Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format

Monograph

Degree

Doctor of Philosophy

Program

English

Supervisor

Stanley, Kate

2nd Supervisor

Schuster, Joshua

Abstract

My dissertation argues that American literary naturalists employ money—particularly the tension between its materiality and immateriality—as a metaphor for hidden ontological instability in the following nineteenth-century cultural cornerstones: financial speculation, criminal justice, race law, and social-Darwinian individualism. My first chapter investigates the tension between material accounting and Gothic ethereality in Theodore Dreiser’s The Financier (1912). This chapter argues that, since the Gothic genre involves a compulsive need to account for the incredible and incorporeal, The Financier’s irresolvable tensions between gambling and speculation, home and market, are Gothically inflected. I conclude that, just as speculation haunts the ontological coherence of the home, so does it haunt the supposedly settled account of the judicial verdict in the novel. The second chapter, on Charles Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars (1900), surveys the essentialist nineteenth-century rhetoric that elided African American citizenship with intangible fiat money. Locating resonances in the novel between passing and the history of specie Resumption, counterfeit detection, and Confederate currency, the chapter posits that Chesnutt mobilizes immaterial fiscal confidence to undercut the validity of legal metrics for detecting racial essentialism. The third chapter recruits the more abstract financial concept of insurance to argue that determinism stems from a density of chance that disrupts neat narratives of causation in Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” (1897) and “The Blue Hotel” (1898). I suggest that, like insurance, naturalism employs a deterministic inevitability of chance to loosen social Darwinism’s mooring of responsibility to the individual in order to disperse it more equitably. The final chapter, on Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf (1904), suggests that the monetary metaphors in the novel appear to bolster deterministic materialism by aligning the materiality of hard money with a Malthusianism of finite resources and Darwin’s struggle for existence. However, I argue that London embeds reminders of money’s immaterial sociality in these metaphors in order to reassert morality and to undercut social Darwinian individualism. My dissertation demonstrates that, far from being bound to a “pessimistic materialistic determinism,” American literary naturalism marshaled the immaterial belief that makes money function in order to question the perceived inevitabilities that governed turn-of-the-century ideology.

Summary for Lay Audience

My dissertation analyzes the theme of money in turn-of-the-century American literary naturalism. The best-known naturalist works include those by Theodore Dreiser, such as The Red Badge of Courage and Sister Carrie, and works by Jack London, such as The Call of the Wild and White Fang. My dissertation argues that American literary naturalists promoted the idea that money requires social cooperation, rather than intrinsic material value, to question the distinctions between gambling and financial speculation, crime and accident, legal and illegal citizenship, and, finally, to question the scientific basis for social Darwinism. My first chapter investigates the Gothic tension between material accounting and the immateriality of money in Theodore Dreiser’s The Financier (1912). I suggest that the novel questions the discreteness of categories such as gambling and speculation, home and market. I conclude that, just as speculation haunts the home, so does it hauntingly unsettle the judicial verdict in the novel. The second chapter, on Charles Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars (1900), surveys nineteenth-century rhetoric that equated African American citizenship with supposedly inflated paper money. I suggest that Chesnutt creates resonances in the novel between racial passing and the history of specie Resumption, counterfeit detection, and Confederate currency to show that legal definitions of race are far from intrinsic and instead are just as intangible as paper money is. The third chapter argues that, like insurance culture, which promoted the concept of chance, Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” (1897) and “The Blue Hotel” (1898) use chance to resist ideas about individual morality and control on which social Darwinism insisted. The stories do so to suggest that responsibility is more communal in nature. The final chapter, on Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf (1904), suggests that the novel’s monetary metaphors align the materiality of money with the limited resources in Charles Darwin’s struggle for existence. However, I argue that, in these metaphors, London includes reminders that money requires social agreement in order to undercut social Darwinism that used natural selection to excuse selfishness. I conclude that the naturalists questioned the fixed value of money in order to question fixed nineteenth-century natural laws.

Available for download on Tuesday, August 31, 2021

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