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An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age: British Culture 1776–1832. Ed. Iain McCalman

Thursday, August 24, 2000 - 10:31
An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age: British Culture 1776–1832. General Editor, Iain McCalman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.  xiii + 780pp. illus: 110 halftones. $150/£85 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-19-812297-7).

Reviewed by
Alex Benchimol
University of Glasgow

It is the subtitle to An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age that signals its intended function as an introduction to the cultural history of the period from the American Declaration of Independence to the Great Reform Act. In the breadth of its investigations into all manner of cultural practice in the Romantic age, this new volume serves as a fitting culmination to the recent trend towards multidisciplinarity in Romantic period studies. Through general editor Iain McCalman's judicious assemblage of over forty major essays that bring together literary,cultural, social, economic, and art historians under one cover, this critical companion avoids offering a reductive definition of Romantic cultural practice, and thus the volume might be considered the first post-Romanticist scholarly companion for the Romantic age;that is, while taking up the material of the period we have called "romantic,"the volume moves beyond the Romantic ideology mapped by Jerome McGann and embraces the new inter- and multidisciplinary approaches to the field, beyond the standard Romanticist focus on textual issues in canonical poetry. An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Agecaptures the conflicted intellectual spirit of the field, as recent work has unsettled the traditional sense of "Romanticism" as a privileged area of study focused on the canonical work of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Byron, and Blake. By institutionalizing the pluralist trend in Romantic period studies, this volume marks a key moment in the struggle to redefine our understanding of the culture of the Romantic age.

Iain McCalman's introduction, "A Romantic Age Companion," reviews the historical antecedents of the genre of the cultural history sourcebook and in the process provides a de-facto defense of this collection's intensely pluralistic approach to the period. The collective re-interpretation of the Romantic age represented by the companion, McCalman relates, even led to the consideration of abandoning the term "Romantic" altogether as a suitable description of this crucially transformative historical period: "Was'Romantic' in fact the most suitable label with which to frame the broad-based cultural history project that we had in mind?" (1). Building on Jerome McGann's interrogation of Romanticism's stifling ideological circularity, McCalman argues that a new cultural history shorn of the field's routine deference to the traditional aesthetic visions of Wordsworth, Coleridge, et al., can actually function as a vigorous re-contextualization of these key intellectual figures and their perennially studied works: "The rediscovery of neglected historical figures and events does not mean, even, that we must abandon the Romantic canon. Rather, historical recovery enables us to re-contextualize and enlarge this canon by shifting our angles of vision. Writers like Wordsworth and Coleridge can be freshly illuminated within the context of the fiery debates, crushing commercial pressures, and chance events of a historical period that was felt to be seething with conflict" (2). Within this enlarged historical landscape McCalman sets the tone for some of the major essay contributions that follow.

In placing essays on heretofore marginal topics like poverty and consumerism alongside major revisionist statements on the period’s more traditionally studied activities like poetry and prose, McCalman's aim of re-conceptualizing the period is convincingly achieved. He reviews rival"universal" and encyclopedic cultural history projects from the period,providing a neat contemporary Romantic illustration of the contested nature of the genre. In Coleridge and Southey’s project "to retain or recover the unity of knowledge inthe face of unprecedented tendencies towards diversity and fragmentation" the Romantic age found its most urgent intellectual and moral response to the leveling cultural tendencies of an encroaching industrialism (5). By contrast, the efforts of the"Presbyterian bookmakers," inspired by the intellectual modernity of the Scottish Enlightenment, sought to provide a more practical British equivalent to the French Encyclopédie. Placed between these extremes of Romantic period encyclopedism was the ambiguous "Companion." Some of these Romantic companions were no more than updated versions of the early modern "commonplace book," providing advice, religious instruction, and entertainment to their scantily educated popular readership, while others functioned as literary accompaniments to specialist scientific study. This recounting of the contested history of the Romantic companion serves as a perfect introduction to An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age'sown multifunctional and multidisciplinary identity.

The Companion is organized into two main parts. The first contains four thematic groupings of 5,000 word essays, while the second consists of encyclopedia style entries profiling major and minor cultural figures, political and social institutions and concepts, and the wide variety of cultural material consumed by the British public during the Romantic period. The neophyte reader can thus turn to the encyclopedia entries in Part Two to learn about the various figures and events discussed in the essays of Part One. The titles of the groupings in Part One, reflecting the trend towards broad cultural interconnections, help to ground the intellectual restlessness of the essays: "Transforming Polity and Nation,""Reordering Social and Private Worlds," "Culture, Consumption, and the Arts," and "Emerging Knowledges." It is impossible to summarize here the forty-plus essays gathered under these headings, but one can get a flavor of the collection from considering some highlights. Mark Philp's "Revolution" and H. T.Dickinson's "Democracy" treat overlapping themes within the "Transforming Polity and Nation" section. In both essays, there is a focus on the indigenous British institutions of political radicalism during the Age of Revolution. The political activities of radical intellectual leaders like Thomas Hardy of the London Corresponding Society and William Cobbett of the Political Register are placed within the larger narrative of British democratic development. Barbara Caine's essay, "Women," is a fascinating discussion of the intellectual, moral and social complexities contained within Wollstonecraftian feminist thought, while David Philips's essay, "Policing," puts forward the convincing argument that it was the revolutionary panic during the 1790s that was primarily responsible for the rise of the modern institutions of social discipline inherited (and refined) by the Victorians. One of the longest contributions in the volume,Sarah Lloyd's essay, "Poverty," is also one of the finest. In it Lloyd chronicles the development of modern discourse on the poor, a discourse fraught with ideological meanings borrowed from some of the central debates of the time. She argues:"It was the conglomeration of religious, political, economic, and social meanings that made exact definition of the poor so difficult and the source of endless discussion" (116). Anne Janowitz's essay on "Land" is a similarly complex piece in which she meditates on the conflicting meanings of agricultural improvement during the period.

