I’ve dabbled in generational revisionism since the first issue of Hermenaut, in 1992. One of the reasons I started the zine was to express my disagreement with the generational schema proposed in 1991 by the pop demographers William Strauss and Neil Howe; alas, their version has been parroted unreflectively by journalists ever since. Inspired by the zinester Candi Strecker’s insistence that her own (1954–1963) cohort should be called the “Repo Man Generation,” in those first issues of Hermenaut I tinkered with an alternative generational schema… only to abandon it. I’d dropped out of my graduate program in Sociology, and became consumed with other obsessions.

Then in 2008, when I was blogging (as BRAINIAC) for the Boston Globe‘s IDEAS section, I finally got around to proposing my own generational schema — one in which each generational cohort is born during a 10-year-period beginning with a “4” year and ending with a “3” year. In doing so, I was deploying my own version of Dalí’s “paranoiac-critical method” — which he described as a “spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based on the critical and systematic objectivity of the associations and interpretations of delirious phenomena.” My schema (discussed further here) is laughably rigorous and precise, I know… yet somehow it’s also 100% accurate.

I wrote the following disclaimer in 2010: “I don’t believe that generations are some kind of astrology-style shaper of individual destinies. I believe that (a) cultural generations are sociological and historical facts, and (b) Strauss and Howe’s scheme is mis- and disleading. My own eccentric periodization scheme is partly a put-on; its laughable regularity is the giveaway. That said, my scheme is based on research and on considered (semi-apophenic) analysis of the data. If generational periodization is as much an art as it is a science, then it would not be unflattering were someone to compare my work to the obsessively detailed art of, say, Adolf Wölfli, Madge Gill, Eugene Andolsek, or Hiroyuki Doi. It’s a crackpot scheme — but it’s correct!”

In 2010, I reposted my generational schema here at HILOBROW, making a few updates in the process. (For one thing, I added earlier generations… and in doing so decided that a “5/4” schema made more sense for pre-1833 cohorts. I was also persuaded by HILOBROW readers that a “3/2” schema made more sense for post-1973 cohorts.) For the next several years, I once in a while published additional ideas in the comments section of these posts; readers posted their comments and critiques as well. These remain the most often-visited posts here at HILOBROW. Perhaps some day I’ll pull this stuff together in the form of a book… or perhaps not. This page provides an overview. Enjoy!


Who belongs to this generation? Click here.


Who belongs to this generation? Click here.

1974-1982: REVIVALISTS

Who belongs to this generation? Click here.

1964-1973: RECONS

Who belongs to this generation? Click here.

1954-1963: OGXERS

Who belongs to this generation? Click here.


Who belongs to this generation? Click here.


Who belongs to this generation? Click here.


Who belongs to this generation? Click here.

1914-1923: NEW GODS

Who belongs to this generation? Click here.

1904-1913: PARTISANS

Who belongs to this generation? Click here.

1894-1903: HARDBOILEDS

Who belongs to this generation? Click here.

1884-1893: MODERNISTS

Who belongs to this generation? Click here.

1874-1883: PSYCHONAUTS

Who belongs to this generation? Click here.


Who belongs to this generation? Click here.

1854-1863: PLUTONIANS

Who belongs to this generation? Click here.


Who belongs to this generation? Click here.


Men and women born from 1834 through 1843 were in their teens and 20s in the Eighteen-Fifties (1854-63; not to be confused with the 1850s), and in their 20s and 30s in the Eighteen-Sixties (1864-73).

With their usual ham-fistedness, Strauss and Howe lumped this cohort together with their immediate elders and have claimed that anyone born between 1822 and 1842 belonged to the so-called Gilded Generation. One can see why that uninspired label appeals to middlebrows. The Gilded Age (a derisory term coined by Twain) refers to the post-Civil War and post-Reconstruction eras (roughly 1865-1901), during which period a modern industrial economy — complete with a national transportation and communication network, the corporation as dominant form of business organization, and a managerial revolution — was rapidly created. Members of Strauss and Howe’s so-called Gilded Generation were in their prime during that period. As a result, among the wealthiest Americans in history are Frederick Weyerhaeuser (1834), Marshall Field (1834), Peter Widener (1834), Andrew Carnegie (1835), Jay Gould (1836), J. Pierpont Morgan (1837), John D. Rockefeller (born 1839), Oliver Payne (1839), and Henry Huttleston Rogers (1840).

Contra Strauss and Howe, it ought to be stressed that many key Gilded Age figures were older — e.g., Cornelius Vanderbilt, the social Darwinist Herbert Spencer — or younger — e.g., Aaron Montgomery Ward, Theodore Newton Vail, George Westinghouse, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Clay Frick, F. W. Woolworth, Andrew W. Mellon, and Frederick Winslow Taylor, not to mention Thorstein Veblen — than their so-called Gilded Generation. Which is not to suggest that the start or end dates of Strauss and Howe’s bogus generation ought to be extended! In fact, the two cohorts I’ve identified within Strauss and Howe’s so-called Gilded Generation (one born from 1825-33, the other from 1834-43) do have more in common with one another than they do with men and women born before 1823-4 or after 1843-4. But their differences cannot and must not be overlooked.

One thing the two generations have in common is the American Civil War. Most men and women born from 1825-33 were in their 20s and 30s during the Civil War, while those born from 1834-43 were in their teens and 20s. The two cohorts’ experience of the war may have differed, but they did share a formative experience with each other that Americans born before 1823-4 or after 1843-4 were spared. Another thing the two generations have in common is their betwixt-and-between-ness, i.e., when it comes to the art and literature they produced. Artists and writers born in the decades just before 1823-4 are romantics; and those born after 1843-4 are modernists. (The 1844-53 cohort, whom I’ve dubbed the New Prometheans, are the first truly modernist generation, which is why my generational periodization scheme originally began with them.) The 1825-33 cohort is neither romantic nor modern — it’s the first post-Romantic generation. I’ve dubbed their immediate juniors, a cohort which also bridged Romanticism and Modernism, the Original Decadents.

Though I’ve stressed the similarities between the 1825-33 and 1834-43 cohorts, they occupy notably different positions on the Romanticism-Modernism continuum. The older generation (the Post-Romantics) were, in a phrase, more romantic; the younger were more modernist. Modernist enough, at any rate, to offend journalists and critics who labeled certain transgressive (ugh) painters and writers with a misleading pejorative: Decadents. Though the term precedes this cohort, and though it is commonly applied to later artists and writers (Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Comte de Lautréamont, Arthur Rimbaud), at the urging of one of my colleagues, I’ve decided to stick with this moniker.

High-, low-, no-, and hilobrow members of the 1834-43 cohort include: Alfred Sisley, Ambrose Bierce, Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, Charles Sanders Peirce, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Ernst Haeckel, Henry Adams, Henry James, James McNeill Whistler, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Mark Twain, Mother Jones, Odilon Redon, Paul Cézanne, Paul Verlaine [honorary], Pierre-August Renoir, Stéphane Mallarmé, Thomas Hardy, William Dean Howells, William James, William Morris, and Winslow Homer. Friedrich Nietszche was born in the cusp year of 1844.

Who belongs to this generation? Click here.

The Civil War & Gilded Age

The Gilded Age, and the Civil War (see notes below on Pragmatism) were important influences on the outlook of Americans who came of age during the Fifties and Sixties. Particularly on African-Americans; slavery effectively ended in the U.S. in the spring of 1865 when the Confederate armies surrendered.

During the decades before the Civil War, America was experiencing an industrial revolution, and becoming a predominately urban country. In Connecticut, “the American system of manufacture” — also known as the “system of interchangeable parts” — first established itself. As a result, the Civil War was one of the earliest true industrial wars in human history, and the practices of total war, developed by General Sherman, foreshadowed World War I. (Cf. Ambrose Bierce’s stories “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” “Killed at Resaca,” and “Chickamauga.”) Like the shell-shocked writers and artists who survived WWI, Bierce, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, Mark Twain, and other American thinkers and writers were sharp critics of the routine stupidities and empty illusions of wartime, and they heaped scorn upon those with absolute ideas — e.g., whether pro- or anti-slavery.

