Academic journal article College English

Anxious Uptakes: Nineteenth-Century Advice Literature as a Rhetorical Genre

Academic journal article College English

Anxious Uptakes: Nineteenth-Century Advice Literature as a Rhetorical Genre

Article excerpt

TRUST YOURSELF. You know more than you think you do.

-Benjamin Spock, Baby and Child Care (1946)

What To Expect [When You're Expecting] is, then, finally, a self-fulfilling prophesy, because what to expect as an expectant mother today is to be bombarded with information about how you are doing it wrong-whether it is carrying a baby in your womb, pushing it out, or raising it.

-Allison Benedikt, "17,000,000 Weeping Pregnant Women Can't Be Wrong," Slate.com (3 Mar. 2012)

The relationship of advice literature to its readers is difficult to parse. I might have written that sentence about any genre, but advice literature makes a particularly attractive puzzle because of the way it thematizes readerly compliance, the way its rhetorical confidence seems to elide the gap between representation and action. Advice literature's totalizing rhetoric-not to mention the putatively coercive force of its originary speech act, the prescription-promises scholars . . . something, some kind of information or insight about what happens just outside the text. It is difficult not to imagine that advice literature does something, out there in the world, through its effect on its readers.

Scholars have been puzzling over this for some time. Historian Jay Mechling, writing in 1975, cautions against taking child-rearing advice literature in particular as evidence of either practices or values. Instead, he argues, "[t]he simple fact is that child-rearing manuals are the consequents not of child-rearing values but of child-rearing manual-writing values" (53, emphasis in original); in other words, particular advice books should be read first and foremost as participating in a specific (generic) tradition. But Mechling's caution fails to do justice to the cultural authority, however diffuse and uneven, of enduringly popular prescriptive literature. That apparent cultural authority has led New Historicist literary critics to use advice literature-both child-rearing books and the conduct manuals that emerged as a genre over a century earlier-as one stream of evidence for cultural norms, values, and codes. Nancy Armstrong's influential Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (1990), for example, uses conduct literature alongside eighteenth- and nineteenthcentury domestic fiction to argue that this period saw the emergence of a new type of psychological interiority. More recent work has taken advice literature less as a representation of ideology and more as a complex category of text in its own right (see, for example, Bilston; Bourke; Chase and Levenson). Literary scholarship has not yet, however, identified ways to understand the social and rhetorical work of such texts.

Angela Davis's oral history Modern Motherhood: Women and the Family in England, 1945-2000 (2012) draws on 166 interviews she conducted with Oxfordshire women in order to better understand the experience of mothering in England after World War II. Because it captures the women's feelings about advice literature, Davis's study depicts a wider range of response than is often available. Advice is not always taken, she points out: "[M]others could ignore advice or act in the opposite way to the experts' recommendations" (114). But her analysis also captures the various subtle ways in which the pervasiveness of prescriptive advice literature, its use of "the imperative mood" (making "recommendations t[ake] the form of orders") (137) produces a significant sense of anxiety either because mothers are made to feel inadequate in trying to live up to impossible standards or because of the difficulty in navigating contradictory recommendations (see 134-37). Davis's findings underscore the importance, when possible, of locating the responses of actual, original readers. But her approach offers only a little methodological guidance for understanding the effects of genres from more historically distant times. Rhetorical genre studies has typically taken a similarly mixed-methods approach-following Charles Bazerman's call for a "richer and more empirical picture" ("Speech Acts" 322)-that combines the careful analysis of actual texts with ethnographic research into how those texts are composed. …

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