Chapter 3: Reading with a Tender Rapture: Reveries of a Bachelor and the Rhetoric of Detached Intimacy

If you looked at an illustration of an antebellum American family enjoying domestic comforts, a book would probably appear somewhere in the picture. As scholars studying the cultural functions of reading have recently argued, the book ranked as one of the most important instruments and symbols of domesticity. In the iconography of the home, the book represented taste, shared learning, and love. Consider, for instance, Figure 1, “Home.”

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Figure 1: Home

In this domestic tableau, a father relaxes with his newspaper and cigar, while a mother reads a large book, perhaps a primer or a Bible, with her three children. The mother points out a significant word or idea to the children, who look on attentively. One child even reaches out her hand, as if to touch on the same point and to connect with the mother. Instructing the children seems to be the work of the mother, but the family comes together around the act of reading, enjoying productive leisure, intimacy, and comfort.

This drawing renders a scene that recurs throughout nineteenth-century domestic fiction. In novels such as Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World and Maria Cummins’s The Lamplighter, family members and friends develop their love for and sympathy with each other by reading, at first together, then apart. What begins as a close human relationship—the mother reinforcing lessons of Christian rectitude through conversation—is displaced into a textual relationship, as the book comes to represent the loving authority of the mother. As Richard Brodhead argues, domestic novels bring attention to the act of reading itself, treating reading as “the nurture-centered home’s chief pastime, gathering point, and instrument of domestic instruction” (45). According to Brodhead, the middle-class family embraced reading to teach the mutually reinforcing values of obedience and sentiment, or, in his terms, to inculcate “disciplinary intimacy,” discipline through love. Likewise pointing to the instructive functions of reading, Jane Tompkins argues that female readers learned how to endure pain by ingesting stories of young heroines suffering and surviving. In each case, the reader begins to read under the supervision of a mother or mentor figure who ensures that the proper lessons are learned.

While Tompkins and Brodhead focus on reading’s disciplinary functions, other critics contend that antebellum reading in sentimental literature was escapist, luring readers away from an engagement with serious issues into a synthetic, cotton-candy view of the world. Perhaps Ann Douglas most eloquently voices this position’s concerns: “’Reading’ in its new form was many things; among them it was an occupation for the unemployed, narcissistic self-education for those excluded from the harsh school of practical competition. Literary men of the cloth and middle-class women writers of the Victorian period knew from firsthand evidence that literature was functioning more and more as a form of leisure, a complicated mass dream-life in the busiest, most wide-awake society in the world” (10). According to Douglas, such reading fed a consumerist ethos in which Americans purchased mass-produced fantasies, placing greater value on what one owned rather than what one made.

Both of these descriptions of reading assume that the typical reader is female, and both emphasize the power of some external force (whether domestic or consumer culture) over her. But what if we focus instead on someone outside the normal boundaries of domesticity? What if we examine how the single male reader was imagined in the nineteenth century? Consider, for example, Figure 2, “By a City Grate.”

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Figure 2: By a City Grate

In some ways, the two images resemble each other. Both show scenes of leisure set by the hearth, and both include an elegantly but comfortably dressed gentleman lounging over a cigar and looking over—or beyond—a text. But of course “By a City Grate” lacks elements crucial to the traditional image of domestic intimacy: wife and children. Instead of portraying a contented family sharing in the purposeful project of learning, “By a City Grate” shows a solitary man absorbed in thought. While the first illustration projects a sense of warmth, calm, and edification, in the second a shadow hovers about the thinker, suggesting his melancholy mood. Books are scattered on his table as if he just threw them aside, and a letter rests in his lap, but the reclining figure focuses on something else, something to which the viewer has no access. In reading the letter, he seems to have become distracted from the parlor before him and been transported into a private dream-world, a world elsewhere. While the former image portrays a relationship of family harmony centered on the book, the latter image suggests a dream relationship, as the man turns his thoughts from the letter to something not quite visible, but still powerfully moving. Although the dreamer has stopped reading, the letter seems to have sparked an act of creation, perhaps an attempt to reach, through the mind, the sender of the letter.

As incisive as both the disciplinary and the escapist descriptions of antebellum reading are, they ignore the ways in which reading relies upon distance as well as identification, and how distance leads to desire and imaginative power. Moreover, both theories deny readers any self-consciousness and instead view them as passive elements in the reading process.[1] In contrast, “By a City Grate” represents a mode of reading and relating to the world that I call detached intimacy, in which the reader, though swept over by feeling, still keeps fantasy at arm’s length, wrapped up between the boards of a book. According to the conventional view of escapist literature, the reader becomes so engrossed in fantasy that she loses herself in it, unable to distinguish between dream and reality. Yet detached intimacy suggests that the reader can engage in a profound identification with the book even as she remains conscious that she is actively constructing a fantasy. Detached intimacy fits somewhere between narcissistic escapism and rigorous discipline—although the reader is aware of social roles and responsibilities, he or she is inspired by the book to dream up different ways of fulfilling or stretching those roles. Whereas theorists of disciplinary reading argue that the book stands in for the sentimental authority of the mother, and escapists contend that the commodity substitutes for experience, detached intimacy is both relational and solitary. By investing him- or herself in a book, the reader develops an imagined intimacy with its central characters, while remaining a singular, self-conscious individual curled up by the hearth.

This self-creating, fanciful approach to reading is represented in many fictions, but it appears perhaps most compellingly in the literature of bachelor sentimentalism, which focuses on the fantasies and sufferings of the single man (Bertolini 710). In these narratives, the bachelor emerges as a specific kind of reader, one who is solitary, speculative, and remote. Donald Grant Mitchell’s (aka Ik Marvel) Reveries of a Bachelor, one of most popular works of the 1850s (Becket 412), offers a rich opportunity to study detached intimacy, since it focuses on reading and fantasy and uses a rhetorical strategy that simultaneously invites readers’ participation and pushes them away. So popular and influential was the book that it sold over a million copies by the end of the century, sparked dozens of piracies, and inspired several imitations. Commenting on the book’s cultural impact and staying power, one late nineteenth- century critic compared it to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Kimball 187).

The book’s popularity suggests that it spoke to deep desires in antebellum America–among others, the desire that literature stimulate feeling, legitimate fantasy, and establish, through the text, relationships that are full of feeling yet controllable. Reverie epitomizes this detached intimacy, since the dreamer abstracts herself from the body and from concrete reality, yet remains awake and conscious. As the title suggests, Reveries centers on the production of dreams and illusions, offering four sketches in which Ik Marvel, a sentimental bachelor, fantasizes about what it would be like to be married. To put into context the illustrations discussed above, “By a City Grate,” from a 1906 edition of Reveries, shows Ik Marvel dreaming, while Figure 1, from a 1931 edition of Reveries, represents his dream of married life.[2] While Ik daydreams that marriage will bring him into true sympathy with another soul, he fears that he will lose his independence and control by committing himself to another. As perhaps the most significant work of bachelor fiction, Reveries offers insights into the connections and distinctions between “masculine” and “feminine” sentimental traditions and offers a glimpse of the attractions of self-aware fantasy.

A Most Unassured Whimsical Being: The Bachelor as Fervent Observer

In Reveries of a Bachelor, Mitchell promotes detached intimacy through his rhetoric of displaced fantasy and the example of his charming but distant narrator, a bachelor and connoisseur of feeling named Ik Marvel. Mixing fantasy with essayistic commentary, Mitchell presents four reveries dreamed up by Ik. Perhaps to evade personal identification with the reveries, Mitchell adopts a complex strategy in narrating the bachelor’s dreams. The byline on the title page is given to Ik Marvel, but the copyright is ascribed to Donald Grant Mitchell. For the most part, the first three reveries are narrated in the first person voice of Ik Marvel, but sometimes the narrator describes “you,” the reader, as the central character. In the fourth and longest reverie, Morning, Noon, and Evening, Ik has a reverie in which Paul, briefly alluded to in the first reverie, takes over as narrator and describes the course of his life from his young, innocent love for his cousin to his mature love for his wife and children. Paul is a dream character conceived of by Ik Marvel, who was himself dreamed up by Donald Grant Mitchell. In a sense, Reveries is a meta-dream, a fantasy about the power of fantasy. A liminal state between waking and sleeping, control and passivity, reverie suggests “daydream, meditation… illusion, enchantment… conscious fantasy” (de Bianchedi 128). As befits his marvelous name, Ik Marvel insists upon the superiority of the dream world, which was to be the title of Mitchell’s follow-up work. Although the scene of each reverie shifts, as Ik moves from his country home to his city apartment to his spinster aunt’s rural retreat to his maternal estate, they all follow a similar pattern: an image of light—be it the anthracite used to sustain a glowing fire, a cigar, or the sun—sparks Ik’s often-morbid fantasies of maturation, courtship, and marriage, as well as his meditations on the symbolic meaning of the light. As each reverie leads Ik through various possibilities—the dreamer might be bound to a cold-hearted flirt, or he might lose wife and children to disease, or he might find true happiness—it is shot through with the bachelor’s uncertainties and indecision. Yet Mitchell deals with this indecision by embracing it, putting forward the idea that the dreamer can embark on imaginary excursions but still return to his solitary, independent life.

In making Ik a bachelor, Mitchell drew upon an established tradition linking the solitary male to imagination, detachment, and sentimentality. By associating Marvel with such characteristics, Mitchell constructs the bachelor as a representative dreamer whose insights depend on his tense relationships with the two poles of antebellum American life: the home and the marketplace. Ik fulfilled the need for a figure who could celebrate the dream life and, as Emily Dickinson put it, “interpret these lives of ours” (Selected Letters 67). In advancing reverie, Mitchell faced some lingering hostility toward the imagination and suspicion for not participating in “practical” enterprises. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed of Americans, “No man are less addicted to reverie than the citizens of a democracy, and few of them are ever known to give way to those idle and solitary meditations which commonly precede and produce the great emotions of the heart” (qtd. by Leverenz 11). Yet Mitchell presents reverie as a salutary, revelatory mental and emotional state, justifying the leisured arts of dreaming, self-cultivation, and artistic creation.

Ik manifests two traits that define his vision as a bachelor: detachment and imaginative flexibility. Although his status as an outsider would seem to deny him any authority to comment on family life, Ik turns such distance into the basis of his insight, claiming that “bachelors are the only safe, and secure observers of all the phases of married life. The rest of the world have their hobbies; and by law, as well as by immemorial custom are reckoned unfair witnesses in everything relating to their matrimonial affairs” (vi). Although typically bachelors like Sterne’s Uncle Toby are associated with their own “hobby horses,” Ik insists that married people are themselves eccentric and biased, and that only bachelors (and perhaps spinsters) can be reliable interpreters of domestic life. Such a detached perspective both activates the imagination and allows for critical insight; in a sense, the bachelor is like the reader, witnessing rather than acting.

As an unbiased observer, the bachelor shifts from one perspective–and one identity–to the next, refusing to be tied down to a single reality. By calling attention to how Ik’s “floating Reveries… drifted” from glee to gloom, Mitchell embraces the stereotype of the bachelor as moody and uncommitted (v). One example of this stereotype appeared in The Literary World, where an anonymous critic called Ik “a most unassured whimsical being… inconsequential, loosely attached to society, and, as a consequence, when he presumes to write a book utterly insecure of his style and position” (“Review”). For this reviewer, the flightiness and instability that distinguish Reveries result from the narrator’s status as a bachelor, yet he or she recommends the book for offering a respite from the everyday and for the random insights that it provides. Such insights come from the bachelor’s shifting sympathies, as Ik imagines the lives of a confused youth, a jilted lover, a beleaguered husband bossed around by his domineering wife, a widower beset by the devastating loss of his family, or a happy husband. In his extensive dreaming, the bachelor could even take on feminine traits; as Putnam’s critic Fitz-James O’Brien remarked, Mitchell’s prose demonstrated “almost feminine delicacy… He takes us captive with those gentle spells for which the sex are famous” (74, 75). Comparing Mitchell’s artistry to that of a woman captivating a lover, O’Brien identifies reverie as a typically feminine act, one that takes place in private, temporarily settles upon the passive dreamer, and elicits an emotional response. Of course, such a statement reveals O’Brien’s own prejudices that feeling belongs to women, action to men (Otter 215). The bachelor thus transcends gender-based categories, providing a model for experimentation in identity and broadening his appeal to male and female readers, all of whom could see themselves in (or with) him.

