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  • Grotesque Sympathy:Lydia Maria Child, White Reform, and the Embodiment of Urban Space
  • Travis M. Foster (bio)

The story quickly became famous in abolitionist circles: On 7 July 1841 Lydia Maria Child walked into the Nassau Street office of well-known phrenologist Lorenzo Fowler, who (or so he claimed) hadn't the least idea who she was—this despite her celebrity status as a writer, reformer, and editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard. Child expressed a desire to be examined and then remained silent until Fowler had finished probing her skull and recorded his findings. The phrenologist ascertained, most notably, that reform comprised Child's lifework and passion; he described a woman "not satisfied with the world as it is," possessing "more than an ordinary degree of ambition to turn over a new leaf, and bring about moral, social, and intellectual reforms."1 "The hit," William Lloyd Garrison later wrote in the Liberator, "is very remarkable, and serves to demonstrate the truth of phrenology as an accurate and valuable science."2 And so it was that Child's head reading quickly became a milestone for antebellum reform culture, making its way prominently into her writings and into the American Phrenological Journal, along with Garrison's Liberator, helping reformers to support their belief in phrenology's value as a truth-telling science and giving them a vocabulary for understanding their psychology and motivations.3

All this emphasis on the reading of skulls, it seems to me, makes quite an odd bedfellow to the list of causes championed [End Page 1] by white reformers and abolitionists in the antebellum United States. Temperance, abolition of slavery and the death penalty, alleviation of poverty, improvement of conditions for prisoners and the insane, women's rights—a near limitless array of social ills remained ripe for muscular reformist efforts. Yet even if we consider Herman Melville's famous and favorable comparison between the skulls of Queequeg and George Washington,4 phrenology seems to mark a limit to reform: How, for instance, does one go about reforming a man with oversized Acquisitiveness or Destructiveness? What about a city full of them? Does one even try? And, more to the point, given abolition's role as the touchstone for all other antebellum reform efforts and Ralph Waldo Emerson's vilification of phrenologists as "theoretic kidnappers and slave-drivers":5 How does one square efforts to liberate African Americans with the era's rampant phrenological justification for scientific racism? How does a movement reconcile its limitless ambition for reform with its belief in humans' biologically finite capacity to be reformed?

This essay's short answer is, quite simply, it doesn't; or rather, biological finitude wins out. But it's the long answer that gives us deeper insight into white antebellum reform movements; into sympathy, one of reformist literature's most significant strategies; and into the reasons that a number of prominent white reformers were inclined to rely upon, rather than do battle with, scientific racism. This essay gives the long answer by looking at the corporealization of sympathy as it manifests within densely urban spaces and as it relates to genre and ethics.

Sympathy names an emotional, psychological, and learned response to the suffering of others and an urgent feeling that such suffering makes life less bearable for all; it creates a tightly managed circuitry of connection between witness and victim rooted in primal spectacles of violence and pain. Through sympathy, white reformers safely engaged the objects of their attention, balancing relation to them with simultaneous nearness and distance, all the while reaffirming, rather than jarring, the familiar sociopolitical order in which they labored. These patterns and norms of white sympathy (sympathy's manageability) shifted within the nation's newly dense urban environments: [End Page 2] heretofore-existent boundaries crumbled, emotion folding into experience and theory into praxis, such that white sympathy became uncontrollable and unpredictable. More specifically, urban space led white reformers into grotesque scenes that denied the necessary decorum for both white manhood and white womanhood by collapsing the distance between bodies and exposing them to the transformative force of the anarchic, unruly, heterogeneous throng. For recourse, many reformers turned to phrenology and, more...


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