Romanticism and the City by Larry H. Peer, ed., Reviewed by William Sharpe
 

Romanticism and the City
Ed. Larry H. Peer
(Palgrave, 2011) xiii + 283 pp.
Reviewed by William Sharpe on 2011-07-02.

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For those who like to judge books by their covers, this new collection of essays in the Palgrave Macmillan Nineteenth-Century Major Lives and Letters series provides plenty to mull over. The anachronistic cover features an atmospheric etching of Old Battersea Bridge (1868) by Seymour Haden (1818-1910), who was James McNeill Whistler's brother-in-law and fellow etcher. Both superbly skilled, and both attracted to river scenes that mingled town and country, they successfully worked together to revive the art of etching in England. But the partnership came to an end when an argument about art got the better of family feeling, and Whistler pushed Haden through a plate-glass window in Paris in 1867. They never spoke again. Since Whistler's own view of that same Battersea Bridge, the infamous Nocturne in Black and Gold (1875), has become an icon of emergent modernism, it is interesting to speculate on how these two Victorians parted company in aesthetic matters, and what their representational strategies tell us about the ever-widening ripples of Romanticism's encounter with the city.

In a sense, Haden's etching gracefully strikes the keynote of the anthology since, as editor Larry Peer takes care to assert in his introduction, "it is the tension between city and country, and the possibility of an ideal urban space that powers much of the metaphorical positioning of romantic art" (2). Nicely mixing nature and culture, getting in a slice of buildings, a wide expanse of the Thames, and a sky-dominating storm-cloud worthy of Turner or Ruskin, Haden's print shows how an inspiriting Romantic vision persisted amid the later Victorian predilection for clutter, close-ups, and social commentary. For all his iconoclasm, Whistler too would adopt many of the same rus in urbe motifs that had preoccupied Romantic artists such as Girtin, Cotman, Bonnington, and Turner. It was by flattening these topographical motifs and declaring their freedom from any narrative or moral import that Whistler could claim originality for a vision still anchored in Romanticism's stirringly beautiful conjunction of weather, light, and human construction. Unfortunately, none of the fourteen essays in this book offers any sustained attention to the way in which visual artists represented the city during the later eighteenth and earlier nineteenth centuries, so the cover has to shoulder that burden all alone.

What readers do get is a multifaceted if chiefly literary exploration of how urban life shaped the culture of the day, and how Romantic writers registered that impact in their work. The volume is divided into three sections: "Theories of the City," delving into such matters as sexuality, theatricality, the urban readership, and the popularization of science; "Continental Cities" including Venice, Berlin, Milan, and Rome; and "London" in which the dominant figures of Blake and Wordsworth share space with the rise of the pharmaceutical industry and the popular press. Yet this eclecticism asks readers to shoulder another burden: that of figuring out what particular themes and insights, if any, unify this collection of essays. Is there a common set of problems or solutions that could be regarded as the Romantic writers' take on the city?

I think there might be, and I wish the editor or one of the essayists had taken a deliberate stab at this question, since the very title of the volume raises it. Peer himself provides part of the answer when he points out, as the raison d'être for this book, that the identification with Nature is only one side of Romanticism's project: "a return to nature without a parallel return to relevant urban space produces mere sentimentality" (2). This recognition of Romanticism's social mission is of course not new to anyone who has studied the period in the last thirty or forty years, and Peer does not claim any special priority for his volume. But what has evolved during this time is a nuanced sense of how images of the city are constructed, and how various modes of visual perception and consumption have shaped both styles of looking and styles of literary representation.

How the Romantic writer moves through urban space in poetry or prose depends heavily on a whole series of literal and metaphorical modes of seeing that key figures such as Blake, Wordsworth, and Hoffmann explore with relentless curiosity. What can one see in the city that one cannot in the country, and vice versa? Can seeing more lead to seeing better? Is there a way to see through disparate, multitudinous urban phenomena into some cohesive vision of a better society? The lengthiest essay here, "E.T.A. Hoffmann's Marketplace Vision of Berlin" by Alexander Schlutz, is for me the unacknowledged anchor of the volume, because in it Schultz takes pains to tease out how the ingenious Hoffmann came to understand several varieties of urban perception at the end of his life, in the midst of the political and artistic turmoil that characterizes the era. One way or another, I believe, most of the essays here deal with Hoffmann's explicit concern: the question of what can be seen, understood, deciphered, and trusted in the deluge of visual impressions that the city pours over residents and visitors alike. While the topic of urban vision flickers in and out of view in the rest of this book, most of its attention fittingly goes to Wordsworth, since Book 7 of The Prelude has more to say about city-seeing than any text not written by Dickens. And two lively essays on Blake toward the end of the volume show how his interweaving of literal and visionary London takes readers to cities of the mind that cannot be pinned down to any earthly--or even Newtonian--space.

