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Performatively Speaking

Performatively Speaking: Speech and Action in Antebellum American Literature

Debra J. Rosenthal
Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 148
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  • Book Info
    Performatively Speaking
    Book Description:

    InPerformatively Speaking,Debra Rosenthal draws on speech act theory to open up the current critical conversation about antebellum American fiction and culture and to explore what happens when writers use words not just to represent action but to constitute action itself. Examining moments of discursive action in a range of canonical and noncanonical works-T. S. Arthur's temperance tales, Fanny Fern'sRuth Hall,Nathaniel Hawthorne'sThe Scarlet Letter,Harriet Beecher Stowe'sUncle Tom's Cabin,and Herman Melville'sMoby-Dick-she shows how words act when writers no longer hold to a difference between writing and doing.

    The author investigates, for example, the voluntary self-binding nature of a promise, the formulaic but transformative temperance pledge, the power of Ruth Hall's signature or name on legal documents, the punitive hate speech of Hester Prynne's scarlet letterA,the prohibitory vodun hex of Simon Legree's slave Cassy, and Captain Ahab's injurious insults to second mate Stubb. Through her comparative methodology and historicist and feminist readings, Rosenthal asks readers to rethink the ways that speech and action intersect.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3698-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-xii)
  4. INTRODUCTION Discursive Action, or Doing by Saying
    (pp. 1-16)

    In T.S. Arthur’s 1854 novelTen Nights in a Bar–Room and What I Saw There,Joe Morgan grieves for his young daughter Mary who lies in bed dying from a head wound received at the Sickle and Sheaf tavern. Mary had gone to the tavern to drag home her drunken father but was accidently hit in the head with a drinking glass thrown by the tavern owner, who was aiming for Joe. From her sick bed, Mary pleads with her father not to go out at night until her health recovers: “Do promise just that, father,dear” (64).

    In this...

  5. 1 Slave Promises and the Temperance Pledge
    (pp. 17-43)

    Written contracts arose amidst the decreasing faith placed in the oral promise. Before the rise of the legal system, a handshake sealed an agreement. In an increasingly litigious society, and with the expansion of commerce and more complicated trade arrangements, written agreements and contracts became more common in order to hold people to their word.

    Yet interpersonal promises can bind as surely, and perhaps even more strongly, than standard legal contracts. Promises can be viewed as social rituals that bind or connect, but emotionally and psychically they constitute so much more. A broken contract can incur financial penalties, but a...

  6. 2 Theorizing the Signature in Fanny Fern’s Ruth Hall
    (pp. 44-61)

    Performatively Speakinghas been investigating the performativity of language uttered by characters in mid-nineteenth-century American fiction. This chapter will examine Fanny Fern’s important 1854 novelRuth Hallwith an eye towards understanding the performativity of Ruth’s signature, as well as of her printed name.¹Ruth Hallexplores the ways that Ruth becomes a businesswoman and a marketable commodity herself. Her entrance into the marketplace is made possible when she utters her name and pseudonym—Ruth’s self-naming performs an action and enacts identity as well as litigable powers. The novel ends with an image of a bank stock, the only image in the...

  7. 3 The Scarlet A as Action
    (pp. 62-80)

    Ruth Hall needed to sign contracts with her publisher in order to guarantee receipt of payments and to clarify her obligation to the newspapers. Too much was at stake for both Ruth and her publisher—reputation, exclusivity, financial security—to rely on a verbal agreement or a cheerful handshake. Although Ruth promises to write regularly for theHousehold Messengerand Mr. Walter promises to pay her, without a written agreement between the two parties Ruth could balk on her writing obligations or the newspaper could stall on its remittances to her. Ruth’s signature, then, spoke her consent to the terms...

  8. 4 Verbal Violence in Uncle Tom’s Cabin
    (pp. 81-98)

    This chapter proposes a new reading of an important but neglected scene in Harriet Beecher Stowe’sUncle Tom’s Cabin:the scene in volume 2, chapter 33, in which Cassy defiantly challenges Sambo as he threatens to whip her for assisting Tom. I read this scene through the lens of performative speech theory to raise questions about the mutually constitutive nature of language and action that inheres in Stowe’s strategy of sympathetic identification through domestic sentimentality. When viewed in light of performative speech theory, Cassy’s insubordinate retort to Sambo both signals Stowe’s understanding of the capacity of the upraised whip to...

  9. 5 Action and Injurious Speech in Moby-Dick
    (pp. 99-112)

    With its emphasis on Ahab’s vengeance, sailors’ feats, and the white whale’s exploits,Moby–Dickhas invited many comments on scenes of action in the novel and the representation of masculine adventure. For many readers, thePequod’s voyage exemplifies active derring–do and bravura. As one early reviewer remarked, Melville makes us “feel the sea breezes playing through our hair, the salt spray dashing on our brows” (“Fascination” 603). Yet many other readers have found the scenes of action to be subordinated to the lengthy discursive meditations on all things cetological—the shape of whales’ heads, the manner in which...

  10. CONCLUSION The Right Words and National Standing
    (pp. 113-116)

    When Barack Obama stood with his right hand raised at his swearing–in ceremony on 20 January 2009, he engaged in an act of performative speech that would transform him from president–elect to president: repeating after Chief Justice John Roberts, he intoned, “I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear . . .” However, Roberts then mixed up his administration of the words of the oath of office. Instead of stating the phrase “. . . that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States” for Obama to repeat, Roberts mistakenly rearranged the order and placed...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 117-124)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 125-134)
  13. Index
    (pp. 135-136)