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Global Romanticism III: Legislating Brownness

Palmer-Mercator-1879

by Manu Samriti Chander

I’ve mentioned my current book project, Brown Romantics, and I thought I’d take this opportunity to discuss one of the central issues that has come up as I’ve been researching and writing. When describing Henry Derozio for my last post I noted parenthetically that “his father was Portuguese, and there is evidence of native Indian ancestry on his father’s side as well”—I’ve made this same gesture regarding other poets I consider in my book, identifying the suitability of each figure for a study that is, at least nominally, about non-white authors. The problem, as one might guess, is that this puts me in the uncomfortable position of racial legislator, as if I were authorized to determine who’s brown enough to count. Looking to disrupt what Paul Younquist and Frances Botkin call the “whiteness of Romantic studies,” I risk solidifying rather than undermining the confines of racial categories.

While I haven’t found a solution to this problem, it helps to think of the poets I study as authors rather than just others. Derozio was not a subaltern subject—he had the means of self-representation, was able to participate in the cultural field of early nineteenth-century British India. Which is not to suggest that the ways in which he could participate were without restriction—as I mentioned last time, he couldn’t simply produce poems as if he were white. But as an agent within the literary field, Derozio, like other brown romantics, positioned himself in such a way as to maximize cultural privilege. The category of the poet was especially useful toward this end, since it valued individuality over cultural belonging. Poets were, as Shelley put it, “legislators of the world”—both of the world, i.e. part of it, and situated above it, where, according to the myth, they defined the boundaries of community. This myth served poets like Derozio, enabling them to capitalize on their brownness, to make their precarious cultural membership work for them even as it was always inevitably working against them.

Was Derozio successful in doing so? I suppose that depends on how we define success. On the one hand, as I noted previously, he never really was treated as much more than a cultural anomaly, a native with a moderately developed sense of English poetics. On the other hand, he wrote. In the twenty-two short years he lived he produced a pretty substantial body of poems, essays, and political statements publicly championing the rights of mixed-race “East Indians” (a common term that would later be replaced by the unlovely “Eurasians”). Facing a world of readers that would never not see him as other, he nevertheless sat down and wrote, stood up and taught (he was an instructor at the Hindu College in Calcutta), and sat down and wrote some more.

I take some comfort in that, too. There is a voice of conscience continually evaluating what I write, occasionally lauding the effort to diversify Romanticism’s object of study, more often criticizing the project for aiming toward radicalism but settling for a rather comfortable liberalism. On a good day I can convince myself that my uneasiness about the racial politics of the book is a generative one, which keeps me pushing to work through the problem of brownness rather than settle for an easy solution. On a bad day, I try to sit down and write anyways, not because of an unwavering faith in the emancipatory potential of my or any other book of literary criticism. In the absence of a missionary zeal to rescue brown romantics from the margins of history, I try to write simply because they wrote. Sometimes it works.

Manu Samriti Chander is Assistant Professor of English at Rutgers University-Newark. His research interests include nineteenth-century world literature and aesthetic theory. He has published on Immanuel Kant, Pierre Bourdieu, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Percy Shelley. His current project, Brown Romantics, traces the influence of British Romanticism in the literature of South Asia, Australia, and the Americas.

Top image adapted from George Palmer, “The World on Mercator’s Project,” in The Migration from Shinar; or the earliest links between the Old and the New Continents (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1879).


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