Erotic Citizens: Sex and the Embodied Subject in the Antebellum Novel

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University of Virginia Press, 2019 - Literary Criticism - 284 pages
"What is the role of sex in the age of democratic beginnings? "Erotic Citizens" answers this question by revealing the political workings of extramarital erotic intimacy, when the democratic subject, a figure at the center of the early US republic's nation-building project, is filled with a curious kind of yearning that only illicit sexual desire can represent. For as much as readers might say about the sober republican ideals of the Enlightenment in America and abroad, the literature of this era speaks of unruly, carnal longings. Through an examination of philosophical tracts, political cartoons, frontispiece illustrations, portraiture, and the novel from the antebellum period, this study advances a new understanding of how the terms of embodiment and selfhood function to define national belonging. From a story of survival authored by a North Carolina slave woman to a philosophical treatise penned by an English earl, the readings included in this study employ the trope of sexual ruin to tell their tales. They turn to the errant-yet often irrepressibly bewitching-sensate encounters among libertines, coquettes, and concubines to define the spirit of the age. They show, again and again, that to build a nation is to undo the virtue of a woman. "Erotic Citizens" explains why. By exploring the far-ranging impact of post-revolutionary American literature's more prurient aspects, "Erotic Citizens" shows how this era's depiction of the sometimes erotic, sometimes violent complexion of extramarital sexual encounter defines illicit sex as the point of entry into democracy. In her in-depth analysis, Dill reveals that the genre's defining principle is its repudiation of the individual as the centerpiece of a democratic polity, through its portrayals of the sexually ruined body's operational lack of individual will. Ultimately, this book explains why the new American republic witnessed a proliferation of texts about sexual ruin, as it investigates the ruin genre's claim that the democratic body must by its very nature also be a ruined one"--

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About the author (2019)

Elizabeth Dill is Associate Professor of English at City University of New York at Kingsborough.

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