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Erotic Citizens

Sex and the Embodied Subject in the Antebellum Novel
Elizabeth Dill

BUY Cloth · 296 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813943374 · $69.50 · Nov 2019
BUY Paper · 296 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813943398 · $35.00 · Nov 2019
BUY Ebook · 296 pp. · ISBN 9780813943381 · $69.50 · Nov 2019

What is the role of sex in the age of democratic beginnings? Despite the sober republican ideals of the Enlightenment, the literature of America’s early years speaks of unruly, carnal longings. Elizabeth Dill argues that the era’s proliferation of texts about extramarital erotic intimacy manifests not an anxiety about the dangers of unfettered feeling but an endorsement of it. Uncovering the more prurient aspects of nation-building, Erotic Citizens establishes the narrative of sexual ruin as a genre whose sustained rejection of marriage acted as a critique of that which traditionally defines a democracy: the social contract and the sovereign individual.

Through an examination of philosophical tracts, political cartoons, frontispiece illustrations, portraiture, and the novel from the antebellum period, this study reconsiders how the terms of embodiment and selfhood function to define national belonging. From an enslaved woman’s story of survival in North Carolina to a philosophical treatise penned by an English earl, the readings employ the trope of sexual ruin to tell their tales. Such narratives advanced the political possibilities of the sympathetic body, looking beyond the marriage contract as the model for democratic citizenship. Against the cult of the individual that once seemed to define the era, Erotic Citizens argues that the most radical aspect of the Revolution was not the invention of a self-governing body but the recognition of a self whose body is ungovernable.


"A dazzling, insightful study of sexual ruin as a spectacle in antebellum writing."

David Greven, University of South Carolina, author of Intimate Violence: Hitchcock, Sex, and Queer Theory

Thought-provoking, sophisticated and delightful, Erotic Citizens moves adroitly between beautiful close readings and explications of primary materials and critical theory.

Elizabeth Freeman, University of California at Davis, author of Beside You in Time: Sense-Methods and Queer Sociabilities in Nineteenth-Century America

Dill (CUNY at Kingsborough) characterizes a group of predominantly American novels as "narratives of ruin," a genre that interrogates and dismantles social contract theory and the rational, self-possessing white male subject so crucial to the formation of the American body politic.... Dill is particularly effective in tracing the literary devices by which female subjectivities demonstrate agency and evade being unitary and violable.... Summing Up: Recommended. Graduate students, researchers, faculty.


About the Author(s): 

Elizabeth Dill is Associate Professor of English at City University of New York at Kingsborough.

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