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Poe’s Genre Crossing: From Domesticity to Detection BONITA RHOADS S cholarship of the past forty years has repeatedly demonstrated that domesticity emerged as a pervasive cultural ideology in nineteenthcentury America, promoting the feminized household as a spiritual retreat from the instrumental relations of the marketplace. “Domesticity constitutes an alternative to, and escape from, the masculine economic order,” Gillian Brown contended in 1990, recapitulating the groundbreaking studies published in the 1970s and 1980s.1 But despite all its manifest resistance to capitalism, domestic ideology and the popular fiction associated with it have also been prominently linked to consumerism. In her classic 1977 book, The Feminization of American Culture, Ann Douglas leveled a notoriously harsh indictment against domestic ideology as the origin of mass culture. More recently, in Sentimental Materialism, Lori Merish has reexamined Douglas’s argument, offering a more even-handed consideration of the conflicted orientations and complex intellectual history by which domesticity contested the market while nevertheless supplying a crucial logic for consumerism.2 Such internal contradictions have caused a number of critics to conclude that domestic ideology was too aligned with the public sphere to maintain its credibility as a moral counterpoint to industrial society. “A persistent and fundamental paradox of American domesticity,” in Kathleen McHugh’s words, is that “[while] it was constructed ideologically from the beginning as a resistant discourse to market capitalism its resistance functioned conservatively, as an accommodation with or amelioration of threatening market forces rather than a direct contestation of them.” Yet, according to Mary P. Ryan, domesticity’s concessions to commercial culture were not static but progressive. In her account, the domestic fiction and household guidebooks of the 1820s and 1830s firmly emphasized republican frugality and practical household skills. It was only toward the 1840s and 1850s that such influential magazines as Godey’s Lady’s Book and a number of novelists shifted to a comparatively consumerist version of domestic womanhood, stressing tasteful selection over heroic self-sufficiency.3 Ryan could be seen here to suggest the beginnings of a dialectical progression of literary genre by which the heroine of “woman’s fiction” initially C  2009 Washington State University 14 P O E S T U D I E S , VOL. 42, 2009 P O E ’ S G E N R E C R O S S I N G constituted an antithesis to capital and consumption but ultimately exhausted her dissenting potential through her cooperation with the prevailing culture. In this trajectory, the domestic woman in her turn became a figure of convention against which any new icon of private life would have to contend. It is within such a scenario of rising and waning champions of the private sphere, I argue, that detective fiction, invented by Edgar Allan Poe in 1841 with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” not only extracted its male hero from a female-dominated version of private life but also endowed its newly drawn private sphere with an autonomy so extreme that it showed up domestic fiction as a compromised genre. Put differently, the private detective’s model for individuality rejected the social accommodations of domesticity even while recreating the cultural functions of domestic fiction in crucial and (for the most part) critically unremarked ways.4 This affiliation between the domestic woman and the private investigator may at first seem tenuous because the features of these emblematic characters diverge in striking respects. While detective fiction celebrates its hero’s detachment and intellectual intricacy, domestic ideology sentimentalized women as “angels in the house,” custodians of a host of emotional qualities (sympathy, sincerity, transparency) consigned to the private sphere. On the other hand, many critics have emphasized the domestic sphere’s capacity to contest the public realm more than its passive role as retreat, noting that nineteenthcentury female reformers consistently invoked the private virtues of domestic womanhood as the very basis of their mandate to challenge and mold public policy.5 Moreover, while theorists often characterize the modern power of observation as an exclusively masculine attribute (following Walter Benjamin’s seminal essays on the flâneur), an increasing number of scholars credit domestic womanhood with its own peculiar visual modalities. Nancy Armstrong in particular, citing the Foucauldian copula...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1754-6095
Print ISSN
1947-4644
Pages
pp. 14-40
Launched on MUSE
2014-01-07
Open Access
No
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