Liberty of the Imagination: Aesthetic Theory, Literary Form, and Politcs in the Early United States

Liberty of the Imagination: Aesthetic Theory, Literary Form, and Politcs in the Early United States

Liberty of the Imagination: Aesthetic Theory, Literary Form, and Politcs in the Early United States

Liberty of the Imagination: Aesthetic Theory, Literary Form, and Politcs in the Early United States

Synopsis

In Liberty of the Imagination, Edward Cahill uncovers the surprisingly powerful impact of eighteenth-century theories of the imagination--philosophical ideas about aesthetic pleasure, taste, genius, the beautiful, and the sublime--on American writing from the Revolutionary era to the early nineteenth century. Far from being too busy with politics and commerce or too anxious about the morality of pleasure, American writers consistently turned to ideas of the imagination in order to comprehend natural and artistic objects, social formations, and political institutions. Cahill argues that conceptual tensions within aesthetic theory rendered it an evocative language for describing the challenges of American political liberty and confronting the many contradictions of nation formation. His analyses reveal the centrality of aesthetics to key political debates during the colonial crisis, the Revolution, Constitutional ratification, and the advent of Jeffersonian democracy.

Exploring the relevance of aesthetic ideas to a range of literary genres--poetry, novels, political writing, natural history writing, and literary criticism--Cahill makes illuminating connections between intellectual and political history and the idiosyncratic formal tendencies of early national texts. In doing so, Liberty of the Imagination manifests the linguistic and intellectual richness of an underappreciated literary tradition and offers an original account of the continuity between Revolutionary writing and nineteenth-century literary romanticism.

Excerpt

[A] little formalism turns one away from history, but … a
lot brings one back to it.

                                —Roland Barthes, Mythologies

Early U.S. literary culture speaks the philosophical language of the imagination fluently and vociferously. Despite the extraordinary political demands of the day, literary texts of all kinds invoke the concepts of aesthetic theory with erudition and persistence. Poetry explores the morality of pleasure and the creative powers of the mind. Natural history writing describes the beautiful, sublime, and picturesque forms of the American landscape. Political writing apprehends the beauties of republican government through the rhetoric of taste and artistic representation. Novels portray the conflicts of the imagination and the trials of sensibility. Literary criticism debates the claims of genius and taste and the priorities of literary culture. in newspapers and magazines, commonplace books and memoirs, sermons and moral tracts, private correspondence and polite conversation—in nearly every genre and medium of expression, the rhetoric of aesthetic theory is ubiquitous and insistent. As a grammar of mental experience, it gives recognizable meaning to its various objects, be they of the mind, the heart, the people, or the state. Thus, in recounting that the new nation “offered a curious subject for philosophical contemplation,” David Humphreys, in the 1804 preface to his Poem on the Happiness of America (1786), insists on the centrality of the imagination to Revolutionary American writers: “Our minds, imperceptibly impressed with the novelty, beauty, or sublimity of surrounding objects, gave energy to the language which expressed our sensations.” Humphreys’s use of Joseph Addison’s aesthetic categories, first articulated in his Spectator . . .

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