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  • Adapting the Spirit of the Age
  • Glenn Jellenik (bio)

Postmodernism licenses scholars to consider possibilities of derivative originality. Romanticism? Not so much. William Hazlitt neatly delineates Romanticism's concepts of originality and derivation in his Spirit of the Age portraits of Lord Byron and Walter Scott. He identifies Byron and Scott as "the greatest geniuses of the age."1 Yet Hazlitt quickly divides the writers, insisting that they "afford a complete contrast to each other" (VII, 134). Hazlitt's dichotomy, which lays the groundwork for the traditional critical construction of Romanticism, revolves around originality: "The genius of Sir Walter is essentially imitative… that of Lord Byron is self-dependent" (VII, 136). This systematic differentiation drastically limits Scott: "He is just half what the human intellect is capable of being… He shudders [End Page 127] at the shadow of innovation. … He has either not the faculty or not the will to impregnate his subject by an effort of pure invention" (VII, 124, 125). This marginalization of Scott derives from his function as adapter: "He has taken his materials from the original authentic sources, in large concrete masses, and not tampered with or too much frittered them away. He is only the amanuensis of truth and history" (VII, 128). Hazlitt positions Scott's innovation of the historical novel as adaptation, a copy of a source. Rather than compose an act of derivative originality, Scott's adaptation represents little more than secretarial work, merely taking history's dictation.

The prevailing construction of a Romantic-period zeitgeist centers originality as the period's standard of value. Despite presenting it as an organic occurrence, Hazlitt's formula actually reconfigures originality, departing from Edward Young's critical stance in Conjectures on Original Composition (1759). For Young, derivation played a functional role in original composition.2 By pivoting to figure Byron as a creator ex nihilo, Hazlitt (and subsequent critics) developed an ethos actively dependent on a redefined originality, openly hostile to adaptation. By extension, Romanticism's critical narrative of "pure" originality depends, in part, on the marginalization of Romantic-period adaptation. Recent adaptation theory acknowledges this dynamic: "It is the (post) Romantic valuing of the original creation and of the originating creative genius that is clearly one source of the denigration of adapters and adaptations."3

Ironically, the age that marginalized adaptation also produced diverse and creative adaptation practices—to the point that the adapter might be considered an alternate spirit of the age. Adaptations do more than take their source's dictation; they represent the possibility of derivative originality, a phenomenon productively practiced by Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, and Pope before the Romantic period (as well as by Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Blake, Smith, Robinson, and others during it). Explorations of the period's adaptations and adaptive practices offer opportunities to revisit marginalized works; redefine critical notions of originality, derivation, and Romanticism itself; and rethink the assumptions that created our original critical blind spots. Repositioning the Romantic [End Page 128] period as an age of adaptation provides scholars with new angles of inquiry and a fuller vista of the cultural landscape. It works toward advancements in the field of adaptation theory, offering a history of adaptation, while also developing clearer intra-disciplinary connections between Romanticism and contemporary culture.

Glenn Jellenik

Glenn Jellenik, Associate Professor of English at the University of Central Arkansas, specializes in the long eighteenth-century and adaptation.


1. Hazlitt, The Selected Writings of William Hazlitt, ed. Duncan Wu, 9 vols. (New York: Routledge, 1998), VII, 134. Hereafter cited in-text.

2. Young, A Conjecture on Original Composition (London: A. Millar, 1759), 20–21.

3. Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Adaptation, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2013), 3–4.



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