On the Modest Tone of Recent Work in Romantic Studies.
Article Type:
Book Review
Books (Book reviews)
Collings, David
Pub Date:
Name: College Literature Publisher: West Chester University Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Literature/writing Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2001 West Chester University ISSN: 0093-3139
Date: Spring, 2001 Source Volume: 28 Source Issue: 2
NamedWork: Romanticism and Colonial Disease (Book); Romantic Genius: The Prehistory of a Homosexual Role (Book); Romanticism and Postmodernism (Book)
Reviewee: Bewell, Alan; Elfenbein, Andrew; Larrissy, Edward

Accession Number:
Full Text:
Bewell, Alan. 2000. Romanticism and Colonial Disease. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. $45.00 hc. xv + 373 pp.

Elfenbein, Andrew. 1999. Romantic Genius: The Prehistory of a Homosexual Role. New York: Columbia University Press. $49.50 hc. $17.50 sc. xii + 262 pp.

Larrissy, Edward, ed. 1999. Romanticism and Postmodernism. New York: Cambridge University Press. $59.95 hc. xii + 238 pp.

In recent years a renewed emphasis on historical modes of reading has transformed criticism of British romanticism. Now that the era of aggressively historicist critique is a decade behind us, having given birth to a strong consensus by practitioners in the field, work in romantic studies threatens to become all too predictable in its procedures: local in focus, rigorously empirical and materialist in its emphases, modest in its assertions, it seeks only more nuanced and contextualized readings of the panoply of primary texts and more intricate versions of relevant strands of social history. The danger of this modesty is that in cases when research leads to far reaching insight, authors seldom indicate as much and remain content with minor claims. The result is an endless stream of good books whose full implications remain unstated and whose cumulative effect is opaque to all but alert specialists in the field.

Two recent books, Alan Bewell's Romanticism and Colonial Disease and Andrew Elfenbein's Romantic Genius: The Prehistory of a Homosexual Role, exemplify the modesty of romantic studies. Both are original and well researched, are written clearly, recontextualize and reread canonic texts in important new ways, engage less canonic texts with great insight, and open up new lines of inquiry. Both are major contributions to the field and at times are truly brilliant. Yet both authors resist spelling out the full implications of their arguments or even tying together the arguments of different chapters into a more cumulative and powerful whole. In each case, the particularist habit stifles the emergence of a stronger claim.

Bewell argues that in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, writers conceived of the British tropical colonies in such thoroughly medicalized terms that they produced what he calls a "medical geography." Since disease was thought to be caused by the properties of air, especially that near swamps or jungles, writers depicted the tropics as pathogenic spaces. Such conceptions of the colonies derived in part, Bewell shows, from the appalling human cost of colonization: the vast majority, indeed nearly all, of the men sent to the tropics to enforce colonial rule lost their lives or their health in the attempt. Bewell points out that, according to historians such as Philip Curtain and Marcus Rediker, more seamen died during the infamous middle passage that brought African slaves to the New World than did Africans (102-03).While postcolonial criticism has typically emphasized the situation of the colonized, Bewell shifts focus to the colonizers, or rather to the ple beian military personnel impressed into duty by a colonizing state. Ranging widely across the period, discussing poems, novels, autobiographical accounts, and more, Bewell extends many of the themes of late nineteenth century medical studies (such as the aestheticization of tuberculosis) into a much earlier era and gives decided new force to recent work in romantic studies on what Nigel Leask has called the "anxieties of empire." But this book pushes well beyond these affiliated projects, creating virtually a new vocabulary for discussing the colonial discourses of the period. Moreover, in fresh and often stunning new readings of texts such as "The Ruined Cottage," "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," "To Autumn," The Triumph of Life, Jane Eyre, and The Last Man, Bewell demonstrates that British writing even about life in the home country depicted it in relation to the problem of the effects of tropical disease or, more problematically, of the miasmas native to England itself.

Given the originality of his project, it is odd that Bewell makes revisionist claims only briefly or in passing. It is thus useful to pause and list some of the key new questions raised by his book. His account of the enormous loss of life of British servicemen, a loss treated with indifference by the patrician establishment, and of the tacit agreement that the impressment of plebeian men helped clear away unwanted portions of the population shows that a quiet kind of mass murder of men in a particular social category was underway for generations (69-83). The implications of this argument are breathtaking; one cannot simply absorb it as a historical datum or as useful background information but must understand it in part by revising or discarding many of the cultural theories now being applied to the period. For example, if such ruthless exploitation was already underway long before the arrival of an industrial economy, what happens to familiar Marxist interpretations of class history? Building on work by Rediker and Peter Linebaugh, who write of a shipboard "Atlantic working class," Bewell describes a mode of exploitation well worthy of resistance, whether through piracy, mutiny, seaboard urban riots, or the protest or anticolonial writings of the 1790s examined in his excellent second chapter. Unlike Rediker and Linebaugh, Bewell does not attempt to extend the Marxist class analysis back into the eighteenth century, but by not raising the historiographical question, he similarly dodges the task of constructing a convincing model of exploitation and resistance proper to a mercantilist, colonizing, and anti-reformist regime. Similarly, what notion of "colonization" emerges when one learns that the state routinely sacrificed vast numbers of its own people to subjugate its overseas populations? Should one begin to speak of "self-colonization"? Finally, what are the consequences, if any, for the history of race relations if more white people died in the middle passage than black?

When Bewell moves to somewhat later historical conjunctures and demonstrates that British writers routinely applied the discourse of the medicalized tropics to urban zones within Britain itself, thereby conceiving of the latter as versions of the former, he describes a cultural pattern remarkably like that which, as recent work in Victorian cultural studies indicates, also applies in the case of police detection, which first evolved in India and was then applied on the domestic front. It seems that the nineteenth-century mode of power/knowledge as applied to the "working classes" is derived from colonizing knowledges. Once again, one must ask whether one should begin to describe something like "self-colonization" although its shape in the later period differs substantially from that in the earlier. Is it truly possible to distinguish between the logic of medical or policing improvement in the colonies and in the home country?

If indeed medical discourse was as central to the colonial project as Bewell argues, then it is also necessary to theorize the historical significance of what amount to medical, rather than political, contests for dominance in the colonies. At one point Bewell remarks that St. Domingue became the first new world colony ruled by blacks primarily because of the effects of disease on the white soldiers sent to subjugate it (77). But if colonies became free due largely to disease, what happens to familiar models of political agency and resistance? Can one even apply usual notions of state formation to a colony liberated, as it were, through the power of malaria and similar diseases? Conversely, if British power was vulnerable to medical crisis in this way, can one any longer describe it in primarily political terms? If it could not impose its will through force, but necessarily encountered the unmasterable fact of tropical disease, the British colonizing state in effect incorporated its own death into the social body of which it was comprised. To depict colonization medically might make it necessary to remodel colonial power using archaic bodily metaphors; Bewell may thus have opened the way for a dramatic expansion of the work of those critics who, like Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, have traced the history of Bakhtinian inversion and transgression up through nineteenth-century British culture and beyond. His book in effect depicts the emergence of a global interplay of high and low, and accordingly in his final chapter on The Last Man he shows how in that text the "plague reverses the progress of empire" in a kind of "reverse colonialism" (306).

Some critics might object that fleshing out the implications of Bewell's research for cultural history is beside the point, since the central task is to illuminate the literature of the period. Yet it is by no means clear that Bewell adheres to an old-fashioned belief in the primacy of literature. In fact, he never pauses to discuss the variety of genres in which his chosen texts are written or to comment on the literary devices through which they represent the theme of colonial disease. The result is that literature is treated alongside other discourses as if they all share the same basic status within a cultural history, which is itself far too complex to be represented in any straightforward manner. In this respect, his book typifies current work in romantic studies. But without a broader historical questioning and without an equally important account of the effect of literary conventions or tropes, Bewell is left without a sense of a literary response to historical conditions, without an interpretable dialogue or tension. Critical judgment is thus reduced to taking sides within the debate already voiced by those texts, between Percy Bysshe Shelley's notion that climate is a directly political fact that can be corrected through the vast public works projects meant to "improve" nature and Mary Shelley's equally anticolonialist imagined future in which colonization unleashes an unstoppable biological force: in short, between the total subjugation of disease or its total release. That Bewell reads the scenario of The Last Man as a conceivable future for us now (309-14) reveals his inability to take seriously the particular strategies of romantic hyperbole or of the novel's mode of dismantling received conceptions of political agency. The full implications of his argument for our reading of literature in the period thus remains unclear, as does the overall political effect of his demonstration of the medicalization of the tropics.

