England in 1819: The Politics of Literary Culture and the Case of Romantic Historicism

"A monumental work of scholarship. . . . Chandler ranges over most of the key figures of English Romanticism. But his survey is deftly interwoven with brilliant theoretical speculations about what it means to 'historicise'. . . . It will surely come to rank among the foremost Romantic studies of our time."—Terry Eagleton, The Independent

"A major contribution to our appreciation of the Romantic conception of history."—Library Journal

"A massive, boldly ambitious study that traces the origins of the humanities' recent 'return-to-history' back to the British Romantic culture of the early nineteenth century. . . . England in 1819 uses the prodigious literary output of that year to pursue some far-reaching questions about what it means to 'date' an event, to study a historically situated case, or to make so complex and crowded a year as 1819 representative of a whole historical era."—Jon Klancher, Times Literary Supplement

"1819? At first sight, it might not seem a 'hot date'; but as James Chandler argues in his powerful book, it would be a mistake to overlook a year of such exceptional political conflagration and literary pyrotechnics in British history. Chandler's study is a wide-ranging, enormously ambitious, densely packed, closely argued work."—John Brewer, New Republic

"[An] ambitious, formidable, and altogether compelling account of the relation of the literary culture of England in 1819."—Charles Mahoney, Wordsworth Circle

"[A] tremendously ambitious and original book, perhaps the most important contribution to romantic studies since the publication of Jerome McGann's The Romantic Ideology in 1983."—Nigel Leask, History Workshop Journal

"A quite extraordinarily rewarding read."—Ted Underwood, European Romantic Review


An excerpt from
England in 1819
The Politics of Literary Culture and the Case of Romantic Historicism
James Chandler


This project began, more or less straightforwardly, as a commentary on a moment in the history of a literary culture. My aim was to explain historically the quantity and quality of extraordinary writings produced in a relatively brief epoch by a number of British writers we call "Romantic." Over time, I grew more concerned with an analysis of what it means, in the context of current critical practice, to identify "a moment in the history of a literary culture" as one's object of study. I found myself asking questions, no doubt like many of my contemporaries, about what we do when we "date" a literary work. What exactly do we think we learn in establishing its time and place? What happens as one mediates the act of reading with the knowledge of such specifics? How does such mediation affect our understanding of what a literary work "represents"? Under what circumstances do we consider literary texts representative of specific cultures (as opposed, say, to "life," "the world," or "human nature")? If there is a politics of literary culture, or a sense of public stakes in literary representation, then what political consequences follow, if any do, from various ways of taking a work's specific time and place into account when we read it?

In the end, the book became an attempt to understand the relation of the epoch with which I began, let us call it "England in 1819," to the categories of analysis implicit in the questions I brought to it. It became a study in the cultural history of our cultural-historical literary practices, a retrospective on the politics of literary representation in a regime of historicism. This in turn meant that its questions also changed in kind and scope. One that stands out is the very large question of the point of studying the writings of British Romanticism in the first place: what makes such a pursuit worthwhile? Part of my answer is that we should study these writings, and study them in relation to the conditions in which they were produced, precisely to discover the historical formation, the "datedness," of some of our now-familiar categories of analysis. Another part of it is that we should study them so that we can avail ourselves more deliberately of their conceptual resources, their literary-historical possibilities, their sentimental reflexivity, and their capacity to give pleasure.

In recent decades, British Romanticism has more often been understood as a critical object of historical analysis than as an enabling framework for it. Its achievements have been understood as poetical and its poetry chiefly as transcendental—or self-deceived (depending on one's point of view). Meanwhile, historicism itself—or one brand of it—has generally been traced to developments on the Continent, and especially to German thinkers such as Hegel. In arguing for the peculiar relevance of literature in Britain's post-Waterloo period to present-day critical and pedagogical practices, therefore, I am working doubly against the grain. That is, I argue that the writings of "England in 1819" are in important instances distinctively historicist, but also that they are, in their historicism, distinctively British, in the sense that they arise from a distinctively British position in then-contemporary world culture. This is a position from which it was possible to register the historical and geographical peculiarity of "manners" in different stages and stations around the world. Even a writer like Keats, who did not much travel until after his major work, could read descriptive accounts of other ways of life in hundreds of narratives of "travels," "journeys," and "residences" in foreign places.

