Richard Gravil

Romantic Dialogues: Anglo-American Continuities, 1776–1862

Richard Gravil, Romantic Dialogues: Anglo-American Continuities, 1776–1862. Pp. xx, 250.
New York: St Martin’s Press, 2000. $49.95. ISBN 0 312 22716 7.  Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000. £32.50. ISBN 0 333 92984 5.

Reviewed by Michael O’Neill, University of Durham (Symbiosis 5.2, October 2001)

In Romantic Dialogues Richard Gravil carries his learning lightly, thinks deeply, and writes invitingly. The result is a major study, one that is alert to and at home with textual nuance and larger questions. The book consists of two parts. The second part contains subtle accounts of the intertextual ‘dialogue between the canonical American Romantics’ (xv) and British Romantic poets, especially Wordsworth and Coleridge, but also Shelley and Keats. In the first part, Gravil looks at ‘a variety of moments in what was a slow and painful amputation of Albion’s republican limb’ (xi). What Gravil demonstrates in this ‘overture’ (xii) to the book is the tangled nature of British and American literary and intellectual relations during a period often represented in terms of ‘polarized narratives’ (xi). Far from the War of Independence and that of 1812 creating a breach between the two cultures, it was in reaction against surprisingly sustained continuities, so Gravil argues, that James Fenimore Cooper felt prompted to ‘theorize and promote the desirability of such a breach’ (xii). Again, it is clear to Gravil that the American Renaissance sees the rebirth of ‘Romanticism’ as much as of ‘America’.

Old beliefs in New World cultural autonomy die hard, partly because of attitudes promoted by disciplinary and nationalist boundary-setting. As Gravil points out, ‘The Emersonian myth of an autochthonous American literature has been very ably challenged, yet still enjoys too wide a currency, thanks to our divided profession’ (xii). He counters this ‘Emersonian myth’ by three initial chapters (part one) that remind us how complicated Anglo-American relations are in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the first chapter, Gravil argues that ‘What happened in 1776 was a British and an American event that divided British and American subjects, and British and American families’ (3), and he skilfully draws out the many links between English Whigs and New England Republicans. The American Revolution, on this reading, fulfils ideals associated with Algernon Sidney and James Harrington, but, precisely because the Revolution did not find realisation in England, the ‘loss of America’ (21) is experienced by the English Romantics as a considerable blow to their political hopes, even if, as in Shelley’s Hellas, the idea of America serves as a symbolic beacon of radical hope.

Gravil’s thoughtful reading of Blake’s America, which opens the second chapter, dwells on the work’s ‘disturbing implications’ (27)—more specifically, the fear that ‘the vision of liberation will remain a vision’ (26; Gravil’s italics) and the view, shared with radicals such as Richard Price and Joseph Priestley, that ‘liberty and nationhood are incompatible’ (29). The chapter also considers other British Romantic-period representations of America, and includes a brief but strikingly iconoclastic dig at Anna Barbauld’s homiletic lines in Eighteen Hundred and Eleven about America ‘aspiring to the learning of the mother country’: ‘… the verse proceeds as lamely as one would expect from a compeer of Hannah More’ (35). To indicate the existence ‘of something approaching an indigenous American Romanticism—lacking only the appropriate poetic form’ (37), Gravil offers suggestive thumbnail sketches of the proto-Romantic attitudes of four figures: Samuel Williams; Gilbert Imlay (a possible prototype of ‘the feckless young officer in Wordsworth’s "Ruth"’ (p.39)); William Ellery Channing; and Estwick Evans.

In the final chapter of the book’s first part, Gravil begins with the archetypal Anglo-American spat, the ‘Sydney Smith Affair’ (47). Smith offended American sensibilities by mocking the absence of culture in ‘this self-adulating race’ (quoted 51; Smith’s italics), asking with particular sharpness, ‘under which of the old tyrannical governments of Europe is every sixth man a Slave …?’ (quoted 51). (A recent episode of Frasier, in which Frasier, in the heat of battle in a dart’s game with Daphne, derides the dress-sense of the Queen and the exportation by the English of soccer hooliganism, sends up the ever-present possibility of the re-kindling of old fires.) Gravil’s main motive for probing ‘an open wound’ (48) is revisionist; Smith is expressing disappointment at the tarnishing of his ‘own American Dream’ (25), according to Gravil, who even finds Smith’s comments a forerunner of ‘the political lucubrations of Walt Whitman’ (50). The rest of the chapter points out that there were other ways of conceiving Anglo-American cultural and literary relations in the first part of the nineteenth century. Gravil analyses Cooper’s stance as ‘midwife to a separate American consciousness’ (58), Emerson’s unacknowledged appropriation in ‘The American Scholar’ of British Romanticism in support of his announcement of a new ‘national vision’ (61), and Elizabeth Peabody’s less militant view that what is needed by America is writers who have shed post-colonial feelings of aggression and dependency, and ‘have found the courage to enter the new era’ (67).

