50Voices: Introduction for SJSU #Bigger6 - Cluster
Katherine D. Harris, Professor
During Spring 2019, five graduate students agreed to an experimental and provocative challenge for our MA course in British Romanticism. After an opening session explaining the traditions of British Romanticism, sketching a timeline of the Big 6 + Mary Shelley, I proposed that we crowdsource a syllabus with content that reflected a larger cadre of literary voices than Byron, Keats, P.B. Shelley, Blake, W. Wordsworth, and S.T. Coleridge.* Because we were able to offer only three graduate literature courses this semester due to department financial constraints and because our M.A. students are required to sit for an exam that seemingly references only the canonical literature for all historical periods, these students were justifiably hesitant to lose an opportunity to acquire “coverage” for this historical period as it might be reflected on the M.A. Exam.**
As they became more comfortable with annotating a Google Doc of our potential semester’s explorations, they began to ask questions about the efficacy of the Big 6 canon. Instead of moving historically through the time period, we began to cluster our discussion schedule around some primary concepts of British Romanticism: sublime, picturesque, beauty, logic, reason, place/space, identity. What surfaced from our beginning discussions anchored in Frankenstein (because most of them knew the novel and wanted to ease into new material) was this idea of plastic hybridity. The Woman of Colour and The History of Mary Prince moved us even further to inquire about the veracity of these primary concepts.
Several colleagues generously agreed to provide a guest appearance or lecture that enhanced our understanding of all forms of hybridity: Dr. Revathi Krishnaswamy (on “orientalism”), Dr. Manu Chander (on Brown Romantics), Dr. Beverly Grindstaff (on print culture since Gutenberg), and Dr. Kirstyn Leuner (on Digital Humanities and women’s writing). Each visitor was guided by the student moderators’ questions and shifted our subsequent conversations about our overarching research question for this semester: “How do print works facilitate resistance (to the Big 6 narrative) while they may also fall prey to the very forces that they aim to resist?”
My goal this semester has been to expose these M.A. students to an integrated understanding of the Big 6 with #bigger6. During this Spring 2019 semester, students began to understand that the literary voices heralding the Industrial Revolution and mechanization of print culture were immigrant, non-white, or female. What follows are the thoughts of five masters-level graduate students as a result of investigating literary texts and cultural representations outside the British Romantic canon for the first time.
S.D. and Keith articulate that study of the #bigger6 allows for a more prolific, nuanced, and complex understanding of their 21st-century lives, especially in S.D.'s role as an 8th-grade teacher. Dan discovers the theoretical framework for addressing the #bigger6 not as “other” but instead in a different, yet still powerful construct for British Romanticism. Picking up on Dan’s discovery, Marisa queries the representation of bodies in British Romanticism’s #bigger6 by using powerful cultural analytics tools to assess the social representations of the self in ways not necessarily associated with British Romantic-era literature. She, too, calls for a study that inevitably benefits our dire 21st-century need to diversify literary culture. Taylor-Dawn concludes our cluster with a call to action for representation in a canon that is filled with colonizer’s voices and literary representations. All of these students are not necessarily the next generation of doctoral students or college professors; instead, they are teachers or work in positions that aren’t necessarily Humanities driven. But, isn’t that what we want? To have students of who see the direct correlation between interrogations about Global Romanticism and our 21st-century world? These five M.A. students offer just such a voice to continue the conversations outside the confines of academia.
Since writing these flash essays in Spring 2019, the Twitter #bigger6 contingent have created a stable space for articulating this idea of Global Romanticism with "The Bigger 6 Collective."
*This course could not have happened without the generous voices of the #bigger6 Twitter community. The guidance by and availability of this virtual community is a testament to the benefits of social media connections among academics, especially for those at under-resourced public universities who cannot attend annual conferences.
**Our M.A. Exam literature reading lists have been revised in Spring 2019 to allow for opening up the canon, especially since the California State University system encourages diversifying our representations of culture.
Growth and Lunacy with Charlotte Smith and Challenging the Romantic Gender Hierarchy
In a literary world packed with the works of white, straight British males, those studying British Romanticism in the 21st century need a diverse representation of the voices in this era to reflect our diverse world. These voices form a picture- a picture filled with Romantic faces that deserve more significance in literary studies: black faces, gay faces, trans faces, brown faces, and female faces. Charlotte Smith, as a woman who struggled with depression due to an incredibly challenging life, offers a vision of the “Romantic Hermit” as a form of the Romantic obsession with the growth of the individual.