Although the bachelor is a man of feeling, Mitchell deliberately contrasts him to those who come under the sway of the literature of Sensibility, which we might see as sentimentality without the self-control of detached intimacy. According to Mitchell, Sensibility takes advantage of “a weak, warm-working heart,” as it does with a reader of Mackenzie who finds that “your eye, in spite of you, runs over with his sensitive griefs” (66). Mitchell contrasts the Sensibility indulged in by “you” (both a character within the narrative and, implicitly, the reader of Mitchell’s text) with the self-control exercised by the bachelor narrator. Whereas the reader who indulges in the “habit of sensibility” loses his or her ability to stop weeping, the bachelor carefully manages his feeling, moving between different emotional states without being tied down to any of them: “But what a happy, careless life belongs to this Bachelorhood, in which you may strike out boldly right and left! Your heart is not bound to another which may be full of only sickly vapors of feeling; nor is it frozen to a cold, man’s heart under a silk boddice” (66). Setting up an implicit comparison between reading and marital status, Mitchell suggests that whereas a Sensible reader, like a married man, comes under the sway of a single state of feeling (a potentially cold or hollow one, at that), the bachelor reader can choose among many modes. As Mitchell argues,

And have you not the whole skein of your heart-life in your own fingers to wind, or unwind, in what shape you please? Shake it, or twine it, or tangle it, by the light of your fire, as you fancy best…. Reading is a great and happy disentangler of all those knotted snarls–those extravagant vagaries, which belong to a heart sparkling with sensibility… (67)

According to Samuel Otter, the subtext of this passage is masturbatory, as the power of stimulation is in the bachelor’s hands. Yet the passage is also remarkable in the way that Mitchell plays with the metaphor of heart strings. He puts the dreamer in the feminized position of one who knits by the fire, yet he emphasizes that the creative activity the dreamer engages in is winding and unwinding, a means of working through a maze rather than presenting a nicely knitted end-product. Mitchell advances a reader-centered aesthetics, where the reader can determine how—and how long—he or she will spin out the dream before reeling it back in.

Through reading, the bachelor establishes dream relationships in which the text acts both as a companion to and amplification of the self. Sometimes Mitchell sounds like a doctor formulating a prescription, as he insists that different authors can stimulate, even incarnate, different moods: “There is old, placid Burton, when your soul is weak, and its digestion of life’s humours is bad; there is Cowper, when your spirit runs into a kindly, half-sad, religious musing” (67). In prescribing his emotional tonics, Mitchell recommends the works of two sentimental bachelors, implicitly suggesting a correlation between the single life and feeling. The text stands for the author, but the bachelor reader remains in control of the imagined relationship, so that he can easily drop, for instance, Burton’s placidity for Rousseau’s “soul-culture” (68). In Ik’s reading, then, we see both identification—the association of the self with the text—and detachment—the ability to control one’s moods and shape the self through the selection of reading materials.

As a bachelor, and as a reader, Ik can synthesize emotion, but then he can close the book, let the reverie burn out, and go to sleep without having his “real life” disturbed, as the bachelor does at the end of his own reveries: “I wonder, thought I, as I dropped asleep, if a married man with his sentiment made actual, is, after all, as happy as we poor fellows in our dreams” (96). Mitchell proposes that solitary dreams can bring greater happiness and fewer risks than messy experience. Not only do dreams cultivate emotional responses, but they also take on the status of art. Rebutting the utilitarian bias against dreaming for being “useless,” Mitchell asserts, “Useless, do you say? Aye, it is as useless as the pleasure of looking hour upon hour, over bright landscapes; it is as useless as the rapt enjoyment of listening with heart full and eyes brimming, to such music as the Miserere at Rome; it is as useless as the ecstasy of kindling your soul into fervor and love, and madness, over pages that reek with genius” (81). As Snyder argues, Mitchell echoes Pater’s defense of art for art’s sake by rejecting economic terms for success, instead promoting the pursuit of ecstasy and valuing ideas over experience (58). Mitchell advances reverie for reverie’s sake, as the dreamer becomes both artist and audience in savoring the beauty and genius of the dream.

Even when the bachelor dreams of marriage, he negotiates his relationship to his dreamed-of wife by making her like a book, a text for his imaginings. For Marvel, the ideal marriage is one that feeds the husband’s fantasies and validates his authority, one in which the wife acts as muse, audience, and “second self.” In one scene, Ik envisions a husband and wife sharing a sentimental dream-space. While the wife reads, the husband stares and fantasizes:

The arm, a pretty taper arm, lies over the carved elbow of the oaken chair; the hand, white and delicate, sustains a little home volume that hangs from her fingers. The forefinger is between the leaves, and the others lie in relief upon the dark embossed cover. She repeats in a silver voice a line that has attracted her fancy; and you listen– or, at any rate, you seem to listen–with your eyes now on the lips, now on the forehead, and now on the finger, where glitters like a star, the marriage ring– the little gold band, at which she does not chafe, that tells you–she is yours! (87).

Such a cozy domestic scene—lovely wife, doting husband, open book—recurs throughout antebellum literature, but in this context it suggests that the dreamer’s desire for a fantasy wife resembles his love of reading; both stimulate the imagination, making possible at least temporary possession of the ideal. Although the husband is supposed to be listening to the dream wife read what has captivated her own imagination, he acts more like a voyeur, creating his own fantasy of possession symbolized by the ring. Even as he gazes at the wife’s hands and face, the dreamer is also drawn by the book, which both suggests and contains the fantasy; it is the source of the lines that the wife reads and the backdrop for her beautiful fingers. From the autoerotic fantasies of bachelorhood, Ik has moved into the erotics of marriage—but of course these lines come in one of Ik’s autoerotic fantasies and reinforce both his tendency to view the world poetically (he imagines that the ring is like a star) and to set himself apart as a voyeur whose pleasure comes in possessing through his gaze. As attractive as this fantasy wife may be to the dreamer, at the end of Reveries we are reminded that Ik Marvel, bachelor and dreamer, invented this ideal wife (and killed off several wives in the course of his imaginings), and that a bachelor and dreamer Ik Marvel remains. Like the reader of a book, Ik is drawn into feeling, but at the end he is left with a representation of experience rather than the experience itself, free to dream up the next encounter. Ik negotiates the middle ground between feeling and thinking, passivity and action, and escape and discipline, using his fantasies to imagine possible lives and to gain power over his own.

Although authors struggled with the bias against fiction during the early nineteenth century (Bell), Nina Baym suggests that by the 1840s and 1850s Americans embraced fiction as an appropriate form of entertainment and moral enlightenment (176). Reveries of a Bachelor and other works of male sentimentalism likely brought about greater acceptance of fiction-making. As William Charvat explains, works by Mitchell, G.W. Curtis, and O.W. Holmes popularized the reverie as a form of fiction (245). In Dream Life, Mitchell argues for the superiority of the imagination and of feeling and articulates a link between bachelorhood and the imagination:

It is true there is but one heart in a man to be stirred; but every stir creates a new combination of feeling, that like the turn of a kaleidoscope will show some fresh color, or form. A bachelor to be sure has a marvellous advantage in this; and with the tenderest influences once anchored in the bay of marriage, there is little disposition to scud off under each pleasant breeze of feeling. Nay, I can even imagine… that after marriage, feeling would become a habit, a rich and holy habit certainly, but yet a habit, which weakens the omnivorous grasp of the affections, and schools one to a unity of emotion, that doubts and ignores the promptness and variety of impulse, which we bachelors possess. (18)

Mitchell associates bachelorhood with the variety of imagination and feeling that produces beauty and sympathy, preferring plurality over unity, shifting impulse over the stability of habit. Others invoked Reveries in justifying works of the imagination. For instance, in “Fact and Fiction” (1854), the noted children’s author Oliver Optic describes two sisters, one romantic (Mary) and one dutiful (Susan). While Mary reads Mitchell, Dickens, Irving, and other fiction writers, Susan studies only religious texts recommended by her hoped-for fiancée, a minister. Although the minister shakes his head in disapproval upon learning that Mary has read Reveries of a Bachelor and Dream Life, she ultimately convinces him that “the world is the better for novels” (272) and wins his heart. In this way, Reveries of a Bachelor helped to overcome the cultural condemnation of fiction and illustrate the moral and spiritual benefits of fantasy.

The Bachelor’s Letter to the World

Although the subtext reveals the bachelor’s desire to remain a detached, self-sufficient dreamer, Mitchell uses several rhetorical and stylistic strategies to create the illusion that Ik’s readers can come into his private space and know his soul, as if distance breeds intimacy and insight. Even as Mitchell offers Ik’s dreams to a public audience, he preserves their “private character” by writing contemplative prose filled with gaps, questionings, hesitations, revisions, and shifts in perspective, trying to replicate a refined, imaginative mind at work (vii). By using such a seemingly spontaneous, sincere style, Mitchell makes readers participants and correspondents, inviting them into the private parlor of the sentimental essay.[3] Yet the bachelor remains a mysterious figure who holds back personal information even though he effusively describes his dreams. Through detachment, the bachelor narrator maintains control over his fantasies and, by extension, his readers. As Ann Douglas argues, “The sentimental narrator’s ever-present consciousness that he is but dreaming, and dreaming dreams that he can at any moment disperse, is but a subtle reminder that he is the dictator as well as the servant of his feminine readers’ imaginative needs. He never forgets that he has the author’s power—which becomes all-important when literature is commercialized—of withholding; he can interfere with the reader’s range and rate of consumption” (240). Ik illustrates his power over his audience when he bets his strict but tender-hearted spinster aunt that if he makes her weep by relating one of his reveries, she will allow him to smoke his cigar on the porch. By the end of his story, he has gained the right to puff away. Yet readers also exercise power in this relationship, choosing to fill in the gaps in Ik’s fantasies with their own, to question his evasions and assert their own identities.

By employing a personal, conversational rhetoric, Mitchell crafts a narrator who appears to reveal his own secrets and thus opens up the hearts of his readers. As James Melvin Lee noted in 1909, Reveries captivated so many readers because of the narrator’s seeming sincerity and approachability:

A mind like that of ‘Ik Marvel’ finds its best expression in dreams and reveries… In this form of literature it is the personal element that attracts the reader. In other words, the charm of fireside musings lies in the atmosphere which the author himself creates. Unless he is willing to lay bare his heart, he labors in vain. (398)

Mitchell develops this “personal element” by urging readers to accept the book as one which was “never intended for publication,” to come inside his dream world and share—rather than judge—the bachelor’s fantasies (iii). By describing his visions as essentially private, Marvel seems to be establishing an intimate relation between reader and writer, as if they were of one heart, but at the same time he seems to be evading any responsibility for his work, since he is merely transcribing his dreams. In a sense, the bachelor narrator wants his audience to be like his ideal wife, sympathetic rather than critical, reflecting his genius back on him. He maintains the authority, even as he evades the responsibilities of authorship.