However, it is the third group of essays, "Culture,Consumption, and the Arts," that will probably command the most attention from advanced students and scholars in the field. In its deliberate linking of high art with common consumption, elite with popular culture, and aesthetics with material practice, this section perhaps comes closest to illustrating the enlarged academic worldview of An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age. The social historian Roy Porter opens the section with a lively narrative of England's consumer capitalist modernity during the eighteenth century, which in the process reviews theories of modern individualism and capitalist individuation from Locke and Weber to C. B. MacPherson. Iain McCalman and Maureen Perkins's "Popular Culture" engages recent debates about the interpretation of popular culture and offers a series of insightful case studies from the period, turning to the peasant poet John Clare, the popular Regency crime and sports journalist Pierce Egan, and the prophetess Joanna Southcott. Jerome McGann's contribution, "Poetry," continues with that prominent critic's materialization of the canonical Romantic tradition, arguing with characteristic lucidity about the social implications of the revolution in poetic style initiated in the 1790s. The penultimate essay in the section by Jon Klancher is a useful overview of the complex cultural geography that defined the bourgeois public sphere in Britain during the Romantic period.

The volume's diversity is also exemplified in the essays grouped together under the rubric of "Emerging Knowledges." Martin Fitzpatrick's contribution on the Enlightenment is noticeable for its subtle negotiation of the distinctive Irish, Welsh, English and Scottish components that collectively defined the British intellectual contribution to Enlightenment Europe. Donald Winch, one of the leading intellectual historians of the period, contributes an essay on political economy that explores the neglected tensions within neo-classical economic thought. James Chandler's essay, "History," functions as both a useful survey of Romantic historicism in Britain, as well as a provocative exploration of the way in which the historically self-conscious genre of speculation on contemporary cultural experience known as the "spirit of the age" was developed through new forms of intellectual intervention in the bourgeois public sphere. Jon Mee's contribution re-examines the central importance of language during the period, both in its attempts at bourgeois institutionalization and standardization, and as a complex barometer of class conflict and potential future political emancipation. The final piece in Part One, Peter Otto's"Literary Theory," is a lucid explication of the manner in which Kantian Idealism was assimilated into British Romantic aesthetics, using De Quincey's reflections on German literature as a departure point for exploring the political limits of Romantic poetic subjectivity, particularly the relationship between canonical Romantic poetry's aesthetic position and its wider "retreat from the disorder of politics andhistory" (381).

In the concise profiles of both major and minor historical events and in the biographies of significant cultural figures in the Romantic period, the short entries of Part Two complement the wide-ranging essays from Part One. Indeed, although somewhat shorter than the standard entry found in the Dictionary of National Biography,the best of these biographical entries will surely serve as models for the major revisions now underway for the New Dictionary of National Biography. One of the benefits of the general brevity displayed in the entries is the impressive breadth of coverage contained in Part Two, from Cobbett and children's literature, to the 'silver fork' novel and the Scottish Enlightenment. The fact that leading scholars have also contributed these shorter entries means that some manage to transcend their reference status to function as solid summaries of the cutting-edge research now being undertaken in Romantic period studies. A good example is Kevin Gilmartin's entry on William Cobbett,which manages gracefully in a short space to convey the cultural significance now being attached to this radical intellectual by recent scholarship in the field, not least in Gilmartin's own important study, Print Politics (Cambridge University Press, 1996).There are many other examples of entries functioning as "tasters" for the respective author's full-length contributions to the new scholarship on the Romantic period, a reflection of the unusually high quality of contributors assembled for these encyclopedia size entries.

I am confident that An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Agewill quickly establish itself as the premier reference source of its kind in the field.Credit is due to Professor McCalman, whose guidance as general editor works both to preserve a coherent "Romantic" character to this cultural history project and to interrogate that label's increasingly complex meaning. Additionally, the strategic use of over 100 illustrations throughout this generally handsome volume makes it a pleasure to simply browse through. My only reservation would be in its price, which at $150/£85 makes it a prohibitive purchase for advanced students and young scholars—just the groups that stand to benefit the most from its overview of recent innovative scholarship in the field. However, I suppose that limiting the market to mainly institutional purchases is a small price to pay for the unprecedented wealth of scholarly expertise on the Romantic period that it makes available.