Maurizio Ascari, and Stephen Knight, Eds.: From the Sublime to City Crime

By Rzepka, Charles J. | Studies in Romanticism, Summer 2016 | Go to article overview

Maurizio Ascari, and Stephen Knight, Eds.: From the Sublime to City Crime


Rzepka, Charles J., Studies in Romanticism


Maurizio Ascari, and Stephen Knight, eds. From the Sublime to City Crime. Monaco: LiberFaber, 2015. Pp. 297. 20 [euro].

From the Sublime to City Crime comprises twelve essays--not including the editors' co-authored introduction--covering a period in the development of British, American, and European crime fiction that snugly overlaps what we conventionally style the period of international Romanticism. Several of these were originally published in a thematic issue of the Italian journal La Questione Romantica, co-edited by Maurizio Ascari and Stephen Knight under the title Crime and the Sublime. Among British writers, the volume ranges from William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft through Thomas De Quincey and James Hogg to G. M. W. Reynolds, author of the sprawling serialized novel The Mysteries of London, whose first weekly number appeared in October 1844. Their American cohort is represented by Charles Brockden Brown and Edgar Allan Poe, while Honore de Balzac, Eugene Sue, and a handful of pioneering Scandinavians draw our attention to continental developments. The editorial intention ostensibly embracing all of these essays, aside from their shared generic and historical focus, is to reveal the gradual precipitation of what came to be called "detective fiction," a subgenre of crime fiction epitomized by the "whodunnit" and traditionally distinguished by its foregrounding of the investigator's (inevitably successful) problem-solving abilities, out of a vigorous but more heterogeneous category of popular fiction founded on the compelling--i.e., "sublime"--power of the sheer mystery and terror of crime itself.

The ideological underpinnings of this literary-historical understanding are not, in themselves, new, and can be traced back to Foucault's Discipline and Punish and its critical progeny, like D. A. Miller's The Novel and the Police. In the words of editors Ascari and Knight, "Out of disciplinary procedures came a hero. He, at times she, resolved threats through skill, application, and occasionally courage.... Fulfilling the ideological destiny of classic bourgeois fiction ... the detective knotted the loose ends of individualistic anxiety for the isolated cerebral workers of late capitalism" (9-10). What Ascari and Knight add to this by-now standard account of detection's disciplinary impact is an eye for the persistence of the sublime as "the underground river" of later detective fiction that despite--or, perhaps more accurately, because of--its repression by the Enlightened forces of rational investigation "enduringly remains the dynamo of excitement and anxiety that both drives the narrative of crime and insistently demands its euphemisations" (10).

That, at least, is the announced thesis of this collection, and while it is not, for various reasons, consistently realized by the contributions that follow, it does provide a useful vade mecum. The contributions themselves--by scholars spanning the globe from Slovakia to Canada and Italy to Australia--are uneven in rigor as well as depth, but all provide useful entrees for Romanticists looking to engage with the ever-growing body of criticism on crime fiction and its governing poetics.

The essays are arranged in roughly chronological order from the 1790s to the 1840s, moving at the same time from the Anglophone trans-Atlantic sphere to the continent and back at last to England. Among those scholars familiar to British Romanticists, Maurice Hindle, editor of Penguin's groundbreaking 1988 edition of Caleb Williams, kicks things off with a close examination of Godwin's debts to Edmund Burke's Sublime and the Gothic tradition, setting the loose parameters for discussing these topics in the essays that follow. Here the sublimity under investigation is almost invariably of the Burkean variety, linked to terror and largely interchangeable with "the Gothic." The contributors following Hindle include Alessandra Calanchi on Brockden Brown's "aural sublime," Ascari examining the "element of power" (104) that co-inhabits De Quincey's writings on murder and his Gothic revenge fiction, Struan Sinclair on Poe's "superperceivers," Giacomo Mannironi on Balzac's debts to British Romanticism, Heather Worthington on the Blackwood's fictions of physician/lawyer Samuel Warren, and Anna Kay on the mid-century popular reception and "sublime" interpretation of real-life murderess Maria Manning. …

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