Theorizing a Reading Public: Sentimentality and Advice about Novel Reading in the Antebellum United States
By reconsidering the complex, dialectical relationship that existed between novels and their detractors in the antebellum United States, Brady's essay argues that antinovel commentators aimed not simply to limit the activity of novel reading but to redefine what it is and, more importantly, what it does. In conduct books, public lectures, and other printed materials, commentators argued that novel reading did not empower individual readers but made them all alike, rendering them passive by invoking passionate and often overwhelming emotions. In short, they posited novel reading as a collectivizing rather than individualizing agent. We can therefore use this viewpoint to discern how commentators performed a task that seems on its surface to be contradictory: they used their antinovel advice to define and construct a reading public in the antebellum United States—a public that did read novels over critics' heated objections. That imagination of a coherent, cohesive reading public crucially required a turn to sentiment. Indeed, as antinovel commentators labored to think the private and the public together, they used the irresistible passions of novel reading to position the individual reading, feeling subject amid a coherent public. In doing so, antebellum arguments against novel reading articulated complicated ideas about how sentiment moved through the private and public arenas—ideas that allowed them to impart a political valence to the very experience of novel reading.