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James Chandler, England in 1819: The Politics of Literary Culture and the Case of Romantic Historicism. The University of Chicago Press, 1998. ISBN: 0-226-10108-8 (hardback). Price: US$35 (£22.50).

  • Neville F. Newman

…plus d’informations

  • Neville F. Newman
    Columbia International College

Corps de l’article

James Chandler's England in 1819 begins with an identifiable, albeit perhaps unconscious, irony. Asserting that "Romanticism has been granted an amplitude of materials and references far out of proportion to its nominal duration" (p. 3), he adds to the pile another volume of five hundred and fifty-four pages. As Chandler makes clear, it is the notion of "case" that is of fundamental significance to his critique. Devoting considerable time to the grammatical and legal nuances of "case," his subject texts from the period are representative of those "that seek to state the case of the nation" (p. 6). The genesis of his book is located in a graduate course in the early 1980s that he describes as "a teaching experiment" (p. 7),

an effort to heighten the sense of historical specificity in a graduate course on Romantic Poetry, while at the same time preserving the widely acknowledged gains of a residual New-Critical discussion pedagogy, by clustering readings around the years 1798 and 1819.

p. 7

Chandler acknowledges that his "experiment" was "not exactly earthshaking" (p. 8), a confession that, if not forgotten, threatens to de-stabilize his case's justification. Definitely not to be forgotten though are the text's numerous typographical and grammatical errors. The first occurs within ten lines of the preface's opening. Were this a sole error in the concluding chapter, one might defend it on the grounds of wilting editorial stamina. It is inexcusable on the initial page of an academic text, published by The University of Chicago Press.

Chandler's book comprises two parts, the first primarily concerned with historicism of the Romantic period in which Chandler rehearses much established critical positions, and the second concentrating on texts which are representative of 1819. Combined, these two sections contain ten chapters, culminating in a dissection of P. B. Shelley's Ode to the West Wind.

Beginning part one, Chandler asserts, "Not even the briefest account of the way literary studies have been conducted in recent years, at least in England and America, could avoid coming to terms with the historicization of methods and objects of enquiry in the field" (p. 51). His subsequent review of historicism involves a detailed summary of Fredric Jameson's argument in Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Chandler sees in Jameson's critique of the term "new historicism" an attack on what is only a nominal methodology, "a category term for 'a shared writing practice' masquerading as a critical movement" (p. 54). From here, Chandler considers the pedagogical implications of new historicism, deducing that Jameson causes us to see that "in its teaching about the past" (p. 55), new historicism makes suspect the nominal classifications it defines.

Chandler's purpose here is "to open up a perspective on the question of the conceptual and intellectual-historical status of 'specificity' in recent discussions of history and literature" (p. 59). Thus, he examines specificity with reference to Paul Veyne's Comment on écrit l'histoire when he contrasts the French writer's position to Jameson's. This leads to a contrast of Sartre and Levi-Strauss's positions as Chandler continues to lay out the theoretical ground on which the relevance of historical specificity may be discussed. He argues that "the return to history in textual studies ought to take account not only of the general role of homology in reading the text(s) of culture but also of the particular issues involved in reading the text(s) of a dated culture" (p. 67). It is a position that causes Chandler to identify "[t]he problematic of the date" (p. 67) as he puts it, and this he does with a lengthy review of "Levi-Strauss's critique of Sartre's historical method" (p. 67).

While the first chapter both critiques and establishes the relevance of certain nominalisms, Chandler's purpose in the second chapter is to analyze "both the duality of time and the duality of culture—and doing so in relation to the Romantic production of the 'historian's code'" (p. 93). Asserting that his "larger aim . . . is to provide a perspective on the genealogy [that he has] been sketching for poststructuralist historicisms" (p. 95), he reconsiders Levi-Strauss's The Savage Mind, by way of Johannes Fabian's critique of that work. Thus, the first part of this second chapter lays out the essence of "Levi-Strauss's attack on Sartre's conception of the sens d'histoire" (p. 96). Having done this, he proceeds to look at the "historical emergence of the way of conceiving history" (p. 100), by a review of diverse criticisms of post-Enlightenment European literature.

