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  • Discerning Characters: The Culture of Appearance in Early America
  • David Steinberg (bio)

Character, facial characteristics, Lavater, Portraits, Social mobility

Discerning Characters: The Culture of Appearance in Early America. By Christopher J. Lukasik. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011. Pp. viii, 319. Cloth, $45.00.)

With an eye cast toward social mobility and distinction from the end of the Revolution to the Civil War, Christopher J. Lukasik explores "the social perception of character" and "social space," their literary representation, and relevant cultural practices. Discerning Characters pays particular attention to the "reading" of fixed facial features that the much-discussed Swiss cleric Lavater declared capable of signifying a person's true character. To aid discovery, he advised studying portraits that represented fixed features clearly. Chapter 1 treats Lavater's ideas and their reception. The book applies this combination of theory and advice to literary works whose characters study living and depicted faces to learn (or not) about the "characters" of other characters. For example, seduction novels repeatedly stage strivings to discern whether a given character is a Chesterfieldian dissembler or a genuinely good person—and perhaps also well bred, of noble blood, or both. It is crucial to Discerning Characters that the vehicles of feigning are mobile signs (including behavior and garb), and thus, by a structural logic, stand opposed to the fixed features that are Lavaterian physiognomy's main objects. Lukasik sets up his discussion of those novels and related ones in chapter 3 with the preceding chapter's superb analysis of responses to Chesterfield. Chapter 4 brackets a study of actual portraits with analyses of literary representations by Freneau and Brackenridge of, respectively, a portrait gallery (and its painter-proprietor) and scrutiny operating in democratic social dynamics.

The book also treats literary representations of novel reading—which, as an unreliable way of learning about the world, is (sometimes) the opposite of represented face-reading—and literary pictorialism. Nineteenth-century critics closely identified the latter with Fenimore Cooper's writings, and Lukasik integrates it into Discerning Characters as a phenomenon coordinate with descriptions of literary characters' bodies (chapter 5). To accommodate The Pioneers's having made a theme of nondiscernment, he introduces the useful phrase "invisible aristocrat." Brockden Brown's Ormond and Melville's Pierre (the latter is the subject of chapter 6) figure as genre critiques that emplot the fallacies [End Page 304] of, and fatalities issuing from, essentially delusional efforts to discern characters from faces.

Importantly, the book brings into view possibilities for bridging the gap between the period's rank-sensitive realities-in-flux, their mechanisms, and their representation. In any given instance, a person (or a character) rose or fell or stayed (relatively) put on the basis of others' assessments and of opportunities that were—or were not—made available. As Lukasik ably shows, period literature offers dense mediations on this topic, and so informs our comprehending the age through what it imagined. From the vantage of social spaces awash in distinction-conferring mobile signs—from power suits to PowerPoint presentations—and wherein, understandably, invisible aristocrat sightings are rare, Discerning Characters helps us recognize where we have come from and enriches our understanding of where (and how) we might go.

The book's major problem is the axial position it accords Lavater's theory. It is not possible to offer a single, comprehensive statement of just what this theory's influence was during its two-decade heyday. Nonetheless, the representation of its vogue should be more circumspect and qualified than the one on offer. Historical readers' skepticism is reported (35, 51-52), but it does not affect the thrust of the book, which creates the impression that Lavaterian physiognomy was practiced widely and unquestioningly. One wonders what has happened to the semi-fixed features (like wrinkles) that frequently appear in Lavater's account, but do not figure in Discerning Characters. Normally created by unselfconscious, "characteristic" ways of disposing mobile features over time, they are hard to hide and impossible to feign at the drop of a hat. Nonetheless, mention of them would thicken a discussion of possible dissembling strategies and, by complicating the fixed/mobile binary, would bring greater accuracy to the representation of...


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pp. 304-307
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