Richard E. Brantley - Transatlantic Trio: Empiricism, Evangelicalism, Romanticism, Essays and Reviews, 1974-2017. Reviewed by Andrew O. Winckles
Andrew O. Winckles
For those of us brave enough to walk into the minefield that is the study of evangelicalism and Romanticism, Richard E. Brantley has always loomed large. I can remember when, as a graduate student playing with the idea of writing about Methodism during the Romantic era, my dissertation director recommending I read Brantley’s Wordsworth’s Natural Methodism (1975). In typical graduate student fashion, I put it off, somehow convincing myself that the book would be my exact project and I just could not face knowing that someone else had already done what I wanted to do. Of course, it was not, and when I finally did get around to reading both Wordsworth’s Natural Methodism and then Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism (1984), they both proved foundational to my own understanding of evangelicalism in the Romantic era and helped contextualize my own project. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that every subsequent study of evangelicalism, empiricism, and Romanticism has had to contend, in one way or another, with Dr. Brantley’s work.
The problem with attempting to write about empiricism, evangelical religion, and Romanticism, the reason that it is such a minefield, is that generations of scholarship have been dedicated to the idea (first forwarded by M.H. Abrams in Natural Supernaturalism) that Romanticism was a secularization of the religious impulse which helped birth the modern world. While this thesis has been troubled numerous times (most recently by Colin Jager’s The Book of God and Unquiet Things and Jasper Cragwall’s Lake Methodism), for many years it prevailed and effectively shut down critical and interdisciplinary investigations of the relationship between religion and Romanticism. Thus Dr. Brantley’s early and continual assertion that the interaction of the seemingly contradictory forces of empiricism and evangelicalism, science and faith, helped birth Anglo-American Romanticism, what he continually refers to as William Wordsworth’s “natural methodism,” was for a long time greeted with a healthy dose of skepticism.
The second reason that it has proven so difficult to study empiricism, evangelicalism, and Romanticism together is that each term is slippery and has become a significant site of contestation and debate in multiple disciplines from literature to religious studies to media history to philosophy to the history of religion. While most everyone can agree that empiricism, evangelicalism, and Romanticism were and remain important organizing categories for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century life, few can agree precisely on what each definitively means. While we can locate empiricism within a specific strand of British philosophy, was this strand of thinking as totalizing as we have often come to believe? Is evangelicalism a set of theological beliefs or doctrine, a particular type of religious experience, a new method for transmitting belief? Is Romanticism simply a time period, a zeitgeist, a philosophical and artistic position, or perhaps a combination of all of these things?
Part of the difficulty is methodological. Literary scholars are not necessarily trained or interested in detailed study of philosophy or theology. Theologians and philosophers are not necessarily trained or interested in close readings of literary texts. Even within literary studies, the decision on whether it is best to read a text through the lens of formalism or New Historicism or theory can be a vexed one and engender endless rounds of debate over the “proper” method of literary study. Furthermore, what counts as text? Should we only consider works by “great authors” (however conceived) or do journals, diaries, letters, and other contextual materials count? As Brantley puts it, should we simply focus on the belle lettres or also consider the bonne?
For Brantley, these contradictions are the point, and instead of seeking to define a totalizing system (and here he refers time and again to the dangers of William Blake’s “single vision”), he glories in the contraries, in the both/and ambiguity of the nexus between science, faith, belief, and art; the perceived divide between the belle and bonne lettres; the methodological divide between formalism/historicism/theory. Instead of trying to resolve these contradictions, Brantley employs what he terms a “historical, interdisciplinary criticism” (626) in order to put these diverse discourses into sometimes uncomfortable conversation. He seeks to read John Locke, for example, not only in his own context, but to trace how he “came down to Wordsworth and Emerson not just through Wesley and Edwards, but through the general readers for whom Wesley annotated Locke’s Essay; to whom he distributed it; and to whom he tipped his hat, for telling him a thing or two about life” (622). Indeed, perhaps the methodological and topical diversity and fragmentation of the book can be best encapsulated in Brantley’s championing of (in F.D. Maurice’s terms) “method rather than system” (610). In other words, his goal in this volume is not to develop an all-encompassing and totalizing interpretative system for Anglo-American Romanticism but instead to, like John Wesley himself, suggest a method for imperfectly putting seemingly contradictory systems in conversation—a conversation, he suggests, that may itself be Romanticism.
Specifically, Brantley proposes that we conceive of empiricism, evangelicalism, and Romanticism as “coordinates” on an arc of Anglo-American thought that extends from the seventeenth century through the nineteenth, from Locke to Wesley to Edwards to Blake to Wordsworth to Emily Dickinson and Emerson. Thus, the claim is not one of direct influence, but of the development of a uniquely Anglo-American method of investigating “faith in experience and experiential faith” (18). Towards this end Transatlantic Trio collects twenty-one essays and seventeen reviews published over Brantley’s long academic career and frames them with a new prologue and epilogue. These essays are meant to dialogue explicitly with Brantley’s six published books and provide a comprehensive retrospective on and interpretation of a career investigating the interactions of empiricism and evangelicalism on both sides of the Atlantic. The structure of the volume leads the reader through a series of essays on Locke, Wesley, Edwards, and the development of evangelicalism in the context of empirical philosophy, through essays on Charles Wesley, Samuel Johnson, Wordsworth, John Keats, and Alfred Tennyson to an in-depth series of treatises on Dickinson’s Romantic and evangelical inheritance. The volume then concludes with some miscellaneous pieces reflecting on a life and career in academia and seventeen book reviews that dialogue with the larger themes of Brantley’s work.
It would, of course, be impractical and even undesirable to review each of these essays here. While there are indeed gaps in the scholarly narrative the volume forwards (most notably its exclusion of any female writers other than Dickinson), Brantley is forthcoming about these weaknesses and uses them to both commend current scholarship that is filling these gaps and encourage further conversation on and investigation of these topics. Thus, taken as a whole, the impact of the volume is greater than the sum of its parts. It is a testament to a life and career of inquiry and thinking outside the lines and a persuasive argument for embracing an interdisciplinary historical method that resists critical binaries. Indeed, perhaps Brantley’s greatest contribution is his full-throated rejection of the types of either/or thinking that structure so much debate both within academia and the culture at large and an embrace of both/and contradictions and ambiguity that engender critical conversations and friendly debate—a recognition, with Blake, that “without contraries is no progression.” According to Brantley this, more than anything else, truly is the “method” of Anglo-American Romanticism.