Rice University

Events at Rice

Thesis Defense

Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies

Speaker: Karen Rosenthall
Doctoral Candidate

Novel Economies: A Literary Pre-History of U.S. Commercial Capitalism, 1730-1859

Friday, April 28, 2017
1:00 PM  to 3:00 PM

2nd Floor Lounge  Herring Hall

“Novel Economies” demonstrates that American literature played a fundamental role in enabling large-scale economic change in the United States, namely it helped acclimate and introduce the reading public to the virtues of commercial exchange and industrial production. Although current scholarship on early American literature assumes that literature either reacts to or chronicles the public’s understanding of the shifting terms of economic progress in the young nation, “Novel Economies” argues that literature enabled the U.S.’s turn towards commercial capitalism by adapting the productive practices associated with republican virtue. American authors redefined the labor practices that were supposed to ensure national strength and stability. With an archive that ranges from Benjamin Franklin’s economic treatises and belle lettres to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s public addresses and popular writings, “Novel Economies” highlights literature’s role in constructing a direct link between profitability, productivity, and virtue in the minds of American readers. “Novel Economies” explores a variety of literary genres and texts to illustrate the ways American authors engaged with and challenged the values of economic republicanism. By beginning with texts of the early Republic, such as Franklin’s Autobiography and Stephen Burroughs’ Memoirs, this project illuminates the ways that the terms of American republicanism underwrite literary presentations of citizenship, productive labor, and the individual’s relationship to public and private institutions. The impact of literature’s engagement with the ideals of republicanism is manifested in Martha Meredith Read’s and Sarah Savage’s seduction and sentimental fiction and James Fenimore Cooper’s historical romances; genres that transform in order to adapt republican values and definitions of virtue to fit the United States’ changing socioeconomic and political climates. Finally, “Novel Economies” turns to the United States on the brink of disunion with Emerson’s public speeches and Nathaniel Beverly Tucker’s secessionist fiction, illustrating the ways economic republican values served as a rhetorical touchstone for the political arguments made by both abolitionists and pro-slavery advocates. When the logics of economic republicanism are highlighted as supporting both small-scale agrarianism and commercial capitalism, then literature’s investment in promulgating and adapting these ideals exposes narrative as a key catalyst to U.S. economic change.

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