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A Sense of Things

The Object Matter of American Literature

In May 1906, the Atlantic Monthly commented that Americans live not merely in an age of things, but under the tyranny of them, and that in our relentless effort to sell, purchase, and accumulate things, we do not possess them as much as they possess us. For Bill Brown, the tale of that possession is something stranger than the history of a culture of consumption. It is the story of Americans using things to think about themselves.

Brown’s captivating new study explores the roots of modern America’s fascination with things and the problem that objects posed for American literature at the turn of the century. This was an era when the invention, production, distribution, and consumption of things suddenly came to define a national culture. Brown shows how crucial novels of the time made things not a solution to problems, but problems in their own right. Writers such as Mark Twain, Frank Norris, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Henry James ask why and how we use objects to make meaning, to make or remake ourselves, to organize our anxieties and affections, to sublimate our fears, and to shape our wildest dreams. Offering a remarkably new way to think about materialism, A Sense of Things will be essential reading for anyone interested in American literature and culture.

260 pages | 19 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2003

Literature and Literary Criticism: American and Canadian Literature


"Although Brown is by no means the first to argue that literature can ’redeem’ the material world from commodification, he does so engagingly, with ingenuity, tact, and an admirable breadth of reference. . . . A Sense of Things combines fresh thinking about literary texts with scrupulous attention both to historical context and to a wide range of speculative effort, from Thoreau through Simmel, Benjamin and Lukacs to Adorno and Lacan. The concept of fetishism seems to be enjoying a vigorous afterlife in cultural theory (after Freud, that is, as well as Marx); Brown has contributed powerfully to its nurture."

David Trotter | London Review of Books

“It turns out that to animate things is to resuscitate wit and free the intellect for mysterious destinies where literature and social science share a common root in the poetics of the commodity. Bill Brown has given us an artful book about the tricks that history plays on our soulful views of things, and it is an American book, extending in ways wondrous and wise where the great European theorists of the fetish and the arcades left off. This is genuinely new thought. What could be better?”<Michael Taussig, Columbia University

Michael Taussig, Columbia University

“With a stylistic clarity and argumentative confidence unparalleled in the profession of American literary study, Brown achieves a brilliant balance of proximity to and analytical distance from his objects of examination, weaving a ranging theoretical knowledge into exquisite close textual readings that co-animate each other in a breathtaking dialectic. A Sense of Things is so intellectually engaging that one wants to read the book from start to finish without interruption—a virtually incomparable achievement in a critical climate of increasingly rarefied and closed literary conversations.”<Julia Stern, Northwestern University

Julia Stern, Northwestern University

A Sense of Things is a truly remarkable book—that rare thing, a conceptually innovative scholarly work that non-specialists will learn from and, more than that, enjoy.  Beautifully written, it uncovers the depths of America’s ambivalent love affair with things; America’s fear of being possessed by the things it possesses; its will to find ideas in things; and its will, no less strong, to take those ideas out again. Of late we have heard a great deal about literary criticism losing its way, and, specifically, about literary history being engulfed by cultural history. Bill Brown puts paid to all of that. Who else has his ability to engage us with a new story about American culture that also reinvigorates and stretches our understanding of the literary heritage?”<Simon During, The Johns Hopkins University

Simon During, The Johns Hopkins University

“Brown, with his typical perspicacity, has synthesized the Marxist materialism of Adorno and Benjamin with both phenomenology and the pragmatism of William James. In doing so, he posits a paradigm of premodern American literature that enables an understanding of the emergence of modernism and that reconsiders the role material things serve in Western culture. The study of all American literature can benefit from Brown’s work.”

Dan Colson | Dreiser Studies

“Bill Brown’s A Sense of Things was one of the most eagerly awaited books in recent American literary studies. . . .It’s likely that you’ll emerge from this book wanting not to trash your books by the guiding intellectual lights of new historicism, Marx and Foucault, but to re-read them.”

Gustavus T. Stadler | Bryn Mawr Review of Comparative Literature

"A complex and yet stimulating read. Never content with presenting a single hypothesis, Brown continually challenges his own conclusions."

Kirk Curnutt | Journal of American History

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: The Idea of Things and the Ideas in Them
1. The Tyranny of Things
Object Lessons
A Trivial Thing
Democratic Objects
2. The Nature of Things
Creatures of Habit
The Miracle of History
Misuse Value
3. Regional Artifacts
Natural Histories
Life-Groups and the Cultural Thing
Material History
"A Kind of Fetichism"
Waste Matter
Modernist Archeology
4. The Decoration of Houses
The Novel Démeublé
Reification as Utopia
Things to Think With
Golden Bowls
Coda: The Death and Life of Things: Modernity and Modernism

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