Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

William Godwin, Literary Tourism, and the Work of Necromanticism

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

William Godwin, Literary Tourism, and the Work of Necromanticism

Article excerpt

[The dead] still have their place, where we may visit them, and where, if we dwell in a composed and a quiet spirit, we shall not fail to be conscious of their presence.

All this consideration of hic jacet, it must be granted, is very little. But such is the system of the universe, that it is all that we have for it. It is our only reality.

--William Godwin, Essay on Sepulchres

NOT FORGETTING WILLIAM GODWIN'S ROLES AS REFORMER, PHILOSOPHER, biographer, and novelist, this essay remembers him as a promoter of necro-tourism, the habit of visiting graves of the illustrious dead. Godwin's 1809 Essay on Sepulchres offers the early nineteenth century's fullest description of travel as a quest to meet the departed, and it allows us to recognize an under-examined aspect of Romanticism--the necromantic--or Romanticism's dependence not just on the past, but more precisely on bodies dead and buried. In particular, the Essay grounds (quite literally) literary commemoration in the grave and applies that same logic of authentication to national imaginings.

Though long neglected, the Essay on Sepulchres has recently drawn the attention of several scholars. Mark Salber Phillips identifies the Essay as a model of romantic historiography that mingles history and fiction, makes history a place to be visited, and works to bring the dead affectively dose to the living. (1) Julie Carlson resists Phillips' suggestion that Godwin's vision is "sentimental," but she too finks the Essay with a "new species of history" that conflates romance with fact and "has necromancy as an explicit aim." (2) Less focused on historiography but attuned to the resurrectionist functions of monuments and relics, Judith Pascoe's The Hummingbird Cabinet: A Rare and Curious History of Romantic Collectors remembers the Essay as part of a Romanticism that does not turn away from the material world, but rather expresses a "long[ing] to know ... poets in a tangible way." (3) Two more studies, similarly intrigued with intersections of literature and cultural practices, focus on the Essay's role as a program for tourism: Samantha Matthews' Poetical Remains situates Godwin's brand of tourism within the nineteenth century's thanatocentric economy of literary reception, while Nicola Watson's The Literary Tourist sees the Essay as a sign of the early nineteenth century's new desire to speak with the dead and of its aim to locate authors on national ground. (4) Taken together, the scholarship reveals Godwin's Essay as a gathering place for many crucial concerns about what I term necromanticism: the romantic impulse to route anxieties about literature, community, and cultural heritage through the dead.

Necromanticism manifests itself across a wide array of genres and cultural practices. Godwin's expression of it is extreme, but it sheds light on other writers' tendency to frame travel, reading, and writing as analogous confrontations with what might be called Romanticism's reality problem and, more broadly, with mortality's threat to cultural continuity. It allows us to see that literary necro-tourism engages many of the Romantic Era's most pressing concerns. To elaborate this argument, I first find in Godwin's Essay an attempt to ground, through tourism, the reading experience in materiality--a response to uncertainty about whatever "reality" subtends literature and the authorial biography that underwrites it. I then track how Godwin applies the same logic of substantiation to concepts of national heritage and community.


Godwin's interest in traveling to meet the dead is a natural outgrowth of his interest in biography. In fact, the core concepts of his thought on necro-tourism develop in his earlier works on biographical history. For instance, the Preface to Godwin's 1803 Life of Chaucer anticipates the rhetoric of Essay on Sepulchres:

   I was anxious to rescue for a moment the illustrious dead from the
   jaws of the grave, to make them pass in review before me, to
   question their spirits and record their answers. … 
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