Few concepts are more widely discussed or more passionately invoked in American public culture than the concept of privacy. Milette Shamir traces the peculiarly American obsession with privacy back to the middle decades of the nineteenth century, when our modern understanding of the concept took hold.
2005 | 296 pages | Cloth $65.00 | Paper $22.50
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Table of Contents
1. Divided Plots: Gender Symmetry and the Architecture of Domestic Space
2. Dream Houses: Divided Interiority in Three Antebellum Short Stories
3. The Master's House Divided: Exposure and Concealment in Narratives of Slavery
4. Hawthorne's Romance and the Right to Privacy
5. Thoreau in Suburbia: Walden and the Liberal Myth of Private Manhood
6. "The Manliest Relations to Men": Thoreau on Privacy, Intimacy, and Writing
This book began with a moment of naive but genuine perplexity. When I first arrived in the United States to pursue research, I was struck by what then seemed an inexplicable paradox. On the one hand, never had I felt so engulfed by privacy. The white, middle-class American socialscape—with its isolated, suburban homes and anonymous public spaces, with its codes of politeness and respect for what is none of anyone else's business—seemed very far removed from the crowded, meddlesome, Mediterranean setting I had left behind. On the other hand, never had I witnessed such compulsion to expose. This was the heyday of confessional talk shows on television, of political scandal in the public arena, and of identity politics in academia, and I was amazed by how smoothly private stories seemed to translate into public currency and marketable commodity in the United States.
As I began to read the vast literature on privacy, this sense of paradox only intensified. Privacy, I learned, was both what ensured democracy and what stood in the way of its just fulfillment; it was the American's most fundamental right, yet philosophically and legally untenable as a right. Privacy was elegized ad nauseam as a disappearing value, one trampled by the combined assaults of intrusive bureaucracy, mass capitalism, and postmodern epistemologies; at the same time, daily infringements on it were greeted with striking indifference. And, what is more, these conflicting views could not be mapped neatly onto the political scene. They did not instantiate basic ideological differences between, say, conservative and liberal positions, or liberal and radical positions, but, rather, were deployed on an ad hoc basis, weaving their way in and out of arguments across the political spectrum, sometimes coexisting within the same discourse.
Privacy, author Jonathan Franzen wrote recently, is "the Cheshire cat of values: not much substance, but a very winning smile." But it may well be that what plagues the concept of privacy is not substantial lack but excess. As I began to research the origins of the modern meanings of privacy, I found an emergent discourse burdened with disparate and antithetical values and modalities of selfhood. Liberalism's seemingly stable and coherent definition of privacy, I discovered, in fact conceals inherent ambivalences, between self expression and reticence, between domestic life and psychic life, between materiality and inalienability, between normative identity and its inassimilable residues. This conceptual overflow, I argue in this book, determined the shape of interior life for the middle class, from the spaces of its homes to the stories that it tells.
Inexpressible Privacy traces the lineage of the modern American "cult of privacy" (as one historian once described it) back to the middle decades of the nineteenth century, roughly between 1830 and 1870. These decades witnessed, in tandem with the emergent structures of industrial capitalism and the formation of the middle class, a complete overhaul of the meaning of privacy. As liberalism completed its rise as the dominant ideology of white, middle-class America, privacy shed the last vestiges of its connotations under republican ideology: as the state of being deprived and disconnected, reduced to sameness and lacking in full humanity. In the course of the eighteenth century, liberalism as a political philosophy reversed the republican hierarchy of public over private, elevating the private to a position of primacy and endowing privacy with its present meaning as a moral good, a natural right, and a constitutive condition of personhood. Now an array of prescriptive discourses implemented liberal thought by sealing, regulating, and sanctifying private spaces, both domestic and subjective. Architecture designed the ideal middle class home with familial and individual privacy as its foremost principle. Common law began to insist on a "right to privacy" that supplements and exceeds the older paradigm of property rights. Conduct manuals prescribed new codes of polite behavior meant to erect barriers around the home and the self. Such discourses combined to overlay what sociologist Henri Lefebvre, in his now classic The Production of Space, has called "perceived" space—the spatial organization "secreted" by relations of production and reproduction—with "conceived" space—a symbolic map of protective private zones idealized and enforced by hegemonic social and political institutions.
But this symbolic map does not tell a complete story. In inscribing a thick, unambiguous line that separates, privileges, and shelters the private, such discourses rendered invisible the mesh of fantasies, anxieties, and conflicts produced by this very inscription, what Lefebvre has termed the experiencing of space "as lived." It is in the realm of fiction that traces of the cult of privacy's imaginary can be found. When antebellum fiction took up the middle-class private domain as its primary topos, it propelled into narrative motion the fixed (perceived and conceived) space of privacy, thus elevating to the surface the ideological, social, and psychic conflicts inherent to the process of its enclosure, and exposing its fractured and permeable quality. As Michel de Certeau has argued, architecture and other prescriptive disciplines design a "place" (lieu), where "the law of the 'proper' rules" and where elements are organized in an orderly fashion, "distributed in relationships of coexistence." But stories turn "place" into "space" (espace); they disturb the proper management of place, and "and make it function in a polyvalent unity of conflictual programs or contractual proximities." By titling the book "Inexpressible Privacy," I wish to draw attention to this dialectic between prescriptive "place" and fictive "space." The title refers to way the plots, themes, and genre properties of antebellum fiction developed in relation to the symbolic enclosure of private space. But it is also meant to suggest that an analysis of the antebellum homeplot through literary narrative can reveal the complex web of privileges and dispossessions, of spatial allocations and competing significations that continues to divide this ideally harmonious space to this day.