Throughout Reveries, Marvel employs a questioning voice that suggests his ambivalence and enhances the hypothetical, speculative nature of the book. He opens the first sketch, “Smoke–Signifying Doubt,” with a litany of questions that extends for five pages, beginning with:

“A wife? thought I; yes, a wife. And why?

“And pray, my dear sir, why not–why? Why not doubt; why not hesitate; why not tremble?” (19)

Although the narrator appears to be questioning himself, another voice seems to come in with “my dear sir.” Mitchell does not make clear if this voice is that of the narrator, the imagined reader, or society. By pursuing questions rather than offering answers, Mitchell refuses to side with any single perspective toward marriage and domesticity, introducing both disastrous and enticing possibilities. As the narrator asks questions about the wisdom of marriage, so does the reader, arriving ultimately at the tenuous resolution: “Why not, I thought, go on dreaming?” (21). This comedy of indecision runs through the entire volume, although the comedy becomes pathetic as the narrator’s fantasies of marriage end in catastrophe. The reader becomes a participant in the questioning, meditating upon the dilemmas of the dreaming bachelor but not reaching a stable conclusion—and thus continuing the dreaming.[4]

Mitchell makes his readers identify with, yet remain at a safe distance from, the bachelor’s reveries by slipping between different perspectives. Although Mitchell narrates the frame tales surrounding the reveries from the first-person perspective of Ik Marvel, the reverie itself focuses either on “you” or is projected onto a sensitive young man named Paul, who is mentioned briefly in the first reverie and is the primary subject of the last one. By displacing the reveries onto “you” or “Paul,” Ik dissociates them from himself (further dissociating Mitchell who, of course, has named Ik as the author). As he introduces other perspectives into his reveries, Ik acts not only as the producer of fantasies, but also as the audience and the interpreter. By describing his own tearful responses to his dream productions, Ik gives his audience cues as to how they should feel and offers ways of understanding such feelings. Yet even as he meditates upon the meaning of dream experience, he backs away from the experience itself by making “you”—the audience as well as a masked version of himself—the central character of the reverie. For instance, in describing a young man whose hopes of marrying a beautiful young woman have been frustrated by the machinations of her status-seeking uncle, he writes, “You struggle with your moods of melancholy, and wear bright looks yourself—bright to her, and very bright to the eye of the old curmudgeon who has snatched your heart away” (127). By displacing the narrative onto a “you,” Mitchell dissociates himself from the fantasy and invites his readers to participate in the story. In terms of the narrative, this “you” is a male upset that he can’t marry a young woman because he lacks money and reputation, but the “you” has stereotypically feminine qualities, since ”you” are melancholic, consumed with thoughts of your broken heart but determined to put on a social face. At the same time, as female “you’s” are invited into the narrative, they “become” male. Whereas the reader might feel like a voyeur spying on other lives, by including a “you” who experiences events Ik becomes the voyeur reporting on what he sees and coming under the sway of its excitement. In turn, the reader feels the thrill of being both the watcher and the watched, the reader and the read, so that the distinctions between reader, character, and author are hazy.

As David Leverenz has argued, the rhetoric of “I” and “you,” narrator and reader, structures many works of the American Renaissance. Alienated from the bourgeois male identity, writers such as Melville, Emerson, and Hawthorne set up their readers as “foils,” both attacking them and attempting to refashion them through their dense, distancing, and evasive texts: “A conventionally manly ‘you’ is accused and appealed to, as double, potential convert, and comrade for the self-refashioning ‘I.’ Male rivalry looms under the fraternity… and the rivalry returns in the self-refashioning” (34). Such an argument helps to account for the difficulty and elusiveness of the American romance, but it assumes that the male response to an environment of competition is further competition. In contrast, Samuel Otter and Katherine Snyder contend that male sentimentalists employed the “I/you” rhetoric to establish bonds with their readers. Countering the view that all male authors of the American Renaissance had quarrels with their audience, Snyder argues, “Unlike his currently canonized male contemporaries, whose agon of professional authorship may be their distinguishing shared trait, Mitchell embraced wholeheartedly the nascent mass audience which his writing helped to shape. The rhetoric of ‘I and you’ in Reveries effects a sentimental commerce between author and his readers which finally troubles the boundaries of individuality and the bounds of normative manhood” (60). Likewise, Otter emphasizes the merger between self and other, author and reader, that takes place in Reveries: “The ‘I’ enunciates the ‘you’; the ‘you’ is scripted into the ‘I.’ Such splittings and enmeshings of subjects and objects enable Mitchell’s sentimental exchanges” (222). As Otter and Snyder suggest, one of the key rhetorical strategies that distinguishes male sentimentalists from high-cultural authors is the way that they address the audience, seeking sympathy and detached participation rather than competition.

In arguing that Mitchell brings his readers into his fantasies, Otter and Snyder focus on the author’s perspective, overlooking how actual readers responded to Mitchell’s invitation and negotiated sentimental exchanges with the author. Both distance and intimacy define the pose adopted by bachelor authors such as Mitchell; to use a chemical metaphor, polarity—setting two opposites in relation to each other—forms bonds. As some of Mitchell’s readers realized, Ik’s embrace of his audience was conflicted; through his evasions and shifts in tone, he pushed away even as he extended the circle of feeling. By casting his readers in the role of a character, Mitchell drops them into an emotional landscape of his creation, while still retaining the authority of the interpreter to comment upon the fantasy and to establish sentimental boundaries. That is, though Mitchell participates in a sentimental economy, it is a protectionist one, in which the narrator can determine what passes into the heart. Likewise, as we’ll see in the next section, readers guarded the borders of their own selfhood, sharing their dreams with Ik while protecting their privacy.

In the letter Mitchell finds a rhetorical form that meets his simultaneous desire for intimacy with and detachment from his audience. After publishing his first reverie, “Smoke, Flame, and Ashes,” in Southern Literary Messenger (September 1849) and Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (October 1850), Mitchell received a number of notes from sympathetic admirers. In his second reverie, “Sea-Coal and Anthracite,” Mitchell refers to these letters as evidence of the emotional power of his own work, reminding his current readers that his words have moved mothers and fathers wrestling with the deaths of their children as well as girls confused by love. (Oddly, Mitchell does not list bachelors among the people who have responded to his reveries, which suggests either that they are not the intended audience or that their sympathy with Ik is taken for granted.) Although a letter represents the fixed expression of an idea and is typically written in solitude, it is constructed with a specific audience in mind, as the author shapes a persona calculated to win over the letter-reader, who is also a letter-writer (Lebow 73-74). Written after an event, the letter captures the detachment of its author as he or she reflects upon the situation. However, it also creates the sensation of a controlled, private, and intimate conversation between author and reader, making it an effective forum for the expression of sentiment; indeed many sentimental novels are epistolary, taking advantage of the letter’s capabilities as a “a heart-expressing medium between organized prose and gesture, differing markedly from social speech” (Todd 87).

Calling letters “the only true-heart talkers” and “a true soul print” (54) Mitchell maintains that only through the writing of letters can one honestly express emotions, and only through the reading of letters can one receive and understand those feelings. Mitchell emphasizes both the communicative characteristics of letters (“heart talkers”) and the mimetic (“soul print”). While conversation is “social and mixed,” a kind of joint authorship in which the participants’ unique voices are diminished, the solitary act of writing, which he calls “individual” and “integral,” enables one to create oneself on paper without interference (53). In explaining why letters enable one to express greater truth than conversation, Mitchell invokes a sexual metaphor that reveals the detached intimacy at the heart of his book: “there you are, with only the soulless pen, and the snow-white, virgin paper. Your soul is measuring itself by itself, and saying its own sayings… Utter it then freely–write it down–stamp it–burn it in the ink!” (54). Defining a celibate’s aesthetic, Mitchell insists on the solitary practice of sentiment, where the writer can control and make permanent the flow of feeling, replacing, it seems, partner with paper.

To articulate how the letter both elicits and contains feeling, Ik describes a cherished packet of correspondence that he rereads when he wants to evoke a particular mood. In this packet he keeps not only the letters of family members, but also testimonials from people who were moved by his first reverie. Discounting the public statements of critics, Marvel places most value on these fan letters, since they measure literary success through sympathy. As he touts the feeling that he inspires in readers and that they inspire in him, Ik makes the packet of letters represent his own heart: “Let me tie them together, with a new and longer bit of ribbon–not by a love knot, that is too hard—but by an easy slipping knot, that so I may get at them the better. And now, they are all together, a snug packet, and we will label them…. Souvenirs du Coeur” (58). Just as Marvel terms his packet of letters “Souvenirs du Coeur”—keepsakes of the heart—so he subtitles Reveries “Book of the Heart,” suggesting that the text produces, commemorates, contains, and stands for the heart, which itself is a metaphor for feeling.[5] In describing his love of letters, Marvel re-imagines the author as a reader, collecting private experiences to prompt his own reminiscences and feelings. Despite his passionate declarations, Ik remains a bachelor even in the way that he treats his correspondence. Rather than tying a “love knot,” which would imply commitment and single-mindedness, he uses an “easy slipping knot” to slide into—and out of—states of feeling. (An “easy slipping knot” can be a knot, or not, as the situation requires.) There is sympathy and correspondence, but Ik can maintain control over his emotions; he is able to take out the letters when he wants to fall into a reverie, but then can tie them up when he wants to turn to other modes of feeling.

“For Private Use”

By rhapsodizing over the moving experience of reading—and rereading—his correspondents’ “heart-letters,” Mitchell inspired many of his readers to actually write to him (or to Ik, who represented the ideal dreamer). Referring to Ik’s habit of treasuring letters as the artifacts and vehicles of feeling, one correspondent indicated her desire to continue a relationship with the narrator, “not only aspir[ing] to having my letter placed in the ribbon bound pacquet with those other treasured ones but also indulg[ing] in hopes of receiving a reply” (ECW, September 16).[6] As his fans hoped, their letters did move Mitchell, enough so that he diligently preserved them. [7] Between 1850 and 1853, readers sent at least 38 letters to Mitchell, and a dozen more trickled in through 1900. These fan letters, which no scholar seems to have commented upon since Waldo Dunn’s 1922 biography of Mitchell, offer an excellent opportunity to study the culture of letters in which Reveries participated, particularly nineteenth-century reading practices, notions of authorship, and male sentimentalism. While most recent commentary on reading scenes and practices is based on interpretive speculations, these documents allow us to ground theories of reader response in a historical study of reading practices, as we examine how actual readers (at least a self-selected group of enthusiasts) received Reveries.

Not only is the desire for detached intimacy elaborated within the text of Reveries, but also in the contexts surrounding it. Ann Douglas argues that the works of male sentimentalists encouraged consumption rather than production and duped their mostly female audience, but the fan letters received by Mitchell suggest the opposite: Reveries sparked fantasies of alternative identities, appealed to men as well as women, and stimulated challenging responses. In their letters, readers practiced detached intimacy as they voiced their sympathy with Ik, playfully challenged him, and asserted their own autonomy as interpreters and creators. Readers embraced Reveries in part because it allowed them to imagine themselves beyond the gendered spheres of work and domesticity, so that men often focused on leisure and feeling, while women dreamed about traveling across the ocean, indulging in a wild romance, or creating works of art. As much as fans identified with Reveries and saw it as the source of wisdom, they also questioned whether Ik was a reliable dream-guide, and whether the dreams of a bachelor were applicable to a mother, a husband, and, in particular, an unmarried woman. To explore the cultural and personal dimensions of detached intimacy, I will examine how Reveries defines and promotes this mode, how fans responded to the book, and how it was revised by female readers and writers who created the more communal or socially conscious reveries of a spinster.

