Domestic Intimacies: Incest and, the Liberal Subject in Nineteenth-Century America

By Syrett, Nicholas L. | Journal of the Early Republic, Summer 2015 | Go to article overview

Domestic Intimacies: Incest and, the Liberal Subject in Nineteenth-Century America


Syrett, Nicholas L., Journal of the Early Republic


Domestic Intimacies: Incest and, the Liberal Subject in NineteenthCentury America. By Brian Connolly. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. Pp. 304. Cloth, $45.00.)

Reviewed by Nicholas L. Syrett

Domestic Intimacies is a study of the proliferation of discourse on incest in the nineteenth-century United States, concentrating primarily on the antebellum period. The book focuses on why Americans redefined the incest taboo when and how they did, and what these redefinitions can tell us about the anxieties that attended the birth of a liberal, desiring subject in a capitalist democracy. Connolly argues that, far from being universal (indeed, if incest has always been "taboo," why is it necessary, in so many venues, to reassert this taboo?), these reinvented incest prohibitions are best understood as a reaction to the new and vexed relationship between the private family, the public sphere, and the white male liberal subject who lived in both worlds. In Connolly's telling, "the discourse of incest suggested, time and again, that the motive force of liberalism (and democracy) was not reason but desire" (10). Incest prohibitions were a way of managing not just a few aberrant individuals but all families and the liberal subjects they were charged with producing. Indeed, the prohibitions partially constituted the subject himself.

Five chapters explore the way Americans talked about incest in different realms: fiction, theology, law, medicine, and writings on slavery. Connolly notes that those in varied fields often wrote as if in a vacuum, rarely considering the ways that their contemporaries in other disciplines considered the same subject. This was partially because writers, lawmakers, and various self-styled experts were writing about different kinds of incest, demonstrating just how malleable the categoiy itself could be. While the original colonial legal prohibitions were based on the Table of Kindred and Affinity that derived from Leviticus, throughout the nineteenth centuiy writers invented new, non-religious justifications for prohibiting incest, which themselves were indicative of the changes wrought during the nineteenth centuiy and the anxieties they provoked. Domestic Intimacies tells the stoiy of how and why these shifts occurred.

The first chapter examines incest in three widely circulated stories of the early republic (two anonymous and one by Poe). Connolly argues that the stories show that as the private family was offered up as the antidote to the excesses of the market-meant to domesticate men and regulate their desires-the possibility of incest demonstrated that the family itself was an unstable foundation on which to ground the politics of the day. This was especially so in an increasingly anonymous republic with a mobile citizenry, where (as two stories warn) a man might commit incest without being aware he was doing so. Chapter 2 investigates theological debates about one particular kind of incest: marriage to one's deceased wife's sister. Using a series of Presbyterian trials and other theological writings, Connolly argues that prohibitions on affinal incest demonstrate theologians' fears about the eroticism that inhered in all families. Fears of incest signaled the inability of the family to fully contain and regulate the desiring liberal subject.

Chapter 3 explores the way that incest was treated in the law (state statutes, appellate decisions, treatises) across the nineteenth centuiy, noting that a focus on sex replaced one on marriage in much of the law. …

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