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Toward a Decolonial Romanticism.

Chander, Manu Samriti. Brown Romantics: Poetry and Nationalism in the Global Nineteenth Century. Bucknell UP, 2017. 144 pages. Hardback, $90. eBook, $85.50.

Manu Samriti Chander's Brown Romantics: Poetry and Nationalism in the Global Nineteenth Century is the kind of book that Romantic literary studies has needed for a very long time. Brown Romantics examines how and why poets from India, Guyana, and Australia placed themselves into conversation with authors now commonly associated with British Romanticism. The book significantly expands our understanding of canonical Romanticism's transnational reach and revises critical commonplaces that have defined Romantic aesthetics since the nineteenth century. Chander's formally rigorous, politically urgent analysis destabilizes hierarchies associated with "great literature" that the British Romantics have long embodied even as it celebrates the literary and intellectual contributions that make Romantic literatures worth coming back to and redefining for a new generation of readers and critics.

Brown Romantics opens with an introduction that situates colonial writers in relation to the British Romantic fantasy of the poet-as-legislator--the figure who mobilizes and defines national identities through poetry. Moving from how canonical poets like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats and, most famously, Shelley drew on aesthetic, moral, and political ideals to imagine and attempt to mobilize readers to their respective versions of social unity, Chander turns to how these nationalist undercurrents were variously taken up by the poets he calls "Brown Romantics." "Brown" here is not an ethnic or racial descriptor--indeed, two of the book's four main chapters focus on writers who would, in these terms, be considered white. The "Brown Romantics," Chander tells us, "are not marginalized because they are brown; they are 'brown' because they are marginalized" (3). As the book's main chapters show, each of these poets negotiated his participation in the literary field in general, and in Romantic poetics in particular, against imperialist, xenophobic, and fetishistic social logics that variously predetermined their relationship to Britain and the nations of and for which they desired to speak. Thus, beyond merely demonstrating how underdiscussed poets from India, Guyana, and Australia adopted British Romanticism's formal and thematic values, Chander's study elucidates the disparate rhetorical and political strategies by which these poets defined themselves as Romantic. In the process, Brown Romantics exposes some of the exclusionary logics on which the very notion of Romantic literature as a distinct cultural field has long implicitly turned.

Chapter one examines how the Indian poet Henry Derozio positioned his writing in conversation with the work of his British contemporaries. Surveying a range of texts with a stunning formalist acumen that runs throughout Brown Romantics, Chander shows how Derozio simultaneously assimilated Western poetic conventions and challenged the West's reductive Orientalism to develop a distinctively Indian perspective, even within the universalizing rhetorics of Anglo-European Romanticism. Moreover, Chander argues that by calling on the various British poets we now call Romantics, Derozio, writing in the early part of the nineteenth century, effectively created the Romantic canon "not from a future position"--that is, according to the critical commonplace that Romanticism was canonized by Victorian critics--"but from a peripheral one" (37). By thus situating the canon as a byproduct of the periphery rather than the other way around, Chander destabilizes, with exciting results, long-held assumptions that delineate and distinguish between the so-called margins and centers of literary studies.

Chapter two elucidates the Guianese poet Egbert Martin's engagement of Christian tropes. Chander frames Martin's religious rhetoric as both a revision of British Romanticism's emphasis on the secular and as an effort to generate the standards of taste that would establish the reading public necessary to distinguish Martin as a Romantic poet. The chapter charts how Martin mobilizes categories such as the sublime and the beautiful to authorize his Christian poetics in ways that alternately embrace and challenge artistic strategies now commonly associated with, especially, Wordsworth and Keats. Ultimately, the chapter demonstrates how Martin's religious poetics expose what Chander calls the "missionary logic" (53) of Romanticism--that is, the homogenizing imperative inherent in any appeal to the legislation of taste. By thus interrogating the normalizing character of the regime of literary taste central to Martin and the British Romantics he channeled, Chander troubles too-easy narratives of the relationship between colonial resistance and assimilation.

Chapter three adds considerable, necessary nuance to scholarship on Romantic-era philosophies of sympathy by showing how the Australian poet Henry Lawson's engagement of sympathy turns on a logic of racist antipathy. The chapter tracks how Lawson transforms the Romantic notion of individual sympathy into a social project and how his efforts to create social or crowd sympathy led Lawson and fellow poet Andrew Barton "Banjo" Paterson to a poetic debate over the political efficacy of the fancy versus the imagination. But the crux of the chapter's argument concerns Lawson's particular vision of transnational working-class solidarity, which he imagined could be achieved through a social sympathy that depended on an explicit antipathy toward non-white subjects. Thus, Chander brilliantly reveals the exclusionary logic by which sympathy--like taste in the preceding chapter's discussion--enables Romantic legislator-poets to imagine and create social fabrics through exclusion.

Chapter four, the conclusion to the book's main body, draws together the preceding chapters' reframing of literary peripheries and the exclusionary logics that underwrite taste and sympathy to posit John Keats as a "Brown Romantic." Reiterating his conceptualization of "brownness" as a state of culture liminality that turns on, without directly reproducing, the racialized logics of Western modernity, Chander interprets Keats's negotiation of his relation to the Cockney school through a postcolonial framework that troubles canonical Romanticism's exaltation of literary originality. Through Keats's poetics of mimicry, Chander shows how the very notion of originality, as it was understood and lionized by other British Romantic writers, turns on deep-seeded Anglo-centrism. By subverting the lofty status that originality has held in our understanding of Romantic poetics, Chander reveals new possibilities for understanding the politics that underwrite British Romantic aesthetics. This, in turn, opens critical pathways within Romantic literary studies to incorporate the vast array of poets and readers who have been excluded because of the field's reliance on too-narrow conceptions of the aesthetic categories that Chander thoughtfully revises throughout Brown Romantics.

In a brief afterword, Chander discusses his personal journey to and through Romantic literature and Romantic literary studies. An affirmation and extension of Romanticism's celebration of the individual, Chander's choice to conclude in the first person highlights the singularity of his critical voice--one from which our field would do well to hear much more. Serving, also, as a secondary conclusion to the book itself, the afterword is where Chander's wide-reaching core arguments are most robustly synthesized. As a whole, Brown Romantics demonstrates how some of Romanticism's most perniciously imperialist logics can be turned against themselves, and, in so doing, Chander paves the way for a new generation of scholars to work toward more intellectually and politically capacious critical practices.

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Title Annotation:Brown Romantics: Poetry and Nationalism in the Global Nineteenth Century
Author:Koretsky, Deanna P.
Publication:Papers on Language & Literature
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2019
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