In contrast, Elfenbein begins by raising the question of the relation between literature and history, arguing that historians of sexuality would learn much from careful readings of the literature of the eighteenth and nine teenth centuries. Legal records, medical writing, letters and manuscripts have served as the evidence of choice for historians of the period's sexuality, but Elfenbein rightly argues that historians should pay far more attention to "mainstream writing that ultimately had a greater effect on perceptions of homosexuality" (6).Yet one should not simply use literature as evidence; if there is so much of that kind of evidence available written by an "over whelming number of gay and lesbian authors," one should also ask why this is so. His book is based on the premise that" something about literature's construction has proved exceptionally inviting to homosexuality, and that 'some thing' is genius" (7). His point is not that queer people have naturally been writers, but that the social position of the marginalized, rebellious, at times gender-bending artist was so closely analogous to that of queer people that they could qualify successfully for that role. The invention of the romantic "genius" thus gave sexually atypical people a form of social agency. Elfenbein shifts the focus: rather than trying to find gay or lesbian people in the period or identify resistant literary texts (those novels, for example, that resist normalizing closure), he focuses on the invention of new forms of social agency, new positions from which lives could be lived or texts written, in the process designating a fresh object for historical investigation.

If in this way Elfenbein stitches together his historical and literary arguments, he also usefully opens a new set of questions about the social valence of the romantic author. Historicist criticism of the last decade has frequently savaged the authorial self-mystifications of the period, but by demonstrating that the role of genius gave otherwise marginal male and female authors a form of symbolic capital, he has recast the debate, showing that romanticism is far more intimately aligned with a mode of authorship that did not necessarily confirm prevailing gender or sexual norms. By arguing that the genius is a particular kind of social agent, he draws new attention to romantic authorship as such, not in order to underline its incipient professionalism (as in much recent romantic criticism) or to trace its place in histories of publication or literacy but to emphasize another and potentially resistant dimension of such artistic agency. Crucially, by turning to literature of the romantic period to make his larger case about the history of sexuality, he has also helped redefine what kinds of history count as pertinent contexts for romantic texts, implicitly making hitherto suspect kinds of artistic performance relevant as material evidence of another type. In all these respects, this book is genuinely pathbreaking, long overdue, and should be read by everyone in the field.

Like Bewell, Elfenbein at every point demonstrates his expertise as a historian and scholar. While he is never heavy-handed, he quietly challenges Michel Foucault, Randolph Trumbach, and Alan Sinfield in their attempts to find something like a linear narrative of the emergence of modern sexual identities in the complex historical record. His insistence on the particularities of each case is a great strength, allowing him to confirm and extend Eve Sedgwick's argument that such a narrative is belied by the fact that no single coherent model of sexuality obtains even now. He thus manages to take the empirical strain of the history of sexuality seriously while also using the resources of queer theory. Moreover, he is a subtle reader of artistic careers, even of those somewhat earlier in the eighteenth century, and is a fine reader of difficult canonic texts as well. His remarkable chapters on William Beckford, William Cowper, the sculptor Anne Damer, the poet Anne Bannerman, Blake's Milton (in which he proposes a sharply revisionary reading of that difficult poem), and Coleridge's Christabel, thus have a powerful cumulative effect, not least because in them he ranges broadly across the arts, through various literary genres, between male and female careers, and among people of varying sexualities and of varying levels of public notoriety.

Yet Elfenbein, like Bewell, resists making as strong or as integrated a case as his own evidence would support. Perhaps the most crucial neglected argument is implicit in his repeated return to economic questions. He rightly argues that Anne Damer's rank allowed her access to a sapphic sexuality denied to poorer women, raising with some urgency the place of economic agency within the history of sexuality, a problem not often given sufficient weight. In a fascinating discussion of the reception of William Cowper's poetry, he displaces Sedgwick's theory of "homosexual panic" through his idea of "suburban panic," that is, the fear among men of the emerging middling classes of the early nineteenth century (a group described by the historians Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall) that their newly genteel status made them uncomfortably similar to effeminate men. In this way he simultaneously narrows Sedgwick's thesis and makes visible the sexual dynamic implicit in new forms of refinement. His account of William Beckford's career foregrounds the economic question from the start insofar as he demonstrates that Beckford attempted to be that difficult thing, a genius of consumption, the contradictions of which position are revealed satirically in Vathek, where the paradise of consumption, Elfenbein remarks, looks more like hell (50).

