Cover of Literary Authority by Claude Willan
Literary Authority
An Eighteenth-Century Genealogy
Claude Willan


March 2023
328 pages.

Hardcover ISBN: 9781503630864
Ebook ISBN: 9781503635272

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Excerpts and More

This book is the cultural history of an idea which now seems so self-evident as barely to be worth stating: through writing imaginative literature, an author can accrue significant and lasting economic and cultural power. We take for granted, now, that authority dwells in literature and in being its author. This state of affairs was not naturally occurring, but deliberately invented. This book tells the story of that invention.

The story's central figures are Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson. But its narrative begins in the 1680s, with the last gasp of the bond linking literary to political authority. While Jacobite poets celebrated (and mourned) the Stuart dynasty, Whig writers traced the philosophical and aesthetic consequences of the accession of William of Orange. Both groups left behind sets of literary devices ready-made to confer and validate authority. Claude Willan challenges the continued reign of the "Scriblerian" model of the period and shows how that reign was engineered. In so doing he historicizes the relationship between "good" and "bad" writing, and suggests how we might think about literature and beauty had Pope and Johnson not taken literary authority for themselves. What might literature have looked like, and what could we use it for, he provocatively asks.

About the author

Claude Willan is Associate Professor of English at Rowan University, having previously been Director of Digital Humanities Services at the University of Houston Libraries, and Perkins Fellow and Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Princeton University Center for Digital Humanities and the Department of English. He co-authored Text Technologies: A History (Stanford, 2019) with Elaine Treharne.

"This is an important and scholarly treatment of a significant puzzle in literary studies. Compelling, polemical, bold, maybe even dangerous, this is a book that all literary critics should read."

—Joseph Hone, Newcastle University

"Willan's provocative genealogy shows how prolific were the mutations in literary authority as it migrated across print cultures from the age of Pope to the age of Johnson. An authoritative rethinking of the making of modern literary authority in the eighteenth century."

—Joseph Roach, Yale University

"This book is an important contribution to the framing of mainstream literary authority and power in the so-called Ages of Pope and Johnson."

—Emily C. Friedman, Auburn University

"Literary Authority is grounded in both established and recent scholarship; it is densely argued but clearly written and often quotable. It is also thoughtfully organized, so a large argument develops over the course of the book.... Recommended."

—J. T. Lynch, CHOICE