Romanticism and the Question of the Stranger


In our post-9/11 world, the figure of the stranger—the foreigner, the enemy, the unknown visitor—carries a particular urgency, and the force of language used to describe those who are “different” has become particularly strong. But arguments about the stranger are not unique to our time. In Romanticism and the Question of the Stranger, David Simpson locates the figure of the stranger and the rhetoric of strangeness in romanticism and places ...
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In our post-9/11 world, the figure of the stranger—the foreigner, the enemy, the unknown visitor—carries a particular urgency, and the force of language used to describe those who are “different” has become particularly strong. But arguments about the stranger are not unique to our time. In Romanticism and the Question of the Stranger, David Simpson locates the figure of the stranger and the rhetoric of strangeness in romanticism and places them in a tradition that extends from antiquity to today.
Simpson shows that debates about strangers loomed large in the French Republic of the 1790s, resulting in heated discourse that weighed who was to be welcomed and who was to be proscribed as dangerous. Placing this debate in the context of classical, biblical, and other later writings, he identifies a persistent difficulty in controlling the play between the despised and the desired. He examines the stranger as found in the works of Coleridge, Austen, Scott, and Southey, as well as in depictions of the betrayals of hospitality in the literature of slavery and exploration—as in Mungo Park's Travels and Stedman's Narrative—and portrayals of strange women in de Staël, Rousseau, and Burney. Contributing to a rich strain of thinking about the stranger that includes interventions by Ricoeur and Derrida, Romanticism and the Question of the Stranger reveals the complex history of encounters with alien figures and our continued struggles with romantic concerns about the unknown.
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Editorial Reviews

David Clark

Romanticism and the Question of the Stranger is a wonderfully engaged and engaging book. Compelling and elegant at every turn, it is widely and deeply informed, addressing an enormous and varied Romantic archive while also demonstrating a masterful grasp of contemporary theoretical discussions about strangers and strangeness. A searching and felicitous intelligence quickens the project from its expansive beginning to its deeply moving conclusion. Written with uncommon purposiveness, David Simpson’s powerfully realized book may be rooted in Romanticism but it tells a history of vexed encounters with others through which we are still living.”

Kevis Goodman

“With his astonishing range of reference, David Simpson offers a powerful literary history and theory of ‘the stranger syndrome,’ the subtle dialectic of hostility and hospitality in Romanticism and its early-twenty-first-century afterlife. Romanticism and the Question of the Stranger encompasses the wide and eclectic field of late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century writing, not just the authors and texts most often associated with the period. In examples both surprising and revelatory, Simpson’s study also reveals the ubiquity and variety of the stranger, who appears not only in the form of alien persons but also in less obvious guises: in practices of translation between languages, attempts at religious conversion, footnotes and other paratext, metaphor, and the nature of literary language itself. As in his earlier work, Simpson writes at once as a prominent literary scholar and an incisive public intellectual, and in both capacities, he issues a forceful warning against failing to ‘reckon with the stranger,’ whether by acts of exclusion, by making distinctions and patrolling their boundaries, or by suspecting the stranger from outside while failing to recognize the strangeness and estrangement inside—within the self, home, or homeland.”
Times Higher Education Book of the Week

“Simpson makes for an expert guide, his deft and dynamic analysis forging unexpected pathways through the familiar terrain of Romantic writing, and his notion of the stranger supplying an illuminating new lens through which to re-perceive the Romantic canon. Where the book excels, though, is in its quietly insistent sense of the pertinence of Romantic writing and the conviction with which it makes its case for the Romantic claim to modernity. . . . This is an unusual book, sometimes odd, always rewarding, illuminating in its analysis and dexterous in its range. . . . It is the kind of book that encourages the reader’s speculations to stray from home, extending in directions beyond its own Romantic literary remit. As Simpson’s provocative readings illustrate, the question of the stranger might concern not only those mysterious others whom we hold off at the hearth but also that which we refuse to recognise within.”
McMaster University David Clark

Romanticism and the Question of the Stranger is a wonderfully engaged and engaging book. Compelling and elegant at every turn, it is widely and deeply informed, addressing an enormous and varied Romantic archive while also demonstrating a masterful grasp of contemporary theoretical discussions about strangers and strangeness. A searching and felicitous intelligence quickens the project from its expansive beginning to its deeply moving conclusion. Written with uncommon purposiveness, David Simpson’s powerfully realized book may be rooted in Romanticism but it tells a history of vexed encounters with others through which we are still living.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226922355
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 12/10/2012
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

