The Body of Property: Antebellum American Fiction and the Phenomenology of Possession

The Body of Property: Antebellum American Fiction and the Phenomenology of Possession

The Body of Property: Antebellum American Fiction and the Phenomenology of Possession

The Body of Property: Antebellum American Fiction and the Phenomenology of Possession


The Body of Property begins with two questions that have long haunted Anglo-American political and economic theory: what does it mean to own something, and how does a thing become mine? While liberal philosophy since John Locke has championed the salutary effects of private property its economic efficiency, its role in self-development, etc. that same philosophy has conspicuously avoided asking more difficult questions about the nature, about the ontology of property itself. In The Body of Property, Chad Luck argues that antebellum American literature is obsessed with precisely these questions. Reading slave narratives, gothic romances, city-mystery novels, and a range of other property narratives, Luck unearths a wide-ranging literary effort to understand the nature and complexity of ownership.Antebellum writers, he contends, map out a rich phenomenology of possession, an embodied counter-history of property at odds with the prevailing legal view of property as a mere product of codes and discourses. Ownership is not an abstract legal form in these texts but a lived relation, a dynamic of embodiment emerging within specific cultural spaces a disputed frontier, a city agitated by class conflict each of which stamps that embodiment with a particular place and time. Employing an innovative phenomenological approach that combines careful historical work with an array of European philosophies, The Body of Property challenges existing narratives of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century property practice, narratives that see it as a trajectory of abstraction and virtualization. At the same time, the book expands the purview of recent Americanist studies in emotion and affect by detailing a broader phenomenology of ownership, one that includes not just emotion but also sensory experiences such as touch, taste, and vision. This productive blend of phenomenology and history uncovers deep-seated anxieties about property across antebellum culture: in clashes on the Native American frontier, in the gendered economies of the middle-class home, in the debt dynamics of the plantation, and in the working-class rebellions of the city.


Of all that I had, I had nothing except through my body
Of all that I have or shall have, it is the same
That I am is of my body, and what I am is of my body
What identity I am, I owe to my body…. what soul I owe to my body,
What belongs to me…. that it does not yet spread in the spread of the
universe, I owe to my body
Of all that I have had, I have had nothing except through my body

—WALT whitman

On December 10, 1802, along a deserted stretch of Long Island beach, two young men nearly came to blows over the carcass of a dead fox. the quarrel began as Jesse Pierson, a twenty-two-year-old schoolteacher from Southampton, New York, followed the shoreline home after a day of work in the town’s one-room schoolhouse. Alone with his thoughts at first, Pierson gradually heard the clamor of shouts, galloping horses, and baying hounds drawing nearer. Abruptly, he spotted a terrified fox streaking down the beach, trailed at a distance by a band of mounted horsemen and their pursuing dogs. in a matter of moments, the fox had gone to ground in a nearby dry well and Pierson sprang into action. Picking up a broken fence rail, he moved to the mouth of the well, brained the fox, slung it over his shoulder, and set off once again toward home with his new prize.

Before he had gone more than a few steps, however, he was confronted by Lodowick Post, leader of the now indignant hunters. Post demanded that Pierson return the fox, asserting that it was his (Post’s) property by virtue of his hunter’s rights: he had been in the process of hunting and killing the animal when Pierson had impertinently stepped in and stole it. Pierson, for his part, did not bat an eye, replying “It may be you was going to kill him, but you did not kill him. I was going to kill him and did kill him.” This was followed by a series of escalating threats with neither man giving ground until at last Post vowed to haul Pierson into court. Three weeks later, the case was heard by John Fordham, justice of the peace in Southhampton, and the jury held for the original hunter, Post, awarding him seventy-five cents in damages.

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