Unusual Suspects: Pitt's Reign of Alarm and the Lost Generation of the 1790s

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9780199657803: Unusual Suspects: Pitt's Reign of Alarm and the Lost Generation of the 1790s

Robespierre's Reign of Terror spawned an evil little twin in William Pitt the Younger's Reign of Alarm, 1792-1798. Terror begat Alarm. Many lives and careers were ruined in Britain as a result of the alarmist regime Pitt set up to suppress domestic dissent while waging his disastrous wars against republican France. Liberal young writers and intellectuals whose enthusiasm for the American and French revolutions raised hopes for Parliamentary reform at home saw their prospects blasted. Over a hundred trials for treason or sedition (more than ever before or since in British history) were staged against 'the usual suspects' - that is, political activists. But other, informal, vigilante means were used against the 'unusual suspects' of this book: jobs lost, contracts abrogated, engagements broken off, fellowships terminated, inheritances denied, and so on and on. As in the McCarthy era in 1950s America, blacklisting and rumor-mongering did as much damage as legal repression. Dozens of 'almost famous' writers saw their promising careers nipped in the bud: people like Helen Maria Williams, James Montgomery, William Frend, Gilbert Wakefield, John Thelwall, Joseph Priestley, Dr. Thomas Beddoes, Francis Wrangham and many others. Unusual Suspects tells the stories of some representative figures from this largely 'lost' generation, restoring their voices to nationalistic historical accounts that have drowned them in triumphal celebrations of the rise of English Romanticism and England's ultimate victory over Napoleon. Their stories are compared with similar experiences of the first Romantic generation: Coleridge, Wordsworth, Southey, Lamb, Burns, and Blake. Wordsworth famously said of this decade, 'bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!' These young people did not find it so-and neither, when we look more closely, did Wordsworth.

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About the Author:

Kenneth R. Johnston received his PhD from Yale University and spent his entire academic career at Indiana University, where he was honored for distinguished teaching and scholarly achievement, while also heading its Department of English. He is author of Wordsworth and 'The Recluse' and The Hidden Wordsworth: Poet, Lover, Rebel, Spy, and editor of Romantic Revolutions. The Hidden Wordsworth won the 1999 Barricelli Prize for outstanding contribution to Romantic studies, and was named to several Book of the Year lists in both UK and US. He now resides in Chicago.


"...Johnston's book is a refreshing antidote to the narratives of capitulation to conservatism so often associated with Romantic writers. ... Unusual Suspects represents an important attempt to resuscitate the works of many radical novelists and thinkers, and it deserves a place on the bookshelf of any scholar interested in the literature of the French revolutionary period." --Eighteenth-Century Fiction

"When I'm trying to orient new readers in the field and its current scholarship, among the first ten books I'll tell them to start with are de Bolla's The Architecture of Concepts, Bugg's Five Long Winters, and Johnston's Unusual Suspects." --Frances Ferguson, Studies in English Literature 1500-1900

"[A] fascinating book... [N]o one before Johnston has understood the poetry of the Romantic period so centrally in the context of Pitt's alarm." --London Review of Books

"...[A] magnificent foundation for further work..."--Michael Scrivener, Review 19

"[Johnston] begins to trace what he calls the lost generation of the 1790s, and in doing so he pieces together a story that has waited a long time to be told Johnston has distilled the narrative to a dozen fascinating case studies, for each person whose gruesome encounter with political repression is uncovered and recounted here we could add a dozen more ... Johnston has written a book that is part investigative history and part elegy ... and in doing so he pieces together a story that has waited a long time to be told. We might think of Unusual Suspects as a cross between William Hazlitt's The Spirit of the Age and E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class: group biography meets radical history ... for each person whose dire encounter with political repression is recounted here we could add a dozen more. This, too, is the history of the Romantic era." --John Bugg, Times Literary Supplement

"Written in highly accessible prose and with energetic engagement in terms of applicability to later eras of suppression and opposition, this book rights many wrongs and encourages readers to view heretofore neglected works as well as works and authors who seem all too familiar as possible victims of politics and fear.... Highly recommended." --CHOICE

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