The Gilded Age was characterized by rapid industrialization and urbanization. Oil magnate John D. Rockefeller and steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie symbolized both the “self-made man” and the spirit of acquisition that dominated the late 19th century. This latter spirit is what Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner criticized in their 1873 novel The Gilded Age, drawing attention to the artificial standards of taste attributed to the growing American middle class. Other critics were also concerned about the dangerous relationship between the economic growth of the United States and the corresponding decline of moral values under capitalism. The trend toward realism in American literature has been attributed to authors’ (semi-romantic, semi-modernist) desire to focus on the experience of those who were not part of the middle class that so defined the standards of their age.


In Paris, the capital not merely of France but (in Benjamin’s phrase) the 19th century, earlier generations of artists and writers had pioneered Realism — which subscribed to an ideology of objective reality, truth and accuracy; and which, though not yet modernist, or even un-Romantic, revolted against the exaggerated emotionalism of the Romantic movement. Realism didn’t reach the United States until certain members of the 1834-43 generation — James McNeill Whistler, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins [honorary], Mary Cassatt [honorary]; and, in literature, William Dean Howells and Mark Twain — brought it home. (Note that of the painters, only Eakins remained a Realist throughout his career.) Meanwhile, although some French painters who belonged to the 1834-43 generation — including, famously, Degas — may have called themselves Realists, the Impressionists are best described (I think) as post-Realists.

Most of the founding Impressionists were born from 1834-43: e.g., Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Frédéric Bazille, Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Armand Guillaumin, Berthe Morisot. (Camille Pissarro and Édouard Manet were born before ’34; Mary Cassatt, born in the cusp year of ’44, is an honorary OD.) Impressionist painting was realistic (and, therefore, romantic) insofar as it emphasized ordinary subject matter and the accurate depiction of light in its changing qualities; however, insofar as one of the changing qualities of light the Impressionists sought to depict was its change over time, in a single work of art, and insofar as they regarded movement as a crucial element of human perception and experience, and insofar as they prized unusual visual angles, the Impressionists were proto-modernist.

Like the American psychologist William James, another member of the OD generation, the Impressionists were close students of the experience of experiencing. By recreating the sensation in the eye that views a subject, rather than recreating a subject, and by creating a variety of techniques and forms, Impressionism paved the way for such truly modernist movements in painting as Neo-Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, and Cubism.

Symbolism and Aestheticsm

The Symbolist movement in literature and art was spearheaded by members of the 1834-43 cohort: e.g., Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, Stéphane Mallarmé, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Henri Fantin-Latour, Odilon Redon. (Paul Verlaine, born in the cusp year of ’44, is an honorary OD; Gustave Moreau was born earlier.) Certain of their predecessors (Baudelaire, Poe) also used symbols; in an almost paranoid fashion, though, the Symbolists — who laid emphasis on dreams and ideals vs. reality — invested every object in the universe with symbolic value; anything could represent a state of mind. Speaking of states of mind, some (but not all) Symbolists enjoyed brooding upon mystical and otherworldly themes, the inevitability of death and decay, and the fatal power of sexuality. This was an outgrowth of the gothic side of Romanticism; but where Romanticism was impetuous and rebellious, symbolist art was hieratic. Also, instead of romantically privileging the nitty-gritty over the imagination, Symbolists insisted that art should aim to capture more absolute truths which could only be accessed by indirect, suggestive methods.

As I’ve said in a post about the Anarcho-Symbolist cohort, Symbolism was a quasi-occult mode of knowledge deliberately opposed to the positivism of the period. In his 1899 book The Symbolist Movement in Literature, which introduced French Symbolism to the English-speaking world, Symons calls symbolism “a form of expression… for an unseen reality apprehended by the consciousness.” In a 1900 essay, William Butler Yeats derided the realist trend (“scientific movement”) in literature and praised instead the symbolist tendency, because it “call[s] down among us certain disembodied powers, whose footsteps over our hearts we call emotions.” The artist, in this philosophy, is a hierophant communing with the occult truths hidden by the “veil” called reality.

Aestheticism, the British branch of Symbolism, was pioneered by Swinburne, James McNeill Whistler, and Edward Burne-Jones, and it was influenced by Walter Pater: all (except Burne-Jones, born in the cusp year of ’33) of whom were born from 1834-43. The Aesthetes developed a cult of beauty, and insisted — against sentimental, romantic critics — that Art does not have any didactic purpose; it need only be beautiful. The main characteristics of the movement were (anti-realistic) suggestion rather than statement, sensuality, heavy use of symbols, and synaesthetic effects. When Whistler’s 1875 painting “Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket” was exhibited, the romanticist art critic John Ruskin claimed he was “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” In the subsequent libel trial, Whistler insisted that the public should see his works not as (merely) imparting information about an external world, but as something that “should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye.”


This post has mostly avoided looking at the influence of the American Civil War on members of the OD generation. According to Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club, a portrait of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., psychologist William James, and polymath Charles Sanders Peirce (all of whom were born from 1834-43), the Civil War “swept away … almost the whole intellectual culture of the North…. It took nearly half a century for the United States to develop a culture to replace it, to find a set of ideas, and a way of thinking, that would help people cope with the conditions of modern life.”

What replaced the ideological, unpractical intellectual culture of the North (i.e., Boston and New York transcendentalists and abolitionists) was pragmatism, an anti-metaphysical philosophical movement whose pioneers claimed that an ideology or proposition is only true if it works, and that unpractical ideas are to be rejected. The truth of an idea needed to be tested to prove its validity, insisted Peirce, James, and Holmes — and, after them, the positivists, radical empiricists, instrumentalists, verificationists, conceptual relativitists, and fallibilists who dominated most of the 20th century.

Pragmatism is the flip side of Symbolism and Aestheticism. As Adorno would demonstrate in his debates with positivist social scientists, Pragmatism might seem ultra-modern, but it’s always also very much a romantic ideology.


Men and women born from 1825-33 were in their teens and 20s in the Eighteen-Forties (1844-53; not to be confused with the 1840s), and in their 20s and 30s in the Eighteen-Fifties (1854-63). Let’s call them the Post-Romantic generation.

Strauss and Howe lumped this cohort together with their immediate juniors (whom I’ve dubbed the Original Decadents); they have claimed that anyone born between 1822 and 1842 is a member of the so-called Gilded Generation. As I’ve argued before, although it’s true that members of Strauss and Howe’s so-called Gilded Generation were in their prime during the Gilded Age, and although the two cohorts I’ve identified within Strauss and Howe’s so-called Gilded Generation do have more in common with one another than they do with men and women born before 1823-4 or after 1843-4, the differences between the 1825-33 and 1834-43 cohorts are important ones.

A close look at such hi-, lo-, no-, and hilobrow Post-Romantics as, e.g., Camille Pissarro, Wilhelm Dilthey, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edouard Manet, Emily Dickinson, Gustave Doré, Gustave Moreau, Henrik Ibsen, Johannes Brahms, John Everett Millais, Jules Verne, Leo Tolstoy, Lewis Carroll, and honorary Post-Romantic William Morris, indicates that the opposition between modernism and romanticism is a vulgar one. Like the Original Decadents, the Post-Romantics are a transitional generation trapped in a productive tension between the Romantic and Modern eras. However, it’s safe to say that while the Decadents are more modernist, the Post-Romantics are more romanticist.

Who belongs to this generation? Click here.

The Post-Romantics were more skeptical, iconoclastic than Romantic-era generations, yet less cynical than Modern-era generations. They rejected those Christian and classical values that for so long had formed a code whereby art was able to bring forth meaning; yet they had a romantic penchant for the past — for medieval life and art, for myths and fairy tales and folk tales.

It has been argued that Emily Dickinson’s poetry grappled with the major pre-Modern epistemological shift that necessitates a faith in empirical procedures. Dickinson “reimagined Romanticism … neither battening on the irony of irony nor believing in unbelief,” according to Richard E. Brantley’s Experience and Faith: The Late-Romantic Imagination of Emily Dickinson. Her healthy skepticism and religious doubt destroyed neither her faith nor her knowledge; instead, her faith was enriched and her knowledge deepened by skepticism and doubt. Dickinson’s radical skepticism was “both tough and tender,” claims Brantley; she never fully slipped into the Modern or Postmodern fascination with undecidability. Though it was proto-Modernist, her poetry resists the urge to dwell in suspicion.

Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych is modernist insofar as the relationships among Ivan and his family members appear to be fragmented and disjointed; yet — romantically — there is a high level of emotional connection among Tolstoy’s characters that’s revealed by the novel’s end.

