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James Chandler, England in 1819: The Politics of Literary Culture and the Case of Romantic Historicism

Monday, November 15, 1999 - 07:17
James Chandler, England in 1819: The Politics of Literary Culture and the Case of Romantic Historicism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. xxii + 584. $35.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-226-10108-8).  $21.00 (Pap; ISBN: 0-225-10109-6).

Reviewed by
Stephen C. Behrendt
University of Nebraska

This is a book that many of us would like to have written, for reasons both personal and professional. In particular, those of us who took degrees in the 1960s and early 1970s will recognize much of the volatile cultural milieu that James Chandler describes as having exerted a strong formative influence on him and on his teaching in those years. Those were heady times in many respects, if only because there was, especially on academic campuses, a heightened awareness of the unmistakable historical import of the political and intellectual demonstrations that were taking place on the streets and in the classrooms. To everyone present in those environments, from the most committed activists to those who were nearly impervious to the force of political issues and who wanted nothing more than to attend their classes and transcribe their lecture notes, the performative aspect of all that cultural ferment was inescapable. Everyone knew that these were "historical" times, and that both the nature of history and the ways of recording it were changing before their (and our) eyes. That Chandler appreciated this complex cultural dynamic and incorporated it into his teaching of the British Romantics, then and later, says much about his view of the nature of the teaching/learning dynamic and the place of the teacher/scholar in it.

Many of us "were there," after all, and many of us still think out loud with our students about the relationship between cultural phenomena of our times and those phenomena (including literary ones) of the times we study and teach. I emphasize this at the outset because Chandler does so as well in his book. His important study emerges directly out of the mediated relationship among a committed teacher/scholar, his students, and the complex intellectual problem of looking at a historically distant and culturally different time and place through what are unavoidably end-of-century modern American eyes. Especially for those of us whose approach to literary and cultural studies is strongly influenced by our own sense of the nature, function, and place of "history" in both our personal selves and in the courses we teach and the books we write, England in 1819 stands as a reminder of how much is always at stake in the study of literature, and how slippery and uncertain is the ground that we tread in doing our work. For not only is the past often incorrectly remembered (or reconstructed), it is frequently misreported not merely as one account of the past but as "History"—a systematic construct in which, despite the explicit cautions Aristotle extended in the Poetics, the roles of historian and poet are often blurred and "history" is filtered through the elements of time, place, circumstance, character, and narrative incident that form the working mechanism not of "history" in the sense in which Aristotle understood it, but rather of "poetry." Part of our task then, as readers, students, and teachers, is to disentangle these mixed elements and see them for what they are.

The task is particularly imperative when it comes to history in the modern (i.e., post-Enlightenment) world, for in this period has arisen the modern professional historian who has, in recent years, been joined by his visual-culture counterparts, the photo-journalist and the cinema-journalist. The writing and the reading of history has always been a matter of who is telling the story and who is the audience. From "serious" histories of the American Civil War, for instance, to made-for-television historical reenactments of significant battles and on to full-blown movies on Civil War subjects, history is retold in a variety of materials, but in modern culture the telling of the tale—including dramatic and technological elements entirely outside the historical "facts" (simply recall Gone with the Wind)—exerts perhaps a stronger shaping influence upon what we "know" about the facts than the facts themselves. Why else would news-media accounts of events, for example, have come to be called "stories"? And why else would network television directors think it necessary to preface coverage of natural and social disasters alike with descriptive titles and even theme music?

But surely the actual, historical participants in human events have always understood at some level that they were "actors"—performers—as well as merely individuals embroiled in events that held the potential to shape lives, nations, and entire cultures. How else can we account for the familiar displays of bravado by soldiers marching off to war—or for that matter the inverse phenomenon of resistance that helped define the Viet-Nam era? We like to imagine, in the theory-saturated intellectual culture that preoccupies academe at the end of the twentieth century, that we are among the first to appreciate how complex—and how unavoidably involved—is our relation to history and to the historicizing impulse in our culture. Yet, as England in 1819 compellingly reminds us, we are very far from the first to consider such matters or to direct our actions accordingly. The later Regency period in England, which provides the particular focus for Chandler's study, presents us with one historical moment in which we can begin to appreciate the extent to which not just the cultural and intellectual luminaries of Britain but indeed the populace as a whole felt themselves to be living at a time that was particularly "historical" in a way that had perhaps not been felt—and certainly had not been so widely experienced—at any previous time.

