Five Questions: Katherine Bergren on The Global Wordsworth

Katherine Bergren is an Associate Professor of English at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where she teaches courses covering subjects including British Romanticism, postcolonial literature and the environmental humanities. Her research interests centre on the ways in which people around the world read and remake British poetry in their novels, essays, exams, imitations and parodies. Her first monograph, The Global Wordsworth: Romanticism Out of Place, which we discuss below, was published by Bucknell University Press in 2019.

1) How did you first become interested in Wordsworth’s global reach?

I was always interested in Wordsworth’s reception. I loved him when I first read him as an undergraduate, and my classmates hated him. Just that fact struck me. But when I was older, I remembered that I had had an earlier encounter with Wordsworth – when my cat had died in high school, my aunt had read aloud “I wandered lonely as a cloud” at our little cat funeral, and I remembered thinking, “this is an awful poem.” I didn’t know who Wordsworth was back then, and the memory only resurfaced in graduate school. So I had personal experience loving and hating Wordsworth and was generally interested in the extremities of those reactions.

In graduate school, I started noticing Wordsworth in places I didn’t expect – first in Lydia Maria Child’s anti-slavery writing, and I was confused to see her quoting Wordsworth with praise because I knew him to a pretty uncommitted abolitionist. Then I just kept collecting weird Wordsworth appearances. I was always playing with the tension between his strong association with a specific place at a specific time, his anti-cosmopolitanism, and his permeation into different contexts all around the world.

2) In your introduction, you ask ‘What can we see more clearly about Wordsworth’s poetry – and the Romanticism it has been taken to represent – when we return his poetry’s global travels to the picture?’  With the understanding that if this was straightforward, you wouldn’t have written a book to address the question, how might you sketch the main answers you identified?

For nearly thirty years, work in global Romanticism has been revealing just how deeply colonial practices and imperial ideologies permeated British Romantic literary culture. Every year at NASSR, Romanticism seemed to get more and more global. But the punchline was always “well, except for Wordsworth lol.” And since I had read The Excursion and The Guide to the Lakes, I knew that wasn’t quite right. The general distaste for Wordsworth’s later poetry (bad) and his later politics (reactionary) makes a lot of people reluctant to engage with the texts where he was actually reckoning with how the vast, global movement of goods and people and plants was affecting English workers and the English countryside. 

It took me a while to figure this out, but I treat his afterlives as a methodology. Like, instead of doing the historicist thing of reading Guide to the Lakes alongside Repton and Burke and all that British landscape picturesque stuff, what happens if we read it alongside Jamaica Kincaid’s gardening essays? What happens if we read The Excursion next to American abolitionist texts? How do these excellent readers of Wordsworth, speaking from radically different subject positions from my own, repurpose his poetry? What do they see that I don’t, and what can they help me to see?

3) How did you settle on your three principal case studies: Lydia Maria Child, J.M. Coetzee and Jamaica Kincaid?

For many years, I was just collecting data. So many people fed me examples – they probably don’t remember it, but I remember exactly who told me about Lucy, about Henry Ford, about Edwidge Danticat, about Toru Dutt, about J. M. Coetzee, about Barron Field.  

The three case studies emerged because of their complexity. I didn’t understand them at first. Child, Coetzee, and Kincaid knew Wordsworth well – they were reacting not just to Wordsworth the monolith but to specific aspects of his poetry. And as the book took shape, I liked that these three represented very different contexts in the long history of Wordsworth’s reception. 

I actually had to kick out a fourth case study called “The Wordsworth Family Business” about Jonathan Wordsworth and his two-part Prelude, and Richard Wordsworth and his Wordsworth conference, which really didn’t make sense as part of a book called “The Global Wordsworth.” It was more of a pet obsession. Cutting it helped me to sharpen my understanding of what the other three case studies were doing.

4) While your book focuses on Wordsworth, the success of your approach suggests there’s a lot of untapped potential in exploring the global reach of Romanticism.  Which other writers or aspects of the Romantic period do you think would benefit particularly from being reconsidered in a global context?

That’s a great question. Definitely. I think Burns and Scott make a lot of sense in this way (Ann Rigney has written about Scott, and Murray Pittock has edited a collection about Burns). Byron and Austen come to mind. I also think this work is already being done well – my book is in conversation with Nikki Hessell’s and Manu Chander’s. And I think Nikki’s work suggests how important it will be for scholars doing this work to do it in multi-lingual archives, and to develop the skills and collaborations necessary for working with such archives.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I’m working on an article about the racial politics of anonymous parodies in the nineteenth-century U.S, focused on parodies of Byron printed in newspapers. For a few years, I’ve also been digging in an archive of colonial matriculation exams, and I’m working on an article about their pedagogical presentation of Romantic poetry. Further afield, I’m also really interested in the canon of high school literature in the United States: its history, its shifting ideological commitments, and most of all, what teachers and students right now understand themselves to be learning from these texts. 

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