"Romanticism" in Crisis
I received my Ph.D. in 1994, after writing a dissertation on John Keats. I have been unable to secure a full-time job in the field of Romanticism for four years. Late in 1996, I was hired to teach a one-semester graduate seminar on Keats within a department that had no Romanticist. For this job, I commuted for ten hours, once a week. This year, I am a part-time lecturer at a much closer venue, teaching composition and a genre course in a department that has at least six Romanticists. Since receiving my doctorate, I have supported my research, writing, publishing and conference attendance through a part-time job teaching employees at a large telecommunications company how to write technical documents.
This panel was occasioned by an informal survey that sought to provide evidence that hirings in the field of Romanticism are declining. Subsequent conversations have been mainly theoretical, despite the survey's pragmatic beginnings, and have centered on the very Romantic notion that the field itself is doing a kind of disappearing act, that what certain members of the profession think of as "Romanticism" is changing beyond recognition. The results of the survey, which seemed to confirm the suspicions that hirings are, indeed, declining, have since mutated into discussions about periodization, about which authors to canonize next, and about whether or not the name of Romanticism means anything in an academic climate that has opened so many doors on a formerly ideologically-bound period. In the absence of any analysis of the "data" collected by the surveyors, and in the neglect to discuss actions that could be taken to ease the burden of the unemployed Romanticist, we have comfortably settled into new versions of old debates.
First of all, let me say that I think the so-called "crisis in the canon" is a non-issue: I simply do not understand the fear that to open up any field of study, be it literary or not, to new theories, new concepts, and new subjects constitutes any kind of crisis whatsoever. I am also not sure whose crisis this is: the discussion of whether or not (to take a recent example of a listserve debate) Felicia Hemans ought to be a fit subject for Romanticists strikes me as peculiarly outdated. Surely we are able to admit that there will be critics, teachers, and students who will find much to value in any author, just as there will be those who will not, without making attempts to be arbiters of what ultimately comes down to the issue of taste. We need Hemans, Williams, Hunt, Coleridge, Lamb, Barbauld, Keats, and both Wordsworths, as well as the formalists, the new historicists, the deconstructionists, and all the other "ists" in order to keep the field alive and kicking. Anyone who believes otherwise will be left behind, for Romanticism will continue to swell despite any attempts to quell the tide.
Now, it also strikes me as peculiar that those same professionals who have allowed their field to adapt itself so well to an altered theoretical and pedagogical climate, have told themselves a story of annihilation. How is it that, by adding authors to a period, by expanding that period beyond its traditional boundaries, and by allowing history, cultural studies, politics, and economics to inform our understanding of texts, we imagine that period to be in danger of extinction? Surely, these additions make the beast more fit for survival. By adapting itself to its late twentieth-century environment, hasn't Romanticism become stronger, more able to survive into its next generation? The handout I have given you cites some of Darwin's thoughts on the matter:
Although isolation is of great importance in the production of a new species, on the whole I am inclined to believe that largeness of area is still more important, especially for the production of a species which shall prove capable of enduring for a long period, and of spreading widely. Throughout a great and open area, not only will there be a better chance of favourable variations, arising from the large number of individuals of the same species there supported, but the conditions of life are much more complex from the large number of already existing species; . . . Each new form, also, as soon as it has been much improved, will be able to spread over the open and continuous area, and will thus come into competition with many other forms. . . . Finally, . . . the new forms produced on large areas, which already have been victorious over many competitors, will be those that will spread most widely, and will give rise to the greatest number of new varieties and species. They will thus play a more important part in the changing history of the organic world.
(From The Origin of Species, "Circumstances Favourable for the Production of New Forms Through Natural Selection")
Perhaps the crisis is this: those members of our field who have held full-time, tenured positions in departments across the world, and who have been responsible for the strengthening of Romanticism by introducing new species and new forms across the wide and open field of literary history--these same professionals--are aghast at what appears to be a reversal of fortune. For the environment in which they have allowed Romanticism to flourish has been changed by economics: the intellectual field has expanded, while the professional environment continues to diminish along with educational budgets. Many people have done much work to make Romanticism as urgent, as diverse, and as searching a field as it was in its inception. It continues to live in a politically active, environmentally conscious, informationally unbounded culture, yet there is less and less money available to pay people to disseminate knowledge of it. If there is an absence of Romanticists in the institutions, it has nothing to do with the dispensability of our period or our profession. These issues have everything to do with money, and there isn't enough of it to go around.
My solution to the crisis--which I'm sure is economic--is to apply the same methodology that has made Romanticism such a strong competitor in the field of literary study to the issue of jobs: the professional field must also be expanded. Darwin points out the unfortunate, if necessary, downside of such activity: "If the country were to open its borders, new forms would certainly immigrate, and this would likewise seriously disturb the relations of some of the former inhabitants." What this means, in practical terms, is that the professional inhabitants of the field of Romanticism must allow natural selection to occur, in as democratic a fashion as we have called for in our restructuring of the Romantic canon. Issues to be discussed are job-sharing, giving part-time faculty the first choice to teach summer courses, early retirement, and allocating small percentages of salaries to a fund that would subsidize the salaries of new faculty. Every year that goes by, more academically unemployed Ph.D.s go into other professions. For all of these people, this is the crisis, and it exists in all fields, in all humanities departments. Some effort resembling the magnitude of the effort to include new authors and modes of inquiry into Romanticism could restructure the "canon" of English departments, making for a more diverse and more egalitarian institutional environment.
As we debate over allocating more space in the anthologies to non-canonical authors, might we also consider allocating more space in the university to non-affiliated professionals? Romanticism's survival has little to do with which authors make it into the anthologies, or which time period gets chosen to represent it; it has everything to do with the support that can be given to those seeking to make its study their profession.