MLA 2017

Since MLA is meeting in Philadelphia for its annual convention in January, I’ve put together a session on Pennsylvania and Romanticism. A detailed description follows below.

Session 300. Pennsylvania and Romanticism

Friday, 6 January, 12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., 105A, Pennsylvania Convention Center

A special session 

Presiding: Daniel A. Robinson, Widener Univ.

1. “Vividness in and of Gertrude of Wyoming,” Julia Hansen, Univ. of Michigan, Ann Arbor

2. “On the ‘Power of Mischief’: Reed, Wordsworth, and the Critical Return to Belles-Lettres,” J. Jennifer Jones, Univ. of Rhode Island

3. “Robert Burns in Philadelphia: Romanticism, the Local-Global, and the Act of Collection,” Steven L. Newman, Temple Univ., Philadelphia

Responding: Nicholas Roe, Univ. of St. Andrews

The program also features our session as relating to the Presidential Theme—Boundary Conditions.

Pennsylvania and Romanticism

In recognition of the return of the MLA to Philadelphia for its 2017 convention, this session puts into focus three views of Pennsylvania in relation to the study of British Romanticism—fiction, fact, and artifact. The romance of Pennsylvania as a sacred, pastoral place during the eighteenth century was itself a cultural production of the Restoration and the need for the church and state of England to address religious dissent in the wake of the English Civil Wars. In 1681 Charles II granted a charter to the Quaker philosopher William Penn to found a province that the latter named, echoing the bucolic idylls of Latin pastorals, “Penn’s woods,” or Pennsylvania. Penn supervised the planning of Philadelphia, promoted religious freedom, and dealt fairly with the indigenous people. Over the next decades Philadelphia would become the cultural center of North America, particularly in the advances of the arts and sciences by several noteworthy residents of the city and, of course, in its being the setting for the intellectual and political ferment culminating in the Declaration of Independence, signed in Philadelphia, and the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, drafted in Philadelphia. Here, Benjamin Franklin became known as “the modern Prometheus,” the subtitle of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; here, Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense; here, Leigh Hunt’s father worked as an attorney until his loyalist views forced a return to England; here, chemist and political radical Joseph Priestley fled to escape persecution for his views in support of the French Revolution—inspiring Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey to conceive “Pantisocracy,” a utopian commune destined for the banks of the Susquehanna; here, most of the books of Romantic-period writers were printed for American readers. Here, too, Henry Reed, professor at Franklin’s University of Pennsylvania, became the first scholarly editor of William Wordsworth’s poetry. In various incarnations and manifestations, Romanticism is one of the legacies of Penn, Paine, and Franklin. And, as our final presenter will show, Romanticists will find a surprising wealth of important Romantic-era documents and artifacts at the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia.

During this session, our three panelists will deliver papers that examine some of these by focusing on Pennsylvania as Romantic readers imagined it, on Pennsylvania as a site where part of the scholarly construction of Romanticism took place, and on Pennsylvania as a place where scholars of Romanticism will find important archival materials. Following these papers, the respondent will be Nicholas Roe, biographer of Keats and of Hunt and the scholar whose study of the “Pantisocracy” scheme features in his groundbreaking monograph Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Radical Years (OUP, 1988).

 It is impossible to discuss Pennsylvania and Romanticism without discussing Thomas Campbell’s Gertrude of Wyoming (1809). This poem, which was a transatlantic success, famously revisits and infamously rewrites the battle of Wyoming (1778). Just as famously, because the poem was written by a Scottish poet who never traveled to North America, let alone to the banks of the Susquehanna River, its descriptions of Pennsylvania are riddled with geographical errors such as palm trees and flamingos. Campbell’s inaccuracies did not stop there: he named Joseph Brant (Thayendeneagea, Mohawk) as the villain of the battle, though the real Joseph Brant had not been in Wyoming at the time. Scholars have tended to group the poem’s geographical errors with its representational errors of living persons. But recognizing the difference between such errors allows us to analyze nineteenth-century reading practices to understand the cultural logic of the poem’s popularity. In her paper “Vividness in and of Gertrude of Wyoming,” Julia Hansen, a specialist in aesthetics and Transatlantic Romanticism, will argue that Campbell’s inaccurate geographical descriptions prompted American poets to idealize Wyoming on their own terms, creating a topos grounded in the ontology of the page as much as the locality of the place. Further, Campbell’s choice to figure Gertrude as a reader, and nineteenth-century readers’ preoccupation with this figure (as seen in poems and visual culture through the 1850s), frames Wyoming as a North American locus for contemplating the desire for readerly belief.

