- Improvising Friends
My general contention is that the connection between friendship and creativity constitutes the radical legacy of British Romanticism. Prized for its social revolutions and artistic productivity, the era boasts some of the most famous literary friendships in the Western canon. My current work explores how period concepts of "friend" and practices as self-avowed "friends of man" shape post1790s reflections on writing's social efficacy in canonical literary texts and letters exchanged between writer-friends. I believe that emphasizing the interdependence of friendship and creativity alters Romantic interpretations of individualism and radicalism, undergirds the attachments of scholars and pop culturalists to the period, and affects how British Romanticists teach and evaluate the field today.
My specific argument focuses on writers associated with the New Philosophy—Godwin, Holcroft, Wollstonecraft, and Hays as well as Wordsworth and Coleridge in their early days—for several reasons. They promote friendship as the form of human relationality most oriented toward justice because it is least embedded in blood or legal institutions. They anchor their hopes for social renovation in notions of friendship that credit the friend's absence of reproof with stimulating imagination and sustaining creativity. They are well-known failures as friends, especially the male pairings. Rather than assigning these failures to the failed dream of social revolution and vice versa, I see texts written in the wake of both personal and political disheartenments as trenchant analyses of the negativity that inheres in the concept and practice of friend (i.e., The Prelude, The Friend, Holcroft's oeuvre after the break up with Godwin). The designation of texts as "friend"—a [End Page 97] frequent mode of addressing their own writing and beloved texts by others—emphasizes a non-positivist approach toward persons and a struggle to accommodate the ideality and mendacity of friends. Thus the communication, and breakdown of communication, that letters between friends evinces at once expresses personal injury and marks a post-revolutionary limit on the universal category of the "human." This textualizing indicates neither the retreat from politics nor the empathy evoked by literature so often ascribed to Romantic writing. It provides occasion to work through conflict in writing and because their writings so often provoke conflict within each partner over his felt dependence on the other for perpetuation of imagination.
Wollstonecraft and Hays foreground a different accomplishment of New Philosophical writing. Their texts insert women for the first time into Western philosophical concepts of friend, showcase the efficacy of narrating one's life story in forging female friendships across class differences (i.e., Wrongs of Woman; or Maria), and begin to extend participation to those excluded by the philosophical genealogy of friend. The women's failings as friends are less publicized than those of the men, but no less attuned to slights and injuries often occasioned by writing. Hays's desire to chronicle as public history "illustrious and celebrated women of all ages and countries" famously excludes her friend Wollstonecraft from Female Biography. This joint interest in women's legacies and in partially opening out "friend" to differences of gender and class signals the major obstacle to adopting a New Philosophical friend in justice activism today. Anti-Blackness suffuses this tradition.
The legacy that I am claiming for a revised unphilosophical friend distinguishes what is passed on from what is preserved as "our heritage," including as Romanticists. It proposes friendship across difference as the precondition to an allyship that does not compound the patronage and violence of white privilege. Texts of the writer-friends that I explore frequently indulge the fragility that marks their claimed lack of privilege as writers, but they also spotlight the futility of denying one's attachments, including to books and friends. What we might call the improvisational work of the friend thus follows upon Romanticism's conceptual treatments and mistreatments of friend. As the Creature in Frankenstein avers, one cannot make a friend on one's own; co-creativity entails desire and respect for difference. Interracial friendships, [End Page 98] because of their informing asymmetries and differential histories of violence, augment the conflicts and types of occasion that friends bring. Still, and not all, shared inclinations keep...