Consider the Pre-Raphaelites, whose supposed anti-modernism was a fundamentally modern movement in conception and ideology. The Pre-Raphaelites were a group of English painters, poets, and critics assembled in the late ’40s by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. They weren’t exactly modernist: because, e.g., they continued to accept both the concepts of history painting and of mimesis, or imitation of nature, as central to the purpose of art. However, some art historians consider the Pre-Raphaelites the first avant-garde art movement (i.e., instead of the Post-Impressionists) because they were reformists who rejected the mechanistic approach first adopted by the artists who succeeded Raphael and Michelangelo. Call them ambivalent modernists.

The Pre-Raphaelites believed (romantically) that medieval culture possessed a spiritual and creative integrity that had been lost in later eras. However, their backward glances were retrofuturistic — i.e., their vision is the inverse of [fellow Post-Romantic] Jules Verne’s, the supposed rationalist and promoter of science who (as Roland Barthes notes in Mythologies) was a conservative who looked to the future only in order to espy there the triumph of romanticist ideals in post-1848 France. Verne romanticized science and technology as fairy tales liberating his bourgeois readers from the tedium of modern urban life; the Pre-Raphaelites used romantic subjects taken from poetry and medieval legend as an excuse to present a proto-modernist, anti-bourgeois aesthetic of beauty for its own sake.

The writings of [honorary] Post-Romantic William Morris formed the basis for the arts and crafts movement. Morris advocated a romanticist return to well-made, handcrafted goods instead of mass-produced, poor quality machine-made items. Yet in his famous statement, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful,” Morris outlined the modernist belief that utility was as important as beauty. Though a contemporary of the [Original Decadent] painter Burne-Jones, Morris fell under the influence of the Post-Romantic Rossetti while at Oxford — and helped Rossetti paint the new Oxford Union debating-hall with scenes from Le Morte d’Arthur; the three men would later cofound the decorative arts firm that became Morris & Co. Morris’ utopian novel News From Nowhere is the tale of a Victorian who wakes to find himself in the year 2102, at which time society has changed into a pastoral paradise, in which all people live in blissful equality and contentment. Like Verne’s novels, it’s a romanticist vision of the future.

NB: “Post-Romanticism” is a descriptor often applied to the music of Johannes Brahms (born 1833), who was simultaneously a traditionalist (in contrast to the opulence of his contemporaries, his music is rooted in the structures and compositional techniques — e.g., strict counterpoint — of the Baroque and Classical masters) and an innovator (his fondness for motivic saturation, i.e., keeping motifs and themes below the surface or playing with their identity, and for irregularities of rhythm and phrase, and his bold exploration of “enriched harmony” and remote tonal regions influenced modernists like Schoenberg and Webern). In the final analysis, Brahms was more romanticist than modernist; he even considered giving up composition when it seemed that other composers’ innovations in extended tonality would result in the rule of tonality being broken.

Worth noting that James Fenimore Cooper’s frontiersman novels become world famous from 1823 on.


Strauss and Howe would have us believe that most men and women born from 1815-24 (they were in their teens and 20s in the Eighteen-Thirties [1834-43], and in their 20s and 30s in the Forties [1844-53]), were younger members of the so-called Transcendental Generation (born 1792-1821) — notable, they claim, for Transcendentalism, and for leading the US into Civil War. The youngest members of the 1815-24 cohort, meanwhile, get lumped in with the first-born members of Strauss and Howe’s so-called Gilded Generation (1822-42).

Strauss and Howe’s periodization, as always, is off. True, Civil War generals like Sherman, Grant, and Jackson belong to the 1815-24 cohort; however, Jefferson Davis, Abraham Lincoln, and Robert E. Lee are a generation older. Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, George Ripley, and Orestes Brownson are two generations older than Henry David Thoreau (a member of the 1815-24 cohort). Meanwhile, though lingering Romanticist tendencies can indeed be found among the oldest members of the so-called Gilded Generation, the Post-Romantics (born 1825-33) are ambivalent about Romanticism and Modernism; they’re trapped between two eras.

Lost within Strauss and Howe’s periodization is a strikingly coherent generation of dark, skeptical, ironic, apocalyptic, utopian, and proto-Existentialist romantics — whose number includes Baudelaire and Flaubert, Melville and Whitman, Marx and Engels. The 1815-24 cohort I’ve identified gains some of its identifiable character from the fact that it is the last generation of the Romanticist era; its members (though sometimes identified as modernists) seemed well aware of that fact. The 1815-24 cohort rejected the middle Victorian period’s smug progressivism: its faith in moral and social progress. That’s why I call this the Retrogressivist Generation.

Who belongs to this generation? Click here.

The writings of English poet and cultural critic Matthew Arnold, who was born nearly on the cusp between the 1815-24 cohort and the earliest post-Romantics, and who agonized about the corrosion of Faith by Doubt, is sometimes described as a bridge between Romanticism and Modernism. It would be more precisely accurate to describe Arnold’s work as a bridge between Late/Final Romanticism and Post-Romanticism.

“To be a useful man has always seemed to me something very ugly,” Baudelaire writes in his journal — a phrase which the culturally conservative sociologist Daniel Bell seized upon to sum up the “modernist” adversary culture and its rage against bourgeois norms of morality, work, and consumption. However, Baudelaire didn’t reject morality altogether, as another journal note indicates: “When I say ‘moralists,’ I mean Pharisee-like pseudo-moralists.” Moralist is a pejorative for the romanticist Baudelaire, that is to say, only because the term has been spoiled for him by progressivists. Contra Bell and also many critics who admire him, Baudelaire was no modernist; the modern era, from Baudelaire’s dark/ironic romanticist perspective, was a utilitarian, progressivist one. In an article on the establishment of prizes to be awarded to “healthy” works of theater, Baudelaire scoffs in horror at a recently published book for children: “As I read [this book] what do I find but goodness constantly being rewarded with lollipops, and wickedness invariably being made ridiculous by inevitable punishment. ‘If you behave yourself you will get a yum-yum’ — that is the whole basis of this sort of [progressivist] morality.”

“Dark” Romanticism also finds expression in that genre of literature known as Victorian Gothic, which follows the original Gothic authors in rejecting the clarity and rationalism of the Enlightened establishment, and whose ruins symbolize pessimism regarding the Enlightenment’s staying power. The Gothic novel — Baudelaire was an admirer of Maturin’s Melmoth — was revived in the Forties (during which decade the Retrogressivists came into their own) by George W.M. Reynolds (b. 1814), who inaugurated the serial The Mysteries of London (1844-on), and authored the horror trilogy Faust (1846), Wagner the Wehr-wolf (1847), and The Necromancer (1857). Emily Brontë (b. 1818) transported the Gothic to the Yorkshire Moors in Wuthering Heights (1847), while Charlotte Brontë (b. 1816) gave us a madwoman in the attic in Jane Eyre (1847).

Also worth noting that Sir Walter Scott’s novels become world famous from 1814 on.

Sheridan Le Fanu (b. 1814), whose fiction — featuring castles set in a barren landscape, with a cast of remote aristocrats dominating an atavistic peasantry — might or might not represent a form of Irish protest literature, was the premier ghost story writer of the 19th century. The influential critic John Ruskin, meanwhile, praised the imagination and fantasy exemplified by Gothic and neo-Gothic architecture. Wilkie Collins’ mystery/suspense novels, particularly The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868), not to mention his supernaturalist tales, also employ Gothic atmospherics and tropes.

Writing in Paris in the early Forties, Karl Marx sounded a Romantic retrogressivist note in what are known as his Ökonomisch-philosophische Manuskripte (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts). Despite the rhetorical conjuring trick by means of which he’d dismiss earlier, “utopian” socialists as unscientific, Marx was primarily a romantic political messianist and secondarily a social scientist. Contra those progressivists who hailed liberal capitalism as the greatest freedom history has known, Marx insisted that it represents a bondage more insidious and degrading than any earlier social oppression. Everyone under liberal capitalism is driven by a demoniacal, impersonal force — Marx’s themes of possession and alienation make him sound like Sheridan Le Fanu, or Wilkie Collins — away from their human essence to pursue an unattainable goal.

The cure for mankind’s “self-alienation,” in the young Marx’s formulation? The (romantic) destruction of capitalism and the (retrogressive) immersion of the individual in a neo-medievalist social totality.

1805-1814: AUTOTELICS

Men and women born from 1805-14 (they were in their teens and 20s in the Eighteen-Twenties [1825-33], and in their 20s and 30s in the Thirties [1834-43]), belong — according to the too-widely accepted periodization of Strauss and Howe — to a so-called Transcendental Generation (born 1792-1821). As usual, I beg to differ.

