A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature

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University of Chicago Press, 2003 - Literary Criticism - 245 pages
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In May 1906, the Atlantic Monthly commented that Americans live not merely in an age of things, but under the tyranny of them, and that in our relentless effort to sell, purchase, and accumulate things, we do not possess them as much as they possess us. For Bill Brown, the tale of that possession is something stranger than the history of a culture of consumption. It is the story of Americans using things to think about themselves.

Brown's captivating new study explores the roots of modern America's fascination with things and the problem that objects posed for American literature at the turn of the century. This was an era when the invention, production, distribution, and consumption of things suddenly came to define a national culture. Brown shows how crucial novels of the time made things not a solution to problems, but problems in their own right. Writers such as Mark Twain, Frank Norris, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Henry James ask why and how we use objects to make meaning, to make or remake ourselves, to organize our anxieties and affections, to sublimate our fears, and to shape our wildest dreams. Offering a remarkably new way to think about materialism, A Sense of Things will be essential reading for anyone interested in American literature and culture.
 

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Contents

ONE THE TYRANNY OF THINGS
21
TWO THE NATURE OF THINGS
51
THREE REGIONAL ARTIFACTS
81
FOUR THE DECORATION OF HOUSES
136
MODERNITY AND MODERNISM
177
Notes
189
Index
237
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About the author (2003)

Bill Brown is the George M. Pullman Professor of English at the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Material Unconscious: American Amusement, Stephen Crane, and the Economies of Play, editor of Reading the West: An Anthology of Dime Westerns, and coeditor of Critical Inquiry.

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