The Architectured Self
The decades that frame my analysis marked a crucial period in the history of American architecture. Until the 1830s, architecture was left in the hands of a few visiting European architects and of local gentlemen amateurs, who designed mostly public buildings and upper-class mansions, leaving the construction of more modest homes in the hands of technical-minded carpenters and masons. But during that decade, American architecture began to claim the status of a profession. Design artists such as Alexander Jackson Davis and Itiel Town separated themselves from art academies and began the process of defining their vocation and creating a demand for their services. They did so primarily between the covers of dozens of pattern books for the design of private homes, books that addressed the growing pool of middle-class homeowners and that, often with phenomenal success, flooded the market by the 1840s. The success of pattern book writers like William Ranlett, Gervase Wheeler, and, most dramatically, Andrew Jackson Downing, depended on addressing, or, more accurately, arousing the middle-class man's desire for privacy.
What it is that these architects newly offered their public is made apparent by the house design that they sought to revise. In the first three decades of the nineteenth century, American architecture made extensive use of the so-called Greek style, a principle of design prescribing square, open spaces, ornamented by capitals, pediments, pilasters, and porticoes. The Greek style inspired the design of private houses and public buildings alike, and thus rendered private space virtually indistinguishable from public space. As the North American Review complained retrospectively, the Greek style was "the Porcustes bed, on which the relentless measure of all our public and private wants and uses is taken . . . Thus, market-house, cottage, bank, town-hall, law-school, church, brewery, and theater . . . are all the same." Visitors to America, including Alexis de Tocqueville, were struck by this phenomenon, and Charles Dickens was impressed with the way these structures "could be so looked through and through, that the idea of any inhabitant being able to hide himself from the public gaze, or have any secrets from the public eye, was not entertainable for a moment." Dickens's is an appropriate remark, for the conceptual code that underlay this architectural style still followed the declining republican ideal in subsuming private interests under public welfare. As Benjamin Latrobe, the celebrated Federal architect, put it, in America, as in Greece, "every citizen felt himself an important, and thought himself an essential, part of his republic." This political ideal, both captured and enabled by the Greek style, stressed the participation of the individual in public life and assumed the private homogeneity of the citizenry.
But by the 1830s the Greek style of design, like the ideological principles at its foundations, was becoming noticeably threadbare. When liberalism rose as the dominant ideology of the emergent middle class, the weight shifted from common good to individual pursuit of happiness and from private homogeneity to private difference, protected by a political code of public noninterference. This shift lay at the foundation of the professionalization of architecture: Davis and Downing, as well as David Henry Arnot, James Jackson Jarves, and virtually every other architect interested in domestic design, embarked on their careers by mounting an attack on the Greek style. While well suited for public buildings, they proposed, the private sphere requires an altogether different design. The alternative they offered was what came to be known en masse as the "Picturesque" style, dominated by Gothic domestic architecture.
As Robert Harbison wrote in Eccentric Spaces, "shutting oneself up in a Gothic cottage [was] a different thing from musing in a pavilion." The Gothic house introduced a radical change in the conception of private space: the prominent temple-like door disappeared, and was replaced by an emphasis on the tall, narrow, pointed windows, as if to replace open access and visibility with a cautious gaze. Displaying sharp angles, vaults, broken lines, and irregular corridors, Gothic architecture strove to break the traditional square spaces in all directions, and thus to fracture the rigidity, boredom, and uniformity of the Greek house. It promised to create interest, variety, and surprise, and, since the exterior no longer reflected internal space, to defy public knowledge of the private interior. What the Gothic house was designed to capture was the increasing privatization of middle-class family life, the removal of the sphere of intimate relations from public scrutiny. It elevated the parlor—the room of familial and social intimacies governed by the figure of the domestic woman—to the status of the symbol of a middle-class mode of living. But, with even greater insistence, the Gothic house was designed to capture the isolated, subjective interiority of the middle-class man. A house, said Downing, "ought to be significant of the whole private life of man—his intelligence, his feelings, and his enjoyments." It should correspond to the "habits, education, tastes, and manners—in short, the life of the proprietor," and it should, "above all things, manifest individuality." The Gothic house was intended as a massive reification of man's private existence, displayed to but also protected from society. Accordingly, alongside the parlor, architects called for the installation of a study, an enclave for its owner's solitary mental pursuits, a masculine sanctum sanctorum barred from the entrance of all others. To deepen the moat between private and social spaces, architects called upon men to move away to the rural but commutable suburbs, "to isolate the human mind, as it were, from the vastness of aggregate life." The suburban house, destined to become the hallmark of the American middle class by the end of the century, was thus conceived as the object of the middle class man's desires, the marker of his status and dominion, the expression of his private fantasies, the American dream, then, in more senses than one.
