Wil Verhoeven is Head of School of Arts, English and Languages at Queen's University, Belfast, Northern Ireland. He was formerly Professor of American Culture and Cultural Theory, and founding Chair of the American Studies Department at the University of Groningen (The Netherlands). He is also Invited Research Scholar in the American Studies Department at Brown University (Providence, Rhode Island). From 2002-2003 he was inaugural Charles H. Watts II Professor in the History of the Book and Historical Bibliography at the John Carter Brown Library and the Department of English at Brown University.
My general research field can be described as the study of structures of continuity and rupture in the Age of Revolution and Enlightenment in the Atlantic World, 1600-1800. Consistently marrying archival research with cultural theory, and historiography with the history of ideas, my work explores the evolving symbiosis between historical event and historical consciousness, between power and knowledge, agency and identity.
Key publications include:
Americomania and the French Revolution Debate in Britain, 1789-1802 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013; paperback 2015)
Gilbert Imlay: Citizen of the World (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2008)
Anti-Jacobin Novels (10 vols. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2005)
Revolutionary Histories: Transatlantic Cultural Nationalism, 1775-1815 (London and New York: Macmillan/Palgrave, 2002)
Epistolary Histories: Letters, Fiction, Culture (co-ed., Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2000)
Revolutions & Watersheds: Transatlantic Dialogues, 1775-1815 (co-ed., Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi, 1999)
Main Areas of Research Activity
The Politics of Progress: Revolution and Enlightenment, 1650-1800
Transatlantic studies, 1600-1900
British and American culture, literature and history, 1600-1900
History of the book and textual cultures
Current Monograph Projects
I am currently working on two book projects. The Revolution of America: The Ideological Origins of American Exceptionalism starts from the premise that in the course of the eighteenth-century, a number of radical Enlightenment thinkers began to conceptualize the American continent as a categorically “new hemisphere”: that is to say, a hemisphere that was neither a regressive off-shoot of European civilization, nor some utopian improvement on Europe’s despotic societies. Indeed, at the heart of my overall argument lies the thesis that the radical rupture between American and Europe was not inaugurated in the New World, but in the Old World. It was the Enlightenment that projected an “ideology of radical difference” on to America in order to argue for sociopolitical change in Europe; occupying that ideal space, the Americans subsequently set out to build an improved version the Old World in the New World.
The Revolution of America is under advance contract with the University of Virginia Press for their Jeffersonian America monograph series.
From the Press's readers' reports:
"Wil Verhoeven’s book-in-progress offers an illuminating new context for thinking about Thomas Jefferson and his age. Verhoeven’s wonderfully suggestive and ironic point is that European thinkers—Diderot, Condorcet, and other French radicals, with a big assist from more conservative Scottish “social scientists” and moral philosophers—enabled Americans to articulate their “exceptional” New World circumstances. This new “America” was not an anti-Europe or, more accurately, an idealized utopian fantasy of what a more perfect version of what Europe might be; nor was it an imaginative projection of all that was wrong with Europe, a semi-barbarous and degenerate zone of danger, beyond the pale of Civilization. The rupture of the British Empire—Revolution in America—came after, and took on “world-historical” significance—because of Verhoeven’s Revolution of America. I strongly urge the Press to offer him a contract for this important book."
"The scholarship displayed in this proposal is impressive. The author has a firm grasp of the historiography and theoretical background of the subject, the research having been done in both primary and secondary sources is formidable, and the project in general very well conceptualized. Due to its transatlantic nature and its dealing with topics as diverse as race, geography, and migration history in addition to American exceptionalism, the book ought to be of interest to a wide array of specialists in American and European history, scholars of the Enlightenment, colonial and revolutionary historians as well as intellectual historians. For courses, the book would be very useful as an example for a modern—meaning successfully integrating a history of ideas with other genres—intellectual history in graduate classes. Last but not least, topically the book would fit very well in the Jeffersonian America series of UVA Press. For all these reasons, I am strongly recommending awarding Wil Verhoeven an advance contract for the proposed book project."
