Literature and Utopian Politics in Seventeenth-Century England

Literature and Utopian Politics in Seventeenth-Century England

Literature and Utopian Politics in Seventeenth-Century England

Literature and Utopian Politics in Seventeenth-Century England

Synopsis

Appelbaum surveys literature from 1603 to the 1660s and shows how its ideal politics were engaged in the reality of political and social struggle. He also shows how self-defeating the exercise could be. In an era of political and religious conflict, writers asserted themselves as the authors of social and political ideals. But they also constructed systems in which the assertion of utopian mastery would have no place, and an ideal politics could no longer be imagined. This study will interest political and cultural historians as well as literary critics.

Excerpt

“Literature and Utopian Politics. ” Or is that “Politics and Utopian Literature”? Either one would do; for utopian politics as exercised in seventeenth-century England — whether in the sublime ideology of the Stuart Court, in the charterism of separatist Puritans, or in the revolutionary agitations of the Levellers, the Fifth Monarchists, and the Diggers — was always grounded in literary expression. And by the same token, utopian literature in the seventeenth century — whether among activists like William Walwyn or among retired scholars like Robert Burton — was always grounded in the political conflicts of the day. One engaged in utopian politics in keeping with impulses and goals articulated in literature; indeed the engagement itself was often primarily literary: a matter of letters, of words, of written “acts, ” of poems, of recited addresses from the pulpit, of stage plays and pamphlets and books. But conversely, one essayed an adventure in utopian literature in keeping with impulses and goals derived from the political domain, a domain which was itself, in the seventeenth century, a location of not only the policies and procedures of the state but also the conduct of social life and the dissemination of cultural forms.

This book is a study of the interaction of literature and politics in their utopian dimension from the accession of James VI and I in 1603 to the consolidation of power in the late 1660s during the Restoration under Charles II. In focusing on this shared dimension I concentrate on a pair of complementary phenomena I call “ideal politics” and “utopian mastery. ” By “idealpolitics” I refer to discourse in any of a number of forms which generates the image of an idealsociet y — a society that exists predominantly in the imagination and usually in the shape of an optimal alternative to a real society in the here and now. By “utopian mastery” I refer to the power a subject may exert over an idealsociety, whether as the author or as the imaginary founder or ruler of an ideal political world. Usually these phenomena are studied in view of the genre of . . .

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