Inheriting Generations: From the Accident of Birth to the Uninsurable Life
Wulff, Alexander M.
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Inheriting Generations: From the Accident of Birth to the Uninsurable Life navigates a course through inheritance: a subject found in all literary and non-literary genres, time periods and cultures. In the face of that certainty, I map three distinct and dramatic shifts in the transfer of American wealth between generations: (1) the need to make property increasingly alienable in the face of what Charles Sellers called the “market revolution” of the mid-19th century, (2) the emergence of corporate forms, especially life insurance contracts, as vehicles of inheritance in the latter half of the nineteenth century, (3) the increased role of the state in inheritance during the early part of the twentieth century. Because of the upheaval surrounding these three transitions, the tensions created when a text imagines different answers for the questions of “Who can inherit?” and “Who should inherit?” were not just useful plot devices, or sentimental evasions of real economic transfers, but of such economic and political significance that inheritance remained a topic of deep cultural and political anxiety throughout the nineteenth—and into the twentieth—century. Authors such as William Wells Brown, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Amelia Shackelford use inheritance to navigate the mingling of economic calculation and sentimental value for the purposes of imagining forms of morality and solidarity compatible with the market. In making this claim, I depart from a scholarly tradition of treating inheritance as a conservative plot device of sentimental fiction that for some, like Ann Douglas and Gillian Brown, looks like a retreat from the marketplace—an introduction to consumerism—and for others, like Jane Tompkins and Nina Baym, looks like a viable protestation against the market’s advance from the public into the private sphere. Instead, I examine inheritance more broadly in an attempt to replace the conflict between economic calculation and sentimental value enacted in these critical readings with the ways 19th century writers were alive to the possibility that the market was a source of solidarity, even morality.
19th Century American Literature
William Wells Brown
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Literature and the Market
Date available in INDIGO2013-06-28T18:25:42Z