NEH logo
[Return to Query]

Products for Grant FT-53201-05

FT-53201-05
Theft and the Commodification of Identity in Victorian Narrative
Sean Grass, Texas Tech University

Grant details: https://securegrants.neh.gov/publicquery/main.aspx?f=1&gn=FT-53201-05

‘Portable property’: Victorian Identity in the Marketplace (Conference Paper/Presentation)
Title: ‘Portable property’: Victorian Identity in the Marketplace
Author: Sean C. Grass
Abstract: Taken from Chapter 1 of the book-in-progress, this essay means to show two primary things: (1) that autobiography emerged during 1830-1870 as an increasingly popular and profitable genre; and (2) that this rise in autobiographical production created, in turn, a deep cultural anxiety about the consequences of making identity into “portable property.” Even earlier, in 1827, an anonymous writer for the Quarterly Review lamented Grub-street’s “mania for . . . Confessions, and Recollections, and Reminiscences” since such texts demonstrated a new and appalling tendency for writers to market “the secret workings of their own minds.” God willing, the writer never lived to see the remarkable proliferation of such narratives during the thirty years that followed. This essay will work partly by sharing the results of my archival study of Victorian autobiography in the mid-century market, and partly by showing contemporary reactions to this new tendency to convert identity into a commodity meant deliberately for purchase and sale. More important, I will also use this essay to gesture toward the argument that forms the basis of the rest of my book: that cultural anxiety about the growing tendency to commodify identity helped to produce by mid-century a new narrative sub-genre, Victorian sensation fiction, which seems almost invariably—in its simultaneous preoccupations with missing goods and divided subjectivities—to hinge upon the consequences of subjecting identity to the same rules of greed, ownership, and power as other forms of “portable property.”
Date: 09/05/2006
Conference Name: North American Victorian Studies Association (NAVSA)

Sensation and Autobiography: Victorian Identity in the Marketplace (Conference Paper/Presentation)
Title: Sensation and Autobiography: Victorian Identity in the Marketplace
Author: Sean C. Grass
Abstract: Taken from Chapter 1 of “Portable property” and drawn simultaneously from two periods of NEH-funded archival research and recent scholarship by Andrew Miller, Alexis Weedon, and others, this paper argues: (1) that autobiography emerged during 1830-1860 as an increasingly popular and profitable genre; and (2) that this transformation of autobiography created, in turn, a deep cultural anxiety about the consequences of making identity into “portable property” to be bought and sold in the market—an anxiety that plays out thematically and symbolically in the sensation novels of the 1860s. In the broadest sense, what I suggest in the book is that these two forms of literary “entertainment” are joined ideologically, and that sensation fiction emerged at least partly as a literary response to the underlying logic of increasingly commercial autobiographical writing. Locally, in this presentation, what I want specifically is to discuss the contours of autobiography’s transformation into a commercial genre, and to articulate the cultural and theoretical meanings of that transformation. At its imaginative core, autobiography is a consequence of the literary calculus by which the intimate utterances of the author—indeed, the author herself or himself—become the consumable products of a capitalist age. In 1827, an anonymous writer for the Quarterly Review lamented the “mania for . . . Confessions, and Recollections, and Reminiscences” since such texts demonstrated a new and appalling tendency for writers to market “the secret workings of their own minds.” In this essay, I will trace this “mania” and assess the cultural anxieties it engendered as Victorians weighed the implications of subjecting identity to the dangerous rules of ownership, exchange, and power that formed the basis of the increasingly mature capitalism of the Victorian age.
Date: 04/20/2007
Conference Name: Midwest Victorian Studies Association (MVSA)

Shattered Glass: Autobiography, Commodity, and the Portrait of the Age (Conference Paper/Presentation)
Title: Shattered Glass: Autobiography, Commodity, and the Portrait of the Age
Author: Sean C. Grass
Abstract: In this essay, I make two related arguments about Victorian autobiography, one rooted in book history and the other deduced from the consequences of this Victorian tendency to textualize and commodify the Victorian subject. First, using material I have drawn from periods of archival research at the British Library, the Bentley Archive, the John Murray Archive, and other resources, I demonstrate the ways in which Victorian autobiography emerged as a deliberately commodified genre of English prose. Second, working from contemporary reviews, Victorian legal culture, and post-modern theory, I argue that the emerging logic of subject-as-commodity produced crucial new anxieties as well as literary modes for their expression. The most important of these was sensation fiction with its incorrigible tendency to make missing wills, stolen jewels, and other “greed” plots return to problems of psychological fragmentation and the necessity of narrating and textualizing the self. At stake, as I will show, was the gradual collapse of the boundary between identity and property—a collapse that revised the Victorian notion of the subject according to the dangerous requirements of the market.
Date: 12/29/2007
Conference Name: Modern Language Association (MLA)

