The virtues of our defects: Social critique in nineteenth-century American literature
Forster, Sophia Ella
MetadataShow full item record
This dissertation explores how ideologies of American exceptionalism shaped the social critique offered by both antebellum and postbellum literature. I argue that nineteenth-century authors concerned with the social costs of capitalism were more critical of the American socioeconomic system than has been recognized. Ironically, as literary critics draw on broadly Marxian-inspired models to illustrate how the work of such disparate writers as Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Dean Howells consolidates middle-class allegiances, they obscure these writers' affinities with Marx's contemporaneous critique of capitalism. I show that far from being blinded or bound by their class positions, nineteenth-century American authors share key elements of Marx's historicist analysis, most notably his vision of how capitalism tends to at once enable and undermine individual self-development through labor. But this critique of capitalism vies in American writers' work with a desire to bind the nation together by insisting on the unique opportunities that America, as a capitalist democracy free from feudal history, offers to individuals. I illustrate how the postbellum fictions of Howells, Edward Bellamy, and Henry James rework Emerson's antebellum model of a form of dissent against capitalism that preserves America's exceptional historical status. In addition to contesting the critical assumption that class contexts alone adequately explain these authors' political ambivalence, my reading queries an opposing line of Americanist criticism, which refers the difference between nineteenth-century European "realism" and American "romance" to America's supposed historical condition of classlessness. I locate the source of that difference in an ideology that maps the middle class's paradoxical self-definition as "the classless class" onto a doctrine of America as a classless nation.