Title: Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830-1870
Author: Karen Halttunen
Categories: Cultural History, Middle Class, Urbanization, Urban Culture
Place: Urban United States
Time Period: 1830-1870
Karen Halttunen writes a cultural history of the American middle class between 1830 and 1870 mainly through the lens of advice literature. Most of her book focuses on the period between 1830-1850, during which Halttunen argues Americans faced intensive anxiety over a society marked by two major trends: social uprootedness (broadly) and the anonymity of urbanization (specifically). As streams of young rural men poured into American cities, middle-class American fretted over their vulnerability to being duped by confidence men. In a world in which a person's status could only be gleaned from their outward appearance, people worried over how to tell a person's inner virtue. Two legacies ran through these efforts. First, Puritanism left them with the tension of trying to determine whether a person could outwardly show their internal salvation. Second, republicanism depended on the virtue of its citizenry, a virtue that the middle class increasingly found it difficult to identify properly.
The solution came via sentimentalism, which stressed sincerity as a means of combating hypocrisy. The middle class increasingly turned to a set of prescribed rituals that were meant to establish whether or not a person was sincere. These took the form of fashion (trying to simplify the fashion choices of the "painted women" of her title), etiquette (such as calling and visiting) and mourning rituals (which Halttunen argues epitomized this ritualization of sentimentalism). However, sentimentalism suddenly declined in the 1850s and 1860s, as Halttunen argues it was replaced by a more self-confident middle-class acceptance of theatricality. Instead of wanting to get at the core of someone's persona, middle-class Americans increasingly embraced disguises and elaborate rituals as a way of asserting their own social status (rather than their inner sincerity). Halttunen mainly points to the rise of parlor games and theater as evidence of a growing comfort with dissembling and taking on identities (although this section is less convincing than the first).
Key Themes and Concepts
- Sentimental culture - part of anxiety over authenticity and sincerity from 1830s-1840s - sincerity as a means of combating hypocrisy
- Decline of sentimental culture 1850s-1860s in favor of performative culture
- Double edged nature of self-made man - placelessness and marginality leaves him vulnerable
- Puritan legacy - antipathy towards ritual
- Social mobility (general) and urban social mobility and anonymity (in particular)
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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