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"The Language of Trade": Rhetoric, Power, and the Commercial Identity in Eighteenth-Century British Fiction

  • Author(s): Domzalski, Danielle Rose
  • Advisor(s): Van Sant, Ann J.
  • et al.

In Origins of the English Novel, Michael McKeon distinguishes between assimilationist and supersessionist iterations of the progressive narrative form; while most texts remain fundamentally elitist, he writes, supersessionist texts “seek the legitimation of a humble social group in its own terms.” The disparity signals the presence of distinct, competing social fractions within the eighteenth-century middling sort: a polite, assimilationist fraction, and a more supersessionist trade and manufacturing community, which I term the commercial fraction. I argue that commercial authors have been consistently overlooked or misread by contemporaries and modern critics; the genteel authors and audiences who dominated contemporary literary discourse read commercial texts through the distortions of a polite lens, while modern literary scholars have based their analyses upon—and thereby perpetuated—these flawed ‘translations.’ Although scholars have studied commercial authors such as Samuel Richardson as agents of an undifferentiated ‘middling’ culture, there has been no recognition of a tradition of distinct commercial rhetoric, no sustained analysis of the commercial fraction’s engagement with polite discourse.

My introduction unpicks the intertwined strands of middling culture to discuss the commercial sort “in its own terms,” analyzing the social and rhetorical patterns in autobiographies and conduct treatises written by members of Britain’s commercial population. In the following chapters, I analyze commercial fiction as counterdiscourse, focusing primarily on three authors: Robert Dodsley, Samuel Richardson, and Robert Bage. These authors interrogate the polite dominance of public discourse—and empower themselves—by appropriating and rewriting its linguistic signs. They redefine virtue to privilege practical, self-interested conduct, including ambition, manual labor, and time management, and their texts reinterpret power by figuring the social contract as a decentralized and situational network of bonds rather than a unified, natural hierarchy.

My dissertation ultimately encourages further scholarly engagement with the concept of commercial authorship. I argue, for instance, that commercial rhetoric created greater space for portrayals of empowered women, and it may have shaped the late-century radical interest in subaltern independence and agency. Studying patterns of commercial rhetoric allows us to interrogate conventional misreadings and opens up new ways to assess the intersections among eighteenth-century texts.

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