Strauss and Howe’s Frankenstein monster of a generation cobbles together two discrete, distinctive generational cohorts, one born from 1805-14, the other from 1815-23. Their periodization scheme also shanghais younger Original Prometheans and older Retrogressivists into the mix. In order to celebrate the proto-middlebrow legacy of Ralph Waldo Emerson at the expense of his high-, low-, no-, and hilobrow contemporaries (e.g., Poe, Bakunin, Baudelaire, Kierkegaard, Marx), Strauss and Howe invented a Transcendental Generation whose particulars don’t hold up under even the most cursory scrutiny. Why hasn’t this already been pointed out?

Margaret Fuller

Regarding the 1805-14 cohort, let me be the first to note that many members of the Transcendentalist movement (though neither Emerson nor Thoreau) were born between those dates. However, whether we limit our data to America and England (i.e., like Strauss and Howe) or cast a wider net, the striking thing we notice about men and women born from 1805-14 is not a shared faith in an ideal spiritual state transcending the physical and realized only through the individual’s intuition. (Edgar Allan Poe, born 1809, ridiculed the Transcendentalist’s “mysticism for mysticism’s sake.”) What we do notice about these men and women is their internally generated drive and motivation, their lack of dependence on the sorts of external rewards that motivate most of us to stick closely to safe routines. So let’s call them the Autotelic Generation.

The (penultimate-romanticist) Autotelic Generation includes proto-Situationist dandies and flâneurs, Bouzingos and blagueurs, anarchists and aesthetes, revolutionaries and hoaxers. Hi-, lo-, no-, and hilobrow members of the 1805-14 cohort include: Ada Lovelace, Alexander Herzen, Alexis de Tocqueville, Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, Georg Büchner, Gérard de Nerval, Giuseppe Garibaldi, John Stuart Mill, Ludwig Feuerbach [honorary], Margaret Fuller, Max Stirner, Mikhail Bakunin, Nathaniel Hawthorne [honorary], Nikolai Gogol, P.T. Barnum, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Richard Wagner, Søren Kierkegaard, and Théophile Gautier.

Who belongs to this generation? Click here.

To be GOVERNED is to be watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so. — Proudhon, “What Is Government?”

Members of this generation were daring, rebellious older sibling figures to the Retrogressivists — i.e., to the final generation of Romantics. Baudelaire, for example, worshiped Poe, Nerval, and Gautier; Melville looked up to Hawthorne [honorary Autotelic] (and, for what it’s worth, he despised Emerson); Marx was influenced by Feuerbach [honorary Autotelic] and Proudhon.

Coming of age, as they did, in an era during which the theory and practice of what we now call neoliberalism was first flourishing in Europe and America, hi-, lo-, no-, and hilobrow members of the 1805-14 cohort articulated eccentric utopian visions — neither liberal nor conservative. Though anti-monarchist, many important Autotelics were pro-aristocratic; while pro-republican, they tended to fear “ochlocracy” (mob rule). Though politicized, they tended to be un- or even anti-partisan; the French Revolution was recent enough to remind them that grand doctrines and ideology-driven politics can result in enslavement, sacrifice, and tyranny. NB: Their anti-ideological stance was funhouse-mirrored by the emergent middle class, who claimed that “Progress” wasn’t an ideology; many of our favorite Autotelics were anti-bourgeois and regarded the shibboleth of Progress as a hegemonic form of ideology.

For example, two Autotelics are among the most influential early anarchist theorists and organizers. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s first major work, What is Property? Or, an Inquiry into the Principle of Right and Government (1840), claimed that “Property is Theft!” Proudhon and Marx, who met in Paris while Marx was exiled there, were friendly until Marx attacked Proudhon’s The System of Economic Contradictions, or The Philosophy of Poverty (1847). Marx rejected what he sneeringly termed Proudhon’s “utopian socialism” in favor of what he insisted was “scientific socialism.” (This dispute became one of the sources of the split between the International Working Men’s Association’s anarchist wing, which favored workers’ associations or co-operatives, as well as individual worker/peasant ownership, and its Marxist wing, which favored the nationalization of land and workplaces.) Russian revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin, meanwhile, was a theorist of collectivist anarchism who criticized Marxist-style “authoritarian socialism,” as well as Marx’s concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Bakunin was expelled from the First International by Marx and his followers at the Hague Congress in 1872.

Max Stirner is also an important anarchist, but I’m not going to discuss him here. Nor, for that matter, will I discuss Lovelace, Herzen, Darwin, Dickens, Büchner, Garibaldi, Mill, Feuerbach, Fuller, Hawthorne (whom I’ve described as the author of one of the earliest Argonaut Folly novels), Gogol, Barnum, Wagner, or Kierkegaard. Some other time.

Just as vigorously opposed to capitalism, wage labor/slavery, and worker exploitation were a seemingly quite different crowd of Autotelics: French aesthetes and dandies like Théophile Gautier and Gérard de Nerval. As the literary critic Gene H. Bell-Villada has argued, the idea of l’art pour l’art was particularly attractive to French writers whose medium (poetry) and rhythm of production (leisurely and careful) conflicted with the modes and rhythms of the newly industrialized literary market. He calls Gautier, Nerval, and their comrades “aesthetic separatists” — i.e., they were a crypto-political movement that rejected both the (bourgeois) republican and (hereditary aristocratic) monarchist factions of the era. They were particularly opposed to the newly ascendant culture-consuming bourgeoisie — particularly bourgeois liberals, who insisted that art should be socially and morally “useful” — but they weren’t socialists. The dandies presented themselves as a new, self-invented kind of aristocracy.

“Art for art’s sake” is the English rendering of Gautier’s defiant l’art pour l’art slogan, which expressed the aesthetes’ belief that the intrinsic value of art is divorced from any didactic, moral, or utilitarian function. “Nothing is truly beautiful unless it is useless,” insisted the preface to Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin (1836); note that works like Gautier’s are described as “autotelic,” in the original Greek sense of something “complete in itself.” In the US, Poe was another theorist of autotelic art — which is why Baudelaire, whose translations did so much to popularize Poe in France, was such a fan. In his essay “The Poetic Principle” (1850), Poe writes:

We have taken it into our heads that to write a poem simply for the poem’s sake […] and to acknowledge such to have been our design, would be to confess ourselves radically wanting in the true poetic dignity and force: — but the simple fact is that would we but permit ourselves to look into our own souls we should immediately there discover that under the sun there neither exists nor can exist any work more thoroughly dignified, more supremely noble, than this very poem, this poem per se, this poem which is a poem and nothing more, this poem written solely for the poem’s sake.

The French Revolution of 1830 (the July Revolution) saw the overthrow of King Charles X of France and the ascent of Louis-Philippe, the “bourgeois monarch.” In Paris during the Twenties (1825-33), political factions (ultra-royalists, Girondin republicans, Jacobin republicans, American-style republicans, Bonapartists, moderate semi-liberal royalists, utopian socialists) enjoyed the support of various literary factions. Most romantics were somewhere on the continuum between republican and liberal, though their factions — Les Meditateurs, Les Frénétiques, Les Larmoyants, Les Illuminés, Le Petit Cénacle, Les Jeunes-France, Les Buveurs d’Eau, the literary-political Bouzingos, the militant Bousingots, Les Badouillards, Les Muscardins, Les Dandys and Les Bohème — suggest that the continuum was a minutely parsed one. The Autotelics who interest us are dandies, aesthetes, and Bouzingos [a slang word meaning something like “shit-heel”] like Nerval and Gautier. The aesthetes’ insistence upon art’s uselessness may have been an anti-partisan position, but it was not unpolitical. The dandies and flâneurs who inspired Baudelaire’s dandyism, and his theory of the “perfect flâneur,” were engaged ironists; their “useless” art and anti-bourgeois mode of dressing and sauntering through crowded Paris streets was a political gesture, a rebuke to the proto-neoliberal “bourgeois monarchy” of Louis-Philippe — which they recognized, presciently, as a new mode of tyranny. Whether or not he actually once walked a lobster on a pale blue leash, Nerval’s flânerie was a form of guerrilla street theater — a gesture of contempt for the hustle and bustle of modern capitalism.

