116th Annual Conference - Bellingham, Washington
Friday, November 9 - Sunday, November 11, 2018

Performing Consent: Antebellum City Mysteries Fiction, Mock Marriage, and the Possiblity of Democracy

Patrick McDonald, Auburn University

This paper interrogates the mock marrige trope in antebellum city mysteries novels to argue that the genre presents democratic political action as purely performative and, in so doing, calls into question the possiblity of realizing democratic ideals against the backdrop of urban, market-mediated social relations.   


Recent scholarship such as Dana Nelson’s Commons Democracy and Stacey Margolis’ Fictions of Mass Democracy in Nineteenth-Century America has revised our understanding of the material functioning of democratic politics in the antebellum period.  While drawing our attention to the practices and performances of everyday (white) people and the substantial contributions they make to American political theory, much of this scholarship has tended to support its arguments with examples drawn upon authors and texts that exist well above the fray of these democratic performances, such as Cooper’s Littlepage Trilogy and Brockden Brown’s Arthur Mervyn.  This paper supplements this gesture towards canonical and “literary” texts for an excavation of performative democracy by examining works of sensation and city mysteries fiction that have more-or-less recently entered into critical discussions.  Analyzing democratic practice’s deployment—or lack thereof—in critiques of urban decay and decadence in works like H.M. Rulison’s The Mock Marriage and George Foster’s New York by Gas-Light , we find a scathing critique of the social contract that forms the bedrock of the period’s democratic theory in the name of its performative conventions and their inherent manipulability.  Paradoxically, each of these authors uses the performative dimension of the marriage contract to stage a mock marriage that calls into question the possibility of equality, by extension, democratic action itself.  By presenting and representing these fictions of consent, antebellum city mysteries dig beneath democratic action’s foundations as authors of the American Renaissance present it and ultimately calls for us to rethink the terms of democratic political theory.