The Body of PropertyAntebellum American Fiction and the Phenomenology of Possession

The Body of PropertyAntebellum American Fiction and the Phenomenology of Possession

Chad Luck

Print publication date: 2015

ISBN: 9780823263004

Publisher: Fordham University Press


What does it mean to own something? How does a thing become mine? Liberal philosophy since John Locke has championed the salutary effects of private property but has avoided the more difficult questions of property’s ontology. This book argues that antebellum American literature is obsessed with precisely these questions of ownership. Reading slave narratives, gothic romances, city-mystery novels, and a range of other property narratives, this book unearths a wide-ranging literary effort to understand the nature of ownership, the phenomenology of possession. In authors as diverse as Charles Brockden Brown, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Elizabeth Stoddard, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and William Gilmore Simms, this book reveals an ontological—and embodied—account of property. In these antebellum texts, ownership is not an abstract legal form but a lived relation, a dynamic of embodiment emerging within specific cultural spaces—a disputed frontier, a city agitated by class conflict—each of which stamps that embodiment with a particular place and time. Employing an innovative phenomenological approach that combines careful historical work with an array of European philosophies, this book challenges existing accounts that map property practice along a trajectory of abstraction and virtualization. It also reorients recent Americanist work in emotion and affect by detailing a broader phenomenology of ownership, one extending beyond emotion to such sensory experiences as touch, taste, and vision. This productive blend of phenomenology and history uncovers deep-seated anxieties—and enthusiasms—about property across antebellum culture.