- The Bengal Annual and #bigger6
In the last few years, British Romantic-era scholarship has seen a rise in provocative efforts to expand and challenge the ways that scholars study and engage with British Romantic literature beyond the "Big Six" authors, looking instead towards the multivocal representations of the Romantic spirit. We have not yet finished mining all of the print materials published in England, though, specifically the explosion of periodicals and serial press. My previous work offers a literary history of one such serial form, a genre filled with poetry, prose, engravings, charts that every author contributed towards, including Byron, Keats, Hogg, L. E. L., Hemans, P. B. Shelley, M. W. Shelley, W. Wordsworth, Scott, S. T. Coleridge, and Victorian authors.1 In an effort to spread the authority of England, publishers often fostered the distribution of literary annuals and other serial forms to all of Britain's colonial holdings, including India where British-centric reading materials claimed cultural and social superiority over colonial (and colonized) subjects.
David Lester Richardson banked on this popularity by publishing the first literary annual in India: The Bengal Annual for 1830. Richardson pronounces that "an Editor has to exercise his taste and skill in the arrangement of the various materials" (Preface iv) and opens the volume with a six-stanza poem immediately followed by "The Literati of British India: A Sketch" by an anonymous author who declares that "we have in India few such personages as men of letters" (4) and that the demand for English literature is a hindrance to the growth of "an indigenous literature" (5).2 In direct contrast, Richardson closes the 352-page volume with Harachandra Ghose's translation of "Anacreon, An Ode" from Greek into Bengali. Who does Richardson intend as the "imagined community" for this volume? Or is Benedict Anderson's nation-forming theory undermined specifically by texts such as this Bengal Annual?
With forty-nine literary texts and seven engravings, the 1830 The [End Page 117] Bengal Annual alone represents a treasure trove for scholarly study at the far end of the British Romantic period. It took seven years for the literary annual form to trickle to India while it took only two years to gain prominence in America. Why?
What isn't apparent in the HATHI-Trust flattened, digital output for The Bengal Annual is a lack of luxury, a deviation from the gilt edges and silk-covered boards typical of this literary form. How do we study both its hybrid and colonial contents and its material resonance against and alongside London publishing?
What if we envisioned a twofold approach to study these types of British Romantic-era texts: first, support for small digital projects (perhaps even digital scholarly editions) in partnership with the Keats-Shelley Journal and Romantic Circles or perhaps even journals such as TEXT or Book History; second, pairing with the Association for Documentary Editing's journal, Scholarly Editing, to support smaller digital projects initiated by graduate students. By developing a cadre of stable digital projects that recover texts such as The Bengal Annual, KSJ would also invite the further study of these texts and support graduate students' forays into explorations about British Romanticism and empire.
Katherine D. Harris is Professor of English at San Jose State University (@triproftri), where she publishes and teaches about literature and technology ranging from the mechanization of the printing press in nineteenth-century England to current uses of narrative in gaming.
1. Katherine D. Harris, Forget Me Not: The Rise of the British Literary Annual 1823–1835 (Ohio University Press, 2015).
2. David Lester Richardson, preface to The Bengal Annual, a Literary Keepsake for 1830 (Calcutta: Samuel Smith & Co., 1830), iii–vi. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nyp.33433074793476;view=1up;seq=11. "The Literati of British India: A Sketch," in The Bengal Annual, a Literary Keepsake for 1830 (Calcutta: Samuel Smith & Co., 1830), 4–17. Hereafter cited in-text.