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  • Troubling Minds: The Cultural Politics of Genius in the United States, 1840–1890
  • Susan S. Williams
Troubling Minds: The Cultural Politics of Genius in the United States, 1840–1890. By Gustavus Stadler. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. 296 pp. 2 halftones. Index. $23.50, paper.

Troubling Minds examines the category of "genius" as it circulated in the nineteenth-century United States, focusing on "the insight the category provides into the politics of deciding what counts as labor, especially in the cultural area" (168). This focus on the cultural work of genius goes a long way in complicating the Romantic notion that genius either transcends politics or is an innate gift. Instead, Gustavus Stadler shows that genius was a key word through which American writers, performers, intellectuals, and readers could navigate some of the most fundamental political and cultural issues of their time: slavery and race; the market revolution in technologies of production and distribution; the impact of immigration; and the challenges to national identity fostered by the growing interiority and cosmopolitanism of modernism. Genius, in this account, is less a reaction to (or against) such political forces than a structural component of them: a way to "harness" or "trouble" them in the process of effecting cultural change.

Some readers might question the causal relation that such a view suggests, and Stadler shows that there is as much evidence that the concept of genius registers or articulates these issues as there is that this discourse exerted cultural agency. But there is no question that Troubling Minds offers a rich, bracing, and genuinely illuminating call to re-think genius in terms of broader cultural and aesthetic categories. He does this in part by finding genius in unexpected places—in Margaret Fuller's journal writings about the everyday, for example, or in the fugitive slave William Wells Brown's account of an elusive London street performer—as well as by rethinking genius as it operates in more familiar real and fictional "artist figures," such as "the Swedish nightingale" Jenny Lind, Louisa May Alcott's Jo March, or Henry James's Verena Tarrant or Gabriel Nash. In these various representations, genius emerges not as a stable concept but rather across a [End Page 254] range of aesthetic categories, including the "representative genius," the "commodified genius," the "cosmopolitan genius," the "performing female genius," the "queer genius," the "contemplative genius," and the "Jewish genius." Taken together, these categories productively "trouble" our understanding of genius and its effects, asking us to think about it less as a singular identity than as part of a set of emerging discourses about place, region, gender, race, and sexuality.

If all of this sounds ambitious, it is, and Stadler is the first to say that his book is not a comprehensive account of this large topic. But the book is an immensely thought-provoking attempt to explore the appeal of the term and the various ways in which it can be used as a lens for understanding nineteenth-century American culture. This lens works at both a macro level (e.g., the paradigm shift involved in moving from the social/collective to the more individual) and a micro one, in a number of more localized case studies. In the first chapter, for instance, Stadler shows the value of reading Emerson through Douglass rather than Douglass through Emerson, as has more often been the case; such a reading—though not based on specific influence—shows the benefits of a literary history that moves away from more monolithic conceptions of genius. What if the idea of the "representative" or "great man" comes not from Emersonian transcendentalism but from an attempt to re-frame the plantation "Great House"? Such provocative questions undergird many of Stadler's other discussions as well, as he shows the extent to which we might view female artists as producers of high art rather than marginal figures excluded from it, or the extent to which understanding the commodification of genius in, say, Brown's street performer, can show us, in Stadler's terms, "the incompleteness of canonical accounts of modernity" (87).

Underlying all of these revisionary accounts is a critical emphasis on circulation and reception as well...


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