Smith’s “Sonnet: On Being Cautioned Against Walking on a Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because It Was Frequented by a Lunatic” forces a view of the “Romantic Hermit” as a person who lacks agency and therefore, is shielded from the pain of growth. , “He seems (uncursed with reason) not to know /The depth or the duration of his woe” (Smith 10-14). According to the Charlotte Smith Story Map, Smith’s marriage was rife with tragedy and suffered under an oppressive patriarch: “It was a catastrophic, life-altering relationship for Charlotte Smith. The spendthrift and abusive Benjamin destabilized her life, forcing the family to move from house to house for financial reasons” (Dolan, Andrews, & Reisert).She wrote as a marginalized female poet struggling with depression, and therefore, her hermit becomes a fantasy of the speaker’s escape from life’s suffering. The stark contrast between her “lunatic” hermit and Coleridge’s “sage” hermit in “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” comes from the Mariner experiencing growth of the individual as a sublime moment represented by a wise and knowledgeable old hermit. But, for Smith, the growth of the individual is excruciatingly painful for Smith’s melancholy speaker, who envies the lunatic hermit. Her sonnet expresses that it is almost better to be insane and therefore incapable of personal growth than to suffer through the comprehension of suffering that comes with it. For Smith, therefore, "growth" is not necessarily improving one's individuality and morals, but instead, releasing oneself from of the social expectations that can come with one’s gender or class status.
By studying how Charlotte Smith’s marginalization as a woman is expressed in her poetry, we gain access to not only a female perspective in the late 18th Century, but also a valuable analysis of the havoc oppression can wreak upon a creative mind. This in turn benefits us all as scholars--when we study this aspect of Smith as a part of the canon, and in turn teach this canon to others. As an 8th grade literature teacher myself, I had foundational knowledge about the Big 6. However, it was my own studies of Smith that allowed me to understand how marginalized voices can shed light on an entirely different, yet valid idea of British Romanticism. By studying these voices, we can bring to our field a concrete example of the horrifying effects of oppression, and inspire future generations to continue the dismantling of the 21st-century’s ongoing gender hierarchy.
The Bigger 6, Context of the Brown Romantic
Dan Jerome Dirilo
Romanticism is generally associated with that of the Europeans, specifically with the British Romantics. Poets such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, Keats, Shelley, and Byron are synonymous with the word Romanticism. Yet, existing within the history of Romanticism are a marginalized and unacknowledged community who are excluded from the Romantic canon. Within Manu Samriti Chander’s Brown Romantics: Poetry and Nationalism in the Global Nineteenth Century he addresses those who can help expand beyond the big six Romantics dubbing these individuals as the Brown Romantics.
During the nineteenth century, Romanticism had spread alongside imperialism with the poet taking root as legislators throughout the British Empire and their colonies. As a result, their writing often mirrored the imperial project due to pressures to develop a national literature. In reaction to this spread of Romanticism with imperialism, these Brown Romantics rose to challenge the dominance of the British poets by mobilizing Brown Romanticism against British Romanticism.
However, the balance of power between these two communities served to exclude only the Brown Romantic as the English Romantic held a sovereign position of cultural authority in this literary debate allowing them to dictate the discourse of taste across the British colonies and become synonymous with it. In contrast, the Brown Romantic was held in a conflicting position where he was to become a slave of the established taste or risk their authorship by defining it. Despite this lower seat, Brown Romantics still managed to challenge these laws of taste and the sovereignty of the English Romantic by not as an opposing movement towards Romanticism but rather as a force that tried to change it from within.
One such Brown Romantic comes from India with the poet Henry Derozio who had set his works in conversation to his British contemporaries to reflect their Romantic themes and poetic greatness as he continually revised these conventions in hopes of being able to engage with them and change the paradigm from within. This had led to critics accusing Derozio of imitation and lacking originality, but others saw Derozio as a representative of the emergence of Indian Romanticism. Despite his efforts to engage in this dialogue, Derozio went generally unacknowledged and was criticized for his imitative style mirroring that of his British counterparts and was excluded from the class called the Romantics.
By no means were Brown Romantics figures of resistance to this form of imperialism for they turned to poetry in hopes of the ideal that Romanticism promised which was the global participation in this literary conference. Brown Romantics strived for the desire to contest with their contemporaries, not oppose them, in a transnational dialogue to agree among global tastes.
Thus, Chander's Brown Romantic can serve as a revealing mirror that illuminates the cultural attitudes and values of their contemporaries with its history and discourse being that of its inclusive exclusion of those who challenged its laws with these Brown Romantics being the unsung heroes of this revolution against the literary empire within Romanticism.
Understanding “Orientalism” to Diversify 21st-Century Studies
Orientalism is a pervading discourse throughout the 19th century. As Raymond Schwab indicates in his work, Oriental Renaissance, Britain’s exposure to the countries of the “East,” there was a revitalization of the British imagination. This “Oriental Renaissance” gave birth to new ideas, images, and landscape as well as a new trail of colonization, stereotyping, and problematic depictions of people living in these countries.
