Gleaning Modernity: Earlier Eighteenth-Century Literature and the Modernizing Process

Gleaning Modernity: Earlier Eighteenth-Century Literature and the Modernizing Process

Gleaning Modernity: Earlier Eighteenth-Century Literature and the Modernizing Process

Gleaning Modernity: Earlier Eighteenth-Century Literature and the Modernizing Process

Synopsis

Gleaning Modernity shows how earlier eighteenth-century literary texts might have eased the way for Britain’s increasing Modernity. They allowed Modern scenarios to be played out imaginatively, as simulations for experimental, predictive ends. The process spoke to the needs and desires of readers in a world of rapid, managed change. It worked unobtrusively first because of the practice of recycling old forms, as Pope and Richardson did, for example, with Horatian and tragic models, respectively; and second because given texts offered different readers a range of interpretative options. Along with providing original readings of such major texts as Gulliver’s Travels and Clarissa, this study enlarges our sense of the Modernizing process. It also shows how a consumer-driver, Darwinian model of adaptive change, affecting literature and its readership, can help us understand the ways in which literature can have social efficacy.

Excerpt

The question that drives this book is, “HOW, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, could Modernity sift into people’s lives?” My route in pursuing it rides on a surmise, that in part, Modernity infiltrated lives through works of literature that broached and legitimated new modes of classification. in the account I’ll offer, they did so largely by reworking older literary forms, with traditionally ascribed meanings. the reworkings allowed interested readers to modify or contravene those older meanings. This opening-up process allowed readers to glean new meanings that modified or contravened the older ones. in the course of these changes, words, forms, and institutions altered their meaning in British life: they, and the practices that they comprised, referred differently. If my way of reading eighteenth-century works bears fruit, such an argument is significant for the history of literary change. If my further surmise is right, that modifying “reference potential” in literature fed back into how readers responded to changes in life, then an argument like mine should be significant for the larger cultural history of Modernity.

To be clear in pursuing the argument, I need to define my sense of Modernity, used here as a term of art—that’s why I’ve capitalized the word. in this introduction, after a broad elaboration of what I’ve said, I will turn to defining Modernity with a rationale for defining it as I do, as having a logic, a gradient, and heterogeneity within a society. With a definition in place, I’ll suggest some criteria for discerning how works of literature, as read in the eighteenth century, might and did forward Modernity as I conceive it. These sections contextualize my argument. Finally, I’ll outline the structure of this book itself.

No one would question that eighteenth-century literary texts often involve reworking. An available structure—a literary genre, say, or a given poem as model—is commandeered, deliberately or not, to serve as a template. Similarly, many inherited concepts in the eighteenth-century—the sublime, “liberty and property,” or sensibility—were reworked. in this process, these disparate texts . . .

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