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Material Ambitions

Self-Help and Victorian Literature

What the Victorian history of self-help reveals about the myth of individualism.

Stories of hardworking characters who lift themselves from rags to riches abound in the Victorian era. From the popularity of such stories, it is clear that the Victorians valorized personal ambition in ways that previous generations had not. In Material Ambitions, Rebecca Richardson explores this phenomenon in light of the under-studied reception history of Samuel Smiles's 1859 publication, Self-Help: With Illustrations of Character, Conduct, and Perseverance. A compilation of vignettes about captains of industry, artists, and inventors who persevered through failure and worked tirelessly to achieve success in their respective fields, Self-Help links individual ambition to the growth of the nation.

Contextualizing Smiles's work in a tradition of Renaissance self-fashioning, eighteenth-century advice books, and inspirational biography, Richardson argues that the burgeoning self-help genre of the Victorian era offered a narrative structure that linked individual success with collective success in a one-to-one relationship. Advocating for a broader cultural account of the ambitious hero narrative, Richardson argues that reading these biographies and self-help texts alongside fictional accounts of driven people complicates the morality tale that writers like Smiles took pains to invoke. In chapters featuring the works of Harriet Martineau, Dinah Craik, Thackeray, Trollope, and Miles Franklin, Richardson demonstrates that Victorian fiction dramatized ambition by suggesting where it runs up against the limits of an individual's energy and ability, where it turns into competition, or where it risks upsetting a socio-ecological system of finite resources. The upward mobility plots of John Halifax, Gentleman or Vanity Fair suggest the dangers of zero-sum thinking, particularly evidenced by contemporary preoccupations with Malthusian and Darwinian discourses.

Intertwining the methodologies of disability studies and ecocriticism, Material Ambitions persuasively unmasks the longstanding myth that ambitious individualism can overcome disadvantageous systematic and structural conditions.

About the Author

Rebecca Richardson is a lecturer in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University.

Endorsements

"Richardson shows how ambition, which the Victorians took at one and the same time as 'needful thing' and 'dirty word,' works as a rich source of narrative tension in some nineteenth-century fiction as well as a structuring problem for the period as a whole. She is a skilled reader of character, plot, and style, and moves surely and frictionlessly from the novel to etiquette books, biography, and political theory. Material Ambitions is a smart, thorough, crisply argued, and, dare I say it, an entirely ambitious book."

- Kent Puckett, University of California, Berkeley, author of Bad Form: Social Mistakes and the Nineteenth-Century Novel

"Brilliant and dead right, Material Ambitions never forgets how good it feels to read a story where the winner takes all. Rebecca Richardson calls us to recognize that such stories also reveal the problems of scarcity, exclusion, and loss. This book is at once a study of Victorian reckonings with finite resources, both personal and environmental, and a pitch-perfect consideration of individual success in a grossly unfair system."

- Sarah Allison, Loyola University New Orleans, author of Reductive Reading: A Syntax of Victorian Moralizing

9781421441962 : material-ambitions-richardson
Hardback
November 30, 2021
$99.95 USD
9781421441979 : material-ambitions-richardson
Paperback / softback
November 30, 2021
$34.95 USD
9781421441986 : material-ambitions-richardson
Electronic book text
November 30, 2021
$34.95 USD

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