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  • The Science of Sacrifice: American Literature and Modern Social Theory
  • Nan Goodman
The Science of Sacrifice: American Literature and Modern Social Theory. By Susan L. Mizruchi. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press. 1998. ix, 436 pp. Cloth, $65.00; paper, $19.95.

In identifying literary realism as one of several practices dedicated to sorting out the intricacies of social organization in the late nineteenth century, Mizruchi offers a detailed, interdisciplinary analysis of the genre’s development. Realism grew out of crisis conditions that were related to the century’s influx of immigrants, the shifting nature of America’s borders, and the increasing tendency of urban crowding to alienate people from one another. Realist writers, she notes, assumed the burden of describing these conditions and solving the social conflicts that accompanied them—a burden that took the form of categorizing previously unrecognizable individuals and groups. In his predilection for types Melville was one such writer, and in her chapter on Billy Budd (1891), Mizruchi explains how Melville’s “heaping on” of typological references for Billy (the common sailor, the sacrificial lamb, the Antichrist, to name a few), provides a critique of categorization, reinforcing not the clarity but the ambiguity of these terms. Mizruchi’s recognition that realism interacted with other theories of social order—the new disciplines of sociology and psychology, for example—is one of the many things that makes her book so significant, for it opens realism to a wider investigation without the loss of focus so common in previous studies of this contested literary category.

Mizruchi focuses on the preoccupation with categorization and social order in the nineteenth century through her study of sacrifice. Her most stunning perception is the salience of sacrifice as an expression of the new mechanisms of exchange and definition among people. “The kind of reasoning that required a loss for every gain, that saw every benefit in terms of its sacrificial return,” she writes, “had a biblical correlative that appeared especially captivating to literary authors and social scientists in this period of intense modernization and capitalist-industrial expansion” (44). By linking the concept of sacrifice to the emergence of anthropology, sociology, theology, and literary realism, Mizruchi removes it from exclusive association with tribal societies and places it squarely in the melting pot of modern America. No longer confined to the ritual killing of selected humans, sacrifice, she demonstrates, surfaces as an obsession in realist works from Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1889) (in the form of the victimization of animal substitutes or self-sacrifice) to James’s The Awkward Age (1899) (in the form of maternal sacrifice determined by the limited roles of female reproduction and childrearing), to DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903) (in the form of lynching, the legacy of slavery, and the insistent association of black American culture with death). The Souls of Black Folk is an example of what Mizruchi calls “border texts,” works that explicitly transgress disciplinary boundaries. In calling our attention to these and other manifestations of interdisciplinarity, [End Page 605] The Science of Sacrifice makes literary realism less a category than an occasion for the study of categorization, performing an invaluable service for students of American literature, literary history, and cultural studies.

Nan Goodman
University of Colorado, Boulder

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pp. 605-606
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Archived 2005
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