SUNY Empire State College
Robert Miles’s Romantic Misfits is an erudite, far-ranging reconsideration of Romanticism that cleverly fuses both old and new conceptualizations of the period. Miles recuperates a more conservative (in more than one sense) reading of Romanticism, returning to older sites of scholarly interest in order to defamiliarize them with recent work on theatre, science, and hitherto unrecognized writers and genres. Miles writes for an advanced audience familiar with major theorists, scholars, and arguments within Romantic studies. Even graduate students may find portions of Romantic Misfits difficult to parse without aid, especially the discussion of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria and its political context (which arrives with minimal explanation), or the ongoing presumption that the reader has internalized the thought of Jürgen Habermas as fully as Miles. This is not to say, however, that Romantic Misfits is an abstruse, arcane book—at its best, the prose is lucid, even lyrical.
A few years ago, I taught a course entitled “The Romantic Outsider,” in which I used the trope of the outsider to interrogate both canonical and non-canonical romanticisms, beginning with the Wordsworthian poet of Nature as figural outsider, then proceeding to the “outsiders” of genre (especially theatre) and gender. What Miles has done in his excellent monograph is analogous to these experiments, though Romantic Misfits develops its arguments far more thoroughly. Its opening sentence cuts to the core of the paradox of the canonically noncanonical: “Although all Romantics are misfits some misfits did not fit” (1). Miles delineates his project as a critique of institutionalized Romanticism, beginning with an examination of the Victorian reception (and creation) of the Romantic, as the “original moment of canon formation—of Romantic misfitting—in order to [… analyze] what was excluded in the process” (5). In answer to Jerome McGann’s “Romantic Ideology”, Miles proposes to re-read Romanticism not as an institution of shared themes or commitments, but rather as a period characterized by the emergence of two formations in dialectical opposition: a radical Enlightenment and its reactionary counter, the latter ultimately privileged by the Victorians (8).
Romantic Misfits is well grounded in historicist scholarship, particularly the work done by Jon Klancher, Kevin Gilmartin and Iain McCalman. Supplementing these historicisms with the theoretical work of Habermas and Pierre Bourdieu, Miles situates the “normative ideal” of Romanticism in the trope of the misfit, selecting indicative case studies as exemplary targets. The first chapter analyzes the famous “Shakespearian” forgeries of William Henry Ireland, contending that Shakespeare constituted a central normative ideal within Romantic discourse, and thus, a fitting lens through which to view misfitted notions. Miles reads Ireland’s Confessions in light of the Habermasian public sphere, in order to reveal a privileged moment for the construction of romantic forms of subjectivity, illusion, and national sentiment, as the debate over Ireland’s forgeries merged the political and literary, casting the figure of the injured Bard as a metonym for the nation. Following Linda Colley, Miles punningly analogizes the outrage over Ireland’s temerity at forging Shakespeare with the nation’s growing concern with forging English nationalism. The analysis is innovative, and usefully synthesizing—regrettably missing, though, is any engagement with the substantial work of Jeffrey Kahan, who has published two monographs on Ireland and forgery, as well as a collection of Ireland’s poetry.1
In his second chapter, Miles effects a revaluation of the Gothic, drawing it from its beleaguered position on the margins, back into the center of Romanticism. Beginning by contesting Wordsworth’s claim in the “Preface” to be rejecting popular Gothic in favor of the internalized lyric, Miles asserts that Adventures on Salisbury Plain and The Borderers are in fact deeply Gothic works. As he keenly puts it, “The second edition of the Lyrical Ballads may be a cornerstone of English Romanticism, but it was set amid Gothic ruins” (62). Miles’s argument excels here at clearly describing how Wordsworth’s ideas—a “position,” in Bourdieu’s terms—fits into the interplay among various familiar and unfamiliar discourses. Relating Wordsworth’s ideas to constructions of ideal presence, the political, and Gothic tropes, Miles smoothly knits together canonical interpretations of Romanticism (Wordsworth as compassionate celebrator of the downtrodden) with newer revisionist notions (the Gothic Wordsworth). An example of Miles’s skill at synthesis appears in his lengthy analysis of “The Thorn”: “If the narrator unknowingly Gothicizes Martha, burying her alive in gossip, the reader certainly ought not to. To read the poem well is thus to enlarge one’s views on the question of otherness … while remaining alert to the complexities of language and power” (82). The chapter includes a sterling presentation of the body and evolution of Romantic criticism, and an astute (though difficult) discussion of critical and reception histories.