The Commodification of Identity in Victorian Narrative: Autobiography, Sensation, and the Literature Marketplace
The Commodification of Identity in Victorian Narrative: Autobiography, Sensation, and the Literature Marketplace, by Sean Grass, professor of English. Published by Cambridge University Press.
With grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and research at the British Library, the National Library of Scotland and other archives, Grass brings to light new information about the development of autobiography.
The word “autobiography” was invented in the United Kingdom early in the 19th century, around the same time the country conducted its first census; created a systematic approach to government record-keeping for things like birth and death certificates; revised copyright laws to give more rights to authors; and saw the rise of photography, which resulted in the first-ever proliferation of photographic portraits.
“For the first time, someone’s identity also became something that could be put down on paper, turned into a physical object and exchanged for money,” Grass said. “My book examines the history of this development of identity as a paper object, how that development entangled identity with property, and how novelists of the time used their fiction to explore the possible consequences of this cultural shift.”
Autobiographies became commercial phenomena, with publishers even using the growing interest in authors’ lives to inspire and encourage sales of their work. Authors such as Charles Dickens may have been better known for their classic novels. But Dickens and others also relied on various kinds of autobiographical writing — travel books, diaries, volumes of letters — as a form of revenue making, peddling their reminiscences to eager readers.
“The book talks about the cultural anxieties that were engendered by identity suddenly becoming a thing that was textual and that could be bought and sold and exchanged as any other piece of portable property,” Grass said. It was even the first phase of what we now call “identity theft,” the theft of government identification and financial records.
Grass is now taking the extensive data related to this research and developing from it an electronic database that will be of use to literary scholars, historians, and others who are interested in autobiographical works.
He is now taking the extensive data related to this research and developing from it an electronic database that will be of use to literary scholars, historians, and others who are interested in autobiographical works.