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The Problem of Profit

Finance and Feeling in Eighteenth-Century British Literature
Michael Genovese

BUY Cloth · 312 pp. · 6.125 × 9.25 · ISBN 9780813942896 · $49.50 · Nov 2019
BUY Ebook · 312 pp. · ISBN 9780813942902 · $49.50 · Nov 2019

Attacks against the pursuit of profit in eighteenth-century Britain have been largely read as reactions against market activity in general or as critiques of financial innovation.  In  The Problem of Profit, however, Michael Genovese contends that such rejections of profit derive not from a distaste for moneymaking itself but from a distaste for individualism.

In the aftermath of the late seventeenth-century Financial Revolution, literature linked the concept of sympathy to the public-minded economic ideals of the past to resist the rising individualism of capitalism. This study places literary works at the center of eighteenth-century debates about how to harmonize exchanges of feeling and exchanges of finance, highlighting representations of communitarian, affective profit-making in georgic poetry as well as in the work of Joseph Addison, Daniel Defoe, Richard Steele, Sarah Fielding, Henry Fielding, David Hume, Samuel Johnson, and Laurence Sterne, among others. Investigating commercial treatises, novels, poetry, periodicals, and philosophy, Genovese argues that authors conjured alternatives to private accumulation that might counter the isolating tendencies of impersonal exchange.

However, even as emotional language and economic language arose together in the 1700s, the attendant aspiration to form a communitarian economy in Britain was not fulfilled. By recovering an approach to moneymaking that failed to thrive,  The Problem of Profit argues for the relevance of an unfamiliar narrative of capitalistic thought to today’s anxiety over the discord between personal ambition and public good.


An important new perspective full of nuanced readings and well-presented insights.

Catherine Ingrassia, Virginia Commonwealth University, author of Authorship, Commerce, and Gender in Early Eighteenth-Century England: A Culture of Paper Credit

"[T]he imaginative literature of the eighteenth century often represents trade and tradespeople. Michael Genovese's subtle argument in The Problem of Profit: Finance and Feeling in Eighteenth-Century British Literature is that literature also intervened in the field of economics and frequently assuaged contemporary anxieties about the profit motive and the kinds of human personality it might create or encourage.... This is a fine, important book which organizes a wide range of writings into a perspective on the century which is both intriguing and persuasive."

SEL Studies in English Literature

Genovese's The Problem of Profit is well-reasoned and thorough. He has chosen his priary texts judiciously and interspersed other texts in each chapter to demonstrate concenrs about profit and profit-making in the period. The notes are copious, detailed, and informative.

The Eighteenth-Century Intelligencer

About the Author(s): 

Michael Genovese is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Kentucky.

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