My second monograph project, Enemies of the State: Sedition and Resistance in the Trans-Allegheny West, 1776-1806, seeks to qualify the conventional representation of the American Revolution as a singular and unequivocal landmark in the emergence of political modernity in the Atlantic world. More specifically, the study takes as its premise that the much-acclaimed “dawning of liberty and equality” in America privileged above all the sanctity of property and the rights of ownership. Individual civil and political liberties in effect arose as byproducts of a political strategy aimed at safeguarding the right to property ownership from encroachment by the forces and agents of arbitrary and despotic power. This limited and pragmatic notion of American liberty, I argue, was not therefore so much revolutionary as expedient. In the wake of the constitutional compromise (which ultimately settled the conflicting doctrines of liberty and order), a monolithic narrative of the American Revolution has tended to eclipse from historiography a more comprehensive account of alternative American Revolutions and other possibilities for new experiments of civil government. Enemies of the State seeks to redress this anomaly in the history of early America.
Modules Taught Include:
“Politics for the People: Participatory Political Culture in America”
“The Americas III: From Exploration to Early Republic”
“Theories of Culture III: Consumer Capitalism”
“‘We hold these truths to be self-evident’: A Textual History of America”
“The History of the Book in America” (at Brown University)
“Revolutions & Watersheds: Transatlantic Dialogues, 1775-1815”
“The West in American Fiction”
“The New Historicism: A Poetics of Culture”
“Colonial and Post-Colonial American Travel Writing”
In 2006 I received a commission as Kentucky Colonel, the highest title of honour bestowed by the Governor of the Commonwealth of Kentucky on individuals in recognition of noteworthy accomplishments and outstanding service to the state (in recognition of my extended research in various institutional and court archives in Kentucky on land speculation practices in the District of Kentucky during the 1780s’ Land Bubble).
I was awarded research grants from leading institutions and research libraries, including: the Huntington Library and Art Collections, San Marino, CA (repeat recipient); the John Carter Brown Library, Providence, Rhode Island (repeat recipient); the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Monticello, Virginia (repeat recipient); the William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (repeat recipient); the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, New York; Princeton University Library; Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago; the Filson Historical Society, Louisville, Kentucky (repeat recipient); the National Endowment for the Humanities (Princeton University).
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Americomania and the French Revolution Debate in Britain, 1789-1802
New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013
New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015
“Wil Verhoeven makes a strong and original argument, that the idea of ‘America’ played a central, neglected role in Britain’s debate on the French Revolution in the 1790s. Despite the loss of the colonies in the American Revolution, America continued to loom large in the British national imaginary. Verhoeven’s readings of familiar and obscure texts are consistently rewarding. His analyses of the new world degeneracy thesis of Buffon et al.; the ‘progressive agrarianism’ of Crèvecoeur, Jefferson, and Imlay; and the Jacobin novel are fresh and insightful; and his rehabilitation of the anti-Jacobin novel brings to the fore a neglected but ‘historically significant body of social critique.’
No previous writer has put these texts into conversation, and the interpretative results are striking.
The debate over the French Revolution will never look quite the same.”
– Peter S. Onuf, University of Virginia
Winner of the 2015 Best Book Award of the Journal of Early American Literature
“Americomania [is] the fruit of research that is at once capacious and meticulous, each to a rare degree. . . .
Encompassing political philosophy, political and legal history, literature, economic history, print history, visual culture, popular culture, migration, demography, and more, Verhoeven’s book traces how the fact and figure of American land—both as a material commodity and as a utopian ideal—operated at the center of a British debate over political identity ignited by the French Revolution.”
– University of North Carolina Press EAL Book Prize announcement
Winner of the 2015 Best Book Award of Global Discourse: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Current Affairs and Applied Contemporary Thought
“Fluent and consistently thought-provoking . . . a highly innovative attempt to relate practice and principle in respect to the American dimension of the French Revolution.”
– Mark Garnett, Lancaster University, U.K., review in Global Discourse: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Current Affairs and Applied Contemporary Thought 6:1 (2016): 182-91
Excerpts from a special book review symposium dedicated to Americomania and the French Revolution Debate in Britain in Global Discourse 6:1 (2016): 161-200:
"The strengths of this book are the care and precision with which the case is assembled and explored. At the outset Verhoeven says that the book 'has been a long time in the making' and, in the best possible way, it feels like it. There is no attempt here to smooth everything out to tell a unified story; the various eddies and complexities in the overall picture are acknowledged, but a clear and compelling picture emerges. It is clearly set out, well signposted and extremely well written. Verhoeven deftly brings historical moments to life in just a few lines. . . ."