Both reader response and the study of authorship are gaining increasing critical attention, but often critics explain what readers do with texts by invoking theory or analyzing the texts themselves, ignoring the lived experience of readers. Critics such as Janice Radway and Cathy Davidson have demonstrated the value of examining readers’ self-descriptions and annotations, but the richness of antebellum American fan letters remains to be studied. In the few critical studies of fan letters, critics have focused more on what they say about authorship or the culture of celebrity than what they tell us about how readers interacted with particular texts. For instance, in “Widening the World: Susan Warner, Her Readers, and the Assumption of Authorship,” Susan S. Williams uses Warner’s fan letters to argue that in response to her readers’ demands that she produce reverent, sentimental fiction, Warner suppressed her own inclination toward adventurous, worldly writing. Although such a study is valuable in recognizing the intimate relationship between reader response and authorial creation, it pays little attention to why Warner’s readers preferred sentimental fiction, how they engaged with her work, and how they presented themselves to Warner. Such absences also mar Thomas N. Baker’s brief analysis of Nathaniel Parker Willis’s relationship in letters with Emily Chubbuck, an aspiring author whom he promoted. Even though Baker provides testimony to the ways in which affectionate relationships in the nineteenth century often were “bonds woven chiefly of words” (94), he does not account for why Chubbuck found Willis a source of inspiration or how their experience of reading one another’s works led to a sense of intimacy.

Unlike entries in a diary or comments made in the margins, fan letters are consciously shaped for a particular audience, as readers-turned-authors construct their own personas and interact with the creator of the work that they love. In the letters that enthusiastic readers sent to Ik Marvel, a narrator whom many viewed—or wanted to view—as both a real person and the embodiment of fantasy, we can follow how an intimacy developed between readers and a particular author in antebellum America, an intimacy made possible through the exchange of the written word and negotiated around the literary personality constructed in the text. In their letters, Mitchell’s fans insisted that they were continuing a friendship initiated when they first opened Reveries, that the personal, spontaneous style of the book created such a vivid tone of invitation that readers presumed to write directly to Ik just as he had, they assumed, written directly to them. Since they took Ik as their audience, his correspondents focused on what he meant to them and even what he could do for them, and they often constructed personae calculated to appeal to Ik’s sensibilities. Even so, they acknowledged that the friendship might be a fiction, detecting remoteness in Ik Marvel’s professions of feeling and questioning whether Ik the narrator and Mitchell the author were the same. Conscious of Mitchell’s performance, they staged their own, using his celebration of fantasy to justify their experiments in identity. Often these experiments involved crossing normative gender boundaries, so that men found a space apart from enterprise and profession, while women could dream about travel and authorship. In their approach to Reveries, Mitchell’s fans exemplified detached intimacy, since their relationship with Mitchell—and with their own dreams—depended in large part on distance and control. Through their letters, readers became authors and creators, denying the commonplace that sentimental literature forms passive readers who lose themselves in mass-produced fantasies.

My study focuses on twenty-five letters in the Mitchell collection that offer direct commentary on Reveries of a Bachelor and that exemplify the playfulness and self-awareness of his correspondents. Mitchell carefully preserved these letters, in many cases writing the name of the correspondent and the place from which she or he was writing on the back. Based on the information that the correspondents offer about themselves in their letters, it seems that sixteen were female, nine male; thirteen appear to have been unmarried, seven married, and the marital status of five is difficult to determine. At least twelve appear to be under thirty, while eight seem to be over thirty and five do not reveal enough about themselves to substantiate a guess. In their letters, seventeen address Donald Grant Mitchell, four Ik Marvel, and four omit direct addresses altogether. Five of the correspondents (all women) sent Mitchell Valentine’s greetings, while four correspondents (apparently all women) enclosed poems. In general, most of the letters that Mitchell preserved from the 1850s were written by young unmarried women and men looking for inspiration and approval from their mentor, while most that he saved from the 1880s (after he published the second revised edition of Reveries) were written by married, middle-aged men thanking him for taking them back to the dreams of their youth. On the whole, younger readers read hopefully, older readers retrospectively.[8] Alongside the fan letters, I have examined the marginal notations that Patrick Henry of Vicksburg, Mississippi, made in his copy of Reveries in 1886, as well as the copy that Emily Dickinson read and the letters that she wrote expressing her delight with Mitchell’s work.

According to critics and, indeed, Mitchell himself, Reveries held particular appeal for the young. William Dean Howells, fondly reminiscing about his own boyhood reading, remembered that along with Irving, Shakespeare, Goldsmith, and Cervantes he admired “the gentle and kindly Ik Marvel, whose Reveries of a Bachelor and whose Dream Life the young people of that day were reading with a tender rapture” (64). Howells’s response demonstrates the extent to which readers identified the book with its benevolent narrator as well as its power to stimulate soft, emotional dreams. By labeling the audience as young, Mitchell, Howells, and other authors called upon the antebellum understanding of youth as a stage in which the mind is undisciplined, romantic, and extremely sensitive to sensations, “a time of high spirits, but also volatile and thoughtless”—a time, in other words, well-suited for reverie (Kett, Rites 103). Whereas religious counselors encouraged youths to wrestle this impulsive, passionate spirit under control, Ik Marvel preached the secular gospel that reverie led one closer to ideal truth and allowed one to play with identity without sacrificing autonomy.

Along with youth, gender was a significant category for describing Reveries’s readers. Critics recommended the book to men in particular. As an anonymous reviewer for the Literary World noted, “Reader, bachelor or Benedict, you will be all the better for possessing this daintily arranged book of Ik Marvel’s Reveries” (“Review”). Even though the reviewer identifies the audience as being predominantly either married or unmarried men, he uses a term of refinement, even femininity, to describe the reveries, as if such “daintily arranged” musings will add a necessary touch of ornate delicacy to a man’s life. The book’s appeal, however, was not limited to men. Writing in the early twentieth century, Waldo Dunn characterized Mitchell’s most fervent readers as being women who sought to win over the author: “Languishing Adas, and Claras, and Carries, and Jennies, and Dorothys, and Mary ‘darlings,’ showered him with valentines. Other and more ardent maidens wrote to inquire whether the author really was a bachelor; and, with the assurance that their hearts alone could understand and comfort that of Ik Marvel, coyly offered themselves in marriage” (230). Dunn’s exaggerated rhetoric reveals his own biases, but male and female readers did present themselves differently in their fan letters, with women more often apologizing for the intrusion or marveling at their daring in writing to him. Yet women as well as men took on aspects of the bachelor’s pose, joining him in fireside fantasies. Still, some wondered if a bachelor’s reveries could really be a woman’s, whether he could really know a woman’s heart, and whether women would have the freedom to enjoy Ik’s rapturous leisure.

Although the tone, content, and style of these letters differed as much as the correspondents themselves, they showed that the need to dream cut across categories of identity.[9] Most of Ik’s readers described themselves as facing circumstances of confinement or instability, whether because they were young men unsure about what course in life to pursue, “old maids” pained by their limited choices, mothers bedridden by illness, or young women anxious about their romantic prospects. Inspired by Ik’s reveries, many readers imagined selves that were able to transcend the social roles normally assigned to them, so that a poor youth could fantasize about economic success, a medical student could find an alternative to scientific learning, a young woman could dream of supporting her family through writing, and a would-be traveler could embark on imaginary adventures. Just as Ik was a fickle, ever-changing figure who could bridge public and private, the real and the ideal, so his readers used him as the touchstone for their own attempts to transcend boundaries. Yet readers did not bow to Ik Marvel or read uncritically; they detected his distance (and were drawn to it), wondered over the claims that he made, and revised his fantasies to construct their own. In so doing, each individually became a bachelor of arts, observant, wry, unstable.[10]

In their responses to Reveries, readers demonstrated several kinds of reactions, sometimes simultaneously: identification with Ik Marvel, the need to question and challenge the authorial persona, and the desire to push beyond the fantasies spun by Ik and articulate their own. Throughout these letters, we see readers borrowing from Mitchell’s language in expressing their attraction to his persona and asserting their own dreams. Just as Mitchell described his heart as “a bundle of letters,” so Carrie, a savvy reader from Ohio, invoked the metaphor in explaining how Ik had uncovered her own feelings, writing in a tone of amused outrage that

I have just finished the last chapter of your “Reveries” and lay down the book, feeling that you are indeed, a marvel of a man: for, how did you know what I had been thinking and feeling for this long time? How did you know that I had such an affection for letters, and find out that [I] had such a pacquet tied with a ribbon ‘almost too short’? By what necromancy did you get even a blind peep into that one corner of my heart which, I thought, was hermetically sealed–Didn’t you see the label ‘For private use’? (Carrie, October 30, 1851, 1)[11]

Even as she accuses Ik of voyeurism, Carrie plays with his metaphor for his own experience of reading letters and transforms it, rethinking the packet as her own heart and Marvel as its sympathetic reader. Thus she exchanges the reader/author positions with Ik and asserts her own imaginative authority, challenging the “you” who presumed to pronounce the feelings that she had been keeping bound up. In constructing her own pose as a witty, self-revealing reader, Carrie imitates many features of Marvel’s style—quotation (here from Marvel himself), punning (on “marvel”), and questioning—to suggest her own intense, almost surprising investment in the text. Teasingly protesting Ik’s transgression, Carrie describes him as a sort of magician who can bridge the gap between public and private through the mutuality that reading and writing make possible. Then she takes on that power herself. Ultimately, what Carrie and many other readers sought in Ik was not just sentimental connection but also imaginative license—the power to peer into possible futures and to look at themselves from different perspectives, to play with new possibilities for the “I” in the same way that Ik invented and spectated on his dream selves.

What readers found most compelling about Reveries was Mitchell’s insistence that dreams possessed even greater value than everyday experience. As he wrote in defending his reveries, “What if they have no material type–no objective form? All that is crude–a mere reduction of ideality to sense” (50). In addressing the author, many readers emphasized that he seemed to understand them as no one else did, suggesting their own sense of alienation from a culture that seemed to place material reality above dreams. For instance, Carrie lamented that she was mocked by practical thinkers for expressing her feelings and fantasies, but thanked Mitchell for validating her sentimental self-expression:

Enthusiastic and impulsive, I gave full expression to the emotion that seemed, at the moment, my very life, but my friends, the bystanders, only stared at me, and one man laughed. You remember it? –It was the sort of laugh which you might expect an iceberg to make if it only could laugh. And, when he said something about “romantic aims”–I became, suddenly, silent and have remained so ever since. But you have come to my relief and spoken for me, giving utterance to so may things which during the long silence I have thought and felt. (Oct. 30, 1851)

Here Carrie asserts that sentimental connections matter more than real-life association; Carrie’s friends are “bystanders,” belittling her through their laughs and stares, while Ik Marvel is a soul-mate, who can understand and express her feelings and dreams even though he has never met her. Just as Mitchell uses “you” to make his readers present in his reveries, so does Carrie, who casts “you,” Ik Marvel, as a spectator (and savior) at her scene of humiliation. At once, Carrie records her disenchantment with materialist values and describes how she was able to recover a relation to society—a voice—through a sentimental union with Mitchell. By imagining Mitchell as a gallant hero defending dreams, Carrie implies that she needs him to be a public voice for private values, yet she also asserts her own right to see the world romantically. When, to her glee, Mitchell wrote back to her, Carrie acknowledged that she would violate social convention by continuing a relationship in letters with the beloved author, but she insisted that the values of the heart should overrule those of the head:

–Shall I write to you again? This is a question which I have asked myself many times and many voices, conventional and providential, have croaked me out an ugly “No”– But one voice, clearer and more powerful than the rest, and coming from out my heart–says, simply, “Write”– and, so– (Dec 12, 1851)

For Carrie, exchanging letters with Ik meant not only that she could find a spokesperson for an idealist philosophy, but also that she could speak for herself in the strong, clear voice of the heart.