What the pattern book left unexplored, however, was a series of tensions inherent in its prescriptions. For how could the new house design evince the unique, intractable individuality of its owner at the same time as it conformed to the rigid models dictated by the pattern book? How could it reconcile, in other words, private freedom with social normativity, what John Stuart Mill has called the "social tyranny" of prevailing fashions and norms that threaten to penetrate "deeply into the details of life, enslaving the soul itself"? How could the suburban house both address the desire for spiritual withdrawal, the isolation of "the human mind, as it were, from the vastness of aggregate life," and display so loudly and elaborately materialism, acquired wealth, and social status? And how could it function as the realm of the middle-class man's inviolable, separatist personhood, and betoken the feminine, domestic values of intimate self-display and affective exchange? What would keep this ideally harmonious home from becoming fractured, divided between disparate values and interests, betrayed from within? Such questions, while repressed in architectural discourse, repeatedly surfaced in works of fiction.
Consider the example of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" (1842). Poe, as a critic once wrote, "was bathed in the air of his time, and he was a man of a time when people were living 'Gothically' all about him." The frequent appearances of Gothic architecture in Poe's tales, that is, do not simply evince the American author's participation in the European tradition of Gothic literature (an idea that Poe himself refuted with indignation in the Preface to the Tales of the Grotesque and the Arabesque), but speak to the material and ideological transformations of his own time. Poe's highly individualized, phantasmagorical constructs, in other words, can be read in direct relation to the liberal American citizen's dream of architecturing the private self. The "Masque of the Red Death" is a tale structured around a spatial blueprint: its entire middle section moves through the interior of the Gothic castle that Prince Prospero has built for himself and his entourage to escape from the plague ravaging his dominion. Prince Prospero may be a version of those prosperous middle-class merchants who, as the tale was composed, were erecting Gothic mansions in the suburbs of Boston, New York, Richmond, and Philadelphia. His fracturedly-designed and bizarrely-decorated castle, planned according to his "own eccentric yet august taste," resembles nothing so much as the homes of these privileged men, say that of Mr. William Paulding in Tarrytown, New York, described by one antebellum observer as "an immense edifice of white or gray marble, resembling a baronial castle, or rather a Gothic monastery, with towers, turrets, and trellises; minarets, mosaics, and mouse-holes; archways, armories and airholes; peaked windows and pinnacled roofs, and many other fantasies. . . the whole constituting an edifice of gigantic size, with no room in it." The Prince's abandonment of the plagued masses, leaving the "external world [to] take care of itself" (485), would thus speak to the liberal citizen's desire to withdraw from the public sphere, to forego public participation in favor of a mode of authority grounded in the private sphere. Poe captures this desire through the description of the interior of the castle; he tells us to expect public "long and straight vista" where, as in the Greek-style house, "the view of the whole extent is scarcely impeded" (486) but instead we discover a meandering sequence of broken spaces that defy full visibility and culminate in the Prince's scarlet-windowed chamber of privacy, a royal version of the middle-class man's study.
Panning from the interior to the border that the prince erects around this dream home, Poe describes "a strong and lofty wall . . . [with] gates of iron." "The courtiers, having entered," he writes, "brought furnaces and massy hammers and welded the bolts. They resolved to leave means neither of ingress or egress to the sudden impulses of despair or of frenzy from within" (485). What is puzzling about this wall is that it seems to be intended as much for blocking the inside from pouring out as for keeping the pestilence from entering in. This wall constitutes a kind of a second layer of skin for the prince, to counter the symptoms of the "Red Death": precisely bodily "dissolution," a "profuse bleeding at the pores," the literal gutting out of the interior. If the castle is an extension of the prince's body (at the midst of which is the "deep blood," heart-like, chamber of privacy), then the plague raging in the exterior world, defined by the "scarlet stain" it displays on the skin of its victims, is a metaphor for invasion and coerced exposure of interiority, for that "social tyranny" that deprives the private heart of life (in Mill's terms). This external threat is exacerbated by the presence of the "lodgers" in Prince Prospero's castle. As much as the prince may imagine he has complete control over them (he literally "shapes" them according to his fancies), nothing ensures him that in their "impulses of despair or of frenzy" they would not unbolt the gates and join forces with the sickly masses outside. The fortified, architectured self thus proves to be a fragile construct, endangered by society without and by the domestic other within, doomed to have its innermost depths infected and destroyed.
Furthermore, as Louis Renza's reading has served to suggest, if "Red Death" is a turning inside out, a coerced exposure of interiority, could it be linked to the deluge of fictional works that promulgated stories of private life to the antebellum mass readership? Prince Prospero's chambers, after all, are trespassed into twice in this tale, ultimately by the masked figure of the Red Death, but previously by the omniscient narrator, who leads the reader through the interior, even into its most hallowed chamber. This parallel emerges with greater force at the tale's closure, for who lives to tell a story that ends with the total dominion of death? In a sense, only "Red Death" himself (or "read death," in Renza's pun): the disembodied presence behind the mask that mimics the disembodied voice of the narrator. Thus, the act of narration itself finally emerges as the powerful and pernicious invader of privacy, the trigger for the dissolution of boundaries and for the seeping of the interior out to the "masses."
