Unsettling Empire: Material Culture and the Global Economy in Nineteenth-Century Literature

full name / name of organization: 
C19: March 17-20, 2016
contact email: 

In the nineteenth century, the question of the United States' growing status as a world power manifested itself not only through territorial expansionism, but also through the nation's economic ties to the rest of the globe. Whether through vociferous debates about tariff policies, or through competition with European powers over trade with Asia, or through consumers' metaphorical ownership of the world imagined through the possession of imported goods, nineteenth-century Americans were aware of the geopolitical implications of the United States' economic policies and entanglements. While in recent years American Studies has turned significant attention to the nineteenth-century United States' imperial ambitions, further attention to the interdependent and constantly reconfiguring global economy promises to render a more fully-realized picture of the ways that material objects mediated American writers' vision of their position on a world stage. As Arjun Appadurai has argued, the circulation of goods can shed light on human relationships, and in order to unearth the truths about those relationships, "we have to follow the things themselves, for their meanings are inscribed in their forms, their uses, their trajectories. It is only through the analysis of these trajectories that we can interpret the human transactions and calculations that enliven things" (5). The material history that Appadurai refers to can reveal the larger international maneuvers, calculations, and relationships that these goods might represent for the writers and readers of nineteenth-century literature.

Drawing on the recent decades of scholarship that use empire to situate the U.S. in a transnational context, this panel seeks to explore the at times unsettling international or imperial resonances that material objects had for nineteenth-century writers. The panel will raise questions including but not limited to: what new insights can be gained by situating common nineteenth-century interpretive categories--such as consumer culture, "separate spheres," or individualism--in a global economic context? How do objects unsettle notions of nation, empire, race, class, and gender? What kind of attitudes do U.S. authors express towards the United States' efforts to establish itself as an economic and imperial power in a global context through their depiction of material objects? What relationships do objects in fictional homes create between the "domestic" and the "foreign"? How are the economic disruptions around the Civil War and the end of slavery registered in literature? What kinds of ethical questions around consumption and labor are raised through literary representations of material culture? How do writers imagine, understand, or negotiate their own participation and commodification in the international literary marketplace?

The C19 conference will be held from March 17-20, 2016 at Pennsylvania State University. For more information, see http://c19conference.org. Please email a 300-word abstract and a brief bio by August 28, 2015 to Heather Wayne at hwayne@english.umass.edu.