This article argues that the time has come to reconsider John Stuart Mill's relationship to the novel and to pay more heed to his reflections on the complicated interplay between text-based and face-to-face forms of social intercourse. His early essay “What Is Poetry?” begins a journey that ends, in On Liberty (1859), with Mill's idea that the insidious and invasive powers of the social realm may be circumvented by taking refuge, and taking pleasure, in text-based intimacy, an intimacy that allows others' thoughts and feelings to be present as representations. For Mill, public persuasive writing comes to seem a site where autonomous individuals, endowed with deep feelings, can find a selfhood molded by the thoughts of others but not dogged by the “tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling.” Mill eventually decides that immersing oneself in the written emotions and thoughts of others is the best way for individuals to participate in a community without becoming rigidly committed to oppressive everyday social roles. Mill's initial disparagement of fiction as “a series of states of mere outward circumstances” belies his eventual conviction that the mental representation of others, in a state of mixed absorption and critical distance, is the highest form of public colloquy.

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