Such a reading regards Poe's tale as thematizing contemporaneous material and symbolic transformations as well as registering the anxieties generated by these transformations. The "Masque of the Red Death" evokes the possibility that with the architecturing of a zone for subjective privacy comes a depletion of this zone; that, like Mr. Paulding's Tarrytown mansion, the architectured self may turn out to be "an edifice of gigantic size, with no room in it." Moreover, Poe seems to be presciently aware of the role that literary narratives may play in this depletion. Michel Foucault has proposed that when liberal society pronounced certain spaces immune from public observation, the result was not silence but excessive speech: rather than remove those spaces from scrutiny, the act immediately generated a proliferation of disciplinary discourses that regulated their putatively private contents. Taking their cue from Foucault, a number of powerful studies have established that nineteenth-century fiction is precisely where some of the most intensive work of regulating the "private" subject is performed. Not only is the home exposed in fiction as the realm of intimate discipline, carried out by the domestic woman, but by emplotting private life in narrative convention, fiction disciplines the very spaces it insisted are both sheltered and free. "Whenever the novel censures policing power," writes D. A. Miller, "it has already reinvented it, in the very practice of novelistic representation."
In this book I will stress both the usefulness and limitations of the Foucauldian approach. Paying close attention to both gender and genre, I will claim that some forms of antebellum fiction, especially those that, like the sentimental novel, are associated with "parlor" femininity and its regime of intimate discipline, do indeed lend themselves to a Foucauldian critique in translating the contents of the private into normalizing, pedagogical narratives. What such works embrace is precisely a mode of power founded on the exposure of privacy, a mode that can be deployed to counter the privileges accorded to the white, middle-class liberal individual but denied from women, slaves, and the non-propertied class. But other forms of writing, I will demonstrate, those associated with the writing of men (and with the liberal ethos captured by the space of the study), can be defined precisely by their refusal to narrate, expose, and thus police the architectured self. In response to the anxiety we found in Poe that narrative may kill, the writing of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Frederick Douglass constructs zones of inexpressible, intractable interiority, that may not evince the presence of an extra-discursive subjectivity that precedes the text, but do create such a subjectivity as their textual effect. As Renza has argued in relation to Poe's fiction, such narrational acts "look for, want, perversely seek to produce the unreadable text, or, to be more precise, a radically private position in writing it." The terrain of antebellum fiction, I will claim, is divided between the desire to express the self and the desire to find reprieve from self-expression, between the social imperative to invade the architectured self and the wish to carve out a chamber of "radical privacy" within it.
Privacy and the Letters of the Law
I intend my second example to move us toward this hypothesis, even as it takes us from the domain of architecture to the domain of law. The right to privacy (as I discuss more fully in Chapter Four) came into being in the middle decades of the nineteenth century in common law courts. More specifically, it emerged out of a series of cases involving the unauthorized publication of letters. When a person writes about private affairs in a letter, these courts were asked, who has control over the fate of this letter? Is it the person who has the letter in his possession? Is it the person who authored it? Or is it the person whose affairs are inscribed in it? The deliberation between the first two options was relatively simple, as both involved the legal paradigm that dominated American law from its inception: the right of property. Within this paradigm, judges needed simply to weigh the right to material property (the actual paper and ink of the letter) against the right to intellectual property (that resides in the writer). But the third option stretched the limits of the property paradigm to its breaking point, since the people whose stories were enfolded within the letter could not make any viable claim to ownership, and yet it became evident to the courts that they needed to be offered some form of protection as well. Their claim to privacy, furthermore, revised the very language used by the law. Judges needed to devise a way to talk about the private contents of the letters without themselves being charged with the exposure they were asked to prevent. It is out of this scenario that a right to privacy was invented, a right that from its inception was dressed in the language of innuendo and intimation. The right to privacy thus produced a private zone at once tethered to narrative (to personal stories that became valuable, contested commodities) and needing protection from narrative (put at risk at the moment in which they are written down).
Given this context, it is perhaps not surprising that one of the first persons to speak explicitly about a legal right to privacy in America was a mailman. In 1855, J. Holbrook, special agent to the US postal service, gathered and published a series of anecdotes drawn from his professional experience, entitled Ten Years among the Mailbags. Holbrook opened his book with the grandiose declaration that "A mail bag is an epitome of human life." It is not public affairs, Holbrook explained, but the private stories that are recorded and circulated in letters—stories about the joys of birth, the agony of death in the family, the intricate progress of courtship—that are the true essence of human life. Holbrook could only make such an assertion to a society that had already undergone the shift from republican to liberal ideals. Under the republican model (as Hannah Arendt has argued) the private sphere was perceived as so narrowly referential, so rooted in basic human sameness, that it produces few stories worth telling. But with the rise of bourgeois liberalism, private stories gained extraordinary clout. As Jurgen Habermas has productively shown, when an emergent bourgeoisie began to privilege and seal off a zone of privacy in the home and the heart, personal letters became the most important genre of writing. "In the age of sentimentality," Habermas writes, "letters were containers for the 'outpourings of the heart'" and "the psychological interest increased in the dual relation to both one's self and the other: self-observation entered a union partly curious, partly sympathetic with the emotional stirrings of the other I." Thus, "subjectivity, as the innermost core of the private, was always already oriented to an audience." When Holbrook imagined the mailbag as "an epitome of human life," he captured precisely this notion of a valuable private experience that is at the same time always performative, constructed for intimate exchange with an other. Holbrook described the postal system as the modern alternative to the republican public forum, the "secret channel" that "flows among the privacies of domestic circles" (xvii) to transmit and exchange precious private stories.
As such, Holbrook continued, the mail must be protected by law. "The laws of the land," he wrote, "are intended not only to preserve the person and material property of every citizen sacred from intrusion, but to secure the privacy of his thoughts, so far as he sees fit to withhold them from others. Silence is as great a privilege as speech, and it is as important that every one should be able to maintain it whenever he pleases, as that he should be at liberty to utter his thoughts without restraint" (xviii). It is precisely at this point, however, that Holbrook minor text becomes interesting: for if the essence of private life indeed lies in its epistolary emplottment, as Habermas argues, what does silence have to do with it? What Holbrook intuits as the right to privacy is both the right to produce and selectively trade personal stories, and the right to shun the always other-geared, inscription of the self. An individual has a right to "secure the privacy of his thoughts, so far as he sees fit to withhold them from others," he suggests, to be silent rather than to speak in protective intimacy. The letter that epitomizes interior life in that sense is the dead letter (to which Holbrook devotes a whole chapter), the letter that clutters those "secret channels" flowing within and between spheres of intimacy, that is to be publicly archived but never opened, and which contents (assuming any) are forever barred from any form of appropriation, be it commercially or emotionally motivated.
It is precisely this ambivalence between the stories and the silences that pervade private space that surfaces in the case of a much better known ex-postal worker. A year after Holbrook's book appeared, Herman Melville published "Bartleby, the Scrivener," his fictional meditation on the right to privacy. A story set not in a secluded gothic mansion but in a law office in the midst of New York's busy commercial zone, "Bartleby" is nonetheless about private space. As critic Gillian Brown pointed out, the narrator whose office this is describes it in terms of a home, a "snug retreat" where nothing was "ever suffered" to invade his privacy. The office is like a home also because its workers are like a family; their tastes, moods, secret follies, and private ambitions are all open to the narrator's view, read on their faces or inspected in the contents of their "private" drawers. When Bartleby walks into this scene of intimate policing, he immediately produces a division within it. This is true in a literal sense, since the narrator places Bartleby behind a high folding screen that isolates him from the sight of the others. But it is also true in a more profound sense, for what Bartleby will come to stand for is the refusal to turn private contents into a tradable story. This is the main demand imposed on him; for while the narrator is willing to put up with Bartleby's refusal to work, the one condition that he poses for letting Bartleby stay in his retreat is that he tell "any thing about [him]self," answer "openly and unreservedly" questions "touching his history, &c." Precisely, of course, what Bartleby will prefer not to do, "offended at being mobbed in his privacy." Defined not by a coherent, other-oriented narrative but by his "dead-wall reveries," Bartleby comes to stand for what psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott has called "the incommunicado element," that silent internal zone that is beyond articulation, perpetually unavailable to intimate exchange. If the "snug" office, then, is a version of the bourgeois interior, Bartleby's presence splits that interior between intimacy and solitude, narrative and silence; "and thus in a manner," as the narrator puts it, "privacy and society were conjoined" (642).
Melville's story thus helps us to rethink Habermas's analogy between liberal interiority and the personal letter, both "always already oriented to an audience." If Bartleby is a kind of a letter ("billeted upon me," as the narrator says), he is, of course, a dead letter, one that Melville will archive but refuse to open in public. Here we might point out that the setting of the story is not really a home but a law office. Like the lawyers in antebellum common law courts who were confronted with claims to privacy, the narrator arms himself with the tool of property rights: he justifies his intrusive attempts to know Bartleby's story by arguing that his "desk is mine, and its contents too, so I will make bold to look within" (652). But what he will come to validate—alas, too late—is the supraordinate right to privacy. In telling a story that refuses to be told, he will present the public sphere with the possibility of speaking about the private without violating it.
No less important is the way that this refusal to tear the self open does not signify for Melville the disavowal of intimacy, but its redefinition. The sentimental novel, against which conventions Melville habitually defined his writing, sought to externalize and narrativize the private into a form of affective currency that circulates within and between homes. Had the narrator's desire to write "the complete life of Bartleby" been fulfilled, he would have produced precisely such a narrative, "at which good natured gentlemen might smile, and sentimental souls might weep" (635). Melville, like other writers in the American romance tradition, dismisses the sentimental mode of sympathy predicated on self-revelation, and proposes instead a masculine ("fraternal" ) mode of intimacy based on the concealment of the self. "There was something about Bartleby," says the narrator (capturing the feeling of most readers since), "that not only strangely disarmed me, but in a wonderful manner touched and disconcerted me" (644). The story imagines a "bond of common humanity" (652) forged precisely upon the denial of the confessional mode and the power hierarchy it implies, an idealized, noninvasive form of intimacy posed over and against the intimate revelations of the sentimental text.
