"South Sea's at best a mighty Bubble"

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Silke Stratmann

"South Sea's at best a mighty BUBBLE". The literization of a national trauma

ISBN 978-3-88476-221-9, ISBN 3-88476-221-4, 140 S., kt., € 18,00 (1996)

(SALS - Studies in Anglophone Literatures, Bd. 6)

When the South Sea Bubble burst in 1720, England experienced its first stockmarket crash. Suddenly businessmen, small traders and aristocrats alike found themselves ruined, and for some time the national economy almost came to a standstill. Yet this first accident of modern finance was more than just a financial disaster. It was a national trauma, for the breakdown of the South Sea Company, a trading corporation that was dubious from the beginning, confirmed all the collective fears associated with the new moneyed men. It was, incidentally, exactly those irrational notions which helped to shape the historical events; they had inspired both the public's euphoria and the ensuing panic. The South Sea Bubble sparked the imagination of the writers, who published countless economic explanations, polemic tracts and sermons on the subject but also verse satires, pastorals, allegories, and stageplays. Those literary reactions in particular, expressed the collective irrationality best. They translated the events into timeless patterns and thereby mythisized it. The Bubble became a symptom of, for instance, a decaying society which did away with all the values and distinctions or even "exchanged" them. Exchange Alley, the street in which most inofficial transactions were carried out, was to these writers a demonic place, where the rich became poor overnight and the poor (or vulgar) rich; where ladies turned into whores and whores into ladies; where women in general encroached on men's prerogatives through "speculation", while the men were emasculated; where humans degenerated into beasts. This study is concerned with the question of what the South Sea Bubble meant to public opinion, particularly to the public imagination. It employs a functional analysis of the means and strategies which Bubble literature used for mythmaking.