You are on Érudit's new platform. Enjoy! Switch to classic view

IntroductionIntroducing Transatlantic Romanticism[1]

  • Joel Pace

…more information

  • Joel Pace
    University of Wisconsin, Eau-Claire

Article body

The narrative of the profession of literary study that emerges while reading the mosaic of short paragraphs that comprise the "MLA JIL" offers a portrait of the current state of academic affairs. The Job Information List of the Modern Language Association divides literatures in English into British and American, and thereby widens a gulf between national literatures that for centuries have been defined by transatlantic contact, contestation, and conversation. The list, of course, did not create “the artificial divide between literatures in English […], a divide recognized by few creative writers but enshrined in the academic community,” to quote from the text that appears on the back cover of Symbiosis: A Journal of Anglo-American Literary Relations. Symbiosis seeks to bridge this rift that, as Sohui Lee’s article in this special issue of Romanticism on the Net points out, has been perpetuated, ironically, by centuries of transatlantic critical dialogue, involving American assertions of political and poetical independence from England and British pronouncements on the inability of a republic to produce a national literature. Since the late twentieth century, a host of scholars has worked to connect Atlantic-rim literatures, and the MLA JIL has begun to reflect this change, especially in recent years: indeed, virtually every major research university in America has advertised an opening for a scholar who has expertise in transatlantic literary and cultural relations. The words “transatlantic” and “transnational” are occurring with increasing frequency as operative adjectives describing “attractive” and “highly valued” research and teaching interests of candidates. The mosaic of job advertisements gives us a picture of a new field that is emerging. The fascinating, new directions of research and teaching indicated by the MLA list are not arbitrary; the list does not merely go “where it listeth,” but defines and is defined by international scholarship and pedagogy.

An interesting course for research and instruction was already being set once American institutions of higher education (following the lead of Harvard University) began calling the “English Department” the “Department of English and American Language and Literature.” But the problem of categorization extends beyond nomenclature for departments and appointments to the organization of university courses and libraries. Like U.S. call numbers, U.K. shelfmarks assign separate spaces to seemingly separate literatures. Karen Karbiener’s book review (included in this special issue) comments on British and American literature, noting that “[t]hese fields are as separate on the shelves of American libraries as they are in the catalogues of American literature departments; studies of Transatlantic literary relations must still be sorted either in the Library of Congress 'PR' or 'PS' sections, with the Anglo preceding the American.” Alphabetically, there is no space between these call numbers to designate a middle ground (or shelf) for comparatist books, unless a P.S. were added to the PS (and the PR) section. Transatlantic studies, however, is developing into much more than a post scriptum to single-nation studies: it is, in Karbiener’s words, “an effort to draw both American and British scholars to a center of sorts, and to break the silence between the last “PR” and the first “PS.” This sub-field does not seek to conflate American and British literature, to make these seemingly separate spheres concentric, but to examine and theorize the considerable space of overlap between them. For earlier scholars, the literature of these two nations was distinct, as far as undergraduate and graduate-level coursework was concerned. As Lance Newman has pointed out, there is, however, a new cohort of scholars emerging for whom the transnationalism of Atlantic-rim literature and literary culture is no longer a hypothesis but an axiom. As a result, what was once a liminal, marginal space between national centers of influence, such as London or Boston, has become a center itself: the Atlantic.

Acknowledging the Atlantic as a central point of contact for America and Britain, also allows for comparative work to move beyond these two nations to encompass the Atlantic rim. Circum-Atlantic connections necessarily involve Africa, the Americas, Canada, the Caribbean, France, Ireland, Spain, and a whole host of other (trans)national points of cultural contact. Examination of cross-cultural exchange in all of its symbiotic, predatory, and parasitic manifestations forces the hand of literary theory to engage with the ways literature reflects the Atlantic as a conduit of information and as an enabler of colonialist expansion and exploitation. In After Theory, Terry Eagleton notes that to “be inside and outside a position at the same time—to occupy a territory while loitering skeptically on the boundary—is often where the most intensely creative ideas stem from….One has only to think of the great names of twentieth-century English literature, almost all of whom moved between two or more national cultures” (40). The same, of course, holds true for writers from earlier centuries as well. Olaudah Equiano moved between American and European cultures on the Atlantic Rim, all the while maintaining his African identity, but he is also able to critique Atlantic institutions, such as slavery, from within by occupying a skeptical space both inside and outside the fold of Anglo-American sensibilities and ideologies. “The Black Atlantic,” named after Paul Gilroy’s influential book, is emerging as an area of study in its own right. New scholarship on Atlantic connections will ultimately shape not only literary theory, but also pedagogy and curriculum. In Britain, the Universities of Edinburgh, Dundee, and Central Lancashire offer graduate degrees in transatlantic studies. As indicated by the MLA JIL, American Ivy League Universities like Brown, Harvard, and Pennsylvania, among others, are devoting institutes and developing curricula to reflect these new approaches. Transatlantic studies is bound to be more of a presence in the classroom once Transnationalism and American Studies: A Reader, which will inaugurate the Edinburgh Studies in Transatlantic Literatures series and provide a theoretical underpinning to the field, is published. [2]

