"Canvassing the multiple ways in which discussions of the imagination and aesthetics shaped the geography of political and cultural production in the early U.S. republic, Cahill's book is at present the conclusive study of the importance of debate about aesthetic positions during the pre-Jacksonian period."—American Historical ReviewIn Liberty of the Imagination, Edward Cahill uncovers the surprisingly powerful impact of eighteenth-century theories of the imagination—philosophical ideas about aesthetic pleasure, taste, genius, the beautiful, and the sublime—on American writing from the Revolutionary era to the early nineteenth century. Far from being too busy with politics and commerce or too anxious about the morality of pleasure, American writers consistently turned to ideas of the imagination in order to comprehend natural and artistic objects, social formations, and political institutions. Cahill argues that conceptual tensions within aesthetic theory rendered it an evocative language for describing the challenges of American political liberty and confronting the many contradictions of nation formation. His analyses reveal the centrality of aesthetics to key political debates during the colonial crisis, the Revolution, Constitutional ratification, and the advent of Jeffersonian democracy.
"A compelling and far-reaching study that scrutinizes the transatlantic influence of aesthetic theory during the eighteenth century. Liberty of the Imagination is clearly the work of capacious intellect deeply engaged with British and American aesthetic politics."—Early American Literature
"A masterful account of the transatlantic flow of ideas and the way in which American writers of the Revolutionary and early national periods used those aesthetic arguments to imagine a nation."—Leonard Tennenhouse, Duke University
"An original and highly significant contribution to the study of early American literature, politics, and aesthetics. Edward Cahill makes a compelling and ground-breaking case that the discourse of aesthetics played an important role in late eighteenth-century U.S. cultural production and politics."—Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, Northeastern University
Exploring the relevance of aesthetic ideas to a range of literary genres—poetry, novels, political writing, natural history writing, and literary criticism—Cahill makes illuminating connections between intellectual and political history and the idiosyncratic formal tendencies of early national texts. In doing so, Liberty of the Imagination manifests the linguistic and intellectual richness of an underappreciated literary tradition and offers an original account of the continuity between Revolutionary writing and nineteenth-century literary romanticism.
Edward Cahill is Associate Professor of English at Fordham University.