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Modernism/modernity 10.2 (2003) 391-393
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Victorian Afterlives: The Shaping of Influence in Nineteenth-Century Literature. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Pp. xi + 372. $70.00 (cloth).
In a well-known passage, cited by Douglas-Fairhurst, Wordsworth argues that a poet enjoys "the task of creating the taste by which he is to be enjoyed ... employing his genius ... in such a manner as to produce effects hitherto unknown" (62-63). It might be analogously argued that the scholar of new literary history creates the subject matter that his study addresses. At the present moment, for example, I have two colleagues, one of whom is writing a book about motion, one a book about smell. These are not subjects that I knew to exist before sampling the new works. Nothing in my previous knowledge of literary history prepared me to expect that the physics of motion should be related to descriptions of journeys from Milton's Satan to Defoe's Crusoe, much less to consideration of what makes certain passages of poetry or prose "moving." And nothing prepared me for a book-length study of sweat and tobacco fumes in the Victorian novel as indices of concerns with social class. If one needs to be prepared to marvel at "effects hitherto unknown" in things moving or things odoriferous, one should be prepared to marvel at the hitherto unknown combination of these subjects in Victorian Afterlives. Here is a study of how nineteenth-century British writers were moved—by literature, by friends, by loss, by the accidents of composition—and moved others; and because smell literally consists of molecules of some person or some substance impinging on the air one breathes, here is also, in part, a study of smells, particularly noxious smells, as synecdoche in Victorian fiction for the way social beings affect one another.
It is perhaps the most remarkable achievement of Victorian Afterlives that this book, whose subject seems at first so uncertain, so forced, so peculiar to itself, should emerge as a significant combination of subjects previously known. Douglas-Fairhurst himself "theorizes" his subject by presenting it initially as a combination of the influence study of Harold Bloom and the cultural history of Jerome McGann. Just how unlikely such a recipe might seem to be can be gauged by considering [End Page 391] that for over a quarter of a century, Harold Bloom has been powerfully defending a purist notion of poetry being created out of the misreading of previous poetry. The literary agon for Bloom is all-in-all, the biographical and social milieu mere occasion and surface. Douglas-Fairhurst's "effect hitherto unknown" is nothing less than the reimagination of Harold Bloom as though he were a cultural critic.
Is this, to use Bloom's own terminology, "strong misreading"? Though the term is of some interest to Douglas-Fairhurst, that is not what he is about. On the contrary, the book proposes eminently reasonable and industriously accumulated "and yet"s that correct misreading with sage considerations of other factors, other concerns. To the Bloomian model of struggle with a single forebear, Douglas-Fairhurst adds a host of other contenders—family, friends, social pressures, even self-confrontations in the process of revision. To Bloom's "oddest theoretical premiss" (39) that a poem is only deeply—and always antagonistically—engaged with another poem, Douglas-Fairhurst adds a world of other relations, generous and benign. In response to Bloom's notion of anxiety, we now rediscover the possibility of "solicitude" (42) for the dead or the living. And in response to Bloom's high-seriousness, his insistence on the ubiquitous applicability of the Keatsian maxim about Milton, "life to him would be death to me" (Letter of September 24, 1819) we now have a live-and-let-live good humor, an Arbuthnot to Bloom's cantankerous Pope, modestly prescribing a poultice for the breaking heart, or perhaps a heart-bypass operation that adds a new inner-poetic conduit, parody.
What is the subject of this book? It is no longer poetic influence, at least...