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Keeping Home: Another Look at Domesticity in Antebellum America


In the eighteenth century and earlier, domesticity functions as the practice of housekeeping. During the American Revolution, republican motherhood set the stage for the concept of domesticity to expand. By the mid-nineteenth century, domesticity becomes connected to womanhood as it develops into a virtue that defines true womanhood. Domesticity also operates as an ideology in the nineteenth century. Are we to assume that all three are identical? Most critics would have us believe so, as they do not differentiate amongst these domesticities. In fact, most critics take the definition of domesticity for granted, leaving the term undefined and assuming their audience knows what it means.

The criticism on domesticity to date has involved debates over the bifurcation of separate spheres, and whether domesticity operates as resistance to patriarchal authority or as conformity to the status quo. My project does not take sides in these debates, but rather focuses on two under explored aspects of domesticity: practice and virtue. What does it mean for a practice to become a virtue, how does it happen, what are the implications, and how are these two meanings related to the current critical notion of domesticity as an ideology? My project responds to these questions. With the reformulation of domesticity as a virtue, domesticity would seem to be no longer a task anyone can master, but an intrinsic quality that one may or may not possess. As a virtue rather than a practice, domesticity becomes an issue of character, raising the questions: can it be developed and by anyone regardless of race, class, or gender? In addition, as an issue of character, domesticity is no longer grounded in an external location, such as the home, but in the person. What are the implications of this shift? Using an array of texts, I examine the construction of domesticity as a virtue, the cultural significance of the transformation of domesticity from practice to virtue, and the implications for identity. My dissertation analyzes how representations of home, domestic practice, and family in a selection of texts from the long nineteenth century reconfigure current critical notions of domesticity. By investigating the distinctions between practice and virtue, my project expands the critical dialogue on domesticity, and in the process, deepens contemporary discussions of identity and the value of home and family in antebellum American literature and culture.

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