Joel Pace and Matthew Scott, eds

Wordsworth in American Literary Culture

Joel Pace and Matthew Scott, eds, Wordsworth in American Literary Culture. New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2005. 256pp. ISBN: 1-4039-01333 (hardback). £47.50 (UK), $75.00 (USA).

Reviewed by Sohui Lee, Stanford University
(online, January 2007)

Transatlantic exchange—a subject currently fueling new critical approaches in Anglo-American Romanticism—has been on the minds of American writers since the early decades of the nineteenth century.  Reflecting on whether American literature could ever be original, William Ellery Channing, in his 1815 “Essay on American Language and Literature,” identified the problem in the “transatlantick” nature of American culture:  one whose “agents of government,” “leaders,” and “institutions ... were all transatlantick” in origin. Channing’s complaint recognized a hierarchical narrative of literary influence, a story of American stylistic and creative dependency, which, as many of us have begun to realize, relates only one part of a complex, multi-faceted relationship between American and British communities of writers and readers.  While this phenomenon, investigated by Harold Bloom, Robert Weisbuch, and countless others, grants an important place for a focus on transatlantic comparisons, more recent studies like Wordsworth in American Literary Culture (2005) edited by Joel Pace and Matthew Scott provide an important and much needed reassessment of transatlantic influence narratives by offering alternative ways of thinking about the impact of Wordsworth’s literary power in American culture.  Wordsworth becomes a prism by which this book investigates the many-sided nature of Anglo-American relations and culture, whether in terms of direct influence, dialogue, resistance, denials, or transformations.  At its best, the collection not only encourages new ways to consider transatlantic connections but also presents a fruitful start for re-thinking Wordsworth’s poems in light of a greater transatlantic reading public.

Because of its focus on Wordsworth’s reception in the United States, this collection may be as valuable to Transatlantic Americanists as to Wordsworth scholars.  While it would come to as no surprise to anyone that Wordsworth was ranked alongside Milton, Spencer, or Shakespeare and often viewed as the greatest living English poet, the range of American responses, as the editors and the authors of this collection argue, includes more than adulation and mimicry or resistance and elision.  For instance, Joel Pace’s essay “Transatlantic Gothic and Race: Wordsworth, Hawthorne, Poe, Chopin, Cable and Chestnutt” unveils multiple “communities of interpreters” of Wordsworth and explores the political maneuverings behind Northern and Southern interpretations of Wordsworth’s poetry (79).  Moreover, Pace connects the works of Hawthorne, Poe, Chopin, Cable and Chestnutt in a careful investigation of how Wordsworth’s poetry critically enabled the American gothic construction of “otherness.”  For Pace, American “transatlantic Gothic” tales are haunted by the politics of slavery, but the means by which American writers voice the nation’s ambivalence on the race issue are profoundly indebted to Wordsworth, whose psychological and rhetorical strategies they appropriate or consciously “writ[e] over.” 

Like Pace’s piece, Adam Potkay’s essay “Wordsworth, Henry Reed and Bishop Doane:  High-Church Romanticism on the Delaware” focuses on a particular community of interpreters.  Potkay’s anti-canonical reading locates Wordsworth’s reception, not amongst the Boston Transcendentalists, but rather amongst conservative Delaware Episcopalians.  These interpreters tease out a deeply Christian and ethical reading of Wordsworth that appears contrary to some of today’s progressive readings shaped by canonical interpreters like Emerson and Thoreau.  Potkay’s essay will prove valuable to Americanists because it complicates our understanding of the critical reception of Wordsworth and British Romanticism and exposes the ideological conflicts within American literary culture. Other essays, such as Elizabeth Fay’s “Wordsworth, Bostonian Chivalry and the Uses of Art,” also focus on interpreters outside the literary world, in this case on the artist Edwin Austin Abbey, famous for the chivalric mural narratives he painted in the Boston Public Library.  Abbey’s murals represent the visual manifestation of a type of chivalric aesthetic that, Fay argues, points back to “Wordsworth’s political and civic interpretation of knightly behavior” expressed in the 1800 Preface to the Lyrical Ballads (179).  The essay’s persuasive analysis of Wordsworth in the art world provides us with a view into Wordsworth’s larger impact in American aesthetics and institutional architecture.      