Alexis de Tocqueville shared the aesthetes’ and anarchists’ worry about the evolution of liberal capitalism and its effect upon the social order — and he, too, suspected that some new-fangled form of aristocracy might be the best defense against liberal capitalism’s wiles. (I’ve cribbed some of what follows from an essay I once wrote for n+1.) Between the publication of the first and second volumes of Democracy in America, in 1835 and 1840 respectively, Tocqueville’s tone became increasingly foreboding. If in the first volume of the Frenchman’s study of the democratic spirit of the age he’d praised American democracy as the antidote to political tyranny, in the second he warned of a new, subtler form of tyranny emerging from America itself, where intangible but inexorable pressures threatened to force even staunch individualists into a formerly unthinkable conformity.

Unlike domination elsewhere, where extra-economic coercion had to be employed to keep citizens in line, it appeared to Tocqueville that the social order of the United States was regulated to a great extent by what he called the American “spirit of gain.” Sure, the new ideals of individualism and equality that were supplanting Europe’s hierarchical and communal values were fostered, just as Adam Smith had predicted, by participation in an open economy. But it was precisely the self-centered individuals of such an economy, hastening to secure their own pleasures regardless of the greater good, who were most likely to surrender their liberty to a paternalistic government, predicted Tocqueville. Liberal capitalism, Tocqueville warned, might become an insidious form of bondage for worker and capitalist alike: a future society in which the opinion of the majority will impel the individual, despite having “smashed all the shackles” of political tyranny, “willingly to cease thinking at all” — that is, to submit to shackles worn not on the limbs but inside the head. In a footnote, Tocqueville suggested that the solution to the either/or of feudalist aristocracy and liberal capitalism might be an “aristocratic republic” in which ordinary citizens experienced political and economic liberty but the unpossessable aristocracy would continue to guide society. (NB: Bakunin suggested much the same thing.)

In a concluding chapter, Tocqueville expresses his deepest fear: If democracy and the spirit of capitalism had made it possible to establish a despotism in America “more extensive and more mild” than any in antiquity, he asks, then what was to stop some future ruler from combining authoritarian sovereignty with liberal capitalism and thereby becoming powerful enough to “dictate and manage the lives of each and every one” of his subjects, controlling the minutest details of social life and of individual existence? The terms “despotism” and “tyranny” wouldn’t suffice to describe such oppression, one spreading “a fine mesh of uniform, minute, and complex rules” over society, Tocqueville warns, and every day making “man’s use of his free will rarer and more futile.”


1795-1804: MONOMANIACS

Men and women born from 1795-1804 were in their teens and 20s during the Eighteen-Teens (1815-24), and in their 20s and 30s during the Eighteen-Twenties (1825-33). According to Strauss and Howe, the 1795-1804 cohort is merely part of a much larger Transcendental Generation born, supposedly, from 1792-1821. Strauss and Howe’s grotesque, thirty-year-long(!) construct muddles two discrete, distinctive cohorts — the one now under consideration, plus the Autotelics (1805-14) — while also managing to shanghai a few younger Original Prometheans (1785-94) and a lot of older Retrogressivists (1815-24). What a pop-sociological mess!

The 1795-1804 and 1805-14 cohorts aren’t at all difficult to distinguish. The Autotelic Generation is notable for proto-Situationist dandies and flâneurs, Bouzingos and blagueurs, anarchists and aesthetes, revolutionaries and hoaxers. The 1795-1804 cohort is notable for producing founders of religious innovations (e.g., Mormonism, Transcendentalism, Enfantin’s Saint-Simonist cult, Quimby’s New Thought, Neo-Druidism, Comtean secular humanism [and, arguably, Positivism]) and communal social experiments (Brook Farm, Fruitlands, Nashoba, the Amana Colonies). It’s also notable for the abolitionist zeal of William Lloyd Garrison [honorary Monomaniac], John Brown, Fanny Wright, Levi Coffin, and Sojourner Truth, among others. I’ve dubbed this collection of visionaries and sages, crackpots and zealots the Monomaniac Generation.

Hi-, lo-, no-, and hilobrow members of the Monomaniac Generation include: Aleksandr Pushkin, Auguste Comte, Balzac, Barthélemy-Prosper Enfantin, Brigham Young, Abigail and Bronson Alcott, Sophia and George Ripley, Heinrich Heine, John Brown, Joseph Smith, Jr. [honorary], Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Phineas P. Quimby, Sojourner Truth, Victor Hugo, and William Lloyd Garrison. The proto-middlebrow Ralph Waldo Emerson is also a member of Monomaniac cohort.

Who belongs to this generation? Click here.

No room, here, to get into the politics of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Aleksandr Pushkin, Barthélemy-Prosper Enfantin, Heinrich Heine, Victor Hugo, Orestes Brownson, and other politically engaged Monomaniacs. Some other time…


Whether or not they succeeded in starting a religious movement, the great writers of the Monomaniac generation — notably Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and John Henry Newman — were impelled by a sense of a message for their age, by means of which they hoped to broaden the vision and elevate the ideals of their contemporaries.

Thomas Carlyle was a Scottish satirical writer, essayist, historian and teacher who pioneered what later was dubbed Sage Writing, a genre of creative nonfiction (developed from ancient wisdom literature) wildly popular in the Victorian era. He tried to find a new principle of moral authority and intelligibility for a civilization undergoing deep political unrest and religious doubt. His 1832 novel, Sartor Resartus, influenced Transcendentalism; its articulation of “The Center of Indifference” is an early analysis of the modern Nobrow phenomenon. Carlyle’s three-volume The French Revolution: A History in 1837 called for “heroes” to direct England’s competing “spiritual” forces — i.e., the hopes and aspirations of people in the form the form of ideas and ossified ideologies.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1836 essay Nature introduced Transcendentalism, a romantic (i.e., intuitive, experiential, passionate) continuation of the supposedly too-intellectual rebellions of 19th-century Unitarians and Universalists against traditional Trinitarianism and Calvinist predestinationarianism. Among Transcendentalists’ core beliefs was an ideal spiritual state that “transcends” the physical and empirical and is realized only through the individual’s intuition, rather than through the doctrines of established religions. Though a number of other members of the Monomaniac cohort became Transcendentalists — including Amos Bronson Alcott, Orestes Brownson, Elizabeth Peabody, Charles Lane, and George and Sophia Ripley — younger men and women were instrumental in transforming Emerson’s philosophy into a coherent movement.

John Henry Newman (vicar of the Oxford University Church, later a Catholic convert and Cardinal) was a reactionary concerned with the Anglican Church’s failure to assume its proper spiritual role in English life. He and other members of the Tractarian or Oxford Movement (1833-41) railed away at the holdover attitude of Deist rationalism into which the Church of England had fallen during the eighteenth century, and they asserted the supreme authority of the Church and its traditional doctrines.

Orestes Brownson was a brilliant publicist, first for the Transcendentalists (he was one of the founders of the Transcendental Club), then — after he converted — for Roman Catholicism. In 1836, he founded a church called The Society for Christian Union and Progress and published his first book, New Views of Christianity, Society, and the Church, which combined Transcendental religious views with radical social egalitarianism. He converted in 1844, and from then on argued that only Catholicism could restrain the undisciplined American.

Joseph Smith, Jr. [honorary Monomaniac, born in the cusp year of 1805] and Brigham Young were the first and second prophets of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, colloquially called Mormons. Smith reported seeing various visions that led him to restore a Christian doctrine that, he claimed, was lost after the early Christian apostles were killed; the term “Mormon” is taken from the title of the Book of Mormon, a sacred text adherents believe to have been translated from golden plates revealed by an angel to Smith. In Ohio, Missouri, and elsewhere, Smith and his followers established organizations that would live a form of Christian communalism. Following Smith’s assassination by a mob in Carthage, Illinois, Young led his followers in an exodus to the western United States, where they founded Salt Lake City in Utah Territory.

In his The Course in Positive Philosophy (1830-42), the French philosopher of science Auguste Comte articulated the epistemological perspective of Positivism — a historically inevitable secular ideology that would succeed the current “stage” during which men questioned authority and religion. Positivism is a quantitative, mathematical basis for decision-making; employing it, people could find solutions to social problems and bring them into force. Comte later developed a “religion of humanity” for positivist societies in order to fulfil the cohesive function once held by traditional worship; the term “altruism” comes from his injunction “vivre pour altrui” (“live for others”).

William Price was a Welsh doctor who became convinced that an ancient prophecy indicated that he would liberate his country. He tried to revive what he saw as the religion of the ancient druids; in doing so, he became one of the most prominent proponents of the Neo-druidic movement.