The "Theories of the City" section opens vigorously, with "Nerve Theory, Sensibility, and Romantic Metrosexuals" by Michelle Faubert. She demonstrates with great clarity how the nerve theory of the day, represented in treatises by Thomas Beddoes and Thomas Trotter, posited that lack of fresh air and exercise "feminized" urban men, particularly those involved in the clothing trades that served women, just as it supposedly weakened the nerves of women. But she finds that in novels by women, where "girlie men" do indeed appear, the young heroines are far from hysterical or sentimentally delicate. They gradually respond to the metropolitan variety and activity around them; they are energized by the urban environment. Novels by Frances Burney and Elizabeth Inchbald, Faubert writes, "suggest that the gender-bending effects of the metropolis are more total than hitherto imagined--to the extent that the city masculinizes women" (14).

William Galperin's essay "Wordsworth's Double Take" ponders the pervasive past-present tension in Wordsworth's poetic apprehension through the unexpected medium of Austen's Miss Bates: "What is before me, I see" (31). Considering how the Janus-like Wordsworth looks "before" him at a present object yet through the lens of an equally "present" memory, Galperin shows how Wordsworth layers his vision in both country and city by always seeing more than there is to see, and seeing it more than once. The eye sees, and the "I" sees, in this dialectical double take.

Jeffrey Cass answers, at least in part, a question that I have long pondered. For decades visitors to the stacks at Columbia University's Butler Library could read, scratched into an elevator door, the words, "Who is John Galt?" Renovations have removed the inscription but not the cosmic query. In "John Galt, Happy Colonialist: The Case of 'The Apostate; Or, Atlantis Destroyed,'" Cass presents the Scottish playwright as a utopian and unapologetic colonialist, whose own move to Canada caused him to discover the rightness of European influence and exploitation in the New World. "For Galt," Cass writes, "drama should produce better British citizens, more productive subjects" (47), and he finds in Galt's play The Apostate an attempt to elevate London theatre-goers above the usual dramatic trivialities by giving them moral and political instruction in their global responsibilities.

Looking at a very different audience, Diane Long Hoeveler examines "The Gothic Chapbook and the Urban Reader." It's fascinating to see what was available to an impecunious audience of fledgling readers (including the young Scott, Shelley, and Southey) who devoured some of the thousands of short story- or novella-length works that could be had for a shilling or less from 1770-1820. Built from the materials of folk and fairy tales, or adapted from longer gothic novels and dramas, these chapbooks, Hoeveler says, "are European culture's first 'bestsellers'" (60). With their combination of realism and fantasy, morality and criminality, they were wildly popular. On a literary level they derived from and helped sustain the higher-end gothic market "above" them, while in market terms they helped keep the new circulating libraries afloat. One would like to know more about how they represented the city itself, a topic not really addressed here.

The "Theory" section closes with an overview of yet another audience and its sources of entertainment. In "Romantic Science and the City," Marilyn Gaull shows that science was almost synonymous with spectacle for city-dwellers: you could look at the cosmos through a telescope in Leicester Square, hear Humphry Davy lecture on electricity at the Royal Society, see an electric eel at the National Gallery of Practical Science, observe exotic animals at the new zoo in Regent's Park, and get a glimpse of "the Horse of knowledge, and the learned Pig" at Wordsworth's Bartholomew Fair. In order to make its way in urban life, Gaull argues, "science had to be visual, performable, verbal, nontechnical, emotionally appealing, and, if possible, profitable" (83).

