Galperin and Wolfson, "The Romantic Century"

"Romanticism" in Crisis

The Romantic Century

William Galperin and Susan Wolfson

This paper emerged from a discussion in the NASSR executive committee last fall. Susan Wolfson and I, fresh from our perusal of the October Job List, and with the memory of the last few years' lists (and with the additional memory for my part of two recent job searches in the field that I supervised on behalf of my department) wondered if the job category of specialization in romanticism under which so many of our now tenured professorate were hired, was a diminishing presence--and, if so, what this meant for a field, however defined, with which we are all identified. Last year, for instance, there were only a half dozen slots so specified, one of them a three-year non-tenure track post-doctoral position, and one filled in a lateral move by an assistant professor, whose "Romantics" slot is being redefined in the junior search currently being conducted by her former institution. We realize that there are a fair number of collateral and general positions for which a graduate student in romanticism might apply. Nevertheless, we are very much concerned about the decreasing or depressed numbers of field-specific positions.

There are several developments that bear on this situation. One has been the redefinition of the romantic era as an historical span in which traditional romanticism figures as an important but no longer exclusive component. It is a telling sign that Anne Mellor and Richard Matlak's recent anthology eschews the R-word in its title, opting for a more representative and inclusive rubric, British Literature 1780-1830. This redefinition has been invigorating for critical work in the field, including treatments of the traditional romantic canon. But it may have produced some unfortunate institutional effects, especially when one considers that positions in "romanticism" already exist (and are already filled) in most departments. We believe, in other words, that by dispensing with the name "romanticism" we are unwittingly collaborating with administrators (bent on such models of efficiency as downsizing and outsourcing) by inviting them to regard a hazily specified, merely numerical, half century as something less than inevitable, especially at a moment when the divisions of knowledge in literary and cultural studies have dilated into the long eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, not to mention the early modern period.

We all know that literature departments are not growing, even as the study of literature is acquiring new decades and new approaches. And with the accumulation of decades, not to mention new methodologies, hiring someone who specializes in a half century or less may seem like a luxury. And, indeed, from both the job lists and much anecdotal evidence, it appears that romanticism, which falls on both sides of 1800 is being effectively annexed--not as field but as a job category--either to the long eighteenth century or to the long nineteenth century.

Working with anecdotal evidence supplied by colleagues in response to a notice placed on the NASSR bulletin board (which, we understand, is something less than a scientific survey) we found--to, I'm sure, no one's surprise here--that most Romanticists are not finding positions in that specialization, but, if they are at all lucky, in more inclusive rubrics. Of the fourteen positions advertised in the 1996 Job List that were ultimately filled, only six were specifically for Romanticists; four specified eighteenth century and romanticism; and four others the nineteenth century and romanticism. When we initially aired our concern on the bulletin board after receiving this information, we heard from a number of people, ranging from those long tenured to graduate students currently dissertating. From our tenured colleagues we heard (among other things) that we were in a new era in which periodization was undergoing a healthy, if oxymoronically, fatal interrogation. Some, to be sure, offered comfort, reminding us that if their departments were not hiring Romanticists as Romanticists, they were at least hiring them in other slots. From other senior quarters we were told that we had done this to ourselves: having successfully exposed romanticism as masculinist, or as a discourse of false consciousness, or as an idealizing transcendence of the political and the social, or as a movement trapped in its own mystifying ideology, we had succeeded in devaluing romanticism as a necessary or even desirable period of study. In the course, then, of what might otherwise be termed the production of knowledge, we had managed, by these lights, to convince administrators (who almost never need much convincing anyway) that a Romantics specialist was no longer necessary to the future of a literature department.

We also received a good deal of private e-mail from graduate students and assistant professors who were naturally reticent to speak back to these various tenured voices. We found, not surprisingly, that these junior colleagues were extremely concerned about their professional and institutional fates as Romanticists and were grateful that somebody was, at long last, giving this particular problem in the academic job market some considered thought. The clear distinction, then, between those who were untroubled by the new developments and those who weren't was also, needless to say, a disparity of class. The respondents to our posting who were least alarmed are tenured: they specialized in romanticism as graduate students, were hired for the most part as field specialists and secured tenure in that capacity. Those who were most alarmed are either not yet tenured or, more often than not, not yet employed.

