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Bodies and Books

Reading and the Fantasy of Communion in Nineteenth-Century America

By Gillian Silverman

Publication Year: 2012

In nineteenth-century America, Gillian Silverman contends, reading—and particularly book reading—precipitated intense fantasies of communion. In handling a book, the reader imagined touching and being touched by the people affiliated with that book's narrative world—an author, a character, a fellow reader. This experience often led to a sense of consubstantiality, a fantasy that the reader, the material book, and the imagined other were momentarily merged. Such a fantasy challenges psychological conceptions of discrete subjectivity along with the very notion of corporeal integrity—the idea that we are detached, skin-bound, and autonomously functioning entities. It forces us to envision readers not as liberal subjects, pursuing reading as a means toward privacy, interiority, and individuation, but rather as communal beings inseparable from objects in our psychic and phenomenal world.

While theorists have long emphasized the way reading can promote a sense of abstract belonging, Bodies and Books emphasizes the intense somatic bonds that nineteenth-century subjects experienced while reading. Silverman bridges the gap between the cognitive and material effects of reading, arguing that the two worked in tandem, enabling readers to feel deep communion with objects (both human and nonhuman) in the external world. Drawing on the letters and diaries of nineteenth-century readers along with literary works by Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass, Susan Warner, and others, Silverman explores the book as a technology of intimacy and ponders what nineteenth-century readers might be able to teach us two centuries later.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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Preface: Reading and the Search for Oneness

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pp. ix-xiii

In Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman articulated a theory of reading that would be satirically celebrated in an advertisement for the gay-positive magazine, The Advocate, a little over a hundred years later. . . .

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Introduction: The Fantasy of Communion

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pp. 1-21

Sometime in the 1840s, Massachusetts resident Sarah E. Edgarton paid a visit to her intimate childhood friend Luella J. B. Case and left behind a book of poetry by William Wordsworth. This Wordsworth volume took on . . .

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Chapter 1 Railroad Reading, Wayward Reading

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pp. 22-50

On 15 September 1841, Julia A. Parker, twenty-three years old and a prolific reader and diarist, inscribed her journal with the . . .

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Chapter 2 Books and the Dead

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pp. 51-82

The concept of a book as alive most likely originated with the Bible— “a living and breathing human expression of the thoughts of Jesus Christ”1—although as this chapter will explore, the idea soon came to . . .

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Chapter 3 Textual Sentimentalism: Incest and the Author-Reader Bond in Melville’s Pierre

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pp. 83-103

In November 1851, Herman Melville received a letter from Nathaniel Hawthorne praising his most recent literary endeavor, Moby-Dick. Shortly thereafter, Melville composed his famous response to his friend. “A sense of . . .

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Chapter 4 Outside the Circle: Embodied Communion in Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative

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pp. 104-123

In an oft-quoted passage from his 1845 Narrative, Frederick Douglass describes his reaction to the slave songs he heard in the “dense old woods” of his master’s plantation: “I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of . . .

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Chapter 5 “The Polishing Attrition”: Reading, Writing, and Renunciation in the Work of Susan Warner

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pp. 124-147

In the preface to her biography of her sister Susan, Anna Warner describes her initial discomfort with writing and its attendant self-exposure, but then justifies these through an appeal to religious duty: “New England blood is never . . .

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Epilogue: No End in Sight

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pp. 148-156

When, over the last few years, I have told people that I have been working on a manuscript about the experience of reading in the nineteenth century, inevitably they have asked, Will you be addressing the contemporary . . .


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pp. 157-195


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pp. 197-218


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pp. 219-224

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pp. 225-226

This book—a very long time in the making—has been aided by the support of numerous institutions and individuals. For their help in the very early stages of this project, I thank Cathy Davidson, Michael Moon, Toril Moi, . . .

E-ISBN-13: 9780812206180
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812244151

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2012

OCLC Number: 821725625
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Bodies and Books

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Subject Headings

  • American literature -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
  • Intimacy (Psychology) in literature.
  • Interpersonal relations in literature.
  • Books and reading -- Psychological aspects.
  • Books and reading -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Authors and readers -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
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