- John Keats, English Poet (Made in America)
On July 16, 1894, at 4 p.m., approximately 1,200 congregants gathered in the Hampstead Parish Church for a memorial service honoring John Keats, who had died 73 years earlier in Rome. Neither the date nor the church held special Keatsian significance, though the location paid homage to Keats's nearby residence. British and American newspapers covered the memorial service for weeks before and after. It was, in the words of one journalist, "the most fashionable literary event of the year," with "the old and new schools of literature" seated "shoulder to shoulder."1 Invitations, printed by Kelmscott Press, had been sent to Oscar Wilde, W. B. Yeats, Aubrey Beardsley, William Michael Rossetti, Walter Besant, Coventry Patmore, Lord Houghton (the son of Richard Monckton Milnes, Keats's first biographer), Alice Meynell, and Frances Hodgson Burnett, who later wrote that the congregation contained "every literary and artistic lion in London."2 A condolence letter from Algernon Charles Swinburne was read aloud.
What occasion prompted this service? Phillip Waller notes a "literary marmoreal movement" in these years that "marbleized" dead authors, often on important anniversaries.3 This larger commemorative culture provides part of the service's rationale. Indeed, its necrophilic quality exemplifies a deathly aesthetics in which Keats held a privileged place.4 As Andrew Bennett states, "what is important about John Keats for the later nineteenth century … is that he is dead."5 Waller helps us see that Keats is not unique in this, that the [End Page 112] "rage to commemorate" was its own cultural engine in the late nineteenth century. But Waller misses a Keats-specific impetus behind the Hampstead ceremony: the unveiling of a Keats bust donated by American enthusiasts to anchor the first Keats memorial on English ground. Everything about the bust and service, in fact, was made in America. American sculptor Anne Whitney made the bust, American architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue designed its supporting bracket, and American donors paid the bills. The entire scheme was the brainchild of Boston Keats enthusiasts Fred Holland Day and Louise Imogen Guiney.
The Hampstead Memorial illuminates Keats's reception in 1894: who was "Keats"? What did "Keats" mean? And what cultural work was "Keats" enlisted to perform? In this transatlantic literary world, Americans and American money significantly influenced Keats's posthumous reputation. Indeed, the American Keats memorial exposes the complex negotiation of national identities in what became "English Literature." The Keats embraced by Americans in these years was an oppositional figure: on one hand, a figure that Americans proudly claimed to have loved longer and better than their English brethren; on the other, a figure associated with an Anglophile critique of American commerce and progress. Keats provided his American fans with a way both to defy and to defer to an idea of Englishness. But their very act of memorializing Keats also exposed the insecurity of both English literature and Englishness. Precisely because the Keats monument in England came from New England, his status as an "English poet," and the status of "English Literature," became topics of intense discussion. Ultimately, Boston Keats-lovers used Keats to stake an American claim to Englishness and to an English Keats, exposing the extent to which "English Literature" had become, by the turn of the twentieth century, a transatlantic object of affection and "Englishness," a transnational category of identity. This article will thus present the American Keats Memorial as a case study in the invention and rise of transatlantic "English."6 [End Page 113]
Americans' investment in Keats is not surprising given the poet's posthumous reception in the United States. The Poetical Works of Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats (1829), an unauthorized edition by French publishers A. and W. Galignani, was banned in England but not in America, making Keats available in the United States twenty years before he was back in print in Britain. Pirated by American publishers, the book gained a devoted following for Keats in Eastern cities and university circles, especially at Harvard College in the 1830s. Here, according to Edward Everett Hale, one saw the volume "pretty much everywhere." As another Harvard student remembered, Keats's poems...