It is not until almost a fifth of the book has gone by that we feel that we are actually engaged with Chandler's objective. Here it is that he "suggest[s] we return to the phrase that descends to us as one of the most self—consciously novel and distinctive coinages of [the Romantic period] . . . 'the spirit of the age'" (pp. 105-106). For Chandler, the "spirit of the age" is significant since it causes us to address the discursive implications of contemporaneity. Arguing that such a consideration necessarily involves a confrontation with the importance of anachronism, Chandler then examines its importance to a variety of writers including P. B. Shelley, Hazlitt. and Barbauld. And it is to this latter writer that the author devotes a section of this chapter, "Anna Barbauld and the Measures of History," in which he relates the controversy surrounding what he describes as her "curiously titled poetic production" (p. 114), Eighteen Hundred and Eleven. The relevance of this controversy, Chandler argues, is that "the literary representation of the state of the nation became a way of making history in two senses: as the construction of a narrative of events in literary form and as the intervention in the course of events by the very act of publishing such a construction" (p. 114). Observing that "this kind of activity . . . was jealously guarded as a male prerogative" (p. 114), this gendered authority resulted in an attack on Barbauld effectively silencing her as a poet. A posthumously published volume, though, contained an essay entitled "The Uses of History" in which Barbauld argues that the portrayal of history not simply as an "'adventure'" but "something more serious and substantial" (p. 115) demands a specific type of knowledge, a knowledge that, presumably, was claimed as the exclusive possession of a "predominantly male enterprise" (p. 116).

The title of Barbauld's poem functions as an international register. That is to say, the date serves both to describe England at a specific juncture and to allow a degree of judgement by comparing the state, or indeed the "state of the state" (p. 121), against others. The "state of the state", as Chandler makes clear "is not an easy matter to settle" (p. 121) as the remainder of this chapter confirms. Most of this chapter is heavy on critical survey, a characteristic that continues into the book's second section, the first chapter of which is concerned with the "invention of the concept of historical culture" and "the notions or practices of representation that attend that invention" (p. 159).

Opening with a sub-section on Raymond Williams, Chandler notes that "representation" is not one of the "crucial terms" (p. 161) in Culture and Society. The relevance of the anecdote to representation is important to Chandler, as it was to Joel Fineman's The History of the Anecdote to which Chandler refers when he introduces Kenneth Burke's A Grammar of Motives. Chandler's text carries us in and out of theoretical reviews, historical summaries and literary considerations and critiques. Thus it is that he now devotes considerable attention to the Dedicatory Epistle of Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, examining both the conception and representation of "historical specificity . . . within Romantic historicism" (p. 166). This leads to a section entitled "Historicism, Contradiction and Casuistry," in which Chandler ponders at considerable length "the discourse of casuistry and the form of the case" (p. 195). "A 'case' . . . is a represented situation, and a casuistry is a discipline for dealing with the application of principles to cases so understood" (p. 195), he confirms.

Delving into Scott, Hazlitt, De Quincey and others to substantiate his understanding of case and casuistry leads to the book's fourth chapter—"Altering the Case"—where the author explores the mutual reliance of Romanticism and casuistry, spending considerable time not only on the esoteric features of the case, but also on their application to a study of two novels by Scott: Old Mortality and Redgauntlet. From his study of the first novel he deduces that "the historical novel . . . can be understood as effecting a self-conscious transformation of the novel by way of a self-conscious transformation of the case" (p. 216). And from his deliberations on the second novel, he argues that "Redgauntlet interests itself in the relation between cases and causes of all sorts" (p. 217). Importantly, Chandler both asserts that "one must come to terms with the history of casuistry" and questions: "How does the Romantic case acquire its historical dimension?" (p. 226). This two-pronged conundrum informs the remainder of the chapter and he concludes with an affirmation that combines the two: "[I]f Romantic historicism counts as a case in respect to the pre-historicist world that preceded it, one can nonetheless differentiate a variety of historical casuistries . . . within Romantic historicism " (p. 264). Thus primed, part two proceeds to investigate a number of specific cases which, as Chandler says, "prove to have anticipated some aspect of the casuistry of historical criticism today" (p. 264).

