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Economies of exchange: The value of the gift in United States culture

By Jennie Lynn Stearns

Abstract

This dissertation establishes gift exchanges as a key concern of numerous nineteenth-century U.S. texts. An ideology of the free gift developed in the nineteenth century as both a defense against the market's perceived threat to personal relationships and as a means of reconceptualizing these relationships in terms consistent with such capitalist tenets as possessive individualism and voluntary contract. My introduction synthesizes multiple models of gift exchange offered by contemporary theory. I resist both idealizations of the gift that overlook important continuities between gift and commodity transactions and equally simplistic demystifications that ignore crucial distinctions: (1) the form of reciprocity each entails, and (2) their respective capacities for reproducing social relationships. Chapter one compares Ralph Waldo Emerson's arguments about gifts' threat to individual autonomy and Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man. Melville, in contradistinction to Emerson, concentrates on gift rituals' facilitating role within market transactions and suggests that individual autonomy might lie in self-consciously performing, not avoiding, gift exchange's obligations. Chapter two examines the frequent depictions of gift-giving in popular domestic novels. Regardless of whether particular authors, such as Susan Warner and Maria Cummins, naturalize the dichotomy between private and public economic transactions by treating gift and commodity exchange as specifically gendered practices, or whether, in the case of Fanny Fern and William Dean Howells, they problematize such oppositions, domestic fiction illustrates that gift practices shape commodity transactions as powerfully as such transactions transform social relations. The concluding chapter examines Harriet Jacobs's, Frances Harper's, and W. E. B. Du Bois's attempts to critique possessive individualism and a racist discourse of paternalism by constructing gift-based concepts of identity and citizenship. Because gift transactions generate a community's sense of mutual obligation, gift exchange's obligatory reciprocity provides an indispensable, if often problematic, metaphor for conceptualizing a national community. The material practices of gift exchange thus provided the nineteenth-century U.S. with a powerful tool for theorizing-and for forging an apparent continuity between---a multitude of concepts, such as individualism, the relationship between private and public life, race relations, and citizenship

Topics: American studies, American literature
Year: 2002
OAI identifier: oai:scholarship.rice.edu:1911/18134
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