Sentimental Materialism: Gender, Commodity Culture, and Nineteenth-Century American Literature

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In Sentimental Materialism Lori Merish considers the intricate relationship between consumption and womanhood in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Taking as her starting point a diversity of cultural artifacts—from domestic fiction and philosophical treatises to advice literature and cigars—Merish explores the symbolic functions they served and finds that consumption evolved into a form of personal expressiveness that indicated not only a woman’s wealth and taste but also her race, class, morality, and civic values. The discursive production of this new subjectivity—the feminine consumer—was remarkably influential, helping to shape American capitalism, culture, and nation building.

The phenomenon of female consumption was capitalism’s complement to male production: It created what Merish calls the “Other Protestant Ethic,”a feminine and sentimental counterpart to Max Weber’s ethic of hard work, economic rationality, and self-control. In addition, driven by the culture’s effort to civilize the “cannibalistic” practices of ethnic, class, and national otherness, appropriate female consumerism, marked by taste and refinement, identified certain women and their families as proper citizens of the United States. The public nature of consumption, however, had curiously conflicting effects: While the achievement of cultured material circumstances facilitated women’s civic agency, it also reinforced stereotypes of domestic womanhood.

Sentimental Materialism’s inquiry into middle-class consumption and accompanying ideals of womanhood will appeal to readers in a variety of disciplines, including American studies, cultural studies, feminist theory, and cultural history.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Important not just for the way it brings together a stunning variety of primary materials but for the productive new readings it offers of well-known and lesser-known literary texts, of ante- and postbellum women’s culture, the history of consumerism, and the practice of ‘personal life’ in nineteenth-century U.S. culture. Sentimental Materialism is full of both subtle and striking insights.”—Dana Nelson, author of National Manhood: Capitalist Citizenship and the Imagined Fraternity of White Men

“Ranging powerfully from the Scottish Enlightenment to the Cuban cigar, Lori Merish furnishes the culture of sentimentalism with a commodity logic and a political form. She finds, in fact, a whole new approach to women's writing, the society of slavery, the spiritual qualities of manufactured things, and the law of the market considered not as sentimental culture's antithesis but as its very foundation.”—Eric Lott, author of Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822324805
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 6/28/2000
  • Series: New Americanists Series
  • Pages: 400
  • Lexile: 1720L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 6.32 (w) x 9.60 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Lori Merish is Assistant Professor of English at Georgetown University.

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Sentimental Materialism

Gender, Commodity Culture, and Nineteenth-Century American Literature

By Lori Merish

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2000 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7796-2



* * *

In Charles Brockden Brown's Alcuin; A Dialogue, Alcuin, an "unpolished wight" and schoolteacher of "slender" stock, attends the coterie of Mrs. Carter, a decidedly middle-class salonniere whose "unbribed inclination" to superintend and serve constituted "the whole difference between her and a waiter at an inn, or the porter of a theatre." When Alcuin awkwardly addresses the "mistress of the ceremonies" (4),"Pray, Madam, are you a federalist?" she responds with the following disclaimer:

What! ask a woman, shallow and inexperienced as all women are known to be, especially with regard to these topics, her opinion on any political question! What in the name of decency have we to do with politics? If you enquire the price of this ribbon, or at what shop I purchased that set of China, I may answer you, though I am not sure that you would be the wiser for my answer. These things, you know, belong to the women's province.... The daringness of female curiosity is well known; yet it is seldom so adventurous as to attempt to penetrate into the mysteries of government. (7)

Of course, once she recovers from the "novelty" (7) of Alcuin's question, Mrs. Carter discourses quite eloquently on the subject of women's rights. Employing a rhetorical strategy widely used by republican women writers, Mrs. Carter mocks by hyperbolically articulating the sexist convictions of her age, her rhetorical performance dramatizing the distinction between the conventions of gender and the "natural" abilities of women. But what I wish to point to here is Mrs. Carter's demarcation of distinct, and distinctly gendered, "provinces" of male and female experience: the former encompassing the "mysteries of government" and public life; the latter, the seemingly less compelling (but, for Alcuin at least, equally daunting) "mysteries of tea-table decorum" (5) and the purchases that make these polite performances possible. The opposition was a convention of eighteenth-century Anglo-American social criticism and was used to mark the particularity of women's concerns, which purportedly rendered them incapable of disinterested rationality and, therefore, political virtue. In line with a lengthy philosophical tradition that infused popular wisdom, these writers presumed that women, naturally deficient in reason and incapable of abstract thought, were inescapably buffeted about by the immediate and the contingent, the sensory and the sensual, excluded from the poise of reflection and the transcendental constancy of rationality. In the binary logic of eighteenth-century Anglo-American gender formulations, women were private and consuming, not public and political, creatures.

