English and drama

Primitivism at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century

Module code: Q3188
Level 5
15 credits in spring teaching
Teaching method: Seminar
Assessment modes: Coursework

This module introduces you to the range of literary productions of the Romantic Period (approximately, 1780-1830) at the same time as considering the extent to which primitivism is the key motif of the period's thought. Primitivism is defined as a preference for what is 'natural' ('in the sense of that which exists prior to or independently of human culture and contrivance') over what is 'artificial' (that which is technologically constructed, or associated with the complex institutions of civilised society).

The module begins with a detailed examination of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's On the Origin of Inequality (1754) taught alongside modern theorists of primitivism such as Susan Hiller and Michael Bell and then goes on to examine the echoes of, and departures from, Rousseau's ideas over the course of the rest of the module's texts. The turn of the 19th century is particularly suited to this approach because cultural primitivism, in various forms, stands at the heart of many of its literary phenomena. The Gothic proposes that key human passions and ideas can only exist outside of stultifying commercial society, hence its frequent pretence that its texts are ancient 'found' manuscripts of various sorts. Wordsworth and Coleridge's lyrical ballads project celebrates a rural simplicity under threat in contemporary urban life and under pressure from the spectacular and world-historical nature of recent politics. And abolitionist literature and thought mobilises the cult of the noble savage to challenge the brutal reality of economic expansion. The module will consider these and other related literary phenomena with the ideas of primitivism as a critical template.

Module learning outcomes

  • Demonstrate detailed understanding of the literary productions of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
  • Understand the issues and ideas associated with cultural primitivism.
  • Read literary texts in the context of wider cultural issues such as the ideas associated with economic progress or the abolition of slavery.