With the 1986 publication of Atlantic Double-Cross: American Literature and British Influence in the Age of Emerson, Robert Weisbuch expressed his intentions of inaugurating a field of literary study left unexplored because of the “conventional habits by which departments of English and comparative literature organize themselves.” Transatlantic Romanticism was thus declared new and open terrain by a pioneer who actually “beg[ged] for the correction and completion of this study by others.” In Romantic Dialogues: Anglo American Continuities 1776-1862, Richard Gravil supports, expands, and challenges Weisbuch’s groundbreaking work. Gravil upholds the premise that writers of the American Renaissance shaped the beginnings of their country’s literary tradition by responding to English Romanticism. He also posits that America shared in the genesis of Romantic ideology by inspiring the British Romantics and by demonstrating something approaching an indigenous American Romanticism. Beginning his discussion with an analysis of what he calls the Anglo-American Revolution, Gravil adds a sociopolitical foreground to discussion of Transatlantic Romanticism; developing suggestions of influence into substantial links (as in the chapter on Melville and Coleridge), he supplies revealing perspectives on established writers, and encourages further development of the field.
Starting with Blake’s America and concluding with Dickinson’s readings of British Romanticism, Romantic Dialogues covers an ambitious amount of ground in record time. Consequently, there are no surprises among the names listed in the chapter headings. Gravil makes his argument accessible to scholars of British and American Romanticism alike by focusing on major writers on either side of the Atlantic. He often acknowledges his omissions, and yet remains intent upon constructing an organized, foundational reading of Anglo-American literary history. Part I, entitled “Revolution and Independence, 1776-1837,” sets the scene for a discussion of America’s growing interest in cultural as well as political independence from Britain. As Gravil points out, the myth of an autochthonous American literature still obscures the complex series of events that demonstrate the empire’s strong hold on America, as well as the ex-colony’s lingering dependence. In Part II, “Redeeming the Promise of England, 1823-1862,” Gravil investigates individual cases of England’s influence on the development of American letters. Establishing Burke’s influence on Cooper, or supporting studies linking Keats to Hawthorne, Gravil builds his case for how British Romanticism shaped and inspired the American Renaissance.
An English scholar who has recently published a book entitled Master Narratives: Tale and Telling in the English Novel (2001), Gravil is situated on “the other side of the pond,” both literally and intellectually. In his introduction to Romantic Dialogues, he admits that his “ear is primarily attuned” to Wordsworth, and Wordsworth’s reception and resonance in America are indeed focal points of the book. Happily for Gravil and his readers, one could not choose a more important or representative figure for a study of Transatlantic Romanticism. Not only was Wordsworth considered the purest emanation of the spirit of the age in Britain and America; he was the only living example of that spirit to a young man living in a cabin on Walden Pond, to an ambitious penny daily journalist in Brooklyn, and to every editor of The Dial in the magazine’s four year history. And yet America’s new voices were not always willing to proclaim their admiration and debts to an aging poet laureate who wrote sonnets supporting capital punishment and charged visitors for tea. Gravil’s fluency in the Wordsworthian mode enables him to recognize the most subtle intimations of imitation— signs of influence that may have been unintentional or unconscious even to the writers themselves. Walden, for example, is shown to reflect Thoreau’s readings of many minor works by Wordsworth (including “Reply to Mathetes” and “The Pond in Winter”), and Nature and “The American Scholar” are demonstrated to be creations of a young writer “painstakingly laminating the ideas, the experiences, the insights, and quite frequently the phrases of Wordsworth.”
Gravil may be rooted on British soil, but he has cultivated strong relationships with major representatives of the American Renaissance, especially Cooper, Emerson, Melville, Thoreau, and Whitman. By focusing on fewer American authors and works, Gravil is able to concentrate his research and creative energies on finding unusual or overlooked links with the English Romantics. In the first pages of “Discharged Soldiers and Runaway Slaves,” for example, Gravil provides a detailed outline of the foreground of Leaves of Grass; in so doing, he notes the shared childhood heroes of Whitman and Blake—important information for scholars puzzled by the similarities between the two, despite Whitman’s ignorance of Blake’s works while Leaves of Grass went through its first printings. Gravil’s main point in this chapter is to demonstrate that Leaves of Grass, primarily “Song of Myself,” is a response to the Prelude. Though his argument contains a fair share of question marks and conjectures— after all, Whitman adamantly denied reading Wordsworth at all, and no proof exists that he read the entire Prelude— the variety and number of Wordsworthian allusions revealed are very compelling. One feels that Gravil has cracked Whitman’s code of influence when he notes that Whitman’s opening lines to “Song of Myself” (“What I assume you shall assume,/ For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”) both imitate and correct the Prelude’s last thoughts (“What we have loved, others will love,/ And we will teach them how”).
Where would one expect to find such an ambidextrous study of English and American literature? These 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. Interestingly, despite the placement of Gravil’s other books, Romantic Dialogues stands along side studies of the “American scene,” not far from Atlantic Double-Cross at the beginning of the American literature section. Perhaps this should be recognized as a positive gesture— 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.” Weisbuch and others who have attempted to fill this vacancy know the many frustrations involved, including the dilemma of finding little appeal among the arbiters of either British or American literary culture even while building a bridge between them.
Gravil admits in his introduction that he would have liked to include a more detailed reading of Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus; indeed, much remains to be discovered about Carlyle’s impact on American Transcendentalism, and how he kept the English Romantics on the minds of Americans long after Wordsworth’s death. A discussion of the possibilities might have made a more compelling endnote than the digression on early nineteenth century American periodicals that now ends Romantic Dialogues. Alternately, a reader also becomes curious about the women Gravil mentions in passing: Mary Wollstonecraft, Frances Wright, Anna Letitia Barbauld, Margaret Fuller. Unlike their male counterparts, American and English women found more reasons to unify and openly support one another through the nineteenth century; listening in on their conversation could add a new dimension to the covert or even subversive examples of influence inspired by representative men. Gravil’s highly suggestive work inspires such new investigations even as it responds to seminal questions regarding Anglo-American literary relations. As had Weisbuch before him, Gravil sounds an inviting call to action to his readers, declaring his subject to be “work for a generation, not for a book.”