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Unearned Wealth

  • A Literary History of Inheritance (1600-2015)

Project Title: Unearned Wealth - A Literary History of Inheritance (1600-2015)

Throughout the modern age, inherited wealth has made up a substantial portion of national income in Western countries. According to Thomas Piketty, current inheritance flows are approaching levels last observed in the 19th century. This development is a source of rising inequality that is inconsistent with liberal meritocratic ideals, since inherited wealth is not earned through diligence or skill. At the same time, resistance against taxation of inheritance is widespread. The arguments in the public debates about this issue are rarely purely economic, but often emotional as they evoke deeply felt and complex, historically formed notions about death, ancestry, the rights of individuals and family life. Studying the history of inheritance as an economic, cultural and social force in modernity therefore improves our understanding of the present state of Western societies and their possible futures.

Inheritance brings together economy, family relations and death. The potential conflicts arising from this meeting is the stuff that drama is made of. It is thus no surprise that inherited wealth has been a favorite topic in literary works throughout modernity. It is therefore to literary history that we must turn if we wish to understand the importance of inherited riches – not only in a strictly economic sense, but as a formative social and cultural practice in the making of Western modernity.

In order to that, this project writes the literary history of inheritance from 1600 to the present, focusing on England and France and four literary genres. Insight into this vast literary material will be furthered by digital methods that are able to measure literary trends on a large scale. Results from this digital approach is combined with critical, materialist readings of selected literary works focusing on the impact of inherited wealth on family and gender relations, personal liberty and socio-economic inequality.    

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(Illustration: David Wilkie: Reading the Will, 1820)