Copyright and Commodity: The Economics of Subjectivity in Mid-Victorian Prose (Conference Paper/Presentation)
Title: Copyright and Commodity: The Economics of Subjectivity in Mid-Victorian Prose
Author: Sean C. Grass
Abstract: Drawing from Chapter 1 of my current project, I argue in this paper that autobiography and sensation fiction alike proliferated at mid-century at least partly from a common cause: a Victorian legal culture that steadily redefined subjectivity as an object of profit and exchange. As I will show, autobiography “rose” during the first part of the Victorian period as a culmination of the logic inherent in copyright—a logic that insisted with greater and greater urgency that the identity of the author belonged intrinsically to the ink and paper of the text. Equally important, under the unfavorable copyright laws of the first half of the nineteenth century, many authors wrote autobiography for deliberately commercial reasons, appending “recollections” or “reminiscences” to their collected works in order to extend their rights of property in earlier publications. Even apart from copyright law—for instance, in the period’s more vigorous census-taking, licensing and registry requirements, and creation of Civil Service examinations—Victorian legal culture tended overwhelmingly to locate the subject in the official written record that might be composed and to implicate it in the dynamics of a rapidly expanding commodity culture. By working through these facets of Victorian legal culture, my aim is finally to trace both autobiography and sensation fiction to a common ideological root: the legal invention of the subject as an explicitly commodified thing, vulnerable to textual and therefore economic incursions and consequently a fit emblem of the new capitalist age.
Date: 11/4/2008
Conference Name: North American Victorian Studies Association (NAVSA)

Lady Audley’s Portrait: Textualization and the Marketing of Victorian Femininity (Conference Paper/Presentation)
Title: Lady Audley’s Portrait: Textualization and the Marketing of Victorian Femininity
Author: Sean C Grass
Abstract: Drawn from my book-in-progress, this paper argues that the particular dynamics of textualization and subjection at work in Lady Audley’s Secret originate in the strategies for commodifying femininity that emerged during the first half of the nineteenth century. Partly, as I will show, femininity came to be commodified through the extraordinary proliferation of autobiography during the first half of the century, since that proliferation tended broadly but inexorably to create a new relation between the subject and the rules of ownership and exchange. (Indeed, a working hypothesis for my book is that the proliferation of autobiography largely engendered the anxiety about identity that is invariably so prominent in Victorian sensation novels of the 1860s.) More particularly, as Lady Audley’s portrait suggests, Braddon’s novel returns also to the strategies by which the visual arts came to represent, contain, and ultimately commodify femininity, at once neutralizing and cashing in on the particular dangers of illicit feminine sexuality. What I argue finally is that Lady Audley’s transformation into a textual thing in the novel—or, I should say, into several textual things—makes her eventual subjection to masculine power inevitable, and that this transformation finally belongs to a distinctly Victorian logic of textuality and the market.
Date: 10/12/2009
Conference Name: Victorian Interdisciplinary Studies Association of the Western U. S. (VISAWUS)

Subjectivity, Textuality, and the Law: The Spectacle of the Tichborne Claimant (Conference Paper/Presentation)
Title: Subjectivity, Textuality, and the Law: The Spectacle of the Tichborne Claimant
Author: Sean C. Grass
Abstract: Drawing from the concluding chapter of my book-in-progress, I argue here that the Tichborne case offers a culminating “view” of this problem in the most significant sense of that word, for it played out spectacularly in the public spaces of Victorian courtrooms, legal papers, and the popular press, where it became tabloid fodder and even appeared as The Tichborne Romance for George Routledge in 1872, a year before the criminal trial began. The paper begins with a brief account of the Tichborne case and its emergence as a cause célèbre then assesses in detail the ways in which the case really put on display not just the opportunisitic fraud Arthur Orton but also a grosser Victorian monstrosity: the legal and cultural evolution of a Victorian subject inseparable and even indistinguishable from property, which became in turn—as earlier chapters on Silas Marner, Our Mutual Friend, The Eustace Diamonds, and other works illustrate—a driving preoccupation for the mid-century novel.
Date: 11/05/2011
Conference Name: North American Victorian Studies Association (NAVSA)

