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ENGL 609.76: Literature of the South Sea Bubble

Instructor: Dr. Morgan Vanek
Schedule: Thursday 9:30-12:15

Course Description:

In 1720, London witnessed its first major financial crash. The South Sea Bubble burst, the stock market plummeted, and the public sphere exploded with new writing – from periodical essays and plays to legislation – that aimed to expose and curtail the corruption, self-interest, and stock-jobbing many blamed for the crash. In this course, we’ll examine both the new literary genres and the many forms of economic and financial writing that flourished in the years just before and after this crash (1710-1725), with a focus on how these genres – from satire to the realistic novel to, as Mary Poovey has argued, money itself – taught their readers to think about the nature of the risks associated with credit, debt, and speculation. Early in the term, for instance, we’ll explore how the speculative genres of the South Sea Bubble helped to abstract and obfuscate the violence of the slave trade, and ultimately defined the terms of the proposals for ameliorative reform that emerged at the century’s end. At mid-term, we’ll explore the often sexualized metaphors of disease that emerged to register increasing anxiety about excessive circulation, credit, optimism, naiveté, and financial panic itself as sorts and sources of plague – and finally, we’ll turn to the horror stories of the Bubble’s aftermath, and investigate how this new enthusiasm for stories featuring brokers as (or fed to) cannibals, crocodiles, and other ‘Blood-suckers’ appropriated and transformed the tropes used to register risk to British agents of empire in travel writing throughout the eighteenth century. Keeping an eye on what the precarious economic conditions of the present have inherited from this moment when finance was new, we’ll trace these metaphors and other figures that the South Sea Bubble generated from its expansion through its collapse and afterlife – and then we’ll look forward, taking up the central questions of an emerging body of writing about the relationship between the Anthropocene and the logic of capital. If, as Jason Moore argues, the present climate crisis represents an “epochal…breakdown of the strategies and relations that have sustained capital accumulation through the past five centuries,” the forms of writing that produced and were produced by the South Sea Bubble represent a newly important archive, not just for what they reveal of the structures of thought underpinning the “strategies and relations” Moore describes here, but for the alternatives they represent. Of all the threats that this literature of the South Sea Bubble sought to contain, we’ll ask, are there any we might want to awaken now? 

Preliminary reading list:

Primary texts will include works by Defoe (Journal of a Plague Year, and more), Swift (Gulliver’s Travels), Pope (“The Rape of the Lock”), Gay (The Beggar’s Opera), Trenchard (Cato’s Letters), Centlivre (A Woman’s Case), Hogarth (South Sea Scheme), and others. Theoretical critical readings will include work by Appadurai, Arrighi, Baucom, Deleuze and Guattari, Hardt and Negri, Latour, Ngai, Malm, Moore, Nixon, and Mitchell, as well as foundational studies of eighteenth-century debt and credit cultures by Brantlinger, Sherman, Thompson, Nicholson, Finn, Lynch, Mitchell, and Poovey.


Participation, including self-evaluations (15%); seminar presentation (in partners) (20%); encyclopedia entry (15%); proposal (5%), position paper (20%), and explication (10%); daily writing practice and peer feedback (15%).