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Owning Up provides a new model for interpreting the U.S. discourse on privacy. Focusing on the formative period of the nineteenth century, Adams shows that conceptions of privacy became meaningful only when posed in opposition to the encroaching forces of market capitalism and commodification. Even as Americans came to regard privacy as a natural right and to identify it with sacred ideals of democratic freedom, they also learned to think of it as fragile and under threat. Owning Up argues that narratives of violation and dispossession played a fundamental role in the emergence of U.S. privacy discourse and in the influence this discourse continues to exert within U.S. culture.
Using biographical and autobiographical writing by and about women writers including Sojourner Truth, Margaret Fuller, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Elizabeth Keckley, and Louisa May Alcott, Adams traces the figure of imperiled privacy across five decades. Where previous studies of early American privacy have focused on white femininity and middle-class domesticity as defining features, Owning Up contends that privacy is an empty category. Without a fixed content of its own, privacy acquires meaning only by being articulated-and constantly re-articulated-against threats of invasion and loss. Chapters look at how such narratives operate within particular political and economic contexts, including antebellum reform, racial reconstruction, free labor ideology, and laissez faire social Darwinism. The analysis concludes at the end of the century with calls for legislation to protect the individual's right to be let alone, a culminating moment in the discourse of threatened privacy that informs the American sense of self to this day.