Sociable Currency: The Expansive Self of Eighteenth-Century British Literature

Genovese, Michael Edward, Department of English, University of Virginia
Hunter, Paul, Department of English, University of Virginia
O'Brien, John, Department of English, University of Virginia
Colomb, Gregory
Booth, Alison, Department of English, University of Virginia
Wicke, Jennifer, Department of English, University of Virginia

The rise of the individual-a narrative often framed in terms of increasing property ownership, growing divisions of labor, rising consumerism, and a new emphasis on interiority-still dominates much eighteenth-century criticism, and this persistent narrative often eclipses cultural and literary practices that do not fit its rubric. As an alternative to this overarching view of the century, "Sociable Currency" argues that a core tradition of eighteenth-century British literature challenges the valorization of individual subjectivity by constructing the self as primarily relational or sociable, always constituted by interpersonal encounters, not self-consciousness. Offering an important corrective to the critical opposition between possessive individualism and social cohesion, I show how the language of economic self-interest and that of sympathy, or fellow-feeling, operate in tandem in the eighteenth century to reaffirm connectivity. Examining essays by Addison, Steele, Defoe, and Hume; poems by Pope, Philips, Smart, Dodsley, and Dyer; and novels by Sarah Fielding, Johnson, and Sterne, I reveal the various strategies through which eighteenth-century literature encouraged readers to recognize an alternative to an emergent individualism characterized by private reflection and the pursuit of profit. Working in the interdisciplinary tradition of scholars such as Mary Poovey, Catherine Gallagher, and James Thompson, I put literary texts and economic treatises in conversation with one another to bring into focus constructions of selfhood. Building on scholarship addressing eighteenth-century subjectivity, I treat seriously the entanglement of sympathy and self-interest, but I do not interpret sentiment as a restraint upon or mask Abstract iii for economic interest. Instead, I argue that representations of financial and sentimental exchange work mutually to construct the self. Accordingly, I treat sociability not as the product of a residual civic humanism or of emergent cultural formations, such as coffeehouses and clubs, but as the result of a literary discourse that coalesces when the language of affect and that of economic self-interest collide. As I demonstrate, this collision embeds characters and readers in social relations that require both sympathy and self-love but suffer when either is overvalued. In my reading of the eighteenth-century self, relationality becomes both a moral obligation and a privileged value that erases divisions between self and stranger.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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