Robert M. Ryan, The Romantic Reformation: Religious Politics in English Literature, 1789–1824. Cambridge Studies in Romanticism, 24. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. xi + 292pp. $59.95. (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-521-57008-5).
Terence Allan Hoagwood
Texas A&M University
This well-written book is an important contribution to studies of romantic-period literature for an unusual combination of reasons. The Romantic Reformation takes for its topics two that have been widely believed to be important as long as there have been studies of romantic-period literature: the writers' treatments of religion, and the question of the writers' religious beliefs (those topics are not the same). This book makes large statements on those topics which are simultaneously very different from received views and very responsibly considered and articulated. In a threatened profession, new books sometimes exhibit a desperate novelty or appeal for interest. Rhetorically overheated books and articles refer to "passion" and "pleasure" more often than formerly. It is still useful to recall the difference between a scholar's interest in the content of an argument and a careerist's interest in sales appeal; few of us would want to resurrect uncritically Arnold's concept of "disinterestedness"—as Jerome McGann has shown, that concept was always polemical and therefore self-contradictory (Social Values and Poetic Acts [Harvard University Press, 1988], 86)—but perhaps all of us do, or can, or should reflect on the difference between scholarly argument and ulterior motives, even in a time of faculty downsizing. In contrast, then, to the sort of book which is actually an ad for its author's own career, The Romantic Reformation displays throughout an integrity of scholarly purpose and a profound respect for its subject matter, voicing honest doubt, for example, rather than histrionics or dogma. While the achieved clarity of this book's prose opens the argument to a readership outside the small circle of specialists, the honesty and restraint of its method are exemplary and even, in an age of opportunistic anxiety, moving; so are its advocacy of an open mind, and its consistent and humane sense of the social realities that (outside one's own career) are at stake.