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Owning Up – Privacy, Property & Belonging in U.S. Women’s Life Writing, 2009, by Katherine Adams

ISBN 978-0-19-533680-1,  0195336801 pp. 264. 

Reviewed by Karen Veitch, University of Sussex. 

Book jacket

Katherine Adams’ Owning Up – Privacy, Property, & Belonging in U.S. Women’s Life Writing is an ambitious text.  As stated in the lengthy introductory chapter, Adams aims at no less than to ‘shift current understandings of nineteenth-century privacy and its role within national and democratic imaginaries’.  The implications of enacting such a shift are profound, unsettling a longstanding American tradition of understanding autobiography to be, as William Dean Howells stated in 1910, ‘the most democratic province of literature’.  Adams’ focus on women’s writing of the time challenges an understanding of the history of privacy relations which, for the most part, has been derived from the study of texts by canonical male authors such as Poe, Hawthorne, Melville and James.  The introduction makes clear the significance of cultural and legal ideas of privacy to American political history more broadly, arguing that ‘nineteenth-century Americans incessantly posed privacy as a nationalist cause’.  Focussing on women’s life-writing, then, allows Adams to more fully investigate the role ideas of privacy have had  in shaping the democratic idealism upheld by what Thomas Couser has elsewhere referred to as, ‘the special relationship between American culture and autobiographical discourse’. 

The book follows a clear structure that reflects the significance of the civil war as an event that profoundly shaped American understandings of the relationship between privacy, market relations, and national political culture.  The first two of the book’s four main chapters focus on the antebellum writings of Margaret Fuller and Harriet Beecher Stowe, followed by two chapters that focus on the postbellum work of Elizabeth Keckley and Louisa May Alcott.  In these chapters, Adams succeeds in using ‘the rhetoric of privacy’ as an analytical category useful in investigating the relationship between national politics, and the politics of self-expression.  In this respect, this study of nineteenth century literature produces a critical approach that will be useful to scholars beyond this immediate field. Adams’ discussion of how the rhetoric of privacy can inform our understanding of Bill Clinton’s presidency demonstrates the relevance of this discourse to present-day politics.  Beginning with Toni Morrison’s declaration that Clinton was ‘our first black president’, the section, ‘Presidential Privation’, provides a useful bridge between Adams’ discussion of the racial aspect of Stowe’s political imagination, and the subsequent discussion of Keckley’s 1868 autobiography Behind the Scenes; or Thirty Years as a Slave and Four Years in the White House.  However, although Owning Up was published in 2009, the reader is left to wonder about the implications that Adam’s argument has for our understanding of the real first black presidency.  Adams’ discussion of the way in which the ideologies of race and capital intersect in producing a common idea of ‘executive privacy’ as a utopian symbol of white democratic identity cries out for a comparative application to the Obama presidency. 

The concluding chapter is less successful in its attempt to demonstrate the relevance of this study of nineteenth century writing to the present day, providing an analysis of privacy discourse in the 2005 movie The Island, directed by Michael Bay.  Presented as an ‘Epilogue’ to the preceding chapters, the analysis of the movie -although fascinating in its own right - ultimately raises more questions about the validity of the comparison, than it sheds light on the arguments previously advanced. 

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