Wolfram Schmidgen

Professor of English​
PhD, University of Chicago
MA, Free University Berlin
MA, Binghamton University
research interests:
  • Eighteenth Century Literature and Culture
  • Literature and Philosophy
  • Literature and Politics
  • Literature and Religion
  • Theory and Criticism
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    • Washington University
    • CB 1122
    • One Brookings Drive
    • St. Louis, MO 63130-4899
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    Professor Schmidgen's research focuses on the interplay between literature, law, philosophy, and science. He is working on an intellectual history of literary innovation in early eighteenth-century culture.

    In his first book, Eighteenth-Century Fiction and the Law of Property, Professor Schmidgen shows how the detailed couplings of persons and things in eighteenth-century descriptions question the limits of identity and community. He argues that the history of objectification needs to be rewritten. It is not the simple narrative of a progressive alienation of human and material spheres, but a transgressive romance populated by some strange hybrids: commodities that prove immovable, land that is movable, things that assume human agency, and spaces that threaten to devour or gently incorporate you. In creating such unenlightened hybrids, eighteenth-century legal, economic, and literary texts ask us to reexamine what it means to be modern.

    In his second book, Exquisite Mixture: The Virtues of Impurity in Early Modern England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012) Wolfram Schmidgen asks: when did the English, well-known for their pride in the deep Anglo-Saxon roots of their culture, begin to argue that English culture was great because it was mixed and impure? His answer begins with the realization that early-eighteenth-century Englishmen were becoming increasingly assertive about mixture as the cause of their nation’s virtues and perfections. They prized the mixture of different linguistic, literary, racial, and political kinds. The origins of this striking appreciation of mixture can be found in the political and scientific revolutions of the seventeenth century. By retrieving early modern arguments for the civilizing effects of mixture, Schmidgen helps us confront the political and ethical limits of our current fascination with the idea of hybridity.

    Professor Schmidgen is working on an intellectual history of literary innovation in early eighteenth-century culture. This history seeks to situate the emergence of the novel—for literary historians still the dominant symptom of innovation in the period—in a broader narrative about literary change in an anti-essentialist age. 


    • NEH fellowship, Folger Library, 2007-2008.
    • Faculty fellow, Mellon Seminar "The Souls of Things," Vanderbilt University, Spring 2006 and 2007.
    • Outstanding Graduate Student Mentor, Washington University, 2005-2006.
    • Fellow at the Summer Institute on Tristram Shandy at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina, Summer 2005.
    • Mellon Foundation Dissertation Fellowship, 1996-1997.
    • Century Fellowship, University of Chicago, 1992-1996.
    • DAAD Fellowship (German Academic Exchange Service), 1988-1989.


    • L13 103 What is Justice?
    • L14 159 Literature Seminar for Freshmen: Literature and Justice
    • L14 2151 Early Texts and Contexts
    • L14 3525 Topics in English Lit: The British Novel before Austen
    • L14 517 Seminar: The Eighteenth Century: Species
    Exquisite Mixture: The Virtues of Impurity in Early Modern England (Haney Foundation Series)

    Exquisite Mixture: The Virtues of Impurity in Early Modern England (Haney Foundation Series)

    The culture of late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Britain is rarely credited with tolerance of diversity; this period saw a rising pride in national identity, the expansion of colonialism, and glorification of the Anglo-Saxon roots of the country. Yet at the same time, Wolfram Schmidgen observes, the concept of mixture became a critical element of Britons' belief in their own superiority. While the scientific, political, and religious establishment of the early 1600s could not imagine that anything truly formed, virtuous, or durable could be produced by mixing unlike kinds or merging absolute forms, intellectuals at the end of the century asserted that mixture could produce superior languages, new species, flawless ideas, and resilient civil societies.

    Eighteenth-Century Fiction and the Law of Property

    Eighteenth-Century Fiction and the Law of Property

    In Eighteenth-Century Fiction and the Law of Property, Wolfram Schmidgen draws on legal and economic writings to analyze the description of houses, landscapes, and commodities in eighteenth-century fiction. His study argues that such descriptions are important to the British imagination of community. By making visible what it means to own something, they illuminate how competing concepts of property define the boundaries of the individual, of social community, and of political systems. In this way, Schmidgen recovers description as a major feature of eighteenth-century prose, and he makes his case across a wide range of authors, including Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, William Blackstone, Adam Smith, and Ann Radcliffe. The book's most incisive theoretical contribution lies in its careful insistence on the unity of the human and the material: in Schmidgen's argument, persons and things are inescapably entangled. This approach produces fresh insights into the relationship between law, literature, and economics.