The Grammar of Good Intentions: Race and the Antebellum Culture of Benevolence

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9780801489853: The Grammar of Good Intentions: Race and the Antebellum Culture of Benevolence
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Susan M. Ryan explores antebellum Americans' preoccupation with the language and practice of benevolence. Drawing on a variety of cultural and literary texts, she traces how people working and writing within social reform movements―and their outspoken opponents―helped solidify racial and class ideologies that ultimately marginalized even the most "deserving" poor. "The links between race and the relations of benevolence occasioned much soul-searching among antebellum Americans," Ryan explains. "In a period of heated public debate over issues such as slavery, Indian removal, and non-Protestant immigration, the categories of blackness, Indianness, and a generic 'foreignness' came to signify, for many whites, need itself."Ryan puts familiar literary works such as Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man, Frederick Douglass's My Bondage and My Freedom, and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin back into dialogue with a broad range of print materials: the reports of charity societies, African American and Native American newspapers, juvenile fiction, travel writing, cartoons, sermons, and tract literature. In the process, she dispels the myth that authors usually classified as literary were responding to a simple and unquestioned cult of benevolence. Rather, she contends, they were participating in the complex and often rancorous debates occurring within the broader culture over how good intentions should be expressed and enacted.Ryan's inquiry into the antebellum culture of benevolence has implications for contemporary U.S. society, resonating especially with recent debates over welfare reform, the politics of compassionate conservatism, and representations of "welfare queens" and violent urban youth. As Ryan writes, "The conversations that this book reconstructs remind us of our ongoing participation in the national ritual of laying claim to good intentions."

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"Ryan's focus on benevolence as a primary project of antebellum culture is a compelling one and accomplishes many things at once. It brings together a range of activities that are most often treated separately in order to view them as part of the larger humanitarian gesture that characterized this period. The Grammar of Good Intentions effectively breaks down rigid distinctions between public and private spheres, challenges traditional notions of male and female activities, and allows for a discussion of benevolence in the forms of both activism and representation."—Carla L. Peterson, University of Maryland

"The Grammar of Good Intentions is a marvelous book. It offers a way of reframing issues that have become central to the study of nineteenth-century literature and culture, and productively and importantly challenges how they can be seen. Susan M. Ryan makes it clear that the habits and anxieties of benevolence affected how nineteenth-century Americans thought about race."—Karen Sánchez-Eppler, Amherst College

About the Author:

Susan M. Ryan is Associate Professor of English and Director of Graduate Studiesat the University of Louisville.

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