So intensely did some readers identify with Marvel’s reveries that they compared themselves to, or even described themselves as, characters in his work, eroding the boundaries between self and other, fiction and reality. For instance, in the extensive marginal notes that Mississippian Patrick Henry made in his copy of Reveries, he recorded his deep sense of identification with the bachelor narrator, even writing a ditty about the sad lot of the “poor old bachelor” in the margins.

Patrick Henry’s annotations

Figure 3: Patrick Henry’s annotations

When Ik described “a Bachelor of seven and twenty,” Patrick crossed out the seven and wrote in “four,” presumably inserting his own age and thereby merging his identity with the bachelor narrator’s.[12] By rewriting the text to reflect himself, Henry worked through his own fears and aspirations as a bachelor, since he shared “self-same feelings” with Ik.

While most male correspondents identified with the bachelor, young women often imagined themselves as his beloved, and some older women related to Ik’s unmarried aunt. Playing with the fiction that Ik was real and that she was a part of his reveries, Carrie of Ohio enthusiastically observed the correspondence of her name with the name of the beloved wife in “Morning, Noon, and Night”: “It will not be hard for you to direct your letter, for my own, real name is Carrie” (October 30, 1851). For Carrie, such a coincidence in names helped to explain why she felt such a deep sympathy with Ik; it is almost as if mailing the letter were an unnecessary step, since Carrie saw herself as the living embodiment of the dream wife that Mitchell had created. But Carrie did mail the letter in order to make real a relationship that had only been imagined in Reveries. While Carrie’s imaginative relation was based on romance, Dorothy, a middle-aged unmarried woman, identified with Ik’s spinster Aunt Tabithy, gently chastising him for calling her “old” at forty and for saying that she took snuff (March 1, 1852).

As much as these correspondents attempted to insert themselves into Ik’s fantasy (which we might also regard as a savvy attempt to elicit Ik’s attention), there is an important difference between the Carrie that Mitchell created and the one who wrote to him: unlike Mitchell’s creations, his correspondents articulated their own desires and shaped their own fantasies, talking back to him. When Mitchell responded, Carrie articulated her excitement and wonder that a dream relationship could assume tangible form:

You did write to me–dear Ik Marvel!–When the letter was brought to me, I held it in my hand, wondering–doubting, half-fearing that it was only a snowflake which the driving storm had sent in; and that, in the glow of my excitement, it would dissolve–and be no more.– But, it is a real letter–with your seal upon the envelope, and your spirit in its words. I have it safe–there in my covered work-basket–I see it shining through the meshes–and there it shall stay–unless, indeed, it should some day have a companion–then I will get them a snug little box where they shall go to house-keeping. (December 12, 1851)

Just as Reveries is concerned with the relationship between the real and the ideal, so is Carrie’s letter, as she expresses surprise that something sent out by the evanescent Marvel could assume physical reality. Yet as much as Carrie delights in the spirit of Mitchell’s words, she dwells upon the letter’s material form, which is the sign of her connection to the author. To describe her hopes that she will receive another letter, Carrie chooses a metaphor that might have terrified a bachelor by suggesting that the two notes would marry and set up housekeeping, making the relationship in letters a domestic one. Whereas Mitchell describes tying up his letters and setting them aside, Carrie places her letter from Mitchell in her work basket, where it is enclosed but visible from behind the meshes, part of an arrangement of domestic tools within easy reach. For Carrie, it seems, the letters introduce an element of fantasy into home life, even as they are being integrated into that life.

In striving to establish a sentimental relationship with Mitchell, fans praised his virtues, professed interest in his personal life, and imagined themselves as part of his reveries. Yet their letters also attest to the ways in which the narrator’s distance both intensified their fascination with him and caused them to refuse the union between I and you. Perplexed by the ambiguity of the author’s identity—was Ik Marvel a pen name, or was he an invented narrator entirely separate from Donald Grant Mitchell?—fans persistently questioned whether Mitchell was recording his authentic feelings. What drew particular attention to the relationship between the real and the ideal, and more specifically between Mitchell the author and Ik the narrative persona, was the debate over whether Mitchell really were a bachelor. Following the publication of the first reverie, “Smoke, Flame, and Ashes,” a critic stirred up the controversy by asserting that a bachelor could not possibly write such rich descriptions of domestic life. The debate opened up crucial questions about genre, literary persona, and authorship: To what extent is a work that presents itself as the authentic thoughts of a narrator autobiographical, and to what extent should it be? Can a bachelor understand marriage? By frowning upon Mitchell for supposedly inventing his bachelorhood, the critic implied that the conventions of the sentimental essay demanded a correlation between the author’s experience and the narrator’s musings, that the sentimental essayist must inscribe reality rather than explore fantasy. To the charge that he made up his bachelorhood, Mitchell replied, “I thank [the critic] for thinking so well of me,” then went on to assert that the bachelor best depicts domesticity because he is apart from it and without bias (ii).

Mitchell’s fans went a step further in promoting his bachelorhood, insisting that the idealist, one whose only experience of marriage is imagined, provides the truest description of domesticity precisely because he is not restricted by crude fact. As an anonymous reader stated in her Valentine’s message to Mitchell, “Still I can scarce conceive it possible for one to describe as you have, love, domestic happiness and what a ‘good wife’ should be without having experienced it all:–yet I have heard others reason that proves the very fact of your bachelorship” (February 14, 1852). According to the idealist view, Ik’s sentimental power resulted from his very distance from domesticity, since as an unmarried man he could feel all the more intensely what he lacked and use his imagination to create moving images of family life. In his preface to Dream Life, his follow-up to Reveries, Mitchell concurred, insisting that what matters is not fact, but feeling; if his work made someone weep real tears, then it was in a deep sense true: “if I have made the feeling real, I am content that the facts should be false. Feeling indeed has a higher truth in it, than circumstance” (15). Mitchell claimed that the bachelor, who could “scud off under each pleasant breeze of feeling” (Dream Life 18), was best positioned to explore the nature of feeling and consciousness because he was not moored to any set reality.

Still, readers wanted to know the truth about Mitchell, to verify that the feelings, if not the experience, were true. By writing to Mitchell, many readers hoped to peek behind the veil shielding his privacy and come to know this sympathetic, but intensely detached, author. In her Valentine (addressed to Mitchell, not Ik), Aggie Bee Smallwood admitted, “I have wondered while perusing it, whether your real heart of hearts, breathed forth those beautiful words and ideas. ‘Twould seem so, and I wish to believe it.–I would love, so dearly, to become acquainted with the history of your life,” (February 14, 1853, Tomsville, Ohio). Using sentimental language such as “heart of hearts” and “breathed forth,” language that Mitchell used in his own book of the heart, Smallwood tests the truth of the words that so moved her, hoping that external statement matches internal experience. By “real,” she means the emotional conditions of Mitchell’s life, especially his relationship with female family members: Is he married? Has he, like Smallwood, lost a mother? If so, author and reader share a common experience, putting them in greater sympathy. Even as Smallwood embraces sentimental values, she hints at her fear that Mitchell’s beautiful words might be illusory, produced by the brain rather than the heart. For some readers, experience intensified the emotional impact of the ideas.

While Smallwood worried whether Mitchell the author matched Ik the narrator, other readers were drawn by Ik’s remoteness. One, a seventeen year-old who called herself “Enigma,” contended that Ik (whom she addressed rather than Mitchell) was the real enigma:

I wish I knew you— I always wish it–when I finish reading one of your precious volumes, all of which I hold as sacred works in my own little library–why I always put a paper between your books and the ones on either side… What a strange man you are–how you must hate the world–do you? you have such a fine mind, such a noble heart– do you pity or despise us–or is pity mingled with scorn– I cannot tell your character by reading your books, for you change so often, and draw your pictures equally well–Do you wish any one to know what you are— oh! how strange. (n.d.)

Enigma’s letter, broken up and intensified with dashes and asides, captures the tension between separateness and intimacy that drives Reveries.[13] In Ik, Enigma senses both ideal, “noble” feeling and a detached, almost godlike observer. As she organizes her library, Enigma imitates Ik’s own moves in setting him—or at least the “sacred works” that embody him—apart, suggesting that for some fans his remoteness led to even greater adulation. Enigma links the bachelor’s ability to “draw pictures” to his variability, as if his habits of self-disguise and self-transformation contributed to his artistry. In this passage in which “I” attempts to understand “you,” Enigma takes on the voice of an author as she expresses her admiration and suspicion of this mysterious creator. She too assumes a mask, protecting her privacy and making her reader wonder how to decode the enigma.

Paradoxically, many readers’ identification with Ik depended on their distance from him. By peering at him from afar, they could protect their vision of him—and of themselves. Reveries’ fans responded enthusiastically when Mitchell, capitalizing on the success of his book, embarked on a lecture tour, since they were able to sit in the audience and study the beloved author without having to engage directly with him. Remarking on her experience watching Mitchell lecture, an anonymous reader confessed that “To speak truly, I was slightly disappointed when I first saw you last Monday evening but the fire of genius that shone through your eye and the kindness and gentleness that spoke through your lips, completely won my —fancy. And as I watched you I could not help imagining it was yourself alone, I had portrayed to my mind before” (February 14, 1852). To recover from the disappointment that Mitchell was not as she imagined him to be, this correspondent activated her imagination to recast the actual speaker as the dreamed-of Ik, an “Ikon” that she cherished in private. Replicating Mitchell’s own habit of transmuting everyday objects into spiritual symbols, she reads his face for signs of virtue, for what she wanted out of the ideal narrator: genius, kindness, and gentleness. The power of this scene of reading—an interpretation of Mitchell’s physiognomy rather than his writing—comes from the correspondent’s ability to see him without being herself seen. In reading Reveries, writing to the author, and listening to him lecture, readers claimed the power to control the sentimental fantasies sparked by Mitchell.

Even as they scrutinized and re-imagined Ik, many readers imitated him by drawing a veil over their own private lives. Ten of Mitchell’s correspondents—all presumably women writing to him in the 1850s—either adopted pen names, used only their initials, or left off their last names from their letters. As much as they participated in what Samuel Otter calls the sentimental project “to make the personal public and to scrutinize the subjective,” his correspondents wanted both to protect their own privacy and to claim a personal intimacy with Mitchell (218). Women, it seems, were especially afraid that they were trespassing by contacting an unknown author, suggesting that the author/ reader relationship was more complex and fraught than a simple transaction in the sentimental economy. Yet by keeping their identities mysterious, Mitchell’s fans could also arouse his curiosity and assert their ability to author their own personae. Staging self-conscious performances, readers were thrilled to present themselves as more romantic and more courageous than they thought themselves to be in everyday life. Enigma acknowledged that she was creating a braver self in her letter and predicted, “You will know who I am some time—but will not recognize me as the same independent soul—of creature, who writes to strangers on her own account merely to please her fancy.” Even as she admitted that she differed from the self shaped in rhetoric, Enigma nevertheless asserted her own pleasure in this imaginative game, as under the cover of a letter she could construct a mysterious, fantastic identity that might shade into the self she revealed to others.