– Jane Hodson, University of Sheffield, Global Discourse 6:1, 174-77
"One of Verhoeven’s most innovative achievements in this book is to show what happened when political idealism and geographic realism combined, as vested interests of different kinds circulated in the British press engravings of farmland showing enviable agricultural landscapes with idealised American society at work, and maps and town plans setting out the lineaments of harmonious urban centres which did not in fact yet (or ever) exist. His linkage of the American land market with the British print market is enlightening....
[A]side from his remarkable exposition of the alchemistry between political idealism and geographic realism, there is also wonderful value to be gained from Verhoeven’s close readings of the sketches, maps, political pamphlets and novels to which he draws our notice....
[H]is reconstruction of their production and publication history is also highly illuminating. The difference, for instance, between Crèvecoeur’s original Loyalist text and the republican, utopian vision of America that eventually circulated widely in Britain, is crucial....
This is a book overflowing with stimulating ideas."
– Emma Macleod, University of Stirling, Global Discourse 6:1, 165-68
“[T]his book does a fine job, particularly in its last four chapters, in chronicling ways in which political and cultural meanings criss-crossed with each other at the turn of the nineteenth century. It is very good, for example, on the disagreements between Cobbett and Joseph Priestley, showing how Priestley became marginalized in America after the passing of the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, and showing how as time passed the entrenched philosophical positions of the 1790s were transformed into a more complicated scenario: 'five years,' as Verhoeven notes perceptively, 'was a long time in the 1790s' (304). This book’s title is taken from a 'rabidly anti-American' pamphlet published in 1783 under the title 'A Plain Letter to the Common People of England and Wales, Giving Some Fair Warning against Transporting Themselves to America,' where the pseudonymous author laments how the current 'Americomania, like the Hydrophobia, is not easy to be cured!' (275). Such attention to obscure pamphlets highlights one of the particular strengths of this work, which is its special expertise in the material conditions of publishing history. This involves not just an eye for the arcane but also an awareness of the limitations of particular editions, a skill that turns out to be particularly useful in his discussion of Crèvecoeur. . . . In this sense, Verhoeven’s book represents an exemplary Cambridge product, blending as it does a meticulous, traditional style of textual scholarship with a more expansive intellectual range.”
– Paul Giles, University of Sydney, Global Discourse 6:1, 169-73
"The transatlantic history of the book, and in particular of the novel, is much enriched by this book, as is our understanding of what the French Revolution meant for Britain."
– David Simpson, University of California Davis, Novel: A Forum on Fiction 49:1 (2016)
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Gilbert Imlay: Citizen of the World
London: Pickering & Chatto, 2008
“This deeply researched, richly contextual study is essential reading not just for scholars of the Godwin-Wollstonecraft circle, but for all those interested in the revolutionary upheavals of the late eighteenth century.”
– Pamela Clemit, University of Oxford, Keats-Shelley Journal
Reviewed in: Times Literary Supplement, 25 April 2008; William and Mary Quarterly 3rd Series 66:2; Journal of the Early Republic 29:2; Early American Literature 49:1; Keats-Shelley Journal 56; Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net 52; Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 34:1
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General editor and volume editor, Anti-Jacobin Novels
London: Pickering & Chatto, 2005
“This edition of eleven novels is . . . a welcome resource for those of us working on the literature of the Romantic period, especially when it comes to understanding the fraught terrain churned up in British culture by the French Revolution. In his editor’s introduction, Wil Verhoeven makes the valid point that much more critical attention has been lavished upon the so-called Jacobin novels of William Godwin and his circle than on those of their opponents.”
– Jon Mee, Huntington Library Quarterly
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Revolutionary Histories: Transatlantic Cultural Nationalism, 1775-1815
Edited collection. Basingstoke and London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2002
“Revolutionary Histories is fascinating throughout. Its essays range dazzlingly from blushing, captivity narratives, travel, and conspiracy theories, to demonstrate the complexity with which these cultural practices were enlisted to form national identity on both sides of the Atlantic. In doing so, they collectively prove the fecundity of transatlantic studies in literature and history.”
– Jeanne Moskal, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
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Epistolary Histories: Letters, Fiction, Culture
Edited collection, with Amanda Gilroy. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 2000.