I have begun with these observations in part because the first half of the book devotes so much attention to this very matter of the nature of history and how it is both enacted and recorded. Chandler details the vexed nature of the subject of history by taking us at length through the contrasting models of history and historical methodology proposed by Levi-Strauss and Sartre, and then examining subsequent theories advanced in particular by Paul Veyne and Fredric Jameson. Chandler takes this elaborate route essentially to convince us that the present dilemma in how we think about "history" largely resolves into two alternative models: "history as archeology," which model is a descendant of structuralism, and "New Historicism," which moves away from the broad-field array of related phenomena characterized by structuralist theory and toward a largely non-integrative model of disparate and not-necessarily-linked phenomena. It is important—indeed vital—to determine, Chandler argues, not just which of these models (and its descendants) governs our individual approaches to thinking about—and living and recording—history, but also how these modern theoretical models may be seen to relate to what we can determine about the practical perceptions and intentions of those writers and thinkers we associate with British Romanticism generally and with the year 1819 in particular.

This is perhaps the place to observe that England in 1819 shares with much of the scholarly discourse at this century's end the tendency to wear its erudition rather visibly, even ostentatiously. Perhaps it is the fact that the sheer volume of published criticism and theory is so daunting that accounts for more and more of us to feel we need to filter our insights through the vocabulary and idiom of others: it is no longer unusual to find ourselves making a point by saying that our own thought is related to "what Critic A has written about Critic B's observation that Author C may have been thinking of Author D's comment when (s)he wrote that . . . ." That is, with so much secondary and tertiary discourse "out there," we may be finding ourselves compelled (like the students we instruct) to demonstrate that we have done our homework, that we have not "missed" anything. The endemic risk in all such filtering and layering, of course, is, on one hand, that our own insights (not to mention our own voices) get lost in the mix, and, on the other hand, that we may make ourselves appear surprisingly unoriginal. One obvious consequence for our readers, of course, is that we make their task unnecessarily difficult. Chandler is certainly not unique in engaging in this sort of now fashionable layering of discourse, particularly in the book's first half, but neither is his fine work immune to its consequences for his readers.

One clear strength of England in 1819 is the manner in which Chandler details what he—in common with William Hazlitt and other Romantic writers—terms "the spirit of the age." Chandler makes one of the best arguments to date for recognizing in the lives and works of English writers active in 1819 the common consciousness of their being active participants not just in quotidian experience but also in that larger, more formalized, and more performative pageant which they understood as "history." Thus there is to be observed in Percy Shelley's famous yet generally under-valued sonnet which lends its title to Chandler's book—and which Chandler obligingly makes the subject of an extended analysis in his book's introductory section—a real sense of how the poetic text not only situates itself as a part of history but also commemorates its larger identity as history. This self-reflexive and historically-conscious nature characterizes other important works from the period which receive detailed examination in the book's second half, in part to isolate these same textual and cultural phenomena and in part to demonstrate what a pervasive element of the intellectual climate this new "historical" sense had become by 1819.

Not entirely surprising is the fact that Shelley and Walter Scott receive the most attention. Shelley's fascination with the nature of language within history—and indeed with language's ability to reformulate if not entirely to transcend history and historical circumstances—is already well documented in Romantic criticism, and it was no surprise that already some two decades ago poststructuralist theory found in Shelley's works such a favorable field on which to pitch a variety of battles about what language (including Shelley's language) was and was not capable of accomplishing. Scott is a more interesting case, though, for his historical novels often raise the question of whether individual "cases" (Chandler focuses particularly on Redgauntlet as example) may be understood to stand for and therefore to describe general patterns in society and culture. For as Chandler points out, if the historical novel (with which Scott has traditionally been closely associated) is a symptomatic development of the period of 1815–25, "the extreme pressure on the form of the case is likewise symptomatic of this new genre as the narrative [Redgauntlet] in which Scott most evidently reflected on his own practice as a pioneering historical novelist" (221). But Chandler goes on to show how in Redgauntlet, as he puts it, Scott links "the idiom of 'the case' with the idiom of 'the cause'" (222), the particular and topical with the universal and "historical."

