address as a performance of its message not to consecrate, and to dedicate oneself instead to the unfinished, ongoing work of political and intellectual struggle alike. This work, indeed, is far from finished. And it is to this unfinished work—the ever-unfinished work of thought, the ever-unfinished work of teaching, and, the ever-unfinished work of political belonging and emancipation—to which Outsider Theory seeks to contribute.


Jonathan P. Eburne is associate professor of comparative literature, English, and French and Francophone studies at the Pennsylvania State University. He is author of Surrealism and the Art of Crime, coauthor of four other books, and editor of ASAP/Journal.

“A bracing challenge to academic squeamishness, Outsider Theory is a learned, mischievous, and fascinating book that makes a compelling argument for the positive role of fraud, failure, and error in knowledge production.”
—John Wilkinson, University of Chicago

“Jonathan P. Eburne has written a generous, curious, rigorous book about ideas often dismissed as ridiculous, embarrassing, and even dangerous.”
—Evan Kindley, author of Poet-Critics and the Administration of Culture

“This timely book is not only genuinely interesting, but makes a strong and original contribution to the discussion concerning the future of the humanities. Jonathan P. Eburne’s study of questions of method is itself an achievement of method, engaging with the outsiders not as a cabinet of curiosities, but in a way that troubles thinking, and especially thinking about thinking.”
—Margret Grebowicz, Tyumen State University

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