Literary Culture, Meritocracy and the Assessment of Intelligence in Britain and America, 1880-1920
Picture by Harold Heaton Public domain in the United States

Literary Culture, Meritocracy and the Assessment of Intelligence in Britain and America, 1880-1920

How late nineteenth- and early twentieth century novelists conceptualised and represented human intelligence


This project investigates how British and American novelists understood, represented, and problematised the concept of human intelligence between 1880 and 1920. These forty years saw intense scientific debates about the mechanisms underlying biological heredity as well as the establishment of mass compulsory education systems in both Britain and America. The convergence of these developments galvanised a new drive to establish the fundamentally innate and measurable nature of mental ability.

The rise of intelligence testing and the associated concept of IQ was highly controversial, but it nonetheless achieved a considerable scientific and cultural legitimacy in both countries, and encouraged a tendency to conceptualise intelligence in statistical terms, as a phenomenon that distributes itself predictably around a norm in a population.

This project compares how British and American novelists used the bildungsroman form – the novel of education and personal development – to grapple with the implications of the new drive to render intelligence an objectively knowable phenomenon. What did it mean, and how did it feel, to be classified as being above, below, or of average intelligence, at a moment when such judgments began to lay claim to scientific authority?

To what extent did novelists in the period endorse or contest the IQ model of intelligence, and what alternative ideas about the evaluation of intelligence can be discovered in the bildungsroman, a form with roots in Romantic theories of education?

What is the relationship between new efforts to conceive of intelligence as a testable and unitary entity in the brain and the shift toward more experimental modes of literary representation in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries?

The project will also enquire into how shifting ideas about the nature of mental ability affected the discourses of literary criticism and conceptions of authorial identity in the period of transition from the nineteenth-century realist novel to the experiments of modernism. What impact did the rise of the notion of IQ have upon modern ideas of talent, creativity, and aesthetic value?

Finally, the project will explore how literary culture in this period can both clarify and enrich our contemporary debates about competitive examinations, meritocracy, and genetic determinism.