Friday, February 26, 2016

A Classic Cultural History of Antebellum America

Karen Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-class Culture in America, 1830-1870. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982.

"You can't judge a book by its cover."

"You never get a second chance to make a first impression."

So which is it? A cultural history (which the author distinguishes from a social history), Karen Halttunen's Confidence Men and Painted Women might be considered as a study of the tension between those two pieces of proverbial wisdom in antebellum America.

Chapters 1 and 2 describe the forces that gave rise to a social problem. What generated the specter of the "confidence man" and the "painted woman," people who preyed upon young men of the period? Halttunen points to the tremendous urbanization of the time. What has been dubbed by historian Charles Sellers "the Market Revolution" had a downside: the growing antebellum city led to anonymity and increasing social disorientation.

In Chapters 3 through 5, the heart of the book, Halttunen describes "the cultural effort to resolve the problem of hypocrisy with the sentimental ideal of sincerity" (xvi). Writers of conduct manuals waged a cultural battle on the fronts of genteel codes for women's dress (chapter 3), social etiquette (chapter 4) , and mourning rituals (chapter 5).

But eventually, the custodians of American culture came to realize that their plans could be, and were being, subverted. Halttunen reiterates her conclusion as follows: "Those archetypal parlor hypocrites, the confidence man and the painted woman, were masters of the false art of etiquette: their artificial manners were assumed merely to dazzle and deceive an ingenuous audience. Sentimental critics of middle-class culture feared that etiquette, like fashion, was poisoning American society with hypocrisy" (92). In other words, the signs of gentility, signs meant to identify respectable middle-class status, could be faked by any proficient confidence man or painted woman.

Chapter 6, along with the book's conclusion and epilogue, explores the decline and derision after mid-century of the standards upheld by the early, popular conduct manuals. This part of the book also examines the image of the confidence man as it extended into the twentieth century. This is a deeply-researched and well-written book. A third of a century after it was first published, it holds up quite well.

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