Saturday, December 7, 2019

Sean Grass's "The Commodification of Identity in Victorian Narrative"

Sean Grass is Professor of English at the Rochester Institute of Technology and is the author of The Self in the Cell: Narrating the Victorian Prisoner (2003), Charles Dickens's 'Our Mutual Friend': A Publishing History (2014), and several essays on Victorian literature and culture.

Grass applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Commodification of Identity in Victorian Narrative: Autobiography, Sensation, and the Literary Marketplace, and reported the following:
Page 99 of my book places the reader late in Chapter 2, which takes up Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1860-1). Because the page really gets into the intricacies of an argument specific to that novel, it is not probably worth quoting at great length here. But it does contain this short passage:
… Pip [structures] his story around the idea that his life is a debt owed, his subjectivity a deficit that must be made up to repay his sister for bringing him up by hand, or to make amends to Magwitch, Miss Havisham, Joe, and the others who have been his benefactors. The contrast that Pip draws between himself and his five dead brothers in the churchyard is that they died without repaying that debt, lying mendicant “with their hands in their trousers-pockets” after giving up “trying to get a living, exceedingly early in that universal struggle” (9). The language is Darwinian but also Malthusian. Having “insisted on being born,” Pip owes a debt embedded in origins, as if biological beginnings, like textual ones, bring subjectivity into economic relations just by making it a material thing.
Even though it is focused narrowly on Great Expectations, page 99 does—in this passage, at least—illustrate a key component of the book’s argument: that the transformation of subjectivity, or identity, into a textual object during the first half of the nineteenth century brought it into new kinds of relations to the capitalist sphere. Broadly speaking, my book is an unusual one because it straddles the line between book history and postmodern theory, and between distant and close reading, to make a significant point about the proliferation and popularization of life writing during the nineteenth century. We have tended often to treat Victorian life writing as notable particularly for the ways in which it constructs identity, whether along the lines of gender, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity and national identity, or some other category. For these reasons and for others, until the last few decades, we have also tended to focus on certain canonical, conventional, and predictably structured instances of life writing by figures such as Harriet Martineau, Anthony Trollope, and John Stuart Mill. But we have paid very little attention to the fact that, to paraphrase Trev Lynn Broughton, most writers produced life writing, and most publishers published it, simply to make money. In my book, then, I wanted to ask: when exactly did life writing become big business, how did it intersect with other emerging practices—from copyright law to portraiture, and from the census to the carte-de-visite—for textualizing and economizing identity, and what where the cultural implications of entangling identity with property and thus exposing it to the laws of ownership and exchange? As I argue, we can answer that question in part by examining mid-century fiction, principally though not exclusively the sensation novel, which represents in myriad ways the profound entanglement of textuality, subjectivity, and property at and after the middle of the nineteenth century. Written in the first-person, drawing from Dickens’s own life, and designed explicitly as a commodity for the market, Great Expectations exemplifies this argument and is the first novel I address, though subsequent chapters on Mary Elizabeth Braddon, George Eliot, Charles Reade, and Wilkie Collins all make (I hope) compelling and complementary cases. So while page 99 of The Commodification of Identity in Victorian Narrative doesn’t really reflect the full complexities of the picture that the book offers, it certainly illustrates the way in which I bring my broad thesis to bear on one particular, and particularly familiar, mid-century novel.
Learn more about The Commodification of Identity in Victorian Narrative at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue