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From Gift to Commodity

Capitalism and Sacrifice in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction

Hildegard Hoeller

Publication Year: 2012

Fascinating analysis of the significance of the gift, and its increasingly complicated role in an emerging capitalist order, in nineteenth-century American fiction In this rich interdisciplinary study, Hildegard Hoeller argues that nineteenth-century American culture was driven by and deeply occupied with the tension between gift and market exchange. Rooting her analysis in the period’s fiction, she shows how American novelists from Hannah Foster to Frank Norris grappled with the role of the gift based on trust, social bonds, and faith in an increasingly capitalist culture based on self-interest, market transactions, and economic reason. Placing the notion of sacrifice at the center of her discussion, Hoeller taps into the poignant discourse of modes of exchange, revealing central tensions of American fiction and culture.

Published by: University of New Hampshire Press

Series: Becoming Modern: New Nineteenth-Century Studies


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Title Page

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiii

If it is possible to care too much about a book, this one may be a case in point. While each academic project I have undertaken was in some manner a way to sort out a baffling aspect of my life, this book, for me, raises the most fundamental questions...

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1. Nineteenth-Century American Fiction and the Inevitable, (Im)possible, Maddening Importance of the Gift

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pp. 1-17

Surprisingly, this is the first book to think in detail about the gift in nineteenth-century American fiction. Initially, I was poised to argue for the usefulness of an economic approach to nineteenth-century American literature that considered not just capitalism...

Part I: Sacrifices of a Nation

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pp. 19-79

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2. The New Republic and the Aporia of Responsibility: Prudent Economy, Speculation, and (Ir)responsible Sacrifice in Hannah Foster’s Coquette

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pp. 21-48

There is a scandal at the heart of the ethics of responsibility,” writes Mary Jacobus (2008, 47) in her discussion of Derrida’s Gift of Death, since, according to Derrida, “the biblical sacrificial scenario (the sacrifice of Isaac) means that the ethics...

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3. Self-Sacrifice or Preservation: Lydia Maria Child’s Reflections on the Gift in "Hobomok" and The "American Frugal Housewife"

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pp. 49-79

When Hannah Foster’s story of Eliza Wharton’s sacrifice reached the height of its popularity (Davidson 1986, 149), another woman author, Lydia Maria Child, devoted her first novel, Hobomok, to sacrifice as well — and perhaps in an even more spectacular...

Part II: Panic Fictions

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pp. 81-170

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4. Panics, Gifts, and Faith in Susan Warner’s "Wide, Wide World"

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pp. 83-113

Susan Warner though t about household matters out of necessity rather than love. “No novelist ever hated housework more,” writes Jane Weiss. “Warner is probably unique among domestic novelists in never having found anything good to say about...

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5. From Grateful Slave to Greedy Banker: William Wells Brown’s Clotel and the Circulation of Shinplaster Fiction

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pp. 114-143

While during and after the 1837 panic Susan Warner’s possibilities were reduced in drastic ways, William Wells Brown’s would increase in an even more radical fashion. He not only gained his freedom in those years but also, as he suggests...

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6. From" Typee" to "The Confidence-Man": Herman Melville and the (Im)possibility of the Gift

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pp. 144-170

When he comes to live with the Typees, nothing baffles Herman Melville’s main character Tommo more than their “unaccountable” generosity. Where does the “mysterious impulse” to give and to extend themselves come from, he wonders? Their “manner” is unfathomable...

Part III: Fading Gifts and Rising Profits

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7. Gifts and Markets: Grotesque Economic Confusions in William Dean Howells’s Portrayal of the “Incorporation of America”

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pp. 173-207

When William Dean Howells asserted in his 1893 essay “The Man of Letters as a Man of Business” that “at present business is the only human solidarity” (1902b, 4), he spoke not only about the economic developments of America but more...

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8. Enigma and Precision: The Golden Tooth and the Horrors of the End of the Gift in Frank Norris’s "McTeague"

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pp. 208-230

It seems particularly appropriate to end this book with a discussion of Frank Norris’s 1899 fin de siècle novel McTeague (1981), since no novel could more precisely — or more apocalyptically — envision the conflict between gift and market...


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pp. 231-255


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pp. 257-271


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pp. 273-279

E-ISBN-13: 9781611683110
E-ISBN-10: 1611683114
Print-ISBN-13: 9781611683073
Print-ISBN-10: 1611683076

Page Count: 296
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Becoming Modern: New Nineteenth-Century Studies
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OCLC Number: 809809899
MUSE Marc Record: Download for From Gift to Commodity

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • American fiction -- 19th century -- History and criticism
  • Economics in literature.
  • Generosity in literature.
  • Capitalism in literature.
  • Sacrifice in literature.
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