 Turning from fictional Pennsylvania to the University of Pennsylvania in the nineteenth century, J. Jennifer Jones will remind the audience of the crucial role that one of its professors played in not only the study of Wordsworth’s poetry but also the progress of literary criticism. Today scholars still pin the origin story of the discipline of literary studies on the moment when the indulgences of the belles-lettres were exchanged for the rigors of modern criticism. Most scholars would also recognize this moment as securing a place for literature in the modern research university as it formed up during the last decades of the nineteenth century. Yet, as Jones points out, it is a strange sort of memory. Many decades before literary studies is understood to have transformed into the modern discipline as we know it today, Henry Reed, the first editor of Wordsworth’s Collected Works in the U.S. and professor of Rhetoric and English Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, published scholarly work that directly addressed the belles-lettres, work that has been sufficiently influential to merit citation for the primary definition of belles-lettres in the OED. This definition refers to the term’s vagueness and to the fact that it has functioned as a synonym for “the humanities” and for “literature.” Reed argued that the future value of professional literary criticism and of literature itself depended on a strict departure from the belles-lettres. Focusing on Reed’s published accounts of the belles-lettres in conjunction with his particular argument on behalf of canonizing Wordsworth in the US academy that underwrote his 1837 edition of Wordsworth’s Collected Works, Jones will argue for a return to the idea of the belles-lettres that Reed identified and that has played such a key role in the self identification of modern literary scholarship for more than a century. This paper focuses on a figural quality of Reed’s scholarship consistent across his work (on Wordsworth and his theory of literary criticism more generally), which is his complex poetics of the heart—the “empty heart”; “heartlessness”; the “places of the heart”; the “full heart”; the “tender heart” &c. This analysis and reflection stands to teach us something more not only about the relationship of the editorial history of Wordsworth in the U.S. with the formation of literary studies as a discipline, but also about the concept which the discipline of literary studies feels so bound to believe it has left behind, and in the process may help us to imagine generative futures.

The pastoral idealism—as well as the nonconformist protestant ethos—embedded in the cultural identity of Pennsylvania by the end of the eighteenth century made the rage for  “cultural primitivism” (M.H. Abrams’ term) back home in England and on the continent particularly importable to the new state, now the centerpiece of American independence and liberty. Robert Burns’ sensational career as the “heaven-taught ploughman” ideally suited this ethos; so too did the political radicalism implied in Burns’s subversive popularity. While it may not be surprising that Burns’s poetry was printed and published in Philadelphia, our audience will be intrigued to learn that this particular legacy is preserved today in the City of Brotherly Love. The Rosenbach Museum, best known for its Joyce and Sendak collections, also houses some remarkable Burns materials (as well as some essential Blake drawings and paintings).

