Companion Forms: Portable Objects and the Intimacies of Circulation in Nineteenth-Century America

Zehnder, Madeline, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Ogden, Emily, English
Brickhouse, Anna, English
Greeson, Jennifer, English

This dissertation examines a selection of pocket-sized books and other artifacts used during the nineteenth century alongside an array of texts—including sketches, novels, personal narratives, handbooks, it-narratives, and reports—in which early American authors call explicit attention to a given object’s availability to be picked up and carried. Pocket-sized objects, I demonstrate, anchor nineteenth-century American fantasies about intimate social and physical encounter across distance, serving as both imaginative and material sites for making and regulating social life in a rapidly expanding country. While the personal quality of objects small enough to carry in a pocket made such items well-suited to the task of knitting geographically-dispersed users into social networks, portable objects also served as effective tools for disciplining individual and group behavior across geographic distance. In their ability to be carried in close proximity to the body, pocket-sized objects led many nineteenth-century American commentators to suggest that materials produced in small formats possessed unique ability to instrument and direct specific forms of audience response.

My first chapter surveys items that early Americans describe as “portable,” “pocket,” and “miniature,” and examines how figures including author Washington Irving embraced portable forms for their ability to produce and maintain exclusive social networks across geographic distance. Chapter two explores the relationship between these discussions of object portability and emergent nineteenth-century American debates regarding children’s mobility and independence. Chapter three looks beyond printed objects to consider the presence of a miniature portrait carried by an enslaved character in Victor Séjour’s “Le Mulâtre” (1837); this chapter underscores the role portable objects played in the formation of colonial power networks, while also examining how such objects were put to more subversive ends by people excluded from power. My final chapter examines the demand for pocket-sized books that surged during the US Civil War, demonstrating that portable goods appealed not only to soldiers on the march but also to reform organizations who believed that the presence of small-format print on soldiers’ bodies could complement efforts to prepare individuals for participation in military systems. The dissertation concludes with my account of a miniature pamphlet printing of the Emancipation Proclamation—an artifact whose pocket-sized format ambiguously frames freedom as both a property to be gifted and a state marked by the personal possession of print.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Material culture, Material texts, American literature, Book history
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