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The English Cult of Literature

Devoted Readers, 1774–1880
William R. McKelvy

BUY Cloth · 392 pp. · 6.125 × 9.25 · ISBN 9780813925714 · $49.50 · Dec 2006

What constitutes reading? This is the question William McKelvy asks in The English Cult of Literature. Is it a theory of interpretation or a physical activity, a process determined by hermeneutic destiny or by paper, ink, hands, and eyes? McKelvy seeks to transform the nineteenth-century field of "Religion and Literature" into "Reading and Religion," emphasizing both the material and the institutional contexts for each. In doing so, he hopes to recover the ways in which modern literary authority developed in dialogue with a politically reconfigured religious authority.The received wisdom has been that England’s literary tradition was modernity's most promising religion because the established forms of Christianity, wounded in the Enlightenment, inevitably gave up their hold on the imagination and on the political sphere. Through a series of case studies and analysis of a diverse range of writing, this work gives life to a very different story, one that shows literature assuming a religious vocation in concert with an increasingly unencumbered freedom of religious confession and the making of a reading nation. In the process the author shifts attention away from the idea of the literary critic in favor of considering the historic role of religious professionals in shaping and contesting the authority of print.Indebted to recent findings of book history and newer historiographies at odds with conventional secularization theory, this work makes an interdisciplinary contribution to revising the existing models for understanding change in Britain during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.


This beautifully written, ambitious, and timely book gives scholars of Romantic-period and Victorian literature an entirely new model they can use to think about the relationship between literature and religion in the long nineteenth century.... It’s one of the most exciting, original, and learned studies of late-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century culture I’ve read in a long time.

Deidre Lynch, Indiana University, editor of Janeites: Austen’s Disciples and Devotees

About the Author(s): 

William R. McKelvy is Assistant Professor of English at Washington University. His articles have appeared in numerous publications, including Victorian Poetry and the Victorian Literature and Culture.

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