Theory at Yale: The Strange Case of Deconstruction in America

By Marc Redfield | Go to book overview

3. What Remains
Geoffrey Hartman and the Shock of Imagination

By the time Geoffrey Hartman published Wordsworth’s Poetry in 1964, the academic field of British romanticism in the American academy had achieved professional, if not conceptual, stability. Over the previous two decades, studies by René Wellek, Northrop Frye, M. H. Abrams, Frank Kermode, Walter Jackson Bate, and Earl Wasserman, to name only some of the most obvious names, had established parameters for a field that was no longer marked by the overt polemics of an earlier era.1 The New Criticism had lost its avant-garde edge during this period and become part of the critical establishment; indeed, “Yale critics” such as Cleanth Brooks and William K. Wimsatt, motivated by an appreciation for the Coleridgean provenance of their aesthetic and a keen awareness of the complexity of romantic-era poetry, had contributed substantially to the romantic critical archive. The New Critical denigration of romanticism that Harold Bloom (as we shall review in the next chapter) encountered at Yale in the early 1950s was an archaism by the 1960s.2 The romantic archive, in other words, had achieved the stability of a recognized scholarly domain with an active sense of its own history, which is why essays and books by the aforementioned critics still constitute part of the working library of any professional scholar of British romanticism. In this sense, British romanticism had come of age and become a professional specialty like any other by the mid-1960s.

As we have noted in previous chapters, however, romanticism manifested some peculiarities as a scholarly field. Because of its predominant orientation toward lyric and its focus on a relatively small, highly valorized canon—the poetry of Blake, Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley—British romantic studies was traversed by highly charged aesthetic terms, questions, and ambitions. The conceptual dyad “imagination” and “nature” played a famously salient role in the secondary literature.3 Indeed, arguably the most daring critical work of the early 1960s was focusing with peculiar intensity on those two

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