Michael Gamer. Romanticism and the Gothic: Genre, Reception, and Canon-Formation.
The gothic was a harbinger of romanticism, but, aside from asserting the priority of the gothic, that post hoc formula leaves the historical relationship entirely unexplained. We often talk loosely about movements in literary history affecting other movements, but just what does that involve? Exactly how did the gothic cause the romantic movement to be what it was? What were the agents and agencies involved and how did they operate? Michael Gamer's astute monograph has not only given a convincing historical account of how the prior existence of the gothic as a genre affected three important writers at the beginning of the nineteenth century, but has done so in a way that suggests the more general value of his methods.
The Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky said that, in literary history, descent passes not from father to son but from uncle to nephew, and indeed Michael Garner imagines the first generation of romantic writers as young adults embarrassed by their familial relationship to a wealthy but utterly disreputable uncle with libidinous personal habits and dangerous political associations. Around 1798, the gothic was undoubtedly the most popular literary genre in England: gothic novels written by imitators of Ann Radcliffe dominated not only book sales but, even more spectacularly, borrowings from circulating libraries, while gothic dramas such as Matthew Lewis' Castle Spectre (1797) could run for three solid months at Drury Lane.
But it was also the most despised literary genre. The gothic had been gendered as female reading, the facts about its actual readership to the contrary notwithstanding. And the female reader was characterized as vague and dreamy, unruddered, literal-minded, easily influenced, seducible into strong emotions and unenlightened thoughts by intense representations of unusual, extreme, sometimes supernatural events. Women were in danger from such literature, and so, with their greater responsibilities, were the men who surrendered to it. That Ambrosio, or The Monk, had been written by a member of parliament was revealed with the publication of the second edition in September of 1796, and the immediate result was an unparalleled orgy of vilification of the novel for its supposed obscenity and blasphemy. In the wake of this drubbing, the monthly periodicals that molded critical opinion among the cultural elite, the Monthly Review, the Critical Review, and the more recently founded British Critic and Anti-Jacobin Review, closed ranks to attack gothic novels and other works that could be associated with the gothic, not only on aesthetic but on political grounds. As the war with Napoleonic France grew ever fiercer, the periodicals attacked anything that smacked of German romance, of the Sturm und Drang movement, as a dangerous foreign influence, revolutionary or anarchistic, and therefore deeply unpatriotic, just as French cuisine in recent days has been politicized as unpatriotic in the United States during the current Gulf War.
A difficult dilemma thus greeted any young writer hoping for both popularity, with its financial rewards, and admission into the literary canon, which seemed to be controlled by the Kulturtrager who wrote for the literary reviews. Gamer's chapters on William Wordsworth, Joanna Baillie, and Walter Scott explain how each figure negotiated this dilemma, performing an exquisite dance in response, appealing to the popular audience's taste for elements of the gothic while simultaneously distancing their work, each in different ways, from the taint that genre had acquired.
In this way the gothic became part of what Garner calls the "ideology of romanticism"--using that contested word "ideology" in both of its opposed senses. Romanticism was informed by the world-view of the gothic in many ways, including its intense subjectivity, its preference for the sublime over the beautiful, its supernaturalism, natural and otherwise. But the gothic was also its "ideology" in the sense of false consciousness: it was the genre belonging to "low" culture that romanticism absorbed while pretending to reject it. "Given the cultural status of gothic after 1797 ... this book argues ... that poets working with gothic materials at the turn of the nineteenth century to some degree must take on a double perspective" (95, italics Gamer's).
Gamer understands Wordsworth as beginning in a rather haphazard way the negotiations between the part of himself that had an all-too-human "craving for extraordinary incident" and the other part, the bard of humble life that he was to become. The poetry he was composing at the last stages of formation of the first edition of Lyrical Ballads (1798) included both "strongly gothic" material (such as his play The Borderers) and material that takes shape as anti-gothic parody (such as "The Idiot Boy" and "The Thorn"). This initial negotiation works, according to Garner, in terms of modes of reading: in Lyrical Ballads gothic materials were to be deployed, but not the credulous mode of reading associated with the genre. Instead, the fully dramatized speakers of the most gothic poems were set up to be viewed with ironic distance by the reader. When Wordsworth returned in March of 1799 from Iris trip to Germany with Coleridge, he was greeted by the hostile notices of Lyrical Ballads, including Southey's attack in the Critical Review on its prevalent "superstition" and "German sublimity," which set the tone for the other reviews. Implicit irony, apparently, was just not enough to distance the poetry from the despised gothic.
In reshaping the book for the second edition (1800), Wordsworth in effect responded to this criticism. He composed enough pastoral poetry to make that genre, rather than gothic or gothic parody, set the dominant tone. Within the two volumes, Coleridge's contributions are both less significant, less prominent, and less apt to scream "gothic." "The Ancient Mariner," for example, was subtitled "A Poet's Reverie," and moved from the position of first poem in the volume to somewhere around the middle. "The Ballad of the Dark Ladle" was retitled "Love." And Wordsworth decided not to include at all Parts 1 and 2 of "Christabel," which Coleridge had intended for the new edition, but whose resemblance to "The Ancient Mariner" was too close for comfort. The volume concluded instead with "Michael." Finally, Wordsworth wrote an introduction to the volumes that argued, among other things, that his own writings were dedicated to reforming the public taste that the reviewers had just accused him of pandering to: "the works of Shakespeare and Milton, are driven into neglect by frantic novels, sickly and stupid German Tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse. When I think upon this degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation, I am almost ashamed to have spoken of the feeble effort with which I have endeavoured to counteract it." The "heavy irony," for Garner, is that the critical opinions Wordsworth adopted in the 1800 Preface were derived from the periodical publications and private notes of the friend whose poem Wordsworth was rejecting (126).
