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Global Romanticism: Thoughts on the “Field”

Palmer-Mercator-1879

by Manu Samriti Chander

When I started graduate school in the early 2000s, I planned to focus on postcolonial literatures, especially poetry, which at the time was relatively under-examined. Part of the reason for this general lack of attention, I suspected, was that the postcolonial novel gave us permission to emphasize cultural studies over aesthetics, narratives of national development over matters of form. As I had trained as a poet—before pursuing my Ph.D. in English I received an M.F.A. in Creative Writing—questions of style and structure were central to my practice of reading, and I was curious as to why such questions did not seem to interest most postcolonial critics.

What shifted my attention toward the Romantics was a seminar led by William Keach on Romantic Orientalism. Reading Don Juan, Lalla Rookh, and The Curse of Kehama got me to consider the issues of representation and alterity that first drew me to postcolonial studies alongside the metrical and rhythmic issues I valued as a student of poetry. Nigel Leask’s and Saree Makdisi’s contributions to the study of Orientalism in the period were still fairly new, and I saw room for my own interests to shape the conversations that were beginning to emerge as postcolonial studies started to influence diverse literary fields.

Fast forward about a decade. There is some ground-breaking work on race, nation, and empire during the Romantic era going on right now. I got to hear about a lot of it at the Romantic Society of Australasia’s conference on “Global Romanticism” in Sydney last year. Papers on the reception of Byron in China and of Shelley in Japan (to mention but two) reminded me that Romanticism traveled, and as it traveled it transformed (in both the transitive and intransitive senses of the verb). After the conference I stayed on in Sydney to conduct research on Henry Lawson (about whom I’ll blog at a later date), and as I did I saw the profound influence of the English Romantics on the vocally anti-Romantic Australian writer, the ghosts of Wordsworth and Shelley that haunted his poetry.

More important to me were other echoes. In Lawson’s anti-colonialism I heard the Argentine poet Esteban Echeverría, in his playfulness I heard the Indian Henry Derozio, neither of whom Lawson would have read. This was not mere chance: I was looking for these connections, trying to map out similarities between diverse poets influenced by the Romantics for Brown Romantics, my book-in-progress. I suppose that’s my point here, namely that Global Romanticism, as I see it, is less a field than it is the search for a field, wherein we experiment with the parameters that define our object of inquiry. What happens when we move beyond Europe and when we look beyond the Romantic “era”? Is there still a “Romanticism” to be found? What is gained by preserving the term when examining national and transnational literatures, colonial and postcolonial (or even precolonial) literatures? These are the questions that will concern this blog in posts to come.

My motivation here is as much personal as it is scholarly. I teach at the most diverse campus in the United States (according to U.S. News and World Report for something like 14 years running), and I want Romanticism to fit my students, to pull them in the way it has me. I’ve seen it happen, with Byron especially (everybody loves Byron), but I’ve also seen their resistance to Romanticism (not everybody loves Wordsworth). I don’t think the only way for students from different backgrounds to get into Romanticism is by locating Romanticism in different cultures. In fact, I remind my students that there is a certain narcissism—a kind of colonizing impulse—in looking for ourselves in literature, asking it to include the issues that most concern us. But not looking for ourselves seems to me like giving up on the promise of Romanticism, that is, the possibility for literature to forge new communities from diverse readerships. So I think it’s good if when we look at a work we sometimes see struggles over identity, culture, and belonging, struggles that intersect with questions of race and nation in the colonial periphery. I think it’s good to seek out Romanticism in places we haven’t yet looked, places where we might catch a glimpse of something at once unexpected and familiar. Which brings me to the question that lies at the center of the field-that-isn’t-a-field of Global Romanticism, the question I will return to next time: Where in the world is Romanticism?

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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