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By Paul Keen

This e-book deals an unique research of debates that arose within the 1790s concerning the nature and social function of literature and the recent category of readers produced via the revolution in info and literacy in eighteenth-century England. the 1st half concentrates at the dominant arguments concerning the function of literature and the prestige of the writer; the second one shifts its concentration to the debates approximately working-class activists and radical ladies authors, and examines the expansion of a Romantic ideology inside of this context of political and cultural turmoil.

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In The Anatomy of Criticism, for instance, Northrop Frye refers to ‘a feeling we have all had: that the study of mediocre works of art remains a random and peripheral form of critical experience, whereas the profound masterpiece draws us to a point at which we seem to see an enormous number of converging patterns’ (17). Frye’s argument for a form of criticism which avoids value-judgements (28) is belied not only by his confidence in the unproblematic availability of this distinction, but by his more basic equation of ‘the masterpieces of literature’, which constitute the focus of ‘literary criticism’, with aesthetic expression (15).

38 The political aspirations of radical reformers such as Paine and the leaders of the London Corresponding Society overlapped with the professional ambitions of middle-class authors who were equally intent on mobilizing these ideas in order to legitimize their own reformist ambitions. 39 Maintaining this focus on the heterogeneity of the reform movement, and remembering the points of commonality between many middle-class reformers and conservatives, usefully complicates the oppositional vision which structures approaches such as Olivia Smith’s none the less valuable The Politics of Language, 1791–1819.

The Monthly Review allowed, in their account of an English translation of Volney’s Ruins, that the arrival of a new era ‘when the whole race will form one great society’ was not ‘speedily to be expected’. But the undeniable fact was that ‘even now . . a new age opens; an age of astonishment to vulgar souls, of surprize and fear to tyrants, of freedom to a great people, and of hope to all the world’ (6 (1791): 553). In The Proper Objects of Education (1791), which was originally given as a talk at the Dissenters’ Meeting Hall at the Old Jewry, Joseph Priestley agreed that ‘[i]n science, in arts, in government, in morals, and in religion, much is to be done .

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