This dissertation argues that periodical essayists in late Georgian and early Victorian England appropriated techniques from the theater to invent an empiric literary style that I call “theatric prose.” The central argument here is that Thomas De Quincey is an exemplar of theatric prose, who built a formative theory of literature underwritten by dramatic principles and instigated by a reproof of the Enlightenment principles that eventuated a crisis of legitimacy for rhetoric and theater in the nineteenth century. I demonstrate that De Quincey forges theater and rhetoric together into an anti-Enlightenment category that he calls “literature” and use De Quincey as a test case to determine the political power of this emergent mode of writing.
My first chapter sets the foundation for the dissertation by providing a comprehensive account of the dramatic principles that underwrite De Quincey’s general theory of literature. The second chapter starts the argument that his concept for literature, “the literature of power,” is an anti-Enlightenment category, by showing that it is built in large part out of a disapproval of the anti-rhetorical manner of language prescribed by Sir Francis Bacon. The third chapter continues by demonstrating that John Locke is also a crucial point of contention. The type of subjectivity associated with De Quinceyean literature is fundamentally opposed to that which is defined by British Empiricism. The final chapter concludes the dissertation by reading the central scene of De Quincey’s corpus as a scene of reading that promulgates literature of “theatric prose.” The first three chapters reconstitute his theory and situate it within its intellectual context. The last one studies how it is meant to persuade and circulate amongst others. These chapters discover that theater and literature, spectacle and reading, can be intimately entwined, and that, in fact, this spectacular mode of literature has been important to the history of British literature, philosophy, and culture.