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  • The Syntax of Class: Writing Inequality in Nineteenth-Century America
  • Glenn Hendler
The Syntax of Class: Writing Inequality in Nineteenth-Century America. By Amy Schrager Lang. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003. 168 pp. $45.00.

In The Syntax of Class, Amy Schrager Lang sets out to tell part of Americans' long history of being unable to "think straight about class." Lang's archive includes the writings of "legislators, journalists, ministers, labor leaders, political radicals and fledgling political scientists, playwrights and novelists," all of whom were working "to find a social vocabulary adequate to the task of naming, ordering, interpreting, and containing the effects of class difference." This task seemed especially urgent in nineteenth-century America due to rapid social and economic changes that were sparking a "crisis of classification" (3-4). Her primary examples of this type of work are novels, however, and each of the book's main chapters includes compelling close readings of literary texts as well as intriguing and suggestive juxtapositions of authors: Maria Cummins with Nathaniel Hawthorne; Frank J. Webb with Harriet Wilson; Rebecca Harding Davis with Elizabeth Stuart Phelps; Horatio Alger with Louisa May Alcott.

As this list indicates, women writers appear in this study not as special cases or exceptions, but as central to Lang's argument. Indeed, she demonstrates entirely persuasively that—for better or worse—women writers fully participated in the discourses of class that she analyzes. Gender, in Lang's account, is a discourse into which anxieties about class conflict can be displaced and contained, a "vocabulary" that "is structurally able to displace that of class because the attributes ... that define class position are rendered either so intrinsic or so transcendent that they pass either below or above history" (23).

This last quotation is typical of the subtlety and sophistication of Lang's analysis, and its interpretive moves are characteristic of the book's central argument. Repeatedly, she is able to articulate the way in which class implicitly becomes a "syntax" organizing what at first appears to be an altogether different "vocabulary," such as gender or race. Lang's attention to class dynamics in the works of Webb and Wilson is especially salutary here, countering the tendency to assume that African American authors write only about race, rendering class invisible or irrelevant. She, of course, does not simply replace one concern with another; rather, Lang demonstrates their mutual imbrication.

In Lang's analysis, the evasion of class is not limited to this kind of displacement. In the hegemonic middle-class syntax of class, structural class categories such as "bourgeois" and "proletarian" are replaced by merely descriptive dichotomies between "rich" and "poor," or, as Lang quotes Lydia Maria Child, "magnificence and mud, finery and filth, diamonds and dirt" (3). In short, these writings are characterized by the "insistent use of the blurry categories of wealth and poverty and not those of class" (105). That Lang's critique here implicitly upholds Marxian categorizations and terminology is a bit surprising in a book that nowhere addresses Marxism directly. Not that Lang needs to rehash old debates about the special role of the proletariat in human history in order to make her argument persuasive, but I am fairly certain this is the only book about class I have ever read in which Karl Marx does not even appear in the index.

One peculiarity of Lang's book may paradoxically make it all the more interesting and useful for those of us who work on the discourses of domesticity and sentimentality often associated with American women writers in this period. Lang's most compelling argument is undoubtedly her claim that, in the literature she examines and elsewhere in the period, "home" is a crucial mediating term, serving in the "syntax" as something like a conjunction linking the shifting signifier of class to other ideological and [End Page 111] social formations. For some reason, though, Lang leaves the connection between the thematic of "home" and her polemic about "class" underdeveloped. The last two paragraphs of the book's introduction unexpectedly introduce "home" into the argument. The treatment of this thematic seems more extensive, in terms of sheer space taken up in the book's main...


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