But if shopping, to borrow Mrs. Carter's phrase, "belong [ed] to the women's province," exemplifying in its particularity something essentially feminine, it was also being rewritten by a variety of social discourses and legitimated as essential to an ethic of domestic sociability and social responsiveness. The complex interconnections between the emerging familial form known as domesticity and what Neil McKendrick has called "the birth of a consumer society" have not been carefully explored — largely because historians of domesticity have tended to emphasize its spiritual and affectional, rather than its material bases. Cultural forms of domesticity adopted earlier, aristocratic ideals of courtesy, hospitality, and politesse to a more modest and — to borrow from the contemporary lexicon, less "promiscuous" — model of sociality, a model materially shaped by the democratization of consumption; in the words of one writer, "if a taste of any kind happen once to prevail among men of figure, it soon turns general." And what was "general" in eighteenth-century America, according to social historians, was a new taste for domestic commodities such as decorative furnishings, tableware, musical instruments, and the equipment of tea service, which helped form and express ideals of domestic sociability, comfort, and care.

In this chapter, I discuss the genesis of a consumer ethic of feminine domestic sociality and aestheticism in eighteenth-century Anglo-American discourse, focusing on its contested articulation in a variety of texts published in the new republic, when an expressly "American" political economy and social ethic were first being formulated. This consumer ethic emerged out of a synthesis of Protestant and liberal discourses about the social significance of the family, the status of women, and the importance of mediating structures — economic, social, and aesthetic — in "civilizing" subjects and in promoting what eighteenth-centurytheorists termed "civil society." I will argue that the new feminine consumer ethic exhibited the constitutive ambivalence of liberal feminine subjectivity as an instance of what Hortense Spillers terms a "patriarchilized female gender." In particular, it constructed women as social beings while falling short of positioning them as full participant citizens in American civic culture.

In a discussion of the moral philosophy of Scottish Enlightenment writers, especially Adam Smith, David Hume, John Millar, William Robertson, and Lord Karnes, whose works were well known in America, I address representations of gender, property, and the emerging category of the "social" in Scottish liberalism. Although there are important differences among these writers, they share certain assumptions about the relationship among capitalism, sexual relations, and civil society, and it is their shared assumptions and rhetorical investments that interest me here. Consequently, I discuss these Scottish writings as a discourse, a representational matrix that (re) defined the ways in which commerce in general, and consumption in particular, could be "thought" in the new republic, and that set in place a network of discursive associations (e.g., among capitalist expansion, standard of living, and "civilization") that became unexamined conventions of U.S. writings about capitalism throughout the nineteenth century. In identifying luxury goods, which express "imaginary wants" and are thus explicitly invested with symbolic value, as vehicles of "civility" and "femininity," the Scots defined commodities as signifiers of subjectivity — specifically, of gender, sexual, and racial subjectivity — while they reified certain gender constructions as culturally normative. Scottish discourse operated to define consumption and "taste" (that faculty that performs the selection of commodities) as constitutive of femininity and the realm in which feminine subjectivity is articulated and performed within culture, even while it worked to bifurcate capitalism according to a gendered division between production and consumption. Scottish Enlightenment discourse, I argue, enabled a profound reimagining of capitalism, in which constructions of gender played a key role. Crucially, this discourse created new ideals of refined, tasteful womanhood while valorizing capitalist exchange and consumption: indeed, the rhetorical rehabilitation of "luxury" was inseparable from, and effected through, the rehabilitation of the "feminine."

