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Thomas Pfau and Robert F. Gleckner, eds., Lessons of Romanticism: A Critical Companion

Monday, March 13, 2000 - 09:03
Thomas Pfau and Robert F. Gleckner, eds., Lessons of Romanticism: A Critical Companion. Durham: Duke University Press, 1998.  xii + 475 pp. illus: 19 halftones, 7 score samples. $69.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-8223-2077-0).   $24.95 (Pap.; ISBN: 0-8223-2091-6).

Reviewed by
Bridget Keegan
Creighton University

Subtitled "A Critical Companion," the Lessons of Romanticism, edited by Thomas Pfau and Robert Gleckner, does not accompany any new anthology of Romantic "primary" works (although a glimpse at the table of contents reveals a more expansive understanding of what constitutes a Romantic text). Rather, the volume serves as a worthy companion to anyone engaged in the advanced study or teaching of the field. This collection of essays powerfully illustrates the variety, vitality, and continued viability of the study of a period that has—somewhat perilously of late—tended to define itself precisely by questioning its very status as a period. Without ignoring that (un)defining question, Lessons of Romanticism ought to put to rest any remaining questions about the future of the field. Such questions seemed particularly acute in 1994, the year during which the papers that became the Lessons of Romanticism were first delivered at the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism conference. That very November, only five positions out of the several hundred advertised in the MLA Job Information List had designated "Romanticism" as an area of specialization, granting a new urgency to the question of not just how but whether Romanticism could still be taught or studied.

A sense of crisis loomed at that meeting in Durham, and it was not merely due to the economic and bureaucratic threats from pending institutional downsizing. The new historicism had left many scholars—particularly younger ones—concerned that if their method or findings did not promise to reveal conspiracy, bad faith, or a repressed but oppressive political agenda in the text, they were no longer of interest. Or worse, if their scholarship pursued anything other than overtly political questions it replicated the bad faith of its object of study, guilty by association of aiding and abetting the repressive agenda of the past. In an even more significant way, Pfau and Gleckner's collection responds to and forcefully quells this anxiety. As the written record of a particular moment in the history of the study of Romanticism, the document that has emerged from the conference testifies to the continued vigorousness and soundness of Romantic studies. As Pfau remarks in the introduction, the essays respond to the "consciousness of crisis" by making an "ethical commitment to unfolding that crisis in the various forums and modes of teaching" (33). Foregrounding what it means to teach and learn about Romanticism and investigating how this question is articulated in a wide variety of the texts in the period, Lessons of Romanticism is necessarily of interest to anyone concerned with European culture between 1770 and 1832.

Pfau's introductory essay brilliantly sets the tone and the agenda for the essays that follow. Continuing to prove himself one of the most informed and rigorous thinkers about the defining questions of the period, Pfau challenges "recent historicism and cultural criticism" that "premise their institutional and methodological authority on an obliquely moral charge against their aesthetic objects . . . to be what they properly ought to have been, past representations should have given the type of account now furnished by historicism itself" (5). What Pfau objects to about the new historicist demonization of "the Romantic aesthetic ideology" is that it is grounded on "the dream of criticism as a form of revelation, a mode of producing knowledge indemnified from all charges of methodological complicity in the construction and articulation of its objects" (4). Moreover, he notes the dangers inherent in "the historicist spirit in which localisms, particularisms, and pluralisms have been proffered as solutions." Such a spirit, Pfau asserts, "perpetuates the (utopian) longing for a unified field-theory for Romanticism by dispersing it in a number of increasingly solipsistic specializations" (24). Taken together, the individual essays work within and against this tension. It is true that several of the individual contributions are devoted to particular, local texts and topics. However, read collectively and in relation to one another, the essays contribute to the volume's project of exploring how Romanticism can be located in "the subtly regulative play of an aesthetic model continually anticipating and predetermining the conditions and terms of its belated critical reception and elaboration" (33).

