Misgivings about consumption as a biological metaphor reflect the extent to which our turn to the body in literary and cultural studies too often reduces it to abstractions of text and theory. This limits treating literature whose bodily appeal seems obvious, even when the appetites it served are obscured by history and our own taste for cultural politics. One is antebellum sensational literature, which in various forms has been used to examine the “bad attitudes” (racism, nativism, misogyny) of its main audience: large numbers of male workers who migrated to U.S. cities in the period. This essay revisits consumption as a metaphor that joins reading and eating, arguing that the attitudes of working men require a more faithful materiality than our qualms about the term's biologism permit. Sensational reading was a response, this essay argues, to coercive disciplinary rhetoric that pervaded the culture of antebellum reform, directly targeting bodies to re-form their conduct. In a parody of Benjamin Franklin, My Life; or, The Adventures of Geo. Thompson (1854), pornographer and sensationalist George Thompson attributes his large size to his being “somewhat of a gourmand,” with appetites that defied constraints placed upon them increasingly, in the period, by reading. Best known as the author of innumerable cheap, lurid crime novels, Thompson likens his fat to pleasure obtained from such literature and from bodily styles it helped to produce when men closed their books and enacted forms of display that aspired as much to grace and intimacy as vulgarity and intimidation.
Skip Nav Destination
David M. Stewart; Consuming George Thompson. American Literature 1 June 2008; 80 (2): 233–263. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00029831-2008-002
Download citation file: