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Alan Richardson and Sonia Hofkosh, eds., Romanticism, Race, and Imperial Culture, 1780–1834

Monday, May 17, 1999 - 10:23
Alan Richardson and Sonia Hofkosh, eds., Romanticism, Race, and Imperial Culture, 1780–1834 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996). vii + 352pp. illus. $39.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-253-33212-5).

Reviewed by
Debbie Lee
University of Washington

On a balmy afternoon in San Francisco this past December, at the annual gathering of the Wordsworth Circle luncheon, Alan Richardson had the daunting "keynote" task of talking about Romantic scholarship for the new millennium. The very idea of projecting Romanticism into the twenty-first century seems uncannily Blakean, but rather than asking us to talk prophetically about where Romantic studies are headed, and why, Richardson instead suggested that the field has already found exciting new directions of study. One of these, he said, was to undertake a closer reading of Romanticism in its international setting. To this end, he encouraged the unearthing of the vast history scholars have access to in early printed books and manuscripts. In resituating Romanticism at this moment in time, Richardson suggested, scholars might inform theoretical hunches with a genuine historiography, one that embraces all the writers of the period. Many of us left the luncheon with the sense that Romantic studies is in the midst of one of its most vibrant scholarly phases.

As it turns out, Alan Richardson, and his co-editor Sonia Hofkosh, have already brought together a group of scholars who have begun to chart this territory in a 1996 book—a collection of essays entitled Romanticism, Race, and Imperial Culture, 1780–1834. Richardson and Hofkosh want to introduce new voices into the field. But, as they point out, they are merely reinstating the voices that were there in the first place. Lady Morgan's The Missionary, Olaudah Equiano's The Interesting Narrative, and Mungo Park's Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa were all more popular during their own time than the poetry of Wordsworth or Shelley, yet these genres and the movements they represent have been largely ignored in twentieth-century criticism. "This collection," Richardson and Hofkosh say, "aims to demonstrate how inextricably such mainstays of English Romantic tradition as the imagination, the sublime, the self-possessed individual, the notion of Englishness itself, are linked to the material and ideological operation of a burgeoning empire" (8).

The book is divided into three sections. In the first, a group of essays dealing with race, gender, and nationalism, Laura Doyle's "The Racial Sublime" is particularly intriguing. Doyle lists Bishop Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry and Richard Hurd's Letters on Chivalry and Romance among the books that influenced Romantic writers like Wordsworth. This may seem like a historical quibble, but, argues Doyle, it was in these very texts that "the sublime was turned irrevocably into a new path, one that led not only into haunted forests, bloody battles, goblins and ghosts, but also into a new Western imagery of racial origins" (22). This ancient English poetry, in the hands of poets like Wordsworth and politicians like Burke, provided language and images for an "imperial Englishness."

The second section of Romanticism, Race, and Imperial Culture is the one most directly concerned with actual interactions between British writers and "others." One of the essays, for instance, discusses North American Indians; two of them address African travel narratives; and three of them review British writings on India and the Orient. Here, Joseph Lew tells us that Byron was an "imperial misogynist." Lew cites examples from Byron's strange childhood as well as from his Orientalist texts. The way Byron verbally abused "real women," combined with the way he "killed off fictional women," (especially young Oriental women like Leila in The Giaour), seems to point to Byron as a poet who longed for a place "not Christian, not English, and not the present, when unwanted women could be disposed of with relative impunity" (183). In an interesting twist, the very next essay in this section, by Saree Makdisi, insists that it is Shelley, not Byron, who was interested in killing the Orient. Makdisi says that while Byron (in Childe Harold) describes the East as a living, vibrant, community, Shelley (in Alastor) engages in ethnic cleansing. That is, Shelley "maps" the Orient as a dead place—vacant and ready for Western occupation.

The final section of Romanticism, Race, and Imperial Culture, subtitled "Resituating Romanticism," begins with Alan Richardson's own essay, a perceptive reading of Helen Maria Williams's Peru and Walter Savage Landor's Gebir. This section also includes a discussion of women's writing on the slave trade by Anne Mellor, and an insightful look at the Nigerian-born Londoner, Olaudah Equiano, author of The Interesting Narrative, by Sonia Hofkosh. Hofkosh sees The Interesting Narrative as a Romantic document insofar as it is concerned with the construction of individual identity—in this case, Equiano achieves individual freedom from mass slavery. But Equiano's numerous references to economics also demand that we look at his book in the context of capitalism. Hofkosh brilliantly lodges the text in what is perhaps the biggest contradiction of the era: "The institution of slavery, by which one man could be said to own another as private property, fostered the emerging economics of capitalism in specific and measurable ways, both in terms of modes of production and patterns of consumption—of sugar or of cotton textiles, for example. But so too did capitalism as it developed into the dominant economic system in Europe depend on the Enlightenment notion of individualism" (226). Capitalism, paradoxically, operates on the same assumptions as the abolition and emancipation movements: self-ownership and individual identity. Given this, Equiano's text remains a thorny contradiction.

