'One Consciousness', Historical Criticism and the Romantic Canon[Record]

  • David Chandler

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  • David Chandler
    Kyoto University

In 1983 Jerome McGann assured readers of The Romantic Ideology that Wordsworth's greatest poems, 'like his position in the Romantic Movement—are normative and, in every sense, exemplary'. 'Exemplary', he explained, because truest to their time: 'such works transcend their age and speak to alien cultures because they are so completely true to themselves, because they are time and place specific' (McGann 1983, 2). For the previous decade M. H. Abrams had made the same assertion: 'Wordsworth ... was the great and exemplary poet of the age'. The similarity of these claims suggests a continuity seldom emphasised: McGann's evading the question of the literary value of the canon has long tended to obscure the fact that The Romantic Ideology remained nevertheless an explicit defence of the traditional 'Romantic' canon—Wordsworth as central figure—as an appropriate site for critical and pedagogic activity. This may seem obvious, but it is necessary to stress the point because 'New Historicism', the (supposedly coherent) critical movement with which McGann's name is associated, has frequently been represented as hostile to the received canon of 'literature': that is, hostile not just to ideas found in that canon, but to the canon—perhaps any notion of 'canon'—itself. Such an assumption has often misled discussions of 'Romanticism' over the past decade and a half, obscuring other canon-related issues that have grown in importance. The theory that 'New Historicism' is opposed to the 'Romantic' canon (or, indeed, other canons) quickly runs into evidential problems that are then perversely attributed to 'New Historicism' itself. To Jonathan Bate, writing in 1991, it was a 'paradox' that 'New Historicism' was continuing to concern itself with 'canonical texts' when theoretically it granted no greater value to those than to any other form of documentary evidence. Thomas McFarland, perhaps the foremost anti-'New Historicist' critic in the field of '80s and '90s 'Romantic' studies, has variously supported the argument, but reveals its problematic status when he writes: 'deconstruction does not theoretically restrict itself to literary art, but regards any text whatever as a proper subject for deconstructive analysis... What is true of deconstruction is true also of its popular offshoot, New Historicism'. The point would only be useful if it could be shown that other types of criticism were, somehow, 'theoretically restricted', but this McFarland does not, and presumably cannot do. Indeed his own form of 'qualitative' criticism (McFarland 26) is necessarily unrestricted at a theoretical level, or it would bewilder itself with its inability to demonstrate that a laundry bill was not a good poem. Setting specifically 'Romantic' period criticism aside for the moment, though, it is clear that Bate's and McFarland's accusations of paradox are far from untypical. In a well-informed defence of older values, Josephine M. Guy and Ian Small, for example, refer several times to the de-privileging of 'literary' texts by 'New Historicists' before finally admitting: 'However ... new historicists have tended to focus their attention on the evidence provided by those works enshrined in the canon of traditional literary history: either on the work of Shakespeare ... or the Romantics ...'. They then count this as evidence for the 'illogicality' of the premises of 'New Historicism' and a few pages later describe it as an 'irony'. The persistence of such assertions must mean that the theory and practice of 'New Historicism' are indeed at odds, or that 'New Historicism' has become an increasingly useless umbrella term for a body of criticism that is by no means cohering, or, simply, that 'New Historicism' has not properly clarified its relationship to the canon, or that it has done so, but not been understood. One way to …