- Remaking Romanticism: The Radical Politics of the Excerpt by Casie LeGette
In his keynote address “Romanticism, Empire and Resistance” at the Resistance in the Spirit of Romanticism Conference held at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in 2018, Saree Makdisi provocatively called into question the very premise of the conference, “the relevance of romantic politics to our current moment of cultural change,” to borrow the language from the call for papers. Makdisi argued that the world we face today is fundamentally different—politically, economically, culturally—than that which the Romantics faced, and as a result it would be a mistake to look to Romantic texts in order to discover enduring political relevance. As if in response to Makdisi, Casie LeGette’s Remaking Romanticism identifies one way in which we can, and indeed should, explore the enduring relevance of Romantic texts: the political uses to which radical editors and publishers have repeatedly and effectively put Romantic texts since the 1810s. LeGette’s monograph is not a study in reception history, but rather a focused examination of the work of editors and publishers who excerpted, edited, and re-contextualized Romantic texts so as to make them speak to new political contexts, even when this work entailed butchering the original texts.
LeGette argues that through the excerpt, all Romantic texts, from sonnet to philosophical treatise, were “transformed into lyric poetry”; quotation [End Page 268] lifted passages from their original contexts so that their relevance could be renewed and reinvigorated in new ones (15, 67–68). LeGette acknowledges that her method is, in part, inspired by Sharon Cameron’s Lyric Time (Johns Hopkins, 1981) and Virginia Jackson’s Dickinson’s Misery: A Theory of Lyric Reading (Princeton, 2005), but it is also in step with Jonathan Culler’s more recent Theory of the Lyric (Harvard, 2015): “a distinctive feature of the lyric seems to be this attempt to create the impression of something happening now, in the present time of discourse,” such that “the lyric works to create effects of presence” (Culler, 37). Like a lyric, the excerpt is a reiteration that gestures to past iterations, and is open to future iterations, but insists primarily upon its present relevance in the moment of its iteration. The excerpts from Godwin’s Political Justice and Southey’s Wat Tyler, both works of the early 1790s, that are placed at the top of the July, 1833 issues of the short-run, Chartist publication, The Working Man’s Friend, and Political Magazine (1832–1833) are not irrelevant quotes, but are intended to speak poignantly to the pressing political issues of the day (LeGette, 31).
This is, perhaps, the greatest challenge that LeGette’s argument poses for Romanticists, that the reconfiguring of relevance within new political contexts always involves a process of disfiguration and historical erasure. This is the concern of the first two chapters of the monograph, “Part 1: The 1790s, Extended.” The subtleties and tact in argument that Godwin, Coleridge, Southey, or Wordsworth may have crafted with care in the 1790s are lost when, for example, Thomas J. Wooler, editor of the Black Dwarf (1817–1824), quotes them liberally to bolster his satirical attacks on the repression of the post-Napoleonic War era. Wooler set a precedent; LeGette tracks Godwin’s works as they reappeared in excerpts in radical journals. While she explores in admirable close readings how 1790s texts were altered by their recontextualization during the Regency and afterwards, LeGette also underscores the significance of these excerpts: the Black Dwarf did much to disseminate Romantic texts among the working classes and to build a readership for Romantic authors. Moreover, Wooler’s editorial work of identifying and collecting authors who seemingly shared common commitments made a substantial contribution to early notions of the canon of Romanticism. LeGette does discuss other editors and journals, but a highlight of these first two chapters is her discussion of Wooler’s editorial maneuverings in relation to the scandalous 1817 publication of Southey’s Wat Tyler, a radical play (it was “anti-taxes, anti-war, and rigorously anti-monarchy...