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The Global 1790s

ENGL 551.401

The 1790s were a tumultuous decade in Britain, fueled by a revolution across the Channel that, by 1801, had utterly changed the political map of the world. Much that transpired in these years will still seem utterly modern, from the beginnings of radical class politics (everywhere), to a successful slave rebellion (in Haiti), to the first implementation of the metric system (in France). Other events will seem so familiar as to be almost uncanny: widening and increasingly bitter partisan divides between the two major political parties; a government dramatically expanding its powers to spy on its own citizens; the erosion of habeas corpus, freedom of the press, and other civil liberties; the near failure of the central banking system; and popular protests over a ruinously expensive war. Yet, the 1790s were also years of artistic innovation and renaissance, in which writers, finding inherited forms inadequate for the task of representing a changing world, invented new forms of fiction, drama, journalism, poetry, and criticism. It is no accident, for example, that this decade of political paranoia should witness the popularization of the Gothic and the invention of melodrama, not to mention an equally conspicuous consumption of millenial pamphlets, revolutionary treatises, reactionary prophecies, and apocalyptic imaginings.