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Theories of Reading from Nineteenth-Century American Fiction


Theories of Reading from Nineteenth-Century American Fiction proceeds from the claim that when we read nineteenth-century American literature, we read about reading. From characters depicted with books in hand, to citations of newspapers within novels, nineteenth-century texts teem with depictions of overt and implied reading. While diverse scenes of reading are everywhere in nineteenth-century American literature, the stories Americanist critics tell about reading in this period are surprisingly limited. Though literature does not depict reading solely (or even usually) as a means to cultivate subjectivity, Americanist criticism seems unable to resist framing all modes of reading as a mechanism for cultivating liberal subjects and spurring participation in the public sphere. The question that drives Theories of Reading from Nineteenth-Century American Fiction is: what else could we say about reading if we suspended our belief that to read is always to participate in an enlightenment project?

This dissertation mines scenes of reading from five key texts to articulate multiple and competing theories of reading that are not bound up with discussions of liberal subject formation or debates about the public sphere. I define a “scene of reading” as a tableau in which there is a prior, potential, or present relationship between a witness and a text. This capacious definition collects an array of representations that imply, reference, or contain the possibility for reading under a single heading. Across four chapters and an epilogue, I explicate theories of reading as an activity that affects one’s perception of the world in The Sketch-Book (1820); registers in the feeling body in Wieland (1798); intervenes in social relations in Hope Leslie (1827); is irreducibly material and ideologically changeable in Clotel (1853); and proves the limits of our ability to textualize bodies of knowledge in Moby-Dick (1851). I examine interpolated letters, reprinted poems, moments of newspaper sharing, debates about gift books, and other scenes from fiction in order to multiply our descriptions for the uses of reading.

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