The Pleasures of the Imagination Summary

John Brewer


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 35)

For many whose views of the history of culture in the West were formed in college survey courses in literature, history, or aesthetics, the conventional view of the eighteenth century is of a period marked by great stability of belief in the fundamentals of great art. Epithets such as “Augustan” or “neoclassic” are used to describe a period in which standards of taste seem to have been firmly established and rules for the production of acceptable art tightly applied. The writings of Joseph Addison and Sir Richard Steele in The Tatler and The Spectator, and of Samuel Johnson in The Idler and The Rambler, served as blueprints for shaping character and behavior. Dominating the critical landscape are figures such as Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson in literature, David Garrick in the theater, and Sir Joshua Reynolds in the visual arts. Received opinion is that restraint and reserve were watchwords for both artistic production and public behavior.

John Brewer, whose credentials certainly rank him among the most knowledgeable and qualified twentieth century scholars of the eighteenth century, presents a decidedly different portrait of that age in The Pleasures of the Imagination. Arguing that the zeal for establishing differences between the present age and those that preceded it have caused twentieth century scholars to stress the “order, stability and decorum of eighteenth-century England,” Brewer takes a closer look at the various forms of artistic expression that blossomed during the century to show how much controversy actually existed over a number of critical issues that later generations have taken as commonplaces of the age.

Demonstrating an exceptional breadth of knowledge of history, politics, sociology, and the arts, Brewer provides important background to explain why Johnson and Henry Fielding wrote what they did, why and how Sir William Pitt governed, and what excited the many individuals whose private records of the age offer a useful counterbalance to the accepted notions about these turbulent times. Following the advice of Johnson’s philosopher Imlac in Rasselas, Brewer chooses not to “number the streaks of the tulip,” but rather to exhibit the prominent and striking features of his large subject. When he turns to discussions of individual writers or artists, he does so to “understand a larger historical process” that led to transformations in writing, bookselling, publishing, reading, painting, acting, collecting, and regulating the world of the arts. His aim is to examine and illuminate the emergence of a distinctively British culture that arose during the eighteenth century. This is an important task, Brewer claims, because it was during this time that the notion of what subsequent generations would call high culture (the kind about which Victorian critic Matthew Arnold would write so passionately in the following century) began to be distinguished from folk culture. It was the age in which politeness became the standard of judgment for social behavior, and the period in which the populace at large began to play a role in the creation of, and demand for, the arts.

Written “to build a bridge between the general reader and academic scholarship,” The Pleasures of the Imagination mixes accounts of the important figures of the age with those of lesser luminaries whose life stories provide insight into daily living in England during the century. Brewer relies less on statistical data and more on biography as his principal means of educating his readers about the cultural developments of this period. Brief sketches of the careers of figures such as novelist Samuel Richardson, actor/director David Garrick, literary lion Samuel Johnson, man-of-letters James Boswell, and others are included principally to show how these figures influenced others in developing the concept of culture. Brewer demonstrates the extent of their influence by reviewing its effect on a number of interesting but now largely forgotten contemporaries. He treats readers to an inside view of cultured life in England revealed in the diaries of Anna Larpent, a woman whose opinions were formed from voracious reading, playgoing, and concert attendance. He shows what life was like for the artist who had to negotiate between the demands of his art and the necessity for making a living by providing an extended sketch of the life of painter Ozias Humphry.

What one learns from studying the careers of these great and small figures in the cultural landscape is that, during the period, the principal forces that influenced culture moved from the court to the marketplace. Extending his examination back into the seventeenth century,...

(The entire section is 1922 words.)