History and Future of the Book: Against Overselling the Romantics’ Romanticism

I really got a kick out of Richard Swartz’s “Wordsworth, Copyright, and the Commodities of Genius,” (Modern Philology 89.4 (1992)), which I think represents a perfectly succinct and witty example of the argument against the purity of Romantic ideals. The effect of this argument, at least as presented by Swartz, is—I think—due to an apparent dissonance between what we understand to be Wordsworth’s Romantic argument about pure original genius—which is believed to be an assertion of true genius’s idealistic ahistorical essence—and the evidence Swartz presents that more or less in the same breath Wordsworth made arguments about copyright that assert the right of this supposedly ideal genius to protect his property in order to ensure his deserved remuneration for his labor.

At the time of Swartz’s writing, 1992, the appeal of this argument probably had a lot to do with the ascendency of cultural studies, which had been fighting to assert the value of studying literature previously devalued by the academy due to its status as ‘popular.’ The terms of this devaluation had claimed a lineage traced back to Wordsworth’s and the Romantics’ assertion of original genius and the idea—which we see a version of in Swartz’s excerpts from Wordsworth’s Essay—that the true value of original genius could basically be proved by the lack of popularity works of original genius achieved in their own time. What Swartz shows us might be understood as an exercise in catching Wordsworth red-handed: he might claim to only be concerned with the transhistorical & immaterial value of original genius, but, look!, there he is actually & materially arguing that this supposedly transcendental genius ought to get paid! If that’s true, if the Romantics themselves weren’t really unconcerned with popularity, then we can no longer claim ‘popular’ literature is vulgar due to its concern for the market.

Having grown up in the academic world of the ‘00s, I’m almost entirely sympathetic to the basic terms of that argument. It’s way more difficult for me to see a way through to the value of ‘original genius’ than it is to believe that so-called popular literatures are just as worthy of study, and even that part of their value might in fact be found in their derivativeness. And of course the Romantics were concerned with their own popularity. To the extent that they devalued the possibility of making money from their work, this was only possible because of their actual material position coming from bourgeois families.[1]

However, I can’t help but wonder now if this argument might actually oversell the Romantic-ness (in its most pejorative sense) of the Romantic writers. Swartz makes a lot out of a statement by Wordsworth from a letter he wrote to Lady Beaumont: “Trouble not yourself upon their present reception; of what moment is that compared with their destiny to console the afflicted, to add sunshine to daylight by making the happy happier, to teach the young and the gracious of every age, to see, to think and feel, and therefore to become more actively and securely virtuous; this is their office, which I trust they will faithfully perform long after we (that is, all that is mortal of us) are mouldered in our graves.” Swartz characterizes this as a description of Wordsworth’s view of himself as “the originator of an ideal community made up of ‘his’ numberless solitary readers, who become unified across space and time by the common bond of ‘his’ Word” (490). This is a fair assessment of Wordsworth’s words, but it is also somewhat polemical in that it exaggerates the Romantic character of what Wordsworth writes. It’s true that Wordsworth argues that the true value his poems will be found by readers “of every age,” and in doing so he is asserting a value that cannot be measured by contemporary readership, but I don’t think it’s necessarily an ideal (as opposed to material) assertion. Without consigning Wordsworth to hopelessly reactionary Romanticism, we might also read him as making a claim that he believes his poems are participating in a discourse which, while it might only be of interest to relatively few readers at any given point in history, will also continue to be recognizable across generations. This is absolutely a claim that the value of his work transcends the value of more popular work from his time, and that assertion of hierarchy is absolutely problematic. But it seems we can reject this hierarchization of literature without necessarily abandoning Wordsworth’s idea of transhistorical value to the trash heap of idealism. There might in fact be something really valuable about trying to recuperate this Romantic idea of transhistorical value—and recognizing it as a real value that functions differently than value measured in terms of popularity—but only if it can be done while avoiding the pitfall of conservatively re-asserting the version of that idea which dominated the academy for most of the 20th century.


[1] Under this framing Blake comes to stand as the most genuine Romantic, producing his work while living a life of relative poverty, never even achieving the acclaim of his fellow Romantic writers.

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One Response to History and Future of the Book: Against Overselling the Romantics’ Romanticism

  1. Kemael Johnson says:

    Wordsworth’s position is interesting as it relates to the original genius versus commercialism/reading public debate, particularly given his contribution to gift books. While he argues for the author’s status as the originator of public taste and positions himself in such a manner as to be amenable to the idea of an author deserving monetary compensation–for himself and his descendants, a symbol of his control over his work–his view of gift books would seem to upset the balance. His willingness to contribute to an incredibly commercial and mass-influenced venue in which he would retain no copyright, and thus no control over his work, and that features the work of pop-writers which he would consider to be beneath the work of a great author, seems a direct contradiction to both the originality of a genius and the desire of said genius to control the product of his labor in spite of benefiting financially from the endeavor.

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