British Romantics did not simply translate their experiences with the countries that they invaded and colonized, but rather, they created symbols, stereotypes, and caricatures that are carried through in current depictions of Asian, Indian, or Middle Eastern people in modern film and literature. Some of these include: wisdom, other, foreign, mystification, sexuality, magic, spiritual, super-natural, strange, wild, feminine, savage, etc. Romantic writers, including writers of the annuals and periodicals that were being published at the time, helped shape the public’s prejudices towards citizens that lived in countries like India. Certain examples are easily found in both the Oriental Annual and the Bengal Annual.
Not only did it shape public thought of different races and nationalities, but I would argue that it encouraged colonialism and systematic racism. By making these “Oriental” countries into symbols of savagism and barbarism, it eased the consciousness of legislators and colonists to justify invasion, theft of land, and forced labor. While it may be true that the exposure to different countries revitalized the Romantic imagination, the political engagement it not so simple and clean.
“So what?” One may ask. What is the point of talking about racism, or a complex nuanced discourse such as Orientalism? The answer is this: Literature is not politically neutral. Literature is a product of a specific place, time, and political climate. There are power dynamics at play within literature. Some voices are elevated, and given space to be heard, while at the same time silencing others. This is done by academic institutions that focus on white, straight, male writers while ignoring the large breadth of wonderful literature written by men and women of color.
We have heard a lot about how great the Big 6 romantic writers are. What we haven’t heard as much about is what privileged these voices, and what other voices are marginalized and/or silenced within the texts themselves, or within the canon in general. We are also missing a huge sleuth of fantastic voices from people of color. I believe, it is up to the Humanities, to give space for other voices to be heard, and to be cognizant of the political ideologies that compete within literature and the canon itself. We can do this by broadening who is canonized, anthologized, and what kind of voices are in our academic journals. Perhaps, over the next 10 years, the Keats Shelley Journal can not only highlight some of the hidden skeletons of our famous Romantic authors, but also include a diversity of voices. Not only would it offer different perspectives, but it would bring the journal more depth and beauty that it would not otherwise attain.
Modeling Bodies in Romantic Texts and Scientific Culture
Published with KSJ 50 Voices
See the full journal The Keats-Shelley Journal 69 (2019) available in Project Muse (requires SJSU log-in)
Beauty, Voices of Color, and Challenging the Romantic Canon
All throughout my academic journey as an English scholar, it has been next to impossible to separate my identity as a woman of color from the work that I do in engaging with the canon texts ingrained in the English curriculum. This sentiment has become much more apparent during my time in Dr. Katherine Harris’s British Romanticism course at San Jose State University. While moving away from authors that consist of the “Big 6,” we have been able to assess the work of the “Bigger 6”—those that have been neglected in favor of voices who are predominantly white and male. Through various assignments, I have come to examine the Romantic concept of “Beauty” and what it means, not in the sense of the traditional Romantic aesthetic, but as it relates to the colonized, female body and the harmful ways it is viewed through the lens of the colonizer’s gaze. Not only does altering the way we engage with the concept of Romantic “Beauty” establish an alternative approach to viewing Romantic literature and its relationship to English beauty standards and the marginalization of women in the British Empire, but it also creates spaces for scholars to study works by and primarily featuring women of color.
Stories such as the anonymously authored The Woman of Colour and slave narratives like those of The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave have been passed over in English canon for far too long, partly because they do not necessarily fit a palatable model of what constitutes “Beauty” in the Romantic sense, and partly because they are not entirely approachable or accessible to those in academia who favor a more stringent, “white-oriented” canon. By approaching these narratives through an alternative definition of what beauty means—particularly for colonized women of color—we can further explore the subversive ways in which Romantic writers of color established a conscientious form of autonomy under the colonizer’s influences and pervasive gaze.
As both a scholar and an educator, I consider an expansion of the English Romantic-era canon—and, by extension, the English canon overall—to be an absolute must. Although it is important to study fundamental authors such as John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron to serve as building blocks for Romantic-era literature, it is also critical that we examine our biases as English scholars in order to incorporate women of color and an alternative examination of the Romantic definition of “Beauty” into the established canon. Without the engrossing and brilliant stories by diverse Romantic writers and voices akin to those in The Woman of Colour and Mary Prince, scholars of color are being robbed of an alternate means to study Romantic literature. By striving to reconfigure what English scholarship deems a "quintessential" Romantic work, we can create spaces and lessons in school curriculums that will help to diversify the canon, thereby designing reading lists that better reflect the numerous students who step into the classroom to study the foundations of English literature.