David Simpson is the G. B. Needham Distinguished Professor of English at the University of California, Davis, and the author of 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration, also published by the University of Chicago Press.
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Read an Excerpt




Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-92235-5

Chapter One

Theorizing Strangers: A Very Long Romanticism


William Wordsworth has only a small role in this book, but I shall (out of habit) briefly invoke him here, close to the beginning. He is enshrined in popular literary history as a Lake District homebody, but his writings reveal complex experiences of being a stranger. Cambridge, as he tells it in The Prelude, was his first major experience of not fitting in; afterward came London, where even next-door neighbors were "Strangers, and knowing not each other's names," followed by more remote residences and extended expeditions. But if Cambridge and London caused him to reflect on his alienation, his first travels abroad made him feel very much at home. On his first trip to France in 1790 he and his fellow travelers found themselves "Guests welcome almost as the angels were / To Abraham of old" (6:403–4; in 1805 text, 206). An affirmative host-guest dialectic played out on his second trip in 1791, where he joins the "files of strangers" and bonds with Michel Beaupuy, while he (Beaupuy) was "still a stranger, and beloved as such" (9:281, 286; in 1805 text, 326). Strangers and foreigners well disposed toward the Revolution were received as friends, and Wordsworth felt himself among them. But things turned sour. In late 1792, Wordsworth wended his way back to England by way of Paris, had waking visions of the recent "September Massacres," and returned to a homeland that, at least temporarily, had been ruined for him because of its complicity in the violence from abroad that had, he thinks, brutalized France itself. His preference from then on would mostly be for places like Helvellyn Fair, where there was "here and there a stranger interspersed" (8:9; in 1805 text, 268) in a place otherwise entirely populated by locals who knew and were used to each other.

There is much that The Prelude does not reveal about these French sojourns, most famously the love affair with Annette Vallon and the love child born from it, the complex guilt that followed his leaving her behind, the later efforts at compensation, and the difficulties of moving in circles that were increasingly defined as counterrevolutionary. Wordsworth felt at home partly because he was at home in Annette's bedroom, enraptured by desire for the stranger: romanticists know the story well. But The Prelude also tells us little about the legislative history that impinges on the poet's feelings of belonging and rejection. In early 1790, the French National Assembly approved a motion whereby all foreign property owners residing in France for five years would be naturalized. As late as August 1792, even after Austria and Prussia had invaded France, distinguished aliens who had made contributions to reason and the revolution were granted citizenship, among them Paine, Bentham, Wilberforce, Washington, Madison, and Schiller. Perhaps, as Bonnie Honig has suggested, the French felt a need for their new society to be validated by foreigners as the sign of its very integrity, rather as the republican United States of America did and still does. But the mood was changing. By March and April of 1793, by which time Wordsworth was back in England, laws targeting foreigners were being energetically debated. The cosmopolitan ideals of 1789 were still very much alive, but were under considerable pressure from internal conflicts (most visibly in La Vendée and Lyon) and from the ongoing war with the European monarchies. By December 1793, Robespierre was able to conjure up the specter of the foreigner to explain all that was wrong in the homeland and to excuse the resort to state terror as the only remedy:

For some time foreigners have appeared the arbiters of public tranquillity. Money flowed or vanished at their will; when they wished it, the people found bread; mobs formed and dissipated outside bakers' doors at their signal. They surround us with their hired murderers and spies ... They seem inaccessible to the blade of the law.

France is "flooded" with these aliens, in the pay of foreign tyrants while waiting patiently to work their "sinister designs." They have gone unpunished; they must be punished.

Robespierre was, rhetorically, the Rumsfeld of his times, the exponent of the dangers of the unknown unknowns. Alongside the public face of the French government he projected that there was a "secret government" set up and maintained by foreign powers, with its own invisible committees, treasuries and agents. As the public government falters, the secret one flourishes. Nothing can be assumed to be as it seems; "they" are everywhere, operating by inverse reciprocity: "Are you weak? They praise your prudence. Are you prudent? They accuse you of weakness; they call your courage temerity; your justice, cruelty. Treat them well, they conspire publicly; threaten them, and they conspire in the shadows, behind a mask of patriotism" (104). They operate, in other words, according to the logic of the pharmakon, superimposing antithetical senses and applications upon the approved ones "we" think we are using. Their patriotism is our treason, our justice is their cruelty. We can never know they are not there because they look and sound like us: "Yesterday they were murdering the defenders of liberty; today they are attending their funerals, and demanding divine honours for them, while awaiting the chance to slaughter their fellows" (104). This giddying confusion, this rapid shift between appearance and reality, makes it impossible to know who is on whose side. Robespierre must work hard to keep his terms up in the air lest his words allow for the inference that they are just like us, that they are us and we are them, all unknown unknowns both to others ands to ourselves.

