Five Questions: David Higgins on British Romanticism, Climate Change, and the Anthropocene: Writing Tambora
David Higgins is Associate Professor in English Literature at the University of Leeds and Deputy Director of the Leeds Humanities Research Institute. He has written widely on Romantic literature and culture, including the monographs Romantic Genius and the Literary Magazine and Romantic Englishness: Local, National, and Global Selves, 1780-1850 (which he has previously discussed on the BARS Blog). Last year, he published two books: a co-edited collection (with Russell Goulbourne) entitled Jean-Jacques Rousseau and British Romanticism (Bloomsbury) and a monograph called British Romanticism, Climate Change, and the Anthropocene: Writing Tambora (Palgrave), which we discuss below.
1) How did you first become interested in the implications of the Tambora eruption?
I’m not sure where I first read about Tambora – perhaps in Jonathan Bate’s The Song of the Earth – but a few years ago I started thinking about the possibility of producing a kind of popular cultural history of the eruption and its effects in time for the bicentenary of the ‘Year without a Summer’ in 2016. Through writing my monograph, Romantic Englishness, and working with some brilliant colleagues at Leeds, I had started to see myself as a researcher in the environmental humanities. Tambora seemed a great case study for such an approach, as well as a potential springboard for public engagement work around culture and climate.
2) Why did you decide to write a short book specifically, and how was the experience of writing compared with that for your previous two monographs?
I ended up abandoning the cultural history, partly because I didn’t think that it would play to my strengths and partly because Gillen D’Arcy Wood beat me to it with his excellent 2014 book. I decided instead to write a shorter book that, rather than simply telling the story of Tambora, would analyse it as a process in which material and discursive elements were profoundly intertwined. I had started reading theoretical work on speculative realism/new materialism and realised that contemporary ideas about non-anthropocentric agency had a great deal to offer this project and the environmental humanities more broadly. My case studies seemed to suit a shorter book and I felt that publishing with Palgrave Pivot would allow me to make a more urgent intervention than a longer monograph, as well as roughly coinciding with the bicentenary of the post-Tambora crisis.
The writing experience was very different from my previous research books. My first was based on my PhD thesis. It required a lot of primary research and was worked on quite intensively during the course of my PhD and then intermittently for a couple of years afterwards. My second was a very slow burner as various other things intervened. In contrast, I wrote this book in not much more than a year, largely during research leave kindly funded by my institution and then by the AHRC. During this period, I also had some leadership responsibilities associated with the AHRC funding, which took up some time but also very much fed into to my research. I hope that the resulting study seems timely rather than rushed, and reflects that I had been thinking about the book for a long time before having the chance to write it.
3) How did you come to select the three case studies on which your book focuses: the official narrative of the eruption compiled by the British administration in Java; the 1816 writings of Byron and the Shelleys; and political periodical writings regarding the ‘distresses’ of 1816 and 1817?
Including Byron and the Shelleys was an easy decision as I have a longstanding interest in their writings. It also struck me that, although their 1816 works were often invoked in relation to Tambora, there was very little actual analysis of the complex ways in which they imagine environmental catastrophe. Similarly, I noticed that the colonial narrative of the eruption was known as a key source for understanding how Tambora unfolded across the Indonesian archipelago, but nobody had paid any attention to its rhetorical construction of the catastrophe. Finally, I felt that a chapter on political periodical writings offered a good way to address the impact of Tambora in Britain, as well as to explore the complex relationship between human and nonhuman agents that creates a supposedly ‘natural’ disaster. I felt, too, that all the case studies would show the value of a close textual analysis of disaster narratives within the broader intellectual framework provided by the environmental humanities. I have always tried in my work to bring canonical and non-canonical texts into close relationship, and without treating the latter as mere background or context. The case studies, while manageable for a short book, offered a transnational and generic reach that I felt was vital for a project of this nature.
4) What for you are the most important kinds of insights that can be gleaned by using the lenses of climate change and the Anthropocene to view the art and culture of the Romantic period?
I am very aware of the dangers of ‘presentism’ and I would certainly resist the idea that the Romantic period speaks to us in any straightforward (or moralistic) way about climate change. I also accept that the present-day environmental crisis may well require new ways of thinking. However, understanding the Anthropocene as a kind of epistemological breach (as some thinkers do) risks dehistoricising environmental change and presenting it as the inevitable result of human ‘progress’, rather than as the result of a range of contingent factors over time. As scholars such as Mike Hulme have shown, climate and culture have been understood as intertwined by many human societies. I believe that understanding how the Romantics address the complex interactions of human and nonhuman agencies that create an environmental catastrophe can contribute to a better understanding of our current predicament. This genealogical approach requires an attentiveness to the significant differences between then and now, as well as the similarities.
5) Now that this book is finished, what are you planning to work on next?
I’m currently involved in Landlines, an AHRC-funded collaboration between academics at Leeds, Sussex, and St Andrews to write a history of British nature writing over the last two centuries for Cambridge University Press. We’re not offering a survey, but a pointed and (I hope) sophisticated account of nature writing as a complex literary form. The project has also involved some very enjoyable public engagement, including a poll to discover the nation’s favourite nature books. Increasingly, I am motivated as a researcher by the opportunity to engage with broader audiences and so I hope to develop some new impact collaborations around culture and climate over the next twelve months. In the longer term, I’m planning a book on the relationship between philosophical pessimism and environmental thinking: a project that will take me well out of my Romantic-period comfort zone…