By touching upon the intersection of sexuality and class, economic agency, and consumption so consistently, Elfenbein gestures towards a possible synoptic account he nowhere makes outright. Should one begin to apply the arguments of historians like John D'Emilio concerning sexualities in the United States to British sexualities of an earlier period? Is the development of a culture of consumption, individual preference, and mobile and some-what democratized forms of economic (and, one should here add, artistic) agency the prerequisite for the emergence of new sexual possibilities? Moreover, to what extent is consumption, conceived as the expression of refined taste, already implicated in suspect forms of pleasure? In the wake of J. G. A. Pocock's work on the eighteenth-century British debate regarding virtue and commerce, much has been written on the gender anxieties attendant on a credit economy, but Elfenbein's analysis of "suburban panic" hints that sexuality is also at stake. Yet it seems that panic is only one side of the story. If, as Elfenbein argues, Cowper is at once beloved of the suburbanizing classes in the early nineteenth century, yet construed as either mad or a hermaphrodite, perhaps these classes wished to identify themselves with or incorporate the distinctiveness he represented, if only in a somewhat distanced or normalized manner, in part to craft the notion of the unique modern individual. Where Victorian critics have pointed to the enviable distinctiveness of Byron's scandalous sexuality, whose signs were imitated by Disraeli among others, Elfenbein shows that Cowper's strangeness, along with the decidedly nonaristocratico distinctiveness of poets like Bannerman or Blake, could, perhaps at the cost of a bit of panic, shape the self-preception of a different social class in the new century. If, as Elfenbein argues, the distinctive ness of the genius is transformed into the lifestyle distinctions of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie (much as, according to Colin Campbell, romanticism's visionary aspirations are eventually routinized through the mundane fantasies of modern consumers), and if romantic subjectivity gives agency to nonnormative modes of sexual expression, it seems possible that Elfenbein opens the door to conceiving of how queer sexuality evolves into a constitutive (though embedded) aspect of modern commercial society.

Insofar as both Bewell and Elfenbein remain caught within the interplay between simplifying linear narratives and more convincing, if local, interpretation, they exemplify one of the aspects of what Jean-Francois Lyotard has called "the postmodern condition," one focus of the recently published Romanticism and Postmodernism. Based on papers given at a conference at the University of Warwick in 1992, its essays vary widely in focus, linking the titular terms at times through Lyotard's analysis of the Kantian sublime, Friedrich Schlegel's aesthetics of the fragment, the transformations of the Gothic in recent popular culture, and echoes of romantic practice in postmodern fiction and poetry. While the volume gathers many useful and persuasive essays, especially Emma Francis's reading of Emily Bronte's poetry, John Fletcher's account of the postmodern uncanny, and Marjorie Perloff's tough and persuasive discrimination between divergent postmodern aesthetics of recent decades, it marshalls no overall take on the problem posed by its title. Nevertheless, the opening essay by Paul Hamilton does clarify how frequently postmodern writing continues to define itself over against the master narratives it seems no longer to accept.

Hamilton's observations prompt one to reconsider how both Bewell and Elfenbein hesitate to map out a new critical trajectory. It seems that romantic studies truly is caught between discredited master narratives and local reading, even if this interplay, as Alan Liu has argued, is itself anticipated in much romantic writing. But rather than taking the Lyotard postmodern as a fact of life, we might collectively begin to propose new strong, if not master narratives, that would work from local narratives towards those that would have a broader explanatory force. If received mappings of class, gender, and the like are in tatters, it is possible to imagine new mappings on the basis of a decade of careful research. Scholars have often been rightly suspicious of the effort to make theoretical pronouncements too soon, yet they more than others have done the legwork to justify claims whose exact content may only now be coming into focus. Might one hope for a new era of theorizing in romantic studies, this time in a thoroughly grounded and yet conceptually ambitious vein?

Collings teaches at Bowdoin College and is the author of Wordsworthian Errancies: The Poetics of Cultural Dismemberment.
Gale Copyright:
Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.