Bodies of Reform : The Rhetoric of Character in Gilded-Age America

James Salazar

From the patricians of the early republic to post-Reconstruction racial scientists, from fin de siècle progressivist social reformers to post-war sociologists, character, that curiously formable yet equally formidable “stuff,” has had a long and checkered history giving shape to the American national identity.

Bodies of Reform reconceives this pivotal category of nineteenth-century literature and culture by charting the development of the concept of “character” in the fictional genres, social reform movements, and political cultures of the United States from the mid-nineteenth to the early-twentieth century. By reading novelists such as Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Pauline Hopkins, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman alongside a diverse collection of texts concerned with the mission of building character, including child-rearing guides, muscle-building magazines, libel and naturalization law, Scout handbooks, and success manuals, James B. Salazar uncovers how the cultural practices of representing character operated in tandem with the character-building strategies of social reformers. His innovative reading of this archive offers a radical revision of this defining category in U.S. literature and culture, arguing that character was the keystone of a cultural politics of embodiment, a politics that played a critical role in determining-and contesting-the social mobility, political authority, and cultural meaning of the raced and gendered body.