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Book History 6 (2003) 57-93

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Reading with a Tender Rapture
Reveries of a Bachelor and the Rhetoric of Detached Intimacy

Lisa Spiro

If you looked at an illustration of a nineteenth-century American family enjoying domestic comforts, a book would probably appear somewhere in the picture. As scholars studying the cultural functions of reading have argued, the book ranks as one of the most important instruments and symbols of domesticity. In the iconography of the home, the book represents taste, shared learning, and love. Consider, for instance, Figure 1, "Home."

In this domestic tableau, a father relaxes with his newspaper and cigar, while a mother reads a large book, perhaps a primer or a Bible, with her three children. The mother points out a significant word or idea to the children, who look on attentively. One child even reaches out her hand, as if to touch on the same point and to connect with the mother. Instructing the children seems to be the work of the mother, but the family comes together around the act of reading, enjoying productive leisure, intimacy, and comfort. [End Page 57]

This drawing renders a scene that recurs throughout nineteenth-century domestic fiction. In novels such as Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide Worldand Maria Cummins's The Lamplighter, family members and friends develop their love for and sympathy with each other by reading, at first together, then apart. 1 What begins as a close human relationship—the mother reinforcing lessons of Christian rectitude through conversation—is displaced into a textual relationship, as the book comes to represent the loving authority of the mother. As Richard Brodhead argues, domestic novels bring attention to the act of reading itself, treating it as "the nurture- centered home's chief pastime, gathering point, and instrument of domestic instruction." 2 According to Brodhead, the middle-class family embraced reading to teach the mutually reinforcing values of obedience and sentiment, or, in his terms, to inculcate "disciplinary intimacy," discipline through love.

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Figure 1

While Brodhead focuses on reading's disciplinary functions, other critics contend that reading in sentimental literature was escapist, luring readers away from an engagement with serious issues into an artificial view of the [End Page 58] world. Perhaps Ann Douglas most eloquently voices this position: "'Reading' in its new form was many things; among them it was an occupation for the unemployed, narcissistic self-education for those excluded from the harsh school of practical competition. Literary men of the cloth and middle-class women writers of the Victorian period knew from firsthand evidence that literature was functioning more and more as a form of leisure, a complicated mass dream-life in the busiest, most wide-awake society in the world." 3 According to Douglas, such reading fed a consumerist ethos in which Americans purchased mass-produced fantasies, placing greater value on what one owned rather than what one had made.

Both of these descriptions of reading assume that the typical reader is female, and both emphasize the power of an external force (whether domestic or consumer culture) over her. But what if we focus instead on someone outside the normal domestic circle? What if we examine how the unwed male reader was imagined in the nineteenth century? Consider, for example, Figure 2, "By a City Grate."

In some ways, the two images are similar. Both show scenes of leisure set by the hearth, and both include an elegantly but comfortably dressed gentleman lounging over a cigar and looking over—or beyond—a text. But of course "By a City Grate" lacks elements crucial to the conventional image of domestic intimacy: wife and children. Instead of portraying a contented family sharing in the purposeful project of learning, "By a City Grate" shows a solitary man absorbed in thought. While the first illustration projects a sense of warmth, calm, and edification, in the second a shadow hovers about the thinker, suggesting his melancholy mood. Books are scattered on his table as if he has just thrown them aside...