Eric Wilson, Romantic Turbulence: Chaos, Ecology and American Space

Eric Wilson, Romantic Turbulence: Chaos, Ecology and American Space. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. xxii. + 169 pp. $49. 95 (Hdbk; ISBN 0-312-22882-1).

Reviewed by
John Parham
Thames Valley University, UK

Eric Wilson’s Romantic Turbulence is a helpful addition to ecocritical work, offering not only a new perspective on American Romanticism but, more generally, a sophisticated, dialectical understanding of the ecology articulated out of that tradition.

Wilson’s primary argument is founded upon a detailed acquaintance with both contemporary ecological science and critical cultural theory. Drawing from these currents of thought, the conceptual paradigm that undergirds this book is a new organicism of “agitated processes,” which eschews the (still) prevailing notions in ecological science of balance or harmony (4). Wilson defines this as a conception of nature shaped by antagonistic forces of chaos and order, the interaction of which equates with life. Without order nature “would dissolve into a formless mass,” without chance “the second law of thermodynamics would run the universe down to heat death,” an interesting argument he develops from C. S. Pierce and Prigogine and Stengers (142). This paradigm of dialectical ecology is not new, even to ecocriticism. It dominates recent, second generation work such as Greg Garrard’s Ecocriticism (2004), and the attempt to establish a trajectory of ecological thinking around the Romantics is also a familiar one. What is distinctive, however, is the combination of the two and, in this, the book does what all good historical ecocriticism ought to do: it legitimates ecological thinking as part of a longer, alternative tradition in western literature, culture and philosophy that exists, and has value, independently of concerns about (say) global warming.

Susan Manning, Fragments of Union: Making Connections in Scottish and American Writing

Susan Manning, Fragments of Union: Making Connections in Scottish and American Writing. New York: Palgrave, 2002.  vii + 249 pp. Illus.: 7 halftones.  £55.00/$69.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-333-76025-5).

Reviewed by
Janet Sorensen
Indiana University, Bloomington

Scotland, once relegated to the margins of studies in Romanticism, has reemerged in recent scholarship as a geographical and intellectual site that at once anticipated key Romantic topoi and provided the conceptual basis of much Romantic cultural theory. Susan Manning's contribution to these studies is the most theoretically sophisticated and wide-ranging to date, moving fluidly between cultural politics, post-structuralist and psychoanalytic methodologies and traversing Scottish and American texts produced between the 1707 Act of Union and the American Civil War. At all points hesitant to identify causal relationships between specific political and cultural circumstances and the philosophical thought she outlines, Manning nonetheless makes a convincing argument regarding the significance of the post-Culloden Scottish intellectual milieu to subsequent Romantic motifs of fragmentation, of structural dismemberment, of incomplete memory, of unregistered mourning, and to the unstable narratives of union designed to acknowledge and sometimes overcome these threats to personal and national identity. In her discussion of the Scottish and North American literary negotiations of such fraught narratives, Manning profoundly complicates the very notion of national Romantic traditions. Temporally, she reveals links between Scottish Enlightenment and Romantic thought, particularly through her focus on David Hume and the Common Sense philosophers, such as Thomas Reid, who sought to discredit Hume but unwittingly propelled his views into the future. Spatially, she demonstrates the intricate connections between Scottish and North American writing as she describes how that most American "structure of thinking," e pluribus unum, is "characteristic of the writing of the Scottish Enlightenment" (2).

Richard Gravil, Romantic Dialogues: Anglo-American Continuities, 1776–1862

Richard Gravil, Romantic Dialogues: Anglo-American Continuities, 1776-1862. New York: Palgrave/St. Martin's Press, 2000. xx + 250pp. $55.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-312-22716-7).

Reviewed by
Kenneth M. Price
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Richard Gravil studies English and American literature from the Revolutionary War until about the midpoint of the American Civil War. Gravil's thorough-going knowledge of connections between British and American texts enables him to create illuminating juxtapositions and to make provocative assertions.

This book displays the strengths and weaknesses of its biases. More interested in Romantic writers than Victorians, Gravil offers an unreconstructed view of the Romantics in his emphasis on a select few writers--Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats--and he has little patience with those who would look beyond these figures. His study of literary influences is paradoxically broad and narrow at once. Expansive in its discussion of many writers on both sides of the Atlantic, Romantic Dialogues is also constricted in its lack of theoretical interests and its scant concern with history and politics. Gravil dismisses canonical revision and other current critical trends; for example, he belittles recent "definitions of context that take literary currencies to be of less account than those of merchant banking" (xii). He offers an insight into his overall view of literature when he describes a poem by Emily Dickinson as a "babel of 'quotation'" (199). For Gravil, literature grows out of literature: everyone quotes, echoes, alludes to, or rewrites someone else.

Teresa A. Goddu, Gothic America: Narrative, History, and Nation

Teresa A. Goddu, Gothic America: Narrative, History, and Nation (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997). x + 224pp. $45.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-231-10816-8). $16.50 (Pap; ISBN: 0-231-10817-6).

Reviewed by
Dennis Berthold
Texas A&M University

In Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and Literary Imagination (Harvard University Press, 1992), Toni Morrison calls for greater attention to the place of race and slavery in classic American literature: "The contemplation of this black presence is central to any understanding of our national literature and should not be permitted to hover at the margins of the literary imagination" (5). Teresa Goddu's book answers that call by grounding nineteenth-century American gothicism in the history and politics of American racialism. In America, Goddu argues, the gothic stands as an elaborate code for slavery, race, and oppression, including the oppression by the new capitalist marketplace and its consequence, rampant literary commercialism. Goddu's fundamental aim is to historicize the gothic, to situate it within a particular social and political milieu and show how "American gothic literature criticizes America's national myth of new-world innocence by voicing the cultural contradictions that undermine the nation's claim to purity and equality" (10). By rendering Julia Kristeva's notion of the "abject" (or "horror of being") into concrete, historical narratives, American gothic tales expose the American nightmare even as they mask it with the modes of popular fiction and fantasy. Goddu moves the gothic from the margins to the center of American literary history, and to the already considerable literature studying the gothic's psychological role adds an argument for its social function.

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