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Introduction: Revolutionising the Dead: Burke, Paine, De Quincey

  • David McAllister
Chapter

Abstract

Two different but overlapping groups were named as ‘the dead’ in Romantic and early Victorian culture: the familiar dead, who could be named, remembered, and mourned, and another group, the dead as a crowd, a mass, a threatening force. This chapter considers the differences between these two common ways of imagining the dead, before tracing the emergence of a highly politicised debate about their relations to the society of the living. It shows how and why this debate erupted into public view during the Revolution Controversy, the pamphlet war that dominated British responses to the French Revolution throughout the early 1790s. It then traces competing representations of the dead in key texts by Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas De Quincey, as revolutionary, liberal, and conservative writers argued over how the living should imagine the dead. Were they unaccountable tyrants, whose dead hand prevented the people from governing in their own best interests? Benevolent ancestors, from whom the living had inherited a just society and who therefore deserved their obedience and loyalty? Or something else entirely: a problem to be measured, legislated against, reformed, cajoled, cleaned-up, re-positioned, reinterpreted, rethought, and ultimately reimagined?

This chapter identifies the dead as a significant trope in the Revolution Controversy, establishes the link between progressive politics and a desire to reimagine the dead, and shows what was at stake in their literary representation both in the 1790s and beyond.

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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • David McAllister
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of English and HumanitiesBirkbeck College - University of LondonLondonUK

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