Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

"The Polishing Attrition": Reading, Writing, and Renunciation in the Work of Susan Warner

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

"The Polishing Attrition": Reading, Writing, and Renunciation in the Work of Susan Warner

Article excerpt

In the preface to her biography of her sister Susan, Anna Warner describes her initial discomfort with writing and self-exposure but then justifies these through an appeal to religious duty:

   New England blood is never ashamed of any work that ought to
   be done; and no believer has cause to cover his face, in any spot
   where his dear Lord sees fit to bid him dwell; for work, for
   service, or for the mere polishing attrition. (1)

Later, Anna explains what she means by this latter term:

   Our dear Miss Haines used to talk of "attrition,"--giving that name
   to the minor trials and sorrows which seem so small, and yet are
   set to do such finishing and polishing work; with fine and sharpened
   tools. (SW, 475)

By Anna's account, attrition (defined in the OED as "the action or process of rubbing away ... or grinding down by friction") is figured as a source of refinement or "polish." (2) Through small but incremental experiences of suffering, the self begins to wear away and in the process takes on a spiritual glow. The subject is thus "finished"--both completed and made fine--through her own subtraction. Anna's choice of the word "polishing" is significant. As an operation that invokes the rituals of housekeeping, polishing is women's work. Here, how ever, the object to be scoured is not the home, but the woman herself, who likewise is expected to glow through expurgation, that is, through the eradication of excess will and desire.

Interestingly, Anna ties this concept of attrition not to sickness or to poverty but to the activity of writing. Addressing those critics who "will wonder ... first, at our strange, exceptional life, and then that I should be willing to tell it so freely," Anna counters, "I was not willing. I am by nature a terribly secretive person, and ... our home life was so unendingly precious, that it hurts me to have it gazed at by cold and careless eyes." After mounting this defense both of herself and of the sanctified domestic space, Anna explains that she writes only out of a sense of duty, for "a faithful chronicler must not please himself' (SW, iii). By figuring writing not as voluntary production ("I was not willing") but as obligation, Anna renders it entirely compatible with the disciplining logic of the polishing attrition. In this way, authorship--the consummate act of creativity and expression--becomes figured as self subordination, a painful but necessary means of regulating the will.

Susan Warner shared with her sister this belief in literacy as a means towards attrition and expressed it both in her journal entries and in many of her best-selling novels of the antebellum period. For both women, the activities of reading and writing constituted some of the "fine and sharpened tools" through which subjects achieved self-reduction. Observations about effacement in the nineteenth-century woman are, of course, by no means new. Critics of American fiction have long been disconcerted by the religiously inflected vision of suffering and submission embraced by the antebellum woman writer and especially present in Susan Warner's The Wilde, Wide World. (3) Moreover, Richard Brodhead has linked these disciplinary themes to literacy, arguing that the private, leisured middle class home encouraged novel reading as a means to enclose and limit subjects within clear and predictable boundaries. (4) But while Brodhead sees the disciplinary practice of book-reading as another means of reinforcing patriarchy, I will be arguing that the regulatory effects of reading were crucial to the affective needs and experiences of the nineteenth century woman. This is because the attrition inspired by literacy could in turn make possible a new and invigorated relationship to the written word--a heightened sense of intimacy first with the text itself and then with other imagined readers.

This essay explores this nexus of literacy, intimacy, and attrition as it unfolds in the work of Susan Warner. …

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