The Literary Afterlife: Legacy and the Long Eighteenth Century
“Do you think Shakespeare gives a damn, up there tonight, saying ‘Oh my, what a great revival?’ It’s the here and now, that’s all there is. No one’s keeping score” – Gore Vidal
If Shakespeare, according to Gore Vidal, did not care about the afterlife of his work, when did writers begin to show concern about their legacy? Perhaps more importantly, what is the significance of the role taken by other people (scholars, family members, lovers) to collect and archive their work as a body of singular distinction?
This summer I will undertake research that aims to chart the development of interest in literary legacy over the course of the long eighteenth century. While authors such as Daniel Defoe and Laurence Sterne wrote about being famous in their own contemporary moment, Romantic writers such as William Godwin and Percy Shelley begin to show significant interest in what I call “literary afterlife.” One of the key claims of this project is that legacy is not the same thing as fame, immortality, or transcendence. Instead, legacy is the work of collective labor rather than individual genius. It is a finite, temporal practice that must be endlessly renewed and regenerated for future communities. I am especially interested in histories that are forgotten—or remain untraceable—by the canonical and institutional formation of singular identities.
The first phase of this research will concentrate on the poetic legacy of Percy Shelley. I will read papers related to the history of the construction of Shelley’s archive at the Bodleian Library as well as various theoretical readings about memory, time, and identity.