Gluttons and Gourmands: British Romanticism and the Aesthetics of Gastronomy
In this dissertation, I argue that the shifting cultural signification of food in early-nineteenth-century England generates literary responses which frame crucial debates of Romanticism. As the emphasis of eating moves from a dietetic to an aesthetic one, the discourses surrounding food form a constitutive part of class identity, which in turn relies on definitions of aesthetic value. Gastronomy redraws the lines of middle-class identity in relation to bodily pleasure, and these lines correspond to literary engagements with materiality. The intersection of literary and gastronomic aesthetics shows how the logic of materiality always informs Romantic aspirations for aesthetic transcendence. Thus the attempt to separate transcendence from material aesthetics falters when broaching the topic through the terms established by food discourse. Lord Byron’s wariness of aesthetic transcendence, posed frequently in his poetry, receives an analog in his obsession with his weight and his resulting idiosyncratic eating habits. John Keats, who frequently offers sensual images of food in his poetry, engages with the discourse of gastronomy in order to interrogate the fundamental dilemma of Romanticism—that aesthetic transcendence must be achieved through materiality. In the realm of political economy, Thomas Mathus’s assertion that eating functions only biologically ignores the social implications of eating raised by gourmands, and taken up by Thomas De Quincey in his writings on bodily aesthetic experience. Ultimately, in this dissertation I trace how the formation of literary taste in the Romantic period emerges out of gastronomic discourse, and how the principles of gourmandism impinge on the assumptions of Romantic ideology. And yet, like Romanticism with its multivalent associations, gastronomy too signifies multiply. Instead of one monolithic discourse of food, many exist simultaneously and symbiotically, and this wide range of significations makes Romantic authors’ engagements with food equally diverse.