Charles J. Rzepka. Selected Studies in Romantic and American Literature, History, and Culture: Inventions and Interventions. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010. Pp. 287. $99.95.
As many of us no doubt have mentioned to our students, the diversity of thought that existed before the mid-nineteenth-century differentiation of disciplines was a significant reason for the vitality of intellectual production in the Romantic era. Cutting-edge science informed by microscopes and electricity experiments coexisted with Shelley's idealism and abstraction; philology, linguistics, and religion were all part of Coleridge's metaphysical stew; and the many different and often unrelated research and speculations that filled the pages of contemporary periodicals were both destined for and emanated from a motley intellectual arena that included amateurs as well as what would be recognized today as specialists or professionals. A similarly exhilarating mix of topics appears in Selected Studies in Romantic and American Literature, History, and Culture: Inventions and Interventions, a new volume that reprints some of Charles Rzepka's best essays of the past twenty years. In articles ranging from the Romantic canon to Poe, Freud, Elizabeth Bishop, Charlie Chan and the Wizard of Oz, Inventions and Interventions annals a scholarly career equally as distinguished for its eclecticism as for its accomplishment.
One of the obvious pleasures of such a volume is the chance to track Rzepka's most important critical contributions, such as the recurring discussion of gifts and transactional relationships (featured in three articles on Wordsworth and De Quincey) that would culminate in Rzepka's illluminating Sacramental Commodities. The diversity of the topics also signals the interest in detection and crime narratives that have extended Rzepka's work beyond the geographical and temporal borders of British Romanticism, and which seem to lead his current interests (the three most recent essays are those on Poe, Charlie Chan, and Godwin). Indeed, in its astute synthesis of genre criticism, regional history, and Asian American studies, Rzepka's essay on Charlie Chan is particularly impressive. The essay, a revisionary interpretation which rejects orientalist charges for the much maligned character and instead argues for his generic and historical significance at a time when strictures against Asian immigration were extreme, anticipates Yunte Huang's much celebrated current book (Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous with American History) by several years. Thus, while the topics of some of the later essays may at first seem surprising for Romantic scholars, one thing that the volume's collection helps reveal is the close connection between space, place, identity, and power that has always driven Rzepka's scholarship, and how his Romantic training shaped these more current interests.
However, to suggest that the merits of Inventions and Interventions lies only in intellectual biography is to do the book a disservice, as it deflects attention from the conceptual achievements accrued by this compilation. A major attraction of the volume is its glimpse into detection as a critical practice, which only Rzepka's idiosyncratic mix of Romantic sensibilities and twentieth-century historical practice can demonstrate. Throughout all of the essays, Rzepka's facility for deductive analysis is repeatedly on display, as he poses scholarly queries, considers existing criticism (usually on a case-by-case basis), brings to bear historical context and contemporary texts (often based on the most tenuous or fleeting of coincidences), and works through critical problems by painstaking close reading (often facilitated by a colloquial restatement of key textual passages) and usually aided by sequences of rhetorical questions. …