Shifting the Blame: Literature, Law, and the Theory of Accidents in Nineteenth-Century America


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Jul 21, 1998
7.75 x 10 in.
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Drawing on legal cases, legal debates, and fiction including works by James Fenimore Cooper, Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, and Charles Chesnutt, Nan Goodman investigates changing notions of responsibility and agency in nineteenth-century America. By looking at accidents and accident law in the industrializing society, Goodman shows how courts moved away from the doctrine of strict liability to a new notion of liability that emphasized fault and negligence. Shifting the Blame reveals the pervasive impact of this radically new theory of responsibility in understandings of industrial hazards, in manufacturing dangers, and in the stories that were told and retold about accidents.

In exciting tales of the actions of “good Samaritans” or of sea, steamboat, or railroad accidents, features of risk that might otherwise escape our attention — such as the suddenness of impact, the encounter between strangers, and the debates over blame and responsibility — were reconstructed in a manner that revealed both imagined and actual solutions to one of the most difficult philosophical and social conflicts in the nineteenth-century United States. Through literary and legal stories of accidents, Goodman suggests, we learn a great deal about what Americans thought about blame, injury, and individual responsibility in one of the most formative periods of our history.