Contradiction, in fact, seems to be the overriding theme of each and every one of the essays in Romanticism, Race, and Imperial Culture. Along with resituating Romanticism in its international and historical setting, it seems, the essayists have a pervasive tendency to judge each Romantic writers' complicity with or resistance against "imperialism." As the writers of this collection see it, the Romantics paved the way for Victorian Imperialism. And Victorian Imperialism, because it dominated, enslaved, and in some cases obliterated other cultures, is decidedly a bad thing. Hence, every essayist in Romanticism, Race, and Imperial Culture categorizes his or her particular Romantic writer as either complicit or (more often) contradictory.

For instance, in the first set of essays, Rajani Sudan reassesses Mary Wollstonecraft's feminism, concluding that it was contradictory in nature. Wollstonecraft may have argued for women's rights, but she did so at the expense of developing a sense of national identity that would be oppressive to other peoples in the same way men were oppressive to women in Wollstonecraft's England. Sudan quotes Wollstonecraft as saying, "if children are to be educated to understand the principle of patriotism, then their mother must be a patriot as well" (79). Similarly, Moira Ferguson reveals the contradictions in Hannah Kilham's work. "Although Kilham establishes acceptable colonial paradigms about Anglo-African relationships, she also undermines these very paradigms," Ferguson writes. In another essay, Anne Mellor finds that women writers had contradictory responses to slavery. They introduced new dimensions into the abolitionist rhetoric of male writers such as Thomas Clarkson, William Cowper, and S. T. Coleridge, creating "a rhetoric of sympathy grounded in celebration and preservation of the domestic affections" (325). But, says Mellor, from our current perspective "abolitionist discourse employed by both male and female writers in the Romantic period only translated one form of slavery, legal slavery, into another form, the 'slavery' of assimilation" (326).

In far fewer cases, the essays in Romanticism, Race, and Imperial Culture see British Romantic writers as complicit—as virtual agents of empire. Wordsworth is particularly suspect. Laura Doyle, for instance, concludes that "[c]learly a nationalist nativism is integral to Wordsworth's sublime poetic, which he eventually builds up into the image of the 'Poet of Imagination'" (31). Similarly, Alison Hickey takes Wordsworth to task. "Some sort of imperialism is implicit" in the Wordsworthian imagination, with its emphasis on "the appropriation or progressive 'fitting' of the external world to the core world of the poetry's maturing self. Imagination," Hickey writes, "is the incorporation of otherness, the forging of unity from difference." The essay seeks to show how Wordsworth's imagination is like imperial practice.

Romanticism, Race, and Imperial Culture's questioning of Romantic writers' role in British imperialism is long overdue. Yet this book, it seems to me, is most helpful as a point to begin an even more sustained study of the period in its international context and with an even more developed historiography; that is, one that allows us to see Romantic writers as ordinary people who shaped their own lives, not simply as ideological robots subject to larger forces; one that enables us to view these cultural and colonial relationships in terms other than guilt and blame, complicity and contradiction.

A more developed historiography—the very kind that Richardson advocated in San Francisco in December—might help us rethink Romanticism's complex relationship to its world. In this regard, Ashton Nichols has the most important essay in the book. His essay on Mungo Park's account of "Romantic Africa" is set against the backdrop of participation in empire, but the essay is too historically grounded to hold Park responsible for what he could not have known. Ashton thus leaves open-ended questions. The last few paragraphs include an encyclopedic list of African travel narratives and a scholarly nudge telling us that there is more work to do.

Such work might begin by considering how Romantic writers saw their position to empires—old and new and yet to come. It might prompt us to look at points of cultural contact, communication, and connection, without the overarching theories of postcolonial studies, since the Romantic writer has no way of predicting the shape of imperialism's rough beast. This is what Malcolm Kelsall thinks. In a more recent collection on this topic (in which Alan Richardson has an excellent essay), entitled Romanticism and Colonialism (Cambridge University Press, 1998), Kelsall writes that it is not logical to read Romantic writer's relationship to imperialism "respectively from the instantaneous present" (245). "For modern, liberal, cultural historians," he writes, "discussion of empire . . . has become involved with the guilt of the post-colonial West," and this "places the liberal in a position of apologetic retreat" (245). But what other methodologies do we have?

The writers of the essays in Romanticism, Race, and Imperial Culture enlist Edward Said with regularity. In a recent video telecast of his lecture on "The Myth of 'The Clash of Civilizations,'" Said wonders "whether we should be taking the more integrative, but perhaps more difficult path, which is to see them as making one vast whole, whose exact contours are impossible for any person to grasp, but whose certain existence we can intuit and feel and study." One vast whole. This is a rather "Romantic" idea, but the Romantic period may be just the place to begin such inquiries as we approach the twenty-first century.