Commodity and Identity: The Rise of Autobiography in Victorian England (Public Lecture or Presentation)
Title: Commodity and Identity: The Rise of Autobiography in Victorian England
Abstract: I am interested particularly in the proliferation of autobiography during the first half of the nineteenth century, the historical and cultural circumstances that permitted and encouraged that proliferation, and—as a consequence—the ways in which Victorian England tended inexorably to define the subject as a textual thing rooted in dynamics of profit and exchange. The argument comes from Chapter 1 of my book in progress, which argues that the growing tendency to textualize and commodify the subject created anxieties that found expression not only in contemporary criticism but also in the mid-century novel, particularly in the sensation novels of the 1860s. I will talk about the period’s autobiographical proliferation, then turn my attention to both the legal culture that helped to produce it and to its implications for our understanding of the relation between Victorian subjectivity, the literary market, and other forms of Victorian prose.
Author: Sean C. Grass
Date: 11/12/2009
Location: University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT

Literature and Commodity Culture (Conference/Institute/Seminar)
Title: Literature and Commodity Culture
Author: Sean C. Grass
Abstract: This seminar explores literature's complex interactions and exchanges with commodity culture, both before and after Marx. Offered as a session of the Kansas State University Regional Conference on Literature Studies.
Date Range: 04/14/2012
Location: Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS

Piracy, Race, and Domestic Peril in Hard Cash (Article)
Title: Piracy, Race, and Domestic Peril in Hard Cash
Author: Sean C. Grass
Abstract: In this essay, I argue that Charles Reade's 1863 novel Very Hard Cash represents piracy initially as a racial and colonial matter, only to upset the notion of rapacious racial others by suggesting that the greater--and more socially violent--acts of piracy are the economic and textual crimes perpetrated at home in England
Year: 2011
Format: Other
Periodical Title: Pirates and Mutineers of the Nineteenth Century: Swashbucklers and Swindlers (ed. Grace Moore)
Publisher: Ashgate Press

Commodity and Identity in Great Expectations (Article)
Title: Commodity and Identity in Great Expectations
Author: Sean C. Grass
Abstract: This essay argues that Dickens's classic novel Great Expectations is fundamentally about the problem of what happens when identity is turned into a text and made vulnerable to dynamics of power and exchange in the Victorian marketplace.
Year: 2012
Access Model: Subscription
Format: Journal
Periodical Title: Victorian Literature and Culture
Publisher: Cambridge University Press

Capitalist Accumulation and Financial Fraud: The Psychoeconomics of Loss in Silas Marner and Very Hard Cash (Conference Paper/Presentation)
Title: Capitalist Accumulation and Financial Fraud: The Psychoeconomics of Loss in Silas Marner and Very Hard Cash
Author: Sean Grass
Abstract: Drawn from my book-in-progress, this paper thus uses Silas Marner and Very Hard Cash to urge a broader point about mid-Victorian fiction: that in its many returns to this conception of subjectivity as thoroughly interpenetrated by the problems of capital, mid-century novels express a peculiar anxiety regarding the systematic erosion, or perhaps even collapse, of the boundary that nominally divides property from subjectivity—an erosion that has its roots, as I argue elsewhere in the book, in the rise of autobiography as a commercial genre during the period 1825-1860. In the larger project, I explore the historical realities and theoretical possibilities of this pivotal moment when autobiography, alongside developments in photography, copyright law, and even census-taking and licensure, made subjectivity into “portable property” designed explicitly for the Victorian marketplace. More immediately here, I argue that Eliot’s and Reade’s novels interrogate certain implications of this development by revealing the extent to which, by mid-century, subjectivity had come already to be conceived as property, structured like it, interchangeable with it, and vulnerable to dangerous rules of ownership and exchange. Both novels rely upon a mode of representation that figures economic loss as both mental and sexual trauma—as a sudden annihilation of the self, in the senses of both the linguistic ability to express subjectivity and the intrinsic desire that ought to sustain it. In each case, the initial preoccupation with networks of capitalist accumulation and exchange gives way, by novel’s end, to a much more alarming recognition: that the subject has already been pervaded by, and cannot do without, capitalism’s textual, imaginative, and representational demands.
Date: 9/27/12
Conference Name: North American Victorian Studies Association

