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  • British Romanticism and the Literature of Human Interest by Mai-Lin Cheng
  • Molly Desjardins
British Romanticism and the Literature of Human Interest. By MAI-LIN CHENG. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2018. Pp. xii, 193. Cloth, $95.00.

British Romanticism and the Literature of Human Interest by Mai-Lin Cheng begins with the disappearance of Grasmere villagers George and Sarah Green, a human-interest story that went viral in the Romantic period. Though the book revisits the human-interest story as a narrative form, it is more interested in form itself. In particular, Cheng explores how questions about form proliferated when Romantic writers approached the problem of how to write about and evoke human interest, a term that the Romantics gave to "the feeling of shared feeling—something more than sympathy" (p. 2). Cheng finds that instead of recurring to formulaic human-interest narratives that reliably elicited, and sometimes exploited, reader sympathy, Romantic writers experimented with the interplay between narrative and other literary (or extra-literary) forms when attempting to "express and capture" human interest (p. 2). If we shift our attention to Romantic experiments with form and the footnotes, editorial prefaces, titles, and advertisements that appear within or alongside Romantic literary texts, Cheng suggests, we can better understand how Romantic writers engaged with the problem of human interest as a "problem of form" (p. 9). Cheng's project, though, is not merely formal. Richly indebted to both poststructuralist and postcolonial theory, the book sets out to produce in part a Foucauldian "literary genealogy" of human interest that resists its codification as a concept (p. 9). For Cheng, this genealogy shows how the Romantics wrote history rather than refused it when they engaged the problem of human interest.

The theoretical references in this book are deep-rooted and diverse. I sometimes found it difficult to follow how the book's seemingly disparate claims about genre, form, affect, history, and ethics were connected to human interest. However, once the book's theoretical roots started to emerge, the relationship among the premises that combine to build Cheng's claims became clear and resonant. For instance, in Chapter 4 Cheng claims that Lord Byron's Lara (1814) "turns the liquidity of communication into the strangeness of inscription" (p. 124) in order to "be read as a commentary on the Oriental tale in general" (p. 125) and ultimately to suggest that "the pleasures of sheer sound—even, and perhaps especially, an unintelligible sound or a mysterious dash—are enough to spark human interest" (p. 111). Lara, then, is presented as an exemplification of the book's central argument that Romantic texts and paratexts are "sites of generic and aesthetic instability" (p. 21) where authors make use of "formal and generic tactics in order to express and capture human interest" (p. 2). To grasp the full force of Cheng's argument, I found it useful to return to the work of Paul de Man and Michel de Certeau, both [End Page 205] of whom Cheng mentions elsewhere in the book. In de Manian terms, inscription is the material dimension of the language we use to communicate, interpret, and conceptualize. However, because for de Man there is no phenomenal link between the inscribed textual reference and an extratextual referent, literature (like any communication) cannot be understood as "a reliable source of information about anything but its own language" ("The Resistance to Theory," Yale French Studies 63 [1982], p. 11). If we return to Cheng's reading of Byron with this definition in mind, it becomes apparent how "inscription" exposes Lara as a site of "aesthetic instability" (p. 2), where the appearance of communication may actually prove to be nothing more than "sheer sound" (p. 111). This claim contributes to the book's central argument through what I read as an implicit reference to de Certeau's description of "tactics." Building on the work of Foucault, de Certeau uses the word "tactic" to describe instances of historical agency that oppose the strategies of disciplinary power while also remaining in "a terrain imposed" by power (The Practice of Everyday Life, translated by Steven F. Rendall, U of California P [1984], p. 37). If we read the...


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pp. 205-207
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