Embedded in the term “reform” is a tension between constraint and possibility. The prefix “re-” suggests familiarity, boundedness, and recursion, just as the root “form” denotes structure, whether institutional or ideological. And yet “reform” also conveys a sense of movement or potential. As Ralph Waldo Emerson writes in “Man the Reformer,” reform entails “the conviction that there is an infinite worthiness in man which will appear at the call of worth” (1841/1983, 146). This optimistic undercurrent requires that reformers not simply deride the existing order but propose alternatives—that they must, in short, form something. And to the extent that the term calls for a realignment of established elements rather than obliterating what exists and starting over, “reform” can seem less alarming—but also more tepid—than “radicalism” or “revolution,” even as it suggests greater political engagement than either “benevolence” or “charity.”
That said, scholarship in American studies and cultural studies has shown that “reform” cannot be neatly distinguished from those other terms (Bergman and Bernardi 2005; S. Ryan 2003). In the nineteenth century, when “reform” enjoyed wide circulation as a generic descriptor of individuals and movements, its meanings shifted, expanded, and contracted depending on the social and political commitments of the author. Most who called themselves reformers described their work as benevolent even when they called for structural change rather than the direct dispensation of aid, while opponents of particular reform movements characterized their adherents as radicals committed to undermining the stability of the nation.
As these contestations suggest, reform proved to be a crucial element of identity construction in the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Dorsey 2002; Maddox 2005). Some activists laid claim to the general title of reformer to indicate their investment in all manner of social progress, but others chose the less grandiose mode of aligning themselves with specific projects (including abolition, temperance, dietary reform, dress reform, and woman suffrage). Such articulations drew on and, in turn, shaped a thriving culture of reform, comprising books, pamphlets, and periodicals, many with broad geographical circulation; organizations with frequent meetings in established gathering places; and a distinct material culture, which became a staple of various groups’ fundraising efforts. Unsurprisingly, this culture of reform also engendered resistance: as the nineteenth-century socialist Albert Brisbane (1846, 142) explained, his organization, “not wishing to take a name so much abused as that of ‘Reformer,’ . . . [chose] the simple name of Associationists.”
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s essay “Earth’s Holocaust” (1844) dramatizes a predominant nineteenth-century critique of reformers—that their efforts to improve the world failed to address the foundational task of changing the individual heart. But Hawthorne’s lament disregards reformers’ deep engagement with questions of individual perception and transformation. Nineteenth-century reformers drew on the work of such thinkers as Adam Smith, whose Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759/1966) articulated the perceptual processes by which one human being comes to feel sympathy for another. As this genealogy suggests, reformers’ appeals were calculated to change individuals’ beliefs, commitments, and crucially, feelings. Indeed, the history of reform has long been imbricated with the history of affect, with reformers relying on rhetorical modes such as sentimentalism and sensationalism to energize their texts and interventions (S. Samuels 1992; Sánchez 2008).
This link between reform and emotion has also troubled advocates for social change. Mid-nineteenth-century attempts to rationalize and bureaucratize charitable efforts, for example, followed in an Anglo-American tradition, associated with Thomas Malthus, of trying to counterbalance affective responses to suffering, which, it was feared, might encourage unwise giving and thus perpetuate dependence. Later in the century, as reformers sought to professionalize social service work, they drew on the emerging fields of sociology and criminology in order to categorize and comprehend the immigrants, delinquents, and prisoners they hoped to change. Yet affect could not be so easily banished from reformist projects. Jacob Riis’s New York photographs are apt examples; some of his images purport to document urban squalor with a quasi-scientific detachment, but others represent sleeping children or an immigrant madonna with an unabashed appeal to viewers’ emotions.
Many of those who have sought leftward social change in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have distanced themselves from the term “reform,” preferring labels such as “activism,” “progressivism,” and “protest.” Broad social-change initiatives have been tagged simply as “movements” (e.g., the civil rights movement, the labor movement), with “reform” and its near synonyms elided altogether. While the openness of the term “reform” to ridicule (as a marker of humorlessness or of unreﬂective zeal) has a long history—consider the use of the reformer Miss Ophelia as comic relief in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s earnestly reformist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852/1981)—its current status can be gauged by the broad discomfort that greets terms such as “reform school,” where it suggests archaic and unsavory methods of correction. Perhaps more salient for those who now avoid the term is its currency among political conservatives, who have launched attacks on the social safety net under the names of welfare reform and tax reform. But it would be inaccurate to call this a co-optation, as if reform and its metaphorics of progress at some point in U.S. history belonged exclusively to the left. On the contrary, conservative elements have suffused even the most ostensibly left-leaning reform movements in every era. And initiatives primarily associated with social and political conservatives are hardly peculiar to our own times.
“Reform” has more traction among contemporary scholars of U.S. culture, for whom the term and its referents have provided a field through which to interrogate conceptions of gender, nation, race, faith, and empire, insofar as reformers have sought to redefine these social and ideological structures, even as they wrote and spoke from positions within them. More problematically, the study of reform is a site where contemporary values collide with and to some degree skew our understandings of the past. Scholarship on the subject is rife with examples of the search for pure heroes and the impulse to debunk the apparently pure, as scholars filter their interpretations of reformist rhetoric (and of reformers’ biographies) through their own conceptions of what it might mean to improve society.
The study of reform is not, however, solely a means of anatomizing scholars’ own political aspirations and failures. In fact, a significant development within American studies and cultural studies has involved pushing beyond meditations, however well informed, on whether reform movements and their proponents have ultimately helped or harmed the communities in which they operated (June Howard 1999). One of the most promising avenues of research builds on the field’s increasingly expansive definitions of aesthetics, within which reform’s strategies of persuasion can be analyzed alongside—and can reshape our conceptions of—more traditional modes of assessing value (Dillon 2004). Other innovative work puts reform into productive critical conversation with discourses of genre, sexuality, interiority, and embodiment, demonstrating the myriad ways in which reform has overlapped with and worked to constitute them (Castiglia 2008; Salazar 2010). Scholarship on reform will necessarily continue to engage narrow questions of political efficacy and moral credibility. But the relevance of such work rests on its ability to illuminate a broader range of concerns as well. The energies animating and regulating reformist projects go to the heart of the representation and deployment of such key concepts as interiority and emotion, persuasion and coercion. In that sense, the apparent mustiness of “reform” as a term belies its centrality to the practice of American studies and cultural studies.