Subjective Economies and the Victorian Census (Conference Paper/Presentation)
Title: Subjective Economies and the Victorian Census
Author: Sean Grass
Abstract: Drawn from my book in progress, this paper argues that the new demand for names constitutes and expresses an ideology that was, at mid-century, deliberately turning identity into a textual thing, a form of property pervaded by the forms of social power that capitalism was generally bringing to bear upon the Victorian subject. The book argues broadly that during the first half of the nineteenth century, the impulse to textualize the subject and so turn it into an object of exchange characterizes several early-Victorian cultural formations, chief among them the commercial rise of autobiography during 1820-1860. More to the point, and in the case of the census, the impulse to textualize and economize the subject found expression also in the wide formalization of official technologies—registries, licensing, and copyright, among others—that brought the subject into legal existence by giving it concrete form. Given the explicitly economic origins of the original Census Act in 1801, I want to focus this essay on the 1841 revision, which turned a novel mechanism for economic aggregation and classification into something much more personal, and to consider the complex implications of that revision against the nexus of subjectivity-text-commodity that characterized the emergent capitalism of the 1840s.
Date: 11/12/14
Conference Name: North American Victorian Studies Association

"Mr Mudie's sins": Victorian Autobiography, the Book Market, and Critical Response (Conference Paper/Presentation)
Title: "Mr Mudie's sins": Victorian Autobiography, the Book Market, and Critical Response
Author: Sean Grass
Abstract: Drawn from my book in progress, this paper argues for a new—or at least an alternative—history of Victorian life-writing, and for a new sense of the role the genre played in not only the literary market but also in the popular and critical consciousness. During particularly the 1850s, autobiography proliferated at an unprecedented rate and came into its own for the first time as a deliberately commercial genre. In response, Victorian reviewers wondered openly, and often angrily or anxiously, about the culturally insidious implications of this new tendency to turn private identity itself into a kind of “portable property” available for capitalist exchange. My aim, then, is to articulate a new way of thinking about the form, function, and ideological significance of Victorian autobiography as it “rose” to literary and commercial prominence.
Date: 4/13/16
Conference Name: Nineteenth-Century Studies Association

Remaking Victorian Subjectivity: Autobiography and Critical Response (Conference Paper/Presentation)
Title: Remaking Victorian Subjectivity: Autobiography and Critical Response
Author: Sean Grass
Abstract: Between 1820 and 1860, autobiography became for the first time an explicitly commercialized genre of English prose. As it did, it provoked significant anxieties about the cultural and imaginative status of identity in a capitalist marketplace that made it into a textual object vulnerable to the dynamics of ownership and exchange. This anxiety appears most obviously in contemporary reviews, which passed from general hostility to the practice of “turning a penny” by writing autobiography to more specific complaints about the forms in which identity was obliged to appear—and the mutilations it had to undergo—to satisfy the requirements of the mid-century book market. This paper focuses particularly on the rhetoric of these reviews around 1860, at the close of Victorian autobiography’s last major commercial peak, exploring the shifting nature and increasing precision of reviewers’ complaints regarding the autobiographies of Mary Granville Delany, Hester Lynch Piozzi, and the Irish novelist Lady Morgan. In part, the reviews published during these years suggest that frustrations and anxieties reached their greatest intensity as autobiographical production crested during the 1850s, and they further suggest a gendered response when female identity, particularly, became a commodity in the literary market. But they also imply—in complaints about the length of such autobiographies, their factual inaccuracies, and the ways in which these problems were atonements for “Mr. Mudie’s sins”—an acute sense of the extent to which autobiographies were reshaping identities, and the very idea of identity, to suit the exigencies of the Victorian literary market.
Date: 9/10/16
Conference Name: Research Society for Victorian Periodicals

Autobiography, Textuality, Commodity: Sacred Identity in The Moonstone (Conference Paper/Presentation)
Title: Autobiography, Textuality, Commodity: Sacred Identity in The Moonstone
Author: Sean Grass
Abstract: Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone begins as a detective story and ends—arguably, at least—as a prototypical attempt at psychoanalysis, with Ezra Jennings piecing together Dr. Candy’s unconscious utterances and coaxing Franklin Blake into equally unconscious repetitions to discover the mystery of the missing Indian. More mysterious even than the disappearance of the stone, however, is the alchemy by which Collins converts the story of a missing object into the story of a missing subjectivity, as if neither The Moonstone’s readers nor its internal logic can quite recognize the difference between the two. Taken from Chapter 5 of my book-in-progress, Life upon the Exchange, this paper argues that Collins’s novel offers a crucial vision of subjectivity as it was remade during the middle of the nineteenth century, when the rise of autobiography as a deliberately commercial genre coincided with the advent of several other technologies—copyright law, the census, the photograph—for taking subjectivity, giving it a textual (and therefore material) form, and thus transforming it into a commodity thoroughly vulnerable to the dynamics of economic exchange. In its polyvocal first-person form, in Jennings’s interventions, in the involutions of its plot, and in the drama of a fabulous diamond that threatens to lose its talismanic “identity” if it is sent off to be cut into several perfect—and, economically speaking, more valuable—stones, Collins’s novel deals in many of the tropes for representing commoditized identity that I examine in Life upon the Exchange.
Date: 11/5/16
Conference Name: North American Victorian Studies Association