By showing us how, in Adam Phillips's words, while "there cannot be private language" there can be a sense, "conveyed in language, of a person's irreducible privacy," Melville helps us move beyond the Foucauldian approach to nineteenth-century fiction. As Debra Morris points out, recent years have indeed witnessed a revision in poststructuralist thought precisely around the notion of a silent intractability within the liberal individual. "More and more frequently," she writes, "self described 'postmodernist' theorists invoke this individual, and cite her private and exquisitely particularizing experience, as a springboard for a new type of politics, a new form of political belonging." One might think, for example, of Judith Butler's conjoining of Foucauldian and Psychoanalytical perspectives in The Psychic Life of Power to revise her own earlier arguments about the thoroughly performative quality of the self, proposing a subjective model that includes "inassimilable remainders" left over by the process of subjectification. Or one might think of Foucault's later work, where an ethics of self, the "process in which the individual delimits that part of himself that will form the object of his moral practice," is proposed against the tyrannical discursive technologies that in Foucault's earlier work seemed to fully saturate the subject. Indeed, in his late years Foucault became interested precisely in "developing silence as a cultural ethos," one that not only counters the modern "obligation of speaking" but can form the basis for "friendship, emotional admiration, even love." In such acts of self-revision, the liberal interior begins to emerge not as the unified, sheltered, object of the its own symbolic, nor as the fully discursive or performative site of the poststructuralist critique, but as a space meaningfully and, perhaps, promisingly divided between performance and its backstage, discourse and silence.
Privacy, property, intimacy
We have available also a different vocabulary to describe the liberal conception of privacy as inherently fractured. As Seyla Benhabib has pointed out, privacy "as invoked by the modern tradition of political thought [has] included at least three distinct dimensions." First, it was understood as "the sphere of moral and religious conscience," the shelter of irreducible differences in opinions, faiths, tastes, or worldviews, differences that were seen as "rationally 'irresolvable'" in the public sphere. Second, it pertained to economic privileges and liberties; privacy, in that sense, was evoked as protection from public interference in the realm of commodity exchange. Third, privacy referred to the intimate domain, a domain "meeting the daily needs of life, of sexuality, and reproduction" and defined in opposition both to the public sphere and to the marketplace.
Political critiques of liberalism, however, have often allowed one of these three dimensions to overshadow the rest. The Marxist critique of privacy, for example, privileged private property as the operative term. For Raymond Williams, privacy is simply an abstraction meant to conceal and justify private property, a "record of legitimation" of bourgeois economic privileges. From this perspective, privacy is reduced to a relation of property. This is true not only in the sense of what Philip Harper has termed "proprietary privacy," the privilege of withdrawal from social policing granted only to the white, heterosexual, property owner and denied to his constitutive others—women, slaves, the urban underclass, or those who fall outside the heterosexual norm—but also in the more radical sense that one's relation to one's self is perceived as commodified. Taking their cue from C. B. MacPherson's influential The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, a number of scholars have pointed to the irony that at the core of liberalism's fantasy of autonomous, "sacred" self lies the notion of self property, a notion that renders even the core of that self alienable. Meanwhile, much of feminist scholarship tended to privilege the third, domestic dimension of privacy, so that, as Jeff Weintraub has put it, "the formulation 'domestic/public' is often used almost interchangeably with 'private/public'" as well as with "female/male." A dominant strain in feminist thought critiqued the way liberalism pushed the sphere of intimate relations behind a "veil of ignorance," and—as this sphere was perceived as at once the sphere of women and of women's subjugation—thereby both excluded women from the universal, abstract, supposedly egalitarian public sphere and left unexamined and untreated the hierarchal, oppressive aspect of domestic life. As redress, feminism in the 1970s and 1980s proposed a politics of presence, one that translates hidden, private experience into a coherent social identity and pushes this identity out to the public limelight.
By shifting the perspective from the oft-theorized border between the public and the private to the internal boundaries that traverse the private sphere, Inexpressible Privacy aims to highlight and sharpen the conflicts between these three dimensions of privacy instead of blurring them. For instance, I stress the way in which the first (subjective) and second (proprietary) meanings of privacy were seen as at once mutually supportive and drastically irreconcilable, the way liberal selfhood is constructed both on the premise of private property and through the denial of property (recall that in Locke's Second Treatise only a portion of the self is described in terms of self possession; another portion is understood as inalienable and "belonging" to a force greater than the self). In critiquing "proprietary privacy," I will argue, we put ourselves in danger of losing sight of that nontradable, publicly nonnegotiable, dimension of subjective difference, that even those social groups most oppressed by liberal hegemony were (and are) unwilling to completely forego. I also highlight the conflict between the first (subjective) and third (domestic) dimensions of privacy. In too-easily equating the private sphere with femininity, I argue, some feminist approaches glossed over the gendered differences within that sphere (always the sphere of men as well as of women), and over competing desires and priorities that attended its formation. In the texts I examine, femininity is associated with the violation of the first dimension of privacy in the name of the third (thus bourgeois women are associated at once with privacy and with the threat to privacy), while masculinity is defined both through subjective difference and through the universal abstractions of the public sphere (thus bourgeois men can at once enjoy public power and the privilege of protection from the power of the public). The success of the politics of presence, I suggest, lies in its personalization of the abstract, liberal public sphere; but its limitation may lie in its failure to claim for women and other minoritized subjects the right to (and power achieve by) an interiority that supercedes social identity.
