This project challenges the idea of literature as the product of isolated genius read in private. It looks at the sociable life of reading and writing in clubs and societies in a period that saw a rapid expansion in all forms of civil association, especially those committed to the idea of ‘improvement’. The project examines the role of the ‘literary’ in a world of rapid technological and commercial expansion, where associations formed to conduct scientific experiments or combine for the improvement of roads and street lighting or argue for parliamentary reform. In the process, it also attempts to examine how definitions of the ‘literary’ were changed and contested in these associations; their relationship to nineteenth-century disciplinary specializations; and how they defined themselves in relation to other ideas of ‘improvement.’ The project will also explore the politics of inclusion and exclusion, how these related to questions of location, in the home, the coffee shop or tavern etc, and how participation related to issues class, gender, national identity and race. This work builds on Jon Mee’s Conversable Worlds: Literature, Contention, and Community, 1762-1830 (Oxford 2011), funded by a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship (2006-2009).
During the course of the project (2011-2015), we will build a database (available here) of clubs, memberships, and activities in Britain and empire, including America, over the period, tracking the movement of people, texts, and ideas.
The project is funded by a Leverhulme project research grant and is based at the University of York.
We’d particularly like to hear from current societies that descend from the eighteenth-century clubs we’re studying.