A Half-Century of Greatness: The Creative Imagination of Europe, 1848-1884

By Frederic Ewen; Jeffrey Wollock | Go to book overview

Editor's Introduction

The work presented here, never previously published, is the second and concluding part of Frederic Ewen's magnum opus on the Romantic period of European literature in its social and political context. It gives central emphasis to the crucial influence exercised by the 1848 revolution, and its failure, on many Romantic and Victorian literary figures. Prof. Ewen seems to have begun work on this big project in the late 1960s, but the first volume, Heroic Imagination, was not published until 1984, and this companion volume has had to wait almost two decades after the author's death to appear in print.

Despite prior publication of Heroic Imagination both in the 1984 Citadel edition and in a 2004 reprint by NYU Press, it is only now, with the appearance of A HalfCentury of Greatness, that the full scope of the project can be appreciated. Though each volume stands on its own, each gains by the other's company, and together they present a broad and striking panorama.

Ewen's orientation is Marxist, but not obtrusively so. He writes not as a theorist but a historian, allowing the reader to see the age in vivid perspective. In the light of more recent work, Ewen's approach is most akin to writers such as Marshall Berman (Adventures in Marxism, 1999), Richard Wolin (Walter Benjamin: An Aesthetic of Redemption, 1994), or Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre (Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity, 2001). Like these writers, Ewen discovers the roots of Marxism in the fertile soil of Romanticism, an international movement with political as well as artistic dimensions. The approach is original in that Romanticism is territory conceded by scholars far more readily to the right than to the left of the political spectrum. Yet Ewen makes us think again, and in so doing, revises to a considerable extent the more familiar map of 19th-century intellectual history. He shows that what we think of today as “the Right” and “the Left” arose from the same revolutionary impulse, which Löwy and Sayre call “Romantic anticapitalism”—a term originally used by George Lukacs in a retrospective preface (1962) to his Theory of the Novel (1916) to describe his own pre-Marxist outlook. Ewen's dyptich can also be compared with E. P. Thompson's unfinished work on Wordsworth, Coleridge, Godwin, and Thelwall, The Romantics: England in a Revolutionary Age(1997)—itself a posthumous publication.1

The appearance of A Half-Century of Greatness thus not only demands a new hearing for Heroic Imagination, but also compliments recent research on Marxism and Romanticism and links it with earlier scholarship. Considering the period in which Ewen began this project, one may regard him as a bridge between the Old and the New Left (cf. Alexander 1999).

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