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Romanticism on the Net

Number 22, May 2001

Managing Editor(s): Michael Eberle-Sinatra (directeur)

Publisher: Université de Montréal

ISSN: 1467-1255 (digital)

DOI: 10.7202/005975ar

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Reviews

Michael Gamer, Romanticism and the Gothic: Genre, Reception, and Canon Formation. Cambridge University Press, 2000. ISBN: 0 521 77328 8 (hardback). Price: £35.00 (US$59.95).

Douglas H. Thomson

Georgia Southern University


1

With the many recent individual studies reconfiguring the relationship between Gothic and Romantic writers, a book length study on the subject seems long overdue, and Michael Gamer's fine study addresses this need while it reflects upon and organizes those reassessments. [1] Older studies often narrated a Kunstlerroman in which a Romantic poet, for example Wordsworth or Shelley, dabbled with gothic tropes in his youthful writing but outgrew them as he embarked upon his mature career. Or those studies focused on how a Romantic writer, say Coleridge, might borrow from the literature of terror but transform and elevate its materials. Gamer rewrites these accounts through a carefully researched focus on "how romantic ideology constituted itself generically as a sustained response to the reception of gothic writing" (p. 200). Beginning with that long accepted paradox in the gothic's reception, its enormous popularity among readers set against its "monotonous," even "ritualistic abuse" by reviewers (p. 42), Gamer studies how romantic writing negotiates this "conflict between the demands of popular and critical audiences in Britain at the end of the eighteenth century" (p. 23). One absolute strength of the book is Gamer's sharp-eyed attention to the material and personal contexts of these reviews and writers' responses to them. Another is his decision to chart the dispersal of the gothic among various literary forms: poetry (in a provocative re-visitation of Wordsworth's famous attacks on the gothic); drama (in a chapter on Baillie); and the novel (in a final chapter that fittingly shows Scott moving away from his early poetic and dramatic affiliations with Lewis to the more critical "packaging" of gothic materials in his novels). What issues from Romanticism and the Gothic is the clearest account we have yet of an often-told tale: the emergence of the gothic as a force in the literary and critical marketplace of 1764-1825. Gamer's allied argument, that romantic ideology constructs itself through its various engagements with the rise of and reception of the gothic, will surely spark debate and invite qualification, but such rethinking of terms underscores the value of his detailed study of the contentious relationship between the two literary movements.

2

Gamer's focus on the threefold reception of the gothic (by writers, reviewers, and popular readers) enables him to deal with refreshing exactitude on a subject that has long occupied critics who define genre through convention or psychology: what was and is the gothic? For Gamer, the answer is simple—what those writers, reviewers, and readers considered to be gothic—and this strategy leads to his painstaking study of the gothic's receptions, formations, reformations, and deformations. These subjects have always proved murky and, thus, very productive grounds for gothic criticism, yet Gamer's command of the gothic's reception, both in its contemporary context and recent criticism, draws these clear conclusions from existing scholarship on the subject: 1) while a bit dicey in terms of gender and politics, the project initiated by Walpole and his followers began, through the rehabilitations of Clara Reeve and Sophia Lee and then mainly, of course, Ann Radcliffe a perilous, always qualified path toward official acceptance, with The Romance of the Forest (1791) "mark[ing] the high point of gothic's cultural prestige" (p. 71); 2) but the enormous success of The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and its rash of low-brow imitations, followed by the alarming popularity of The Monk, marks a decisive turning point downward, as reviewers perceive a dangerous foreigness to the gothic which was really, in Gamer's neat perception, a defensive "urge to deport gothicism to Germany" (p. 78); 3) from this time forth, despite its continued popularity and remarkably varied figurations, begins the reviewers' remarkably unvaried condemnation of all things gothic, and this "monotonous" and ideologically-charged stigmatization guides Gamer's study of the three Romantic writers who came to define their practice in opposition to the gothic. While Gamer's narrative of the rise and fall of the gothic may not be new—for example, its association in the '90's with the "Terrorist System of Novel-Writing," as he acknowledges, has been argued before in political accounts of the genre's downward turn [2]—his careful attention to the culture and "economies" of reviews yields fresh insights. He sheds light on how the competition for readers among the periodicals, circulating libraries, and publishers like Lane's Minerva Press helped shape the antagonistic response to the gothic. He challenges the longstanding characterization of early gothic readers as "young, female, naïve and easily manipulated"—"no single literary stereotype has enjoyed such widespread acceptance on so little first-hand information" (pp. 38-39)—arguing instead that this stereotype is largely the self-serving invention of paternalistic and regulatory reviewers. And he anchors critical perception in often delightful detail: for example, so strenuous had the attempt become to "deport" the gothic to Germany that Lewis's first biographer cites Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther (1779) as a primary source for Walpole's Castle of Otranto (1764)!

