Bodies and Books

Bodies and Books: Reading and the Fantasy of Communion in Nineteenth-Century America

Gillian Silverman
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 256
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt3fj5gh
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Bodies and Books
    Book Description:

    In nineteenth-century America, Gillian Silverman contends, reading-and particularly book reading-precipitated intense fantasies of communion. In handling a book, the reader imagined touching and being touched by the people affiliated with that book's narrative world-an author, a character, a fellow reader. This experience often led to a sense of consubstantiality, a fantasy that the reader, the material book, and the imagined other were momentarily merged. Such a fantasy challenges psychological conceptions of discrete subjectivity along with the very notion of corporeal integrity-the idea that we are detached, skin-bound, and autonomously functioning entities. It forces us to envision readers not as liberal subjects, pursuing reading as a means toward privacy, interiority, and individuation, but rather as communal beings inseparable from objects in our psychic and phenomenal world. While theorists have long emphasized the way reading can promote a sense of abstract belonging, Bodies and Books emphasizes the intense somatic bonds that nineteenth-century subjects experienced while reading. Silverman bridges the gap between the cognitive and material effects of reading, arguing that the two worked in tandem, enabling readers to feel deep communion with objects (both human and nonhuman) in the external world. Drawing on the letters and diaries of nineteenth-century readers along with literary works by Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass, Susan Warner, and others, Silverman explores the book as a technology of intimacy and ponders what nineteenth-century readers might be able to teach us two centuries later.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0618-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface Reading and the Search for Oneness
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction The Fantasy of Communion
    (pp. 1-21)

    Sometime in the 1840s, Massachusetts resident Sarah E. Edgarton paid a visit to her intimate childhood friend Luella J. B. Case and left behind a book of poetry by William Wordsworth. This Wordsworth volume took on special significance for Case, who suffered from an acute sense of loneliness following the departure of her friend. In a letter to Edgarton written shortly after the visit, Case elaborates:

    in the evening feeling very lonesome, and also being visited by some mournful reminiscences of our old home, and “lang syne,” I went involuntarily to the volume of Wordsworth, hoping to find something like...

  5. Chapter 1 Railroad Reading, Wayward Reading
    (pp. 22-50)

    On 15 September 1841, Julia A. Parker, twenty-three years old and a prolific reader and diarist, inscribed her journal with the following:

    Read “Stephens’s Travels in Central America.” How happy I am while reading a book like this. I have lived to-day only with the past. I envy the author the terrible dangers he passed; for what comparison do they bear with the satisfaction and interest one must feel in exploring the time-worn monuments of a people who have ceased to exist, and who have no place on the page of history.¹

    Parker’s description of reading as having “lived to-day...

  6. Chapter 2 Books and the Dead
    (pp. 51-82)

    The concept of a book as alive most likely originated with the Bible—“a living and breathing human expression of the thoughts of Jesus Christ”¹—although as this chapter will explore, the idea soon came to characterize more secular texts. Lecturing in 1856, the British clergyman F. D. Maurice criticizes those who would understand popular books as “dead things in stiff bindings.” He counters that “there is a living and productive power in them.”² Echoing this claim, the American author Lydia Maria Child declares about the novel John Brent by Theodore Winthrop: “How all-alive the book is! Glowing and effervescing,...

  7. Chapter 3 Textual Sentimentalism: Incest and the Author-Reader Bond in Melville’s Pierre
    (pp. 83-103)

    In November 1851, Herman Melville received a letter from Nathaniel Hawthorne praising his most recent literary endeavor, Moby-Dick. Shortly thereafter, Melville composed his famous response to his friend. “A sense of unspeakable security is in me this moment, on account of your having understood the book,” he confessed; and then continued:

    Whence come you, Hawthorne? By what right do you drink from my flagon of life? And when I put it to my lips—lo, they are yours and not mine. I feel that the Godhead is broken up like the bread at the Supper, and that we are the...

  8. Chapter 4 Outside the Circle: Embodied Communion in Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative
    (pp. 104-123)

    In an oft-quoted passage from his 1845 Narrative, Frederick Douglass describes his reaction to the slave songs he heard in the “dense old woods” of his master’s plantation: “I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear.”¹ These lines are particularly intriguing for the way they disjoin the categories of knowledge and experience. As a slave living “within the circle” of the institution, Douglass was too steeped in the terrifying daily effects...

  9. Chapter 5 “The Polishing Attrition”: Reading, Writing, and Renunciation in the Work of Susan Warner
    (pp. 124-147)

    In the preface to her biography of her sister Susan, Anna Warner describes her initial discomfort with writing and its attendant self-exposure, but then justifies these through an appeal to religious duty: “New England blood is never ashamed of any work that ought to be done; and no believer has cause to cover his face, in any spot where his dear Lord sees fit to bid him dwell; for work, for service, or for the mere polishing attrition.”¹ In the body of her work, Anna goes on to explain what she means by this latter term: “Our dear Miss Haines...

  10. Epilogue No End in Sight
    (pp. 148-156)

    When, over the last few years, I have told people that I have been working on a manuscript about the experience of reading in the nineteenth century, inevitably they have asked, Will you be addressing the contemporary phenomenon of digital reading and the end of the book? This is an issue that, by all accounts, has preoccupied more than just my own friends and acquaintances. Every day news sources (both print and online) are awash with commentary about how technology is transforming both the publishing industry and our capacity for genuine interactions with books. Nicholas Carr, author of the controversial...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 157-196)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 197-218)
  13. Index
    (pp. 219-224)
  14. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 225-226)