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Michael Wiley, Romantic Migrations: Local, National, and Transnational Dispositions

Monday, August 2, 2010 - 07:27
Michael Wiley, Romantic Migrations: Local, National, and Transnational Dispositions (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008). Xvi + 209 pp. (Hdbk; ISBN: 978-0-230-60468-1).

Reviewed by
Evan Gottlieb
Oregon State University

Romantic Migrations represents a welcome addition to what I suspect may be a nascent trend in literary studies of the long eighteenth century: the development of (for lack of a better term) post-postcolonial critical approaches. Few would deny that postcolonialism has yielded tangible results, even modern critical classics: Saree Makdisi’s Romantic Imperialism, Suvir Kaul’s Poems of Nation, Anthems of Empire, and Srinivas Aravamudan’s Tropicopolitans, for example, seem likely to remain important touchstones for many years. But with the work of Said, Spivak, and Bhabha (to name three of postcolonialism’s most visible practitioners in the 1980s and 1990s) having been thoroughly digested by literary studies for quite some time now, it seems only natural that scholars might begin to wonder what might lie on the far side of a postcolonial approach to Romanticism.

Hence the timeliness of Wiley’s new book. Without forgetting the important lessons of postcolonialism, Wiley manages to think anew about Romantic-era Britons’ complicated and various methods for representing and negotiating in print their ever-increasing contacts with other nations and cultures. Only in the book’s final chapter, on Afro-British literary relations, does Wiley in fact turn to a situation that might even be called truly colonial—and even then (as I will describe below) he does so in a way that mostly avoids conforming to preconceived critical ideas. In his opening Preface, Wiley immediately reminds us that Romantic-era Britain was hardly a monolithic, sealed entity; tracing the evolution of the noun “migration,” Wiley notes that “The new languages and meanings of migration arose as British emigration accelerated: from about 40,000 in the 1770s to about 80,000 in the first decade of the nineteenth century, to about 200,000 in the 1820s. Immigration accelerated as well” (ix). He goes on in his brief Introduction to highlight a facet of the Romantic zeitgeist that, Wiley convincingly demonstrates, has not yet received enough critical attention: the “migratory disposition” of a great many Romantics (2). Indeed, the kind of migrations that Wiley is most interested in are imagined or theoretical as often as they are real; his point is not simply that Romantic-era Britons were on the move to an extraordinary degree, but also that the idea of movement—especially between nations, and in ways that potentially complicated stable national identities—was of significant interest to a great many Romantics.

Chapter One, “The French Immersion: Cross Currents of Selfhood,” pays particular attention to the ways that French emigration during and after the Revolution was represented in British texts of the period. Wiley’s focus here, not surprisingly, is on the writings of Charlotte Smith, Frances Burney, and William Wordsworth, and his close readings of works by all three effectively tease out the variety of ways they each “examined variations on a potential alternative to nationhood: an international, multilingual, meritocratic community” (9). This is not to say, however, that Wiley finds all three to be equally in favor of such a possibility; whereas Smith’s poem The Emigrants (1793) uses geography to “provid[e] directions toward a non-militaristic, reformist social order” (14) and promotes multilingualism as a vehicle for cross-cultural understanding, Burney’s emigration novel The Wanderer (1814) treats “language—spoken, written, unspoken, or unwritten; French or English—[as] uncertain and dangerous” (35). If the novel ultimately warns British readers that any nationalist perspective is inherently limited, Burney seems hard-pressed to articulate a clear alternative, offering “little direction towards [the] transcendental social space” (40) she promotes but cannot concretize. The final section of the chapter limns Wordsworth’s changing views on Anglo-French migration by closely reading a representative pair of the many sonnets he composed over a period of several decades. In “The Banished Negroes” (re-titled “September 1st, 1802” in Poems, in Two Volumes [1807]), Wordsworth, freshly returned from France after visiting Annette Vallon and their young daughter Caroline during the Peace of Amiens, demonstrates great sympathy with the “Negro Woman” who supposedly shared his ferry ride back across the Channel to England. The fact that Wordsworth—either knowingly or accidentally—magnifies the 1802 Napoleonic ordinance that expelled a small group of blacks into a law banishing all blacks from France does not, I think, diminish the moral force of his engagement with what Wiley terms “a historical situation in which French, English, and African subjects were assuming new dispositions, a situation, in other words, in which subjectivities were migrating and national space was inherently unstable” (49). Such engagement is all the more striking, moreover, when compared with Wordsworth’s later treatment of a similar theme in his 1822 sonnet “The Exiled French Clergy.” Here, although Wordsworth’s praise of British hospitality to French exiles remains unchanged, Wiley shrewdly points out that the terms of Wordsworth’s representations of Anglo-French migration have radically altered, such that his previous recognition of the porosity of national borders and identities has been replaced by “a dream of British and French nationhood, a dream in which physical geography is constant, unchanging, stable” (53). In other words, the older, more conservative Wordsworth profoundly rejects the “fluid, unstable, increasingly international world” (53) that the earlier Wordsworth embraced, albeit with some (understandable) trepidation.

