Department of English, College of LAS, University of Illinois

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Monday, May 2, 2011

The 'Invisible Hand' and British Fiction, 1818-1860

I am delighted to announce here the publication of Eleanor Courtemanche's new book, The 'Invisible Hand and British Fiction, 1818-1860: Adam Smith, Political Economy, and the Genre of Realism. Actually, the book been in print in Great Britain since April 12, but I learned this morning that Professor Courtemanche's advance copies have now arrived in the mail. This is my cue to post. Because, like I always say, nothing can be real until it arrives in central Illinois.

Published as part of Palgrave's impressive "Palgrave Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture" series, The Invisible Hand and British Fiction argues that 19th-century realist novels, with their large-canvas portraiture of individuals within complex social systems, represent the best and most sophisticated response we have to the baffling experience of living in a world of global capitalism. This is a historical argument, about fiction and economic theory in the 19th century, but one that also makes 19th-century fiction speak to experiences that are our own. I admire this book for its powerful argument, but also for its lively and accessible prose. I think it has the potential, therefore, to be of interest to readers beyond its main, obvious audience of scholarly specialists: if only the invisible hand of the marketplace could somehow bring it to a wider audience's attention!

Here is the book description, pasted in from the press' website: "Some economic ideas are too interesting to be left to economists. This book argues that Adam Smith's metaphor of the 'invisible hand' – in which selfish economic actions are mysteriously transformed into aggregate social benefits in a capitalist economy – implies an entire spatial and temporal system in which the morality of any particular action can only be understood in the context of society as a whole. The 'Invisible Hand' and British Fiction argues that while political economists focused only on the optimistic outcomes of capitalist moral activity, Smith's model of ironic morality also influenced the work of novelists including Austen, Dickens, Martineau, Thackeray, Gaskell, and Eliot. Their realist novels represent the reconciliation between individual ignorance and systemic overview as much less stable than the economic synthesis, using omniscient narrative voices, multiple perspectives, and humor to depict a wide variety of possible outcomes. Smith shares with the realists a vision of modern society that is structured around a fragile trust in the benefits of unintended consequences."

Congratulations, Eleanor!


Gavin Kennedy said...

I have critically commented on this new book from Palgrave on the "invisible hand" metaphor as used by Adam Smith on my Blog:
and you may wish to read it (it's too long to post here).

As it deals with Adam Smith's use of the IH metaphor it may have some value for an English literature scholar, if only by an economist.

Gavin Kennedy
Emeritus Profess, Heriot-Watt University

Curtis said...

Professor Kennedy: I looked at your blog, and I think you may object to some of this book's arguments. But you may find them interesting, too, and I can assure you that Courtemanche has read her Adam Smith thoroughly and carefully. She is also interested in the way the idea of Smith gets boiled down to erroneous constructions of the one vivid metaphor of the invisible hand. I would recommend that you pick up a copy of the book and give it a read!


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