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Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era, 1760-1850. Ed. Christopher John Murray, 2 Volumes. New York: Fitzroy Dearborn/Taylor & Francis Group, 2004. ISBN: 157958361X. Price: US$325.

  • Peter Melville

…plus d’informations

  • Peter Melville
    Cornell University

Corps de l’article

Given the kind of capital, both cultural and otherwise, that a policy of inclusiveness continues to command, it comes as no great surprise to hear Christopher John Murray preface his most recent encyclopedia with the following assessment vis-à-vis the character (not to mention the size) of his two-volume text: [1] “the Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era,” he insists, “is not […] simply an encyclopedia of Romanticism;” it is, rather, more accurately described as “a cultural encyclopedia covering the last decades of the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth century in Britain, continental Europe, and the Americas” (ix). That the Encyclopedia has a clear international focus is unmistakable, covering as it does artistic, literary, and philosophical developments from Britain to Greece, from the Ukraine to the Balkans, and from the United States to the Caribbean. Likewise committed to viewing the Romantic era through the specialized optics of cultural studies, the Encyclopedia also includes a refreshing number of entries on otherwise unexpected topics such as “Fashion,” “Happiness,” and “Night”–many of which make convincing connections across the culture of the period and which contribute to the Encyclopedia’s desire to represent discourses, themes, and concerns beyond (but also very much linked to) the realms of architecture, music, literature, and philosophy. As interdisciplinary, then, as it is chronologically expansive (strangely, Murray deems “controversial,” but falls short of satisfactorily justifying, his preference for the year 1760 in the title), [2] the Encyclopedia’s overall aim is “to provide a broad-ranging guide to the profound changes in thought, sensibility, and expression that occurred during [the Romantic] era, a revolutionary period that saw many of the values of the Enlightenment redefined, challenged, or rejected, and whose principle concerns–liberty, the individual, revolution and nationalism, nature, history and human identity–provided the foundation of the modern world” (ix).

If Murray’s expressed inclination to broaden even further the “ever-widening scope” (x) of Romantic studies is, as I have suggested, not altogether unexpected, then it is nevertheless impressive to witness his ambitious enterprise materialize in practice. Simply put, the Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era charts the contours of Romanticism (be it in terms of gender, genre, discipline, or nationality) well beyond–and more successfully than–any anthology, study, or list that comes to mind. I leave it for others to discuss the need for such stout period-expansion primarily because that particular debate is less important to me than the fact that Murray’s Encyclopedia will invariably become far more than a book that I will one day fondly recall having reviewed. An immensely rich and diverse resource, the Encyclopedia is as much an outstanding teaching and preliminary research tool as it is a fascinating work of scholarship in its own right–one that no doubt took an enormous collective effort on the part of its accomplished editor and its veritable convoy of gifted contributors.

Even if many of the Encyclopedia’s entries are on subjects that, according to Murray, “could not be described as Romantic in any sense” (ix), those entries, when placed alongside the hundreds of entries that are, yield a uniquely unprecedented vantage point from which to gauge the socio-political, philosophical, and literary dialogues, debts, and contexts of the period. Of course, casually distinguishing between texts and topics that are or are not Romantic raises contentious issues regarding the signification of words like “Romantic” and “Romanticism.” Fortunately, the Encyclopedia handles these issues exceptionally well, calling on its contributors to treat Romanticism as an open question and to attend to a wide range of categories of difference when considering the terms they define. (Regretting the lack of a better, more inclusive term, Murray readily admits that the Encyclopedia’s titular mobilization of the word “Romantic” was in large part a matter of “pragmatic nominalism” [ix].) The end result is an encyclopedia that not only allows competing definitions of the Romantic to circulate throughout its pages, but also demonstrates–via its numerous critical and cultural surveys–how Romanticism and the Romantic have been understood differently over time.

Impressively, over 250 scholars contribute nearly 800 entries to the Encyclopedia. Organized alphabetically, these entries conform to four basic types: i) entries that focus on individual artists, authors, composers, and historical figures, ii) entries that single out individual works or collections of works (e.g., “Raft of the Medusa,” “Lyrical Ballads”), iii) entries that provide cultural, national, and/or historical surveys (e.g., “Czech and Slovak Romanticism”), and, lastly, iv) entries that concentrate on themes, concepts, approaches, and events (e.g., “Irony,” “Gay Approaches,” “French Revolution”). While all entries come equipped with bibliographies that promote further reading, the vast majority of entries (primarily those concerned with individual authors and persons) include a mixture of other, very useful points of reference, including biographical outlines and lists of selected works. The Encyclopedia also makes good use of a cross-referencing system that conveniently follows select entries under a “See also” heading: those reading up on Anna Letitia Barbauld, for instance, are encouraged to see also entries on “Blake,” “Childhood,” and “Slavery and Emancipation,” to name just a few. The entry on Madam de Staël even offers a website: http://www.stael.org.