Chandler commences with another question: "How does one depict in words that historical scene of literary activity so pre-occupied with its own history-making possibilities, with the illumination that may burst forth to change the course of things?" (p. 267). His response is to create an imaginary "scene of reading on New Year's Day 1819" (p. 267) as "experienced" by the Irish satirist Thomas Moore, known, apart from his writing, for his burning of Byron's memoirs. The scene's description is involved and far-reaching as must be any description that "set[s] out much [sic] of the culturally specific topics and materials" (p. 280) pertinent to the year in question and upon which much of the book's remaining argument is contingent. The second part's first chapter brings us back to Scott, whose connection to the "case" Chandler convincingly argues: "at the peak of his powers and popularity as a historical novelist . . . Scott makes central to his work . . . a searching elaboration of the case form" (p. 305). Chandler's analysis of The Heart of Mid-Lothian raises the novel's often commented-upon lack of closure, and explains it by reference to a definition of case, showing also how Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments with its "sentimental case against casuistry" (p. 309) "informs Scott's way of structuring" the novel (p. 314). Chandler's searching criticism of Scott's The Bride of Lammermoor is a curiously gendered approach. Establishing that for "female[s], the story is far more complicated" (p. 346), he summarises this complication in just eleven lines. He concludes the chapter by recognizing the "confusion over grammatical case forms" (p. 348) which occur in the novel. It is, he argues, to rule the connection between case as linguistic and ethico-legal forms that writers such as Hazlitt and P. B. Shelley represented the "spirit of the age in a style so marked in its inconsistencies" (p. 349).

In the following chapters he investigates the significance of "causes" in Byron and the importance of the Psyche myth to Keats. Thomas Moore plays an important historical role in Byron's case since the Irishman was called upon to rule on the suitability of Don Juan for publication. Advising against it, "Moore resolves the case of Don Juan's publishability by determining that the poem poses no case against the reigning normative framework it superficially seems to flout" (p. 351), Chandler argues. This observation underlies the analysis that arises from the question he poses shortly afterwards: "[was] Don Juan a case of a poem without a cause?" (p. 353). Chandler admits "[i]t is a question that may be difficult to answer" (p. 353), and by the end of the chapter he seems to admit defeat, writing "the question of whether the case of Don Juan may be said to have a cause remains suspended in its contradictions" (p. 388). Certainly Chandler rigorously pursues that which seems to successfully resist definition; something of a lost cause one might say.

The author now contemplates the relevance of the Psyche myth to poetry in 1819. It is a myth that links Keats' Ode to Psyche, Canto nine of Byron's Don Juan, and Mary Tighe's Psyche: or The Legend of Love, to name a few. While the poems mentioned here have diverse publication dates, the importance of the psyche to Keats, Chandler argues, is that it is "at once a representation and a representative of the spirit of the age" (p. 395). Chandler's criticism in this chapter rests in large part on a Keatsian term, "smokeability", which he defines as "an act of comprehension that implies an act of condescension, toward 'weakness' or 'inadequacy'" (p. 399). While Chandler investigates a number of poets, it is "smokeability" that mostly informs his critique when he uses Keats' own critical perspective as a register of the spirit of the age. Not that the ability to smoke is restricted to Keats. Hazlitt, observes Chandler, smokes sophistry in William Gifford, the editor of the Quarterly Review, when Hazlitt argues that the "romantic 'imagination' serves the interests of tyrannical power" (p. 437). This allusion to tyranny leads to a consideration of American influence and culture on English letters, the subject of the following chapter.

