Holly Jackson. American Blood: The Ends of the Family in American literature, 1850-1900. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. x + 201 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-931704-2.
Reviewed by Christopher Hayashida-Knight
Published on H-SHGAPE (May, 2014)
Commissioned by K. Stephen Prince
Uses of the Family in the Literature of Nineteenth-Century Reform
American revolutionaries roundly rejected the unrepublican trappings of hereditary family titles, inherited lands, and entails; Thomas Jefferson famously argued in 1813 that “one generation is to another as a distinct nation” with no more right to “bind the succeeding generation” than to bind the inhabitants of another country (p. 28). By the mid-nineteenth century, the innovation of universal white male suffrage and the growth of an urban middle class had helped to further remove the popular conception of “family” from pedigree and station to voluntary kinship, sentiment, and well-ordered morality. Popular novelists leaned heavily on the sentimental power of an idealized white American family. Literary historians have argued that in their advocacy of social reforms like abolition and greater care for the poor, “reform novels” elevated the white family as the model for domestic relations and national citizenship.
Holly Jackson’s American Blood argues that this interpretation oversimplifies what was in fact a much-debated social institution among American writers. Novels written as vehicles of social reform in the second half of the nineteenth century demonstrate a strong critique of the white supremacist middle-class family that informed both individuals and national political discourse at the time. This critique has often been overlooked by literary scholars, who have instead presumed these novels’ investment in “profamily” ideology as a strategy for social change. Considering a broad range of novels, political texts, and secondary works of literary criticism, Jackson suggests that scholars must produce more complicated and dynamic framings of family and domesticity to understand late nineteenth-century reform movements. While mostly relevant to literary historians, American Blood expands our growing recognition of domestic space as a site of social struggle throughout the period.
The “domestic”--the physical, ideological, and rhetorical space of the family--is a foundational subject of analysis in social histories of the nineteenth-century United States. The idealized family headed by a firm but loving father and tended to by a morally upright mother helped perpetuate a belief in “separate spheres” for the two sexes among middle-class Americans and those who aspired to that status. That ideology grew so successfully that many historians in the early twentieth century presumed this division was simply fact, and not a contested social norm.
Historians of women have been interrogating the ideology and practices of domesticity for half a century and there is still ground to be worked. Barbara Welter’s “The Cult of True Womanhood” (1966) rejected the scholarly practice of reiterating “separate spheres” ideology uncritically. Welter demonstrated that the delineation of public (male) and private (female) spheres was never accepted without protest or negotiation. In The Empire of the Mother: American Writing on Domesticity, 1830-1860 (1982), Mary P. Ryan extended this critique to historical understandings of motherhood and the nuclear family. Later analyses of gender ideology linked white, gendered domestic norms to the nationalist projects of westward expansion and empire. The “domestic sphere” has been the rhetorical starting point for many works on sex and gender in American social history.
Jackson thus enters a rich and dense historiography in her study of “blood” and the family in American literary culture from 1850 to 1900. Though reliance on the “separate spheres” framing of nineteenth-century history has waned, Jackson asserts that American literature scholars mistakenly preserve that ideology’s glorification of the model American family, propping up a straw man for the sake of deconstruction. Many literary scholars have presumed a linear progression from Jefferson’s sort of “antifamily” republicanism to a hegemonic emphasis on domestic order in the Civil War era, as white, middle-class Americans grew increasingly conservative. Mid-century reform novels of writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Herman Melville, then, have been analyzed from a starting assumption of “profamily” ideology, wherein the recovery or preservation of idealized domestic relationships underwrote the morality of projects from abolition to temperance to women’s rights. While literary scholars have broadened the canon to include a racially and sexually diverse range of American writers in this era, Jackson argues that even these more inclusive studies have “ingrained the view that a profamily ideology [was] the core of nineteenth-century social justice politics” (p. 21). Jackson demonstrates a contradictory “antifamilial impulse” in the works of Stowe, William Wells Brown, Anna E. Dickinson, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Pauline Hopkins, and a broader definition of “family” than has been previously acknowledged (p. 22).
