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Liberal Epic

The Victorian Practice of History from Gibbon to Churchill

Edward Adams

Publication Year: 2011

In Liberal Epic, Edward Adams examines the liberal imagination’s centuries-long dependence on contradictory, and mutually constitutive, attitudes toward violent domination. Adams centers his ambitious analysis on a series of major epic poems, histories, and historical novels, including Dryden’s Aeneid, Pope’s Iliad, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Byron’s Don Juan, Scott’s Life of Napoleon, Napier’s History of the War in the Peninsula, Macaulay’s History of England, Hardy’s Dynasts, and Churchill’s military histories—works that rank among the most important publishing events of the past three centuries yet that have seldom received critical attention relative to their importance. In recovering these neglected works and gathering them together as part of a self-conscious literary tradition here defined as liberal epic, Adams provides an archaeology that sheds light on contemporary issues such as the relation of liberalism to war, the tactics for sanitizing heroism, and the appeal of violence to supposedly humane readers.

Victorian Literature and Culture Series

Published by: University of Virginia Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

This book was written in splendid isolation, one of the increasingly rare benefits of the academy. I thank the generous ways of Washington and Lee University for the several summer Lenfest Grants and two sabbaticals that permitted my work. I hope my effort embodies all of the benefits and...

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pp. 1-18

In 1914, when he was nearly fifty, H. G. Wells still played elaborate war games with “toy soldiers,” and even published an instructional treatise, Little Wars (1913), so others could play too. This indulgence represented only a small portion of his fascination with the matter of heroic warfare: “I...

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pp. 19-58

My subject is the entwining of two terms or notions, liberal and epic, one associated with progress, humanity, and self-determination and the other with tradition, war, and violent domination. Adorno and Horkheimer, in their Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), comment cryptically on this paradoxical...

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One: The Ethical-Aesthetic Challenge to Epic

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pp. 59-103

This chapter will move from the seventeenth-century origins of the liberal critique of war, through the rise of liberal epic and its enabling device, poetic diction, on to its triumph in the works of the leading poet of the eighteenth century, then to its greatest, most popular, and most influential...

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Two: Romantic Liberal Epic

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pp. 104-140

The Romantics attacked the poetic dictional strategies of eighteenthcentury epic as deeply falsifying, which they were partly designed to be, and so extended the Enlightenment project to humanize warfare so as to preclude killing. Godwin read Fénelon as proof that there can be no real...

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Three: Epic History, The Novel, and War in the 1850s

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pp. 141-169

Ian Duncan advances a sophisticated case for the precise workings of the novel as mid-Victorian Britain’s dominant form, particularly for the logic behind Dickens’s inheritance of the mantle of Scott as the country’s preeminent national author. Dickens succeeded to this enviable role...

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Four: Utilitarianism and the Intellectual Critique of War

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pp. 170-194

This chapter will examine the intellectual critique of epic warfare—the one implied by Buckle, who frequently belittled the moral critique emphasized thus far: “If it can be proved that, during the last thousand years, moralists or theologians have pointed out a single evil caused by war, the...

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Five: Popeian Strategies in Primitive and Modern War Epic

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pp. 195-219

Morris’s longing for the clean and smokeless London of 1400 makes a vivid contrast with Macaulay’s heated admiration for the clean and industrial Belfast of 1850: “Belfast has become one of the greatest and most flourishing seats of industry in the British isles. . . . Belfast is the only...

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Six: Liberal Epic Before the Great War

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pp. 220-252

Thomas Hardy’s epic-drama The Dynasts, published in three parts in 1904, 1906, and 1908, and G. M. Trevelyan’s Garibaldi Trilogy, published similarly in 1907, 1909, and 1911, represent the self-conscious acme of the liberal epic tradition—one rooted in the stylistic, narrative, and cultural achievement...

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Seven: From Liberal Epic to Epic Liberalism

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pp. 253-282

Here in his journal, Macaulay returns with a vengeance to an almost Achillean rage that liberal epics like his own had set themselves to overcome as they pursued the difficult ideal of “war without hate” in the cause of liberty and humanity. Such raw emotions, however, appear only in these late...

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pp. 283-292

This study’s focus on the persistence of epic makes it logical to conclude before the cultural change wrought by World War II, the so-called Best War Ever, which reenergized the belief in war as a positive solution and war leaders as powerful agents.1 Since my argument has demonstrated...


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pp. 293-306

Works Cited

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pp. 307-316


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pp. 317-324

E-ISBN-13: 9780813931500
E-ISBN-10: 0813931509
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813931456
Print-ISBN-10: 0813931452

Page Count: 336
Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 784960317
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Liberal Epic

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Liberalism -- Great Britain -- History.
  • Liberalism in literature.
  • War in literature.
  • History in literature
  • Epic literature, English -- History and criticism.
  • Literature and history -- Great Britain -- History.
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