Of course, except in their sheer volume, travel accounts were themselves not new with Regency England. The Earl of Shaftesbury had warned young British readers of the deleterious effects of such writings more than a hundred years before, but informed British readers of Keats's time found themselves in quite novel relations to manners and to the issue of how manners were to be understood. This was so because such readers would have had to come to terms not only with what Edmund Burke famously called the revolution in manners in France, but also, as I emphasize here, with the new constitution of manners in American society, and the new theorization of manners in the work of the Scottish Enlightenment. To think through these new developments, astute and literate observers of the current scene such as Keats, or Byron, or Anna Barbauld, or William Cobbett, had to attend to the question of how manners are meaningfully coded into "systems of manners" or cultures. They had to attend, as well, to the further question of how we give meaning to such cultures—and to the texts that mediate or "represent" them—in the act of assigning such cultures or such texts a date of place.

Overall, then, I aim to show how our under-theorized concept of the "historical situation" can be situated in a history of Romanticism. Questions about the scale on which we conceive of a historical situation's assigned date of place are much exercised in what follows. "England in 1819," the title of the famous sonnet by Shelley from which I have borrowed my own title, is obviously the cultural assignment with which I am most concerned, though I date situations on other scales as well. What I claim to read in "England in 1819," in effect, are the historiographical preconditions that make our own (my own) historicism practicable. In arguing that claim, I show how a new and urgent sense of contemporaneity was implicated in writings for the "reform of representation," a campaign that was thought to be leading Britain to the brink of revolution in 1819. I explain how this new sense of period—involved with what might be called "comparative contemporaneities"—quickly took shape in the rash of literary invention on the theme of "the spirit of the age." I pay careful attention to the writings on this topic, explicit discussions of the post-Waterloo period and less explicit discussions of decades prior, for I contend that they tell us much about the periodizing and contextualizing practices of our contemporary "return to history" in literary studies.

As a way of suggesting the book's various forms of reflexivity, one might make a rough distinction—following R.G. Collingwood, Dominick LaCapra, and others—between two modes of thinking about history and textuality. In one mode, the text has a "documentary" function in that it refers and informs the historian about some state of affairs in the past. In the other mode, the text has an effective or what LaCapra calls a "worklike" function, critically constructing or reconstructing the given in history and foregrounding the historian's "transferential" relation in the dialogue with the past. I attempt, to begin with, to read the texts of "England in 1819" (starting with Shelley's sonnet) in both documentary and "worklike" terms. The failure to recognize the documentary aspect of these texts on the part of some close readers has resulted in a failure to understand how they participate in a self-consciously historicist literary culture, a culture dominated by a massively influential new literary form, Scott's historical novel, which began to sweep across Britain, America, and the Continent in the years just before 1819. By the same token, the failure to recognize the "worklike" aspects of these texts on the part of some historicists has resulted in the loss of a resource for understanding literary culture in terms that resist both a pre-enlightenment paradigm of historical exemplification (where examples need not respect historical epochs) and its Hegelian revision (where examples must respect historical epochs). Scott's innovative form of historical representation, for example, finally does not, contrary to Georg Lukács's influential account, reduce to Hegel's theoretical categories. That is partly because, like others who made Romantic historicism what it was in Britain (few of them proper historians), Scott was so self-consciously "literary" in his historiographical practice.

