Perhaps more than any other literary period, British Romanticism is defined by startling political changes, bookended as it is by the French Revolution and the First Reform Act. Of course, new regimes not infrequently inaugurate new literary ages (Victorian, Restoration, Elizabethan), but the Romantics arguably lived through the most decisive pivot of them all: the turn to liberal democracy. In The Fate of Progress in British Romanticism Mark Canuel examines how the age’s authors contended with this historical juncture and the Enlightenment inference that it heralded human “progress.”

Putting the term in scare quotes, I gesture toward the ill repute the idea has accrued in the last fifty years as what Canuel calls an “anti-progressivism” deploying “demonized versions of the concept” has become normative in academic criticism (1). As Canuel acknowledges in his conclusion, the straw stereotype of capitalized Progress is a Victorian concoction coextensive with evolutionary thought and imperialist...

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