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  • Historicizing Literary Cognitivism
  • Suzanne Keen
Alan Richardson, The Neural Sublime: Cognitive Theories and Romantic Texts (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010). Pp. xv, 179. $35.00.
Blakey Vermeule, Why Do We Care about Literary Characters? (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010). Pp. xiv, 273. $60.00.

New books by Alan Richardson and Blakey Vermeule represent the continuing historicizing project of recent works in literary cognitivism published by the Johns Hopkins University Press. As Lisa Zunshine writes in her Introduction to Cognitive Cultural Studies (Johns Hopkins, 2010), "investigating the role of universally shared features of human cognition in historically specific forms of cultural production" (2) extends the aims of Raymond Williams in seeing literary art as continuous with everyday life and social institutions, while protecting cognitivists from the charges of ahistorical universalizing. Anxious to correct the impression that cognitive science applied to literature demotes texts to mere records of the human mind/brain in ordinary action, Zunshine asserts that contextual cognitivists aim "not merely to use such artifacts to illustrate a particular scientific hypothesis about one particular feature of human cognition" (3). Instead, cognitivists restore the missing "evolved human brain" to a more integrated matrix of culture, author, reader, and text (8) in discussions of techniques, representations, and influence. Alan Richardson, whose prior work British Romanticism and the Science of the Mind (2001) established the impact of late-eighteenth-century and early-nineteenth-century discoveries about nerves and brains on the imagery of Romantic writers, stakes the claim of "neural historicism": "The question now is not why should students of literature engage with work in the mind and brain sciences but how?" (Neural Sublime, ix). Richardson and Vermeule demonstrate several different modes of how that engagement might be carried out, intersecting with traditional sources and influences studies and with narrative theory, among other modes relevant to students and teachers of eighteenth-century literature. [End Page 535]

The books engage with eighteenth-century texts to different degrees. Blakey Vermeule begins disarmingly with an account of her students' resistance to regarding J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace (1999) as a response to Richardson's Clarissa (ix) (a position her tenth chapter brilliantly defends); indeed, her range of reference in Why Do We Care about Literary Characters? is extremely broad, extending from Homer to Ian McEwan. Roughly half the book concerns more conventionally recognizable eighteenth-century fictions. Chapter 5, "The Fantasy of Exposure and Narrative Development in Eighteenth-Century Britain," treats Caleb Williams and Pamela, with glancing references to Pope's poetry. Chapter 6, "God Novels," explores what Vermeule names the "high mind-reading tradition" (129) by examining narrative techniques in Tom Jones and Clarissa. Chapter 7, "Gossip and Literary Narratives," briefly considers Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (1957), Patricia Meyer Spacks's Gossip (1985), Catherine Gallagher's Nobody's Story: The Vanishing Acts of Women Writers in the Marketplace, 1670–1820 (1994), and William Warner's Licensing Entertainment: The Elevation of Novel Reading in Britain, 1684–1750 (1998). Chapter 8, "What's the Matter with Miss Bates?," discusses Jane Austen's fiction, while chapter 9, "Mind Blindness," discusses Swift and Hogarth in a broader consideration of eighteenth-century satire. Chapter 10 returns to Clarissa by way of its reflections on Coetzee. The eighteenth century and especially the eighteenth-century novel serve as home base for Vermeule's discursive orbits. Alan Richardson's briefer book also demonstrates disparate interests, in the sublime, the status of mental images, apostrophe, Theory of Mind, sibling incest, and the speech known as motherese (or parentese), but its center of gravity is Romanticism. As Richardson writes, each chapter seeks to "reorient an unresolved issue within Romantic studies by recourse to cognitive theory, to indicate new possibilities for cognitive literary criticism, and to introduce readers to a given area in cognitive, neuroscientific, or evolutionary thought" (xii). Richardson's literary historical commitments keep the period at the center of discussions of Percy Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Mary Shelley, Keats, Walter Scott, and Jane Austen. Burke on the sublime, Bentham on incest avoidance, Herder, Rousseau, and William Smellie on theories of language supply the sources and influences at the heart of Richardson's contextualizing "neural...


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