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Performatively Speaking

Speech and Action in Antebellum American Literature
Debra J. Rosenthal

BUY Cloth · 148 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813936963 · $59.50 · Mar 2015
BUY Paper · 148 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813936970 · $24.50 · Mar 2015
BUY Ebook · 148 pp. · ISBN 9780813936987 · $24.50 · Mar 2015

In Performatively Speaking, Debra Rosenthal draws on speech act theory to open up the current critical conversation about antebellum American fiction and culture and to explore what happens when writers use words not just to represent action but to constitute action itself. Examining moments of discursive action in a range of canonical and noncanonical works—T. S. Arthur's temperance tales, Fanny Fern's Ruth Hall, Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Herman Melville's Moby-Dick—she shows how words act when writers no longer hold to a difference between writing and doing.

The author investigates, for example, the voluntary self-binding nature of a promise, the formulaic but transformative temperance pledge, the power of Ruth Hall's signature or name on legal documents, the punitive hate speech of Hester Prynne's scarlet letter A, the prohibitory vodun hex of Simon Legree's slave Cassy, and Captain Ahab's injurious insults to second mate Stubb. Through her comparative methodology and historicist and feminist readings, Rosenthal asks readers to rethink the ways that speech and action intersect.


This very important work uses the lens of performative speech to examine antebellum texts. It proves an extremely productive lens, allowing the author both to enrich previous criticism and to come to original conclusions about these texts. This is a formidably subtle and powerful study, one that will serve as an excellent model for future work by other scholars.

Faye Halpern, University of Calgary, author of Sentimental Readers: The Rise, Fall, and Revival of a Disparaged Rhetoric

This study uses speech act theory to analyze how nineteenth-century authors use language to both represent action and perform action, thus breaking down the barrier between writing and doing. By close reading specific scenes in Fanny Fern’s Ruth Hall (1855), Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), and Herman Melville’s Moby- Dick (1851), Rosenthal argues that these writers 'demonstrate that words can indeed restructure power.'

American Literature

About the Author(s): 

Debra J. Rosenthal, author of Race Mixture in Nineteenth-Century U.S. and Spanish American Fictions: Gender, Culture, and Nation Building, is Director of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor of English at John Carroll University.

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