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Fiction and Mass Mediacy in the Paper Age

By Kevin McLaughlin

Publication Year: 2005

"The Paper Age" is the phrase coined by Thomas Carlyle in 1837 to describe the monetary and literary inflation of the French Revolution—an age of mass-produced "Bank-paper" and "Book-paper." Carlyle's phrase is suggestive because it points to the particular substance—paper—that provides the basis for reflection on the mass media in much popular fiction appearing around the time of his historical essay. Rather than becoming a metaphor, however, paper in some of this fiction seems to display the more complex and elusive character of what Walter Benjamin evocatively calls "the decline of the aura." The critical perspective elaborated by Benjamin serves as the point of departure for the readings of paper proposed in Paperwork.

Kevin McLaughlin argues for a literary-critical approach to the impact of the mass media on literature through a series of detailed interpretations of paper in fiction by Poe, Stevenson, Melville, Dickens, and Hardy. In this fiction, he argues, paper dramatizes the "withdrawal," as Benjamin puts it, of the "here and now" of the traditional work of art into the dispersing or distracting movement of the mass media. Paperwork seeks to challenge traditional concepts of medium and message that continue to inform studies of print culture and the mass media especially in the wake of industrialized production in the early nineteenth century. It breaks new ground in the exploration of the difference between mass culture and literature and will appeal to cultural historians and literary critics alike.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Critical Authors and Issues


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Title Page

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p. iii

Copyright Page

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p. iv

Table of Contents

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p. vii

Frequently Cited Texts

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p. ix

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Introduction: Apparitions of Paper

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pp. 1-28

“The Paper Age” is the phrase coined by Thomas Carlyle in 1837 to describe the monetary and literary inXation of the French Revolution— an age of mass-produced “Bank-paper” and “Book-paper.”1 Carlyle’s metaphor draws on the concept of the material support, the technical term adopted in the nineteenth century to name the substance charged with the bearing of impressions. Dictionaries tell us that this sense of support...

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Chapter 1. Distraction in America: Paper, Money, Poe

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pp. 29-49

At the beginning of “The Man of the Crowd” (1840) the narrator is in the state of mind against which Poe’s tales are directed. He is subject to that mode of distracted receptivity to “worldly interests” that the ideal short story would absorb into an “hour of perusal” during which “the soul of the reader is at the writer’s control,” a period of “no external or extrinsic influences—resulting from weariness or interruption.”1 It is thus...

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Chapter 2. Off the Map: Stevenson’s Polynesian Fiction

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pp. 50-68

The map in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1881) draws on the distracting analogy to paper money in Poe’s “The Gold Bug” (Figure 5).1 Like the “foolscap,” the map points to buried treasure, and indeed the treasure resembles the hoard of Poe’s tale: it is, we are told, made up of a great “diversity of coinage . . . nearly every money in the world” (TI 186). Based on the monetary analogy we might be led to...

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Chapter 3. Transatlantic Connections: “Paper Language” in Melville

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pp. 69-79

Up to a point, Stevenson operates along the lines of what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari call “minor literature.” A Scotsman writing in English and living in the South Pacific, Stevenson occupies the position of marginality characteristic of the “minor” writer.1 His fiction also exhibits each of the three defining traits of minor literature sketched out by Deleuze...

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Chapter 4. The Paper State: Collective Breakdown in Dickens’s Bleak House

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pp. 80-96

Paper is the material support for psychic and social disintegration in Bleak House. For Dickens, as for Melville, the distraction and dispersal of mass mediacy has an overwhelming effect on individual and collective states of stability based on self-containment. In Bleak House the metaphor for such a state in the collective sense is the home. In Dickens’s sprawling novel the home is scattered with mass-produced paper. Domestic...

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Chapter 5. Pretending to Read: Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge

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pp. 97-113

The contrast between gold and paper is especially common in the fiction we have been considering and in literature throughout the nineteenth century. This distinction is often interpreted as expressing a real crisis of values in the period akin to the one Benjamin characterizes as the shift from the traditional work of art to the work of art in an age of the mass...

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Afterword: The Novel Collective

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pp. 114-116

The paperwork that has concerned us in this study cannot be identified with paper in the sense suggested by Carlyle’s metaphor of the “Paper Age.” Carlyle’s phrase relies on the digraphic metaphor put in question by the failure of mass mediacy to present itself substantially. In Dickens’s attempts to exploit the distracting effects of novel reading, as in Poe’s related efforts to work with aesthetic concentration or “absorption,” we...


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pp. 117-159

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 161-176


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pp. 177-181


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p. 182

E-ISBN-13: 9780812202779
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812238884

Page Count: 192
Illustrations: 8 illus.
Publication Year: 2005

Series Title: Critical Authors and Issues
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OCLC Number: 759158197
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Paperwork

Research Areas


Subject Headings

  • Money in literature.
  • Mass media -- English-speaking countries -- History -- 19th century.
  • Economics in literature.
  • Economics and literature -- English-speaking countries.
  • Capitalism and literature -- English-speaking countries -- History -- 19th century.
  • Literature publishing -- English-speaking countries -- History -- 19th century.
  • Paper money -- English-speaking countries.
  • American fiction -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
  • English fiction -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
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