During the second half of the eighteenth century, the most powerful literary work in Britain was nonfictional: philosophy, history, biography, and political controversy. Leo Damrosch argues that this tendency is no accident; at the beginning of the modern age, writers were consciously aware of the role of cultural fictions, and they sought to ground those fictions in a real world beyond the text. Their political conservatism (often neglected by modern scholars) was an extensively thought out response to a world in which meaning was inseparable from consensus, and in which consensus was increasingly under attack.
Damrosch finds strong affinities between writers who are usually described as antagonists. The first chapter places Hume and Johnson in dialogue, showing that their responses to the challenge of their age have deep similarities, and that their thinking points forward in significant ways to twentieth-century pragmatism. Subsequent chapters explore the interrelationship of the fictive and the “real” in a wide range of works by Boswell, Gibbon, White, Burke, and Godwin.
In its combination of literary, philosophical, and cultural criticism, this book will appeal to scholars in many fields as well as to nonacademic readers interested in intellectual history.
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