Wolfram Schmidgen

Professor of English​
PhD, University of Chicago
MA, Free University Berlin
MA, Binghamton University
research interests:
  • Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture; Intellectual History; Literature and Religion
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    contact info:

    mailing address:

    • Washington University
    • CB 1122
    • One Brookings Drive
    • St. Louis, MO 63130-4899
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    I believe in the utopian temperament of literature. Marrying intellectual to literary history, my work seeks to reconstruct--from the ruins of our narratives of modernization and secularization--cultural histories that risk dialogic relationships between past and present.

    My most recent attempt at such reconstruction is Infinite Variety: Literary Invention, Theology, and the Disorder of Kinds, 1688-1730 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021). In this book, I show how religious ideas shaped some of the most remarkable literary experiments in the early eighteenth century. I argue that voluntarism, a theology that viewed the world as contingent and arbitrary, helped defend religious orthodoxy and license the imagination of unrealized possibility, in literary and philosophical writing.

    In my second book, I reconstructed an alternate paradigm of modernization. Exquisite Mixture: The Virtues of Impurity in Early Modern England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012) 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? My answer starts with the realization that early-eighteenth-century Englishmen were becoming increasingly assertive about mixture as the cause of their nation’s virtues. They prized the mixture of different linguistic, literary, racial, and political kinds. The origins of this appreciation of mixture, I show, can be found in the political and scientific revolutions of the seventeenth century. By retrieving early modern arguments for the civilizing effects of mixture, Exquisite Mixture indicates the limits of our fascination with the idea of hybridity.

    In my first book, Eighteenth-Century Fiction and the Law of Property, I examined how the tangled relationships between persons and things in eighteenth-century culture challenge the imagination of identity and community. I argue 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, objects 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.

    I am currently working on an intellectual history of the ethics of particularity.

    Graduate Student Supervisions:

    • Courtney Weiss-Smith, “Empirical Possibilities: Close Attention to Material Things in Early Eighteenth-Century England.” Defended May 2010. Tenure at Wesleyan University.
    • Kate Parker, “Relational Selves in Eighteenth-Century Literature.” Defended December 2011. Tenure at University of Wisconsin, La Crosse.
    • Anna Deters, “Translations of Stoic Selfhood in Eighteenth-Century British Literature.” Defended December 2012. Instructor, Kingston Grammar School, London.
    • Nick Miller, “The Politics of Indistinction in Charles Brockden Brown, Mary Shelley, and Robert Montgomery Byrd.” Defended December 2014. Tenure-track at Valdosta State University.
    • Margaret Tucker. “Iconic Works: How Catholicism Shaped Eighteenth-Century English Fiction.” Defended April 2018. Senior Medical News Writer and Content Strategist, Siteman Cancer Center, St. Louis.

    Recent Courses:

    • The Secret Life of Things (400 level)
    • Making and Unmaking Worlds (500 level)
    • Species (500-level)
    • Literature and Justice (100-level)
    • Inventing the Novel (400-level)
    Infinite Variety Literary Invention, Theology, and the Disorder of Kinds

    Infinite Variety Literary Invention, Theology, and the Disorder of Kinds

    Unnerved by the upheavals of the seventeenth century, English writers including Thomas Hobbes, Richard Blackmore, John Locke, Jonathan Swift, and Daniel Defoe came to accept that disorder, rather than order, was the natural state of things. They were drawn to voluntarism, a theology that emphasized a willful creator and denied that nature embodied truth and beauty. Voluntarism, Wolfram Schmidgen contends, provided both theological framework and aesthetic license. In Infinite Variety, he reconstructs this voluntarist tradition of literary invention.

    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.