To write a book on such a multifarious and vast, if not ubiquitous, concept as privacy is a tall task for the historian. Sarah Igo, associate professor of history at Vanderbilt University, took this on and succeeded masterfully. Her book, The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America (Harvard University Press, 2018), is filled with sophisticated arguments and compelling stories. It explores how privacy first burst into political debate and cultural anxieties in the late nineteenth-century and how Americans ever since have navigated the moving line between the private and the public.
She traces how new technologies (e.g. instant cameras), new practices (e.g. journalistic focus on the personal), new forms of knowledge (e.g. psychology), and new book genres (e.g. the tell-all memoir) spurred debates about privacy in the United States. Most critically, she shows how claims to privacy—made by gay Americans, the poor, and other marginalized groups—were also assertions of citizenship. Who gets privacy, and how much of it—and their counterpart, who gets to know what—were questions of politics as much as culture.
Igo’s book is a welcome contribution to understanding the longer history of privacy—especially welcome in our own age of social media and mass surveillance. The book should be read by cultural historians, intellectual historians, media studies scholars, historians of the state, and scholars interested in material culture.
Dexter Fergie is a first-year PhD student of US and global history at Northwestern University. He is currently researching the 20th century geopolitical history of information and communications networks. He can be reached by email at email@example.com or on Twitter @DexterFergie.