Beyond this two-fold argument, however, I press for a way of historicizing the distinction between the documentary and the worklike aspects of texts. That is, I try to show that some such distinction is already operating in the politicized literary culture of England in 1819—in writings, for example, such as Shelley's profoundly difficult account of how contemporary poets were determined by the spirit of the age to become the unacknowledged legislators of the world. The emergence of this distinction—between writings as marking and making history— is a crucial part of what defines the new concept of culture and what now, as then, underwrites historicist interpretation. The paradoxes and possibilities of that distinction, and thus the practicalities of what I call the historiographical-ethnographical correlation, are very much what is coming into being in the story I have to tell.

That story has been a long time in the writing and will not be brief in the reading. Though Part One of the book attempts to sustain a continuous analysis of the relation between our notion of the "historical situation" and its emergence in the historical situation of Romanticism, the argument of these four chapters remains an extended prolegomenon to the cases I take up in Part Two. Conversely, while the case studies that form the chapters of Part Two are all part of an attempt to produce a reading of England in 1819, what coherence and illustrative power they have as an ensemble depends very much on the capacity of the arguments of Part One to, as it were, encase them. Part two is a book-within-a-book, but not a book-in-itself.

Within Part One, the first section, "Writing Historicism, Then and Now," tries to establish a way of talking about "dated specificity" in literary-cultural studies that makes patent the repetition between the "spirit of the age" discourse of British Romanticism and the contemporary discourse of the "return to history" in the Anglo-American academy. The second section, "Romanticism in the Representative State," moves from the notion of historical culture implicit in that "dated specificity" to consider the representation practices that such a notion of culture presupposes or demands. Representative anecdote, literary specimen, "text of culture," and historical "case": all these notions, crucial to contemporary criticism, undergo a decisive transformation, well-registered in certain works of 1819, in the period of Britain's self-conscious literary struggles over how to represent itself. I try both to outline a conceptual structure in the ambitious public writings of Bentham and Shelley that I call a "casuistry of the general will" and to show how such a formation emerges from the historicization of the ethical and juridical "case." Then, having established how one might understand England in 1819 as a historical case, its literature as a historicizing casuistry, I turn in Part Two's first section, "Cases, Causes, Casuistries," to explicate a series of texts, all produced or consumed in that year, as cases in respect to that larger frame of reference. The last section takes the case of Shelley, and his own ostentatiously prophetic way of taking historical cases, as an occasion for raising further questions about the entire scene of Romantic historicism as I have depicted it. All five of the cases in Part Two as I present them—those of Scott's fiction, Byron's Don Juan, Keats's "psychological" poetry, the U.S. culture of Irving's "English Writers," and, most explicitly, Shelley's casuistical work of 1819—share not only a self-consciously historical sense of their constitution as cases and casuistries, but also an uncanny capacity to anticipate late-twentieth century attempts to historicize them.

The Introduction to the book as a whole sets out the vocabulary which serves the book both as apparatus and object of study, including especially such terms as "situation," "case," and "casuistry." It also outlines the reasons for needing to revisit the intellectual history of new historicism itself in order to understand how the new dated specificity of literary studies came to be what it is. Having argued for a more avowed relationship between the forms of historical representation we deploy and those we unwittingly imitate, I introduce the figure of the Irish poet, Thomas Moore, as a kind of "mediocre hero" of the sort that we find in British and American historical novels of the post-Waterloo period, an Edward Waverley or Natty Bummpo. Moore was simply everywhere one looked in the literary scene here called "England in 1819." I present him not as a "case" but as a character whose interaction with the texts and authors addressed in Part 2 helps to organize them within the daily life of a historical situation.


Copyright notice: Excerpted from England in 1819: The Politics of Literary Culture and the Case of Romantic Historicism by James Chandler, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©1998 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of University of Chicago Press.

James Chandler
England in 1819: The Politics of Literary Culture and the Case of Romantic Historicism
©1998, 606 pages, 7 halftones
Cloth $42.50 ISBN: 978-0-226-10108-8
Paper $26.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-10109-5

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for England in 1819.

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