Perverse subjects: Drunks, gamblers, prostitutes, and murderers in antebellum America

Date of Completion

January 2010


American Studies|History, United States|Literature, American




Drunks, prostitutes, gamblers, and murderers were more than just fodder for the prurient curiosities of antebellum readers. They were "perverse subjects" against which the ideals of proper citizenship were defined. A careful study of a wide range of literary and non-literary antebellum texts, including medical treatises, trial pamphlets, reform tracts, board games, and popular fiction, reveals that these four figures were conceptualized according to strikingly consistent narrative patterns. By detailing the inevitable physical, mental, and financial decline that would result if certain moral standards were disregarded, these pervasive patterns naturalized ideologies central to white, middle-class, Northeastern Americans. These deviants were "perverse subjects" of another sort as well, unfit topics for literary attention unless their stories served a moral purpose. To authorize narratives that otherwise might be dismissed as indecent, popular novelists presented their texts as informed and politically sensitive studies of social problems that could contribute to a national project of reform. Such a purpose, I contend, resulted in three basic narrative forms. While prevention narratives warned readers to refrain from certain dangerous behaviors that would lead to a permanent downfall, rehabilitation narratives presented the fallen as unfortunate victims of circumstance who could redeem themselves if given sympathetic encouragement. Prohibition narratives dismissed the efficacy of both self-restraint and sympathy and instead advocated protective legal measures to control the greedy capitalists who profited off the poor and vulnerable. Each of these narrative patterns relied on divergent philosophies of human nature and made varying demands on characterization, plot, and narrative voice. Together, these literary and non-literary texts codified in narrative form a set of moral values believed to yield individual happiness and social order. Antebellum writers together constructed a new gospel for the developing nation by selecting for special attention behaviors antithetical to its needs and ideals and encapsulating them within narratives about certain supposedly disruptive social types. To study antebellum literature without considering its nonfictional counterparts is to overlook an influential body of material that literary writers directly engaged. ^