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The Literary Life of Things

Case Studies in American Fiction

Whether in the street or the microcosm of the home, the life of things conjoins human subjects and inanimate objects. This material culture has long played a vital role in the American literary imagination, yet scholars in literary and cultural studies have only recently (re)discovered the object world as a subject of critical inquiry. Engaging a great range of American literature—from Harriet Beecher Stowe and Edith Wharton to Vladimir Nabokov and Jonathan Franzen—The Literary Life of Things illuminates scenes of animation that disclose the aesthetic, affective, and ethical dimensions of our entanglement with the material world.

300 pages | 7 color plates | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2014

North American Studies

Culture Studies

Literature and Literary Criticism: General Criticism and Critical Theory

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“Dialogically balancing literature and theory, The Literary Life of Things reveals a system of literary objects that do not simply reflect our world but refract, distort, and change it, and in doing so it heralds a period of necessary introspection and maturation for the new materialism.”

Critical Inquiry

“Babette Bärbel Tischleder’s readings of texts are no less fresh and forceful than the topics those texts bring into focus: object agency, obsolescence, patina, and (magnificently) the recalcitrance of things. The book is a timely and important contribution to American studies and to object studies both.”

Bill Brown | author of “A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature”

Table of Contents



Introduction: Lively Objects-Scenes of Animation and the American Literary Imagination

1. Sentimental Patina: The Ideal Ecology of Objects in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s House and Home Papers

“The Ravages of a Carpet”: Novelty vs. Tradition

The Culture of Things: Morality vs. Anthropology

Sentimental Possession: An Anthropological Perspective

A Domestic World of Animate Things: Stowe’s Culture of Comfort

The Moral Lesson of Furniture: Against a World Robbed of Living Things

Criticism and Prospects

Sentimental Patina

2. Sacred Objects, Freakish Ornaments: Domestic Environmentalism in the Gilded Age

A Home Hallowed by Religion: Stowe’s Parlor Piety

Horace Bushnell, Pierre Bourdieu, and Domestic Environmentalism

Christian Commodities

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Disenchanted Vision of Home

Expressive Things, Impressionable Children

Gothic Things and Literary Houses

Yellow Environments, Vicious Storytelling

Nerves and Decoration

Home Influence and Domestic Mythology in the Post-Darwinian Age

Mental Myopia: From the Sanctuary to the Coop

3. The Scent of Things: Edith Wharton, Modern Subjectivity, and the Anatomy of Taste

The Self in/as a Cluster of Things: Metonymy and Modern Subjectivity

The Flower in the Hothouse: Lily’s Sensuous Nobility

The Scent of Things: Object Lessons and the Kinship of Taste

The Smell of Things

A Last Touch of Intimacy

4. Object Trouble: Thing Theory, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin, and the American Tradition of Recalcitrant Matter

Thing Theory, Philosophy, Satire: From Existentialism to Resistentialism

“Look at the Darned Thing”: Buster Keaton’s One Week

Recalcitrance by Human Design

Pnin: The American Scene in the 1950’s


A Strange World of American Things

Matters of Affection

Conclusion: Recalcatrince Revisited

5. The Thingness of the Text: Jonathan Franzen’s Rhopography of Obsolescence

The Matter of Obsolescence

Realism and Rhopography

The Blue Chair and the Tangibility of Things

The Matter of Entropy

Cultural Wars and the Empire of the Ephemeral

Existential Obsolescence

Unloved Objects

Negative Authenticity-Abject Realness

The Cluttered Text

Lists as Literary Still Lifes

Epilogue: The Afterlife of Things


Primary Works

Art, Photography, Film

Criticism and Theory


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