If one were to fault the editors of this collection, it might be for ambition. The editors call for a renewed engagement with the extent and importance of Wordsworth’s influence to the “American reading public as a whole” (2). But in anticipating these varied reading communities, one is then surprised not to find more essays that re-examine the various Wordsworths that are appropriated by the multiple communities of interpreters comprising the American reading public. Half the essays included in the collection focus primarily on individual authorial responses to Wordsworth (Whittier, Thoreau, Cooper, Whitman, Dickinson, and Whistler). Some of these essays seem to fall short of the kind of bilateral influence narratives which, the editors note, highlight the “call and response amongst works” (5). For instance, Bruce Graver’s essay “Discord at Pennacook:  Whittier and the Problem of American Picturesque” appears to be a standard one-way comparison narrative that examines Wordsworth’s stylistic influence on Whittier. Graver points to Whittier’s framed narrative that addresses “picturesque tourists” like Wordsworth’s Michael. He also identifies parallels of narrative cues and style, phrasing, verse, and plot, while noting the differences in theme in Whittier’s focus on colonial conquest. 

Intent to show denial rather than mimicry, Karen Karbiener’s essay “Intimations of Imitation:  Wordsworth, Whitman and the Emergence of Leaves of Grass” also leans toward a standard “influence” narrative. While Karbiener claims to examine both Whitman’s response to and rebellion against Wordsworth’s poetry, the essay studies the “rebellion” only in Whitman’s rhetorical silence on Wordsworth. For most of the essay, Karbiener works hard to convincingly make the case that Wordsworth was, in fact, “very much on Whitman’s mind during the seed-time of Leaves of Grass” and provides some interesting comparisons between Wordsworth’s “We are Seven” and Whitman’s “The Child at the Tomb” (145). Perhaps Whitman’s reasons for eliding Wordsworth would be more pronounced and perhaps even more obvious if Karbiener framed Whitman’s argument within the existing discussions on democratic nationalism from which Whitman borrowed much of his language and literary theories. By not opening Whitman’s response to the larger interpretative community to which the poet belonged, Karbiener loses an opportunity to reveal how Whitman’s particular transatlantic silence is inextricably tied to a national movement for political identification. Denials and elision are critical rhetorical responses of a community of nationalists and illustrate one of the complicated and paradoxical means by which Wordsworth’s work, ideas, and aesthetics were appropriated and transformed by nineteenth-century U.S. poets like Whitman.   

Susan Manning’s opening essay in Wordsworth in American Literary Culture outlines the book’s theoretical argument for a new kind of transatlantic studies and lends us a critical framework for reading the book’s interpreters of Wordsworth.  Manning’s “Grounds for Comparison” calls for less “hierarchical” narratives of influence and offers a means of achieving a “rhizomatic” comparative analysis through a critical emphasis on style rather than temporal antecedence (29). Such a study, she argues encourages a synchronic examination of British and American Romantic style that offers a richer opportunity “to revive and extend the study of écriture” (24). While this type of approach may not be appealing to all, her analysis of current comparative practice maps out a possible new path for transatlantic studies and encourages further critical investigation into the field’s methodology and impulses. Ironically, Wordsworth in American Literary Culture reveals both the strengths and weaknesses that Manning recognizes as a trend in comparison studies: the book includes both traditional comparison narratives, which assume transatlantic relations to be one of stylistic subordination, and new lateral approaches that emphasize dialogue and historically specific rhetorical responses. With all the essays taken together, however, Pace and Scott’s book launches readers into a significant discussion on rethinking influence narratives and asks readers to revisit the unique literary relationship that blossomed between America and Britain during the nineteenth century.  In collecting scholars on either side of the Atlantic and specialists in American literature and British Romanticism, the editors of this book not only initiate an important transatlantic dialogue that encourages academics to investigate Wordsworth’s broad legacy in American Romanticism, but also offer further possibilities for re-energizing and re-directing transatlantic studies.

© Symbiosis, 2007