- Bodies of Reform: The Rhetoric of Character in Gilded Age America by James B. Salazar
James B. Salazar’s insightful book documents the centrality of character to the literary, ideological, and social constructions of modern nationhood in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century United States. He surveys a compelling array of materials in order to trace character’s shifting rhetoric as grounded in a politics of cultural embodiment that was both subversive and surveillant. For the purposes of his study, Salazar refuses to situate character as a stable term of art; rather, he seeks to establish its interstitial resonances as a term of cultural relation and contact. Bodies of Reform challenges traditional understandings of character’s cultural devaluation during the Gilded Age and offers an archive of canonical literary representations—complemented by a range of other print and visual examples, including success manuals, muscle magazines and child-rearing guides—that sketches a broader discursive reach for character building as an embodied practice.
Salazar correctly stages the cultural politics of literary form as contiguous with the larger “structuring role” that the rhetoric of character played in the “politics of the public sphere” (32). In his introduction he outlines performance, habit, inheritance, exercise, and emulation as social practices shaped by the rhetoric of [End Page 145] character and reads the cultures of print that emerge from each, alongside literary texts by Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Pauline Hopkins as “important cultural locations” where character was publicly constituted (32). Considering the significance of philanthropy, queer sexuality, and racial uplift as categories of sociopolitical practice in his analysis, one wonders why these too were not included among Salazar’s organizing gestures.
In fact, Salazar’s readings of the philanthropic relation, first in Melville’s The Confidence-Man (1857) and later in Jane Addams’s theoretical and autobiographical accounts of social reform, comprise his most lucid and penetrating interventions. Philanthropy is of particular concern as a modality for contrast: between the character sketch and the romance novel as genres, between the philanthropist and the misanthrope as “philosophies of character and character formation,” and between character and personality as modes of subjectivity (50). By fictionalizing—and thereby embodying in characters—the “colonizing” misanthrope and the “federating” philanthropist, The Confidence-Man anticipates, in Salazar’s reading, that the public vernacular of Progressive Era reform efforts will translate, rather than eliminate, the “racializing discourses of colonial expansion” (61).
Bodies of Reform achieves its most balanced analysis in its supple reading of Jane Addams’s placement of character within a social ethic of democracy in Democracy and Social Ethics (1902), where she points to newspapers and literature, bolstered by “public practices of bodily performance” (according to Salazar’s analysis of the gymnasium at Hull House), as fostering an “imaginative realm generative of the social ethic” (239). Rather than valorizing or reifying discourses of self-made individualism handed down to her, Addams reconfigures (in this text and elsewhere) the rhetoric of character to recognize and mobilize collective action. Salazar’s assessment of Addams perceptively rereads her politics of philanthropy as an embodied need “not so much to address the needs of the poor but rather to minister to the middle-class anxiety over poverty itself” (218). At the same time, he interprets the social practices of Hull House as predicated on Addams’s belief that the experiences of ongoing cross-cultural and cross-class differences, mediated collectively by the community at large, could forge the beginnings of a “pluralist, democratic civic sphere” (207). Because of Addams’s designation of the work of women to realize this social ethic as the “final stage of American democracy,” Salazar rightly invokes her theory of the philanthropic relation as a feminist project (219).
Salazar grants queerness conceptual purchase in his chapters on exercise and inheritance, claiming that muscle building became [End Page 146] a new language of character, as did the contradictory discourses of racial science and racial uplift. By reading Charlotte...