Phineas Quimby, a mesmerist and mind-over-body healer from Lebanon, N.H., is considered a founder of the New Thought Movement, a loosely allied group of religious denominations, secular membership organizations, authors, philosophers, and individuals who share a set of metaphysical beliefs concerning the effects of positive thinking, the law of attraction, healing, life force, creative visualization, and personal power. Mary Baker Eddy was one of his patients.

This might not exactly count, but: William Cullen Bryant [honorary Monomaniac] , though best known as an American romantic poet and editor of The New York Evening Post, was a militant homeopath (a still hortly disputed form of alternative medicine). He was a lay member of The New York Homeopathic Society in 1834 and President of The Board of Trustees of the New York Homeopathic Medical College from 1860 – 1872.

The Reverend Sylvester Graham [honorary Monomaniac] was an early advocate of dietary reform in the United States. He was most notable for his emphasis on vegetarianism and the temperance movement, as well as dietary habits. Grahamites practiced abstinence from alcohol, frequent bathing, vegetarianism, and a generally sparse lifestyle. Graham also was an advocate of sexual abstinence, especially from masturbation.

Scottish physician James Braid is regarded by many as the first genuine “hypnotherapist” and the “Father of Modern Hypnotism.” It was Braid who first adopted the term “hypnotism” as an abbreviation for “neuro-hypnotism” (sleep of the nerves). Braid was influenced by a fellow member of the Monomaniac cohort, Swiss mesmerist/showman Charles Lafontaine.


Bostonian Transcendentalists George and Sophia Ripley founded Brook Farm, a utopian colony in nearby West Roxbury. To quote from an essay of mine about Argonaut Follies: George Ripley announced that the object of the colony was “to guarantee the highest mental freedom, by providing all with labor, adapted to their tastes and talents, and securing to them the fruits of their industry… and thus to prepare a society of liberal, intelligent, and cultivated persons [leading] a more simple and wholesome life, than can be led amidst the pressure of our competitive institutions.” […] Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1852 novel, The Blithedale Romance, is a treatise on the failings of thoroughgoing social reform disguised as a novel set in a West Roxbury utopian colony. In ’41, the 37-year-old Hawthorne was casting about for a place where he would have the leisure and energy to concentrate on his writing. Invited to join Brook Farm, he quit his position in the Boston customhouse and became one of Brook Farm’s founding members; but a few months later, he moved out. Scholars have tended to describe the fictional colony of Blithedale as a dystopia, and Hawthorne as an anti-utopian predecessor to the likes of Zamyatin, Huxley, or Orwell. Certainly, Hawthorne had little sympathy for utopian notions: Coverdale, the semi-autobiographical narrator of Blithedale, reflects ruefully on “our exploded scheme for beginning the life of Paradise anew,” while Zenobia, a character who may have been inspired by Margaret Fuller, laments what she calls the colony’s “effort to establish the one true system.” But read between the lines of Hawthorne’s text and we discover what Fredric Jameson calls “anti-anti-utopianism”: an effort to free the imagination from the paralyzing spell of the quotidian without falling into the error of totalitarianism. [Note that Hawthorne was born on the cusp between the utopian Monomaniacs and the dystopian Autotelics.]

Charles Lane and Bronson and Abigail Alcott, also Transcendentalists, founded the Fruitlands colony. “The consociate family”, as Fruitlands residents referred to themselves, refrained from trade, allowed no personal property, and did not use hired labor. They also eliminated animal products from their diets. According to Lane, who later became a Shaker: “Neither coffee, tea, molasses, nor rice tempts us beyond the bounds of indigenous production… No animal substances neither flesh, butter, cheese, eggs, nor milk pollute our tables, nor corrupt our bodies.” Cotton clothing was forbidden because cotton exploited slave labor, and wool was banned because it came from exploited sheep. Fruitlands failed the winter after it opened, due to food shortages and unrest among the inhabitants. Lane, for example, believed in the renunciation of marriage; the Alcotts did not.

German-born Christian Metz [honorary Monomaniac] emigrated to America, where he co-founded a colony for the Community of True Inspiration, a Pietist sect. He later relocated to Iowa and assisted in the founding of the Amana Colonies. Adin Ballou founded a utopian community named Hopedale on a farm in Massachusetts. Fanny Wright was a Scottish-born freethinker, feminist, abolitionist, labor activist, and social reformer, who emigrated to the US and founded the multiracial Nashoba Commune in Tennessee; its members were slaves, free blacks, and whites. In 1830, Wright freed the Commune’s slaves and accompanied them to the newly liberated nation of Haiti. MORE


Men and women born from 1785-94 were in their teens and 20s during the Eighteen-Oughts (1805-14, not to be confused with the 1800s), and in their 20s and 30s during the Eighteen-Teens (1815-24, not to be confused with the 1810s). According to Strauss and Howe, there wasn’t any generational cohort born from 1785-94; they claim instead that a Compromise Generation (tentative, unaccomplished) was born from 1767–1791, while a Transcendental Generation (evangelical, extremist) was born from 1792-1821. So this is a lost generation, airbrushed out of official history.

As with every other lost generation, the Original Prometheans aren’t difficult to distinguish from their immediate elders (the Ironic Idealist cohort) or their immediate juniors (the Monomaniacs). They’re more earnest and politically engaged than the former; unlike the latter, they’re not founders of religious innovations and utopian colonies. One can only conclude, therefore, that the Original Prometheans cohort is “lost” for ideological reasons — that is, the generational periodizing powers-that-be would prefer it if this generation’s unique contributions and worldview went unrecognized.

Hi-, lo-, no-, and hilobrow members of the Original Promethean Generation include the second wave of Romantics (Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats [cusper, born 1795]), who rebelled against the post-1815 revival of traditional oppression. Also: Arthur Schopenhauer (philosopher of Pessimism, anarcho-monarchist), Davy Crockett and his fellow anti-authoritarian Alamo fighters, and — remember, Prometheus was punished for having stolen fire from the gods — the pioneering electricity researchers Michael Faraday and Samuel F.B. Morse.

I’ve named the generation after Shelley’s 1820 dramatic poem, Prometheus Unbound. Shelley’s protagonist represents a humankind whose suffering will not cease until Jupiter (who here represents throne, altar, judgment-seat, prison) is overthrown — following which event a peaceful, quasi-anarchistic world order will spontaneously arise. PS: This cohort lends its name to the New Prometheans, a post-Romantic generation whose number also includes zealous activists and pioneering electricity researchers, but whose leading thinkers and writers rejected the Romantics’ utopian faith that the world is subject to reason and control.

Who belongs to this generation? Click here.

George Sampson: “Tory society, which received the [Original Romantics] into its bosom, laid a heavy hand on the younger. Byron, whom it feared, was driven into exile; Keats, whom it derided, was bludgeoned; Shelley, whom it loathed, was caught in the meshes of the law.” British members of the Original Promethean cohort came of age during the Regency Period (1810-20), during which a dissolute Prince Regent filled in for mad King George III. Though first-wave British romantic poets (Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge) were becoming conservative, Byron and Shelley held fast to democratic ideals; they condemned George III’s regime as tyrannical. Even at the time, then, this was a lost (ideologically suppressed) generation.

Middlebrows would have us think of Byron entirely as a sexual adventurer. As a result, today it is difficult to realize the force or extent of his influence on continental opinion. His English countrymen admired his poetry, but mocked his politics; he hated tyranny and championed the oppressed — though, it must be said, like many utopians, he didn’t think much of the oppressed.

Keats we ought to remember for his description of Negative capability — the poetic state in which we are “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason. […Being] content with half knowledge,” i.e., where one trusts in the heart’s perceptions. John Dewey explains what truth means to Keats (with reference to the famous lines, “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,— that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'”) in the following passage: “In [Keats’s] tradition … man lives in a world of surmise, of mystery, of uncertainties. ‘Reasoning’ must fail man — this is of course a doctrine long taught by those who have held to the necessity of a divine revelation. Keats did not accept this supplement and substitute for reason. The insight of imagination must suffice…. Ultimately there are but two philosophies. One of them accepts life and experience in all its uncertainty, mystery, doubt, and half-knowledge and turns that experience upon itself to deepen and intensify its own qualities — to imagination and art.”