In Chapters Two and Three, Wiley turns his attention to the two major continents that most interested—some might even say, obsessed—the Romantics: America and Africa. Especially after the failure of the French Revolution to fulfill its most radical promises, the New World held a fresh appeal for the more idealistic and progressive Romantics: America offered seemingly boundless opportunities for them to imagine new social possibilities, and indeed new lives. Here, Wiley spends much of his time parsing the correspondence and poetic reveries of the would-be Pantisocrats, especially Coleridge and Southey. This move, while perhaps predictable, nevertheless pays fine dividends; thus we learn, for example, that Southey hoped the move to the banks of the Susquehanna would find them “criticis[ing] poetry when hunting a buffalo,” composing “sonnets while following the plough,” and “discuss[ing] metaphysics . . . while sawing down a tree” (quoted 65). Such aspirations, with their near-ludicrous mix of hard labor and intellectual musings, might seem patently ridiculous, but Wiley wisely favors sympathy over condescension when judging the Pantisocrats with the benefit of hindsight, noting, for example, that “the group’s planners were all male, but their community would have given females more authority than they often had in Britain at this time, including them centrally in the philosophical conversations and the cultural work of the group” (66). Moreover, Wiley proceeds to use the eventual failure of the Pantisocratic scheme to elucidate several of Coleridge’s and Wordsworth’s contributions to Lyrical Ballads (1798). Although (as he freely admits) he is not the first critic to do so, the resulting readings are instructive: “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere,” for instance, becomes newly meaningful as a poem “addressing the spiritual and political psychology of migration” (81), while “The Female Vagrant” takes on new meaning when the ramifications of the loss of the titular character’s family estate can be seen as Wordsworth’s counter-argument to the Pantisocrats’ belief in communitarianism.

Wiley’s final full-length chapter, “Consuming Africa: Embodying Antithesis,” focuses on the rhetoric of consumption and the use of oral imagery in the writings of both British explorers in Africa (particularly Mungo Park) and displaced Africans in Britain. British depictions of Africa at this time vary wildly, from the “liberal and sentimental” to the “illiberal and sensational,” but as Wiley observes, one near-constant is the sense that “extended and intensive encounters with other peoples, lands, and cultures could dislocate and relocate the self” (113). Also widely present is the uneasy conjunction of the desire to consume and the fear of being (often quite literally) consumed; if Africa often seemed to offer itself and its resources for the taking, it also frequently threatened to ingest and absorb British explorers through its diseases, dangerous landscapes, and especially the purported cannibalism of many of its inhabitants. As Wiley points out, however, such fears were also shared to some extent by the Afro-Britons whose accounts of African life, and especially the horrors of slavery, came to shape the period’s emancipation movement so crucially. For writers like Ignatius Sancho, Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, and Olaudah Equiano, incorporation into the British body politic came with both risks (of being merely consumed as literary curiosities, for example) and opportunities (for drawing attention to enslaved Africans’ plights). At the same time, Wiley is careful to distinguish these writers from each other, making clear that they did not always employ the same tactics nor seek to achieve identical ends; where Sancho seemingly sought the benefits of assimilation to Anglo-British cultural and literary norms, Equiano is more explicitly subversive in his co-optation of tropes of ingestion to bolster his moral authority. If Wiley seems to overstate his case a little when he remarks that, through such writings, “European and African cultures consumed each other and became each other” (130-131; my emphasis), he nevertheless certainly succeeds in demonstrating the extent to which Romantic-era negotiations of Afro-British relations both looked forward to (and offered at least theoretical alternatives to) the more strictly imperial relations that were to take hold in the Victorian period.

Indeed—and to return to the suspicion with which I began—this last point seems to me the most valuable general lesson of Wiley’s book: Romantic-era writings that deal with cross-cultural contact and inter-national relations can (and should) be analyzed in ways that go beyond (while not forgetting) the terms and tropes of standard postcolonial analyses. Recovering at least some of the many ways that British Romantics imagined their relations with and to France, America, and Africa, Wiley has produced a scholarly study that opens the way for more “post-postcolonial” approaches. Such approaches, I believe, should be welcomed by all who value the continued exploration and elucidation of the literature and culture of the long eighteenth century.