As Enigma’s comments suggest, several correspondents acknowledged that how Mitchell perceived them would reflect who they were—that is, as authors, how their audience received their “work” (the self as constructed in their letters) would help to define it. Readers thus wanted to imagine Ik as a sentimental, kind-hearted reader and author, hoping that he would view them with the same softness as he did his dream characters in Reveries. But such hopes were disturbed when one fan, Carrie, began reading The Lorgnette, the book Mitchell had published under the pen name Timon immediately before he wrote Reveries. In an inverse of Reveries’s emotional registers, the cynical bachelor Timon narrates a satirical account of New York society. The essence of Timon’s kind of bachelor narration is represented by the picture that heads every chapter: a gentleman holds up to his eyes a lorgnette (opera glasses), obscuring his face (and therefore his identity) and making his prying gaze the focus of the picture.[14] While Ik gazes with misty eyes at his dream creations, Timon scrutinizes the pretentiousness and foolishness of the fashionable. With this discomfiting image in mind, Carrie refused to be brought under such terrifying, anonymous scrutiny, protesting “Do not ever peer at me through those great Owlish glasses—which “boo” at one… I am yet true to the ‘Reveries’—and would be regarded only by the kindly—meditative eye of Ik Marvel” (December 12, 1851). Although Carrie wanted to believe that Ik and Donald Grant Mitchell were essentially the same, she worried that Mitchell might be more Timon than Marvel. By contrasting Ik with another bachelor narrator, Carrie makes clear what was important about the beloved figure: his gently thoughtful, “kind” eyes, eyes through which she would liked to be seen and defined. If Timon squints at her, she might be a silly, superficial belle; if Ik beholds her, however, she is a beautiful icon of womanhood, invested with spiritual meaning. A keen reader herself, Carrie defines her own ideal reader, demanding the power not only over what she read but also how she would be read.

Carrie knew that she was embracing a fiction, but she insisted that her romantic values, values that Ik embodied, should supersede any vision that strips away romance. Thus Carrie asserted her own imaginative freedom in defining how she would see Ik. As she wrote,

I have wished, while looking at the true portrait on the frontispiece—speaking still of the Lorgnette—that I could lift the hand and read the signs of the face it hides. But I have a portrait which fancy calls a faithful likeness, and it has great advantage over any picture which steel or paint can produce, for, it changes countenance, and puts on expression to suit its various moods, but is earnest—ever! (December 12, 1851)

Through her imagination, Carrie could make Ik whatever she wanted him to be, and so shape her own identity as a fellow dreamer. In her dream vision of Ik, she could integrate intimacy and detachment; that is, she could insist upon the sincerity of his feelings yet embrace his refusal to commit to any static identity.

If Ik was going to drive their fantasies, then his devoted readers wanted to exercise some control over how he would appear, preferring text to experience, Ik Marvel to Donald Grant Mitchell. For them, Ik represented a romantic, dreamy, and transitory mood, the kind of mood that encouraged, for instance, flirtation with an unknown bachelor. In this sense, Ik’s distance made him all the more enthralling, since his persona invited interpretation and revision. Acknowledging the attractiveness of the dream persona, an anonymous correspondent blurted, “So farewell and remember if you think too harshly of my forwardness, that I have written to Ik Marvel the ideal, and not to Donald Mitchell the substantial–and also it is St. Valentines day and leap year” (February 14, 1852). Even as this correspondent defends her own action in boldly addressing Ik, she also suggests that she could write precisely because Ik was not real, because she was tapping the hazy feeling that he represented. By insisting that their fantasies of Ik were more compelling than the real thing, his readers claimed their own authority as interpreters and creators.[15] Readers were so insistent in defining their Ik Marvel because they used him to prompt, even mediate, their own fantasies. Some men saw in Reveries a reminder to cultivate feeling and domestic retirement, while some women felt pulled by the attractions of what we might call the public sphere—travel, writing, and open flirtation with unknown men. Still, their dreaming was tentative and self-aware. Spanning both public and private, masculine and feminine, Mitchell enabled his readers to stretch the boundaries of identity, yet to do so from relatively safe, uncommitted positions.

For many men, Ik demonstrated that manliness and sentimentality were compatible, and that a man could hold onto the dreams of youth even as the concerns of adulthood pressed on him. As Dr. J. Holton wrote

I have found it really a book of the heart—of my heart—an echo of my own reveries, for I too like you have even in my childhood hours been a dreamer and every thing that was then bright for me lived in the future… Through my professional studies I was a dreamer still… For while poring—with a indulgence which necessity could alone enforce—over the musty pages of scientific research, such a volume as your “reveries” was worth more to me than a thousand that contained the records of the healing art. (Kent, Maryland, February 20, 1853)

While professional books focus on practical knowledge and present necessities, Reveries offered Holton broad visions of the future, yet it also connected him to the past, to the living energies and hopes of youth. Holton loved the book because it called to mind his idealized conception of himself as a dreamer and enabled him to heal himself through feeling. While Holton associated Reveries with his own youthful dreams, other men emphasized how the book guided them through the stages of manhood. Writing in 1886, when the second revised edition of Reveries was published, J. Macdonald Oxley commended Mitchell for producing a book that aided his own growth as a man and shaped his understanding of love. He noted how he read this book, a work of “perennial power and charm,” at different stages—as a youth, as he was preparing for marriage, as a young father, and as a middle-aged man—and how each reading illuminated new feelings: “I enjoyed the dear delicious Reveries more than at the first… I know that I owe you no small debt of gratitude because of the pure ennobling image you present of love that is guiltless of lust, and of the profound impressions that your work made upon me in the formative period of my life” (May 14, 1886). For Oxley, Mitchell provided a vision of love and marriage that shaped his own life, as if the ideal expression preceded and enhanced the actual experience. With Mitchell as a touchstone, Oxley constructed a model of manhood that emphasized dreaming and feeling over work and reputation. Like Carrie, Oxley describes how Ik could have different meanings at different times, as the fluidity of the reverie stimulated readers’ experiments in shaping themselves and their understanding of the text according to psychological needs.

Holton’s and Oxley’s appreciation for the ways in which Reveries rejuvenated them and shaped their sense of manhood echoes the book’s published reviews. Although Katherine Snyder argues that Reveries offered an alternative vision of manhood in which the inner life is given priority (62), Reveries’ reviewers articulated a more dialectical view of masculinity, in which a few hours spent cultivating the inner life prepared a man for return to the public life. As Fitz-James O’Brien commented: “When you have been all day long slaving at some hard, dry business, that chokes up all kindly sympathies, and parches every secret spring, come home, put on your dressing-gown, place a cup of delicate French chocolate on a table near you, and read the third chapter of ‘reveries of a Bachelor’” (74). O’Brien recommends to bourgeois men that when the demands of enterprise have sucked them dry, they temporarily become like Ik, embracing the bachelor’s domesticity by dressing in the garments of leisure, drinking a sweet, comforting beverage, and spilling tears over a book. Rather than locating the restorative power of the private sphere with wife and children, O’Brien suggests that sentimental literature by and about men can revitalize male readers for work. Likewise, a reviewer for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine wrote in recommending the illustrated edition of Reveries (which was issued just in time to satisfy the sentimental urgings of the Christmas holidays), “We can recommend Ik Marvel’s lifesome, soul-ful pages to all whose spirits are chafed with the wear and tear of this working-day world” (“Literary” 281). Both of these reviewers recognized an interaction between, rather than a strict separation of, the spheres, viewing feeling as a necessary balance to industry but insisting that Reveries had value in restoring men to the “working-day world.”

Even as Reveries connected some men with domestic values, others saw it as a celebration of bachelor independence, feeling, and fraternity. Like Oxley, William Thompson claimed that Reveries helped to make him into a thinking, feeling man, but he insisted upon maintaining his distance from domesticity: “I am poor and illiterate–know nothing but what I learnt from newspapers and magazines, was almost old enough to marry before I began to think, about anything–but thank God I am not married– I tried for a long time to find something to read that suited my feelings and never found it till I got your ‘Reveries’” (July 1, 1852). Thompson describes himself as a self-made man—or rather a man in the making—and suggests that Marvel furnishes a model for determined independence that is energized by feeling. In order to preserve this sense of autonomy, Thompson contends not only that he needs to remain single, but also his role model, begging “Dont marry for a while, Ik. I’m going to New York, and I’ll see you some of these days: but you’ll never see me. Just write a few words, Ik” (St. Louis, July 1, 1852). Thompson’s letter captures the tension between intimacy and detachment, as he insists that his mobility and his emotional energy depend upon not only Ik’s continued availability, but also on his own ability to remain hidden. At once, Thompson expressed his desire for emotional connection and for distance, his hope to gaze at Ik but not be seen by him. By peering at Ik, whether on the street or between pages, Thompson could feel thrilled, but he didn’t risk the direct give-and-take of an actual relationship.

In a sense, Thompson’s note is a love letter in which he voices a deep identification with Ik, yet draws back, implying that part of the appeal is the author’s very inaccessibility. Likewise, many women sent Mitchell letters in which they voiced affection and love for the author, yet acknowledged the fragility of their feelings. Indeed, as mentioned earlier, four of the sixteen letters written by women are explicitly Valentine’s messages. By writing to the meditative bachelor, female readers could commit a small rebellion against social boundaries without exposing themselves to real danger. Imagining Ik as an ideal lover, an anonymous reader attested to the conflict between domestic duty and romantic inclination that Reveries called forth. Touting the book’s sentimental values, she wrote in her Valentine’s message, “I lay down your books, always with a sense of humility, a fresh clinging love for home, and its inmates, and a kindlier feeling towards the world in general” (February 14, 1852). Yet in this same letter, the anonymous correspondent blurts out that she has evaded the surveillance of her father in order to write to Ik:

it is a little, secret romantic mystery to think over–a happy consciousness that you (perhaps not) have read, actually read words that I have written–an involuntary impulse to–pshaw–what would dear Papa say (if he only knew) who is now sleeping so contentedly below, little dreaming what his ‘sissy Mary’ is doing just over his head, well I cannot write so well or so bad by daylight, it throws too broad a matter of fact glare over nonsense, but when all the household is still, and I alone with odd thoughts and fancies, at the witching hour of night– why then, I feel as if I could dare to cast off the restraint of ‘what would the world say’ if–as that little if what a world of joy or sorrow it is the gate to… (unnamed correspondent, February 14, 1852, 2-3)

This anonymous reader seems to be inviting Ik to be a voyeur, to sneak past the supervision of her father and stare at her moonlit fantasies, creating an intimacy that unites the looker and the looked-at (for she is peering at Ik just as he is staring at her). In writing to Ik, the correspondent takes one step toward resisting “what would the world say” and following her own desires, which are tinged with eroticism, pursued in solitude, and activated by the seeming availability of the bachelor-dreamer. Nevertheless, she indicates that these dreams, like Ik’s, are only temporary, and that once day returns she will continue to be governed by the authority of her father (with occasional forays into fantasy, a fantasy that ultimately reinforces domesticity by focusing on marriage as its aim).

While some female readers were inspired by Reveries to dream of love, others developed professional ambitions. E.C.W., a young woman from North Carolina, asked Ik to use her letter as a “specimin” in judging whether she could make money as an author.[16] For her, the dream of authorship presented an alternative to domestic work. However, sensing that her culture frowned upon female economic enterprise, E.C.W. insisted that she would write only to support her family:

This is only one of those pet schemes that will give me incalculable amount of pleasure if it succeeds; but there will be no harm done if it lives only in my fancy– Beyond making my home a happy one to Father and brothers, lightening my Mothers cares and smoothing the path of my only sister–a child as yet– I have no ambition–and I will sit down as cheerfully to home duties Mr. Marvel with your rebuke for my presumption in my pocket along with the keys, as if I had dreamed of any higher priveledge than the making of puddings and pies for these dear ones to eat– (Wilmington NC, Sep 16th)

Here E.C.W. articulates a central tension found in many of the women’s letters between obligations to home and dreams of transcending their quotidian tasks by creating poetry. Yet E.C.W. is careful to put her dream of writing into practical, self-sacrificing terms, as she promises that she would support her family through her imaginative efforts. Like many readers (and indeed like Ik himself), she backs away from the violation that a career as a writer might imply—and from the possibility of disappointment—by saying that she is content to let the dream remain just a dream.