Though middlebrows have attempted to rewrite Shelley’s legacy to make him seem a lyricist and a dilettante who had no serious intellectual position (Matthew Arnold described him as a “beautiful but ineffectual angel”), Shelley was a visionary — an idealist — a political radical. An atheist and materialist who believed in the perfectibility of man. His revolutionary epic, Laon and Cythna (w. 1817-18), is about the eternal war of love and truth against tyranny. And his Prometheus isn’t the impotent one we read about in Greek myth; Shelley’s Prometheus is “unbound” — his evil nature slips off, symbolizing the regeneration of humanity once religion and other tyrannies are overthrown.

The Original Promethean philosopher Schopenhauer criticized Hegel’s logical optimism and the belief that individual morality could be determined by society and reason. For Schopenhauer, human desire is futile, illogical, directionless, and, by extension, so was all human action in the world. However, he was adamantly against differing treatment of races, was fervently anti-slavery, and supported the abolitionist movement in the United States.

I should also mention James Fenimore Cooper, here — who was the first American (OK, after Ben Frankin) to be appreciated more in France than in America. He wrote romantic fiction set in a country lacking key romantic themes like class differences and gothic ruins; Cooper’s plots stage moral confrontations — between, for example, Rousseau’s dream of a man of nature vs. Rousseau’s dream of a social contract unanimously agreed upon. The French liberal intelligentsia responded to Cooper’s vision of primitive society in eclipse, for a noble people exterminated and the natural world laid waste; Sainte-Beuve, for example, hailed Cooper’s championship of “justice and liberty against oppression and force.”


According to Strauss and Howe, a so-called Compromise Generation was born between 1767–1791. Like Strauss and Howe’s invented Silent Generation, the Compromise cohort is an “adaptive” type of generation, Strauss and Howe would have us believe; its members are risk-averse, conformist, indecisive — they’re wimps who don’t defy authority. The only meaningful evidence offered for this characterization is the fact that Kentucky politician Henry Clay has been called “the Great Compromiser,” because he brokered important compromises during the Nullification Crisis and on the slavery issue. (Strauss and Howe fail to mention that Abraham Lincoln called Clay his “beau ideal of a statesman.”) In fact, there is no such thing as the Compromise Generation!

Men and women born from 1785-94, who were in their teens and 20s during the Seventeen-Nineties (1795-1804, not to be confused with the 1790s), and in their 20s and 30s during the Eighteen-Oughts (1805-14, not to be confused with the 1800s), are instead members of the generational cohort I call the Ironic Idealists. As for the rest of the bogus and unconvincing “Compromise Generation,” they’re either New Romantics (1765-74) or Original Prometheans (1785-94).

The Ironic Idealists weren’t politically radical, like their immediate juniors and seniors — however, this does not mean they were risk-averse and indecisive. In this, they’re more like the so-called Silent Generation (1925–42) than Strauss and Howe recognize. The Anti-Anti-Utopians (1934-43), I’ve pointed out elsewhere, vociferously and articulately refused to accept the postwar consensus that there was no longer any alternative to liberal capitalism; they were neither utopian nor anti-utopian. As for the “silence” of the Postmodernists (1924–1933), I’ve argued that it was “the strategic silence of sappers and miners, undermining the enemy’s fortress; or of prisoners tunneling their way to freedom.” The Ironic Idealists tend to be a conflicted cohort, true… but in a wise and productive way.

Here are a few productively conflicted members of the Ironic Idealist Generation in whom I’m particularly interested: Jane Austen, Stendhal, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Heinrich von Kleist, Beau Brummell, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, Ingres, and Thomas Love Peacock (honorary).

Who belongs to this generation? Click here.


The Ironic Idealists occupy a funny position vis-a-vis Romanticism, the counter-Enlightenment artistic and intellectual movement that transformed the stage, the novel, poetry, painting, sculpture, ballet, and all forms of serious music beginning in the 1770s (in England and Germany) and went mainstream in the 1820s. Romanticism’s themes — a deep appreciation of the beauty of nature, a preoccupation with the heroic ideal, an embrace of emotion over reason and of the senses over intellect, and authenticity-mongering in the form of obsession with folk culture (which involved sentimentalizing the poor) and national and ethnic origins (which, eventually, would turn political in the form of nationalism) — were tarnished, for the Ironic Idealists, by the French Revolution. Yet unlike the Original Romantics (e.g., Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Southey), because they’d never rejected the Enlightenment in the first place, they didn’t violently swing back again to the opposite extreme. They retained Romanticism’s skepticism towards the Enlightenment values of rationality, order, and restraint; but — unlike second-wave Romantics (e.g., Byron, Keats, Shelley) they were also skeptical about Romanticism’s values of emotional exuberance, unrestrained imagination, and spontaneity in art and personal life. They are a No-Wave cohort.

Ironic Idealists didn’t believe — with the Romantics — that radical reconstruction was possible not only in social life but in culture and art; yet neither were they cynical or apathetic. Theirs was a passionate, engaged form of irony. Jane Austen, for example, pokes fun at the ultra-romanticism of gothic literature in Northanger Abbey, in which a heroine is led astray by Mysteries of Udolpho (a novel by Ann Radcliffe, from Romanticism’s first wave). The glorification of personal emotions, the idealization of the loved one — Austin was skeptical about this sort of thing. But who would ever accuse her of being cynical, apathetic, “silent”?

Unlike their immediate elders and juniors, Ironic Idealists are funny! Austen is merely the best-known example. Thomas Love Peacock’s 1831 satirical novel Crotchet Castle is an early Argonaut Folly in which a motley crowd of “perfectibilians, deteriorationists, statu-quo-ites, phrenologists, transcendentalists, political economists, theorists in all sciences, projectors in all arts, morbid visionaries, romantic enthusiasts, lovers of music, lovers of the picturesque and lovers of good dinners” gather at the titular estate.

Though best known as author of the novella on which the Nutcracker ballet is based, the multitalented E.T.A. Hoffmann deserves to be remembered as a pioneer in the self-parodying, uncanny fantasy genre. Hoffmann’s spliced novel The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr (1819–1821) subverts Romantic idealism while celebrating artistic genius. He influenced Poe, Gogol, Baudelaire, Dostoevsky, and Kafka; his stories “Automata” and “The Sand-Man” are required reading for robot aficionados; and his “Madame de Scudery” is an early detective story.

German dramatist Heinrich von Kleist and French novelist Stendhal are also frequently described as Romanticists. Both, however, subvert clichéd ideas of Romantic longing and themes of nature and innocence. Kleist’s plays show individuals in moments of crises and doubt, with both tragic and comic outcomes; Stendhal maintains a tension between clear-headed analysis and romantic feeling in his novels.

In philosophy, meanwhile, we find Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, who was regarded in his lifetime as a personality (eager, powerful) of the true Romantic type, yet whose philosophy sought to reconcile idealism and realism. And then there’s Beau Brummell, who inspired an anti-Romantic cult of artificiality (a reaction against romantic naturalism inspired by Barbey d’Aurevilly’s 1845 biography of Brummell) yet whose mode of dandyism wasn’t a flamboyant one. He was no macaroni; Brummell’s revolt against uniformity, mediocrity, and vulgarity was exquisitely self-contained.

The French painter Ingres was denounced by Romantics as an unimaginative Classicist, overly dependent on art-historical precedent; yet Baudelaire would later praise Ingres for having painted “a population of automatons that disturbs our senses by its all too visible and palpable strangeness.” His practice of deliberate exaggeration inspired Degas and Picasso; however, unlike these avant-garde artists, Ingres couched his distortions in a conservative visual language of superlative draughtsmanship and authoritative brushmarks. Like Beau Brummell, Ingres’ revolt against mediocrity was stealthy — exquisitely self-contained.



Men and women born from 1765-74 were in their teens and 20s during the Seventeen-Eighties (1785–94, not to be confused with the 1780s), and in their 20s and 30s during the Seventeen-Nineties (1795-1804, not to be confused with the 1790s). This demographic cohort, which grew up in the shadow of their immediate elders (the politics-, society-, and economics-obsessed Perfectibilists), constituted the first wave of Romanticism.

