- Literature Incorporated: The Cultural Unconscious of the Business Corporation, 1650–1850 by John O’Brien
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016
In Literature Incorporated, John O’Brien surveys the rise of the corporation in Britain and early America in the period between 1650 and 1850 from an unfamiliar angle. Most historical writing on the corporation in this period treats it as a legal entity. O’Brien shifts our attention to the realm of cultural artifacts. His goal—as he observes in a gloss of John Locke’s Essay concerning Human Understanding (1689), whose writings he explores in his first substantive chapter—is to translate the “unconscious political-economic ideology” of the age into the realm of the conscious “‘idea’” so as to “render it available for critique” (11). Though O’Brien is not unmindful of cultural artifacts that originated in colonial America and the United States, and while he professes to be conversant with recent Anglo-American historical writing on the law, he is primarily concerned with literary texts and cultural icons that originated in late seventeenth-century and early eighteenth-century Britain.
Admirers of John Seelye, Leo Marx, John Kasson, and Judith A. McGaw, be forewarned. If you are looking for an analysis of the corporation in early American literature, as it is defined by the editors of this journal, Literature Incorporated does not fit the bill. Indeed, the almost exclusive focus on late seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century Britain makes one wonder if a project that had been originally confined to this topic had been recast at the behest of the editors at a university press to increase its likely readership. Joseph Addison’s tragic drama Cato (1712) and the notorious South Sea Bubble of 1720 receive prominent treatment; John Jacob Astor’s fur-trading empire, as described by Washington Irving in Astoria, and Andrew [End Page 491] Jackson’s veto of the Second Bank of the United States in 1832, as analyzed by generations of historians, do not. Though land speculation fired the imagination of countless Americans while highly speculative ventures to buy and sell the national domain generated a large and often emphatically rhetorical literature, land companies go unmentioned; equally absent is any discussion of the literary response of anyone in Britain or America to canals, railroads, or factories. Specialists in American economic history who are interested in the literary dimension of the economic ideas of John Smith, Benjamin Franklin, or Alexander Hamilton will not find what they are looking for here either. Indeed, the only American figure to receive an extended treatment is Edgar Allan Poe—an unusual choice, given the theme. William Leggett is not in the index, and neither is Herman Melville.
Following the lead of the literary critics Marc Shell and Mary Poovey and the economic historian Deidre McCloskey, O’Brien explores the relationship between cultural artifacts and economic phenomena. His primary target is neoclassical economics—with a second, implicit target being the economic history that neoclassicism has inspired. Sympathetic to Louis Menand’s critique of interdisciplinarity as a valorization of the existing disciplines as the only legitimate ways of knowing, he strives for a supradisciplinarity that deploys the methods of the literary critic to expose the metaphorical bedrock on which the discipline of economics has come to rest: “This book sees economics as a way of modeling the world that is more like literature than it is willing to let on” (8). McCloskey’s critique of the mathematization of economics is a particular inspiration: “Literary scholars take economic concepts to be in the first instance imaginative constructs, figures of speech that lend themselves to the same kinds of analysis as all other modes of discourse. That is the goal here” (9).
The organization of Literature Incorporated is primarily chronological. Following an introduction that makes the case for the corporation as a literary metaphor, it consists of four substantive chapters that explore, respectively, the ideological significance of John Locke’s late seventeenth-century essays on money; the cultural ramifications of the South Sea Company’s collapse in 1720; the “problem of...