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Why the Romantics Matter

We are deeply saddened by esteemed historian Peter Gay’s passing. A Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University and former director of the New York Public Library Center for Scholars and Writers, his eminent scholarship on the Enlightenment, Freud, and a wide range of additional topics in European history will shape our discussions for years to come. In this excerpt from Why the Romantics Matter, Gay enters the long-standing debate over the romantic period and reformulates the definition of romanticism, providing a fresh account of the colossal achievements of romantic writers and artists. Gay argues that we need to accept the complicated nature of romanticism and challenge the traditional historical narrative that has established it as a reaction to the Enlightenment. He demonstrates that romanticism extends well into the twentieth century, where its deep and lasting impact may be measured in the work of writers and artists that continue to influence us today. The following is an excerpt from Why the Romantics Matter.

romantics_matter[In Introduction to Contemporary Civilization at Columbia University] we could all agree, no matter what specialty we brought with us, that there was, say, roughly covering the eighteenth century, a powerful innovative movement called the Enlightenment, followed by a vehement cultural eruption best known as the romantic Reaction. The two, Enlightenment and romanticism, were consequential intellectual currents fully understandable only after the latter had been securely identified as a response to the former. There was, we believed, a kind of symmetry between the two that could only ease the work of teacher and student alike.

Ease it, so some doubtful participants—including me—held, too much. The summary notion of action and reaction was evidently too simple, even mechanical. There were romantics, we discovered, who did not know that they belonged to a massive act of rejection. There were enlightened philosophes who had as much passion for passion, praised the imagination as highly, as the most romantic of romantics. More, the very notion of a unified cluster of ideas collectively known as romanticism seemed excessive: if there were German romantics and French romantics, they did not start from the same initial impulse, did not develop the same cultural expressions in their literature and their art. Would it be rational, some of us conjectured, that the only sound way to think about romanticism was to consider it as a plural which had, in the hands of great simplifiers, been shorn of its final and necessary multiplicity?

However marginal romanticism may have long been, I was naturally awake to its contentious nature; the disputed place of Rousseau in its founding, the astonishing refusal of prominent romantics like Lord Byron to accept the role of romantic; those romantics obviously progressive, even radical, in their political convictions, thus defying the notion of romanticism as necessarily a hostile response to the Enlightenment—all such crosscurrents made every attempt to define it improbable if not unthinkable. And the rapidly growing secondary literature on the subject did nothing to pacify partisans; on the contrary, as positions hardened, the warfare among interpreters grew more embittered. Since conclusions about the very nature of romanticism remained debatable, the issue of just how it mattered—the topic of this series—also remained highly uncertain.

Why X Matters is a series of books that present a concise argument for the continuing relevance of an important person or idea by featuring intriguing pairings of authors with subjects.

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