Thomas Pfau, Wordsworth's Profession: Form, Class, and the Logic of Early Romantic Cultural Production. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997. xii + 454 pp. illus. $49.50 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-8047-2902-6).
John Rieder, Wordsworth's Counterrevolutionary Turn: Community, Virtue, and Vision in the 1790s. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1997. 273 pp. $41.50 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-87413-610-5).
University of Southern California
The theses of John Rieder's and Thomas Pfau's recent books present striking parallels, a fact that reflects at least as much on the theoretical climate both critics inhabit as it does on their shared topical focus. Although it may be unsurprising to find similarities between two studies of Wordswortheach of which, moreover, concentrates on a limited number of works from early in the poet's careermore notable are the ways each positions itself as post-New Historicism, even while insisting on the rigorous articulation of historical context. For both critics, this stance involves a renewed attention to the category of the aesthetic, defined not as the evasion or mystification of history but as the precise and determinate response to questions posed at the level of material circumstance. The cultivation of aesthetic (i.e., "literary") experience, argue Pfau and Rieder, constitutes the particular ideological project of the middle class in its late-eighteenth century period of consolidation. What Pfau calls the "virtual commodity" of "unselfconscious aesthetic interest" (1, 65) surfaces in Rieder's account as, more simply, the "literary community held together . . . by poetry itself" (Rieder 21617). The construction of literature as an autonomous domain thus solves a "problem of cohesion or social totality" which (Rieder 46), because it cannot be addressed by the available modes of political representation, instances the modern concept of class itself.