cover image Character: The History of a Cultural Obsession

Character: The History of a Cultural Obsession

Marjorie Garber. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30 (464p) ISBN 978-0-374-12085-6

Garber (Shakespeare’s Ghost Writers), a Harvard professor of English and environmental studies, offers an intriguing and informative look at the concept of personal character, focusing on the term’s use in Britain and the U.S. over the past 200 years. Garber examines how the idea of “character”—roughly (if not always) equated to moral worth— has become particularly prominent since Donald Trump’s election and attendant ethics controversies. She then traces out how the understanding of character has shifted over time. Garber covers the idea of a national character, explores Boy Scout founder Robert Baden-Powell’s belief in character as a trait that can be developed with “factory” efficiency, and examines how “character” factors became a cover for anti-Semitism in early 20th-century Ivy League admissions. Garber is skilled at drawing connections between different cultural moments; for instance, she connects modern—and, to her, flawed—efforts to map character through brain scans with the 19th-century pseudoscience of phrenology. While Garber leaves her discussion open-ended, her information-rich book will be helpful to readers in highlighting how a concern with character has been central to modern life. (June)