Saree Makdisi, Romantic Imperialism: Universal Empire and the Culture of Modernity. Cambridge Studies in Romanticism, no. 27. Cambridge University Press, 1998. xv + 248 pp. $59.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-521-58438-8); $18.95 (Pbk;
Saree Makdisi's important new book, Romantic Imperialism, appears at a critical moment for Romantic studies. Pathbreaking work by Marilyn Butler, John Barrell, Mary Louise Pratt, and Nigel Leask has successfully established that the cultural movement called "British Romanticism" cannot be fully understood without reference to the profound geopolitical transformations that make the years 1780-1830 as important for the history of the British Empire as for conventional literary history. For the first time, a significant number of literary scholars have begun paying sustained attention to such issues as the slave trade, colonial slavery, and the mass movements directed against them; the crisis in imperial confidence following the loss of the North American colonies; the increasing turn to the East, and especially India, in developing the "second" British empire; the consolidation of the "internal" empire through the Act of Union with Ireland and the pacification and commodification of the Highlands; the exploration and continuing exploitation of sub-Saharan Africa; the Haitian revolution and the threat of black self-determination elsewhere in the Caribbean; the growing importance of the Hispanophone Americas for British trade and foreign policy; and the rise of modern racism as a justification for slavery and empire. Few students of Romanticism would now be willing to dismiss these issues and events as peripheral to the literature of the time. New anthologies like Anne Mellor and Richard Matlak's British Literature 1780-1830 and Peter Manning and Susan Wolfson's "Romantics and Their Contemporaries" section of the Longman Anthology have made the global aspects of Romanticism central to the new classroom canons, and essay collections edited by Sonia Hofkosh and myself (in the U.S.) and Tim Fulford and Peter Kitson (in the U.K) have helped bring a number of new critical voices and perspectives into play. Yet, as the reception of this new work has shown, a backlash is already making itself felt, even as many of the relevant texts are finally becoming widely available and the serious study of Romanticism and empire is just getting underway. Longstanding Romantic notions of the autonomy of the creative imagination and the transcendent character of high art have resurfaced in charges that to consider the imperialist and racist aspects of British Romanticism is an exercise in anachronistic "political correctness" and a reduction of complex human subjects to "ideological robots." Makdisi's powerfully argued book enters a recently trivialized dialogue with a series of claims that some will consider outrageous, amounting to a fundamentally new understanding both of Romanticism and empire. It is this very outrageousness that makes Romantic Imperialism so timely and so welcome.