Edward Sugden, “The Speculative Economies of Sheppard Lee” (pp. 141–166)

In this essay I provide a reading of Robert Montgomery Bird’s Sheppard Lee (1836) that places it against the speculative economy of 1830s America. The novel is, formally and intellectually, a product of and meditation on economic speculation. It dwells upon the ways in which a transition from an agrarian economy into finance capitalism impacts the body. Where many accounts of Sheppard Lee emphasize embodiment as the central issue of the novel, this essay instead insists on disembodiment, demonstrating how the entry into a transregional, virtual economy of stocks and shares, debts, loans, and mortgages dissolved embodied identity. Such a dissolution came, however, with a possible utopian element, encoded within capitalism, of there being an economic form that did not depend on the exploitation and mining of the labor-power of bodies. Yet this fantasy of worklessness, the novel suggests, will always require a space of civil death in which those without rights are relentlessly used for their economic value only. Overall, this reading of the novel modifies a metanarrative about the relationship between capitalism and the imagination in nineteenth century. Rather than literature providing a stable basis for social values disrupted by capitalism, instead a novel like Sheppard Lee suggests that the form of the novel is more suited to capturing the chaos of dislocation, meditating on unactivated historical possibilities latent within capitalism, and internalizing short-term cycles of economic change.

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