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Unearned Wealth

  • A Literary History of Inheritance (1600-2015)

About the project

Throughout most of the modern age the total income from inheritance exceeds income from work. According to Thomas Piketty, this is a source of rising inequality in the West. This development is inconsistent with liberal meritocratic ideals, since inherited wealth is not earned through diligence or skill. Inheritance therefore deserves attention.

While it has rarely been an object of interest for liberal philosophy, legal history or public opinion makers, inherited wealth has been a favorite topic in literary works throughout modernity. For inheritance brings together economy, family relations and death. The potential conflicts arising from this meeting is the stuff that drama is made of. We must turn to literary history, then, 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 do 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 will be 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.


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