Reading Reveries enabled some to look beyond limited gender roles and to imagine alternative lives, yet they were conscious of the potential violation behind their dreams.[17] For instance, Carrie proclaimed that Mitchell’s descriptions of European travels in his Fresh Gleanings activated her own dream life, yet worried about the consequences of fulfilling such dreams:

I have never been in Europe myself–Not I… But I want to go–have a great longing for a flight, out and up, among the free, bold, glorious things of this wide earth… I try to convince myself, that, such a glad flight would unfit me for a contented return to the common, homely scenes which now surround me…. I will hope to go yet–and if my bright dreams are never realized–yet, I will still dream on–and never cease to long for the grand and the beautiful. (Urbana, Ohio, October 30, 1851, 3-4)

Here Carrie arrives at a fundamental question that many female readers confronted: could Ik Marvel’s dreams, as alluring as they are, be their own? By reading about Ik’s travels, Carrie was captivated by the desire to go off on her own adventures, but she also acknowledged the warnings of her culture that such travels are not for unaccompanied ladies. In response, Carrie takes on a typically Ik Marvelish position, insisting that the dream is supreme because it connects one to beauty without threatening to unsettle reality.

If men embraced Reveries because it could restore their sentimental energies, women often enacted a more resistant yet fascinated relationship with the text, both seeking the ideals represented by the bachelor narrator and questioning whether they were appropriate. As compelling as many women readers found Ik Marvel’s Reveries, they detected some distortions in his depictions of women and therefore asserted their right to speak for themselves. Rather than presenting complex, developed female characters, Mitchell dreamt up stereotypes of women: the flirt; the crusty but tender-hearted spinster aunt; the sweet but dying girl cousin; the outwardly beautiful but inwardly cruel wife; and the bluestocking. Disturbed by such stereotypes, Carrie reprimanded Ik for presuming to know women’s inner dreams: “But, Isaac, though you are an excellent reader of hearts–you, a man, cannot read a Woman’s heart-writing. It has hieroglyphics which a woman, alone, can translate. You might, perhaps, understand something from her interpretation” (October 30, 1851, 2). By chastising Ik for his presumption, Carrie asserted women’s rights to translate the mysterious language of their hearts and justified women becoming writers as well as readers. Taking on the powerful voice of Ik’s Aunt Tabithy (who calls him Isaac), Carrie demanded that Ik read what women have written (both literally and metaphorically) rather than pretending to produce their stories himself.

Why not have the reveries of a spinster?

As Carrie asserts, the Reveries of a Bachelor could not be equated with the dreams of a woman. However, several female authors rewrote Reveries from a woman’s perspective, rejecting the solitude and solipsism of the bachelor’s model of sentimental production and instead constructing one based on human relationships. An anonymous author published “The Reverie of an Old Maid” (1851) less than a year after the original Reveries was published, and Mitchell’s book continued to claim cultural importance 46 years later, when Helen Davies wrote Reveries of a Spinster (1897). In a sense, we could label these texts “spinster fictions” rather than “bachelor fictions,” since they focus on single women and the challenges they must face, considering but ultimately deriding the bachelor’s habits of detached fantasizing. Perhaps the most angry repudiation of Ik’s idealism and detachment comes in “The Reverie of an Old Maid,” which appeared in The National Era less than a year after Mitchell’s book was published. Focusing on the suffering of a solitary spinster rather than a bachelor, the author insists that, for women, happiness can only be found in marriage: “A bachelor is a solitary being certainly, but men do not feel, like women, the need of home sympathy and home affections…. He does not feel any craving for family joys; he has no vacant chamber, haunted by a sense of its own loneliness, in his heart” (412). This anonymous author reworks Mitchell’s language of the heart by giving priority to domesticity, equating a vacant house with an empty, unfulfilled heart. According to Ik, fantasy provides insight into suffering, but also offers a means of avoiding it; yet the unmarried woman in this story discovers that fantasizing only increases her despair by tempting her away from Christian acceptance of her fate.

Likewise, Helen Davies’ Reveries of a Spinster criticizes the passivity and social withdrawal of the bachelor, but it is nevertheless drawn by the fantasy that Mitchell promotes. As the title hints, Reveries of a Spinster takes Mitchell’s work as its touchstone, but Davies transforms the narrative of bachelor sentimentalism by using as her protagonist an unmarried, impoverished schoolteacher named Marjory Jones.[18] Whereas Ik occupies a comfortably middle-class situation, shuttling between his home in the country and his apartment in the city, Marjory describes her spinsterhood in terms of economic and emotional deprivation. She must eke out a meager living, subsist in a small, threadbare boardinghouse room, and deal with the disappointment of unfulfilled maternal urges. With this drearier setting, Reveries of a Spinster raises questions about the values that the leisured Ik puts forward: Is it really better to dream than to live in the real world? Is a solitary life preferable to raising a family? Do dreamers have any obligation to act so that they can alleviate the pain of others?

Initially Marjory embraces Mitchell’s view that art and fantasy can be superior to experience, finding comfort in the few works of art that decorate her room—the cheap prints of Madonna and Child tacked to the wall, the old volumes of Thackeray, Dickens, and Shakespeare that line her single shelf of books. Like Mitchell’s fans, Marjory uses her tokens of art to call forth memories and to inspire acts of dreaming. When most works fail to console her heartache, Marjory pulls down her “well-thumbed” copy of Reveries of a Bachelor and insists that its romantic message should apply as much to an unmarried woman as a bachelor: “Why not have the Reveries of a Spinster?…. Why do I care if I live in the third story back-room in a boarding-house, shut away from life and love, if I can create for myself a hidden world of romance, in which I can roam at will, with the chosen companion of my heart?” (21-22). As much as Marjory escapes from her plight through fantasy, she ultimately finds it inadequate to experience, since fancy can only heighten emotional expectation rather than resolving real problems.

Although Reveries of a Spinster duplicates the Reveries of a Bachelor by including scenes of lonely fireside dreaming, the former emphasizes social duty and imagines an approach to art that confronts real-world suffering through spontaneous, sincere expression of feeling. Marjory befriends a muckraking Scottish journalist named Kenneth, who takes her to a crowded, dilapidated tenement. When she meets an impoverished, abused woman and her hungry child, Marjory employs the imaginative practices that Ik teaches—she transmutes the real into the ideal, seeing in everyday life a sign of a moral or emotional truth. But Marjory pushes beyond Sensibility and accepts the injunction to offer these sufferers real help, paying for the woman and her child to escape urban turmoil and move to a country home. In order to afford this commitment, Marjory must give up her plans to purchase more volumes of Thackeray, but she decides that “[t]he books may come some day, and if they never do, I shall have more pleasure out of this. Human beings are more interesting reading than printed pages” (150). Here we might see a crucial distinction between bachelors’ reveries and spinsters’, as Marjory commits herself to act and decides that her own pleasure in reading should be sacrificed for a greater good. By no means does Davies reject art; instead, she imagines a social function for it, as Marjory soon becomes an improvisatrice who interprets “the sorrow and pathos of living” at the piano and crafts moral art inspired by reverie (162).

In the end, Reveries of a Spinster backs away from the dream of a single life dedicated to art and service and upholds domesticity. Although Davies does expand women’s roles to include artist and social worker, she suggests that a woman cannot be both an artist and a mother, so Marjory becomes “a virgin knight” for her art (180). Yet this sacrifice is ill-conceived, since at the end of the novel Marjory misses the concrete fulfillment (rather than abstract dream) of love and motherhood. In the last scene, as Marjory muses in a marveling pose by the fire, she realizes that real life should come before the dream life: “There are times like to-night, when my inspiration fails me. It seems vague and unsatisfying. It is like trying to warm frozen fingers on a winter’s night by the light of the moonbeams, instead of by a genial coal fire…. I want earth love to-night, tangible and real” (214-15). Even though women’s dreams may encompass the bachelor’s, Davies suggests that a bachelor’s dreams are too insubstantial, inconsequential, and superficial to merit adoption by women, who yearn for home and family.

Unlike Davies, Emily Dickinson wholeheartedly embraced the act of dreaming, but she rejected the pure solitude that Ik represented, positing instead a vision of companionate dreaming and radical creation. Although (and perhaps partly because) Dickinson’s father Edward detested Reveries, his children Austin, Emily, and Lavinia adored it, using it as the touchstone for their own dreams and as a justification for art (Reynolds 34). As Emily laughingly lamented in a letter to Austin, their father could not comprehend their attraction to such “frivolous” writing:

Father was very severe to me; he thought I’d been trifling with you, so he gave me quite a trimming about “Uncle Tom” and “Charles Dickens” and those “modern Literati” who he says are nothing, compared to past generations, who flourished when he was a boy. Then he said there were “somebody’s rev-e-ries,” he didn’t know whose they were, that he thought were very ridiculous– so I’m quite in disgrace at present, but think of that ‘pinnacle’ on which you always mount, when anybody insults you, and that’s quite a comfort to me. (April 2, 1853; I: 237)

Reveries brought out a fundamental generational conflict over “sentimental” versus “serious” literature. Yet Emily Dickinson adopts a typically Ik Marvelish response in dealing with her father’s disdain—she jokes and separates herself from her father’s views, imagining herself above it all with Austin on Parnassus.

Why was Emily Dickinson so enamored of this book? We can find some hints in the copy of Reveries of a Bachelor that once belonged to the Dickinson family and that is now held by the Beinecke Library, for in this volume Emily Dickinson drew lines or asterisks next to passages that held special significance for her.[19] Dickinson marked her enthusiasm for Ik Marvel’s meditations on love, death, and the idealized future, as well as for his resistance to the social injunction that he marry just to marry. Though Dickinson’s marks are enigmatic, she—like many other readers—appeared to be moved by Marvel’s idealism, as well as his sense of passion and potential bubbling beneath the surface. Thus she marked “There lies in the depth of every man’s soul a mine of affection, which from time to time will burn with the seething heat of a volcano, and heave up lava-like monuments, through all the cold strata of his commoner nature…. Affection is the stepping stone to God. The heart is our only measure of infinitude” (259). For Dickinson, this passage, one of the vital statements of this “book of the heart,” might have signified the yet unrealized power of feeling to achieve transcendence, an explosion of the everyday. Like Mitchell, Dickinson incorporated the metaphor of volcanoes in her own work, exploring the tension between external and internal, what is and the disruptive potential of what could be.[20] Dickinson also joined Mitchell in mocking stereotypical women who lacked depth, placing marks next to passages belittling flirts—“She is always gay, because she has no depth of feeling to be stirred” (74)—and busybodies—“some country women, who wore stiff bonnets, and eat fennel, and sung with the choir” (173-4). A passage about overzealous relatives pushing the young toward marriage merited enough attention for Dickinson to put a plus sign next to it, as if she shared Marvel’s annoyance at “pleasant old ladies, and trim, excellent, good-natured, married friends, who talk to [the bachelor] about nice matches–‘very nice matches,’–matches, which never go off?” (133).

