- Transatlantic Address: Washington Allston and the Limits of Romanticism
One of the most interesting phases of jerome mcgann’s career has been his recent turn to writing about nineteenth-century American literature. One might say this turn isn’t altogether recent: his 1993 book on “The Visible Language of Modernism” takes its title from Stephen Crane’s Black Riders and Other Lines (1895) and includes a sustained meditation on Emily Dickinson’s investment in the visual aspect of her writing.1 But since 2014, when he published two books—A New Republic of Letters, which includes substantial chapters on Edgar Allan Poe and James Fenimore Cooper, and The Poet Edgar Allan Poe—the pendulum of McGann’s attention has swung decisively in a transatlantic direction.2
This shift is particularly welcome to those who study nineteenth-century American literature—and especially American poetry—within a transatlantic context. A prominent Romanticist’s fascination with American texts and cultural formations does much to counter asymmetries in prestige and in critical attention that have long structured the transatlantic literary field. Admittedly, most students of nineteenth-century literature on both sides of the Atlantic have been content to write national histories that rarely, if ever, intersect with one another. Critics have addressed the great themes of Atlantic history, recognizing the importance of transatlantic trade and the transformative effects of the forced and voluntary migration of peoples, but they have done so largely from within the confines of nationally framed literary traditions. Indeed, as I noted over a decade ago in The Traffic in Poems: Nineteenth-Century Poetry and Transatlantic Exchange (2008), it would be difficult to underestimate the sway of the idea of a national literature over the discipline of literary study, structuring as it still does undergraduate [End Page 475] instruction, graduate training, and professional formation.3 A tacit or explicit literary nationalism continues to organize departments of English despite the fact that complexly intertwining histories of language and culture, publication, and literary form tug against the often unquestioned binary division of the field into British and American literatures.
While specialists in nineteenth-century Anglophone literature share an atavistic, nationalist commitment to our materials of study, asymmetries of attention rooted in Romantic-era hierarchies of value continue to ensure that, while Americanists must grapple with British literary precedent and evaluate the literature they study against the backdrop of the dominant tradition, Romanticists and Victorianists are free to ignore contemporaneous literary production in Great Britain’s former American colonies. Even important recent scholarship that boldly reconceives nineteenth-century British literature in transnational terms repeats this omission: Manu Samriti Chander’s Brown Romantics: Poetry and Nationalism in the Global Nineteenth Century (2017) and Jason R. Rudy’s Imagined Homelands: British Poetry in the Colonies (2017) track the colonial uptake of British poetic forms and poetic ideals in India, British Guiana, Australia, Canada, and South Africa, but omit Britain’s former colony, the newly independent United States, from their field of vision.4 In Reaping Something New: African American Transformations of Victorian Literature (2016), Daniel Hack examines the complexity of African American writers’ engagement with a broad range of British texts, but treats African American literature largely in isolation from larger trends in American literary history.5
The rising prestige of the American novel in the twentieth century has ensured that numerous comparative studies embrace the work of writers such as Hawthorne, Melville, and James,6 but the exclusion of [End Page 476] nineteenth-century American poetry from serious transnational consideration—outside of the work of our two proto-modernists, Whitman and Dickinson—is striking.7 One can easily lay the blame for this omission at the feet of Americanist critics who tend to regard Americanness in poetry as discernible only in a break with British poetic norms. We have only recently begun to develop a critical language nuanced and flexible enough to describe the heady mix of cosmopolitanism and provinciality, originality and imitation, postcoloniality, and national and imperial ambition that characterizes metrically regular, formally recognizable American verse. Americanists tend to be embarrassed by the bombastic claims made by nineteenth-century poets and critics who proclaimed the virtues of now-obscure...