We are by no means blind to the realities of institutional constraints and--despite our obvious concern regarding job opportunities in the field--cognizant that the positions that many of us have enjoyed as specialists in a forty-year span of British writing and culture are not coming back. But if this is the case, we clearly owe it to our graduate students and junior colleagues to make them as competitive as possible in an institutional climate in which their commitment to romantic-era. writing is no longer necessarily at a premium. We recognize, therefore, and have no quarrel with, the need at this point for Romanticists, both traditional and new-style, but most especially for younger scholars, to be prepared to cover more decades of British culture as teachers, advisors and critics. What concerns us is the definition of this expanded range. We think it impoverishing of the field to have it treated as the end-point of the eighteenth century (in which it is by definition marginal or ancillary) or as the adolescence of the nineteenth century (as Tilottama Rajan put it in the committee meeting to which I alluded initially). Rather, we must resist--or at the very least transform--these unsatisfactory impositions or annexations through an initiative of our own.

Accordingly, we propose a reconstitution of the Period Formerly Known As Romanticism into an intellectually and historically coherent century-long category, 1750-1850, which we unabashedly call "The Romantic Century." Our totalizing nomenclature may appear a bit backward-looking, especially for an era of revolutions. But the words and events of romanticism at this category's center are actually quite consistent with the essential monism that lurks (at least teleologically) in the dialectical constitution of romantic studies currently in vogue, where "and" is invariably the keyword: margin "and" center; past "and" present; self "and" society; along with the host of rubrics that beginning with "romanticism and . . . ." There are, moreover, virtues in moving beyond the traditional period markers, which cover a half century at their widest. The Restoration or High-Anglican hegemony that continues to inform eighteenth-century studies (and to underwrite, in the process, the long eighteenth century) is most evident in the way the "Age of Johnson" becomes an inevitable sub-division in the aftermath of Swift and Pope, obscuring the fundamental break that the year 1750 can be said roughly to demarcate. By mid-century, lest we forget, Young and Thomson were widely read and part of a climate of variousness, ranging from the Wartons (who, as Robert Griffin reminds us, actually anticipate the Romantics in declaring their independence from Pope and others) to the many women writers suddenly publishing--all of them part of a discursive field additionally thickened by developments in print culture and in movements of political unrest. Thus, the 50/50 area of concentration that we propose does more than simply contest the logic of the long eighteenth century and its reliance on the synecdochical and, from our position, arbitrary centrality of Samuel Johnson; it brings writing is the latter half of that century (in the manner of Marshall Brown's recent Preromanticism) into productive relation with those writers, texts and discourses on which it bears and with which it maintains crucial and compelling affinities.

And what about the nineteenth century and the "Victorian" period on which we are also encroaching? Is there equal validity to this more modest extension? The answer--already implied in the formal of our question--is "Yes." The initial decade of Victoria's reign not only witnessed the emergence of a sensibility or frame of mind that derived its legitimacy from a stated opposition to romanticism thereby vitiating any absolute claim of difference; this decade also saw figures such as Hunt, Carlyle, the Brontes, the Brownings, Wordsworth and De Quincey (to cite just a few) actively writing and publishing in each other's company. Moreover, having recently completed a review of last year's work in nineteenth-century studies for SEL, I am more mindful than ever of the fragility of the Victorian claim to difference or of the specifically non-dialectical character of its anti-romanticism. Where studies in romanticism continue to proliferate, frequently with an expanded scope whose institutionalization we are urging today, books in Victorian writing exclusive of narrative, which is the very writing on which "Victorianism" as such is essentially founded--namely, poetry and non-fictional prose--are virtually non-existent these days and, where they do exist, seem bound to the anachronistic commonplaces regarding the anti-romantic turn of the Victorian frame of mind. Where romantic and Regency studies are continually putting both poetry and prose into the context of other proximate discourses, the impoverishment of Victorian studies today seems in many ways a consequence of a break with romantic culture as tendentious in retrospect as Johnson's centrality in the late eighteenth century. As the earlier part of our own century becomes ever more recondite and obscure, it is increasingly clear that the issues that should inform and are already informing nineteenth-century literary and cultural studies are not the self-legitimating acts of periodization undertaken by the early Victorians (and some would argue by the early Romantics), but rather the connections and continuities linking romantic-period writing and ultimately modernism to early and late-century writing respectively.

As a result, we propose the following. First, that future job searches in the field and in related fields be framed to encompass a specialization in British literature and culture, 1750-1850. Second, that graduate students currently anticipating a specialization in romanticism be encouraged to explore problems and issues with the aforementioned range in mind. And finally, and perhaps most important, that we construct our syllabi for both undergraduate and graduate courses across the romantic century.

Return to INDEX