Thomas Augst has written a fascinating study of how "individuality came to be produced within the modern landscape of literacy" (256). Augst traces modern literacy back to young men adapting to the middle-class workplaces of nineteenth-century U.S. capitalism. Relying on the many personal diaries written by aspiring clerks, many taking jobs far from their home, Augst finds in these unpublished writings powerful evidence for the spread of those middle-class ideals traditionally identified with Emersonian self-reliance, liberal individualism, and the secularized Protestantism of the U.S. civil religion. Interpreting these diaries in conjunction with Franklin's Autobiography, Emerson's lectures, and Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener," Augst turns a neglected topic of nineteenth-century U.S. literacy into an important study of how literature was legitimated as a medium of moral reflection and self-realization.
Augst includes useful accounts of such representative institutions as the New York Mercantile Library at Astor Place, New York, the Lyceum lecture series in which Emerson became a national celebrity, and popular periodicals, like Harper's and Putnam's, in which these young diarists read and studied literary models. Nineteenth-century middle-class literacy is thus the work of everyday acts of interpellation by bourgeois men who in turn shaped literary tastes in terms of individual development. We have long known that Bildung structures many nineteenth-century narratives, notably the novel, so Augst's research offers merely confirmation in the reading and writing practices of ordinary bourgeois subjects.
The scholarly emphasis on women's roles in the production and reception of nineteenth-century literature, especially sentimental and domestic romances, has caused us to neglect masculine sentimentalism, despite excellent studies in this area by Scott Derrick, Gordon Hutner, and T. Walter Herbert. Augst's interpretation of middle-class male morality suggests a new approach to the gendered "separate spheres" of the period. Alone in their rented rooms, many of Augst's young men yearn nostalgically for domestic values while fighting off sexual temptations and other distractions from the ennui of their working [End Page 137] lives. For these very reasons, Augst ought to have considered more carefully feminine sentimentalism in both its literary forms and women's private practices. Nineteenth-century African-American writers, such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, as well as Native American writers, like John Rollin Ridge and Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins, also understood the appeal of sentimentalism and adapted it to their own political, social, and literary purposes. Although Augst cannot be expected to take into account all aspects of nineteenth-century sentimentalism, his own comparative approach to popular and material cultures in relation to traditional literature requires some consideration of literacy across gender, class, and ethnic boundaries. For all its virtues, the present study remains too narrowly focused on white, middle-class, masculine practices, most of which were constructed ideologically to exclude other social formations.
The academic study of literature in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century U.S. culture undoubtedly depends significantly on bourgeois masculine values, but the feminine and minority sentimental and other literary forms excluded from the academic curriculum until quite recently were vigorously, in some cases violently, repressed. What do these exclusions teach us about the emergence of "American literature" out of middle-class literacy and its "moral economy" in the period? Augst's book does not help us answer this question, but it provokes us to ask it.