In focusing on these internal frictions, the book attempts to rethink some of the most deeply entrenched critical tenets about antebellum fiction. First, it modifies the still-too prevalent notion, promoted by 1970s and 1980s criticism, that antebellum fiction can be neatly partitioned into two separate, gendered traditions, romantic and domestic, "Renaissance" and "Other Renaissance," where the latter, grounded in feminine, intimate familialism, subverts the values of the oppressive masculine world represented by the former. This model began to undergo revision in the 1990s, when new scholarship proposed instead to view the literary traditions of male and female writers as jointly performing the ideological work of the white, liberal, middle-class. My own study revises both the older and newer paradigms even as it remains indebted to them. Like the former, it highlights gender difference as important to literary taxonomy, yet, by analyzing the function of gender difference within the domestic sphere and its literature, it amends the lingering assumptions about the "femininity" of the home. Like the latter, it examines the imbrication of domesticity and individualism, yet it also underscores the points of friction produced by this far from easy alliance.
Second, I also join recent critical efforts to rethink the construction of manhood in antebellum literature. Traditional American studies found in antebellum literature a drama of liberated, unbounded masculinity, played against the backdrop of the frontier, the wilderness, or the vastness of the ocean. This critical metanarrative (pejoratively dubbed "the melodrama of beset manhood" by feminist critics) underscored the motif of man's (and the male writer's) libratory escape from the private sphere, the sphere of sentiment, embodiment, and trivial particularity, and into "open air," the realm of abstraction, objectivity, and the universal. Echoing classic liberalism, this meta-narrative assumed an identity between public universality and white masculinity, thereby not only excluding fiction by women and other marked subjects from the canon, but also reducing the texts it did canonize to fit its central escape drama, flattening some of their most salient dimensions in the process. This interpretation of American literature could not account for the imagining of masculinity as closely linked to enclosed, interior, private spaces, a link that we repeatedly find in the works of Hawthorne, Thoreau, Poe, or Melville, or for the fact that these writers' works often revolve around anxieties of intrusion, penetration, and borderlessness, rather than express a will to break open or flee. Inexpressible Privacy recasts the analysis of antebellum manhood in the context of the middle-class interior to show that both male hero and male writer often find freedom in retreating behind a "veil of ignorance." Their liberation is not in escaping from but by the escaping into the privacy of the home, albeit what the terms "privacy" and "home" mean in masculine romances is very different from what they mean in the annals of domestic womanhood.
The book aims, thirdly, to complicate readings of fiction by women and other subalterns. Such readings frequently point out that the disembedded and disembodied public voice favored by liberalism, the privilege of abstraction afforded first and foremost to white, propertied men, meant that other voices, belonging to "overembodied" and excluded subjects, were privatized and silenced. Thus, the literature of subalterns is often read as valorous attempts to make public their unheard voice, to force into the public sphere the private stories and identities upon whose repression the liberal public sphere was constituted. Inexpressible Privacy supplements such readings by pointing to a companion impetus in subaltern fiction: the desire to find shelter from visibility and social identity, to carve out a niche of empowered privacy for the disenfranchised subject. This niche, to borrow the words of Geoffrey Sanbron, "is what prods us to identify ourselves with something and troubles all identifications," seemingly a resistance to politics but arguably its prerequisite. While subaltern literature often regards privacy as the ruse of white masculine power and while it capitalizes politically on the exposure of the private in public (thus foreshadowing late-twentieth century identity politics), it simultaneously seeks to extend the right to privacy to those from whom it has been historically denied, realizing that the claim to full humanity involves the privilege to disappear from, not just to appear in, public.
Chapters One reads domestic fiction alongside blueprints of Victorian architecture. I show how both domestic novelists and domestic architects managed the contradictions inherent to the emergent middle-class social matrix by splitting and gendering the spaces of the home, pitting the parlor, the wifely realm of intimacy, sociability and display, against the study, the husband's enclave of reticence, retirement, and isolation. While this plan's marriage of oppositions, performed to create a harmonious symmetry in the domestic interior, appeared to be an equalizing one, it was not in fact so; the values of masculine privatism were ultimately understood to override those associated with feminine domesticity. Thus, what initially seemed as a loss of patriarchal power in favor of a more balanced form of marriage, turned out to be a recasting of this power in covert, interiorized terms.
I then argue in Chapter Two that the psychic structure developed in some classic psychoanalytical texts extends from the logic of the divided interior. I examine two psychoanalytic theories that drew from domestic architecture their metaphors for the human mind to show that while these models converge in imagining the mind as split into a zone of sociability and a zone of solitariness, they diverge in their valuation of this division. For Freud the realm of absolute privacy connotes deprivation, absence and horror; but for Winnicott, a more liberal thinker, it connotes well being and plenitude. With the opposition between Freud and Winnicott in mind, I proceed to read three short stories by Hawthorne, Melville, and Stowe, stories that share the common project of linking subjective space with domestic space, and staging a conflict between a liberal theology of privacy and a counter-ethics of the exposure of interior life.
