Bodies of Reform: The Rhetoric of Character in Gilded Age by James B. Salazar

By James B. Salazar

From the patricians of the early republic to post-Reconstruction racial scientists, from fin de siècle progressivist social reformers to post-war sociologists, personality, that apparently formable but both bold “stuff,” has had an extended and checkered background giving form to the yankee nationwide identity.Bodies of Reform reconceives this pivotal class of nineteenth-century literature and tradition via charting the improvement of the idea that of “character” within the fictional genres, social reform pursuits, and political cultures of the us from the mid-nineteenth to the early-twentieth century. via interpreting novelists comparable to Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Pauline Hopkins, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman along a various choice of texts curious about the challenge of establishing personality, together with child-rearing courses, muscle-building magazines, libel and naturalization legislations, Scout handbooks, and good fortune manuals, James B. Salazar uncovers how the cultural practices of representing personality operated in tandem with the character-building innovations of social reformers. His cutting edge analyzing of this archive bargains a thorough revision of this defining class in U.S. literature and tradition, arguing that personality was once the keystone of a cultural politics of embodiment, a politics that performed a serious position in determining-and contesting-the social mobility, political authority, and cultural that means of the raced and gendered physique.

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The story wraps up the episodic structure of the first half and inaugurates the new representational games of the second with its own tempting but questionable offer—an offer to puncture analogically the dissimulative surface of narration with an “explanatory” fable. ” While such a misanthropic character promises to defend against and even “exterminate” the corrupting influence of the confidence man, it is one that ultimately fades away and yields to the cultural dominance of the confidence man.

68 While I similarly read this period as one in which character’s reliance on, and reproduction of, existing social hierarchies and their cultural expressions was called into question, such a critique did not simply reject or abandon the rhetoric of character but rather was part of a broader and more diverse appropriation of the rhetoric of character, as a practice and discourse of embodiment, in the culture and politics of the Gilded Age. 69 Abolitionists and women’s rights activists, for example, challenged the discriminatory work of the rhetoric of character not by simply exposing and repudiating its mystifications and reifications of the body’s particularity but rather by reappropriating that power to refigure and revalidate the cultural meaning and lived experience of the raced and gendered body.

72 We might thus see figures such as Douglass as making visible and reappropriating the paradoxical logic of “dehumanization” central to the forms of egalitarian exchangeability and universalizing self-negation that constituted the exemplary character of the liberal citizen-subject. ”73 Women’s rights activists of the early nineteenth century similarly challenged the role of character in sustaining yet obscuring the presumptive masculinity of citizenship. Women were paradoxically figured within the rhetoric of character as primary formers of a character that, in theory, they did not themselves possess.

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