Gifts were central to the cultural development of the United States in the nineteenth century. The period saw the distribution of flower lexicons, with their elaborate message codes; the invention of modern Christmas celebrations; the decline, in many branches of Protestantism, of the Father’s judgment of sin in favor of the Son’s gift of redemption; increasingly gaudy and expensive commodity gifts; and the shift in the use of gifts from strengthening social hierarchy to sharing more personal sentiments.

For Alexandra Urakova (University of Helsinki), these developments produced literary works by authors who offered theories of the gift that anticipated those of Mauss or Derrida in the twentieth century. Thus she begins with a chapter on writings that explicitly theorized the gift: Emerson’s “Gifts”; Caroline Kirkland’s essays on giving presents (“a sentimental gift theory in utero” [38]); and Mark Twain’s late, morose reflections on the improbability of benevolence.

These authors all...

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