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Discerning Characters

The Culture of Appearance in Early America

By Christopher J. Lukasik

Publication Year: 2011

In this path-breaking study of the intersections between visual and literary culture, Christopher J. Lukasik explores how early Americans grappled with the relationship between appearance and social distinction in the decades between the American Revolution and the Civil War.

Through a wide range of evidence, including canonical and obscure novels, newspapers, periodicals, scientific and medical treatises, and plays as well as conduct manuals, portraits, silhouettes, and engravings, Discerning Characters charts the transition from the eighteenth century's emphasis on performance and manners to the search for a more reliable form of corporeal legibility in the wake of the Revolution. The emergence of physiognomy, which sought to understand a person's character based on apparently unchanging facial features, facilitated a larger shift in perception about the meanings of physical appearance and its relationship to social distinction.

The ensuing struggle between the face as a pliable medium of cultural performance and as rigid evidence of social standing, Lukasik argues, was at the center of the post-Revolutionary novel, which imagined physiognomic distinction as providing stability during a time of cultural division and political turmoil. As Lukasik shows, this tension between a model of character grounded in the fluid performances of the self and one grounded in the permanent features of the face would continue to shape not only the representation of social distinction within the novel but, more broadly, the practices of literary production and reception in nineteenth-century America across a wide range of media.

The result is a new interdisciplinary interpretation of the rise of the novel in America that reconsiders the political and social aims of the genre during the fifty years following the Revolution. In so doing, Discerning Characters powerfully rethinks how we have read—and continue to read—both novels and each other.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Early American Studies


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. 1-21

It is difficult to imagine a more memorable and self-conscious description of public visibility in early American culture than the one given by Benjamin Franklin in his Autobiography (1771–88) when he enters Philadelphia for the first time in 1723...

PART I . Distinction and the Face

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Chapter 1. Discerning Characters

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pp. 25-54

Over the past fifteen years, there has been an increasing amount of scholarship in the humanities devoted to discussing the cultural and social implications of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century physiognomy in Europe.1 Dror Wahrman, for example, has read the..

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Chapter 2. Reading and Breeding

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pp. 55-72

Civility appears as an integral, yet complicated, feature of the political and social transformations of the pre- and postrevolutionary periods in America. 1 As a social practice, civility was a prominent feature in the signifi cation of gentility, and its...

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Chapter 3. The Face of Seduction

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pp. 73-120

In the preceding chapter, I suggested that the discourse surrounding Chesterfieldianism during the postrevolutionary era was part of a more general struggle over how distinction would be imagined to operate within the social space of early America and more broadly how culture, specifically literature, might participate in that struggle. Chesterfield’s Letters downwardly ...

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Chapter 4. The Face of the Public

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pp. 121-152

The previous chapter discussed how a number of postrevolutionary seduction novels imagined social spaces in which the visibility of distinction was relocated from the genteel yet voluntary performances of the polite individual to the permanent, involuntary, and...

PART II . The Changing Face of the Novel

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Chapter 5. The Invisible Aristocrat

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pp. 155-185

The previous four chapters traced the face’s relationship to the social perception of character in early American culture with particular attention paid to how transatlantic discourses for reading the face (such as civility and physiognomy) and cultural forms for representing..

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Chapter 6. The Physiognomic Fallacy

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pp. 186-230

The previous chapter explored how the physiognomic distinction of the face in the social perception of character was appropriated and transformed in the early fiction of James Fenimore Cooper. Cooper’s seduction fiction reproduced the transposition in the social perception of character to the physiognomic features of...

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pp. 231-234

The physiognomic fallacy—that opposition between a model of character read from performance and one read from the permanent and involuntary features of the face—would fi nd new life within the context of the performative and corporeal components...


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pp. 235-276


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pp. 277-309


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pp. 311-316


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pp. 317-319

E-ISBN-13: 9780812205930
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812242874

Page Count: 328
Illustrations: 28 illus.
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Early American Studies
Series Editor Byline: Series Editors: Daniel K. Richter, Kathleen M. Brown, Max Cavitch, and David Waldstreicher See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 794700590
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Discerning Characters