Chandler justifies this very different chapter writing, "[m]y contention . . . is, that the importance of investigating the British reception of America is as compelling as when the question is put the other way around, and that the question so posed has relevance for both American and British studies" (p. 447). While the relevances' nature is involved and resists a precise summary, the purpose of such studies is to define the difference between the "cases" of America and Britain in 1819. Washington Irving's essay "English Writers on America" addresses a crucial question: "what effect do the institutions of the new constitutional republic have on the citizenry"? (p. 452). Chandler's pursuit of an answer involves a review of such national representatives as Morris Birbeck, Henry Fearon, and William Cobbett among others. Identifying the concern in Britain regarding emigration to America, Chandler points out that Cobbett's praise for America is designed not to encourage further population, but to motivate a reform movement in England. By showing what was being achieved elsewhere, Cobbett hoped to foster emulation at home. Chandler returns in the chapter's latter stages to Keats and P. B. Shelley, showing the fascination that America had for Keats, a fascination that, Chandler asserts, leads to him "smoking" British culture. Concluding both chapter and section, is a brief review of Shelley's A Philosophical Review of Reform about which Chandler writes, "he offers an even more explicit and more general account of the case of U.S. culture than Keats" (p. 477). Seeing in America "an incarnation of the doctrine of utility" (p. 478), it shares representational limitations different in nature but similar in effect to England. For Shelley, of course, "the English way of representation . . . is poetry" (p. 479). It is fitting then, that the book's final section looks at the representation of Shelley's "case".

Thomas Moore re-appears at the beginning of the book's penultimate chapter, when, as Chandler advises, Shelley made him "the dedicatee of one of his major compositions of 1819, Peter Bell the Third (p. 484). Its background aside—and Chandler provides an interesting literary history—the poem's importance is that it reflects "the general literary culture of England in 1819" (p. 485). Chandler then turns to what he sees as a most influential essay, Frederick Pottle's "The Case of Shelley". His opening criticism of Pottle is that he "reiterates a discourse of casuistry, sensibility, and historicism already at work in Shelley without seeming to recognize that he is doing so" (p. 489). "Case" comes in for considerable scrutiny here. The verdict is that Pottle's case of Shelley also "is clearly a case for Shelley" (p. 495). And having said that, Chandler asserts the existence of a "final irony" in Pottle, namely that he does not recognize the case in Shelley—the figuring of case in the poetry that he critiques. The chapter then considers Shelley's historicizing in The Cenci, with Chandler providing compelling evidence to show that Shelley "use[s] the case form to think through a historicist problematic" (p. 500), namely the difficulty in presenting for "contemporary readers and audiences, the historically peculiar character of an episode from the past" (p. 500). Peter Bell the Third frames this chapter. Introducing the concluding review of Shelley's satire, Chandler, having set in opposition two opposing theories of historicism—John Millar's and Hegel's—argues that Shelley "writes not from a logic of necessity, but from a sentiment of it" (p. 515). For the sake of grammatical coherence I have omitted yet another instance of the typo-grammatical errors that occurs here. Significantly, lines eight and nine of the chapter's final half-page repeat themselves in lines fifteen and sixteen, an editorial oversight that should never have made it past the proofing stage.

Chandler now reminds us that in 1819, there is "an altering of the very conception of case, in which the new notion of the 'historical situation' becomes operative" (p. 527). And it is his examination of this "new notion" that informs the book's final pages when he approaches "the historicity of Shelley's lyricist achievement" (p. 529). Admitting that a rigorous pursuit of the topic is beyond the chapter's scope, he outlines two methodologies that one might otherwise ideally employ. What, in a number of ways seems to be a detour, eventually leads to Chandler's final critical endeavour, an examination of Shelley's Ode to the West Wind, which he "offer[s] as a final case for [his] account of Romantic historicism" (p. 532). His questioning of what precisely it is that drives the leaves in Shelley's poem is, on the one hand, thought-provoking. On the other hand, I cannot help thinking that a lifetime spent in pursuit of problems to define can result in criticism that renders the obvious incomprehensible. Chandler proceeds, by way of comparison to The Revolt of Islam, to the next section that rehearses and revises extant criticism of the Ode to the West Wind's structure, arguing that the formal "strife" it contains may be seen as representative of "models of historical change" (p. 545). Given the author's obvious critical interest in the practice of punning it is not surprising that he ends by considering the possible significances of leaves in Shelley's Ode. It is in the close proximity of fire to the leaves where Chandler, rejecting metaphorical deadness in the leaves' physical decay, sees "the possibility of writing the leaves into a very differently conceived model of change" (p. 552). Shelley, he concludes, anticipated what later "historicism" would postulate "that human beings make their own history, but not just as they please" (p. 554), an observation that sums up Chandler's own conclusions it seems.