What may at first seem a niche debate among literary scholars is--thanks to Jackson’s facility with her sources--an issue with implications for many areas of late nineteenth-century social history. Historians of the United States will be quite familiar with the importance of “domesticity” in scholarship on sex and gender, antebellum and Progressive Era reform movements, and the “civilizing” projects of westward expansion and empire. As a summary term for the normative moral priorities of middle- and upper-class white people, domesticity has become a pillar in American historiography on the nineteenth century. Jackson’s reading of “the family” in influential literary works from 1850 to 1900 suggests, however, that social reformers “who wrote against the dynamics of oppression” were in fact “particularly keen critics of the American family,” noting the ways in which middle-class conventions actually limited their contemporary struggles for racial and sexual justice (p. 21). Jackson observes an ongoing contest between domestic, genealogical, national, and racial “families” with many moving parts. The existence of an explicit critique of normative family structures from widely read authors--not merely from the utopian fringe--suggests that historians need to carefully parse their sources when considering subjects’ support or rejection of domesticity. Jackson’s presentation of the broad uses of “family” in nineteenth-century discourse--a unit that might include not only husband, wife, and children, but also one’s shared race and nation--offers a compelling literary supplement to arguments by women’s historians that “separate spheres” ideology went much deeper than just stuffy Victorian manners.
Jackson’s secondary sources for contextualizing her discussion in the introduction are primarily literary histories. The author makes compelling use of early national primary sources, as well, from Thomas Paine and Alexis de Tocqueville to Daniel Webster on the revolution in ideas about family. Jackson deploys Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of Seven Gables (1851) in her first chapter as a prime example of “profamily” reform writing that “celebrates the American family’s institutional capacity to preserve power in the face of modernization.” This “romance of white national family formation” serves as a foil to the rejection of this ideology by works examined in the remaining five chapters (p. 22). This organizational strategy is effective, providing a helpful touchstone for Jackson’s nuanced critique as the argument proceeds.
A chapter focused on Stowe’s second novel, Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856), argues that Stowe highlighted the “racist underpinnings” of the family in American political culture with her depiction of interracial marriage. Quickly regretting her banishment of George Harris to Liberia at the end of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), Stowe rethought her previous choice to leverage the family--“the very locus of sentimental power”--in the aid of social reform when crafting her next novel. Rejecting “shared blood as the basis for political organization,” Stowe instead imagined the possibilities of the “intentional exercise of republican principles by both black and white Americans.” The popular conceit of the national family, understood to be Anglo-Saxon by blood, was no longer a useful metaphor for reform. Both slavery and the idealized white family were “antagonistic to the exercise of democratic citizenship” in Jackson’s reading (p. 75).
Additional chapters challenge the trope of the “tragic mulatta” in Brown’s Clotel (1864) and investigate the literary framings of marriage and childbirth from the post-Civil War era onward. The recovery of the significance and sophistication of Dickinson’s work is noteworthy. In a final “Coda,” Jackson considers the impact of her critique of familial metaphors on our understanding of the novel form itself.
The depth of significance that Jackson applies to the terms “blood” and “family” makes for prose that is sometimes quite dense; the book will not be a quick read for those used to historical monographs. There are necessarily frequent shifts in the author’s evocation of the term “family”; at times it may signify “genealogical verticality,” but at others it references the ideology of domesticity that replaced the eighteenth-century monarchical emphasis on hereditary “consanguinity” and “patriarchal authority” (pp. 3, 73). Readers unfamiliar with the novels discussed may have difficulty with the nuances of Jackson’s argument. Yet Jackson has produced a useful reconsideration of reform literature that has broad implications for the work of nineteenth-century social and cultural historians.
. Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860,” American Quarterly 18, no. 2 (Summer 1966): 151-174; Mary P. Ryan, The Empire of the Mother: American Writing on Domesticity, 1830-1860 (New York: Hayworth Press, 1982); Linda K. Kerber, “Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman’s Place: The Rhetoric of Women’s History,” Journal of American History 75, no. 1 (June 1988): 9-39; Nancy Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood: “Woman’s Sphere” in New England, 1780-1835 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997); and Amy Kaplan, “Manifest Domesticity,” American Literature 70, no. 3 (September 1998): 581-606.
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Christopher Hayashida-Knight. Review of Jackson, Holly, American Blood: The Ends of the Family in American literature, 1850-1900.
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