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Landor, Shelley, and the Design of History[Record]

  • Regina Hewitt

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  • Regina Hewitt
    University of South Florida

Though the work of Walter Savage Landor no longer figures prominently in Romantic Era anthologies and bibliographies, the rising interest in the politics of the period has brought renewed attention to his early poem Gebir, which reflects in its different editions his changing attitudes toward Napoleon. In addition, Titus Bicknell has directed attention to Landor's Latin works, arguing that Landor's very choice of language reveals his disdain for British authority. Moreover, he maintains, our neglect of the Latin works implies an anglophone bias we would do well to correct. These efforts to revalue Landor participate in widespread endeavours to reposition marginal writers within the English Romantic Canon, endeavours that have given us a new understanding of Southey, De Quincey, and many women writers. If we are to recover Landor, however, our efforts should extend to the Imaginary Conversations he began drafting during the 1820s. Eventually numbering more than a hundred, these primarily political discussions afford remarkable insights into the republican principles at issue for Romantic and Victorian reformers. But they are even more remarkable as examples of the social construction of history, for they create a republican past as a precedent for a republican future. My purpose in this essay is to examine the design of the Imaginary Conversations, considering how and why they use interaction with the past to chart a course for the future. Because Landor's work, which is not well known, has numerous affinities with the more familiar works of Percy Shelley, I compare them throughout when doing so allows one to shed light on the other. I treat Shelley as a 'cognitive reference point' for Romanticists—a figure within the canon that we use, as Alan Richardson has shown, to define the place of 'other' writers. In approaching the Imaginary Conversations, I bring to bear postmodern assumptions about the congruity of fiction and history that allow the work to be studied in a way not possible in the modern academy. When scholarship prized distinctions between history and literature, fact and fiction, Landor's blurring of these categories made the Imaginary Conversations difficult to evaluate. They were usually deemed unintelligible to readers who could not tell where Landor invents and where he 'accurately' represents himself and his historical characters. Annotated editions were undertaken with the goal of providing detailed glosses on every personal and historical reference so that readers could make the crucial distinctions. Now that most of us question such distinctions, we can approach Landor in a different way. If we see history as socially constructed, verifying which elements in a given version are 'accurate' or 'true' according to other sources is less important than discovering what a given version is designed to do. Such an approach is well illustrated by Stanford Lyman's Postmodernism and a Sociology of the Absurd, which calls for attention to the effects of histories (or theories or ideologies) on people's attitudes and actions. Instead of worrying about the validity of Marx's historical dialectic, for example, Lyman would ask what responses it provokes: I posit that the Imaginary Conversations were designed to valorise the habitual questioning of authority, a crucial habit for the maintenance of the kind of republican government Landor advocated. To promote this orientation, the Conversations break the authoritative narrative of history into episodes of political discussion, foregrounding in the past the behaviour Landor would have readers carry out in the future. They thus challenge the authority of the past to determine the future while they model the practice of republican citizenship. That Landor intended the Imaginary Conversations to stimulate political discussion in England is evident from his …