British Association for American Studies


Book Review: Beauty and the Brain by Rachel E. Walker


University of Chicago Press, $45.


Rachel E. Walker’s book Beauty and the Brain: The Science of Human Nature in Early America is a widespread survey of many late eighteenth and nineteenth century materials that demonstrate the influence of physiognomy and phrenology in this era of American history. The text examin

es the ways these sciences (Walker rejects the term ‘pseudosciences’ given that they were not thought of as such in the era addressed) are present in the records of both the white male Americans, who largely controlled public discourse, as well as in the works of marginalized groups, suchas women and Black Americans. In a rising nation which established itself on egalitarian values, the book asks the question as to how scientific concepts which argued for the stratification of mankind found its stronghold in popular thought. Walker sets out to also examine the ways this contradiction aided with the oppression of marginalized groups while also uncovering how these marginalized groups adopted phrenology and physiognomy ‘for their own political aims, creatively interpreting human minds and bodies in their efforts to fight for racial justice and gender equality’.[i] Thus, the book sets the reader up to expect both an analysis of the widespread use of phrenology and physiognomy as well as an investigation into the uses by those who were more often shut out of public discourse.

Chapter Three ‘Character Detectives’, Chapter Four ‘The Manly Brow’, and Chapter Six ‘Facing Race’, are the most successful in their endeavors. These chapters provide fascinating and rich investigations of archival evidence which show women and the Black population using phrenology and physiognomy to establish a level of agency over the interpretation of their bodies and to further their own social and political goals. The chapters present a wide range of primary source material, from visual culture to novels to journal entries and letters, to give examples of the use of techniques like facial analysis and craniotomy. Walker highlights how the lack of rigid structure or guidance in these sciences allows for flexibility in phrenological and physiognomic interpretations, opening the door for any person, regardless of background, to employ the techniques as they saw fit. In this way, women and Black Americans could respond to the interpretations of their bodies supplied by the white bourgeois, challenging biological racism or implications of beauty standards.

The area where this book could develop further is in a meaningful discussion with some of the ideological implications of phrenology and physiognomy which Walker addresses as a central question in the Introduction. For example, the premise of Chapter One asserts that early Americans used phrenology and physiognomy to establish the identity of the ‘ideal’ American citizens, examining how they were used to both establish Americans as intellectual and moral equals or superiors to their European counterparts as well as provide natural explanation for class hierarchies. Walker writes in this chapter, ‘what, then, did a respectable US citizen look like? The answer was not always clear”.[ii] The text provides a solution to this ambiguity by looking at the ‘technical’ limitations of phrenology, i.e. the lack of an invariable system, the reverse engineering of physical to moral characteristics. However, it does little to address the idea that the ambiguity could lie in differing ideas between social groups on what it means to be ‘respectable’ or, later in the chapter, ‘republican.’

In Chapter Two ‘A New Science of Man,’ Walker examines the tension between the concept of biological predeterminism suggested by a system like phrenology and physiognomy and the messages of self-improvement and progress espoused by phrenologists and political thinkers alike in the era, asking how this tension related to the foundational views of Americans. A fascinating way to investigate this apparent contradiction would be to explore the question’s relationship to the religious, political, and philosophical debates occurring between some of the same writers quoted within this chapter. Christopher White, for example, highlights the growing rejection of Calvinism in early America when investigating the concepts of self-improvement and predeterminism in phrenology throughout his article ‘Minds Intensely Unsettled: Phrenology, Experience, and the American Pursuit of Spiritual Assurance, 1830-1880’ (2006).

However, Beauty and the Brain often pays little attention to the differences in more foundational beliefs that could shape the ways in which certain groups might interpret phrenology and physiognomy. Instead, Walker relies on generalizations to fill the gaps of these discussions in this chapter and throughout the book, including statements such as: ‘despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, political thinkers fostered the fiction that anyone could attain success through intellect and virtue alone.’[iii] The use of broad terms, such as ‘political thinkers’, ‘popular scientists’, and ‘activists’ weakens the nuance in Walker’s analysis of phrenological uses and oversimplifies the variation in opinions that would have existed in eighteenth and nineteenth century United States.[[iv]][[v]][[vi]] The activists and Black writers whose work Walker has carefully found within archives and presented to us are often not given enough time or space within the text for a developed analysis of their own personal beliefs to aid in the reader’s understanding of their phrenological interpretations. Analysis of these phrenological interpretations ends up on a very individual or a very generalized level. Overall, the connections between phrenology, physiognomy, and larger questions of race, gender, and politics often seem to need further development.

Perhaps the reason Walker glosses over these differences in discourse is because she believes them to be already addressed and outside the focus of this book. Indeed, Walker’s endnotes do provide an extensive list of resources where the reader can find writers that engage in such discussions, and Walker does provide some level of response to these writers there. She references some valuable contributions to this field in the body of the text, such as Cynthia Hamilton’s ‘Am I Not a Man and a Brother?’ Phrenology and Anti-Slavery’ (2008) and Christopher J. Lukasik’s book Discerning Characters: The Culture of Appearance in Early America (2011). However, beyond these and a couple other works, engagement with previous scholarship appears to be isolated to the endnotes when they would be more useful to the reader if they were integrated into the larger discussion.

Overall, Walker does a wonderful job providing an in-depth survey of primary resources which demonstrate phrenology and physiognomy in the writing of people who are often overlooked. If someone is looking for a text that can direct them to areas of further exploration on this topic, then Beauty and the Brain: The Science of Human Nature provides a fascinating launching pad. However, the text could have gone further with the way it interprets these texts to answers larger questions about race, gender, politics, and religion in the early days of the United States.



End notes:

[i] Walker, Rachel E. Beauty and the Brain: The Science of Human Nature in Early America. (University of Chicago Press, 2022), 4

[ii] Ibid., 28

[iii] Ibid., 64

[iv] Ibid., 64

[v]  Ibid., 70

[vi] Ibid., 134




Hamilton, Cynthia S. “‘Am I Not a Man and a Brother?’ Phrenology and Anti-slavery.” Slavery and Abolition 29, no. 2 (2008): 173-187.

Lukasik, Christopher J.. Discerning Characters: The Culture of Appearance in Early America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011. https://doi.org/10.9783/9780812205930

Walker, Rachel E. Beauty and the Brain: The Science of Human Nature in Early America. University of Chicago Press, 2022.

White, Christopher G. “Minds Intensely Unsettled: Phrenology, Experience, and the American Pursuit of Spiritual Assurance, 1830-1880.” Religion and American Culture: R & AC 16, no. 2 (Summer, 2006): 227-261. https://doi.org/10.1525/rac.2006.16.2.227. https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/minds-intensely-unsettled-phrenology-experience/docview/205890606/se-2.