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MLA Cluster ''Romantic Realism/Victorian Romance''

“Romantic Realism/Victorian Romance”: An Introduction to Four Provocations

  • Elaine Freedgood et
  • Maureen N. McLane

…plus d’informations

  • Elaine Freedgood
    New York University

  • Maureen N. McLane
    New York University

Might we, Romanticists and Victorianists, be or become one people? What would that mean, or require? Is this desirable? These were some of the questions animating recent joint discussions of the MLA Committees on the Divisions of the English Romantic and Victorian Periods. Increasingly, the job market asks our younger colleagues to become hybrid Romanticist/Victorianist scholars. And yet the scholarly, as opposed to practical or mercenary, aspects of that hybridity have not been explored with much verve. For a joint MLA session on January 5, 2013, the Romantic and Victorian Divisional Committees invited four scholars, two from each period, to give five-minute “provocations” on the rubric “Romantic Realism/Victorian Romance”: the speakers agreed then to address one another and the audience conversationally on the generic topics of romance and realism. The featured speakers were Ian Duncan, University of California, Berkeley; Mary Favret, Indiana University—Bloomington; Catherine Robson, New York University; and Herbert Tucker, University of Virginia. Elaine Freedgood, Secretary of the Victorian Division and of New York University, and Maureen N. McLane, Secretary of the Romantic Division and of New York University, organized the panel; Eileen Gillooly, Chair of the Victorian Division and of Columbia University, co-moderated with McLane.

Our governing rubric—the semi-paradoxical formulationRomantic Realism/Victorian Romance”—emerged as an attempt to bring out several longstanding and emergent cruxes in our collective scholarship, including questions of periodization, mediality, materiality, trans/nationality, locality, genre, and mode. We proposed our panel rubric as a kind of set-theoretical provocation: how might we think of intersecting, overlapping, communicating and non-communicating sets of works, questions, genres, approaches, pedagogies? What happens when you make Edinburgh, for example, the capital of the nineteenth century, as Ian Duncan does in his Scott’s Shadow? What to say about “realism” in the Romantic period when contemplating “war at a distance,” to invoke the title of Mary Favret’s most recent book? How does epic cut across “realism”/”romance” to make certain traditions and representational zones available for writers throughout the nineteenth century, as Herbert Tucker’s Epic: Britain’s Heroic Muse asks us to consider? How do daily practices and pedagogical disciplines take up “romance” and the “Romantic” as part of subject-formation, as Catherine Robson’s Heart Beats explores, regarding poetry and memorization in the Victorian period?

More broadly: are we sure that we must concede Fredric Jameson’s assertion, in A Singular Modernity, that “we cannot not periodize” (29)? The double negative suggests that we may not want to periodize, or that we try not to do it, but that it just keeps happening, or must keep happening anyway. But there is nothing to stop us from periodizing otherwise, noticing, as Donald Wesling has (107-112), [1] the scandal of our literary-periodical categories, which run the gamut from monarchical to specifically-literary-movement titles, such that there is a Victorian period in geology or medicine, but perhaps not a Romantic period in geology or medicine. [2] “Romantic” is of course famously elusive as a category. [3] Even before A.O.J. Lovejoy’s diagnostically frustrated essay of 1924 (“On the Discrimination of Romanticisms”), “Romanticism” had long been vexed—and one aspect of this vexation was, and continues to be, its relation to “romance.” And it is odd that the ascension of a queen should mark the end of Romanticism, rather than, say, the revolution in the novel of 1847-48, when Dombey and Son, Vanity Fair, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Mary Barton, Tancred and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall were all first published. But to really re-draw the lines of our periods, if we in fact wish to, we might need to do more than respond to the logic of categories or the pressures of the job market; we might need, as our opening questions suggest, to get deeply fuzzy about various divides, both synchronic and diachronic. In our curt and convenient separations of people and things for example (as Michel Serres and Bruno Latour have long been arguing), and in our occasionally self-congratulatory ideas about historical periodicity (about which Jameson, Bruno Latour, and Dipesh Chakrabarty, among others, have also been instructing us at length), we have at times forsaken a richer if sometimes frustrating inquiry.

