Might we, Romanticists and Victorianists, be or become one people? This cluster of essays, by Ian Duncan, Mary Favret, Catherine Robson, and Herbert Tucker, addresses longstanding and emergent cruxes in our collective scholarship, including questions of periodization, mediality, trans/nationality, genre, and mode. “Romance” and “realism” provide two provoking terms for thought. An introduction, by Elaine Freedgood and N. Maureen McLane, lays out axes of categorization, questions for pedagogy and the profession as well as intellectual and disciplinary genealogies. Duncan notes the insufficiency of such terms as “long nineteenth century” and proposes Walter Scott as one figure who teaches us how to think period as well as realism and romance; Favret addresses the romantic lecture and its current resonance in the age of MOOCs; Robson explores the nature of Victorian reading, and directions for Victorianist readings; Tucker meditates on the status of desire and marriage plots—Romantic and Victorian “conjugalities.”
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 formulation “Romantic 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), 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. “Romantic” is of course famously elusive as a category. 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. One approaches this terrain from what Celeste Langan has called “the untranscendable horizon of the present”: part of our jobs as scholars is to historicize the presents of the past as well as our own, always acknowledging that limit.
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.
Elaine Freedgood is a professor of English at NYU and the author of Victorian Writing aboutRisk: Imagining a Safe England in a Dangerous World (Cambridge 2000) and The Ideas in Things: Fugitive Meaning in the Victorian Novel (Chicago 2006) and the editor of Factory Production in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Oxford 2003). Her current project concerns metalepsis in novels from the eighteenth century to the present.
Maureen N. McLane is a poet and associate professor of English at NYU, where she teaches courses on British Romanticism, Anglophone poetics, and modernity. She is the author or editor of several books on romanticism, including Balladeering, Minstrelsy, and the Making of British Romantic Poetry (Cambridge, 2008). She is the author as well of three books of poems, including the forthcoming This Blue (FSG, 2014), and a work of experimental prose, My Poets (FSG, 2012).
For a differently oriented meditation on periodization, see Wesling’s "Michael Serres, Bruno Latour, and the Edges of Historical Periods”.
Though some romanticists would here beg to differ: viz. (on medicine) Erasmus Darwin, the surgeon John Hunter; (on geology) Charlotte Smith’s Beachy Head, with its geological consciousness; James Hutton, with his “discovery” of geological time.
For one meditation on this, see James Chandler and Maureen N. McLane, “Introduction: The Companionable Forms of Romantic Poetry”, 1-9. See also David Perkins’s trenchant, transnational analysis, “The Construction of ‘The Romantic Movement’ as a Literary Classification.”
e.g. the poetry of Scott, Campbell, Southey. For further demonstrations of this one might consult William St. Clair’s The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period, with its remarkable appendices; St. Clair’s book, however contended, throws an enormous wrench into—or perhaps puts paid, finally, to—blithe accounts of “Romantic” and “Victorian” literature. Reception history here meets a sustained empirical inquiry. That “Romantic Literature” (e.g.) might not be restricted to sales in the Romantic period is something to argue for another day.
McLane’s notes from the joint panel indicate that Langan uttered this phrase in general discussion; for another formulation, see her essay, “What Did They Say?” Here Langan observes, “I have always regarded the ‘medium’ of Romanticism as an untranscendable present” (4), and then proceeds to reflect on the mic-check tactic (the use of the “human mic” to repeat and relay speech) in the “Occupy” movement.
For a striking foray into period/izing debates, and a strong and likely controversial critique of “queer unhistoricists” who tend to read periodizing impulses as teleological, heteronormative, positivist, and/or vulgar empirical moves, see Valerie Traub, “The New Unhistoricism in Queer Studies.” One need not be a historicist or a teleologist to have an interest in “period.” It is also the case that—confining ourselves to our particular remit—“Romantic” and “Victorian,” particularly the former, can be construed as genealogical, and not primarily historical, categories: the non-symmetry of the terms is productive and opens precisely the space for critical and potentially queer inquiry—historicist, anti-historicist, anachronistic, and otherwise.
- Chandler, James and Maureen N. McLane. “Introduction: The Companionable Forms of Romantic Poetry.” in The Cambridge Companion to British Romantic Poetry. Cambridge University Press, 2008.
- Duncan, Ian. Modern Romance and Transformations of the Novel: the Gothic, Scott, Dickens. Cambridge University Press, 1992.
- Duncan, Ian. Scott’s Shadow: the Novel in Romantic Edinburgh. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.
- Favret, Mary A. Romanticism and the Making of Modern Wartime. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.
- Freedgood, Elaine. The Ideas in Things: Fugitive Meaning in the Victorian Novel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
- Jameson, Fredric. A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present. London, New York: Verso, 2002.
- Langan, Celeste. “What Did They Say?” Romantic Media Studies at the 2013 MLA Convention, http://mediageist.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/rms_langan_mla20132.pdf.
- Perkins, David. “The Construction of ‘The Romantic Movement’ as a Literary Classification.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 45: 2 (Sep. 1990): 129-143.
- Robson, Catherine. Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012.
- St. Clair, William. The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period. Cambridge University Press, 2004.
- Traub, Valerie. “The New Unhistoricism in Queer Studies.” PMLA 128.1 (2013): 21-29.
- Tucker, Herbert F. Epic: Britain’s Heroic Muse, 1790-1910. Oxford University Press, 2008.
- Wesling, Donald. “Modernity and Periodization.” The Chances of Rhyme: Device and Modernity. Berkeley and Los Angeles: The University of California Press, 1980.
- Wesling, Donald. “Michael Serres, Bruno Latour, and the Edges of Historical Periods”. Clio: Journal of Ancient and Medieval History 26 (1997): 189-204.