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.
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