Further enhancing the Encyclopedia’s user-friendliness, Murray provides three “thematic lists” specifically designed to facilitate exploration of the text’s many points of interest. The first list, the most obvious and self-explanatory, features a comprehensive alphabetical inventory of the Encyclopedia’s entries. The second, equally conventional but useful nonetheless, arranges entries according to subjects such as science, architecture, music, dance, literature and thought. The final list, by far the most innovative and complex, stands as a testament to the Encyclopedia’s attempt to represent the Romantic era as broadly and, at the same time, as precisely as it can. Based on “national developments,” this final thematic list presents an alphabetical catalog of twenty-four national headings, under which relevant entries are further subdivided into subject categories: look under “Hungary,” then under the “Music” subcategory, and you will find entries for “Études d’exécution transcendante” and “Franz Liszt.” From a cross-referencing standpoint, the effect of this arrangement is quite brilliant insofar as it virtually simulates a series of national mini-encyclopedias within the encyclopedia itself.

To suspend, if only for a moment, my sincere admiration for the Encyclopedia, I would like to offer a few minor criticisms. First, it would have been helpful if Murray had mentioned in his Introduction something about the intended audience or the readership level of the Encyclopedia’s entries. As it stands, we find only the most generic of passing references to “those who want to explore [the Romantic] era’s extraordinary artistic and intellectual achievements” (x). In the absence of a meaningful discussion regarding this matter, it is difficult to evaluate the relative successes of the entries, except to say that, inevitably, the quality of entries varies to some degree: while some are remarkably readable and well-researched, others struggle to render accessible the complex and difficult texts they consider. Unlike Murray’s Introduction, the publisher’s online website is not at all shy about identifying the Encyclopedia’s two principal demographics: “students of history, literature, and Western civilization,” on the one hand, and librarians looking for “a one-stop reference source for questions on Romantic arts, thought, and individuals,” on the other. Without knowing more about what “student” means in this instance, I would venture to say that with some of the more difficult entries (the delicately nuanced entry on Kant’s Critique of Judgment comes to mind) a second or third “stop” will undoubtedly be sought by some. Thankfully, the Encyclopedia offsets what it is unable to account for or clarify in the modest space of an encyclopedic entry by providing ample references to more advanced or, contrarily, more illuminating material.

Second, there are an alarming number of typographical blunders in the Encyclopedia that disrupt the reading process. Whose stubborn spell-checker, for instance, insisted on establishing Coleridge’s intellectual indebtedness to someone by the name of Emmanuel Kant (93)? (The full title of the aforementioned “Études,” to point quickly to a second example, appears in a variety of incorrect ways throughout the Encyclopedia.) Admittedly, I have never edited a volume myself, let alone a double-columned, two-volume encyclopedia. I imagine the prospect of producing an error-free text of this size is imposing, to say the least, though not entirely hopeless given the track record of similar texts on the market. Hopefully future editions of the Encyclopedia will work to rectify this (not altogether insignificant) marginal issue. After all, the Encyclopedia is largely an educational resource, and as such bears a certain responsibility to lead by example.

One final reservation: far be it for me to criticize too negatively the desire to fatten the body of the Romantic period, but I do not think I will be alone in my concern for entries that are, given the size of the Encyclopedia, proportionally slim–specifically those dealing with figures on whom the Romantic period has traditionally made its reputation. Murray admits to being troubled by “sins of omission” (x), but says nothing in regards to the price of admission. I value the Encyclopedia for its extraordinary range (it is an encyclopedia after all, not an anthology or critical study); but I balk slightly at the cost of the text’s policy of maximum inclusiveness. The issue boils down to a conflict between the comprehensiveness of the Encyclopedia as a whole versus that of the single entry. Why the relatively sparse entries on figures like Wollstonecraft, Schiller, or even Shelley (whose image is significant enough to grace the Encyclopedia’s primary cover) are not accompanied by “See also” headings is puzzling. [3] (Questioned by a student, the librarian responds with some hesitation: “Wordsworth? He should be in there somewhere. Check near the back.”) The Encyclopedia’s desire for inclusiveness, in other words, overwhelms its ability to register significance.

These minor issues aside, the Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era is an exceptional resource that should find itself warmly received by students, teachers, and scholars of Romanticism alike. Regrettably priced at $325(US), however, the hard-cover edition (to my knowledge the only format currently available) would compromise even the most generous of book allowances. With any luck, librarians will continue to order copies for the non-circulating reference shelves across the land. (While not entirely reliable, the WorldCat database shows only a few hundred libraries in possession of the Encyclopedia. Sadly, unlike Cornell’s Olin Library, the library at McMaster University, my alma mater, cannot be counted among them.) As the appreciative owner of a copy myself, I will take advantage of the Encyclopedia’s incredible scholarship for a long time to come, and will continue to encourage others to spend some time carefully perusing whatever copy they can get their hands on.

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