Paul Youngquist (ed.), Race, Romanticism, and the Atlantic (Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013), xi + 267pp. ISBN 978-0-7546-6927-2; £65 / $109.95 (hb).
‘British Romanticism’, writes Paul Youngquist in Race, Romanticism, and the Atlantic, ‘is white’ (p. 91). Youngquist’s volume interrogates this ideology of whiteness, critiquing its systematic erasure of the violence in and across the Black Atlantic in the early nineteenth century. The collection brings together nine essays, organised into sections on ‘Differences’, ‘Resistances’ and ‘Crossings’. As the plural forms of the these words suggest, the underlying idea is one of ‘multiplicity’, a term that appears multiple times in Youngquist’s introduction: ‘The hope that drives this collection of essays is that [a] renewed conjunction of imagination and multiplicity can disrupt the grim legacy of racism by recovering the multiplicity it disavows’ (p. 18).
Indeed the success of the project derives from this sense of multiplicity, not only demonstrated in the range of the subjects discussed, but also in the diversity of approaches to literary and cultural studies: Marlon B. Ross offers a meta-theoretical look at two early, unacknowledged practitioners of critical race theory, Olaudah Equiano and Mungo Park; C. S. Biscombe blends first-person travel narrative with historical analysis in his study of ‘Black Loyalists’ in Romantic-era Canada; and readings of literary texts are coupled with analyses of visual culture throughout the collection, from Elise Bruhl and Michael Gamer’s examination of Emma Hamilton’s ‘Nubian’ servant Fatima to Daniel O’Quinn’s reading of the boxing battles between the white Briton Thomas Cribb and the black American Thomas Molineaux. Taken together, these essays remind us that, as Ross puts it, ‘the tenets of race (and thus of racism) were […] disjointedly sloppy’ (p. 27) and that, to begin to understand these tenets, we need a certain critical polyphony that, while not ‘sloppy’ in itself, calls forth the messiness of race in the Romantic era.
Within the muddled discourse of race, this collection reveals, there are identifiable patterns and consistent themes that make race legible for the modern critic. Thus, Youngquist’s essay on Queen Charlotte and Debbie Lee’s study of single black mothers demonstrate the inseparability of racial difference from different differences, in this case gender. The examples of Queen Charlotte, who was frequently depicted with ‘Negroid’ features, and the ‘lone mother’ dubbed ‘Black Peggy’ suggest that the markers of black femininity were highly adaptive, capable of dislocating and silencing women of vastly different circumstances.
Another key recurrence within the texts explored by these essays is what Grégory Pierrot calls the ‘lonely hero myth’ (p. 126), which imaginatively situates resistance within the efforts of a single figure, such as the abolitionist William Wilberforce. Pierrot is addressing here the nationalistic ideology that underlay the bicentennial celebration of abolition in Britain in 2007, but the essays in the collection suggest that this myth was already in place in the early nineteenth century. Three-Fingered Jack Mansong, the Jamaican rebel who, according to Frances Botkin’s essay, inspired several fictionalised retellings during the Romantic period, is one such mythical character; and the Jamaican guerrilla Queen Nanny whom Youngquist introduces in the final pages of his essay on Queen Charlotte is similarly seen to embody the movement toward freedom. Clearly, the mythologising of such figures performs a rather different function than does the glorification of someone like Wilberforce: the symbol of the black-bodied hero means differently than that of the white saviour. And yet, when we pair these historical characters we begin to see how the Romantic cult of individuality shaped the discourse of race in the early nineteenth century and continues to inform our understanding of race today.
In fact, one issue that is clear from this collection is precisely the relevance of Romanticism’s particular figurations of race to our present moment. Ross points to the ‘racial trauma’ (p. 32) of Hurricane Katrina; Botkin shows the legacy of Three-Fingered Jack in contemporary theatre; Giscombe details the personal importance of Black Loyalists to their direct descendants—when one such descendant, Debra Hill, is asked by Giscombe how she would like the community of Loyalists to be represented in his essay, she responds, ‘Talk about our strength’ (p. 77). In this way, Youngquist’s collection is timely not just because it builds on an important trend in the field of Romanticism, continuing to remind us that any history of the era, literary or otherwise, must deal with the question of race, but also because our understanding of our own era is incomplete without a deep awareness of the legacy of Romanticism and its complex articulations of blackness.