University of Edinburgh’s STAR (Scotland’s transatlantic relations) project website has become an important resource, demonstrating the potential for the internet to play an integral role in the development of transatlantic studies. The web provides a transnational middle ground and, in a sense, frees readers from the confining system of classification in which shelf space buttresses as well as represents the physical, geographical, political, national and ideological borders erected between nations. As the very name implies, the World Wide Web has provided a transnational space for scholars to make transnational connections—in this instance, a special issue of an online journal hosted by Université de Montréal—as the institutional affiliations of Romanticism on the Net’s editorial board and the primary language of the university that hosts it indicate. “Transatlantic Romanticism,” the burgeoning sub-field for which this issue is named, denotes, both geographically and temporally, a comparatively limited focus. Yet, this area of study significantly expands the confining canons that represented American Romanticism with a few men from Massachusetts and British Romanticism by a half dozen British men who settled in the Lake District or Italy. Important work on women’s writing on either side of the Atlantic preceded comparatist work on transatlantic movements in which women played a very active role, particularly abolitionism as well as women’s rights. When these movements are examined from a transatlantic perspective, new communities of writers emerge beyond those who were in geographic proximity to each other, such as the Lake Poets or the Byron-Shelley circle. Issues 29-30 of Romanticism on the Net, “The Transatlantic Poetess,” bring to the attention of students and scholars “a transatlantic, trans-temporal or periodic feminist community or sorority through their reworking of shared literary predecessors” (Mandell). The introduction provides an apt instance of the accessibility the internet affords, an invaluable resource to scholars and students: “The transatlantic poetess,” writes Mandell, “is now studied in British (1773-1839), American (1770-1865), and Transatlantic (1770-1860) literature courses. This introduction is designed to help plan courses that focus either wholly or in part on the poetess and for doing research on a poetess or the poetess tradition.” It is in this spirit that we offer the contents of this special issue, which draw new connections between communities of writers on both sides of the Atlantic and examine new transatlantic dialogues. These conversations among writers, carried on oftentimes through their books and only very rarely in person or through correspondence, are discussed here in the hopes that they not only will add to transnational conversations among scholars, but also provide resources to students and scholars conducting research as well as instructors designing syllabi.[3] We also offer this issue as a partial companion to, and scholarly underpinning for, Transatlantic Romanticism: An Anthology of British, American, and Canadian Literature, 1767-1867, which will be published by Longman in 2006.

Just as the transatlantic poetess provides a great topic for a thematic course on Transatlantic Romanticism, so also does transatlantic gothic. Anglo-American gothic is the subject of our first essay, David Hogsette’s “Textual Surveillance, Social Codes, and Sublime Voices: The Tyranny of Narrative in Caleb Williams and Wieland,” which provides a valuable resource to those teaching courses in this area. Most gothic specialists have a general impression that William Godwin’s novel Caleb Williams exerted an influence on early American gothic, particularly the work of Charles Brockden Brown, but few are aware of the aesthetic, political, and cultural terms of the American novelist’s engagement with his British predecessor. Hogsette begins with a very important question: “What if we examined these novels within the aesthetic context that joins them in a discursive, transatlantic relationship?” In answering this question, he alludes to the problem early American gothic writers faced. How could American gothic writers set their stories in a “new” country that was devoid of ancient abbeys in ruins, castles, moldering mansions, and other old, decaying grand structures that were a stock convention of British and European gothic? As Hogsette informs us, Brown developed a solution to this problem that planted the gothic on American soil where it is still flourishing:

Brown realized that power and authority in the young American republic hinged upon the ability to excite the mind, animate the soul, and control the will. He transformed the traditional European Gothic—characterized by dark dungeons, labyrinthine abbeys and cathedrals, foreboding castles, decaying ruins, and tyrannical aristocracies—by representing voice and narrative as rhetorical prisons that entrap the will and tyrannize the individual. In an aesthetic and thematic move similar to that of Godwin's Gothicism in Caleb Williams, Brown examines the Gothic tyranny of discourse.

Later writers, like Poe, featured ruined structures in their works by setting their stories in England and Europe; however, Poe as well as Hawthorne also relied on a Brownian/Godwinian gothic that portrayed the terror of tyranny. In a case of “Atlantic double-cross,” to use a term coined by Robert Weisbuch, Mary Shelley drew on the gothic of Brown (as well as Caleb Williams) in the creation of Frankenstein, a novel also about the abuse of authority and the “tyranny of discourse.”