Eighteenth-century Scottish discourse (re) defined capitalism as a system propelled by desire, sympathy, and subjective identification rather than the often-violent expropriations of labor, land, and resources. Whereas earlier religious and political discourses (including civic humanism) had figured luxury as a means of political and ethical "enslavement" — a term with complex political and racial meanings in American republicanism — Scottish theory rearticulated luxury goods as expressions of subjective, imaginative "freedom" and, through what these writers described as the expansion of human sympathies in market society, the formation of ethical subjectivity per se. These formulations performed a series of displacements in American political discourse; in particular, they helped rearticulate capitalism — a highly contested system during this period — and distance it from slavery. By (re) defining capitalism's exchanges as mediated by sympathy, its privileged trope for reciprocity of both emotional and commercial exchange, Scottish discourse obscured the entanglements of capitalism with colonialism and slavery, entanglements that would resurface in the working-class republican rhetorics of "wage slavery" and "white slavery" in the 1830s and 1840s. Indeed, as the introduction to this book suggests, the dichotomy of enslavement and freedom was by no means stable in liberal constructions of subjectivity: "enslavement" was interiorized and often racialized as that subjectivity's constitutive limit, producing the interdeterminations of agency and constraint characteristic of liberal subjection.

Like other species of sentimental narration, Scottish narratives of the mutual evolution of civil society and civil subjectivity both describe and enact the psychodynamics of subjection in liberal political culture, with its intertwining of subordination and agency. This fundamentally ambivalent structure of political desire, alternating between moments of strenuous assertion of autonomy and submission to a "higher authority," has been described by Christopher Newfield as a fundamental "habit" of feeling of liberal "political subjectivity" in America: for Newfield, the "Emerson effect" has had a formative and devastating impact on American political life. I have been suggesting that this dynamic assumes particularly gendered forms and habits of feeling in American public culture, and that the culture of sentiment is a primary place where the gendered processes of subjection are produced and instantiated. As I will show, in Scottish discourse, the formation of political subjectivity and desire through an identification with submission takes place in the realms of the family and the market, as well as through the "gentle suasion" of sentimental literary identification.

I argue below that the dynamic of sentimental subjection is distinctly proprietary: it generates what Scottish authors term the "sense of property," described as a spontaneous "affection" for private property implanted in man by the Creator to secure objects of labor "for himself and his family" — an erotics of ownership inextricable from relations of gender and the family. Interweaving familial and property relations, sentimental subjection thus defines the affectional dimensions, indeed the attraction and erotic appeal, of possessive individualism. Further, I emphasize the performative dimensions of subjectivity this model enlists: rather than understanding sentiment as part of an individual's "private" life and interior endowments (that which defines identity per se), I argue that the "subject of sentiment," as a liberal, proprietary model of subjectivity, is produced in and staged by the repeated performance of emotion sentimental texts enlist. Staging and temporalizing an identifica-tory dynamic of agency and subordination, sentimental narratives enlist a subject's "consent" to capitalism at the most intimate level, grafting liberal-capitalist social forms onto that subject's most seemingly private, inalienable desires.

Turning from the Scots to late-eighteenth-century American conduct manuals such as Enos Hitchcock's Memoirs of the Bloomsgrove Family and Amos Chase's On Female Excellence, I examine how middle-class domestic advice literature synthesized Scottish conceptions of "civilizing" consumption and an aristocratic ethic of politesse, fashioning a new middle-class domestic model. Inscribing feminine taste and emotional preference with civilizing efficacy and political power, these texts construct the "republican consumer" as a new type of feminine civic identity. Finally, after examining configurations of domestic consumption and aestheticism in conduct literature, I turn to a discussion of Hannah Foster's The Coquette, in which the new domestic aesthetic is given complex articulation. Specifically, I examine the configurations of social difference through which Foster's text delineates the "proper" domestic practices of American women and envisions feminine taste as a site of political contestation and regulation. In the story of Eliza Wharton, Foster charts the contours of republican consumption by documenting the dangers of undisciplined consuming and an appetite for "fashion" that fragments, rather than bodies forth, the regenerate domestic community of the new nation.

