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American Literature 74.2 (2002) 413-415

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Sentimental Materialism: Gender, Commodity Culture, and Nineteenth-Century American Literature. By Lori Merish. Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press. 2000. ix, 389 pp. Cloth, $64.95; paper, $21.95.

Sentimental Materialism presents an account of the disciplinary processes whereby affective relations to objects came to constitute the proprietary logic of liberal subjectivity and subjection in nineteenth-century U.S. culture. Merish reads nineteenth-century literary texts, and the objects in them, as [End Page 413] productive sites in which the outlines of this subjectivity, specifically its deployment of gender and racial categories, are established, reproduced, and, in many cases, contested. The book ranges impressively from a reading of "taste" in the Scottish Enlightenment, to analyses of relatively noncanonical texts such as Catharine Sedgwick's Home, to a cultural critique of representations of the cigar in Martin Delaney's Blake and early twentieth-century advertisements. Such a diverse archive is made coherent by Merish's convincing demonstration that sentimental narratives, and the identificatory structures that they produce (what she calls "sentimental ownership"), encompass "both a recognition of social hierarchy as psychological normals reproduced within the intimate recesses of the desiring subject" (3). And yet Merish also illustrates how various texts within the sentimental tradition, particularly those written by African American women, deploy this model of white liberal subjectivity in order to both incorporate and challenge its cultural capital. Particularly significant is Merish's contention that in uncritically accepting Weber's theory of the work ethic as the definitive paradigm through which American identity was produced, critics have failed to see the operations of an equally constitutive consumer ethic—based on the love of objects and the symbiotic relation between things and subjectivity. Merish historicizes the explicit gendering of this subjectivity and examines how sentimental fiction pedagogically enacted female consent and, in so doing, was critical to the construction of "liberal consumer subjectivity" (25).

Merish's narrative of "sentimental ownership" begins with an analysis of the moral philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment and of Adam Smith in particular, who promoted an identificatory paradigm of sympathy that established liberal subjectivity as fundamentally proprietary. The power that derives from this ownership, however, radically differs depending upon gender, given the fact that women are both "subjects with whom men identify and objects over whom men have power" (42). Gender thus interestingly complicates this subject formation as feminina economica (71) becomes the human repository for, in eighteenth-century parlance, "taste": a set of virtues with clear racial, economic, and class demarcations. But as much as white women may have gained by "imagining themselves as free commercial subjects" (37), Merish states that "women's consent to femininity, in a fundamental way, requires female self-abnegation" (42). The benefits of taste, in other words, are conceived and practiced in relation to the deprivations of others and ultimately of oneself. Her discussion of Sojourner Truth's Narrative and The Book of Life reveals the extent to which many African American women authors both understood the racial occlusions that went along with consent to femininity and adopted textual strategies to rewrite femininity's requisite abnegation.

Much of the strength of Merish's argument derives from her analysis of the oppositional uses to which a notion of sentimental ownership might be deployed. If Caroline Kirkland, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, to greater and lesser degrees, stand for the hegemonic inscription of [End Page 414] this concept, texts by Harriet Jacobs, Elizabeth Keckley, and Frances Harper foreground the extent to which liberal subjectivity and its ideology of consent are founded upon an utter discounting of an absence of African American consent. Thus, Merish writes that Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl "performs and denaturalizes liberalism's conflation of choice and consent, and demonstrates the inadequacy of feminine consent as a vehicle and sign of female subjectivity and freedom" (207). Sentimental ownership, in these narratives, becomes a performative strategy through which the proprietary relations at the core of liberal subjectivity are exposed and subverted. Similarly, Merish's account of Keckley's Behind...


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pp. 413-415
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Archived 2005
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