Manu Samriti Chander, Brown Romantics: Poetry and Nationalism in the Global Nineteenth Century. Reviewed by Nikki Hessell.
Victoria University of Wellington
What happens to Romantic literature when we attend to Brownness? This is the central, provocative claim of Manu Samriti Chander’s brilliant study of colonial writers and the legacies of Romanticism. While decolonizing and canon-expanding efforts have been underway in Romantic studies for many years, what Chander’s book offers the field is a sophisticated theoretical framework for considering the global republic of letters in the Romantic period and its afterlife. The writers Chander focuses on are, as he points out, Brown because they are marginalized, not marginalized because they are Brown. This conceptualization of Brownness opens up a potentially vast array of texts, authors, and revisionings for our field.
Chander chooses to focus on four such figures. Henry Derozio, the brilliant poet, teacher and intellectual of early nineteenth-century Bengal, might be considered one of the first international critics to sanctify Romantic literature, well before the Victorians made their choices about canonical authors and texts. Chander’s illuminating reading of Derozio reframes criticisms of colonial authors apparently unoriginal practices, showing the ways in which poetic authority could be claimed via the consecrating power of imitation. But it also asks questions about originality itself within a transnational colonial literary culture, arguing persuasively that Derozio is one of the great innovators in the Brown Romantic context.
The British Guyanan Creole poet Egbert Martin provides an entirely different example of the Brown Romantic. A Creole writer and a devout Christian, Martin’s poems manifest his faith alongside his deployment of Romantic language and tropes. Chander astutely points out not only the vital connection between Christian missionary work and a kind of poetic proselytizing in Martin but also the ways in which this connection highlights some central tenets (and troubling aspects) of Romantic thought: Martin’s faith undoubtedly shapes his verse, but as Chander writes, “it also reveals a problem inherent in the Romantic legislation of taste—namely, that legislation requires eradicating diverse interpretations of common texts” (49). This shutting down of readerly responses is important within a British context, but takes on world-changing proportions when it is combined with the genocidal force of colonization, missionary activity, colonial educations systems, and emerging literary cultures. Far from opening up the possibilities of how to be a poet, how to interpret a text, how even to think about a prescribed object, Romanticism (like and alongside colonization) narrowed those possibilities and then became the standard by which Brown writers were found wanting.
Henry Lawson might appear the odd one out in this central trio, but Chander argues that Lawson, a white Australian poet of the nineteenth century who became a white supremacist later in his life, draws attention to what he calls the “ineradicable antipathies” (69) that were always present in Romantic notions of sympathy. Lawson was sceptical about the Romantic vision of Australia and the homegrown poetry it inspired, but he nevertheless deployed Romanticism as part of his evocation of an Australian identity that he eventually associated with white solidarity. Lawson’s marginalization, then, is of a different order than that of Martin or Derozio but offers overlapping lessons on the Romantic canon, its pressure points, and the ways in which its theories of poets and poetry are adapted at the colonial margins.
The conclusion turns to the Brownest of the Big Six. Keats and his notion of the “camelion Poet” provide a marvellous coda to this book, reminding us that at least one of the major canonical Romantic poets was always aware of the imitativeness of his era’s writers and their writing (not to mention the gatekeeping that held marginalized writers at bay). One senses that this concluding chapter will be the one that readers in Romantic studies are drawn to, given that the title “Brown Keats” suggests the kind of familiar-but-different critical take that allows us to expand our reading of the Romantic canon on its own terms. But not only would this deprive such a reader of the careful attention that is paid to the Brown Romantics’ own words in the earlier chapters, it would also impoverish their understanding of the book’s final, field-changing claims. By this point in the book, readers are left in no doubt about the truth of Chander’s ultimate point. The colonial poet “could participate only as a marked figure, one designating the model minority who testified to the effectiveness of imperial indoctrination, the native informant with firsthand knowledge of colonial life, and the bearer of the sign of ineradicable difference”; this is the characteristic that Chander names Brownness (91). But Romanticism was always imitative and self-parodying, especially in its Keatsian form. None of it was original. “In this sense, then,” as Chander points out, “Brown Romantics were no less authentic than their canonical counterparts. They were simply less ‘English’” (92).
This book has already provided a focal point for a new direction in Romantic studies, as emerging research clusters around its central claims. There’s no doubt that it will be looked back upon as a landmark work in Romantic studies. Bucknell University Press continues to lead the way in their Transits series, which is setting the pace for some of the most revolutionary scholarship on British Romanticism.