Hannah Walser’s book is centred on a literary history of cognition by tracing the dimension of characters’ minds and exploring the framework of socio-cognitive experimentation. Thus, the novel proposes a way to reflect on the mind of the characters and imagine an interior world they inhabit. Walser’s book covers a linear progression in a timeline from the early republic through the antebellum and reconstruction period to the Gilded Age. ‘Theory of Mind’ is a critical part of ‘novel-reading’, and Walser explores this theory as ‘mindreading’[i] that serves a capacity to identify naturally evolving mental states in other human minds.
Walser’s model of the mind is organised into a classification system of five parameters: the mind that is ‘bounded’ or ‘porous’; the interior states that are ‘causally powerful and significant’; ‘the epistemic stance’ on the ‘reality of mental contents’ in thought; ‘the sensorial weighting’ of forms of perceptual input; standards of ‘relational access and responsibility’ that dictates whether it is acceptable to ‘display one’s inferential awareness of other minds’.[ii] The overall theory is a great method to observe the mind, assess the formation of innate thought, and interpret the logic in the conscious actions of the characters within a narrative. Walser’s theory aims to achieve the challenge of perceiving internal states and pragmatic behaviour to determine the nature of an opaque mind. The model of the mind serves as a lens through which to read the literature, and it reveals fascinating insight to the cognition of the characters. The mind of characters are examined in a myriad of nineteenth-century American literature including Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin trilogy and novels like Henry James’s The American. The premise of Walser’s book is centred on the notion that many works of American literature depart from the ‘normative model of the novel’, and she succeeds by inspiring readers to contemplate ‘nonpropositional methods’[iii] of decoding and predicting the behaviour of characters.
Writing the Mind is an excellent study of cognitive states of mind as an effective method to examine the nature of character. In each chapter Walser maps the structured diversity of textual models of social cognition in nineteenth-century American literature in each chapter. Firstly, Walser establishes the history of an exemplary cognitive form in the novels and dismantles a conceptual metaphor associated with the Theory of Mind, and in particular, the character’s mind contained in the vessel of the literary texts. Secondly, the epistemological consequences of scepticism are applied to the ontological status of mental contents within the context of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories and other novels. In addition, Walser claims that individuals are given agency to observe mental states with consequences in the world. Therefore, she focuses on ‘textual representations of slavery’ that views the plantation as a setting of a ‘mindreading arms race’,[iv] which develops an unbalancing effect between the mental states and actions, thus manifesting as a socio-cognitive problem that emerges in nonfiction. Lastly, nonmentalistic deception is presented as part of the effect of inequality on social cognition as a method demonstrated in Mark Twain’s literary texts.
Walser uses the canonical works of American literature, such as Poe, James and Twain, to exemplify the experimental model of studying the cognitive states of characters. Although the mind is not transparent, as the characters display unconventional mental states, the literary texts in this cognitive study explore the theory of mind and cohesively thread alternate paradigms. In particular, through her analysis of the Dupin trilogy, Walser develops the concept of the pragmatics of character behaviour by emphasising the ‘formal and narratological choices’ that lead a reader’s ‘epistemic stance’.[v] Poe’s fiction offers a ‘model and a practice that distinguish themselves precisely by the drastic limitations they place on the detective field of inquiry’.[vi] To study the causal model of the characters’ behaviour in the Dupin stories, it is critical to examine the mind of Poe’s detective. In addition, Henry James’ term, the ‘house of fiction’, in the 1908 preface to the novel, The Portrait of a Lady, refers to a home with an infinite number of windows that symbolises the diversity of individual consciousnesses.[vii] It represents the characters’ interior mindset and point of view, compelling the reader to observe the character by reflecting on the mental states and subsequent actions.
Walser’s engagement with the literature is admirable as she wisely analyses passages and unveils details interwoven in character portraits to present revolutionary ideas. Furthermore, Walser argues that the mind is a container for textual mental states, a metaphor in American literary history, which is exemplified through textual analysis of the nineteenth century canonical works. The literature examined in Walser’s theory shed light on the cognitive science and philosophy of mind through the historical and cultural approaches to the study of prose fiction. Walser pioneers a promising new way of studying character disposition in literary theory, imparting a revelation of a new understanding of the mind of individual character.
The insightful book offers intellectual exploration of the mind of the characters and a compelling study derived from brilliant engagement with nineteenth-century American literature. The centrality of social cognition reveals a new understanding of character in the American novel. The conclusive intervention in academic scholarship is portrayed through the authors’ portrayal of the unique passages and methodology of the novels and stories to situate their own experiment in the mind of the characters within the greater American literary tradition of socio-cognitive experimentation.
[i] Hannah Walser, Writing the Mind: Social Cognition in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2022), 2-6.
[ii] Ibid., 30.
[iii] Ibid., 4-5.
[iv] Ibid., 33.
[v] Ibid., 32.
[vi] Ibid., 73.
[vii] Ibid., 185.
Samantha Seto is a PhD candidate in English Language and Literature at King’s College London. Her research project is centred on character portraiture, transnational identity, French aristocracy, and cosmopolitanism in twentieth century American and French novels. Her interdisciplinary research entails the study of comparative literature. In the summer of 2022, Samantha was honoured to be an academic tutor for a course in a summer programme at the University of Cambridge.
Her twitter: @SamanthaS1246.