Cheerfulness: A Literary and Cultural History tells a new story about the cultural imagination of the West wherein cheerfulness — a momentary uptick in emotional energy, a temporary lightening of spirit — functions as a crucial theme in literary, philosophical, and artistic creations from early modern to contemporary times. In dazzling interpretations of Shakespeare and Montaigne, Hume, Austen and Emerson, Dickens, Nietzsche, and Louis Armstrong, Hampton explores the philosophical construal of cheerfulness — as a theme in Protestant theology, a focus of medical writing, a topic in Enlightenment psychology, and a category of modern aesthetics. In a conclusion on cheerfulness in pandemic days, Hampton stresses the importance of lightness of mind under the pressure of catastrophe. A history of the emotional life of European and American cultures, a breathtaking exploration of the intersections of culture, literature, and psychology, Cheerfulness challenges the dominant narrative of Western aesthetics as a story of melancholy, mourning, tragedy, and trauma. Hampton captures the many appearances of this fleeting and powerfully transformative emotion whose historical and literary trajectory has never before been systematically traced.
“Timothy Hampton is one of the most wide-ranging and intellectually lucid literary historians of our generation, having written brilliantly on everything from Shakespeare and Montaigne to Bob Dylan. In Cheerfulness, he extends his range and critical impact to write a history of modern Western culture through the idea of what it means to be cheerful. Not the same as happiness, or mirth, or joy, or pleasure, cheerfulness uniquely emerges as a way of looking at the world that locates the self assuredly and optimistically in the world. It is, in Hampton’s handling, the emotion of modernity itself. To be cheerful is to be generous, to be engaged with others, to be a social being among equals. To be cheerful, too, is to be at home in one’s body, to maintain a balance of emotions and desires. At the heart of the book is the fulcrum of the Renaissance: Rabelais, Shakespeare, and Montaigne. But the implications of this book are really our own: how do bourgeois values make us happy (or do they)? How is getting along with others a social value (or is it, anymore)? How can one be content, and yet ambitious and productive at the same time (and should one)? This is a great book for our time: a moment when our own sense of good cheer has been challenged by political and social upheaval, threats to public health, and cracks in the melting pot of modern society that have raised questions about long-standing liberal values and ideals. A brilliant, wide-ranging, and lucidly written book.” —Seth Lerer, Distinguished Professor of Literature University of California at San Diego