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The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, Volume 5: Romanticism. Editor, Marshall Brown

Monday, January 7, 2002 - 05:58
The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, Volume 5: Romanticism. Editor, Marshall Brown. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. xii + 493pp>. £65.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-521-30010-X).

Reviewed by
Andrew Elfenbein
University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

In an era of flashy titles accompanying thin books, The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, Volume 5: Romanticism is seductively unseductive. Its stern cover radiates resistance to market pressures. Yet what the book lacks in flashiness it makes up for in uncompromisingly high scholarly standards and a commitment to the value of comparative intellectual history. Marshall Brown and Cambridge University Press are to be congratulated for investing in long-term interest rather than short-term trendiness. As Brown explains in the introduction, the volume was originally conceived as a joint project with Ernst Behler. Behler's death left Brown to carry out this history, and he has done an exceptional job in developing a volume of uniform excellence.

Each chapter, rather than being merely a close reading of a work or a meditation on a small debate, presents comprehensive views of developments in England and Germany, the two areas that receive the most emphasis in the volume. All chapters are unusually rich in bibliographical depth; a history of twentieth-century literary criticism unobtrusively partners the more overt history of early nineteenth-century literary criticism. It is hard to single out "bests" when quality is so high, but David Simpson's chapter on "Transcendental philosophy and Romantic criticism," evidently a late contribution to the volume, is dazzling. It seems impossible that anyone could explain Kant and the responses to him by Schiller, Schelling, and Hegel so clearly and with so fine a sense of nuance, yet Simpson pulls it off. I suspect that many romanticists will welcome such a friendly guide to the era's most daunting texts. Other illuminating chapters include Kurt Mueller-Vollmer's on language theory, Tilottama Rajan's on genre theory, Brown's on the theory of the novel, Jon Klancher's on the "crisis in the republic of letters," and Theresa M. Kelley's on women, gender, and literary criticism. But the book has no obviously weak chapters: all of them make valuable contributions.

As is appropriate, England and Germany dominate the volume, especially because most of the contributors understand "literary criticism" to be something closer to "literary theory." The practical criticism of reviews, editors, and casual correspondence, while not ignored, gets less space than the more formal aesthetic pronouncements of writers such as Immanuel Kant, William Wordsworth, and Friedrich Schiller. This preference shunts aside less traditionally established writers: except for de Staël, women writers are relegated mostly to Kelley's chapter, and the implicit aesthetics of literature by and for the working class has no place in the volume. However, more traditionally canonical writers receive splendid treatments, with Friedrich Schlegel emerging as the volume's unannounced hero; he appears so often that he needs a full page in the index. Without ever making the claim explicit, the volume presents a strong case for Schlegel as the energy center for innovative thought during the period. He surfaces under every significant topic, from the French Revolution to the transformation of rhetoric, from the impact of Shakespeare to the use of scientific models. For those whose background in romanticism has not included Schlegel, this collection would be an excellent introduction to him.

The fact that students of British literature may not know much about Schlegel points not only to the insularity of romantic studies as they have developed in recent decades, which this volume aims to counteract, but also to the frustrations of the literary relations between Germany and England during this period. Although extraordinary work was produced in both countries, the cross-fertilization between the two was never quite what it should have been. German romanticism presents the fascinating spectacle of writers steeped in eighteenth-century English literature taking its dominant ideas and motifs in directions they never could have gone in England. If only more English writers could have known about this work, rather than those "sickly and stupid German Tragedies" that Wordsworth hated. And if only early nineteenth-century German writers might have known not only the inevitable Byron and Scott but also Blake, Keats, or Austen. Their ideas and interests engage in a dialogue that only rarely rises to the level of influence or even confluence.

My only hesitation about this volume is that most of the contributors are more comfortable than I am with the genre of intellectual history. Philosophical prose deserves to be read as carefully as literature, and this would seem to be especially applicable for an era that was invested in elevating poetry to philosophy and criticism to creativity. Yet most of these essays prefer to map ideas than to scrutinize the texts of those ideas: although many writers note the self-conscious literariness of German romantic theory, this recognition might have played a larger role in their actual analyses. The exception is Tilottama Rajan on genre theory: it is telling that she quotes more from the authors that she discusses than virtually any other essayist in the volume. She notices not only the theories of the authors but also what she calls "the overdetermination of theory by practice" (239). Her essay argues that "the philosophical study of genre . . . eventually jeopardizes the philosophical project of unity and identity attributed to aesthetics by Szondi" (236), which results in "a system disseminated into everything it contains" (237).

Rajan's argument that Romantic efforts at systematization are always "overdetermined by the ramifications of their details" (237) contains an implicit recommendation for this volume's readers. Rarely does anyone read such collections cover to cover: readers usually go to the table to contents to find the topics that they care most about. Yet those who privilege the index over the table of contents might gain most from this book, because the system represented by the table of contents is a mirage. Beneath the apparent division into discrete topics are recurrent concerns with the thought of particular authors.

Often while reading the volume, I wanted to insert parenthetical cross-references to other essays in the volume. For example, when E. S. Shaffer mentions that "Kant's ideas were mediated during the 1790s for the wider literary community by Friedrich Schiller's important essays on the function of art" (141), I wanted to point readers back to David Simpson's discussion of just how complex this mediation was (81). When Jon Klancher notes that the "'old-hat Berlin Enlightenment' appeared masculinist" next to the "mixed-gender enclave" (310) at Jena, I wanted to make sure that readers saw Theresa Kelley's discussion of what this Jena enclave looked like for the women involved (237–38). Someone reading David Simpson's chapter on the French Revolution who learned that Schiller's On Naive and Sentimental Poetry analyzes the turn to nature as a "refusal of complex (and inorganic) human community and a further stimulus to reflective self-absorption" (64-65) would profit from Simpson's later placement of this work as a critical response to Kant's Critique of Judgement (80), Helmut J. Schneider's discussion of it as a contribution to the "querelle des anciens et des modernes" (93), Rajan's defense of its seemingly simplistic terms as an important "metacritical tool that works in several registers" (232), and David Perkins's grouping of it with mostly English works that use the past to analyze the present (339).

In other words, readers should approach this magisterial work in a romantic spirit, breaking down its own systematization so that each individual insight is understood in light of a larger, never quite enunciated totality. Admittedly, such an approach may take more time than following the convenient chapter divisions. But it will ultimately offer the richest insights from a volume that provides such skilled accounts of the period's dense and provocative literary criticism.