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There is a cliché in Romantic studies, which contends that no scholar can avoid becoming partisan when it comes to Wordsworth and his fellow poets. Sometimes the choice is between Wordsworth and Coleridge—was Wordsworth the long-suffering friend and collaborator, or was he an egomaniac who drove his friend to a crisis of poetic confidence from which Coleridge would recover? Other times, at stake is the complex public relationship between Wordsworth and that other great poet of the Romantic era, Byron. Occasionally, it is even a choice between Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy, especially when her unpublished poems and journals are at stake. If the cliché has any truth, I will make an enemy of half of the field when I confess that I do not often find myself of the Wordsworth party. Thus, I was surprised and delighted to discover the excellent essays in Joel Pace and Matthew Scott’s volume Wordsworth in American Literary Culture.
I begin by rehearsing this tired cliché about the divisiveness or decisiveness (depending on one’s perspective) of Wordsworth for reasons that are, I hope, grounded in more than self-indulgence. In reading the essays gathered together in Pace and Scott’s volume, I found myself wondering about my reception of Wordsworth and about the ways in which that reception might have been informed by a prior cultural experience of American literary culture. At stake in these questions of Romantic scholarly partisanship are, after all, questions of Wordsworth’s poetic legacy and cultural influence; these same questions are at the heart of Wordsworth in American Literary Culture. The book is comprised of eleven diverse chapters, plus an introduction, in which the authors chart the American cultural engagement with Wordsworth and his verse from the early national period until the latter part of the last century, with the majority of the essays focusing on Wordsworth’s reception in the United States during the nineteenth century.
I think it is fair to say that, if partisanship is our professional destiny, Pace and Scott would have to be counted among the Wordsworth enthusiasts. This is certainly fitting, given the project at hand. The opening lines of the introduction announce: “Harold Bloom has written that only two writers have truly altered the course of western poetry” (1), and one of them, unsurprisingly, is Wordsworth. The statement is, as the editors note, a controversial one, but in many ways the framing of this collection, loosely at least, around Bloom invites debate. No fewer than five of the essays, in addition to the introduction, use his work to inform readings of Wordsworth’s reception in America, and in some ways Bloom and his scholarship are as much at the heart of this project as Wordsworth. However, Bloom became a controversial figure in contemporary American academic culture after the publication of his work on the western canon in the 1990s, and, because Wordsworth has at least as important a role in the politics of the canon as he does in the history of literary influence, my only suggestion is that it might be useful for readers to understand more precisely from the outset the reasons for Bloom’s centrality to this project.
It is probably also worth noting that, although the essays in the volume work at the productive intersection that we think of as Anglo-American culture, Wordsworth in American Literary Culture is perhaps weighted more toward British literary studies than American literary studies. The majority of the contributors are, in one way or another, Wordsworth specialists, and, as a student of British Romanticism, I was pleased to find contributions by so many distinguished and familiar names in the field. As we might expect from such an expert gathering, the essays collected in this volume are written to a very high standard, and Pace and Scott have drawn them together superbly into a coherent whole, something few essay collections manage to achieve. The result is sure to be an important book for anyone interested in learning more about Wordsworth’s influence, whether direct or indirect, on Anglo-American literary culture.
The essays are arranged roughly chronologically, and the volume begins with Susan Manning’s dense, complicated, and brilliant essay on the ways in which the interpenetration of poetic voice across national and cultural borders reveals early national American literary culture as marked by a discursive différance or a “confluence of narratives” (24). Working through some of the complexities of reading influence and exchange in the transatlantic context, Manning tackles directly the problem with “treating style as exclusively the product of ideology” (24), arguing in the end for the importance of recognizing “the provisionality of all judgement in relation to the playfulness, the excess of affect over extractable content that makes literature….generate meaning across words, not inside them” (24). This argument provides the framework for a consciously metaphorical (in the etymological sense of “carrying across”) reading of Anglo-American texts by Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Wordsworth.
