Bodies of Reform: The Rhetoric of Character in Gilded Age America

Bodies of Reform: The Rhetoric of Character in Gilded Age America

Bodies of Reform: The Rhetoric of Character in Gilded Age America

Bodies of Reform: The Rhetoric of Character in Gilded Age America

Excerpt

My first assertion is one that I think you will grant—that everyone
in this room is a judge of character. Indeed it would be impossible to
live for a year without disaster unless one practiced character-reading
and had some skill in the art. Our marriages, our friendships depend
on it; our business largely depends on it; every day questions arise
which can only be solved by its help. And now I will hazard a second
assertion, which is more disputable perhaps, to the effect that on or
about December, 1910, human character changed.

—Virginia Woolf, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown”

When I was a young man, we talked much of character…. It is typi
cal of our time that insistence on character today in the country has
almost ceased. Freud and others have stressed the unconscious fac
tors of our personality so that today we do not advise youth about
their development of character; we watch and count their actions
with almost helpless disassociation from thought of advice.

—W.E.B. Du Bois, “My Character,” in
The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois

Bodies of Reform studies what was perhaps the most coveted object of nineteenth-century American culture, that curiously formable yet often equally formidable stuff called character. So much more than simply the bundle of traits that distinguish and define an individual’s identity, character was to many nineteenth-century Americans, as Orison Swett Marden somewhat gleefully put it, “the grandest thing in the world.” The impact of the concept of character on the culture of the nineteenth century is hard to miss, its influence difficult to overstate. A pervasive and defining keyword across a range of nineteenth-century political, literary . . .

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