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Standards of Value

Money, Race, and Literature in America

Michael Germana

Publication Year: 2009

In Standards of Value, Michael Germana reveals how tectonic shifts in U.S. monetary policy—from the Coinage Act of 1834 to the abolition of the domestic gold standard in 1933–34—correspond to strategic changes by American writers who renegotiated the value of racial difference. Populating the pages of this bold and innovative study are authors as varied as Harriet Beecher Stowe, George Washington Cable, Charles Chesnutt, James Weldon Johnson, Nella Larsen, Jessie Redmon Fauset, and Ralph Ellison—all of whom drew analogies between the form Americans thought the nation's money should take and the form they thought race relations and the nation should take.

A cultural history of race organized around and enmeshed within the theories of literary and monetary value, Standards of Value also recovers a rhetorical tradition in American culture whose echoes can be found in the visual and lyrical grammars of hip hop, the paintings of John W. Jones and Michael Ray Charles, the cinematography of Spike Lee, and many other contemporary forms and texts.

This reconsideration of American literature and cultural history has implications for how we value literary texts and how we read shifting standards of value. In vivid prose, Germana explains why dollars and cents appear where black and white bodies meet in American novels, how U.S. monetary policy gave these symbols their cultural currency, and why it matters for scholars of literary and cultural studies.

Published by: University of Iowa Press


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pp. ix-x

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pp. 1-18

The meaning of words, the value of money, and the significance of race all fluctuate within economies of difference. Words have meaning only in relation to other words; the dollar rises and falls based upon the performance of other commodities; and race appears and disappears based upon perceived differences between body types. ...

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1. Jacksonian Abolitionism: Money, Minstrelsy, and "Uncle Tom's Cabin"

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pp. 19-52

Before it was changed to “Life among the Lowly,” the subtitle of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was “The Man Who Was a Thing.” Besides introducing Stowe’s critique of slavery as an institution that commodified black bodies, the original subtitle describes...

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2. Real Change: George Washington Cable's "The Grandissimes" and the Crime of '73

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pp. 53-79

To say George Washington Cable’s The Grandissimes (1880) is set in New Orleans at the time of the Louisiana Purchase but grapples with the problems of Reconstruction is to repeat old news. Replete with an unwelcome new “Yankee government” (161), carpetbaggers arriving to establish new businesses, and resistant Creoles lamenting Louisiana’s...

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3. The Gold Standard of the Passing Novel: Exploring the Limits of Strategic Essentialism

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pp. 80-114

The Coinage Act of 1834 initiated a slippage between the face value and material worth of silver dollars that minstrel performers riffed upon and Reconstruction-era politicians sought to resolve. This slippage eventually became the subject of the money question of the 1890s, which, like its antecedent during Reconstruction, pitted free sil-...

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4. Black Is . . . an' Black Ain't: "Invisible Man" and the Fiat of Race

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pp. 115-146

In the mid-1990s it was discovered that, when cued up properly, the music and lyrics of Pink Floyd’s 1974 album Dark Side of the Moon appear to follow the visual action of MGM’s 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. According to the authors of “Dark Side of the Rainbow,” a Web site dedicated to this popular cultural phenomenon, replacing the movie...

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pp. 147-155

The conclusion of Invisible Man anticipates both the arrival of the cultural turn and its failure to ameliorate the social ills that race reproduces. The reason for this failure, as Ellison himself foresaw, is that the cultural turn, like race, is another construction of contested value. ...


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pp. 157-174


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pp. 175-184


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pp. 185-190

E-ISBN-13: 9781587298936
E-ISBN-10: 1587298937
Print-ISBN-13: 9781587298189
Print-ISBN-10: 158729818X

Page Count: 202
Publication Year: 2009

Edition: cloth

OCLC Number: 646846744
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Standards of Value

Research Areas


Subject Headings

  • American fiction -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
  • Money in literature.
  • Race in literature -- Congresses.
  • American fiction -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
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