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ELH 71.4 (2004) 949-967

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The Crying of Lost Things

Vanderbilt University

By means of gesture, or of deputy or direct speech, things have their say in the eighteenth century. Whether these speaking objects are animate, such as Laurence Sterne's ass, Gulliver's horses and Sir William Temple's parrot; or whether they are ingenious mechanisms such as Professor Faber's Euphonia or Erasmus Darwin's talking head; or merely inert, such as the feathers, slippers, pins, and coins whose autobiographies are so prolific in this period, they all claim to possess in some degree the attributes of reason, speech, and soul that human beings have reserved (and still reserve) as peculiarly their own. The speech of the nonhuman may arise from sympathetic identification, from the manipulation of hidden levers, from metempsychosis, or from what Michel de Certeau calls an event in the throat. Generically it draws upon animal fables and tales of metamorphosis and overlaps with what is now known as the it-narrative. I'm going to suggest that another source of nonhuman language is to be found in advertisements, specifically advertisements for lost property. Furthermore I want to claim that under certain circumstances the rhetoric of crying lost things, and of lost things crying, is imitated by humans calling for their kind: Lucy Lockit and Polly Peachum, for example, when in The Beggar's Opera they advertise the loss of Macheath; or Moll Flanders when she cries the loss of herself.

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I want to begin with Jonathan Wild and his organization of crime in the first quarter of the eighteenth century, because among his many achievements Wild caused a radical alteration in the status of property. From his office in the Old Bailey, he dominated the sector of felony known as redemption or payback: namely, the return of stolen goods to their rightful owners. He justified his business as a public benefaction and himself as an honest broker, although it was plain to everybody that he was multiplying the wages of crime by exploiting both the thieves who stole the goods and the diffidence of [End Page 949] the public, which seemed always eager to buy back what was already theirs. He reached this public by means of advertisements in the Daily Courant, the Post-Boy, the Gazette, and the Daily Post. As Defoe puts it: "If any Thing was Lost (whether by Negligence in the Owner, or Vigilance and Dexterity in the Thief) away we went to Jonathan Wild. Nay, Advertisements were Publish'd, directing the Finder of almost every Thing, to bring it to Jonathan Wild, who was eminently impower'd to take it, and give the Reward."1 Soon the owners of missing things would themselves be placing advertisements in the hope that a deal with the thief might be brokered. But they had to make sure that their messages ended with the promise of a substantial reward and the magic words, no questions asked; otherwise the process of redemption would never begin. As for the missing articles, "seldom or never [would they be] heard of any more."2 There are two common assumptions about Wild's enterprise I want to tackle and to modify. The first is that he was a kind of super-capitalist, extending exchange and profit across the boundary dividing legal exchange from illicit deals. Certainly this is how Fielding regarded him, a sort of nefarious factory-owner of the underworld commanding the maximum number of hands to labor purely for his benefit. The second assumption is that the advertisements of the kind Wild pioneered were precursors to or outriders of the formal realism of the early novel, exhibiting in miniature the techniques of narrative developed by authors concerned, in Ian Watt's phrase, to bring "an object home to us in all its concrete particularity."3

Let's begin with Wild's relation to the market and the world of commodities. Although his system of information exchange seems to belong to the expansion of techniques of publicity characteristic of the emergent public sphere, and to be devoted to the enhanced circulation...


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