Worlds Trodden and Untrodden: Political Disillusionment, Literary Displacement, and the Conflicted Publicity of British Romanticism

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Byrne, Joseph E.
Fraistat, Neil
This study focuses on four first-generation British Romantic writers and their misadventures in the highly-politicized public sphere of the 1790s, which was riven by class conflict and media war. I argue that as a result of their negative experiences with publicity, these writers--William Wordsworth, William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, and William Blake--recoiled from the pressures of public engagement and developed in reaction a depoliticized aesthetic program aligned with various forms of privacy. However, a "spectral" form of publicity haunts the subsequent works of these writers, which troubles and complicates the traditional identification of Romanticism with privacy. All were forced, in different ways, to negotiate the discursive space between privacy and publicity, and this effort inflected their ideas concerning literature. Thus, in sociological terms, British Romantic literature emerged not from the private sphere but rather from the inchoate space between privacy and publicity. My understanding of both privacy and publicity is informed by Jürgen Habermas's well-known model of the British public sphere in the eighteenth century. However, I broaden the discussion to include other models of publicity, such as those elaborated by feminist and Marxist critics. In my discussion of class conflict in late-eighteenth-century Britain, I make use of the tools of class analysis, hegemony theory, and ideology critique, as used by new historicist literary critics. To explain media war in the 1790s, I utilize the media theory of Raymond Williams, particularly his conception of media as "material social practice." All the writers in this study were profoundly engaged in the class conflict, media war, and politicized publicity of the British 1790s. They were similar in that they were negatively impacted by these phenomena, but different in their responses, depending on their discrete experiences and concerns. The various results were new conceptions of sensibility and the Gothic, new attitudes towards solitude and obscurity, all eventually incorporated into a new kind of literature now called "Romantic."