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The American Bourgeoisie

Distinction and Identity in the Nineteenth Century


Edited by Julia Rosenbaum & Sven Beckert


Palgrave Studies in Cultural and Intellectual History

Basingstoke & New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010

Hardcover. ix-284 pp. ISBN 978-0230102941. £48.50


Reviewed by Hélène Quanquin

Université Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris III


Most essays published in The American Bourgeoisie: Distinction and Identity in the Nineteenth Century were initially presented at a conference held by the Charles Warren Center at Harvard University in 2003. Although the change is subtle, the original title of the conference, “Distinction and Identity: Bourgeois Culture in Nineteenth Century America,” appears to be more appropriate for the book, which investigates the development of bourgeois culture in nineteenth-century American society. According to the editors, whose introduction develops the argument of the book with clarity and efficiency, the specificity of nineteenth-century American bourgeoisie lay in its ability to combine “familiar forms of economic might and political power with a new form of cultural clout,” thus leading to the formation of “a class culture” [1]. One of the contributions of The American Bourgeoisie is its contention that “[c]reating a common class culture, thus, was not just an expression of the power of the American bourgeoisie, but one of its preconditions” [2]. It is this very “process of negotiation and contestation” [3] that the fifteen essays illustrate, although with different outcomes.

The papers, some of which were previously published in other contexts, were collected with a “multi-disciplinary view” [7] in mind. They are divided into three sections: Habits and Manners; Networks and Institutions; the Public Sphere. Covering a wide range of topics, which include, among others, food distribution, leisure travel to Europe, bourgeois associations, the development of genealogy, higher education, and the relation of the bourgeoisie to public art, they account for the various dimensions of bourgeois culture in the nineteenth century. Although two essays deal with the western part of the United States—Paul DiMaggio’s “The Problem of Chicago” and John Ott’s “The Manufactured Patron: Staging Bourgeois Identity through Art Consumption in Postbellum America,” which examines the way economic elites influenced California’s art world—the contributors have focused on the northern city—Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Buffalo—, which provided the main background to the development of bourgeois culture in the United States. Although the book covers the long nineteenth century—occasionally making forays into the early twentieth century—it is the postbellum period that proves the most significant, as many of the phenomena and events described in the essays took place after the Civil War.

Reading The American Bourgeoisie, one is under the paradoxical impression that the term “bourgeoisie” is indeed an elusive one. The definition offered by Sven Beckert in “Bourgeois Institution Builders: New York in the Nineteenth Century”—“people who own capital, do not work for wages, do not work manually, and do hire others to work for them in exchange for wages” [103]—is useful, but does not necessarily account for the elusiveness of the group encompassed by the term. As mentioned in Ethan Robey’s “The Steady Supporters of Order: American Mechanics’ Institute Fairs as Icons of Bourgeois Culture,” “[i]nasmuch as a bourgeoisie can perhaps be defined by a degree of control over capital, cultural, and political power, it is never a stable designation” [119]. Some of the contributors fail to address this issue and do not systematically identify the composition and characteristics of the groups under study, sometimes using the terms “upper class” and “elite” interchangeably, which occasionally adds to the confusion. While the intersections of class with ethnicity and race are addressed in some of the essays, this lack of definition sometimes blurs the issues of race and ethnicity at stake in the formation of a bourgeois culture, at a time when these questions were most prominent in the United States. The most interesting essays, such as Peter Dobkin Hall’s “Rediscovering the Bourgeoisie: Higher Education and Governing-Class Formation in the United States, 1870-1914,” focus on the “intentionality” [168] of the American bourgeoisie as a class, while also showing its diversity.

Distinction and appropriation are two of the main themes tackled in The American Bourgeoisie. In “Bourgeois Appropriation of Music: Challenging Ethnicity, Class, and Gender,” Michael Broyles investigates how the Boston and New York bourgeoisies appropriated concert music and opera in the course of the nineteenth century, as a way to consolidate their power. Julia Rosenbaum’s “Ordering the Social Sphere: Public Art and Boston’s Bourgeoisie” on the controversy over the donation of Frederick MacMonnies’ bronze statue Bacchante and Infant Faun to the Boston Public Library illuminates the power struggle for the control of the public sphere and “civic values” [196] at play in the formation of a bourgeois culture. Francesca Morgan’s “A Noble Pursuit?: Bourgeois America’s Uses of Lineage” focuses on the development and institutionalization of genealogy, defining descent as “a form of social capital” [135]. For American bourgeois, European travel, Maureen E. Montgomery argues, also represented “an act of self-identification” [28] associated with “class” as well as “national identity” [30]. Anne Verplanck’s “Patina and Persistence: Miniature Patronage and Production in Antebellum Philadelphia” offers another significant perspective on the American bourgeoisie’s use of the past to foster distinction.

Women were important actresses in the formation of a bourgeois culture, as evidenced by the role of women in the promotion of genealogy and in home decoration—the topic of Katherine C. Grier’s “The ‘Blending and Confusion’ of Expensiveness and Beauty: Bourgeois Interiors.” Using the example of Buffalo after the Civil War, Mary Rech Rockwell’s “Elite Women and Class Formation” shows that “[e]lite women created and solidified class position serving as gatekeepers to entry and arbiters of fashion and manners” [164].

One of the weaknesses of the volume lies in the fact that it sometimes gives an impression of localism, which comparison, if used as a more systematic point of entry, could have accounted for more effectively. Too few essays highlight the local specificities of bourgeois cultures in nineteenth-century American society, by adopting an explicitly comparative perspective, such as Peter Dobkin Hall’s study of Harvard and Yale, and Paul DiMaggio’s thought-provoking analysis of the specific relations of art and wealth in Chicago, as opposed to Boston and New York. And fewer contributions still hint at the way the circulation of ideas and people, not only between Europe and the United States, but also within the United States, contributed to the formation of bourgeois culture in the nineteenth century.


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