The Public Life of Privacy in Nineteenth-Century American Literature

The Public Life of Privacy in Nineteenth-Century American Literature

by Stacey Margolis

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Stacey Margolis rethinks a key chapter in American literary history, challenging the idea that nineteenth-century American culture was dominated by an ideology of privacy that defined subjects in terms of their intentions and desires. She reveals how writers from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Henry James depicted a world in which characters could only be understood—and


Stacey Margolis rethinks a key chapter in American literary history, challenging the idea that nineteenth-century American culture was dominated by an ideology of privacy that defined subjects in terms of their intentions and desires. She reveals how writers from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Henry James depicted a world in which characters could only be understood—and, more importantly, could only understand themselves—through their public actions. She argues that the social issues that nineteenth-century novelists analyzed—including race, sexuality, the market, and the law—formed integral parts of a broader cultural shift toward understanding individuals not according to their feelings, desires, or intentions, but rather in light of the various inevitable traces they left on the world.

Margolis provides readings of fiction by Hawthorne and James as well as Susan Warner, Mark Twain, Charles Chesnutt, and Pauline Hopkins. In these writers’ works, she traces a distinctive novelistic tradition that viewed social developments—such as changes in political partisanship and childhood education and the rise of new politico-legal forms like negligence law—as means for understanding how individuals were shaped by their interactions with society. The Public Life of Privacy in Nineteenth-Century American Literature adds a new level of complexity to understandings of nineteenth-century American culture by illuminating a literary tradition full of accidents, mistakes, and unintended consequences—one in which feelings and desires were often overshadowed by all that was external to the self.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“This book places Stacey Margolis at the forefront of a generation of scholars intent on challenging the old divisions that continue to shape the study of American literature. Her unique contribution is to problematize a number of these divisions by showing how consistently post–Civil War fiction crossed the line distinguishing private interiority from social life and reversed the causal relationship between private intentions and public effects. Rather than rush to the Foucauldian conclusion that surveillance can only mean social regulation of personal desire, Margolis pieces together from American writing a model of self-regulation that insists how we appear in the eyes of our social cohort can and should shape how we feel and act. Formulating a liberal subject whose innermost thoughts thus come from outside itself, she not only works across historical and discursive boundaries that would stall most readers but with remarkable precision she also accounts for the formal differences among genres and authors. I believe Margolis’s book will change the way we read nineteenth-century American literature.”—Nancy Armstrong, Brown University

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The Public Life of Privacy in Nineteenth-Century American Literature


Duke University Press

Copyright © 2005 Duke University Press
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ISBN: 978-0-8223-3536-8

Chapter One

The Blithedale Romance and Other Tales of Association

The opening chapter of The Blithedale Romance (1852) begins with a description of a veiled woman and ends with a description of a masked one. Reflecting on "the wonderful exhibition of the Veiled Lady," Miles Coverdale imagines that the "misty drapery" that shields the star of the performance from the "material world" has provided her with "many of the privileges of a disembodied spirit." When, at the end of this scene, he discusses with Old Moodie the well-known writer Zenobia, he claims that her "public name" works as "a sort of mask in which she comes before the world, retaining all the privileges of privacy" (8). For Coverdale, these two celebrities seem virtually interchangeable; he suggests at one point that Zenobia's mask is "a contrivance ... like the white drapery of the Veiled Lady, only a little more transparent" (8). And yet it will quickly become evident that the novel depends on the difference between these kinds of veils. If the Veiled Lady's drapery turns out to be a prison, which does not so much shield her from her audience as discipline her by ensuring that she act on command, then Zenobia'spen name seems to be a form of liberation, a way of asserting control over something as ephemeral as her public image. What these two very different senses of the public "mask" suggest is that, from the very beginning of this novel about the vexed nature of group life, the group is imagined to have two competing effects on the individual. On the one hand, the group appears to indoctrinate, so that the individual must bend to its will; on the other, it appears to be quite malleable, subject to the individual's will. It is as though Hawthorne could not quite make up his mind about the individual's ability to maintain her integrity in the midst of a crowd; where Zenobia is powerful, the Veiled Lady is powerless. This concern with the mysterious effects of group life persists even when Blithedale shifts from the public world to the semiprivate one, from the stage in Boston to the commune at Blithedale. The various affiliations and disaffiliations that constitute the plot can thus be read as instances of a more fundamental question: What happens when one becomes a member of a group?

This desire to think in rather abstract terms about the conflicting effects of group affiliation registers The Blithedale Romance's engagement with the politically and economically modernizing world of midcentury America. After all, the political context of the novel and the scene of its writing were saturated by questions of group identification and affiliation: the 1840s saw not only the consolidation of the Whigs and Democrats as rival national parties but also the intensification of sectionalism with respect to the question of slavery, the expansion of religious and social reform movements, and the rise of various experimental utopian communities. When we remember that the immediate popularity of The Scarlet Letter was predicated on the partisan controversy recounted in "The Custom House" and that the contemporary interest in Blithedale was typically an interest in the satiric portraits of Brook Farm's earliest members, Hawthorne's personal connection to these issues of political affiliation seems indisputable.

