Towards a Literary Prehistory of the Welfare State, 1880-1920 (Public lecture, 4th May)


A bare room filled with poor people in a workhouse

The Workroom at St James’ Workhouse, by Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827) and Augustus Charles Pugin (1762–1832) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The British welfare state is under pressure like never before. At a time like this, it’s important to remember how and why it came about in the first place. Join Benjamin Kohlmann (University of Freiburg) at this free public lecture, where he will explore the origins of welfare reform through the literature of the turn of the nineteenth century. Everyone welcome to St Chad’s College Chapel, on 4th May at 18.00. 

This paper outlines a literary prehistory of the welfare state through readings of works by Edward Carpenter, H. G. Wells, E. M. Forster, and Virginia Woolf. By focusing on the slow politics of reform, I foreground a temporality of institutional change – and a modality of literary writing – that differs from the aesthetics and politics of rupture commonly associated with the experience of modernity. The reformist literary mode responds to what Perry Anderson has called the “imaginative proximity of social revolution” in the period. At the same time, literary works written in the reformist mode imagine the emerging institutional structures of the welfare state as deeply connected to the fabric of social life in a way that defuses the threat of revolutionary upheaval. Finally, by presenting the welfare state as an embodiment of collective ends, these works also provide some critical leverage on current theorizations of the welfare state in literary studies.

About the Speaker

Benjamin Kohlmann is assistant professor of English Literature at the University of Freiburg (Germany), having held postdoctoral and visiting positions at the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University (USA), at Jesus College, University of Cambridge, and at the University of East Anglia. His first monograph, Committed Styles: Modernism, Politics, and Left-Wing Literature, was published by Oxford UP in 2014. He is currently working on a monograph about the literary prehistory of the welfare state in Britain; he is also co-editing (with Matthew Taunton) A History of 1930s British Literature for Cambridge UP.

This lecture is hosted by St Chad’s College and Durham’s Centre for Modern Conflicts and Cultures. Join the event on Facebook.

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