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Anthologizing Romantic-Era Writing For the Commercial Market: An Introduction to a Public Discussion[Notice]

  • Susan Wolfson

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  • Susan Wolfson
    Princeton University

With the following remarks, I introduced a panel that I chaired at MLA in December, 1996, "Anthologizing Romantic-Era Writing: Shaping the Canon for the Commercial Marketplace." The reconfiguration of the field formerly known as Romanticism has been developing since the advent of new-historicist and feminist criticism in the 1980s, with flourishing results in the 1990s. Some of this interest is being met by on-line resources, and some by new anthologies for the classroom—notably Duncan Wu's Romanticism, An Anthology, Anne Mellor and Richard Matlak's British Literature: 1780-1830, and the forthcoming "Romantics and their Contemporaries" section, edited by myself and Peter Manning for Longman's Anthology of British Literature. There have also been revisions to the contents of established presences—in particular the Norton whose Romanticism section is edited by Jack Stillinger, and the classroom giant for decades, David Perkin's English Romantic Writers. You can see the Tables of Contents of the new collections, including Jerome McGann's Romantic Period Verse. Let me briefly sketch in the background of our present moment, with some attention to the most salient feature of the new anthologies, though not the only one: the inclusion of writing by women. Russell Noyes's once standard English Romantic Poetry and Prose (1956; first edition) had a very wide span, beginning with Thomson's Seasons (1725 or so) and ending with poems written in the 1840s, but also a narrow representation of women: Wollstonecraft got 10 pages out of 1300, Wordsworth 9, Radcliffe 6. The anthologies of the 1950s and 60s tightened the period borders and curtailed even this small number of women. The first edition of the Norton defined "The Romantic Period" as 1798-1832, taking the publication of Lyrical Ballads and the passage of the Reform Bill as border-markers; the featured writers were the Big Six plus Burns. From the 1960s to about 1990, the terrain of "Romanticism" remained mostly unchanged, defined for survey courses by the Norton and for period courses by David Perkins's English Romantic Writers. With their generously represented, generously annotated canon of mostly male writers, these anthologies guided the education of most of the tenured faculty in our field. In the mid-1990s, noticeable changes began to appear, ranging from friendly amendments and revisions to outright challenges and interventions. If we check the Norton, we get an apt enough indication: in the 6th edition of 1993, "The Romantic Period" moved the early end back to 1785, acknowledging the relation of Romanticism to the Revolutionary period, and three women appear among the featured writers: Wollstonecraft, Wordsworth, and Shelley. In 1995, Perkins, with an ironic sense that new Romanticism was actually more truly retro (that is, going back to the pre-war days when wide reading in the field was the norm and when historical contextualizing was the dominant mode of study) introduced a second, expanded edition of his highly regarded English Romantic Writers. He kept his period reined in to 1798-1832 and added several women writers. Perkins already had revisionary company—especially editors unencumbered by heritages (or entailments) from decades of success with a standard classroom product. In 1994, Duncan Wu's Romantcism, An Anthology cast a very wide net across these decades, bringing in many unanthologized writers, including many women. With the exception of some key texts—for example, the 1798 Lyrical Ballads, the 1805 Prelude, and Don Juan I—Wu opted for breadth of representation. And with an eye to issues rather than dates, Wu offers as his earliest text Burke's Sublime and Beautiful, and, his latest, Mill's Autobiography. Just in advance of Wu, in 1993, McGann issued another experimental anthology, Romantic …