Five Questions: Mark Sandy on Transatlantic Transformations of Romanticism

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Mark Sandy is Professor in the Department of English Studies at Durham University. He has published extensively on Romantic poetry and its legacies, including the monographs Poetics of Self and Form in Keats and Shelley (Ashgate, 2005) and Romanticism, Memory, and Mourning (Ashgate, 2013; reprinted by Routledge, 2019). He has also curated a series of edited collections on Romantic echoes from the nineteenth century to the present day, decadence, Venice and, most recently, the spectral (Ghostly Encounters: Cultural and Imaginary Representations of the Spectral from the Nineteenth Century to the Present (Routledge, 2021), co-edited with Stefano Cracolici). He is currently the editor of The BARS Review. His new monograph, Transatlantic Transformations of Romanticism: Aesthetics, Subjectivity and the Environment, which we discuss below, was published earlier this year by Edinburgh University Press.

1) How did you come to realise you wanted to write a book on the influence of British Romanticism on American literature?

Although my primary research interests have been in Romantic poetry, I have always been fascinated by how you can trace the legacies of Romanticism (positive and negative) in the literary culture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This, coupled with my love of reading and teaching American literature, made me wonder whether the writings of Blake, Byron, Keats, and Shelley were as important to the formation of American literary culture as, say, the writings of Coleridge and Wordsworth. This question stayed with me, especially as I had often felt the presence of these other Romantic writers in the works of Emerson and Thoreau, as well as later twentieth-century American writers. This haunting sense of the Romantic presences of Blake, Byron, Shelley, and Keats in nineteenth- and twentieth-century American writing formed the first seeds of what became this book.

2) Many of your chapters invoke nature prominently.  Is nature, for you, at the heart of the legacy of British Romanticism in the United States?  If so, to what extent would you figure this as a positive inheritance?

For me, at least, nature – in all its varied forms sublimely beautiful and sublimely terrifying – is central to the British and American Romantic Imagination but also, inextricably, bound up with these ideas and representations of nature are questions about the self and identity. You can see, for example, in the writings of Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman how they adapt models of nature from British Romanticism to capture the vastness of America’s land- and seascapes in ways that also voice the newly emergent sense of individual and collective identity that these writers experienced.  I think that the influence of British Romanticism in the United States is, on the whole, positive. Whether Romantic ideas about the self and nature are emulated, transmuted, transduced, or shunned, they remain a vital wellspring for the American Imagination. ‘The romantic ought to be everywhere’, Wallace Stevens claims and then, paradoxically, continues (embracing both negative and positive Romantic legacies), ‘But the romantic must never remain.’   Stevens’s conundrum, I think, perfectly captures and embraces the double-bind of positive and negative Romantic influence on the American literary imagination.  

3) Which U.S. authors did you begin the project with the strongest interest in examining?  Which writers surprised you the most as you traced their interactions?

As Keats has been a Romantic poet who has featured prominently in my research into other aspects of Romanticism, I was very keen to revisit the question of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Keats.  It is well known through Fitzgerald’s letters, novels, and other writings that he was a great admirer of Keats and many of his works of fiction make both direct and indirect allusion to the poet’s work. There are also many biographical parallels between Fitzgerald and Keats (as Jonathan Bate’s recent book underlines), despite the historical distance between them.  For my part, I wanted to think through the extent to which Keats’s ideas about negative capability helped shaped Fitzgerald’s mode of narration, especially in The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night, but also elsewhere. More surprisingly or, at least, less obviously, there are also important lines of Romantic influence (and response) that can be traced in the writings and thinking of two of the most important twentieth-century American novelists, Saul Bellow and Toni Morrison.  The extent and depth of their engagement with Wordsworth in particular, and Romanticism more generally, is truly remarkable.

4) The majority of the book’s chapters pair British poets and U.S. prose writers.  What did you find most revealing about exploring influence not only across the Atlantic, but also across forms?

In traversing the Atlantic and the traditional critical boundaries of prose and poetry, my study reasserts the significance, in particular, of second-generation Romantic poets for American literary culture by reassessing our understanding of Romantic inheritance and influence on post-Romantic aesthetics, subjectivity, and the natural world in the American imagination. As with the negative and positive inheritance of Romanticism, tracing the imaginative exchanges between British Romantic poetry and later American novelists reveals a similar story of continuities and discontinuities, as well as augmenting a stylistic impulse towards the poetic in these American writers (especially the works of Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Bellow, and Morrison).

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

My continuing fascination with questions of Romanticism’s bequests and its haunting presence in the post-Romantic literary imagination will inform a new book-length study that I plan to write, provisionally titled Ghostly Presences in Romantic and Victorian Poetics: From Wordsworth to the Brownings.