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The Public Life of Privacy in Nineteenth-Century American Literature by Stacey Margolis

The Public Life of Privacy in Nineteenth-Century American Literature

Part of the New Americanists Series


The Public Life of Privacy in Nineteenth-Century American Literature by Stacey Margolis

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.


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

About the Author

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

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Book Info

Publication date

13th May 2005


Stacey Margolis

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Duke University Press


248 pages


Literature: history & criticism



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