Revolution, Reaction, Romanticism


Though all was over within a few short hours, the fall of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, sent aftershocks that rippled for decades across Europe and the Americas. “It was now known,” historian Eric Hobsbawm writes, that revolutionary “doctrines could spread across frontiers.” This yearlong course explores literary culture in the Romantic period and after, with special attention to the ways in which writers across the English-speaking world responded to the political challenges of their times. We consider how the language of Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man, saturated with the rhetoric of both the American and French revolutions, reverberates in the writings of abolitionist activists, in the proto-feminist arguments of Mary Wollstonecraft, and in the works of the great Romantic poets such as Blake and Wordsworth. We consider Gothic novels in the light of the Marquis de Sade’s description of them as the “necessary fruit” of the Reign of Terror. We address the revisionary romanticism, decades later, of American transcendentalism, both before and after the Civil War. Returning again across the Atlantic, we examine the long-standing affection for Whitman and Thoreau in British left-wing circles. Though our focus throughout is on anglophone culture, we will also read individual works from other national literatures.