Many scholars have recently been working to recognize the neglected importance of Robert Burns to what comes to be called Romanticism. Writing back against an Anglocentrism that marginalizes Scotland, an elitism that neglects or appropriates subaltern authors, and a celebration of the deep interiority of Romantic lyric that trivializes songs, they have made a strong case that Burns sheds new light on Romanticism by putting into dynamic interaction the localizing forces of Scots vernacular and the generalizing vectors of sensibility, political debate in an era of Revolution, and imperialism. Keeping Burns in mind when thinking about Romanticism is particularly important because almost from the first publication of his poems in 1787, he has been a figure celebrated throughout the British Empire and beyond, and his circulation and consumption reveals much about Romanticism as realized in specific cultural practices. Among the places that celebrated him is Philadelphia—his work was first printed there in 1788—and I want to further the inquiry into Burns’ place in Romanticism by briefly comparing three types of collection: 1) how Burns mediates the local and global in his own collecting of songs, 2) how Burns’ representation is shaped in Philadelphia editions of his work and Philadelphia periodicals up to 1832, and 3) the image of Burns that images from the assembly and presentation of the world-class cache of Burns materials at Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Library and Museum, which includes objects ranging from his powderhorn and snuffbox to manuscripts to a poems that exhibit his remarkable range, among them the deeply local masterpiece Tam O’Shanter, his imagined exile from Scotland in “A Scotch Bard Gone to the West Indies,” his salty case for the American Revolution “When Guildford Good,” and his clarion appeal to a global idea of individual rights in “Is There For Honest Poverty.” Thinking through these various forms of Burnsean and Philadelphian collection will help illuminate the theory and practice of Romanticism and its persistence in the Philadelphia of 2016.

Our respondent, Nicholas Roe, will bring the three papers together with a formal recapitulation that will inspire further discussion at the conclusion of the session.


Julia Hansen is a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan. Her dissertation, Transatlantic Vividness: Poetry and Imagining at a Distance in the Nineteenth Century, historicizes the aesthetic category of vividness, in particular the pleasures and problems that emerge in and around poetic descriptions of simultaneously real and imagined geographical places. An Americanist, she researches and writes on British poems read in the US, and especially British romantic poems, as much as on poems written by American writers. Most relevant to this panel is her chapter on “Gertrude of Wyoming” (1809) and its transatlantic print and visual culture reception in the first half of the nineteenth century, a chapter that demonstrates the uses to which a romanticized Wyoming, Pennsylvania were put by British and American audiences alike. Prior to entering Michigan’s program, she earned an MFA in poetry writing at the University of Virginia, and her poems have appeared in Shenandoah, Prairie Schooner, and The Notre Dame Review, among others.

Jennifer Jones is an associate professor of British Romanticism at the University of Rhode Island with concentrations in poetry, aesthetics, critical theory, and romantic medievalism. She is the editor of a special issue entitled The Sublime and Education published by Romantic Circles Praxis. Her articles and reviews have appeared in Studies in Romanticism, Neophilologus, the Keats-Shelley Review, The Wordsworth Circle, and Eighteenth-Century Life. She has been awarded prizes for research by the Keats-Shelley Association of America and the Interdisciplinary Nineteenth Century Studies Association, and she is the recipient of a university-wide Excellence in Teaching award at URI. She is completing a book manuscript entitled Wordsworth’s Chaucer: Romanticism, Consolation, Translation, which rethinks the critical legacy of Wordsworth by putting his original poetry into dialogue with his Chaucer translations. Her most recent research on belles lettres grows out of this scholarship and concerns Wordsworth’s relationship with his American editor, Henry Reed, whose influence over Wordsworth’s reception in the U.S. helped to shape the modern American academy and continues to influence it today.

Steve Newman is an associate professor in the Department of English at Temple University, where he also serves as the Vice President of the labor union for faculty, librarians and academic professionals. He is the author of recent essays on Allan Ramsay and the South Sea Bubble, Robert Burns and the relationship of the local to the global, and songs in Shakespeare, among other topics, as well as Ballad Collection, Lyric, and the Canon: The Call of the Popular from the Restoration to the New Criticism. Currently, he is working on a variety of projects: heading up a digital humanities website on The Beggar’s Opera in its early stages, in collaboration with many other scholars; working as a co-investigator for a proposed edition of the works of Allan Ramsay; organizing a conference on Burns, Song, and Vernacular Poetics slated for 2018; and pecking away at a monograph, Time for the Humanities: Competing Narratives of Value from the Scottish Enlightenment to the 21st Century Academy. As part of this last project, he will be traveling to China and Nepal in May and June, using the work of Adam Smith and Robert Burns as a springboard for discussions of how representations of the local and the global in humanistic texts variously shape our ideas of value.

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