Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Provincializing Enlightenment: Edinburgh Historicism and the Blackwoodian Regional Tale

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Provincializing Enlightenment: Edinburgh Historicism and the Blackwoodian Regional Tale

Article excerpt

IN THE INTRODUCTION TO THEIR 2004 COLLECTION, SCOTLAND AND THE Borders of Romanticism, Ian Duncan, Leith Davis, and Janet Sorensen suggest that postcolonial criticism "would seem" to provide "the likeliest instruments for rethinking [the] geopolitical borders" of Romantic-period Scotland. (1) Two problems, however, complicate this. The first is Scotland's "anomalous position" (2) with regard to colonialism following the 1707 Act of Union. Such a position necessitates a substantial retooling of postcolonial critical insights gleaned from quite different political and historical circumstances--from India, say, or from the West Indies. The second problem is that those critics who do apply postcolonial instruments to the literature of the period--most often via analyses of "internal colonialism"--tend to "absorb the traditional category of Romanticism into the 'long eighteenth century'" (9). (2) They fail, that is, to account for Scotland's anomalous position with regard to Romanticism. (3)

When Duncan, Davis, and Sorensen turn to address this traditional category, they assert that "[t]he cultural breach with Enlightenment, defined by the antagonistic formation of a 'Romantic Ideology,' came late in Scotland" (13). It arrived in 1817 with the founding of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine--"Romanticism as (at last) Counter-Enlightenment" (13). The Enlightenment here countered is largely Scotland's own, initiated by the philosophical historians of mid-century Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Aberdeen, and maintained in the Romantic period via the Whig-centered Edinburgh Review. In this essay, I want to examine a significant element of this famous "breach": the inclusion in Blackwood's of regional tales such as those written by James Hogg, John Galt, David Macbeth Moir, and others. Wendell Harris characterizes regional tales as short fictional works that "[describe] the life and manners of a particular people." (4) In general, these tales exhibit a preoccupation with the local, a heavy dependence on vernacular speech, and a penchant for mixing the natural and the supernatural. As such, they fit comfortably into most accounts of "Romanticism." With regards to the brand of Romantic ideology espoused by Blackwood's, the very presence of these tales--especially in the early years of publication--helped to distinguish the magazine from its Enlightenment-oriented rival across town.

But the regional tales published in Blackwood's also exhibit a complicated engagement with Enlightenment thought, and in this they challenge the notion that Romanticism in Scotland was constituted by a cultural breach with Enlightenment. As I will suggest below, postcolonial instruments can help account for this discrepancy--and in such a way that does not fold Romanticism into the longer sweep of the eighteenth century. Drawing upon the work of Dipesh Chakrabarty, whose book Provincializing Europe (2000) emphasizes the importance of Enlightenment categories for understanding postcolonial thought and historical difference, I argue that while the regional tales published in Blackwood's were a vital part of its oppositional identity, they nevertheless do not reject outright or wholeheartedly the Enlightenment historicism against which this identity was posited. Rather, they provincialize it, in Chakrabarty's sense of the word. That is, in these tales the progressive-historicist categories of Enlightenment thought are shown to be both real and necessary for describing the contemporary moment. At the same time, Blackwoodian regional tales highlight the limitations of these categories for understanding what Chakrabarty calls the "heterotemporality" of that very moment. (5)

To talk in terms of "heterotemporality" is to understand "modernity"

as a plurality of times coexisting in the common space of the present. It is too see, in other words, "... the plurality that inheres in the 'now', the lack of totality, the constant fragmentariness that constitutes one's present" (Chakrabarty 243). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.