Around the same time as Wordsworth, Joanna Baillie, a dramatist generally considered today as working in the gothic tradition of Lewis' Castle Spectre, was also taking a Wordsworthian tack, arguing in the preface to her first volume of Plays on the Passions (1798), that the supernatural does not appear onstage, except in terms of the superstition operating in the disturbed minds of her characters who consider themselves in the grip of the supernatural. As this plays out on stage, of course, the audience is able to have things both ways: the excitement of the supernatural without the need for spectacular staging (Gamer 139). Her play De Monfort, set in Germany in the Middle Ages, was a success when staged at Drury Lane in 1800 with Kemble and Siddons in the male and female leads. But it was the critical reaction to her success, coming at a time when the London stage was dominated by the melodramas of Kotzebue, and when the monitors of culture were ever more hostile to anything German, that pushed Baillie in a different direction, one that, ironically, transgressed the post-enlightenment distaste for supernatural spectacle. Ethwald (1802) included Druids and Druidesses, "crowds of terrible specters," and all the special effects of light and sound of which the theater was capable. The saving grace of Ethwald was that all the mysteries and magic were home grown--British spectres rather than imported German ones--so that the play could be viewed culturally as in the tradition of Shakespeare's Macbeth, than which nothing could be more popular or more respectable.
Nationalism was also one method by which Walter Scott made his peace with the critics who attacked, or parodied, the "German-mad productions"
he had included in Matthew Lewis' edited collection Tales of Wonder (1801), such as the imitation-medieval ballad "Glenfinlas, or Lord Ronald's Coronach." Kissing the rod, as Wordsworth had done two years before, Scott vowed he had learned his lesson and intended to keep henceforth to "the genuine old English model" (Letter quoted in Gamer 124). History was an even more effective sop for the critical Cerberus. Scott's next production was the three volume Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1803). This work of antiquarian scholarship was in keeping with Thomas Percy's Reliques, in which, like Percy before him, Scott inserted some of his own imitations of border ballads. "Glenfinlas" reappears in Minstrelsy, but garlanded here with several paragraphs of antiquarian introduction and half a dozen footnotes, it cuts a very different figure as a "respectful homage" to the primitive genius of the North-British ballad writers rather than among "tales of wonder exploiting already-sated gothic readers" (Garner 175-76). Scott gained credit as an historian, and this line of cultural credit was extended, sometimes grudgingly, not only to his homages but to his signed romantic poetry on historical themes, such as The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Marmion (set during the battle of Flodden) and The Lady of the Lake. But when Scott turned once more, in 1814, to court popularity through prose narrative, he feared to jeopardize his canonical position as a poet and declined to sign his name to it. Even though Waverley and its successors were studies in national formation, and even though Scott hedged them about with prefaces, introductions and footnotes delineating the factual sources of the fiction, Scott insisted for twelve years on maintaining the "secret" identity of "The Author of Waverley."
Gamer's nuanced way of thinking about literary texts as products of authors, audiences, and a complex literary scene comprised of booksellers, reviewers and other intermediating agents, earn him his conclusion about "how romantic ideology constituted itself generically as a sustained response to the reception of gothic writing" (200), assimilating romantic literature to the sources of the gothic's appeal while deflecting identification with that genre. But his book may also be read for what it heralds about literary historiography today.
We talk loosely about ours being a post-theoretical age, but Garner has not renounced contemporary theory; indeed, his methods are thoroughly imbrocated in theory. Gamer's ideas about the workings of the literary scene take off from the work of Hans Robert Jauss and Mikhail Bakhtin, while his notion of the way genres embody gender, political affiliations, and other cultural imaginaries, coming to him via other historians of gothic like Robert Miles, Ian Duncan and Ina Ferris, might be said to owe an unacknowledged debt to theorists such as Mieke Bal and Jean-Francois Lyotard. The mix is eclectic, and the exact composition of it less important than the way Garner deftly uses it to clarify how cultural norms affect the way literature gets written. Gamer's method represents a very quiet revolution, but it is also very clearly in revolt against the simplistic way literary production has been implicitly characterized in traditional histories of the same period (e.g. Renwick's 1963 volume in the Oxford History of English Literature), and, to be fair, equally in revolt against the simplistic way in which literary production has been characterized in "new historical" studies of the last decade that, influenced by Foucault and Greenblatt, believe in agencies but not in creative agents. If "post-theory" means that most of the major theoretical projects of the 1970s and 1980s are no longer being actively advanced, it also means that we can enjoy today the ripeness of the fruits that were then sown--such as Michael Gamer's Romanticism and the Gothic.
DAVID H. RICHTER teaches eighteenth-century literature at Queens College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. His recent books include The Progress of Romance: The Gothic Novel and Literary Historiography and Ideology and Form in Eighteenth-Century Literature.
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|Author:||Richter, David H.|
|Publication:||Studies in Romanticism|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2003|
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