Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Paul Westover, Necromanticism: Traveling to Meet the Dead, 1750-1860

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Paul Westover, Necromanticism: Traveling to Meet the Dead, 1750-1860

Article excerpt

Paul Westover, Necromanticism: Traveling to Meet the Dead, 1750-1860

The ivy-clad ruins of Dryburgh Abbey rear up against a dramatic sky, a mighty fragment that dwarfs two small figures: a woman points to the ground, a traveler bows his head in tribute. We cannot see to what she points, but readers who met this engraving at the end of Landscape Illustrations of the Novels of the Author of Waverley in 1833 needed no gloss: it was the grave of Sir Walter Scott, who had died the previous September. This icon of ending is also the cover image of Paul Westover's first book, Necromanticism: Traveling to Meet the Dead, 1750-1860. Overtly "an illustration to Scott's last published novel, Castle Dangerous", it also contains the "essential deictic gesture of literary tourism, hie jacet, [which] insists that Scott's body ... has become the foundation of all this literary, artistic, and touristic effort" (160-1). For Westover's Romantic literary tourists, authors' graves and houses are less sites of loss and ending than of promised (if often disappointed) imaginative contact, continuity and renewal--and they generate a substantial corpus of travelers' writings. Necromanticism is a critically reflective, thoroughly researched, and unexpectedly upbeat study of literary necrotourism in Britain, associated Anglo-American discourses and cultural practises, and the implications for modern scholarly interpretations of Romantic historiography, reading and canon-making. The methodology is literary critical, though informed by the work of "travel historians, sociologists, thanatologists, and anthropologists" (9). The dominant influences are Lucy Newlyn and Andrew Bennett's work on Romantic reception (particularly Bennett's "cult of posterity"), Mark Salber Phillips on 18th century historiography, and recent contributions to literary tourism studies: Nicola J. Watson's The Literary Tourist: Readers and Places in Romantic and Victorian Britain (2006), and my own Poetical Remains: Poets' Graves, Bodies, and Books in the Nineteenth Century (2004). Westover intelligently synthesises perspectives from different disciplines and critical approaches to produce a distinctive reading of the cultural ramifications of trying to commune with authors' spirits in close proximity to their bodies.

The leading idea is Lord Karnes's "ideal presence" as outlined in the chapter on "Emotions Caused by Fiction" in Elements of Criticism (1762). The first chapter elaborates ideal presence, the power of fiction to produce impressions so vivid they appear almost real. Reading transcends time and place, and puts the reader in contact with the dead; the literary tourist also "reads" the author's grave, seeking imaginative colloquy. However, ideal presence is compromised because "literary faith" seeks also for material and real presence, as if the text were not enough on its own. The second chapter contributes to this account of volatile relations between physical and metaphysical by examining the origins of literary tourism in religious pilgrimage, the European Grand Tour, and the cult of the picturesque. Especially persuasive here is an account of literary tourism as an "invented tradition rather than a quasi-religious survival" (34).

Chapter Three is presented as the definitive case study: an extended analysis of William Godwin's Essay on Sepulchres: A Proposal for Erecting Some Memorial of the Illustrious Dead in All Ages on the Spot cohere Their Remains Have Been Interred (1809). The idiosyncratic Essay--little read in the 19th century--resists the attempt to be constructed as representative ("texts like Godwin's," 51).Westover sees the Essay as an expression of how "anxieties about literature, community, and cultural heritage" (49) are mediated through the dead, arguing that the grave-encounter is "an allegory of reading" that stages "the inherent tensions of biographical reading," and that Godwin proposes emulating dead genius as a means to individual improvement, a radical recuperation of conservative heritage tourism. …

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