Later in the volume, the essays by Lance Newman, Karen Karbiener, and Richard E. Brantley extend Manning’s focus on Wordsworthian poetic voice and its presence in diverse genres across American letters, and taken together these three essays, along with Manning’s, constitute one of the important thematic groupings of the collection. Newman writes on Thoreau’s relationship to Wordsworth (chapter 6) and uses his central claim—that “Wordsworth, the poet of natural democracy, embodied an important ideological innovation that allowed New England’s bourgeois radicals to represent themselves as leading the way forward towards further social progress” (129)—to frame a nuanced and fascinating reading of Thoreau’s significant verse productions. Karbiener takes up this theme again in her essay on Wordsworth and Whitman (chapter 7), reading Whitman’s silences on the subject of Wordsworth in the context of nineteenth-century concerns over the poet’s “high status” (151) within and his conservative influence on American letters. Finally, Brantley characterizes Dickinson’s verse as marked by a Wordsworthian “cast” (chapter 8), in order to argue for reading the reclusive New England poet as influenced by a particular Anglo-American form of Late Romantic spiritualism, based in sense-based reason and demonstrated by Wordsworth. Brantley’s object is to claim Dickinson as a Late Romantic rather than “premodern” writer (173).
Wordsworth’s influence on visual arts and aesthetics comprise another thematic focus developed in the course of Wordsworth in American Literary Culture. I found these to be some of the most fresh and rewarding essays in the volume. Bruce Graver’s chapter on the American picturesque (chapter 3) works with the writings of John Greenleaf Whittier as emblematic of a North American aesthetic of the picturesque that is complicated by the history of indigenous peoples, colonialism, and racial superiority, and Graver convincingly places these writings in relation to Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads (69). Richard Gravil’s essay (chapter 2) on the novels of James Fenimore Cooper and his “cumulative shift from a Burkean to a Wordsworthian grasp of nature” (43) extends the discussion of the picturesque in the collection. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Fay’s essay on representations of chivalry in the Boston Public Library (chapter 9) is an example of far-ranging cultural criticism at its best. Reading Romantic attitudes toward chivalry and the Arthurian legend, as inflected particularly by Wordsworth and the Pre-Raphaelites, Fay provides a compelling account of the Edwin Austin Abbey murals in the library’s public reading rooms as moral allegories that “emphasize…chivalry’s troubled relation to the body” and to gender (194).
Matthew Scott’s interesting essay on Wordsworth, William James, and the American reader (chapter 11) also engages visual culture in framing its argument, but this unusual final chapter of the book perhaps merits some particular comment. The essay, if I understand Scott’s intentions rightly, is an experiment in what used to be called, after the publication of Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, affective criticism. Scott begins by considering his own aesthetic and moral response to a series of disturbing photographs and frames those reflections with his sympathetic readings in the Lyrical Ballads, arguing that “Wordsworth,” likewise, “emerges for American readers as a poet of an essentially curative aesthetic” (225). From here, Scott turns for intensification of his claims to James’s descriptions of “an attitude toward the world that is emotional, anti-speculative, and opposed to rationality, an attitude that is Romantic” (226)—and an attitude that James frames in his essay on “The Sentiment of Rationality” as Wordsworthian. There is a final section that reads Geoffrey Hartman reading Wordsworth, modern multimedia forms of communication, and the role of sympathetic imagination in western culture, and the objective is presumably to return the argument to the contemporary political contexts with which Scott’s own reflections began. The essay is somewhat digressive and it demands that readers reorient their frame of reference, but Scott has my applause for writing a thoughtful, smart, and rather witty essay.
The remaining essays in this volume take on an impressive array of topics and extend the reach of Wordsworth in American Literary Culture into more popular print-culture contexts. James A. Butler reads (chapter 10) the best-selling “western” novel, The Virginians, by early twentieth-century author Owen Wister, in relation to the “Romantic impulse[s]” (206) articulated by Wordsworth in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads and in Home at Grasmere, while Adam Potkay reflects (chapter 5) on Wordsworth’s affection for Bishop George Washington Doane and what it reveals, in the print-culture writings of Theodore Parker, about the “conflicting appropriations of Wordsworth in antebellum America” (102). Meanwhile, the essay contributed by Pace (chapter 4) is particularly broad ranging and takes up the gothic as an Anglo-American genre; Pace reads the “nineteenth-century gothic [as being] in the thick of transatlantic debates about race…and show[s] how authors”—primarily Wordsworth, Poe, Hawthorne, Cable, Chopin, and Chestnutt—“drew upon racist pseudo-science to create an aesthetics of horror and sublimity” (78). These essays, like the collection as a whole, offer readers an impressive range of new approaches to Wordsworth and his place within Anglo-American literary culture.