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Author ORCID Identifier

https://orcid.org/0000-0003-4557-3104

Document Type

Campus-Only Access for Five (5) Years

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Program

English

Year Degree Awarded

2019

Month Degree Awarded

May

First Advisor

Laura Doyle

Second Advisor

Randall Knoper

Third Advisor

Marla Miller

Fourth Advisor

Asha Nadkarni

Subject Categories

American Literature | American Material Culture | Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies

Abstract

In an era when the pulverized bodies of beetles traveled from Mexico to Spain in order to dye Italian textiles, while French, Dutch, English, and American imperial powers competed to upset Spain’s monopoly over this valuable commodity, a red hue like carmine offered fodder for writers to investigate the imperial implications of the imported goods they consumed. In this dissertation, I unearth writers’ implicit and explicit depictions of this and other commodity chains in US novels from 1865-1930, pairing close readings of commodities depicted in fiction with these goods’ global economic histories. From magazine articles about the manufacture of silk, to children's geography textbooks tracing Brazilian sources of coffee, to political debates about foreign trade policies, Gilded Age Americans were cognizant of the global origins of the goods in their homes and grappled with the ethical, aesthetic, national, and imperial implications of their consequent involvement in global capitalism. Through study of eight American novels, I argue that representations of commodities in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century texts demand a larger geopolitical field of analysis, which reveals unexpected international contexts in literature that initially appears limited to “domestic” concerns. Louisa May Alcott, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Constance Fenimore Woolson, María Amparo Ruiz de Burton, Frank Norris, W. E. B. Du Bois, Edith Wharton, and Nella Larsen punctuate their fiction with strategic references to contested goods like cochineal, fur, cotton, wheat, gold, or pearls to imaginatively navigate consumers’ gendered and racialized entanglement in a volatile inter-imperial economy. Further, by depicting the commodification of art and artists, these writers self-reflexively gesture to their own complicity in global capitalism. With an interdisciplinary methodology informed by the fields of history, art, economics, sociology, gender studies, cultural studies, and literary studies, this dissertation traces the often conflicted attitudes toward US economic expansionism that writers express in their allusions to international trade. This dissertation reconsiders traditional periodizations of US literature by identifying a linked global imagination among authors who depict commodities, an approach that illuminates similarities not only between domestic, realist, and modernist fiction, but also between the turn of the twentieth century and the turn of the twenty-first.

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