Other essays, following Pfau's, do test wider theoretical claims. Several attempt to reveal how, in the wake of new historicist indictments, we might reconceive political analyses in and with aesthetic analyses in such a way that the aesthetic is not solely an obfuscation of the political. To that end, David Ferris's essay is exemplary. His superb, complex, and fully convincing argument recuperates the aesthetic as an indispensable category of critical inquiry (via a reading of Hegel and of Keats's "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" and "Ode on a Grecian Urn"). Ferris demonstrates that "history and the politics . . . are not the repressed content of the aesthetic but rather one of its representations. The aesthetic is not one critical approach among others; the aesthetic possesses a generality that is coextensive with the practice of criticism as well as the history in which this practice takes place" (109). In his meticulous reading of Keats, Ferris calls for a re-examination of the presumably "insignificant" category of the aesthetic by demonstrating that it is, in fact, the very precondition of the political and historical critiques of ideology that necessitate its insignificance.

Although not every essay directly engages the theoretical problems of new historicism as directly as Pfau's or Ferris's, taken as a whole, all of the essays work together to illustrate Pfau's initial premise of the dangerous reductiveness of historicist readings. The collection richly represents a variety of critical concerns and methodologies, without necessarily privileging any particular approach. Individual essays run the gamut from exquisite analytical bibliographical and textual criticism in Joseph Viscomi's magnificently argued revision of the historical record of Blake's relationship to Swedenborg to Adela Pinch's provocative application of recent queer theory to explore the intertextual influence of William Shenstone's "The School-Mistress" (1742) on instances of Romantic Spenserianism. This Critical Companion reopens the notion of a canon of Romantic criticism just as several of the recent teaching anthologies have expanded knowledge of the variety of literary production in the period.

While this is incontrovertibly an essential intellectual agenda, as is often the case with collections derived from the proceedings of a large conference with a (purposely and productively) broad topic, Lessons of Romanticism can at times feel like a bit of a grab bag. While most of the essays are rewarding to read in and of themselves, it is not always clear why particular essays are grouped into the three subsections or how the essays in those subsections speak to one another. The editors have done well to ensure coverage of more than British Romanticism—with essays such as Nancy Rosenblum's on Thoreau and Nanora Sweet's on the Italianate Salon and the influence of Germaine de Staël—and of more than just literary texts, as with Maynard Solomon's analysis of Beethoven's musical imagery or C. S. Matheson's discussion of Royal Academy exhibition catalogues and prints. But it is an inescapable dilemma that aspiring to broaden the "coverage" of a topic risks obscuring it. Reading the volume through from cover to cover may leave the reader puzzling about the oversubtle organization of the whole. Pfau's introduction, excellent though it is, offers little explanation for the subdivisions of the book. Several essays, for example, included in the third section, "Gender, Sexuality and the (Un)Romantic Canon," discuss rather canonical Romantic authors, such as Byron and Shelley. One wonders, too, why the categories gender and sexuality are singled out for being potentially "(Un)Romantic."

In the end, however, the lack of exposition of the tripartite structure is a minor quibble. The reader will be amply rewarded for reading all of the essays included and will soon notice how the essays in fact complement one another at levels transcending the linear arrangement of the book form. For example, several essays explicitly address the conference's theme of "Romanticism and Pedagogy." By unpacking the philosophical resonance of the term Bildung, Marc Redfield interrogates the appropriateness of the category of Bildungsroman to designate the period's several significant novels of education. Also focusing on elusive yet essential terms, H. J. Jackson investigates Coleridge's concept of "method" and "transition" and the political significance of how these concepts could be taught. Exploring how we teach Romantic texts today, Karen Weisman shrewdly disputes the promise of demystification that new historicist readings claim to teach us (and we may teach our students) about Romanticism. In an even more provocative challenge to the teaching of politics in and through Romantic texts, Marlon Ross dismantles the eco-literacy that Jonathan Bate locates in Wordsworth's poetry and that Karl Kroeber applies to other canonical poets. Ross invites us to learn a new way to apply environmentalism to the work of literary criticism. His agenda for a "culturally grounded, materialist ecology" argues an alternative to the "ever escalating cycle of consumption" created by historicist reading practices, "whereby we need ever more materials, re/sources, to produce ever more refined achievements of culture" (143).

