“The Grandest Thing in the World”
This introductory chapter provides an overview of the book's main themes. This book examines what was perhaps the most coveted object of nineteenth-century American culture, that curiously formable yet often equally formidable stuff called character. It charts the development of character as a central object of literary representation and social reform in the fictional genres, reform movements, and political cultures of the United States from approximately 1850 to 1920. It attempts to make visible a unique archive in which the cultural practices of reading and representing character can be seen to operate in relation to the character-building strategies of social reformers by reading novelists such as Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Pauline Hopkins, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman in relation to a diverse range of historical documents also concerned with the formation and representation of character. In these readings, it delineates the ideological formulation of the “rhetoric of character” by elucidating the various yet interconnected meanings of character across this diverse range of political, popular, scientific, and literary discourses. More importantly, it examines the practices of individual and collective embodiment through which such meanings were used to negotiate the structural relations and symbolic practices that organized literary culture and national life toward the end of the nineteenth century.
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