But what is more interesting about such a political scene, especially in relation to Blithedale, is the general implication (often quite vehemently contested) that individual interests are best expressed and individual influence felt most forcefully through acts of affiliation. In America, Alexis de Tocqueville remarks, "there is no end which the human will despairs of attaining through the combined power of individuals united into a society." He explains: "As soon as several of the inhabitants of the United States have taken up an opinion or a feeling which they wish to promote in the world, they look out for mutual assistance; and as soon as they have found each other out, they combine. From that moment they are no longer isolated men, but a power seen from afar, whose actions serve for an example, and whose language is listened to." It was, according to one historian, "the Era of Association." Societies proliferated not only for the advancement of political causes-abolition, temperance, penal reform-but also for self-improvement (literary clubs), entertainment (sports clubs), and moral uplift (tract societies).

Despite this antebellum passion for "joining," questions of voluntary association have rarely been mentioned in recent criticism of Hawthorne's fiction. Indeed, beginning with Sacvan Bercovitch's influential reading of The Scarlet Letter, scholarship has focused almost exclusively on the problem of the nation. Bercovitch argues that the hidden logic of not only Hawthorne's novels but "all our mid-nineteenth-century classics" is a commitment to what he calls American "liberal ideology." For Bercovitch, in other words, a novel like The Scarlet Letter sustains the idea of American individualism by endorsing a number of its fundamental beliefs: "The belief that social change follows from self-realization, not vice-versa; that true revolution is therefore an issue of individual growth rather than group action; and that the conflict it entails between self and society centers not on schemes for institutional change, whether by reform or transformation, but on the freedom of the individual 'to begin anew'-which is to say, on one's resistance to all institutional controls" (125). From this perspective, novelistic dissent makes sense only within the compromising terms of "liberalism" and thus serves to mask and maintain a more stable national consensus. Conversely, Lauren Berlant argues that Hawthorne's fiction must be read as a relentless critique of American political culture. In the broadest terms, she argues that his fiction "critiques and counters the hegemonizing strategies and privileges of 'official' national identity" by corralling "popular memory" into a critical form of "counter-memory." Because national ideology works through the "symbolic and practical orchestration of public mentality," literature becomes central not only to the task of producing citizens but also to that of producing critical citizenship. If Bercovitch's account suggests that ideology is the logic that organizes American culture in all of its manifestations, encompassing both justification and dissent, Berlant's account suggests that "popular memory" might represent the "destabilizing" (194) fractures in this "official" story.

From the perspective of ideology, these accounts make competing claims. From the perspective of American literary culture, however, they share certain key assumptions about the primacy of the national ideological frame to political and literary thought. Dividing American culture into official and unofficial knowledge or into the stabilizing force of consensus and the destabilizing force of radical dissent assumes that the nation is the primary form through which all political action and theory is processed. The basic logic of this position is that if Hawthorne is thinking politically, he must be thinking about the nation, so that if (according to Berlant) Hawthorne's fiction "threatens the nation's status as the ultimate political referent" (194), it does so by making the nation the ultimate literary referent, or if (according to Bercovitch) his fiction works as "thick propaganda" (89) for American liberalism, it does so by dissolving all partisan conflict into an assertion of an America that "transcended politics" (107). The implication of such accounts is that a text like "The Custom House" (or even Blithedale) must not be read in relation to the partisanship it explicitly describes but rather in relation to the "National Symbolic" under which specific disputes disappear into ideology.

Thinking solely in terms of the nation, however, inevitably means subordinating the question of partisanship; the two-party system is typically imagined as a lesser model of either the kind of discipline that happens on the national level or the kind of general consensus represented by national ideology. "The Custom House," Hawthorne's rather personal attack on the Salem Whigs who forced him out of his position as surveyor of U.S. Customs, goes a long way toward supporting such a view, dismissing the party system as one that exists merely to divvy up appointed offices and thus suggesting the poverty of actually existing democracy in America. Hawthorne's impatience with patronage is evident almost immediately in the fantasy that authorship might allow a kind of sympathetic relation with an audience defined as a "mass," a thing not divided up in advance by party or any other group loyalty but rather sorted out through the reader's relation to the author himself: "The truth seems to be ... that when he casts his leaves forth upon the wind, the author addresses, not the many who will fling aside his volume, or never take it up, but the few who will understand him." The fantasized decapitation that marks his transformation into a "politically dead man" (33) is certainly antithetical to the intimacy he imagines that a mass readership makes possible. Moreover, this scene of "revolutionary" political violence has also been read ironically, as a testament to the conservative nature of the two-party system. According to Jonathan Arac, for example, "the particular wit of the joke is that patronage changes are not 'revolution' but carry out the etymologically related action of 'rotation' in office: Revolutionary principle has become rotary patronage." Because, as Arac suggests (echoing a familiar contemporary critique of the two-party system), "consensus reigned between the two established parties" in 1850, he sees the party system itself as irrelevant to American politics, especially in relation to the larger question of national unity.

