(Un)Veiling Privilege in Late-Nineteenth-Century US Literature and Culture

Postdoctoral Project by Stefan Schubert

This (ongoing) project investigates the               ‘invention’ of privilege in the nineteenth century. It theorizes privilege with insights from contemporary (mostly sociological) privilege studies but sets out to trace an emerging discourse around privilege already in the late-nineteenth-century United States. Specifically, it proposes that negotiations of privilege can be pursued and analyzed in postbellum US literature, some of which engages in processes of ‘unveiling’ privilege as an oppressive social dynamic, while other texts attempt to ‘veil’ and conceal its systemic power—and yet others display a notable ambivalence toward their awareness and problematization of patterns of privilege in US society.

Still in its early stages, the project proposes to operationalize privilege as an analytic category by conceptualizing it as an unearned advantage conferred to an individual based on her or his perceived affiliation to a specific social group. It attempts to make visible and draw attention to dynamics and contradictions in nineteenth-century culture that related concepts like inequality, oppression, or supremacy cannot fully grasp. While mapping the role literature played in negotiations of privilege, the project pursues an interest in both the ‘politics’ and the ‘poetics’ of privilege in literary works, such as stories of passing, local-color writing, or conman narratives.