Chapter Three transports the analysis of the divided plot from the psychic to the national scene. It begins with a close analysis of the "house divided" metaphor, a metaphor that gained momentum in the political arena during the decades leading up to the Civil War. I show how this rhetoric, which drew upon the material and symbolic division of the bourgeois private sphere, was deployed by politicians to promise domestic unity by relegating slavery behind the pall of privacy, outside the reach of public discussion and intervention. This ubiquitous logic of concealment and containment was countered by the abolitionists' strategy of exposure, a strategy perfected in such narratives as Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, which casts the figures of the slave and the bourgeois white woman as domestic informants, thereby both warning white property owners of an internal threat to their proprietary privacy and forcing into the public sphere the embodied presence of women and blacks. This strategy backfired, however, in failing to undo the problematic link between race, gender, and interiority. It assumed that race and gender are elements closest to one's subjective core, and that this core can be smoothly translated into a coherent narrative of identity. I read Frederick Douglass's response to Uncle Tom's Cabin, "The Heroic Slave," as an attempt to liberate subjectivity from this politics of exposure.
The next chapter juxtaposes the aesthetics of the Hawthornian romance with the development in legal discourse of the right to privacy. It shows that the mid-nineteenth century invention of that right involved not only the recognition of privacy as a viable legal category, distinct from and even inhospitable to property rights, but also an expansion of the legal boundaries of the private to encompass both thought and action, both the mind and the home. Typical to the class "which does not want to be named," the middle-class right to privacy appeared more democratic and universal than the right of property, to be enjoyed by all alike, regardless of financial status. But the right to privacy, I argue, did have class distinctions built into it. The intrusion against which the middle-class home shut its doors was not only that of the government, but also of what Hawthorne habitually called "the multitudes," revealing privacy to be a class privilege, shaped by anxieties of intrusion from the top and the bottom of the social spectrum. In linking the literary with the legal, furthermore, the chapter offers a revision of current Foucauldian readings of the novel, suggesting that romance, with its distinctive ambiguity and imaginative latitude, branches away from the novel precisely over the question of the author's right to police private space.
Chapters Five and Six turn to the writing of Henry David Thoreau, perhaps the most elaborate theorist of the link between manhood and privacy. Chapter Five argues that Walden joined a variety of antebellum texts in suturing "natural" or "true" masculine identity to private space, a space designed to resist the threats of permeability from within (domestic womanhood) and from without (homosociability). The home, in this discourse, is not perceived as "entirely the domain of wives," a space from which "men were increasingly exiled . . . unable to return without fear of feminization," as historians nowadays sometimes describe it, but, on the contrary, as that which signals the achievement and protection of manly independence. Thoreau can in that sense be read as the philosopher of the great migration of the middle class to the suburb, a spatio-social transformation that has the liberal myth of private manhood as its underlying rationale.
Whereas Chapter Five emphasizes Thoreau's withdrawal from the social, Chapter Six examines Thoreau's means of participating in it. I argue that against the Victorian "feminization" of intimacy and sentiment, the romantic writer developed an alternative logic of intimacy, one that repudiated its conventional definition as the exchange of concrete, commodified stories about the private self. Thoreau theorizes a mode of fraternal intimacy based on abstraction rather than embodiment, on concealment rather than revelation, on distance rather than physical proximity, on silence rather than speech, a mode of "depersonalizing intimacy" that is not merely schematized but also performed in his texts in the relation between (male) writer and (male) reader. I propose to resist reading Thoreau's abstract relations and spare personal revelations simply as affective foreclosures, but rather to see that given liberalism's construction of the masculine self, such relations might satisfy a desire for equal (and potentially politicized) fraternal identification, and offer a valid critique of antebellum as well as contemporary theories that too quickly laud self-exposure as a basis for a just public sphere.
A word, finally, about national exceptionalism. I own up to a certain artificiality in my decision to delimit my discussion of nineteenth-century liberalism's construction of privacy to the United States. The middle-class American house design, for instance, was heavily influenced by European architecture, and the legal right to privacy found its origins in British common law and developed co-extensively in England. Indeed, throughout this book I draw from non-American sources, be it in alluding to the models of British architects such as Robert Kerr or in using Freud and Winnicott's theories. I do wish to claim, however, the special case of American privacy. On the one hand, in the United States national identity itself was early on tethered to privacy. "It is from the fact that we are an in-door people that much of our peculiarity and our advantage comes," wrote John F. W. Ware in 1864; "make this whole nation an out-of-doors people, teach them to find their amusement, their happiness, away from home, in gardens, in cafes, in the streets, and it would be as difficult to maintain our Republic as it has been to establish one in Paris and Rome." On the other hand, the claims to privacy have always been more politically and emotionally fraught in the United States, whether because of its particular history (Puritan, Republican) or because it lacked established, shared traditions and manners capable of rendering the boundary between public and private appear natural, self evident, and uncontestable. Privacy, in that sense, may indeed be "The Oz of America," as Lauren Berlant has put it, the place where Americans like to imagine there is no trouble, but where trouble really only begins.