- Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America
The introduction of filth to an apparently smooth surface can reveal previously unseen details and contours. Dirt does not always cover; it can also uncover. In her new book, Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America, Kathleen Brown uses people's changing relationships with filth to help explain the trajectories of conquest and conflict in North America, as well as Early American gender, class, and race relations. Brown must be congratulated for offering historians the first sustained consideration of early American preoccupations with ideas and practices of cleanliness. That historians of early America have had to wait so long for such a monograph since the 1966 publication of the anthropologist Mary Douglas's paradigmatic Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo speaks to how difficult a task Brown has taken on. Foul Bodies opens up a range of important new questions about the functions of bodily pollution in the development of the Atlantic world. This is a big and important contribution.
Brown charts changing conceptions of cleanliness and the human body during the colonization of North America, the American Revolution, and the founding of the early Republic, through to the middle of the nineteenth century. She explains how early modern Europeans and early Americans used different cleanliness practices, and not necessarily different amounts of filth, as evidence to support their racial and socioeconomic hierarchies. Most strikingly, the cleansing and moral properties of water ebbed and flowed over this three-hundred-year period, due to a wide variety of political, social, and medicinal reasons. Brown's is a sophisticated and convincing analysis, underscoring, for example, the importance of clean clothing, not clean skin, as the primary marker of seventeenth-century European cleanliness and civility. A stress on clean white clothing helped Europeans at home and in the colonies favorably contrast their own cultures against the cultures of the clean skinned but often less-clothed native peoples of North [End Page 163] America. The research, analysis, and writing are wonderfully evocative. One gets a profound sense, not just of the constant fight against filth waged by early Americans, but of this fight's powerful moral, economic, and political implications.
Brown, as in her previous writings, does much of her best work with gender. As Brown states, "civilizing the body was not simply a process. It was an ethos of the self " (p. 357). This ethos had women, in the earlier period primarily of the lower sorts, and in the later period increasingly the rising white middle sorts, at its center. The maintenance of cleanliness standards, whether by washing the body directly with water or indirectly with clothing washed in water, depended heavily on the labor and ideas of women. Without women, society would (and in such cases as Jamestown, did) become sickly and collapse under the weight of its own muck. Yet not until after the American Revolution did the women's work of cleaning and laundering shed the stigma of ill repute to become a marker of domestic gentility. Middle-class women became celebrated developers and enforcers of new cleanliness ideas and practices to defend not only the health of individual bodies but of the body politic.
The deft analysis used to explore the importance of gender throughout Foul Bodies might, nevertheless, have been applied more consistently and productively to other questions of difference. Race appears at several points in the text, and particularly with Native Americans, in somewhat limiting ways. Despite the many different cultural and cleanliness practices of Native American tribes, they generally appear as a more or less homogenous group, with individual tribes often standing in for all Native Americans. When Brown briefly discusses French descriptions of the Montagnais, for example, it is not clear whether the negative reports of their cleanliness were due to their tribal practices or to the higher standards of cleanliness that Brown explains the French expected as opposed to the English. The condensing of difference occurs for nonnative peoples as well. Brown's evidence tends heavily and...