Bodies of Reform

The Rhetoric of Character in Gilded Age America

304 pages

15 figures

September, 2010

ISBN: 9780814741313



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James B. Salazar is Assistant Professor of English at Temple University.

All books by James B. Salazar

From the patricians of the early republic to post-Reconstruction racial scientists, from fin de siècle progressivist social reformers to post-war sociologists, character, that curiously formable yet equally formidable “stuff,” has had a long and checkered history giving shape to the American national identity.

Bodies of Reform reconceives this pivotal category of nineteenth-century literature and culture by charting the development of the concept of “character” in the fictional genres, social reform movements, and political cultures of the United States from the mid-nineteenth to the early-twentieth century. By reading novelists such as Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Pauline Hopkins, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman alongside a diverse collection of texts concerned with the mission of building character, including child-rearing guides, muscle-building magazines, libel and naturalization law, Scout handbooks, and success manuals, James B. Salazar uncovers how the cultural practices of representing character operated in tandem with the character-building strategies of social reformers. His innovative reading of this archive offers a radical revision of this defining category in U.S. literature and culture, arguing that character was the keystone of a cultural politics of embodiment, a politics that played a critical role in determining-and contesting-the social mobility, political authority, and cultural meaning of the raced and gendered body.


  • “Salazar’s splendid study gives this term a cultural history, and in the process shows how the rhetoric of character has profound effects on what we do from child-rearing, to physical exercise, to racial exclusion, to immigrant inclusion, and the contours of democratic citizenship itself.”

    —Karen Sánchez-Eppler, Amherst College

  • “James Salazar takes the term ‘character’—pervasive and elusive—and accounts for its centrality by showing how it embodies the contradictions of modern America. In a series of intricate literary readings, he analyzes the ways in which the late-nineteenth-century obsession with building ‘character’ vivified social distinctions but also, in its instabilities, became the pivot for critique.”

    —Samuel Otter, University of California, Berkeley

  • "[Salazar] ably integrates an impressive array of materials into his readings."

    New England Quarterly

  • "This detailed and carefully argued book charts the development of character...drawing on a rich archive of primary sources."

    —William Gleason, The Journal of American History

  • "A comprehensive and original study of the various ways the rhetoric of character appeared in American culture."

    —Debra Bernardi, American Literary Realism

  • "Dense and thought-provoking."

    —J.J. Benardete, Choice