In this new era America finds writers who are a match for their British Romantic forebears, and in the second part of the book Gravil fleshes out the nature of their achievement. If part one sets the critical scene, part two gives us the play proper: Gravil is superbly equal to the challenge of persuasively proving and describing a series of intricate, intertextual relationships: between Cooper and Burke; Emerson’s Nature and Thoreau’s Walden, and their transfiguration of writings by Wordsworth and Coleridge; Melville and Coleridge; Whitman and Wordsworth; and Dickinson and a range of English poets. Gravil allows for uniqueness and difference; there is no ‘Englishing’ of his American authors. But what he does supply in a brimmingly revelatory stream of suggested connections is the restoration of link after lost link.

Melville and Dickinson are particular beneficiaries of Gravil’s labours. The chapter on Moby-Dick begins by showing that Melville’s novel is ‘textually aware’ (140) of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Gravil’s touch is unerringly sure in the identification of echoes and analogues, though Ahab’s cry of dismay, ‘This lovely light, it lights me not; all loveliness is anguish to me’ (quoted 140), may owe as much to Satan’s ‘hateful siege / Of contraries’ as to ‘Dejection: An Ode’. The main body of the chapter consists of a tightly written meditation on the affinities between Melville’s and Coleridge’s masterpieces: these affinities include the fact that both texts question notions of perfectibility (Transcendental as well as Romantic), the way each explores ‘the conflict between pantheism and freedom’ (153), and the manner in which they deploy a series of contrapuntal ironies. It is an enthralling critical performance, as is the qualification in the chapter on Dickinson of that enigmatic poet’s assertion in one poem, ‘I see New Englandly’. ‘New Englandly’ turns out, on Gravil’s analysis (an analysis that acknowledges the stimulus of previous critics such as and especially Joanne Feit Diehl) to involve an incessant and creative dialogue with writers from the old world. Gravil writes too well to be easily paraphrased, but here he is, at his eloquent best, evoking ‘the counter-Keatsian turn’ made by one Dickinson lyric (1540):

Diminished beats, lightened punctuation, images of negation, the most faintly implied metaphor—Summer sculls herself across the bar, as it were, into ‘the Beautiful’—lead to the counter-Keatsian turn from the consolations of Autumn into a lament that perfidious Summer has reached the bourne where the poet cannot follow. (192)

Dickinson’s mode of allusion, Gravil argues, reveals a ‘symbiotic’ complexity (193), and his chapter does much to re-locate a difficult poet in the Victorian-Romantic literary mainstream, without robbing her of a jot of her originality.

The remaining chapters in the book’s second part are all rewarding. That on Cooper finds a parallel between the inner conflicts of Burke’s Vindication of Natural Society, in which his ironic ventriloquising of Rousseauistic ideas has an unanticipated persuasiveness, and the American novelist’s creation in The Pioneers of a figure, Natty Bumppo, who ‘not only walks away with the novel, but commands his creator to write four further novels, each of which takes us further from any sense of the moral superiority of white civilization or civil law’ (76). The chapter on Nature and Walden brings out convincingly how Emerson draws on Wordsworth and Coleridge, as when, paraphrasing Coleridge on the modes of imagination, the American author says that the poet ‘unfixes the land and the sea, makes them revolve around the axis of his primary thought, and disposes them anew’ (quoted 97); it also argues that Thoreau’s use of Wordsworth is far from ‘aggressive and ultimately dismissive’ (111), the view ascribed to Robert Weisbuch. Gravil draws attention to ‘the easy and unexpected transition from matter-of-fact observation to symbolic discourse’ (108) as evidence of Thoreau’s affinity with and debt to Wordsworth. (One might, in passing, note the elegant reflexivity of the wording here, itself ‘easy and unexpected’.)

In its other two chapters (there is also an ‘Excursus Note’ on Colonel Gardner), Romantic Dialogues examines Hawthorne’s and Poe’s use of romance to rework Romantic motifs, and Whitman’s response to Wordsworth. The former chapter includes a fascinating comparison between Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Wordsworth’s ‘The Thorn’ (each narrative focusing on a deserted woman through ‘symbolic clusters’ (118) and unreliable narrators); the latter contains many insights typified by the critical flair shown throughout, as the following passage reveals: ‘Wordsworth’s self is capable of doubt and indirection; Whitman’s, affecting to be transhistorical, is a power like one of Nature’s and knows no backsliding. Wordsworth’s listens quietly to the language of things, while Walt’s gorges itself upon the sublime American continent’ (170). Even the Lawrence-like informality of ‘Walt’s’ has been earned by this stage of the chapter, with its exuberant yet delicate appreciation of Whitman’s poetic achievement. Romantic Dialogues is a ground-breaking study which bears witness to a generous, vigilant, and witty critical intelligence, it convinces the reader that nineteenth-century British and American literatures reveal a potent strain of consanguinity and must be studied side by side.

© Symbiosis, 2001