One is tempted to hypothesize that Dickinson admired Marvel in part for giving grandeur to being single, representing it as a state of heightened imagination and independence of thought. Through celibacy, both Mitchell and Dickinson were able to commit their resources to contemplation and creation, crafting artistic identities that attempted to avoid the separation of spheres by positing a zone of imaginative production that existed in tension with both. In a letter to Mrs. Josiah Holland, Emily Dickinson developed metaphors for the fluidity of identity and playfully referred to her own bachelorhood. Imagining the thrill that Holland would feel upon her husband’s return from a lecture tour, Dickinson wrote, “I gather from ‘Republican’ that you are about to doff your weeds for a Bride’s Attire. Vive le fireside! Am told that fasting gives to food marvellous Aroma, but by birth a Bachelor, disavow Cuisine” (Letters II:350). In this ambivalent portrait of domesticity, Dickinson suggests that the wife’s state of being is entirely dependent upon the husband, so that his absence makes her a widow who must renounce pleasure, while his presence brings about a wedding feast of sorts. Yet Dickinson’s almost monastic asceticism, her refusal to even taste fine foods, yields its own rewards; if she doesn’t know what she is missing, she doesn’t feel the lack. Whereas the wife’s identity shifts between widow and bride, Dickinson asserts that her bachelorhood is inherent, with her from birth. By claiming this conventionally masculine identity, she asserts the power of deliberate renunciation. Perhaps in describing the “marvellous Aroma” that fasting brings to food, Dickinson is punning on Mitchell’s pen name and playing with his aesthetics of distance. In disavowing rather than making vows, perhaps she had in mind Ik Marvel’s version of bachelorhood, where the dream is preferable to the fulfillment.

Yet Dickinson, an imaginative and critical reader, rejected Mitchell’s insistence on solitary dreaming and claimed the right to succeed him.[21] Using Reveries as the inspiration for her own imaginative flights, Emily Dickinson wrote to her close friend (and future sister-in-law) Susan Gilbert,

It was such an evening, Susie, as you and I would walk and have such pleasant musings–if only you were here perhaps we would have a ‘Reverie’ after the form of ‘Ik Marvel,’ indeed I do not know why it would’nt be just as charming as of that lonely Bachelor, smoking his cigar– and it would be far more profitable as “Marvel” only marvelled, and you and I would try to make a little destiny to have for our own…. Dont you hope he will live as long as you and I do–and keep on having dreams and writing them to us… We will be willing to die Susie– when such as he have gone, for there will be none to interpret these lives of our’s. (Selected Letters 66-67)

By using the word “interpret,” Dickinson shows why Mitchell was so important to his readers: rather than imposing a vision on them, he seemed to give significance to their own dreams and lives. Although Dickinson suggests that Marvel brings meaning to the inner lives that she and Susan lead, she moves beyond Marvel’s fantasies and builds one of her own—a fantasy of mutuality, of shared dreaming between two female friends, a fantasy that she hopes to put into practice, for personal “profit” and pleasure. What Dickinson wants to implement is dreaming as a loving bond that is at once revelatory and comforting. We find in Dickinson’s dreams of collaborative dreaming a description of her own relationship with Susan Gilbert Dickinson, a relationship that Martha Nell Smith has recently shown to be crucial to Dickinson’s poetry. With Emily Dickinson, then, we see two modes of reading coming together: individualist and social, receptive and creative, worldly and fantastic.

Mitchell continued to be a touchstone for Emily Dickinson’s imaginings, yet in her comments on his next book, Dream Life, she asserted an almost Bloomian will to surpass the bachelor author. As she wrote in a letter to Austin,

“Dream Life” is not near so great a book as the “Reveries of a Bachelor[“], yet I think it full of the very sweetest fancies, and more exquisite language I defy a man to use; on the whole I enjoy it very much, tho’ I can’t help wishing all the time, that he had been translated like Enoch of old, after his Bachelor’s Reverie, and that the “chariot of fire, and the horses thereof,” were all that was seen of him, after that exquisite writing. (I: 178)

Here Dickinson invokes the tale of Elijah to explain her sense of the depletion of Marvel’s creative powers—and perhaps her own desire to become an Elisha, performing her own aesthetic miracles while infused with Marvel’s spirit. The narrative that Dickinson taps is one of succession: the prophet Elijah is to be carried away by God, but his servant Elisha insists on accompanying him and asks that he “inherit a double share of [Elijah’s] spirit.” A chariot and horses of fire take Elijah to heaven as Elisha shouts, “My Father! My father! Chariot of Israel and its chargers” (2 Kings 2:11). Elisha goes on to become a great prophet himself, charged by Elijah’s spirit. For Dickinson, this story might have represented her own ambitions to become a great poet, to draw upon Ik Marvel’s powers as she replaced him.

With Emily Dickinson, we see how detached intimacy could promote creativity, as the distant but passionate commentary of Ik Marvel seemed to shape Dickinson’s own ambitions and ideas as a poet. As Cathy Davidson argues, readers participate in a “dialogue” with the text, reading actively and critically—to which we might add imaginatively. By examining fan letters to Mitchell in the context of Reveries of a Bachelor, we have seen how readers modeled themselves after the narrator yet insisted upon maintaining a distance from him, embracing his call to dream but insisting on their own rights to control their dreams. The I/you relationship was not so much a balanced sentimental exchange as a constantly renegotiated treaty in which each party declared common interests but also imaginative independence. In reading Reveries, Mitchell’s fans were able to peer across the boundaries of identity in bourgeois America, so that young women could shape more daring dream selves and young men could imagine themselves as leisured dreamers.


[1] Both Tompkins and Brodhead have valid reasons to avoid emphasizing the escapist function of domestic fiction, since past critics have discounted domestic novels by labeling them escapist. But I aim to see the fantasies produced by reading not as pejorative, but as self-creating, a means of accessing the external world while remaining cushioned in the home.[2] The 1931edition was published by Holborn House, while the 1906 edition was published by Bobbs-Merrill.

[3] Nineteenth century critics acknowledged how the sentimental essay resembled the letter in its ability to create feelings of intimacy and replicate or induce reverie. As the sentimental essayist Henry Tuckerman observed in his tribute to Charles Lamb, another bachelor author, “It is particularly agreeable to be talked to in a book, as if the writer addressed himself to us particularly. Next to a long epistle from an entertaining friend, we love, of all things in the world, a charming essay;–a concise array of ideas–an unique sketch, which furnishes subjects for an hour’s reflection, or gives rise to a succession of soothing day-dreams” (Rambles and Reveries, 326).

[4] Fitz-James O’Brien criticized Mitchell for his refusal of closure: “Mr. Mitchell, in his books, has dreams within dreams. He dreams of a hero, who dreams in turn of himself, or some one else in whom he is interested, and so rolls an endless chain of reveries, like the long perspective of receding mirrors, that we see when we place two looking-glasses face to face. This produces, in the end, a most unsatisfactory result. We see no Finis, nor ever will see one” (74). Yet this “chain of reverie” captivated many readers, who saw their own dream lives reflected in Ik’s.

[5] Whereas Mitchell validates emotions, many canonical male narratives dramatize the narrator’s detachment from feeling (Leverenz 62). Yet both fear being overwhelmed by feeling—Marvel consciously controls it, while Emerson separates himself from it altogether in works like “Experience.”

[6] Perhaps because Mitchell initially disguised his authorship under a pen name, critics, too, referred to the author as “Ik,” a practice that continued into the twentieth century. Conscious that he was being confused with his fictional creation, Mitchell began to distinguish between himself and Ik; whereas the original 1850 preface to Reveries is signed “Ik Marvel,” Mitchell signed his 1883 preface “D.G.M.”

[7] Mitchell, a graduate of Yale and resident of New Haven, donated these letters to his alma mater, and they now are held in the Mitchell Collection at the Beinecke Library. We cannot necessarily assume that these letters represent the typical response to Reveries, since few of the book’s readers probably wrote to Mitchell, and the author may not have saved all of the letters he received. However, examining these fan letters help to explain why Reveries ­was so popular and what role it played in nineteenth-century American culture.

[8] Perhaps Mitchell’s choice of which letters to preserve was based upon his own psychological need at a particular time; as a bachelor perhaps he was most drawn to adoring Valentine’s messages, while as a middle-aged man he may have been eager to recover his youth.

[9] Part of the appeal of studying Reveries in the context of response is that this book, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin or The Wide, Wide World, seemed to resist the fragmentation of the reading audience that Ronald J. Zboray argues characterized publishing in the mid nineteenth century (“Antebellum Reading” 196).

[10] For a case study of the ways that readers, particularly girls, have used their reading “[a]s an important arena for shared friendship as well as a means of creating a world more satisfying than the one ordinarily inhabited, a world in which to formulate aspirations and try out different identities,” see Barbara Sicherman, 208.

[11] These letters are part of the Mitchell Collection (ZA Mitchell 56) at the Beinecke Library, Yale University. In citing them, I am including the author’s name or nom de plume, the date of the letter, and the place where the correspondent is writing from, to the extent that this information is available.

[12] Patrick Henry’s comments were discovered in the margins of an 1886 edition of Reveries held at Alderman Library, University of Virginia.

[13] Initially I had the hunch that Enigma was Emily Dickinson, since the style of the letter is so reminiscent of hers, and since she was so fond of Mitchell’s book. However, the handwriting in the letter is different from Dickinson’s, and the biographical information does not match up: Dickinson would have been 21 when the letter was written, not 17. Nevertheless, this letter indicates that others were writing somewhat like Dickinson.

[14] The etymology of “lorgnette” suggests why some found Timon’s pose objectionable: it comes from the French verb “to leer.” An image from The Lorgnette is at the beginning of the Introduction.

[15] My findings concur with John Fiske’s analysis of fans’ responses to popular literature: “Fans are productive: Their fandom spurs them into producing their own texts” (147)

[16] In writing to Ik and articulating their own fantasies, his correspondents became producers as well as consumers, revising Reveries for their own needs. Not only did Mitchell receive letters, but also poems (and a polka!) dedicated to the beloved author. Several correspondents asked for guidance in writing; we know that others, including William Dean Howells, were inspired by Ik to give writing a try.

[17] Carla Peterson has observed a similar phenomenon in Madame deStael’s Corinne and Balzac’s Louis Lambert, as she argues that “Reading leads the protagonist to reverse the sexual conventions established by society and run counter to traditional sex roles. Thus reading ‘masculinizes’ Corrine; through it she becomes sexually knowledgeable and, beyond that, independent and assertive. In contrast, reading ‘femininizes’ Louis; it turns him inward, encouraging in him a passive attitude toward life, inhibiting physical–especially sexual–action and expression” (70). But for Ik’s readers, the transformations in identity wrought by reading were temporary and self-conscious.

[18] In part, the ideological differences between “Reveries of an Old Maid” and Reveries of a Spinster can be explained by time period, since Spinster reflects some of the uncertainties of the late nineteenth- century “New Woman” movement, while “Old Maid” echoes the domestic ethos of the 1850s.

[19] According to Richard B. Sewall, who has studied these markings along with many others found in books once owned by the Dickinson family, the lines and asterisks found in the margins of Reveries are likely Emily’s—and if not hers, then they belong to another of the younger Dickinsons. See his discussion of Emily Dickinson’s reading of Reveries in The Life of Emily Dickinson (II: 678-683).

[20]We can also see resemblances between Mitchell’s style and Dickinson’s, particularly the frequent use of the dash and the reliance on symbolic images such as light and smoke.

[21] In a subtle way, Dickinson became like an editor of Mitchell’s prose when she inserted in her copy an “m” after the second “who” in the phrase “you wonder who the tall boy was, who you saw walking with her” (112). I’ve observed this habit of correcting the author’s mechanical errors in a number of books that I’ve examined; there seems to be a sort of joy in spotting an error, as well as an intolerance towards mistakes in volumes that the owners love.

2 thoughts on “Chapter 3: Reading with a Tender Rapture: Reveries of a Bachelor and the Rhetoric of Detached Intimacy

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