In the "Continental Cities" section, attention shifts from public instruction and reception to how writers themselves responded to the cities that made the biggest impression on them. In "Phenomenal Beauty: Rousseau in Venice" Nancy Yousef sees Rousseau's sojourn in that watery city as a crucially fluid interlude between earlier disappointments and his resolution to live by his own talents rather than the patronage of others. As recorded in The Confessions, the personal quandary he faced in Venice adumbrated the social challenge soon to be outlined in his life-changing Discourses: in society, he wrote, "One will never really know with whom one is dealing" (qtd. 89). Striving to match inner worth with outer beauty or deformity, Rousseau discovers in the imperfect nipple of an otherwise irresistible Venetian courtesan the proof that "a soul that has made itself a thing for sale . . . cannot reside in a beautiful body" (98). Yet in his confusion over his ambivalence toward her, Yousef says, Rousseau collides with Kant's "insistence on the irreconcilability of erotic interest" with "ethical regard for the other" (99). The vexed problematic of urban vision is that, depending on where you look, seeing is both believing and a reason for disbelief.

In a close reading of E.T.A. Hoffmann's story, "My Cousin's Corner Window" (1822), Alexander Schlutz shows how Hoffmann implicitly critiques the ways in which two cousins view the city of Berlin. At first glance, the younger man's receptiveness to the city seems modern and impressionistic, while his older, invalid cousin, an author rather like Hoffmann himself, is adept in eighteenth-century style physiognomical readings of the individuals who appear in the telescope that he has set up in his window facing the market square. But Schultz shows, through subtle readings of the text and its subsequent interpretation by Walter Benjamin and others, how Hoffmann locates the lessons and limitations of urban vision in the blind spots between the observations (in both senses) of the two onlookers. A focal point for both Hoffmann and Schultz is the wretched figure of a blind veteran who begs in the square. Resistant to sentimental or political readings, Hoffmann's blind soldier-beggar proposes a moral and optical challenge to authorial insight that parallels the interpretative challenges posed by Wordsworth's country/city "cousins" in The Prelude: the moonlit Cumberland soldier of Book 4 and the tag-labeled blind beggar of Book 7.

Ernesto Livorni's "Renzo in Milan" explores related rus in urbe themes through the adventures of the peasant protagonist of Manzoni's The Betrothed. Like Rousseau in The Confessions, Renzo struggles to comprehend the disorienting deceptiveness of an urban space, in this case Milan. For Manzoni, writes Livorni, one loses one's way in the infernal city not because one does not know its "plane geometry" but because one does not know and cannot construe "the action of one's fellow citizens" (137). Seen in terms of storm and flood metaphors, the urban crowd sweeps the unprepared peasant into confusion and jail. Only when he later returns with the resolution to let Providence be his guide, and the famous cathedral his orienting landmark, does Renzo, like the nature-reassured Wordsworth at the end of Book 7, find a way to master the city conceptually by putting it behind him; he locates his betrothed and escapes from the city with her.

In "Rome Above Rome: Nikolai Gogol's Romantic Vision of the Eternal City," Tatiana V. Barnett works back and forth between Gogol's romance with Rome, his struggle with Paris, and the ways in which "elsewhere" was somehow always Russia to him. "In my very nature," Gogol wrote to a friend in 1842, "is the ability to imagine a world graphically only when I have moved away from it. That is why I can write about Russia only in Rome" (158). A combination of classical and romantic sources of inspiration, Rome represented for Gogol an unattainable "Divine Feminine" principle that "launched the search for the transformative power of the Feminine Ideal in Russian literature" (176).

"London" is the final section of this anthology, opening with "Wordsworth's Invigorating Hell: London in Book 7 of The Prelude (1805)" by Eugene Stelzig. His essay replicates in microcosm the chief puzzlement of this collection as a whole. Though it tackles an important topic sensitively, it posits no particular thesis beyond stressing the need to see the poet's "ambivalence" (186) as he takes delight in processing urban as well as rustic phenomena. For several decades literary critics and historians have pondered Book 7 as a touchstone of urban modernity, but little effort is made here to consider how such analysis has extended our understanding of cities, spectatorship, or attitudes toward London.

