CONFIDENCE MEN AND PAINTED WOMEN: A Study of Middle-class Culture in America, 1830-1870 by Karen Halttunen

CONFIDENCE MEN AND PAINTED WOMEN: A Study of Middle-class Culture in America, 1830-1870

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KIRKUS REVIEW

According to Professor Halttunen (History, Northwestern), the antebellum middle class was obsessed by the social uncertainty created by its own mobility. Middle-class women and men feared that others, too, were not all that they seemed. Though one wonders whether the resulting fears concerning confidence men and painted women were really as all-consuming as Halttunen at times implies (""these archetypal hypocrites threatened ultimately. . . to reduce the American republic to social chaos""), she does present one rather bizarre reflection of broader changes in social perception and self-presentation. Traditional Puritan strictures assumed new forms in Jacksonian America as youths especially (symbolizing ""the American on the make"") left the known order of family and village for the unknown city. There the confidence man awaited, the ""rake or pimp, gambler or thief [who] begins his assault on the innocent youth through an offer of friendship and entertainment."" To thwart such hypocrisy, the youth was encouraged to adopt a ""sentimental ideal of social conduct""--in brief, a precise code of behavior that ""defined in moral terms what it was to be middle-class in the antebellum period."" But, as Halttunen rightly points out, sincerity only made the youth more susceptible to the seducer: thus the code would be more fully elaborated by women than by men, more suitable to the contrivances of fashion and mourning ritual than to the hurly-burly of market and street. ""The natural sincerity of woman granted her a special responsibility for counteracting the pervasive deceit of society. . . . Involuntarily transparent, she served as a natural foil to the villainous confidence man, who. . . contrived to be emotionally opaque."" But by 1850 the spiritual angst of the upwardly mobile was sufficiently dissipated for deception to become not threat but object of amusement. Enter the parlor dramas. ""As they built parlor stages, donned costumes and stage makeup, and learned to perform amateur theatricals in their own home, the American middle class openly embraced theatricality for its own sake. . . ."" Noting that we learned to live with deception, Halttunen sees the tension between hypocrisy and sincerity as endemic to a nation of ""geographical and social movers, of men and women who are constantly assuming new identities and struggling to be convincing in new social roles."" An overstated argument--but complementary to other studies (Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture) in detailing the social and psychological milieu of Victorian America.

Pub Date: Feb. 16th, 1983
Publisher: Yale Univ. Press