Arguing for the importance of wit beyond its use as a literary device, Roger D. Lund outlines the process by which writers in Restoration and eighteenth-century England struggled to define an appropriate role for wit in the public sphere. He traces its unpredictable effects in works of philosophy, religious pamphlets, and legal writing and examines what happens when literary wit is deliberately used to undermine the judgment of individuals and to destabilize established institutions of church and state. Beginning with a discussion of wit's association with deception, Lund suggests that suspicion of wit and the imagination emerges in attacks on the Restoration stage, in the persecution of The Craftsman, and in criticism directed at Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan and works by writers like the Earl of Shaftesbury, Thomas Woolston, and Thomas Paine. Anxieties about wit, Lund shows, were in part responsible for attempts to suppress new communal venues such as coffee houses and clubs and for the Church's condemnation of the seditious pamphlets made possible by the lapse of the Licensing Act in 1695. Finally, the establishment's conviction that wit, ridicule, satire, and innuendo are subversive rhetorical forms is glaringly at play in attempts to use libel trials to translate the fear of wit as a metaphorical transgression of public decorum into an actual violation of the civil code.
Roger D. Lund is Professor of English at Le Moyne College, Syracuse, NY. He is editor of The Margins of Orthodoxy (1995) and Gulliver's Travels: A Sourcebook (2006).
'Alternately feared as an agent of subversion and admired as the begetter of geniality and social cohesion, wit defined eighteenth-century public discourse and evoked cultural anxieties. With encyclopedic erudition, Roger D. Lund lucidly delineates wit's ascendant role during the long eighteenth century.' Anna Battigelli, SUNY Plattsburgh, USA ’Lund provides an impressively rich and nuanced reading of wit and religion in the eighteenth century, making important qualifications to Habermasian and sentimental accounts of publicity, and restoring to Augustan wit some of its bite.’ Review of English Studies ’...a remarkably well-researched and lucidly written study of how the concept of ’wit’ served as a contentious floating signifier in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England.’ Notes and Queries '... erudite and compact. The list of primary sources is extensive ... Extensively annotated, richly illustrated with quotations from a wide variety of sources, and innovative in its inclusion of works of philosophy, religious pamphlets and legal writing, Ridicule, Religion and the Politics of Wit in Augustan England is an important contribution to our understanding of one of the most characteristic and contentious features of the Augustan period - the decorum and function of witty discourse.' English Studies