Pieces of Work: Creativity and Intellectual Labor in Our Mutual Friend (Blog Post)
Title: Pieces of Work: Creativity and Intellectual Labor in Our Mutual Friend
Author: Sean Grass
Abstract: Drawn from both the book in progress funded by the NEH (now titled "Life upon the Exchange") and extended work conducted as part of my 2014 book Charles Dickens's Our Mutual Friend: A Publishing History (Ashgate 2014), this blog post assesses Dickens's presentation of "work" and the commodified intellectual labor of authorship as these appear in Our Mutual Friend. The blog post was written for the Our Mutual Friend Reading Project designed by the Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies at Birkbeck, University of London.
Date: 10/1/14
Primary URL: http://dickensourmutualfriend.wordpress.com/2014/10/15/pieces-of-work-creativity-and-intellectual-labor-in-our-mutual-friend/
Website: Dickens Our Mutual Friend Reading Project

On the Death of the Duke of Wellington, 14 September 1852 (Article)
Title: On the Death of the Duke of Wellington, 14 September 1852
Author: Sean Grass
Abstract: This essay discusses the death of the Duke of Wellington in September 1852, which was notable chiefly for the extraordinary period of mourning and spectacular funeral that followed. First explaining how Wellington became England’s most beloved military hero of the nineteenth century, the essay analyzes the complex forces at work during the two months between his death and funeral. Victorians wanted to mourn—and did mourn—the death of the man. But many also regarded his death as an opportunity to capitalize on the Duke’s image, name, and textual remains. In this sense, the essay contends, the period between 14 September and 18 November 1852 comprises the end of one era and the beginning of another, for it allowed Victorians to give cultural expression to a modern age of celebrity, spectacle, and commercial exchange
Year: 2013
Primary URL: http://www.branchcollective.org/?ps_articles=sean-grass-on-the-death-of-the-duke-of-wellington-14-september-1852
Access Model: open access
Format: Journal
Periodical Title: BRANCH: Britain, Representation, and Nineteenth-Century History
Publisher: BRANCH Collective

Willing Subjects and Commodity Culture in Our Mutual Friend (Public Lecture or Presentation)
Title: Willing Subjects and Commodity Culture in Our Mutual Friend
Abstract: Our Mutual Friend’s Book 2, Chapter 3—“A Piece of Work”—finds Mr. Veneering, that evanescent compere of fashionable London dinner parties, rallying his friends around him so that he may be elected M.P. for the nondescript town of Pocket-Breeches. Almost from the start of the novel, Veneering uses dinner parties to lay the foundation for this other sort of party work, anchoring his feasts in that “innocent piece of dinner-furniture,” Mr. Twemlow, whom the omniscient narrator describes in terms that deliberately blur the lines between animate and inanimate matter, consumers and the consumed, human subjects and the gaudy objects feasted upon by the Veneerings and their kind. His blurring, I would suggest, is the point. Set against the novel’s beginning on the murky Thames, which includes Gaffer Hexam and Rogue Riderhood’s quarrel over whether “a dead man has any use for money,” the Veneering dinner party opens up a space for evaluating not the banal stirrings of political partisanship but rather a much more complicated debate, in which Gaffer’s natural argument that a dead man cannot own, want, or spend money collides with the unnatural but legal claims of Old Harmon’s will, a tool designed to allow him to continue to order the workings of property long after he is dead. Taken from Chapter 5 of my book in progress, this paper examines particularly the dinner parties that frame Our Mutual Friend—the one thrown by the Veneerings in Chapter 2, and the one that closes the novel in “The Voice of Society”—to show how these events posit and critique modern forms of capitalist consumption that commoditize the Victorian subject precisely by underscoring the ways in which these violate Gaffer’s “natural” laws of ownership and exchange.
Author: Sean Grass
Date: 4/24/15
Location: Birkbeck College, University of London


Permalink: https://securegrants.neh.gov/publicquery/products.aspx?gn=FT-53201-05