The French Revolution Debate in English Literature and Culture

By Lisa Plummer Crafton | Go to book overview

such as the Analytical Review ( 1789- 1799) and The Monthly Magazine ( 1799- 1823), continued to find sympathetic readers even during the height of the political reaction against Jacobinism.

Quite simply, the wholesale epistemic/discursive shifts seen at the end of the eighteenth century could not have been effected through discursive or conceptual processes alone. They depended upon the mediation of historical precedent or example either through the positive valuation of the discourse of general nature (the strategy of the progressives), or through its negation (the strategy of the conservatives). There were expectations about the predictability of the discourse based upon its known aims, intentions, procedures, and assumed social/moral effects that had to be accounted for. If the Revolution had been moderate and liberal in its effects and if its features could have been coded as such or given positive discursive values within the discourse of general nature, then Burke's negation of them would have fallen on deaf ears. But Burke's critique of the French Revolution seemed borne out because the Revolution did not retain its moderate character. It did not fulfill the aims of the progressives who had insisted that it was an example of the progressive improvement of humanity and society, that is, an agent of class harmony, limited democracy, better living conditions, international peace. Instead, historical events seemed to fulfill Burke's predictions that a revolution based upon abstract philosophical principles could only end in violence, anarchy, and tyranny. Because both sides agreed on what was at stake politically and philosophically in the outcome of the Revolution, once the Revolution could no longer serve as an example of peaceful moderate reform, the rhetorical power in the debate had to shift away from the progressives.

From this perspective, Burke's apparent success in characterizing the nature of the Revolution lent credence to his claim that the entire discursive/epistemic apparatus (which both sides in the debate--not just Burke--had insisted caused the Revolution) must be systematically discredited and subverted. Historical precedent seemed to bear out the conclusion that you could not have a General Man without violent deracination. You could not create General Man without erasing history, destroying institutions and nations, killing individuals.


Acknowledgments

Some of the research for this essay was completed during an NEH Summer Seminar, "The Revolution Debate and English Literature in the 1700s," directed by David Bromwich at Yale University in 1991. Its subsequent conception, writing, and revision were done in collaboration with Zeynep Tenger.


NOTES
1.
Alfred Cobban, Edmund Burke and the Revolt Against the Eighteenth- Century ( N.Y.: Macmillan, 1929), and Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: AnArcheology of the Human Sciences

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The French Revolution Debate in English Literature and Culture
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Recent Titles in Contributions to the Study of World Literature ii
  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Acknowledgments vii
  • Introduction ix
  • Notes xv
  • Chronology xvii
  • Burke's Perception of Richard Price 1
  • Notes 21
  • Religion and Politics in the Revolution Debate: Burke, Wollstonecraft, Paine 27
  • Notes 38
  • The "Ancient Voices" of Blake's The French Revolution 41
  • Notes 53
  • Arguing Benevolence: Wordsworth, Godwin, and the 1790s 59
  • Notes 76
  • "Great Burke," Thomas Carlyle, and the French Revolution 83
  • Notes 103
  • Politics of the Episteme: The Collapse of the Discourse of General Nature and the Reaction to the French Revolution 107
  • Notes 118
  • Representations of Revolutionary Women in Political Caricature 123
  • Notes 131
  • Postscript: The French Revolution and Romanticism 137
  • Select Bibliography 145
  • Index 149
  • About the Contributors 155
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