Luck, Chad, The Body of Property: Antebellum American Fiction and the Phenomenology of Possession

Chad Luck, The Body of Property: Antebellum American Fiction and the Phenomenology of Possession (New York: Fordham University Press 2014) 298 pp. $17.99 EPUB, $ 27.00 Pb,, $95.00 Hb. ISBN: 9780823263004

In this book the author touches upon a wealth of interconnected concepts including possession, space and anxiety in relation to the nature of ownership and shared property, which comprise an important discursive context for The Body of Property: Antebellum American Fiction and the Phenomenology of Possession. Chad Luck successfully demonstrates the narrative representation of such notions in antebellum American literature by investigating the history, culture and productions of the pre-American Civil War period. He raises seemingly simple questions at the beginning of his analysis – which turn out to be immensely complex later on – such as what it means to own something and how a thing becomes someone’s property. He then unpacks the answers by taking an early American legal case called Pierson v. Post from the State of New York as the basis of his argument. Pierson v. Post, which became a foundational case in the field of property law in the United States, involved an incident that took place in 1805 at a beach in Long Island where two local residents ended up having a dispute over which one of them deserved ownership of a fox for which they were both hunting. The local justice ruled in favour of Post, whereas the Supreme Court reversed the justice’s decision and later ruled in favour of Pierson. This legal case occupies a central position in Luck’s understanding of possession, ownership and private property exactly because it addresses the problem of original acquisition; a concept that is challenging to articulate.

The author argues that apprehension about the ontological status of property had a global effect. He emphasises, however, that while Anglo-American legal theory since John Locke has avoided dealing with anxiety-inducing questions about the nature and ontology of property, American writers in the 18th and 19th centuries eagerly took them up. Slave narratives, gothic romances, city-mystery novels and other literary forms all enthusiastically embraced the shifting terms of property discourse in an effort to understand the complexities of ownership. Antebellum writing also raises a range of unique questions about the full spectrum of human property experience. Considering the meaning of owning something, Chad Luck reveals that antebellum writers also investigate feelings associated with possessions taken away. These authors highlight the extent to which individual embodied experience plays a fundamental role in taking possession and losing it.

Antebellum novelists tend to theorise the persistent role of the body in the acquisition, exchange and loss of property. Ownership may have been treated as a factual term in the legal field, but for scholars and writers it has always been an abstract and virtualised notion. The best examples of antebellum property fiction Chad Luck engages in the four chapters of the book reflect expanding anxieties and chart a correlation between abstraction and anxiety. They also underline that the phenomenology of possession may be understood as a type of articulation of nineteenth-century America’s literary coping mechanisms. Indeed, the identification of abstraction anxiety led to critics uncovering several types of creative coping mechanisms utilised in antebellum literature. As the physical experience of ownership continued to influence American property discourse in relation to the market economy later on, more paranoid defensive strategies emerged in antebellum texts: nostalgic longing for the past (for example, cultural desire for the more reliable gold-based currency) and projection of the era’s economic anxiety onto the figure of a racialised or sexualised ‘other’ (individuals who were outside the contemporary hegemonic power structure) also characterise the narrative portrayal of the aforementioned abstraction anxiety.

Each of the four main chapters offers a distinctive idea of ownership and related experiences. Chapter One follows Charles Brockden Brown’s engagement with Locke, Hume and Condillac as he develops a theory of physical boundaries concerning the Pennsylvania frontier. Chapter Two details the thought processes of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Elizabeth Stoddard in relation to eating and tasting as forms of alimentary possession. Chapters Three and Four explore the experiences of debt. Concentrating on readers of plantation romance, Chapter Three diagnoses debt-related anxieties. Chapter Four, on the other hand, investigates the action of dispossessing someone of property (and associated fears) in the context of working-class readers of the city-mystery novel. The latter two chapters not only mark the shift from eighteenth-century sensation to nineteenth-century affect, they also contribute to depicting the ceaseless growth of the scale of social spaces through which property anxieties emerge. As opposed to appropriation, these parts of the book attempt to focus public attention on the more upsetting experience of expropriation. The author demonstrates that the threat of dispossession and loss become increasingly insistent as social spaces expand.

Chad Luck’s use of phenomenology as a methodology is diverse. He takes bits and pieces of theory from various phenomenological traditions, and he employs them as and when they seem most potentially productive. Instead of the application of theory to material – that is, conforming the material to the theory – he extracts theoretical concepts from their usual environment and confronts them with an example. Rather than focusing exclusively on accounts of emotion and affect, Luck’s approach expands the analysis of embodied experience of ownership by including a broader range of sensory experiences. In his study, as we can see, the concept of feeling is interpreted not only as an affective state like sympathy, fear or envy, but it also embraces physical sensations like touch, taste and vision. The Body of Property succeeds in achieving its goal of providing a generous summary of a prominent era’s literary engagement with the concept of ownership.

Teodora Domotor, Karoli Gaspar University