What is the nature of human character? Is it innate or the product of socialization? Is it fixed or fungible, whether for good or for ill? The multiple theories regarding the origins of character that percolated throughout the 1800s have become a mainstay of nineteenth-century U.S. studies over the last twenty years, receiving particular attention in analyses of late-century responses to the anxiety sparked by immigration, labor agitation, and unstable financial markets as well as by the Race Question and the Woman Question. Societal reform during this time was actively fueled by debates about the nature and origin of character, as civic crusaders and social theorists offered competing ideas about how to shape and regulate individual dispositions for the greater national good. Scholars of U.S. literature have contributed actively to this area of study, amply documenting the ways in which nineteenth-century literary texts instructed readers in prevailing standards of character and encouraged them to emulate the habits of personal improvement that prove so successful in novels.
Stokes, C. (2011). [Review of the book Bodies of reform: The rhetoric of character in gilded age America, by James B. Salazar]. The New England Quarterly, 84(4), 719-721. doi: 10.1162/TNEQ_r_00139
The New England Quarterly