One discursive manifestation of tyranny against which Shelley was writing is the male-based discourse of the Romantic genius. Shelley also—true to the politics of her mother, father, and husband—takes up the topic of the oppressed working class. The issues of rights for women and the poor are advocated across the Atlantic by Margaret Fuller, no stranger to the works of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter. Lance Newman’s essay, “Margaret Fuller’s Summer on the Lakes, in 1843 and the Condition of America,” places her trip to America’s Great Lakes in the context of the “severe economic crisis of 1837 to 1844, a period of widespread questioning of the historical progressiveness of capitalism.” Fuller and her fellow Transcendentalists, drawing in part on Thomas Carlyle, envision Nature as a non-commercial space of spiritual communion and transcendence. Their looking at Nature as a spiritual place put them at loggerheads with those who directed westward expansion and the exploitation of nature for profits, not prophets. In drawing parallels between Fuller and Marx, Newman builds upon his monograph, Our Common Dwelling: Henry Thoreau, Transcendentalism, and the Class Politics of Nature (Palgrave 2005), in which he examines how Thoreau’s writing about Nature engages with the oppression of the working-class in nineteenth-century America. Like Thoreau, Fuller first wrote for The Dial, the Transcendentalist journal she edited and helped found. In her work for The Dial and for the New York Tribune, Fuller found an outlet for her radical views, eventually crossing the Atlantic to serve as the Tribune’s overseas correspondent.

The Tribune was not the only American newspaper expressing sentiments that would ruffle the feathers of British Tory readers. Sohui Lee’s essay, “‘[O]ur American kinsman’: British Nationalism and Book Reviews of American Literature in the 1840s,” demonstrates how “Tory criticism of America, especially the Quarterly’s ‘hostile and costly virulence,’ was an attempt to undermine the ‘liberal’ populist proclivities of the English Whigs and transform homespun British radicalism into an alien ideology—that is, American.” Lee corrects the long-held notion that the only transatlantic influence exerted in the nineteenth century was that of Britain on America. The article documents—for the first time—the British reception history of American journals and periodicals. It forces a reexamination of the reception history of American authors—such as Hawthorne—who were published in these journals and reached a transatlantic audience far earlier than was previously thought.

Transatlantic reception and politics are also the focus of Diane Long Hoeveler’s essay on “Beatrice Cenci in Hawthorne, Melville and her Atlantic-Rim Contexts.” Like Hogsette’s essay, Hoeveler’s indicates how literature represents and critiques governmental abuse of authority, and like Newman’s essay and Lee’s, this one offers another example of American literature taking up the question so often posed by British critics: can the politics and poetics, the laws and literature, of America live up to their potential?

In British gothic works, the representation of Beatrice speaks to the horrific and corrupt power of the mother and father, both as brutal government force, and insane ruler, and a despotic and sadistic mater or pater familias. Both Pierre and The Marble Faun although different from each other in their treatments of human nature and society, are particularly American works in criticizing the notion that a new order can replace the corrupt and rejected world of the fathers. Whereas Shelley’s play [The Cenci] ultimately condemns Beatrice for revenge on her father, neither Melville nor Hawthorne’s works do, although both see her as an omen predicting the failure of America to achieve its original purpose.

In the eyes of these authors, America and Europe are guilty of bloody revolutions and wars to establish and maintain power, and representations of Beatrice Cenci, especially in Melville and Hawthorne, are warnings to an overly idealistic America. Robert Duggan also writes about Melville’s depictions of political upheaval and violence in "'Sleep No More' Again: Melville's Rewriting of Wordsworth," drawing parallels between Wordsworth’s reflections on the French Revolution and Melville’s on the American Civil War. Melville asks the same question of America during the Reconstruction era that Wordsworth posed to post-Revolutionary France: is it possible to preserve the civil liberties for which so many fought so hard and died? In showing how these writers answer this question, Duggan contributes significantly to scholarship on Wordsworth in America.[4]

Adding a coda to the special issue on “The Romantic Poetess,” which retraced the connections between British and American women poets, Nancy Mayer’s “Finding Herself Alone: Emily Dickinson, Victorian Women Novelists, and the Female Subject” places Dickinson on a continuum with the British women novelists she admired, recreating a transatlantic community that informed her solitary musings.[5] Replacing the male-based notion of an author battling with his predecessors for ascendancy, Mayer depicts a community of influence and the complicity of confluence, rather than the “anxiety of influence.” Ultimately, Mayer moves beyond Bloomian considerations to speak to wider issues: “What I wish to do in this essay is not to examine the influence of the novels on Dickinson’s poems (which, I believe, is diffuse and indirect) but to consider what it is the novels and the poems have in common and what those commonalities might tell us about the revisions that late Romantic writers—and particularly these late Romantic women writers—bring to ideas of Romantic subjectivity.” These writers, then, develop methods of redefining male-based aesthetics and social norms, to carve out an intellectual, emotional, and literary space of their own. Each of the writers addressed in these essays creates a space of his or her own in an interstitial space, the Atlantic; the “common ground” they share, though far from groundless, is not ground at all.

Appendices