Demson, Michael Thomas Ragland. On Historical Thought in Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Percy Bysshe Shelley. City University of New York, 2009.
This dissertation examines Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s complex involvement with the politics of historical representation and of historiography in general. It demonstrates how both authors repeatedly offered alternative visions of history so as to contradict prevailing meta-narratives about social progress in eighteenth-century France and, subsequently for Shelley, in early nineteenth-century England. Their historical thought not only shaped the political arguments they put to their own contemporaries, but also provides us with a framework in which to reconfigure their political relevance today. In this way, this dissertation responds to the work of James Swenson, Susan Wolfson, Mark Kipperman, and Jerome Christensen, by offering a new direction for the recent critical debate about the political potency of Romantic texts in the twenty-first century. The first two chapters explore Rousseau and Shelley’s interest in histories that are politically contentious and how they construct their political arguments as well as their own political identities within historical frameworks. The third chapter charts the intellectual history that links the planting of corn, or large-scale agriculture, with imperial progress, starting with Defoe, who celebrates corn in Robinson Crusoe as Providence’s prompt for Western colonial expansion. In his “Second Discourse,” Rousseau historicizes the planting of corn (blé) as the moment of social and economic debasement and corruption, thereby rejecting Defoe’s politics and vision of historical progress. Shelley’s father-in-law, William Godwin, delineates in his historical novel, St. Leon, the process by which governments have subjugated populations through subsidizing large-scale agriculture time and time again. The fourth chapter lays out how Shelley adopts the radical agrarian politics of Rousseau and Godwin, and the historical frameworks in which these politics are configured, in such melancholy reflections on social degeneration as “Lines written among the Euganean Hills” and “Ode to the West Wind.” In the final chapter, I argue that Shelley’s historical drama, “The Cenci,” is not only a critique of the degeneration of popular theatre, but also a radical recasting of theatrical poetics that agitates for a political response from the audience through a reenactment of social history.