A counter-Enlightenment movement that prioritized culture and aesthetics over against politics and society and economics, and a passionate individual life over against everything else, Romanticism was spearheaded in Great Britain by the poets William Wordsworth (1770), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772), Robert Southey (1774), and Walter Scott (1771); and in Germany by August Wilhelm von Schlegel (1767) and Friedrich von Schlegel (1772), around whose journal the Athenäum gathered such pioneering Romantics as Novalis (1772) — who composed Hymns to the Night in 1798, the same year that Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and Wordsworth’s “Lines Written a Few Miles from Tintern Abbey” appeared in the seminal collection Lyrical Ballads. German Romantics of this generation also include Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder (1773) and Ludwig Tieck (1773), not to mention Ludwig van Beethoven (1770), Friedrich Hölderlin (1770), and Friedrich von Schelling (1775: honorary Original Romantic). In France, meanwhile, François-René de Chateaubriand (1768) was the first — and for years, the only — Romantic; and Madame de Staël (1766) is credited with importing the movement from Germany. Finally, I should also mention the philosopher Hegel (1770), who influenced German Romanticism and was something of a counter-Enlightenment thinker… but who was not, himself, a Romantic.

Who belongs to this generation? Click here.


The Original Romantics were secular theologians (according to M.H. Abrams, who does not use the term “Original Romantics”); that is, they were dominated by a Biblically inspired eschatology which they transposed from heaven to earth. History is an upward spiral along which humankind travels towards an inevitable and predetermined end: a superior state of un-alienated oneness of, i.e., man with man, man with God, man with nature. The “kingdom of God” is reimagined as an earthly paradise — a utopia in which all opposites are reconciled. They consciously set out to transform not only the theory and practice of poetry (and all art), but the very way we perceive the world. While in their teens and 20s, the Original Romantics were enthusiastic about the French Revolution and its liberal ideals; and Hegel was enthusiastic about Napoleon — the “World Spirit… on horseback.” Later, they grew disillusioned about political revolutions.

Rejecting the Enlightenment insofar as it argued for the supremacy of reason, the Romantics elevated the imagination to a position as the supreme faculty of the mind, a dynamic creative power that unites reason and feeling and helps invent reality itself. Emphasis was placed on the importance of intuition, instincts, and feelings; Wordsworth defined good poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” The artist became, for the first time, a heroic figure. Also unlike Enlightenment’s rationalist view of nature and the universe, the Romantics viewed nature as an organically unified whole — and as such, a refuge from the artificial constructs of civilization. Style-wise, the Romantics preferred boldness over neoclassicism’s insistence upon restraint; maximum suggestiveness over the neoclassical ideal of clarity; and free experimentation instead of following rules. In their pursuit of authenticity, they turned for symbolism to folk legends and ballads, to contemporary country folk and to children.




As I wrote in Hermenaut, back in 1999, the phenomenon of fake authenticity begins with Hegel.

Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) is the most important text in the pre-history of existential authenticity. In it, Hegel attacks the bourgeois “honest man,” whose self-seriousness and sincerity exemplifies a passive submission to a received social ethos. Hegel’s romantic portrait of the anti-hero of authenticity was deeply influenced by Rameau’s Nephew, a dialogue discovered after Diderot’s death in that philosophe’s papers. In it, Diderot appears as “Myself,” an honest bourgeois philosopher; and the Nephew of the title is his opposite number, a poverty-stricken musician who earns his keep in the homes of wealthy patrons by being himself: an insincere, buffoonish parasite. Believing that history can be seen as a progress toward a truly self-determining freedom, Hegel used the term base to mean “alienated from and antagonistic towards the prevailing ethos of society” — and applied it to the agent of this kind of freedom. Likewise, he turned noble into a pejorative, using it to mean “overly identified, internally and externally, with the prevailing ethos.” The Nephew, Hegel, decided, was a prime example of the courageously base man — a disintegrated, alienated, distraught consciousness seeking a self-determining freedom. He pours out his irony on the bourgeoisie, mocking their earnestness, and exposing the constructed nature of their taken-for-granted ideas about truth, meaning, and morality. The anti-hero of authenticity spends his days, Hegel insists approvingly, “in universal talk and in deprecatory judgment which rends and tears everything.”

Here’s my two cents: Try reading Rameau’s Nephew after you’ve just read Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool (1997). It becomes immediately apparent that the Nephew rejects the prevailing ethos not in order to follow his own pathos (i.e. like a real anti-hero of authenticity), but because, as he puts it, “with the aid of vices natural to me [I have made myself] agreeable to the tastes of my patrons.” The solid bourgeois Diderot finds the Nephew’s company enjoyable not because he’s been revolutionized by this abject outsider, but “because [his] character stands out from the rest and breaks that tedious uniformity which our education, our social conventions, and our customary good manners have brought about.” The Nephew is a romantic rebel-with-a-small-“r,” through whom solid citizens can vicariously fantasize about surpassing the limits of their own freedom. The Nephew — as theorized by Hegel, anyway, because who knows what Diderot intended the dialogue to mean — is really the hip face of capitalism, an architect of consumer dissatisfaction and of perpetual obsolescence. These phenomena, I’d argue, are an unintended consequence of Romanticism.



Men and women born from 1755-64 were in their teens and 20s during the Seventeen-Seventies (1775–84, not to be confused with the 1770s), and in their 20s and 30s during the Seventeen-Eighties (1785–94, not to be confused with the 1780s).

The Perfectibilists are a transitional generation whose members made their mark at the tail end of the Age of Enlightenment — which petered out, along with the promise of the French Revolution, sometime in the Seventeen-Nineties (1795–1804). Their immediate juniors are the first generation of the Romantic Age; there is a certain proto-Romanticism to be detected within this generation. Because of their Enlightenment brand of utopianism, which aimed at perfection in the spheres of politics, society, and economics, I’ve named the 1755–64 cohort — whose number includes Henri de Saint-Simon, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Mary Wollstonecraft, Maximilien Robespierre, William Blake, and William Godwin, not to mention Mozart — the Perfectibilists.

Who belongs to this generation? Click here.

Notes on a few -isms pioneered and/or popularized by members of this generation.

PHILOSOPHICAL IDEALISM: Johann Gottlieb Fichte (born 1762), Gottlob Ernst Schulze (1761), and Karl Leonhard Reinhold (1757) were major contributors to German philosophical idealism, a movement — spearheaded by theology students — who worried that Kant’s rigorous and systematic separation of “things in themselves” and things “as they appear to us” might be an invitation to a corrosive skepticism. The question of what properties a thing might have independently of the mind (in some supra-sensible reality beyond the categories of human reason) was, for the Idealists, an incoherent question; things do not possess properties “in themselves” — rather, the properties we discover in objects depend on the way that those objects appear to us as perceiving subjects. Fichte, for example, rejected the assumption of anything that was not through and through merely our representation; the knowing subject is the cause of the external thing — it produces everything from its own resources.

“UTOPIAN” SOCIALISM: Henri de Saint-Simon (born 1760) was an early socialist theorist whose thought influenced the foundations of Marxism, positivism, and the discipline of sociology. He wanted to expand the principles of the French revolution in order to create a more “rational” society and economic system. Although dismissively labeled a “utopian” socialist by Marx and Engels, he was a strong supporter of the scientific method and advocated an arrangement where industrialists would found a national community based on cooperation and technological progress.

FEMINISM: Writer and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft (born 1759), rejected the assumption that women were naturally inferior to men (less rational, less moral), attacked gender oppression, pressed for equal educational opportunities, and demanded “rights to humanity” for all in her 1792 treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. She married the philosopher William Godwin, one of the forefathers of the anarchist movement; her daughter is Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, later Mary Shelley.

ANARCHISM: Considered the first modern proponent of anarchism, William Godwin (born 1756, married to Mary Wollstonecraft) adopted the principles of the Encyclopaedists; his own aim was the nonviolent overthrow of all existing institutions, political, social and religious. In 1793, Godwin published his influential book Enquiry concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness, which set forth an anarchist critique of the state and also a positive vision of how an anarchist (or minarchist) society might work.

REPUBLICANISM: Maximilien Robespierre (born 1758) was an eloquent spokesman for the poor and oppressed, an enemy of royalist intrigues, a vigilant adversary of dishonest and corrupt politicians, a guardian of the French Republic, an intrepid leader of the French Revolutionary government, and a prophet of a socially responsible state; he was also a murderous dictator. He sought to create the utopia described by his hero Rousseau, championing liberty, equality, and fraternity even if tens of thousands of his countrymen died. Jacques René Hébert (born 1757) was founder and editor of the extreme radical newspaper Le Père Duchesne during the French Revolution. Georges Jacques Danton (born 1759) was a leading figure in the early stages of the French Revolution and the first President of the Committee of Public Safety. He was guillotined by Robespierre and other advocates of revolutionary terror.