On the other hand, Mark Lussier's "Blake's Golgonoosa: London and/as the Eternal City of Art" gains in strength and boldness as it progresses, moving from Blake's own residences to his tantalizingly sketchy depictions, in both text and image, of an actual city, and finally to the "great City of Golgonoosa: four-fold" toward north, south, east, and west, a visionary construct that conjoins physical London to the New Jerusalem in a manner that transcends conventional notions of time and space. Theorizing that "the only symbolism capable of even remotely imaging" Blake's city would be "wormhole theory specifically associated with 'the Einstein-Rosen bridge in space-time geometry'" (203), Lussier concludes by offering a dizzying array of postmodern texts, films, and graphic novels that liberatingly pursue the spirit of Blake's otherworldly vision.

One of my favorite essays here tells us about drugs. It is much more about what happened in Romantic-era drug stores than in Romantic texts about the drugs themselves, but in "London's Immortal Druggists: Pharmaceutical Science and Business in Romanticism" Thomas H. Schmid uses De Quincey's search for a certain opium seller as an invitation to investigate how apothecaries, who prescribed drugs, gradually diverged from druggists, who manufactured and sold increasingly standardized pharmaceuticals to those who chose to save money and diagnose their own ailments (or psycho-spiritual needs). Though he is never mentioned, the figure of Dr. Henry Jekyll haunts this refreshing excursion into social history. Like De Quincey, he found escape in chemical substances, but unlike him he did not benefit from the regulation of the trade, since he was fatally unable to relocate the impure drugs that effected his original transformation.

In the penultimate spot, Peter J. Manning writes entertainingly of "Wordsworth's 'Illustrated Books and Newspapers' and Media of the City." Taking the aging poet's 1846 sonnet "Illustrated Books and Newspapers" as a focal point, Manning shows that while Wordsworth had good reason for his crotchety views of the picture-papers (they made up both copy and image when topicality demanded it), they did share his goal of educating the public and providing a "real" view of human life. But press and poet parted company in their methods. While the newspapers championed "a wide but shallow familiarity with a great variety of materials," Wordsworth argued for "the concentrated return to a small number of cherished texts" (235).

This book concludes strongly with Tim Fulford's "Babylon and Jerusalem on the Old Kent Road, " which argues that the resurgence of popular prophecy in the Romantic era, "the last great flowering of the practice of interpreting current events through the framework of Old Testament scripture" (242), was driven in part by the challenge of comprehending new urban complexities--material, social, psychological. Failing in this, Fulford contends, religious prophets helped open the way for "a decisive shift, an inaugural moment of modernity" that De Quincey both identified and embodied, "the secularization of prophecy in the poetic imagination and the flight of that poetic imagination to the countryside" (242). In Fulford's rousing conclusion, Blake, the last to be able to imagine the New Jerusalem in terms drawn from actual London experience, passes the visionary baton to Wordsworth, who initiates a two-centuries' long "retreat of poetic vision from the city" (255). Henceforth, writes Fulford, poets locate their millennial possibilities out of town in the Promised Land of Cumbria, or anywhere else outside the urban Babylon. As poetry "was lost to London" (256), the novel moved in to stay.

Having contributed an essay on "London and Nineteenth-Century Poetry" to the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to the Literature of London, I know that this is not the whole story. But no story ever is. It's enough to say after the revelatory vision of Book 7 of The Prelude, London fades from the work of the great Romantic and Victorian poets. But in ways both profound and trivial, the later nineteenth century would continue the exploration of city-seeing that Romantic writers embarked on so passionately and perceptively. While the country-to-city motif underpins many a classic urban novel, the country-to-city-to-country trajectory of so much Romantic writing needs to be seen as part of the urban story too, and this volume helps thicken the plot. As Haden's or Whistler's views of Battersea Bridge show, in the wake of the Romantics we inescapably see the demonized city through the idealized country. And it's often a fine show, even if what we are seeing is a world from which, as Eliot said in The Waste Land, "the [poetic] nymphs are departed."

William Chapman Sharpe, Professor of English at Barnard College, Columbia University, is the editor of The Victorian Age, volume 2B of the Longman Anthology of British Literature (2009). His most recent book is New York Nocturne: The City After Dark in Literature, Painting, and Photography (2008), winner of the Peter S. Rollins Award of the Northeast American Studies Association and the MSA Book Prize of the Modernist Studies Association.


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