This is merely one example, intended here to suggest—if not to stand for—the intellectual assumptions and critical/theoretical methodology that inform England in 1819. Having set out in the first part of the book, subtitled "The 'Historical Situation' of Romanticism," to relate end-of-the-twentieth-century poststructuralist historicism to what the later Romantics (and emerging Victorians) regarded as "the spirit of the age," Chandler turns in the second major section, "Reading England in 1819," to the cases of Scott (already mentioned), Byron, Keats, Irving (lending an international, transatlantic dimension), and Percy Shelley. This second part aims to show us how the historical conditions of later Romanticism (and of 1819 in particular) relate to the ways in which these several male writers represent history—and therefore an awareness of "historicity"—at the level of written text. Chandler explores the related subjects of the contemporary "moral mechanics" (Chandler's term) of Don Juan, the temporal and topical historical agency that drives Scott's historical novels, the external (or "exoteric," to borrow Percy Shelley's term) context for Keats's odes of 1819, the specifically temporal political influence of English writers on Americans as revealed in the case of Washington Irving, and (in two chapters) the work of Percy Shelley, the writer who provides, not surprisingly, the most interesting and fertile ground for Chandler's analysis.

This second section builds upon the notion of the "case"
(which paradigm echoes the sort of "case studies" that have long provided the foundation for systematic social scientific inquiry) as a sort of documentary indicator of abstract principles. In adopting this model—and especially in making it appear to be a particular creation of the later Romantic historical consciousness—Chandler in some respects dismisses the critical view that early novels may themselves be understood as fictionalized "cases" grounded in familiar contemporary life and experience in which authors present moral, political, and social or economic arguments, arguments which readers, in turn, both recognize and interpret as part of their own activities of reading and cognition. While Chandler is certainly correct in arguing that the acute sense of the historicity of literary activity is characteristic of later Romantics like Percy Shelley or Scott, that sensibility is on balance perhaps not so entirely unique to, or original with, those authors and their times as this study clearly wishes us to believe.

Indeed, if there is any significant fault to be found with England in 1819—and one instinctively wishes not to find fault with so sweeping and ambitious a project, and indeed almost fears doing so—it lies in the relative selectivity (almost exclusivity) that has governed the choice of examples. While Percy Shelley, Scott, Byron, Irving, and Moore (who is at once "featured" in a mid-book interlude and condescendingly cast there as a "mediocre hero,"
introduced it seems to illustrate through his apparent deficiencies the comparative excellences of others), it is tempting to wonder how Chandler's thesis might fare with other writers whose work in and around 1819 may not "fit" quite so neatly the paradigm around which his argument (and his book) is structured. One wonders, in particular, about the telling absence from the picture of women writers. There is Felicia Hemans, for instance, whose Tales and Historical Scenes, in Verse appeared in 1819 and whose treatment of the relationship of past and present in the "cases" of protagonists who are at once historically remote and circumstantially topical reveals a complex and sophisticated awareness of how writing (and therefore texts) may constitute history. There are, too, widely-known and influential (if traditionally disparaged) women novelists like Barbara Hofland, whose numerous studies of the consequences for families of the unexpected deaths of the husbands/fathers provide other "cases" in which history is "constructed" (I use the qualifying quotation marks deliberately) in ways that are related to—albeit not identical with—the procedures of the canonical male writers who are featured prominently in England in 1819.

Again and again in England in 1819, Chandler properly and correctly reminds us that much of the misreading of Romantic literature, culture, and history that has occurred over the past century and three quarters can be attributed to the individual and collective failure of scholars, critics, and teachers to "read with the grain of Romantic texts" (p. 138; my emphases). As the book amply demonstrates, going back and doing just that—reading with the grain rather than against it—produces quite different results. We have all grown accustomed in the later twentieth century to the phenomenon (in English departments and others) of scholar/teachers who have done their work in accelerated graduate programs that have demanded ever more of the graduate students who already do—or soon will—populate the ranks of teachers, critics, and publishing scholars. In an environment in which it routinely expected that aspiring professionals digest primary texts in literature and theory as well as secondary works that address them—while also teaching, taking courses, dissertating, and publishing—it is scarcely surprising that much of the profession (from top to bottom and side to side) has engaged in intellectual as well as methodological "quick fixes." England in 1819 implicitly takes many of us to task for having opted—whether out of sheer convenience or for the best of intellectual motives—for bringing to our reading and teaching of British Romanticism quick fixes that betray a less-than-accurate historical consciousness. That omission, he argues, has seriously compromised not only our reading of major (and minor) Romantic texts, but also our understanding of their authors as artists, as thinkers, as theorists, and as historians. Chandler's book will take us a long way toward setting that record straight, for it provides a useful alternative paradigm and working methodology. And if this means that we shall all have to work harder for the foreseeable future, that seems a reasonable—and even a generous—motive for laboring to see, to en-vision, with more clear-sighted historical eyes the figures (and their cultural circumstances) that have been for so many years the focus of our efforts and of our discourse.