Indeed such categories as “Romantic” and “Victorian” might be effectively diagnosed in terms Ian Duncan offered in his book Modern Romance and Transformations of the Novel: such period terms might be considered a back-formation of our institutional modernity, a figure of our modern romance—“romance as modern culture’s construction of a symbolic form prior to itself” (10-11). Here is one possible critique of a construction of “Romanticism” as succeeded by “the Victorian,” a Romanticism “prior” to the “Victorian” both temporally and developmentally. This narrative itself depends on the romance of progress so strikingly installed in the stadial theories of development flourishing in 18th C. Edinburgh and more broadly in Anglophone culture, influencing everything from Adam Smith to Hugh Blair’s defense of Ossian to Malthus’s cultural anthropology to Thomas Love Peacock’s amusingly “realist” anathematization of “modern”—that is “Romantic”—poetry, in The Four Ages of Poetry (1820).

There is as well a tendency to defer “realism” to the mid-19th C., such that the “historical novel,” the “silver-fork novel,” the epistolary poem, the familiar essay and the statistical survey circa 1800 can seem to resist inquiries into their possible “realism,” much less “the real.” That “realism” and “romance” might not be opposed—that they might even be productively kindred modes, mapping and co-creating experiential and historical conjunctures—is something recent scholars (whether self-identified as “Romanticists” or “Victorianists”) have argued in several keys. (For this line of thinking, Ian Duncan’s work is indispensable.) If “realism” versus “romance” looks increasingly problematic as a heuristic (in American as well as British literary studies), so too the very partitioning of “Romantic” from “Victorian” might not hold under certain salutary pressures. One finds a romance of—and diagnostic displacement and occlusion of—the real in the “realist” novel, as Elaine Freedgood suggests in The Ideas in Things; one might find too a complex traction with the unrepresentable Lacanian Real in, say, Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel, or Tennyson’s In Memoriam, as much as in Eliot or Trollope.

While we might not yet be (nor all of us desire to be) “one people,” we did aspire to become a provisional community in Boston at the MLA; and the trenchant presentations of our four panelists, and the dynamic ensuing discussion, proved the vitality, urgency, and complexity of this ongoing conversation. The discussion sparked in the joint session continued at the joint Romanticist/Victorianist Cash Bar (also an MLA first, we think): if we were not yet one people, there was, at least, one bar. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some attendees felt that the communal discussion of period and periodization (by the audience as much as the panel) was less urgent than reflections on realism and/or romance; this seemed (at least to McLane) to understand periodization and its discontents, mistakenly, to be old news: certainly, as Susan Wolfson observed in the panel session, and as Robson’s essay (and her recent book) attest, what was often most live and influential in the Victorian period was what some would call “Romantic” poetry—and much of that poetry, published between 1780-1830, is no longer taught as of either Romantic or Victorian interest. [4] One approaches this terrain from what Celeste Langan has called “the untranscendable horizon of the present” [5]: part of our jobs as scholars is to historicize the presents of the past as well as our own, always acknowledging that limit. [6]

Herbert Tucker’s meditation on Romantic and Victorian “conjugalities” prompted one stream of general discussion concerning the possible normative marital, queer, polyamorous or otherwise coded relations between “Romantic” and “Victorian” periods, in scholarship and pedagogy. Certainly questions of curriculum and pedagogy animated some of the most active and sometimes anguished contributions from the audience. Shifts in higher education were unsurprisingly on the collective mind—and were one inspiration for this panel—and thus it was striking to see how the history of educational institutions and of pedagogy figured in two panelists’ presentations: Favret on the institution of “the lecture” (Romantic-period and now), and Robson on Victorian educational reforms, and on her own education. In the general discussion, several younger scholars very astutely noted that, for all the troubling of period categories, their institutional force persists in striking albeit sometimes strained ways (viz. ads on the MLA job list; journals committed to period rubrics). Whether these categories are in fact dominant or residual, in Raymond Williams’s sense, remains to be seen—and that story will undoubtedly be narrated within, as well as determined by, the larger story of the transformation of the humanities.

The panelists’ presentations follow, at times slightly altered from their first utterance. We are grateful to Michael E. Sinatra and Dino Franco Felluga for inviting us to publish these presentations with RaVON, the very journal that houses us, Romanticists and Victorianists, as one people: we hope thereby to continue and refine this conversation, this inquiry.

Parties annexes