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Michael Gamer, Romanticism and the Gothic: Genre, Reception, and Canon Formation

Monday, September 30, 2002 - 07:58
Michael Gamer, Romanticism and the Gothic: Genre, Reception, and Canon Formation. Cambridge Studies in Romanticism, no. 40. Cambridge University Press, 2000. xii + 255pp. £37.50/$48.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-521-77328-8).

Reviewed by
Anne Williams
University of Georgia

Ever since professional criticism of the Gothic emerged in the early decades of the twentieth century, this literature's relationship to high Romanticism has been a vexed question. Although early critics such as Eino Railo (The Haunted Castle, 1927) took it for granted that since Gothic motifs and archetypes appeared in "Romantic" poets such as Coleridge and Keats, the two modes were fundamentally akin. It was the newly professional critics of the equally emergent "Romanticism," however, who established, usually by simply ignoring their favored poets' use of Gothic conventions, that Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner" had nothing in common with Lewis's Wandering Jew, for instance, or that Keats's Gothic edifice in "The Eve of St. Agnes" was no Udolpho (though Keats himself had commented on the "fine Mother Radcliff [sic]" names he had chosen for his characters). And as feminist critics have more recently demonstrated, another latent motive for marginalizing Gothic works lay in their associations with women both as writers and as readers.

Michael Gamer's fine study directly confronts this critical amnesia or repression. In exploring the historical roots of the literary phenomenon we now call "Gothic," he exposes not only the ways in which this concept emerged around the turn of the nineteenth century in Britain, but he also argues provocatively that "the reception of gothic writing . . . played a fundamental role in shaping many of the ideological assumptions about high culture that we have come to associate with 'romanticism'" (2), and that the "Gothic's reception tells us much about how readers . . . organized and attempted to make sense of gothic as a 'new' kind of writing" (3).

Romanticism and the Gothic begins by looking at certain critical readings of Wordsworth's "Peele Castle" in order to demonstrate this process by which the "the Romantic ideology" emerges out of critics' efforts to "strip from a text its concerns with the political and aesthetic movements of its time" as a means to "glorify its ability to transcend the pettiness of its own historicity, not to mention erasing any embarrassing fondness it might have for the passing artistic fancies of its day" (20). Gamer points out that by emphasizing the "sublime" aspects of the castle and the scene, audiences, beginning with Wordsworth himself, enable the subject to appear "entirely masculine, absolutely elevated, completely transcendent, and . . . utterly universal" (20). In other words, "Romantic" rather than "Gothic."

The first chapter, "Gothic, reception, and production," examines the economic and cultural processes at work during the emergence of the Gothic and Romantic modes. Reader reception, Gamer argues, has been another crucial element to consider. As he points out in chapter two, "'gothic' does not seem to have become a critical term denoting genre until two decades into the nineteenth century" (49); this long process of definition had begun with Walpole's The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story in 1764, and by the 1790's "Gothic" was clearly the most popular form of contemporary writing: this chapter tracks this "explosion." Gamer convincingly argues that objections from readers, authors, editors, and reviewers reveal, as he shows, some "common assumptions about purity--whether sexual, generic, national or editorial--and about reading both as process and social threat" (50).

The book's remaining chapters discuss three examples of Romanticism's complex interaction with the Gothic as Gamer tackles the debates swirling around and within Lyrical Ballads, Joanna Baillie's dramas, and Sir Walter Scott's fiction. Gamer reveals how a rereading of these works in the context of this partly unconscious cultural struggle deepens our understanding of then emerging and now familiar works. His way of reading Lyrical Ballads, and especially Wordsworth's "Preface" of 1800, provides, to my mind, the best part of this book. Within the context Gamer recreates, we see Wordsworth's essay as a complex defensive strategy with several not always consistent aims. For instance, Wordsworth wishes to distance himself from "The Ancient Mariner" and attempts to control reader response to his own works, such as "The Thorn," so that they "become a kind of antidote to gothic reading" (121). Joanna Baillie is equally haunted by "stupid and sickly German tragedies." She strives to distinguish the supernaturalism of her plays (in the high and purely British Shakespearean tradition) from the illegitimate corruptions of "German" influence. And Scott, Gamer argues, used his assessments of Gothic fictions to help create himself as a public author, to construct "a gendered hierarchy of gothic fiction and drama that privileges the 'masculine' gothic of Walpole and Lewis over the 'feminine' of Radcliffe and Reeve by allying the former with the masculine realms of imaginative autonomy and antiquarian history" (165).

Gamer's book thus makes a real contribution to our thinking about questions that have seldom been asked before by critics and scholars equally sympathetic to the Gothic and the high Romantic. And while his chief aim is to present the historical context within which the two emerged, he also shrewdly exploits the insights of other critical approaches, such as feminism, when he needs them. This strategy enables him to read the protean Gothic most insightfully. In their strange but intimate relation Gothic and Romantic appear like a figure/ground conundrum, as in that familiar drawing which can be seen as either a rabbit or a duck depending upon which pattern one chooses to focus. And it is enlightening to recognize that the "Gothic" and the "Romantic" emerged though a kind of dialectical engagement with that "other." Moreover, one finds much in the incidental insights that emerge from Gamer's many deft juxtapositions of text and context. For instance, understanding how "German" drama and the Gothic were coded as dangerously foreign and potentially subversive of British social order clarifies the outrage with which Austen's Sir Thomas Bertram regards a performance of Kotzebue's Lover's Vows at Mansfield Park. And one is surprised to hear Rezenvelt, a character in Baillie's De Montfort (1798), proclaim:

Ha! Does the night bird greet me on my way?
How much his hooting is in harmony
With such a scene as this! I like it well.
Oft when a boy, at the still twilight hour,
I've leant my back against some knotted oak,
And loudly mimick'd him, till to my call
He answer would return, and thro' the gloom
We friendly converse held.

How odd to meet the Boy of Winander in a Gothic drama! Perhaps this coincidence might speak to an unsuspected link between Baillie and Wordsworth (he was drafting bits of The Prelude around the time the play appeared and his first version of this incident was also written in the first person). Perhaps it simply means that a common boyish activity struck more than one writer as an apt metaphor for a kind of extra-linguistic communication with otherness. But it also aptly illustrates Gamer's argument that the distinction between "Gothic" and "Romantic" was initially more a matter of perception than of substance.