Book Project

“American Gothic” by Gordon Parks (1942)

Averaging Americans: Literature, Statistics, and Inequality discovers a significant trend in American literary history by computationally analyzing more than 18,000 works of American fiction across the long nineteenth century. I show that American authors increasingly make generalizations about individuals and groups of people using statistical reasoning, and become increasingly confident in asserting fixed characteristics as central tendencies of groups. I argue that this trend reflects an increasing anxiety about questions of population, polity, and representativeness, one that manifests in the attempt to shore up qualitative judgments with quantitative assertions. Statistical reasoning is central to issues of race, class, and power that have preoccupied Americanist scholars for decades, yet its influence on American literature has scarcely been studied. This is not to say that writers of the period were not acquainted with the power of statistics to (mis)represent the world; in fact, the opposite seems to be true. After all, Mark Twain famously warned his readers about “three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

In the data, I find a cohort of words including average, center, typical, commonplace, someone, anyone, and everyone that rise at faster rates than almost every other term across the long nineteenth century. These often outpace words that we would expect to increase rapidly, such as telegraph or railway. These terms quantitatively distinguish postbellum literature from antebellum literature better than almost any others, and undergo particular growth after Reconstruction. What makes words like average and typical interesting for literary criticism is precisely that, at first, they appear to be unnecessary. Readers may have no reason to imagine an “average American” differently from an otherwise undescribed American—unless, of course, that assertion of qualitative and quantitative majoritarianism serves an end in itself. I find American fiction increasingly using this set of terms to make audacious and occasionally ironic claims about the representativeness of its people, places, and events. This happens at comparable rates in canonical works, and in works largely unknown or forgotten.

Critics have long argued that literary realism and naturalism are invested in the question of their own representativeness, a point that has usually been made with reference to the influence of the natural sciences on these modes of writing. Hamlin Garland and William Dean Howells, two important early theorists and practitioners of American literary realism, both argue for the need to turn away from the idealism of the prewar period, and instead represent the world “as it is,” which, for them, depends upon a scientific worldview committed to exactitude and proportionality. Aesthetically, this attempt to avoid misrepresentation reached its apogee in what is often described as the pessimistic determinism of literary naturalism. I extend this longstanding critical discussion about the role of the sciences in the literary representation of the world to the increasing authority of statistics as a mode of knowledge that undergirds multiple scientific discourses, and one that rapidly achieves both prestige and popular authority during this period as a way to better know the natural world and society. The statistical imagination offered literary authors a new way of thinking about how individuals relate to groups, centering questions of representativeness.

Though modern readers may be rightly suspicious of it, the question of representativeness is both necessary and useful, since individual experience can never comprehend all of the available examples of a particular phenomenon. In a metacritical sense, this problem of representativeness—that it is both necessary and insufficient—is also central to the practices of literary criticism. The selection of exemplary lines and passages to describe works in their totality rests as the core evidentiary basis of literary criticism, perhaps only superseded by the presumption of a shared reading experience of the totality of the texts under discussion.

The dramatic rise of such terms alters the form and content of the literature, pressing against the bounds of fictionality by making claims that reach outside of it. Where scholars in queer theory and disability studies have already emphasized how twentieth-century “normalcy” incoherently mixes quantitative and qualitative reasoning, I show that process begins earlier and in different discourses than has yet been discussed in the critical literature.

American authors’ discussions of representativeness take on a new urgency amid struggles over citizenship, immigration, settler colonialism, industrialization, and economic inequality that define the closing decades of the nineteenth century. After an overview of the discourse exemplified by William Dean Howells, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Frederick Douglass, I discuss the literary difference between the average and the type by contrasting their uses in Hamlin Garland’s populist fiction and in Henry James. Walt Whitman’s “divine average,” the subject of the next chapter, refracts the idealization of the average person as description of national destiny. But this discourse is not always so self-serious; the following chapter looks to these claims to representativeness a source of comedy about class in works by Sinclair Lewis and Edith Wharton. Finally, I investigate recapitulations and critiques of the whiteness of the average American in the works of James Weldon Johnson, Nella Larsen, George Schuyler, and Richard Wright, all of which discuss different ideas of black passing in a majority-white society.

Beginning with the invention of the average person in 1835, I show that statistical thinking about people often depends on a slippage between a quantitative real and a qualitative ideal, a slippage that literary and paraliterary texts increasingly rely upon as the average and the type diverge. Through my work, I hope to show that one of the most important fictional characters of the long nineteenth century is the idea of the average American, and the struggle to define it.