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.
He understands "American Romanticism as a sustained effort to restate Romanticism in American terms," and though he claims that it "is not my purpose . . . to attribute every American rill to a perforation in the English tank," that is actually how the book often reads (xvi-xvii). Unable to resist the elegant put-down, he remarks, "Poe the poet is a topic I shall pass over in discreet silence" (128). And, in a similar move, instead of exploring how gender and influence intersect in the case of some notable women writers, he resorts to winks and nods. I quote a full paragraph:
For some of the writers treated in Part 2 of this study--particularly Cooper, Emerson, and Whitman--becoming an author involves a struggle between their sense of Americanness and their sense of belonging to an English literary tradition. It is marked by pugnacity in Cooper's case, a pugnacity uncomfortably at odds with his epigraphic raids upon the entire corpus of English poetry, and by transparently inefficacious denial in Emerson's. Thoreau and Hawthorne inscribe themselves with the least anxiety in an Anglo-American dialogue. That no such struggle seems to exist for Elizabeth Peabody, Margaret Fuller, or Emily Dickinson, may need no comment. (67)
Given Gravil's disdain for the efforts to "recuperate such stuff" as the writings of British women poets (35), I find myself both unclear and uneasy about what he might be implying about Peabody, Fuller, and Dickinson. Is he again disparaging women writers? Is he saying that all women writers, because they are women, escape the father-son rivalry at the heart of a Bloomian model of influence? Is he suggesting something else altogether about these writers? I wish I knew. This paragraph is the final one in chapter three, and no subsequent chapter clarifies the point. My tastes, approaches, and attitudes are sufficiently different from Gravil's as to leave me unable to read his mind and bothered by the implication that anyone with half a wit would know what he means.
Some strengths and weaknesses of Gravil's book may be highlighted by analyzing his chapter on Whitman and Wordsworth. There is much that is sensible in the way that he absorbs and builds on the critical tradition, effectively using the work of Robert Weisbuch, John Lynen, and others. He makes a plausible and sufficiently original case for Wordsworth being the key figure behind "Song of Myself." He then discusses Whitman's emergence as a poet in light of the slavery crisis, arguing that his "response was that of Wordsworth and Coleridge in 1798: he snapped his squeaking baby trumpet of sedition, and began to construct a poetic persona free of his own political contradictions, and disillusionments" (164). Unfortunately, one can think of enough exceptions to this formulation as to make it of limited use: some of Whitman's poems, for example, "A Boston Ballad" and "Respondez," are full of political disillusionment. And to claim that Whitman's persona lacks political contradictions is to miss what makes the politics of Leaves of Grass so interesting. Gravil claims that Whitman's only figure of black self-command is the Negro drayman who appears in "Song of Myself"; the proud and indomitable Black Lucifer character of "The Sleepers" is simply overlooked. Most puzzlingly, Gravil claims that the runaway slave passage near the beginning of "Song of Myself" is an example of Whitman appropriating material from John James Audubon, though this doubtful claim is made merely via an assertion without supporting argument.
Gravil's discussion of Dickinson is more satisfying than his treatment of Whitman. With Dickinson he is more complex and supple, concluding that she may represent "the most extraordinary instance of a mind in persistent dialogue with a broad range of other poets in the history of Anglo-American lyricism" (191). He has mastered that portion of Dickinson criticism that treats her responses to British writers. Though illuminating, his approach is nonetheless strangely divorced from much of history: no mention is made of Emily's key relationship with Susan Gilbert Huntington Dickinson, the recipient of many of her poems and the focus of her emotional life, and he ignores the Civil War context and the racial and political issues of her time. We can learn a great deal from studying Dickinson in terms of her reading, but such a perspective can also mask other forces that profoundly influenced her poetry. Gravil's lack of interest in the texture of Dickinson's life is consistent with his neglect of her writing practices. That is, Dickinson was a manuscript poet whose writings, as many recent critics have argued, has been distorted to a lesser or greater extent by print editions of her work. Curiously, despite a lively and ongoing critical controversy about the editing of Dickinson, Gravil quotes from the Thomas Johnson edition of her poetry as if it were not at all problematic.
Richard Gravil's work takes its place on the small shelf of books that treat the intersection of British and American literature in the nineteenth century. Gravil adds significantly to our knowledge of cross-Atlantic connections and lays the groundwork for new considerations of an obviously important but strangely neglected field of study. Despite some shortcomings, Romantic Dialogues is a significant contribution that is certain to provoke ongoing dialogue of its own.