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Literature Incorporated

The Cultural Unconscious of the Business Corporation, 1650-1850

Long before Citizens United and modern debates over corporations as people, such organizations already stood between the public and private as both vehicles for commerce and imaginative constructs based on groups of individuals. In this book, John O’Brien explores how this relationship played out in economics and literature, two fields that gained prominence in the same era.

Examining British and American essays, poems, novels, and stories from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, O’Brien pursues the idea of incorporation as a trope discernible in a wide range of texts. Key authors include John Locke, Eliza Haywood, Harriet Martineau, and Edgar Allan Poe, and each chapter is oriented around a type of corporation reflected in their works, such as insurance companies or banks. In exploring issues such as whether sentimental interest is the same as economic interest, these works bear witness to capitalism’s effect on history and human labor, desire, and memory. This period’s imaginative writing, O’Brien argues, is where the unconscious of that process left its mark. By revealing the intricate ties between literary models and economic concepts, Literature Incorporated shows us how the business corporation has shaped our understanding of our social world and ourselves.

272 pages | 13 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2015

Economics and Business: Economics--History

History: American History

Literature and Literary Criticism: American and Canadian Literature, British and Irish Literature


“This is not a simple history of ideas or a tracing of practices of incorporation—we already have enough of those. It is rather a deconstruction of the concept of the business corporation that asks in any number of ways how it is that these behemoths came to be naturalized and familiar to us. Sophisticated and always engaging, Literature Incorporated ranks up there with those great works that provide a history to a concept that we’d never thought of before.”

James Thompson, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

“Theoretically insightful and timely in the questions it raises, Literature Incorporated is an electrifying contribution to recent work on the relation of economics and imaginative writing from the mid-seventeenth through the mid-nineteenth centuries. O’Brien reshapes the critical conversation in important ways, drawing attention to the actions the corporation made possible and the crises it precipitated. This is an exciting, substantial, and original study.”

Lynn Festa, Rutgers University

Literature Incorporated uses the metaphor of incorporation to explore actual early corporations, Locke’s writings on money, the South Sea Bubble, insurance, abolitionist narratives, and eighteenth-century banking. This is an informed, intelligent, and unfailingly interesting example of how literary theory and economic history can enlighten each other.”

Mary Poovey, New York University

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Corporation as Metaphor

1. John Locke, Desire, and the Incorporation of Money

2. Wonderful Event: The South Sea Bubble and the Crisis of Property

3. Insurance and the Problem of Sentimental Representation

4. “Bodies of Men”: Abolitionist Writing and the Question of Interest

5. Held in Reserve: Banks, Serial Crises, and the Ekphrastic Turn
Coda: The Entrepreneur as Corporate Hero





American Society for 18th Century Studies: Louis Gottschalk Prize

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