- Romanticism, Adaptation, and Twenty-First Century Public Humanities
The Romantics were the original public scholars. Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin adapted their academic prose into Gothic-inspired novels because they understood that this popular form had the potential to reach a wider audience. Adapting philosophical and political discourses into the various forms and media available to them, Romantic writers and painters embraced new aesthetics and technologies to revolutionize art, politics, and history.
Like the outdated monarchies and institutions that the Romantics rejected, the twentieth-century academy is on the brink of collapse. True, its most important legacy is the expansion of educational access—for women, racial and ethnic minorities, and students from working-class backgrounds (myself included) who constitute the fastest growing enrollments in American universities. And while the field has started to respond to this development through the diversification of Romanticism's voices via #Bigger6 and cultural histories, continuing this work requires us to also adapt the media, genres, and voices that we use to circulate the knowledge our profession produces.
Romanticists today must enact the spirit of Romanticism on multiple fronts. We need to write in what Wordsworth called "the real language of men" that would be "well adapted to interest mankind permanently," an idea inherited from Wollstonecraft in "quitting now the flowers of rhetoric… [to] reason together" and with new [End Page 181] audiences.1 We need teachers and poets to become "legislators of the world" as Percy Shelley imagined.2 Our discipline must be reshaped by following the lead of The Bigger Six Collective who have called for Romanticists to "reform ourselves as a collective, to make Romanticism inclusive in a way that brings people in from the margins of what has historically been a white Anglo-American field. We imagine an open network of scholars who, rather than sitting in a circle facing each another, stand shoulder-to-shoulder facing the world."3
One way to reclaim Romanticism's place in the public sphere is through public-facing research, teaching, and service that adapts key figures, texts, and concepts for twenty-first century learners and leaders. As the co-director of an NEH Summer Institute for K-12 educators on Frankenstein and adaptation, I've seen first-hand the importance of and need for quality professional development for school teachers.4 Underpaid and overstretched, today's teachers still want inspiration and continuing education so they can further develop the imaginations of the next generation of public citizens. They need us. Education needs a revolution in Romanticism's manner—democratic, imaginative, and transformative. The enthusiastic reception of Romantics200, Frankenreads, and similar public-facing projects that put the Romantic period in direct conversation with the present illustrates how our work is important, welcomed, and necessary when adapted for new audiences.
Still, an updated, inclusive, and public-facing Romanticism must be developed within the academy first. We must embody the principles of Helen Maria Williams and Thomas Paine and embrace Wollstonecraft's democratic society built through education and public outreach. As Romanticists, we know that literature, art, and political action are interlinked. As scholars, teachers, and lifelong learners, we know that at its best, the humanities can model conscientious civic [End Page 182] debate and engagement. We have done so as theory, new historicism, and digital humanities have transformed scholarship produced over the last three decades. We can do so now as the academy searches desperately for a permanent public presence and to ensure the humanities survive the twenty-first century.
Lissette Lopez Szwydky is Associate Professor of English at the University of Arkansas, Associate Director of the Arkansas Humanities Center, and Co-Director of the NEH Summer Institute for K-12 Educators "Remaking Monsters and Heroines: Adapting Classic Literature for Contemporary Audiences." She is the author of Transmedia Adaptation in the Nineteenth Century (Ohio State University Press, 2020).
1. William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "Preface to Lyrical Ballads ," in Lyrical Ballads: 1798 and 1802, ed. Fiona Stafford (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 95; Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (United Kingdom: W. W. Norton, 2009...