Sunday, October 14, 2007

"A Good Forehead"

William Dean Howells' novel The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) begins with a journalist sitting down to interview wealthy businessman Silas Lapham. While the subject of the interview settles down to talk, the journalist jots down a quick sketch of Lapham's physical appearance. We learn from this description that Lapham has a "good forehead."

What is a good forehead? The phrase was in common use in the nineteenth century, and its meaning seems to have been generally understood. Even a child knew what a good forehead was. Here's part of a little dialogue between a mother and daughter (Sophia) from The Youth's Companion (1838). The title of the dialogue is "O, How I Wish to Be Pretty."

Mama: Pray, my dear, explain to me what you think essential to beauty?
Sophia: That is easily done. A fair complexion, very bright eyes, soft, dark hair, and perhaps, too, a good forehead.

Two years later, a journalist described newly-elected Senator Augustus S. Porter of Michigan as having "a good forehead [and] regular features." These phrases ("good forehead," "regular features") seem like nineteenth-century journalistic shorthand for something. But what? Another good forehead man, according to his campaign biographer, was Abraham Lincoln. What is it about his forehead that's so good? Later in the century, the human forehead became of prime importance to phrenologists, those pseudo-scientists who thought the shape of a man's head was the key to his character. A good forehead, to a phrenologist, would have a "a general evenness of contour." It was the forehead of the generic distinguished- looking white man, a man of approved intellect and character. There are a lot of assumptions—about beauty, character, intellect, race, success—behind a seemingly insignificant phrase like "a good forehead."

This is my problem. I start to read a novel, and get sidetracked into an investigation of what "a good forehead" means. I begin to imagine I could write an entire essay on the phrase "a good forehead."


Anonymous said...

Well, all I can say is that my nan has an expression about explaining a certain type of behaviour in a certain class of people. She says "Well, he had the chin for it." Which always makes me laugh uproariously. I have no idea what she means by it and I've always thought it one of her many eccentricities, but now I am beginning to wonder... ;)

Amateur Reader said...

Very amusing. In the 18th century, in the age of breeches, handsome men are always described as having "a good leg."

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .