The Life of Honor: Individuality and the Communal Impulse in Romanticism

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Kantor, Jamison Brenner
Wang, Orrin N.C.
For most scholars of Romanticism, honor is a traditionalist value. It underwrites Edmund Burke's defense against revolutionary radicalism; it is the code of medieval crusaders and tribal highlanders in Walter Scott's novels; and it is a quality reserved for nobles such as Lady Catherine de Bourgh in <italic>Pride and Prejudice</italic>, who relies on honor to assert her privilege in the face of the rising middle-class. Despite these conservative connotations, <italic>The Life of Honor</italic> shows that early-nineteenth-century writers did not simply consider honor a reactionary ethos. Rather, they saw how honor could be progressive and egalitarian--a modern virtue that allowed them to grapple with the dilemmas of emerging liberal society. A personal sense of communal obligation, the modern honor ethic balanced the individualism emphasized by the republican political movement with the demands of a rapidly changing social order. Reading texts from a variety of authors and genres--Godwin's Jacobin novel, Wordsworth's autobiographical poetry, Scott and Austen's historical fiction, and the brutal slave narrative of Mary Prince--I demonstrate how this ancient civic virtue was reinvigorated in response to some of the most pressing cultural questions of the day, conflicts between the self and society that could not be resolved through the operations of sympathy or the power of the imagination. Because this modern form of honor emerged from post-revolutionary life, it was associated with a new political order: liberalism, a set of civic norms that began to thrive in the late-eighteenth-century and that still prevails in Europe today. While the Romantic honor code drew upon the liberal commitment to universal dignity and individual merit, Romantic honor simultaneously illuminated the conceptual problems of liberalism--its propensity to rank independence over obligation; to connect private commercial success with public virtue; and to abstract social predicaments from identity categories like race and gender. Responding to recent scholarship on the liberal disposition in Romantic pedagogy and nineteenth-century Realist aesthetics, <italic>The Life of Honor</italic> reveals the paradox of a civil society built around the pursuit of individual esteem and thus the wager of Romanticism's political commitments.