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Inventing Human Rights, by Lynn Hunt.

January 24, 2014

Inventing Human Rights: A History, by Lynn Hunt.  W. W. Norton & Company (2008), Paperback, 272 pages.

A cultural history of eighteenth-century Europe and the growth of concern for the rights of all people. Included is a discussion of how the emergence of novels led individuals to empathize with others unlike themselves in new ways and seek fair treatment for all.

Lynn Hunt is a highly respected historian who has concerned herself with the ways in which Europeans, especially those in France and England, changed during the Enlightenment, becoming more recognizably modern.  She notes a variety of ways daily attitudes and actions were changing as people recognized themselves and others as individuals rather than simply members of groups of family/friends and enemies.

In this book, Hunt turns to “cultural history” a relatively new historical specialization which generalizes about the attitudes of societies and how attitudes change.  While such writing needs to be supported by documentation of the ideas discussed, societal patterns can never be as neatly proven as battles and legislation.   None the less, I find that cultural history often addresses the subjects that interest me most.  While I do not view such histories as THE truth,  I believe they offer A truth to be added to what else we know about a time and place.

What interested me most about this book was not Hunt’s overall thesis about human rights but her attention to how newly popular novels led individuals to feel what others were described as feeling.   Novels helped their readers imagine the lives of others who were both different from and similar to themselves. In Hunt’s view, this new sense of empathy led to compassion and was a contributing factor in the new concern for the rights of all people.

 I am less sure than Hunt about the actual role novels played in documents like the Declaration of Independence, but my own recent reading of books by global women of color has certainly raised my level of compassion for the authors and characters like the ones I have found in these novels. (See my AWW blog on Sisters and Strangers.)

I recommend this book to those interested in “cultural history” and the declarations of  human rights during the Enlightenment.  The opening chapter on the role of novels will be important for readers who share my curiosity about why we read and what difference it makes.

Another excellent “cultural history” I have recently reviewed is Manliness and Civilization, by Gail Bederman, which considers the development and close connection of race and gender in the thought of Americans around 1900.

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