In this path-breaking study of the intersections between visual and literary culture, Christopher J. Lukasik explores how early Americans grappled with the relationship between appearance and social distinction in the decades between the American Revolution and the Civil War.
Through a wide range of evidence, including canonical and obscure novels, newspapers, periodicals, scientific and medical treatises, and plays as well as conduct manuals, portraits, silhouettes, and engravings, Discerning Characters charts the transition from the eighteenth century's emphasis on performance and manners to the search for a more reliable form of corporeal legibility in the wake of the Revolution. The emergence of physiognomy, which sought to understand a person's character based on apparently unchanging facial features, facilitated a larger shift in perception about the meanings of physical appearance and its relationship to social distinction.
The ensuing struggle between the face as a pliable medium of cultural performance and as rigid evidence of social standing, Lukasik argues, was at the center of the post-Revolutionary novel, which imagined physiognomic distinction as providing stability during a time of cultural division and political turmoil. As Lukasik shows, this tension between a model of character grounded in the fluid performances of the self and one grounded in the permanent features of the face would continue to shape not only the representation of social distinction within the novel but, more broadly, the practices of literary production and reception in nineteenth-century America across a wide range of media.
The result is a new interdisciplinary interpretation of the rise of the novel in America that reconsiders the political and social aims of the genre during the fifty years following the Revolution. In so doing, Discerning Characters powerfully rethinks how we have read—and continue to read—both novels and each other.
PART 1. DISTINCTION AND THE FACE
Chapter 1. Discerning Characters
Chapter 2. Reading and Breeding
Chapter 3. The Face of Seduction
Chapter 4. The Face of the Public
PART II. THE CHANGING FACE OF THE NOVEL
Chapter 5. The Invisible Aristocrat
Chapter 6. The Physiognomic Fallacy
"Discerning Characters sets a new benchmark for literary, cultural, and intellectual historians intent on situating texts in a material and visual context."—Catherine E. Kelly, University of Oklahoma
"This book is clearly the product of substantial archival research, and its chapters move nimbly and knowledgeably through an impressive range of sources, from fictional to philosophical, textual to material, ephemeral to enduring. Weaving these different strains of evidence together, Discerning Characters provides a rich and subtle history of the ways that eighteenth-century American people and texts read distinction in the faces of their fellows."—Eighteenth Century Fiction
"A deeply researched, intelligent, and innovative look at the literary and cultural history of early America."—Philip Gould, Brown University