The Incorporation of American Literature

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2013 MLA Special Session Proposal

The Incorporation of American Literature

From the creation of the British East India Company in 1599 to Mitt Romney's assertion that "corporations are people, my friend," the corporation has been central to the global arrangements of modernity. In the US, corporations were politically and legally consolidated in a period that Allan Trachtenberg famously narrated as The Incorporation of America, in part because of the powerful influence they had across all aspects of labor, culture, and art. The Gilded Age United States was increasingly at the mercy of incorporated behemoths more powerful than the limited franchise electorate and often as influential as the president – see Pennsylvania Railroad executive Tom Scott's role in the 1876 presidential crisis, for example.

In the fictional works of authors such as Dreiser, Norris, Freeman, Sinclair, and Twain, among numerous others, we can find an emerging literary engagement with corporations, corporate power, and corporate imagined life. In this special session, we'd like to return to the incarnation of the corporate 'body' produced by corporate personhood in the famous Supreme Court case Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (1886) as our organizing analytical category. We want to locate the way diverse writers investigated, narrated, and imagined this new form of "legal personhood"— an entity born solely through the province of the law, yet invested with all the rights and protections of its flesh-and-blood peers—and examine how this new figure braided with the privileges of new citizenship.

In this roundtable, we propose a conversation about the literature of corporations read broadly, and we invite dialogue about the figurations of corporate power in fiction within and beyond the post-bellum, transnational, and Anglophone center of corporate dominance. Topics and themes could include

- representations of corporations in literature

- corporate speech

- the reevaluation of the human body after the invention of its corporate

- literatures of monopolies, trusts, and anti-trusts

- figurations of corporate personhood

- shareholders/share-holding

- intersections of literature, corporations, and law

- visual and cinematic analysis of corporations

- the treatment of groups as a single legal entity

- character personification of corporate personhood

We invite commentary on the corporation from the nineteenth century to the present, and we open the roundtable to critical inquires around its attendant bureaucracies, its public face as well as its facelessness, and how it generated new problems of form, politics, and expression in the aesthetic projects that it inspired. We wish to foreground how diverse varieties of authors, texts, characters, and readers feel sympathy and apprehension for these entities, and how they connect to contemporary concerns about finance, credit, and debt. It is within the company of literature and corporate texts that we hope to find new and productive frictions about incorporation itself, and how these corporate bodies come to live, reproduce, merge and fall away — and how human bodies give life to them, by choice and by force.

Contact Jesse Schwartz ( and/or Justin Rogers-Cooper ( - Deadline March 25th.