Capital, Credit, and American Literary History


FRIDAY, OCTOBER 26, 2018 9:45-5:00 PM

This symposium takes up the developing interest in studying the relation between American economics and literary history. Literary scholars have been lately considering such issues as capital, credit, finance, and debt as rich new veins of inquiry. Although there has always been an interest among scholars and critics in the way writers represent filthy lucre or the impacts of panic, recession, and depressions, these concerns have become more pronounced, their shaping powers accentuated over the last 30 years.  This has proven true even more recently, insofar as our contemporary fiction registers the challenges of economic upheavals and the redistribution of wealth.  Our colloquy develops two distinct trajectories of this sprawling topic:  the early republic conceptions of economic well-being and modern and contemporary African American interrogations of the culture’s economic foundations.

To that end, we will host four scholars engaged in some of the most trenchant studies of this complex subject, complex because its history has at once achieved both triumphant and humiliating results.

Our four speakers are drawn from around the country and are all engaged centrally in this timely and important conversation.


Gordon Hutner, at 9:45: Introduction

Howard Horwitz (University of Utah), at 10:00: Pudding Economics: Franklin’s “The Way to Wealth” and the Creditable Self

The Preface to the 1758 Poor Richard’s Almanack, widely anthologized under the title “The Way to Wealth,” is generally viewed as a collection of maxims forming a sermon by Benjamin Franklin on frugality, industry, and independence.  We should avoid excess consumption and debt. Horwitz argues that the literary character of the Preface ironizes the aphorisms.  The 1758 Preface instead presents a transactional notion of identification.  Transactions with others form the self, which requires commercial expansion and the stimulative effect of debt.  Franklin’s essays on commercial and monetary policy presuppose the same notion of the subject, and even espouse the purchase of luxuries.  This conception of the American subject underpinned policies on manufacture and credit in the new nation and perhaps resonates to this day.

Katherine Adams (Tulane University), at 11:00: Du Bois, Dirt Determinism, and the Reconstruction of Global Value

This talk focuses on W.E.B. Du Bois’s investigation of the relationships among black racial meaning, global capital, and the southern Black Belt, a region named both for its unusually dark and fertile soil and for the thousands of enslaved, African-descended people brought there to cultivate short staple cotton. Examining essays from The Souls of Black Folk (1903) alongside The Quest of the Silver Fleece (1911), Adams traces Du Bois’s developing use of the Black Belt as a frame for analyzing and reimagining racial capitalism. Specifically, Adams shows how he engages the racist discourse that linked free black labor to the environmental-economic crisis of soil exhaustion. Responding to claims that the “monstrocity” of self-possessed black bodies obstructed the flow of global value, Du Bois turns to literary writing and the multivalent sign of Black Belt dirt to refigure capitalism’s racial calculus.

Elizabeth Hewitt (The Ohio State University), at 2:00: Romanticism of Numbers: Hamilton and Jefferson and the Poetics of Business in 1792

The title of this talk comes from Max Weber’s assessment of the peculiar American obsession with “measurable quantities.” In the US, the “poets among businessmen” like to reckon big numbers, and Weber uses the aesthetic term, “Romanticism” to capture the spiritual dimensions of this particular version of the American sublime: enormous capital accumulation. As the first Secretary of the Treasury, and therefore responsible for the original itemized accounting of the federal nation’s credits and debts, Alexander Hamilton is perhaps the archetypal “poet among businessmen.” This paper takes seriously the poetics of Hamilton’s book-keeping by focusing on the triangulated correspondence he conducts with both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson during 1792. Through the medium of this strange epistolary novel in which Hamilton and Jefferson fling accusations of malfeasance, corruption, and seduction, we learn two different conceptual ways to enumerate and narrate a national economy.

Jarvis McInnis (Duke University), at 3:00: Afterlives of the Sugar Plantation: Race, Gender, and Region in Contemporary Black Women’s Literature, Art, and Performance

After reviewing the historical and economic data on black women’s labors on sugar plantations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this presentation examines Attica Locke’s 2012 novel, The Cutting Season, along with Kara Walker’s 2014 installation, A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, as critiques of the sugar plantation’s ongoing economic viability through the plantation romance tradition, plantation tourist industry, and corporate farming. This study also has important implications for how the plantation, as a technology of settler colonialism and global capitalism, tethers the US South to the fate and futures of the broader global South.

Thomas W. Kim (Loyola University Chicago): Commentator





David Zimmerman (University of Wisconsin-Madison): Commentator

Posted in Past Trowbridge Events