"Luxury" in the New Republic

Few things seem as universally reviled in Revolutionary-era America as "luxury." Etymologically derived from the Latin noun luxus, meaning "excess," "luxury" possessed, as contemporaries never tired of noting, no fixed or absolute representational significance; however, this definitional obscurity only augmented the imaginative potency of the term as a source of imminent danger. Broadly stated, luxury connoted a realm of sumptuous superfluity and sensual gratification that lured men beyond a natural economy of needs. According to most scholars, the predominant intellectual traditions in early republican America — religious, political, and economic — converged in an ideal of simple living and self-denial that rendered luxury anathema and a synonym for corruption. For orthodox Protestants, luxury connoted sensual indulgence and misplaced attachment to worldly ephemera, distracting individuals from divine truths. For civic humanists, luxury, signifying private acquisitive behavior and dependence on the market, corrupted republican virtue: undermining self-sufficiency and promoting insensibility to the common good, luxury was figured as a form of "enslavement" that rendered the citizen prey to despotism (as in the oft-invoked example of the Roman Empire's collapse). Finally, according to the colonial economic theory of mercantilism, liberal consumption practices — which during the eighteenth century chiefly meant buying foreign, mostly British commodities — created an unfavorable balance of trade, diminishing national wealth and draining the treasury: for mercantilists, luxury consumption wasted economic resources and weakened the body politic. The traditional distrust of luxury was heightened during the Revolutionary era by a nascent nationalism and was given distinctly American form by the "myth of America" — a myth that coupled a redemptive pastoralism with a strong belief that Americans were, in Jefferson's words, "the chosen people of God," destined to transcend the corruptions of Europe and the contaminations of history. Synthesizing Calvinist and civic humanist ideals and giving Puritan conceptions of communal exceptionalism a republican cast, Samuel Adams envisioned the new nation as a "Christian Sparta," an austere but virtuous society of independent citizens unselfishly devoted to the common good, and shielded from the corruptions of commercial advance that plagued Old World, European societies.

However, one influential Anglo-American intellectual tradition rhetorically rehabilitated luxury by redefining its social and cultural effect as beneficial, supplying what John Pocock has called "an element of progress to pit against" the conventional "element [s] of conservation" and historical declension. For Scottish Enlightenment moral philosophers, whose arguments were frequently reiterated by American authors in the last decades of the eighteenth century, luxury was the favorable culmination of "civilization," human morality, and social advance. According to Nicholas Phillipson, the tradition, which included the work of Adam Smith, David Hume, Henry Home (Lord Karnes), William Robertson, and John Millar, first emerged during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in reaction to the backwardness of the Scottish economy. Intellectuals and politicians pressured Parliament to lift the restrictions on Scottish trade and open up Scotland's ports to ships of all countries. In 1707, the Scots received a compromise in the form of the Act of Union, which essentially exchanged Scotland's free political institutions for the right of free access to English markets at home and abroad. According to the Act of Union, Scotland would be allowed to trade freely, but at the cost of its political autonomy: henceforth, Scots would send members of Parliament to London, not to their own assembly. Grappling with this new situation, Scottish thinkers began to analyze the value of nonpolitical forms of association and to examine in new detail the relationship between commerce and society. Using civil law to organize their thinking, they emphasized the importance of the legal protections of the individual and his property from the state, as opposed to the participation of the individual in the state.

As Pocock and others have demonstrated, Scottish Enlightenment moral philosophy emerged out of the tensions and conflicts within eighteenth-century political discourse, especially those between court (or commercial) and country (or classical) republicanism. Organizing their polemics around the key terms of civic humanism — "luxury," "imagination," "passion," "credit," "property," and, most importantly, "virtue" — the Scots gave these terms new meanings, endowing their conceptual innovations with legitimacy by creating, rhetorically, the sense of historical continuity. While civic humanists insisted on a strict distinction between public and private spheres, the Scots qualified that distinction by delineating a group of mediating institutions — most prominently, commerce, property, and the family — through which individuals are "civilized," "socialized," and otherwise prepared for civil society.


Excerpted from Sentimental Materialism by Lori Merish. Copyright © 2000 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Introduction: The Forms of Cultured Feeling,
1: Embodying Gender: Sentimental Materialism in the New Republic,
2: Gender, Domesticity, and Consumption in the 1830s: Caroline Kirkland, Catharine Sedgwick, and the Feminization of American Consumerism,
3: Sentimental Consumption: Harriet Beecher Stowe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the Aesthetics of Middle-Class Ownership,
4: Domesticating "Blackness": Harriet Jacobs, Sojourner Truth, and the Decommodification of the Black Female Body,
5: Fashioning a Free Self: Consumption, Politics, and Power in the Writings of Elizabeth Keckley and Frances Harper,
6: Not "Just a Cigar": Commodity Culture and the Construction of Imperial Manhood,
Works Cited,

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