Averaging Americans: Literature, Statistics, and Inequality discovers a significant trend in US literary history by computationally analyzing more than 18,000 works of US fiction across the long nineteenth century. 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 awareness of and anxiety about questions of population, polity, and representativeness, one that manifests in the attempt to shore up qualitative judgments through quantification. Statistical reasoning is central to issues of race, class, and power that have preoccupied scholars of the US for decades, yet its influence on American literature has scarcely been studied. This is not because writers of the period were unacquainted with the power of statistics to (mis)represent the world; Mark Twain famously warned his readers about “three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
Critics have long argued that literary realism and naturalism invest 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. Early theorists and practitioners of American literary realism argue for the need to turn away from idealism, and instead represent the world “as it is,” which, for some, depends upon a scientific worldview committed to quantitative 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. During the long nineteenth century, the statistical imagination offered authors a new way of thinking about the relationship between the individual and society.