3

Underlying such close attention to the details of reception is Gamer's significant reformulation of the idea of the gothic as "genre." Early critics of the gothic, who follow the procedure of early reviewers in concentrating on its conventions, tend to offer various definitions of its generic essence, and falling short of that, devise various subtypes and classifications of gothic genres (loyalist gothic, terror vs. horror gothic, Schauerroman, etc.). This proliferation has led to skepticism about how a literary phenomena as multifarious as the gothic revival could ever be understood within the perameters of "genre," [3] and many recent critics prefer treating the gothic as an "impulse" with dispersal across a wide range of genres. Gamer's starts from a different set of premises: "We must begin not by defining the gothic's essence but by tracking its cultural status" (p. 10). By bracketing the always debatable issue of defining its "conventions" or "psychology"and focusing instead on the fairly uniform field of its reception, Gamer makes a strong and specific case for the first gothic wave as a genre clearly recognized as such by its readers and reviewers. He can agree with the Derridean "law" that "every text participates in one or several genres," but insists, contra Derrida, that in the case of the gothic, such "participation did amount to belonging"—indeed, "the gothic's critics . . . brand its practitioners permanently with the mark of genre" (p. 73). So, for Gamer, the appearance of Boaden's The Italian Monk (1797) represents a compelling case of generic consolidation, a yoking of the very different "conventions" of Radcliffe and Lewis under a single generic term that would allow reviewers to wage their war against the gothic. And with this consolidation, the stage is set for Gamer's study of Romanticism and Gothicism, for "the threat of gothic 'belonging' operated with surprising efficiency on the writing we now associate with the formative stages of romanticism" (p. 89).

4

Gamer tidily defines the dilemma faced by the Romantic writers he selectively studies: "how to tap gothic's exploding popular readership while neither corrupting that readership, nor exciting the ire of reviewers" (p. 102). The book's concluding three chapters focus on Wordsworth, Baillie, and Scott not just as writers but as readers and reviewers themselves of the gothic, with special attention to their "packaging" of gothic materials, often through prefaces and editorial commentary. Each chapter demonstrates again Gamer's solid grasp of the material nature of literary production and deserves close reading by students of both gothicism and romanticism; space permits this review only to record his clearly drawn conclusions.

5

Chapter 3 closely tracks how the Lyrical Ballads of 1798 and 1800 "engage in an extremely complicated dance with popular gothicism" (p. 103) and ends with this telling irony:

in order to purge the second volume of the gothicism that had provoked such a negative response to the . . . first edition, Wordsworth had to ransack Coleridge's own notes and critical writings to find the language with which he could reject what is arguably one of Coleridge's finest poems ["Christabel"], and unarguably his most gothic.

p. 126

Chapter 4 ("National supernaturalism: Joanna Baillie, Germany, and the gothic drama") studies how Baillie responds (and how reviewers shape that response) to the "culturally invasive, morally corrupting, and politically jacobin" (pp. 144-45) Germanized dramas that threatened to undermine, in Scott's memorable formulation, "the true and manly tone of national tragedy" (p. 151). Through moving the supernatural into the minds of her characters in her focus on passion psychology and by nationalizing various gothic tropes, Baillie garners the reviewers' praise for her "dramatic patriotism" (p. 158), although Gamer pays close attention to the considerable gender and political ironies attending that claim. The book concludes, fittingly, with a chapter on Scott, fittingly because Scott's highly public career as an author and arbiter of national taste recapitulates, in his eventual renunciation of his earlier, Lewisite affiliations with the gothic, the major themes and trajectories of Romanticism and the Gothic. The invention of "'Walter Scott' the public author . . . involves a full-scale appropriation and recasting of popular gothic materials into a respectably historical, national, masculine, and poetic mould" (p. 166).

6

A sign of a good book is its leaving the reader wanting more, and all the more so with Gamer's study, because what may seem missing from his account of this big topic could so clearly profit from his approach. One would have liked a more sustained discussion of Wordsworth's The Borderers and, especially given Gamer's emphasis on "packaging" of gothic materials, the "Preface" to that play, wherein Wordsworth argues at length about the debilitating nature of superstition. Gamer's perceptive studies of the theatre and of Scott's creation of his own literary persona suggest he would have much to offer on an author closely associated with the gothic on both scores: Byron. Scott's highly uneven treatment of his gothic apprentice in minstrelsy, James Hogg, would fit in perfectly with Gamer's account of how Scott renounces his earlier interests in folk presentations of terror. And the complete omission of both Shelleys in a book on "Romanticism and the Gothic" may leave some disappointed. But with his selection of Romantic writers representing different genres and historical conditions, Gamer certainly does offer a compelling account of "how romantic ideology constituted itself generically as a sustained response to the reception of gothic writing" (p. 200). His careful scholarship and clear line of argument will undoubtedly inform continuing work on the subject.


 

Notes

[1]

Gamer's book is rightly advertised as "the first full-length study to examine the links between high Romanticism . . . and the Gothic" (ii). The only previous study is Alfred Edwin Longueil's doctoral dissertation "Gothic romance: its influence on the romantic poets Wordsworth, Keats, Coleridge, Byron, and Shelley" (Harvard, 1920), which ranks the poets in term of gothic influence (Shelley and Coleridge most, Wordsworth, least).

[2]

By carefully "contextualizing the receivers themselves," Gamer steers a middle-ground in the current skirmish between critics like Ronald Paulson, who stress the "jacobin" or, at least, politically subversive elements of the gothic, and critics like David Richter and, more recently, Chris Baldick, who doubt the association (pp. 29-31).

[3]

One recalls Robert Platzner's criticism of "generic essentializing" in Robert Hume's contrasting of "Gothicism versus Romanticism: A Revaluation of the Gothic Novel" in their 1971 PMLA forum debate on the issue.

Author: Douglas H. Thomson
Title Reviewed: Michael Gamer, Romanticism and the Gothic: Genre, Reception, and Canon Formation. Cambridge University Press, 2000. ISBN: 0 521 77328 8 (hardback). Price: £35.00 (US$59.95).
Journal: Romanticism on the Net, Number 22, May 2001
URI: http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/005975ar
DOI: 10.7202/005975ar

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