“Paper Bullets of the Brain”: Satire, Dueling and the Rise of the Gentleman Author

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Virginia Tech


In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the duel of honor functioned as a formal recourse to attacks on a gentleman's reputation. Concurrently, many notable literary figures such as Samuel Johnson, William Gifford, Thomas Moore, and Lord Byron were involved in literary disputes featuring duels or the threat of physical violence, a pattern indicating a connection between authorship and dueling. This study explicitly examines this connection, particularly as it relates to social acceptance, the gentrification of authorship, and the business of publishing. The act of publishing, putting one's work into the public sphere for consumption as well as critique, created an acute sensitivity to issues of honor because publishing automatically broadcast insults or accusations of dishonorable conduct to the reading public.

This study requires a grounded discussion of complex, interconnected concepts, specifically: masculine identity, social hierarchy, and violence; satire; dueling; and authorship. Discussion moves from a foundational concern with violence and the assertion of social status, to the relationship between status and honor, to specific modes of defending honor, and finally to the attempt to establish authorship as an honorable profession. Although each of these quarrels exhibits physical violence or the threat of physical violence, these examples also exhibit verbal violence through satiric assaults or an exchange of verbal attacks and parries.

As professional writers struggled to overcome the stereotype of the literary hack and gain social respectability, dueling, with either lead or paper bullets, became a way for authors to defend and maintain the fragile social status they had gained.



Wolcot, Byron, Moore, Jeffrey, Pindar, Gifford, Johnson, dueling, satire, Macpherson