- Domestic Intimacies: Incest and the Liberal Subject in Nineteenth-Century America by Brian Connolly
In Domestic Intimacies, Brian Connolly has written a history of the incest prohibition in antebellum America. Challenging theoretical approaches that have universalized the incest prohibition, Connolly instead points out the ways that it is historically specific. Early nineteenth-century America proved to be a time of rearticulation for the prohibition, as theologians, lawmakers, phrenologists, and others worried about the definition of incest and the supposedly reduced barriers against it in their society. In this moment, Connolly argues, incest was in fact central to the creation of the liberal subject in America. [End Page 523]
This is a theoretically rich text. Part of Connolly’s goal, he explains, is to bring the extensive theoretical writings about the incest prohibition together with more historically specific narratives. While historians, as Connolly points out, have been unlikely to engage with theory, scholars in other disciplines tend to make claims to universalism in their explanations of prohibitions against incest. Connolly is undoubtedly successful in bringing these two approaches together, weaving together discussions of Butler, Foucault, Lévi-Strauss, Marx, and Freud with historically specific examples to illuminate the meaning of incest for antebellum Americans.
The book is at its best when it closely examines antebellum texts and draws out the frequency of incest themes across a wide range of genres. Faced with the repetition of talk about incest in so many bodies of work, Connolly encourages us to ask what this interest in incest means. It is no accident, he argues, that incest emerges as a prominent theme when it does. Its importance is closely tied to major economic and social changes, particularly the increased mobility of the American population and the creation of the sentimental domestic family. Incest and its prohibition, Connolly claims, was one way that Americans talked about other concerns that they had about the potential for their society to break apart at the seams. They feared that incest was an inevitable result of the dramatic changes that American society faced as it created liberal subjects.
Connolly’s book is organized into five chapters that examine discussions of incest among particular groups. The first chapter, on literature, examines the role of incest and the sentimental family. Connolly divides the literature of incest into two categories: public and private. This division marks the ways that incest came up in multiple texts to address fears of families becoming both too private (shutting out society and becoming incestuous) and too public (losing the policing boundaries of kin). Many of these texts revealed an anxiety over the ways that population mobility in antebellum America led to the possibility of accidental incest when individuals no longer knew who their kin were.
The next two chapters examine how antebellum Americans determined which types of encounters counted as incest. A chapter on theology focuses its attention on the debates over the propriety of a man’s marrying the sister of his dead wife, while the chapter on law examines the ways that multiple states rewrote their incest laws beginning in the 1820s. Importantly, many of the legal definitions had previously focused on marriage rather than sex. Emphasizing the fact that most of the court cases on incest dealt with abuse and violence, Connolly argues that sex and sexuality became more central to the discussion of incest by the middle of the century. These chapters trace the transition of authority for prohibiting incest. While prohibitions against incest had previously rested upon readings of the book of Leviticus, the early nineteenth century saw [End Page 524] a transition away from biblical authority, and secularization multiplied the explanations for incest prohibitions. Connolly introduces the role of sexuality and eroticism within the family and argues for the importance of the nuclear family in defining and policing appropriate expressions of erotic desire.
A chapter on phrenology and physiology continues this discussion, noting the ways that these new fields introduced concerns about reproduction and heredity to the conversation about...