Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Romantic Liberalism and the Juridical Comedy: Robert Bage's Hermsprong

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Romantic Liberalism and the Juridical Comedy: Robert Bage's Hermsprong

Article excerpt

COMEDY'S CONCILIATORY FUNCTION--ITS APTITUDE FOR SOLVING MYSTERIES, restoring fortunes, and making sure everyone who matters gets married--enables a rapprochement between literary romance and literary realism. It sands down the protuberant edges of what Samuel Johnson called "tale[s] of wild adventures" and molds them around the contours of the everyday and the ordinary. (1) This is a very general, slightly distended claim, but it bears entertaining alongside the emergence of another sort of realism and that is the political realism of the Romantic period. By "political realism" I mean to designate the descriptive and proscriptive account of how things are in the domains where earthly life meets historical modernity, and where the saturation of experience by what we might very broadly call governance becomes a formal condition of "experience" as such. Yet this genre of realism is also romantic, insofar as it traffics in an aspirational orientation toward progress as a way of maintaining an impoverished but no less trenchant fidelity to the desire for utopia or, more simply, for better worlds and better ways of living in them. Realism in this sense designates a specific form of attachment to the political as a zone of utopian possibility, or what Hannah Arendt calls "the space of appearance," that is nonetheless constrained by the probabilistic framework within which political conventionality, or what we call politics as usual, unfolds. (2)

This essay tests realism's alternately timid and imprudent energies, and it does so through a reading of Robert Bage's 1796 novel Hermsprong; or, Man as He is Not, a small-town picaresque that ends with the revelation that its eccentric American protagonist is really a wealthy British aristocrat in disguise. Hermsprong is that rare item in the archive of Romantic prose fiction: a comedic text that is genuinely funny. Furthermore, it uses humor to measure the distance between Bage's "man as he is not," and those characters who represent an archaic mode of power, based on the hereditary ownership of land. Although Hermsprong turns out to have just this sort of power, he spends most of the novel in the closet, obfuscating his class position rather than his sexual preference. Critics have disparaged this masquerade as a contrivance that softens the novel's satirical bite, but it is my claim that Herrnsprong's disjunction of class from manner, and the laughs he gets from it, narrate a foundational myth of liberal citizenship. As a form of control over the proliferation of comic effects, the humor of Hermsprong installs an intentional actor in place of a historical one, making exemplary the pleasure its protagonist takes in being absolved from political commitment or concern. In the vacated place where something like belief or ideology might reside, aesthetic effects like irony, tone, and implicature lend coherence to Hermsprong while fudging his immediate legibility. The result is that Hermsprong always acts as a placeholder for himself, and for the chimerical man-as-he-is-not whose existence he seems to promise. Hermsprong, in short, undertakes a comedic negotiation of the relationship between political attachment and political disinterest. It hypothesizes as an alternative to equality an apparently meritocratic form of occupying the historical present, letting characterological lability give content to liberalism's empty but durable architecture.

This is nowhere more clear than when Hermsprong, brought to court on trumped-up charges of fomenting a wage riot, concedes his true identity only after being cleared of all wrongdoing. His innocence is, in fact, hyperbolically constituted. Eyewitness testimony informs the jury that not only is Hermsprong no agitator, he actually broke up the riot and chastised its motives (shades of Felix Holt). (3) Invoking a passage from William Godwin's Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Hermsprong is reported to have told the crowd, "we cannot all be rich: there is no equality of property which can last a day. …

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