Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Jordan A. Stein
Of Dollars and Sense proposes a new context for reading dramatic depictions of forgiveness in early American novels by examining the relationships among religious sermons, popular fiction, and bankruptcy law. Between the Panic of 1797 and the Panic of 1837, the events which frame this project, the United States experienced three unprecedented cultural events: the passage of the first, and highly controversial, federal bankruptcy law in 1800; the Second Great Awakening; and the rise of the American novel. My dissertation explores the ways in which early American authors responded to the phenomenon of bankruptcy by dramatizing religiously inflected scenes of forgiveness in their work. The project provides a new understanding of how deeply the early American novel was invested in economic affairs, and in efforts to humanize what many perceived to be a ruthless system of early capitalism.
Chapter one offers an historical survey of the interrelations of religious and economic conceptions of debt and its forgiveness in Western culture more broadly, providing a close examination of the cultural changes affecting such understandings in the American early republic--particularly the transformation of the concept of debt as a spiritual state into a purely economic one. As indebtedness became a problem understood in purely economic terms, a new discourse about bankruptcy reframed the discussion by attempting to talk about economic and communal life in terms of morality.
Chapter Two examines the Panic of 1797 and two of the most popular novels of the period: Susannah Rowson's Charlotte Temple (1794), and Hannah Webster Foster's The Coquette (1797). Reading these novels against a wave of religious sermons on forgiveness, I argue that by constructing novels replete with scenes of both economic and interpersonal forgiveness, Rowson and Foster provide literary responses to two of the central questions in the bankruptcy debate: to whom should the law apply, and under what conditions?
Chapter three examines the Panic of 1819 and traces efforts to blend the discourse of spiritual rebirth with the political discourse on bankruptcy. As the Second Great Awakening spread, James Fenimore Cooper was literally writing his way out of his own impending bankruptcy. In The Last of the Mohicans, Cooper uses the structure of the frontier romance itself to both reveal and to attack endless, fruitless, vengeful and ultimately murderous methods of "exchange" that have brought on both the Panic and the destruction of Cooper's personal family fortune.
Chapter Four examines the Panic of 1837 and the Bankruptcy Act of 1841. The depression that precipitated the Act produced an entirely new genre of fiction called "panic fiction" including novels by Hannah Lee, Eliza Follen, and Frederick Jackson. These texts provide very explicit warnings against economic speculation, excessive materialism, and other risky economic practices, while at the same time advocating for the passage of a federal bankruptcy law that would bring both predictability and forgiveness into an arena that these authors, and the much of the public, viewed as corrupt and immoral.
LeCarner, Thomas M., "Of Dollars and Sense: Economies of Forgiveness in Antebellum American Law, Literature, and Culture" (2014). English Graduate Theses & Dissertations. 66.