- Fleshing Out America: Race, Gender, and the Politics of the Body in American Literature, 1833-1879
Sorisio's impressive study examines representations of the body in the work of seven authors: Lydia Maria Child, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Walt Whitman, Harriet Jacobs, and Martin Delaney. Combining close readings with new historicist methods, Sorisio discusses how, in a climate in which science developed new theories of the body, "these authors struggled ... to flesh out America, to grapple in other words, with the discourses of abolition, women's rights, and science—all of which had the cumulative effect of debunking the myth of the disembodied 'person' of Revolutionary rhetoric" (1-2).
Using Michel Foucault and Elaine Scarry, among others, as theoretical frames, the introduction most importantly discusses the emerging scientific theory of polygenesis, which replaced the earlier theory of monogenesis by assuming innate differences between races (and genders) rather than posing a common origin for different races. This shift had enormous political implications since it enabled "the invention of a biologically determined subject [End Page 109] whose corporeality contradicted any claim to the Declaration of Independence's higher laws of equality by means of creation"(15).
The study then offers a breathtaking journey into each writer's struggle to resist or re-employ these racial and corporeal theories for their own ends. How far can and do they resist? And at whose expense? Each chapter delineates a single writer's corporeal experience and then reveals complexities, gaps, and even contradictions in each writer's negotiation of the body. This parallel structure makes the book so readable and so beautifully complex, allowing readers to see the commonalities, synchronicity, and divergences between writers rarely discussed together. Sorisio accurately claims that "[b]y examining these authors' corporeal depictions, we begin to understand that essentialism, or knowledge claimed through the body, became both an obstacle in people's efforts to attain full access to the literary and political spheres and a tool to deploy cautiously when advantageous" (7).
The first chapter shows how Child negotiated the problems of the perceived indecency of revealing the bodily experiences of slaves and of entering the public sphere as a woman in her work as an abolitionist activist. Sorisio then considers race in her analysis of Harper's strategic redirection of the audience's gaze away from her own body or any racialized body inwards by "proposing self-discipline as a liberatory strategy" (9). While Emerson's anti-slavery essays similarly commit him to resist "science's relegation of identity to corporeality" (9), his later work, Sorisio argues, "[endorses] stereotypical conceptions of male Anglo-Saxon superiority" (9). Sorisio then traces the dependence of Fuller's "feminist vision ... on the symbolic transference of unwanted corporeal associations to the bodies of Native Americans" and follows with a chapter on Whitman which delineates how his initial "trust in the body" gives way to "envisioning a race of North Americans that is predominantly masculine and Caucasian" (9, 10). Next, Sorisio reveals Jacobs's "[invention of] a dual strategy that demonstrates the importance of corporeality to identity, but ultimately proposes that it can be transcended" (203). The final chapter on Delany demonstrates how he "[built] upon and [reinvented] theories of racial essentialism that not only served his personal politics, but also provided the theoretical background for his vision of the globalized destiny of people of color" (11).
Fleshing Out America offers a complex understanding of nineteenth-century American literature's preoccupation with race and the body. It also demonstrates, to a large degree, the cohesion of nineteenth-century American writing across gender and race lines. Nonetheless, Sorisio surprisingly reinstates one long-challenged distinction between male and female writers in her undertheorized judgment of, even distaste for, sentimental writing. Particularly when arguing for Child's increasing distance from sentimental rhetoric, Sorisio's study gets side-tracked. This is regretable not only because it leads to a loss of focus but also because Sorisio misses the opportunity to...