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.