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Reading and Disorder in Antebellum America by David M. Stewart (review)
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Those interested in antebellum reception and hermeneutics will find David Stewart’s sprawling exploration of working-class reading practices and their relation to the control of antisocial behavior by working-class men puzzling, if at times compelling. According to Stewart, reading is the “small topic” of his study. The larger topic is how reading affected the bodies of white male manual laborers from the northeastern United States in a period when reading was becoming an increasingly important means of social control. As young men from rural areas migrated to the cities to seek work, traditional restraints on antisocial behavior (the “disorder” of the book’s title), such as the internalized feelings produced by familial affection (for example, shame), were fast becoming inadequate. According to Stewart, geographic mobility, the decline of religious influence, financial independence, and separation from the family meant that clergy, educators, employers, and the state believed that reading and the feelings reading produced were necessary to foster civil and ethical behavior among the growing numbers of young manual laborers. Young men themselves believed reading was both a form of entertainment and an important tool for self-improvement. There was thus a significant tension between reading as social control and reading as pleasure. Authority figures such as Henry Ward Beecher warned of the dangers of a mass print culture whose depictions of sex and violence might foster disorderly conduct in young men living far from traditional behavioral restraints. Yet the burgeoning working class increasingly sought relief in such books in response to the constrictive tedium and routine of factory and shop work. Stewart argues that “in the space between recreating and recreation, between reading to improve and reading to enjoy, men . . . found new ways to live, work, and be men” (5).

At first glance, Stewart’s major claim is both vague and less than groundbreaking. As the above summary might suggest, much of the historical and contextual evidence the book presents will be familiar to scholars of the period. And certainly the books that working-class men read must have impacted their sense of themselves as men—leaving aside for a moment the question of what Stewart means by the latter. Where he attempts to break with the established consensus is in his focus on what he terms “affective rhetorics.” Stewart’s view is that while historians and to a lesser extent literary critics and scholars have directed significant attention to working-class men, such work has failed adequately to capture a sense of the inner emotional life and (in his view) emotional violence perpetrated on working-class readers as a result of their encounter with texts intended to coerce them to behave properly. Stewart holds that dominant discourses associated with such genres as sentimentality, crime reporting, and temperance fiction functioned culturally as forms of disciplinary coercion. Further, the emotional experience of such works—and the internalization of the behavioral codes such rhetorics produced—had bodily and psychic effects on young men that were harmful. In his words, dominant rhetorics “targeted working bodies and sought to elicit feelings like fear and shame in order to re-form the somatic structures that determined how they behaved” (3). Stewart sees his work as a recovered history, one he compares to the work of those scholars from the last few decades who have attempted to recover the lost histories of women, slaves, and other marginalized groups from early American and U.S. history. The book is divided into three sections: one focusing on how working-class reading practices influenced the perception of urban spaces by working-class readers, one focusing on how working-class reading practices influenced the “bodily style” of working-class subjects or how they carried and expressed themselves somatically in response to what they read, and a final section devoted to the “poetics of intimacy” or working-class reading and sexual desire.

Given its goals, one might expect Reading and Disorder to follow established methods in reception studies, the history of the book, and historical hermeneutics. That it does not is to a large extent what makes it puzzling. Readers cannot be blamed for expecting a close study of material evidence of working-class reading practices and/or actual...

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