The essays in the volume are not only devoted to how we can teach literary texts of the period or what they can still teach us. Several contributors argue, some more persuasively than others, that Romanticism teaches us about postmodern genres or other academic disciplines. Theresa Kelley sees John Clare's narrative of his escape from the lunatic asylum in Epping Forest haunting two recent novels: David Malouf's Remembering Babylon (Vintage Books, 1994) and Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker (Indiana University Press, 1998). Regina Hewitt demonstrates that Coleridge's efforts in The Friend anticipate the field of sociology, while Joel Faflak argues that Keats's two Hyperions, "through their staging of identity, mark one of the sites where Romanticism invents rather than merely anticipates, psychoanalysis" (304). Psychoanalytic method recurs in several essays, such as Steven Bruhm's "Reforming Byron's Narcissism" and Richard Swartz's analysis of John Clare's superstitiousness. These interdisciplinary studies complement those treating the productive interstices of literary with non-literary cultural institutions in the period, such as music, painting, and landscape design in the Maynard Solomon, C. S. Matheson, and Jill Heydt-Stevenson contributions respectively.

One of the most vigorous threads running through the collection, however, deals with the literary institution of genre, and numerous pieces investigate the formation or transformation of particular genres of discourse in the years between 1780 and 1832. Along with Redfield's analysis of the necessary fictions of the Bildungsroman, some of the best essays in the collection might be categorized as generic or discursive analyses. Greg Kucich delineates convincingly the influence of Catherine Macaulay on Shelley's historical vision in his works after 1820, offering it as a way of understanding his poetry's increased theatricality. Miranda Burgess, also complicating the borders between genre and gender, finds yet another way to center Jane Austen within Romanticism, supplementing William Galperin's call to add both Austen and Frances Burney to the canon. Burgess argues Austen's relevance through describing her nationalistic transformations of the Gothic, while Galperin focuses on the outsider status of the novel in general within a period privileged for its lyric production. Genre makes its mark along class lines as well, as Richard Swartz demonstrates in reading Clare's Autobiography against other instances of bourgeois poets' writing of the self.

Essays such as Galperin's specifically ask us to continue interrogating how particular genres or particular authors are appropriated and misappropriated in the work of canon formation. Others do so less explicitly. Critical accounts of the contribution of women writers, for instance, make up about a third of the collection, and not all of these are relegated to being a part of the "(Un)Romantic Canon." Questions of gender are central to Sweet's exploration of salon culture in Hemans and Jewsbury and to Heydt-Stevenson's reading of how Austen links social status with proper aesthetic responses to the picturesque. Within the third section of the book, Susan Wolfson's lead essay is a lucidly-argued survey of the gender politics of Romantic poets, both men and women, in their representation of the idea of the soul. Wolfson's erudite and nuanced discussion suggests why it might be necessary to problematize the "un" affixed to the Romantic of the section's subtitle.

It may sound strange to admit, but after reading the twenty-two essays of Lessons of Romanticism, I was left with the feeling that there was something missing. As I returned to take account of the literary and intellectual figures that peopled the pages, it gradually occurred to me to ask: "Where's Wordsworth?" Considering the centrality of Wordsworth to the new historicist conspiracy theories which the volume sets out to debunk, it seems curious that although Marjorie Levinson's controversial landmark study of Wordsworth is invoked often enough, the poet and his poems are mentioned briefly, usually in passing, in only a few essays. To be sure, it is precisely the point of Lessons of Romanticism to expand critical perspectives and, by extension, expand the critical gaze beyond "the big five or six" (to use Galperin's phrase). Nonetheless, while I welcome a collection of essays on Romanticism that includes three separate articles on Jane Austen and two devoted to John Clare, given the place of readings of Wordsworth in inciting the crisis that the collection responds to, it may appear to some as a significant gap. This potential shortcoming aside, one rarely encounters an anthology of criticism as varied and as consistently engaging as the one which Pfau and Gleckner have succeeded in gathering in Lessons of Romanticism.