Romantic literature helped form British identity as global power

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
Evan Gottlieb

The defeat of Napoleon in 1815 marked a critical shift in Britain’s self-image, a shift that Evan Gottlieb argues was deeply reflected in the literature that would come to be known as Romantic.

“Britain found itself in a position like America today, a hegemonic world power, but with military, economic and geo-political limits,” said Gottlieb, a Research Fellow and assistant professor of English at OSU. “Especially near the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Romantic fiction began to help Britons not only conceive of their world globally—as a complex and uneven network of flows and exchanges of ideas, people, goods, and money—but also to understand their nation’s new role as the primary world power.”

In his Center project, Gottlieb is exploring the relationship between Romanticism and the developing processes of globalization and related social changes, including the rise of European secular nationalism, the growth and expansion of modern forms of capital, and the adoption of a universalizing definition of progress predicated on cultural and industrial modernization.

“Many historians now agree that the Congress of Vienna, convened in September, 1814, to ensure European stability after Napoleon’s defeat, marked the beginning of a new world order dominated by sovereign European nation-states, with Britain as the ‘first among equals,’ said Gottlieb. “By combining contemporary theoretical concepts used to describe and understand globalization with careful historicization and close interpretation, I intend to demonstrate that British Romanticism can be viewed as a primary cultural manifestation of long-durational globalization.”

Though this might appear counterintuitive given that globalization is assumed to be a highly contemporary phenomenon, and Romanticism is generally associated with local attachments and nationalism rather than cosmopolitanism, Gottlieb argues that Romantic-era writers such as Ann Radcliffe, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and Walter Scott, helped teach British readers how to think of themselves as citizens of an increasingly globalized world. The challenge for British authors and readers at the time was to learn to conceptualize their cultural, political and economic situation relative to the rest of the world, that is, as connected to and yet different from—and generally superior to—other societies.

During his Center tenure, Gottlieb is writing the book’s introduction, as well as a chapter on Walter Scott’s 1823 novel of European nation-building, Quentin Durward, in which Scott traces the construction of the secular concept of sovereignty necessary for the formation of our modern world order.

“The main goals of my project are to demonstrate not only that early globalization influenced the development of important works of Romantic poetry and prose, but also that Romantic literature in turn played a significant role in shaping Anglo-American perceptions of global relations, many of which remain prevalent today.”