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The South Atlantic Quarterly 102.1 (2003) 1-23
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A "Stranger's Near Approach":
Afterlives of Romanticism
A small shed had been added to my grandmother's house years ago. Some boards were laid across the joists at the top, and between these boards and the roof was a very small garret, never occupied by anything but rats and mice. . . . To this hole I was conveyed as soon as I entered the house. The air was stifling; the darkness total.
—Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
I am not and cannot pretend to be a Romanticist and so cannot claim to know in any detail the discrete rules of scholarly competence that govern the field, the subdisciplinary bylaws that hold membership in this, as in any, intellectual community minimally conditional on some shared experiences of reading. Nor am I interested, here, in adding an item to the list of texts that all good, self-respecting Romanticists should know. Rather, it is precisely because, whatever my ignorance of the current state of the Romanticist contract, I feel fairly sure that a knowledge of Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is not obligatory in the field that I want to start with it. 1 There is the matter of dates to begin with. Originally published in 1860, Jacobs's text [End Page 1] (written under the pseudonym Linda Brent) falls a few good decades outside the historical moment with which Romanticism is usually associated and that, generally, allows it to designate not only a shared (if never quite agreed on) set of ideological, epistemological, or aesthetic protocols but a reasonably stable period concept. And then, too, there is the problem of genre or mode. As Valerie Smith has argued, the primary influence on Jacobs's text would appear to be the domestic, sentimental novel (whose situationally compromised but virtuous heroine, as Smith further suggests, both provides a model for the narrative of sexual menace at the heart of Incidents and proves itself radically inadequate to the experiences of sexual violence Jacobs reveals to be definitive of the life of the "slave girl"). 2 And if there is a generic allegiance to something other than the sentimental novel in the passage I cite it would certainly seem to be to the Gothic, though again, even gothic terror seems flippant in relation to the racial terror that drove Jacobs, in the "incident" she here relates, to go into hiding from her predatory master, Dr. Flint, in the garret of her grandmother's shed. But Romanticist I nevertheless want to argue this chapter from the Incidents is, though I probably would not have noticed it if I had not been struck, first, by how frequently, if variously, the texts I am supposed to know ("postcolonial," "diasporic," "postmodern") wander into seemingly "Romantic" territory, and, subsequently, in the process of editing this collection, by registering for the first time the allusion that frames this chapter of Jacobs's text. The chapter is entitled "The Loophole of Retreat," and, as Kevis Goodman's contribution to this collection reminds us, that phrase is not original to Jacobs but occurs in one of the more famous lines from William Cowper's 1785 poem The Task ("'Tis pleasant through the loopholes of retreat / To peep at such a world.") 3
What are we to make of this repetition? The phrase is unusual enough that it seems unlikely that both Cowper and Jacobs (and more to the point, Jacobs, writing three-quarters of a century after Cowper) would have generated it at random. Had Jacobs read The Task prior to writing Incidents? I cannot answer definitively. Certainly, as someone whose education had familiarized her with the conventions of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English literature she could be expected to have known of Cowper, whose collaboration with John Newton on the Olney Hymns together with his 1793 poem "The Negro's Complaint" (which, set to music and multiply reproduced in pamphlet form, became the virtual ballad of the Abolition [End Page...