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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.4 (2002) 615-622
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Gothic Readers versus Gothic Writers
University of Washington
James Watt. Contesting the Gothic: Fiction, Genre and Cultural Conflict, 1764-1832 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). Pp. x + 205. $55.00 cloth.
Michael Gamer. Romanticism and the Gothic: Genre, Reception, and Canon Formation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000). Pp. xiii + 255. $60.00 cloth.
E. J. Clery and Robert Miles, eds. Gothic Documents, A Sourcebook: 1700-1820 (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2000). Pp. xii + 306. $24.95 paper.
The terrific flood of books about the gothic novel continues unabated. A vastly popular mode of undisputed resonance and influence offers great opportunity to scholars of enterprise and energy. I am profusely grateful to conscientious readers of so many neglected books, especially when the work is as well done and as well presented as in the new studies by James Watt and Michael Gamer.
At least in a general way, the presiding deity here is Pierre Bourdieu, who furnishes the first epigraph to Gamer's introduction and inspires the main title of Watt's last chapter, "The Field of Romance." Bourdieu's sociological approach embeds major writers in the thick immediacy of their cultural milieu. Cultural is the defining qualifier. Neither Kant nor Napoleon appears in either book. Rather, both Watt and Gamer survey periodicals and popular media in detail, looking for common enterprises and distinctive angles. They want to discover what readers were expecting and how the writers might reflect or respond to them. The categories, consequently, are collective. Watt, the more political of the two scholars, assesses the labels that might be applied to different writers; Gamer, the more formalist (as his subtitle reflects), focuses more on moral and psychological attitudes. [End Page 615] Both studies regard authors as speaking within and to their immediately contemporary circles. Writing becomes responsive and even (for Gamer) defensive. Watt, especially, falls short of Bourdieu's dialectical fire or wit and both books lack the political passion of David Punter or the psychological intensity motivating both New Critical readings (Robert Kiely's Romantic Novel in England, still the best in this line, remains unmentioned) and the subsequent Freudian and post-Freudian work of Eve Sedgwick and Terry Castle. The literature of (German) terror is now a garden of (English) delight. The depth of Watt's and Gamer's research persuades me that on historical grounds they are basically right and will help set gothic studies in a calmer view.
Whether the gothic is best seen with this kind of wide-eyed clarity is an open question. There is a New Positivism in these books that wants settled truths and definitions. To be sure, the authors are free of the encyclopedic illusions that made, say, John Livingston Lowes's Road to Xanadu so aimless. But in the end we are given parts without a whole. Even the effects are presented in terms of responses: textual effects are much less at issue. Hence, these books limit us to the past of the gothic. They both tell stories ending in Scott—a writer enjoying a much-deserved revival—that eerily naturalize the gothic uncanny.
Watt is a nominalist. His governing premise is that the gothic is manifold: "The Gothic romance is a hybrid genre, its diverse affiliations best understood by way of detailed case studies of authors, works, and publishing events, and via a focus on the kinds of classification made by contemporary critics and reviewers" (130). Three chapters persuasively portray leading authorial types. Making the best use of Walpole's interminable correspondence that I have seen since Giovanna Franci's Italian study, La Messa in Scena del Terrore, chapter one argues that Walpole's motive was an innate frivolity. He should not be regarded as anxious, modern, or revolutionary, indeed, not as serious at all. The Castle of Otranto thus has more in common with Vathek and the Arabian Nights than with subsequent gothic fiction. Chapter three examines Lewis in the context of the popularity of German tales and anti-German prejudices. Comparing Lewis's work...