The Blithedale Romance, I will argue in this chapter, turns this familiar hierarchy on its head by subordinating questions of national politics and national identity to the questions posed by the system of partisanship. Hawthorne's interest in the dynamics of partisanship does not mean that he simply disregards the problems of nation or of citizenship. Rather, what Hawthorne's work makes clear is that the nation in the mid-nineteenth century was not only experienced in terms of affiliative structures like party (so that one's relation to the political nation took shape within partisan practices) but conceptualized in these terms as well. Beginning in the 1790s and culminating in the years following the Jackson administration there was, as Ronald Formisano puts it, a "transformation of political culture" that was characterized by the establishment of well-defined, tightly organized, and widely supported national parties. Even those historians who dispute the claim that the high visibility of parties on the political scene in the early nineteenth century meant high levels of grassroots participation do not dispute the fact that participation in politics at this moment was virtually synonymous with partisanship. Thus the claim that the parties were basically in agreement (in that neither one sought to overthrow the government it was seeking to run) is at once a broadly true and a rather empty characterization of midcentury politics.

For Hawthorne, what is most significant about the party system is the fluidity of the affiliations it creates. That one is not born into a party (the pressures of family tradition aside) but can affiliate or disaffiliate at will suggests that party, far from being subordinate to nation, is the form through which notions of political compacts can be tested and through which tacit "consent" can be made explicit. Critics have been quick to note the ways in which Hawthorne's single sustained effort in political propaganda-his campaign biography of Franklin Pierce-argues for the preservation of the union "as it is" over any attempt to risk that union through sectional loyalties. Slavery, he suggests in one of the biography's most infamous passages, must be seen "as one of those evils which divine Providence does not leave to be remedied by human contrivances, but which, in its own good time, by some means impossible to be anticipated, but of the simplest and easiest operation, when all its uses shall have been fulfilled, it causes to vanish like a dream." What often gets left out of the analysis of The Life of Franklin Pierce, however, is the way in which Hawthorne, rather than simply refusing to countenance sectional divisions over slavery, transfers these divisions from the nation to the national Democratic Party.

In the sections of the biography that concern the antislavery threat to the unity of the Democrats, Pierce no longer represents the power of compromise in the service of national unity; instead, he represents the power of principle. Hawthorne dramatizes Pierce's commitment to dividing the party along ideological lines, even to the point of risking a rupture between his pro-Compromise Democrats and the antislavery Democrats, a rupture that could cost him the election: "General Pierce could not consent that his party should gain a nominal triumph, at the expense of what he looked upon as its real integrity and life" (421). Pierce proves himself a "statesman of practical sagacity" (416), by proving both that he "loves his country as it is," "that great and sacred reality-his whole, united, native country-better than the mistiness of a philanthropic theory" (371), and that, in his willingness to sacrifice party cohesion to his sense of "right," he does not love his party "as it is." What Hawthorne's tract finally suggests is that party bears the burden of both national consensus (uniting members across sectional lines) and national reform (allowing "principle" to trump compromise). Indeed, party might be understood as the mechanism through which the collective consciousness that is the idealized form of the nation takes shape.

Hawthorne, I am arguing, is not invoking some type of utopian collective form against the pitfalls of national citizenship but is instead examining the unpredictable effects of political affiliations on the individuals who affiliate and on the political systems ruled by such affiliations. In so doing, he links voluntary group ties like the party and the commune to largely involuntary ones like the family and the nation. In attempting to represent the immediate and personal experience of affiliation through Coverdale's first-person narration, Blithedale imagines what it would mean either to speak through the group or to be completely dissolved into the group. In the process, Hawthorne produces (and ultimately rejects) two counternarratives that might be labeled the romance of choice and the romance of discipline. In the former, the group is imagined to act only to promote the individual's desires; in the latter, the group infiltrates the individual and transforms him in its own image. In fact, Blithedale might best be read as a thought experiment on the nature of affiliation, in which both the flatness of the "paint and pasteboard" (2) characters and the limitations of the narrator's point of view are specifically designed to explore the mysterious effects of group life on those who join. Hawthorne's project in Blithedale, then, is to think in abstract terms about affiliative groups, not in order to create "thick propaganda" for such organizations or to "critique and counter" them, but to analyze how they work and how they affect the mechanisms of choice and desire. Indeed, Hawthorne suggests that it is only through acts of affiliation that individuals come to understand their own positions and opinions.

Discipline and Pleasure

In "The Custom House," the unforeseen consequences of party affiliation provoke a retreat from public life into the intimate world of domesticity; Hawthorne imagines the mundane living room rather than the mundane office as the proper frame for "Romance." While "public office" undermines the artistic "character" by destroying "an entire class of susceptibilities, and a gift connected with them" (28-29), the isolation of the domestic sphere cultivates such susceptibilities, becoming (in Hawthorne's familiar line) "a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet and each imbue itself with the nature of the other" (28). In such a scheme, the violence and betrayal of political life can be replaced by the "sympathy" emblematized by the home, which allows the writer to indulge "an autobiographical impulse" (4) and to suppose a personal relation with the public "without violating either the reader's rights or his own" (5).


Excerpted from The Public Life of Privacy in Nineteenth-Century American Literature by STACEY MARGOLIS Copyright © 2005 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Stacey Margolis is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Utah.

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