My book project seeks to extend our understanding of economic life in the British eighteenth century by setting literary and religious texts in conversation with the social and economic history of private debt. I’m calling it The Parish of Parnassus.
The most interesting finding that emerges from this conversation is that many eighteenth-century representations of contemporary economic activity are inaccurate or distorted. The work of the book is to interpret why that might be. For example, in one chapter I discuss depictions of charitable debt forgiveness in a pair of sentimental novels. In both novels, forgiveness is treated as a rarity, an exceptional and remarkable occurrence, but we know from social historians that such practices must have been quite common. It is likely that most people would know someone who had either had debts forgiven or forgiven debts. The ensuing analysis of this incongruity links these fictional depictions to real-life debates and social movements focused on rethinking and reorganizing elite charitable practices. I argue that only by reading these literary misrepresentations of economic life against the best available historical understanding of contemporary practice can we recognize the cultural-political interventions being made by their authors.
Other chapters look at fiction by Daniel Defoe alongside contemporary retail credit practices; the writings of John Wesley and the early Methodists in connection to practices of neighborly witnessing; eighteenth-century reception of Old Testament writings about debt forgiveness. The book concludes by treating some major dustups in literary patronage involving Samuel Johnson, Thomas Chatterton, and William Wotton.
These readings together make several contributions to the state of economic criticism of the eighteenth century. Contemporaries understood their economic activity in very different ways than we do today. By keeping in mind the anachronistic nature of “the economic” as a field of human understanding, my work returns economic criticism to its most important function: explaining what the economy actually is and has been. In the eighteenth century, certainly, this was a moving target, very different in, say, 1680, than in 1815. As such, I spend most of my analytic effort doing a kind of archaeology, sifting through the bin of cultural phenomena now marked “economic” and seeking to reconstruct some sense of what these might have meant to contemporaries, and how these ideas might have been changing. Much previous work in the field has looked either at public debt — a wholly different issue in my view — or depends over-heavily on economic theory, reading literature alongside then-nascent economic theory rather than more slippery economic practice. Both of these tendencies contribute to an unduly secular view of early modern economic thought, so frequently this reconstruction involves recognizing contemporary religious understandings of social life.
My work offers a useful corrective on this point. Indeed, the incalculable economic significance of the Anglican parish was a motif in the dissertation research on which this book project builds, so much so that I’ve realized that it was in some sense the true focus of the project all along. In revisions, I’ve tried to foreground the issue of communal form more and more, not least in the shift of title from the mooted “Penurious Payments,” based on a Johnson quip from The Idler, to “The Parish of Parnassus,” a quote from a Horace Walpole letter analyzed the final chapter. Religious understandings of social life were powerfully transformed in the period.
But if the goal is to understand social life, why literature? Because, as I’d suggest — and as I hope my readings will demonstrate — it is in literary form that we can best recognize the marks left by the ideological labor involved in the conceptual transformations of the economy. My readings focus most directly on narrative and homiletics (with a touch of lyric around the edges), genres closely concerned with elaborating the relationships between individuals and the larger groups they make up. Our attention to the everyday economic situation of early modern Britons will allow us to better recognize the stakes of literary situations, recognizing even some tropes or styles that had seemed natural as something quite different: as interventions in ongoing cultural-political conversations. In this way, I aim to make of the literary register more than an inert reflection of some pre-existing economic life, but rather another venue in which the roles and obligations of those in different social positions could be worked out and contested: creditors and debtors, certainly, but also men, women, and children, laborers, tradesmen, gentlemen — and that key category, “the poor” — and so on.
Which is to say: to the extent that all of these relationships were transformed in the period, this transformation was one of values. Literature was only one of its venues, but it is now very nearly its only archive.