The French language itself, with its single term étranger describing both foreigner and stranger, adds to the confusion and complexity of the rhetoric governing the definition of those who are "other" to the revolution. Sophie Wahnich gives a good account of how the étranger could be a French national, either someone from another part of France not known to the locals who adjudicated and applied all decisions about the status of strangers, or a person, local or not, (deemed) unsympathetic to the revolution and thus a "political" or "interior" stranger. The foreign stranger, meanwhile, though belonging to a different sovereign, could also be a political insider, a fellow revolutionary. A foreigner could be a man of the people when a French national was not. These categories were debated back and forth in the early 1790s. Some départements even sent foreign representatives to the National Convention, though in December 1793 this was forbidden. Wahnich finds that only the political strangers were deemed to deserve the scaffold. Foreign strangers, while under pressure and suspicion, fared better. Cloots went to the guillotine as a political stranger rather than as a foreigner, though being a foreigner did not help his case. Many more French nationals shared that fate. Parisian sections were monitoring strangers from early 1792, but sympathetic foreigners were allowed to join the armies of the revolution. No one ever wore the sinister "hospitality armbands" briefly approved on paper by the Convention, and no one appears to have carried out the bloody decree that all British troops were enemies of the revolution and thus to be executed rather than taken prisoner.

With Robespierre's fall the campaign against foreigners lost much of its steam. Mathiez suggests that the discursive bark was always worse than the executive bite, and that the debate was heavily motivated as much by party rivalries as by concerns for the security of the state. Given France's early open borders policy and universalist claims, which produced a sizeable and visible population of non-French citizens in public life and even in military service, foreigners were a predictable object of scrutiny and manipulation. Some did go to the guillotine, but not in proportionally greater numbers than did French citizens; others, like Tom Paine and Helen Maria Williams, went to prison but were later released. Mathiez makes a pointed contrast between the relatively short-lived and ineffectual xenophobia of the revolutionary period and the more systematic abuse of resident "enemies" in France in 1914; mistreatment of foreigners, he says, was part and parcel of the Terror, when so many French nationals perished, and largely diminished when it ended. Even after the fall of the Girondins in March 1793, exceptions to punitive laws were argued for certain kinds of foreigners: those holding property, or married to French citizens, or otherwise of good republican credentials. The language of hatred and suspicion was circulated widely, but it was not fully embodied in deeds.

But the awareness of the stranger, internal and foreign, must have produced a state of anxiety among a population fighting foreign wars and transforming its own social and political culture, especially since a host could be punished for extending hospitality to or failing to report the wrong sort of guest. Helen Maria Williams, who lived through much of the 1790s in France and published timely reports of her experiences in various installments from 1790 to 1796, observed that under Robespierre, the "faction d'étranger" became an "inexhaustible source for the fabrication of all indictments and bills for conspiracies." From the very first days of the French Revolution, when many foreign liberals were wholly supportive of it, Williams reported herself aware of the degree of stage management that went into representing that revolution to itself, to its own participants. The festival celebrating the first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille was an elaborate piece of theater culminating in the sounding of the alarm bells:

At this moment the audience appeared to breathe with difficulty; every heart seemed frozen with terror; till at length the bell ceased, the music changed its tone, and another recitative announced the entire defeat of the enemy; and the whole terminated, after a flourish of drums and trumpets, with a hymn of thanksgiving to the Supreme Being. (64)

Williams named this the sublime, which is, as the aestheticians remind us, only to be experienced as bearable or enjoyable when the actual source of threat is at a relatively safe distance. So too, perhaps, with the frisson attached to the word "terror," which the readers of the 1790s could encounter in the pages of gothic novels as well as in the speeches of the National Convention, or perhaps in the British newspapers that reported them.

A few years later, in the newly constituted United States, there was another effort to mobilize the nation against the threat of foreign exiles and immigrants, most visibly the French and the Irish. In June and July of 1798, Congress passed four acts collectively known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. Federalist newspapers were full of bloodcurdling "lock up your wives and daughters" rhetoric about the imminent atrocities to be committed by violent radicals on the unsuspecting inhabitants of the homeland, but very few prosecutions were pursued, and the Republican press appears throughout to have been well aware of the party politicking that was behind much of the controversy. Edward Livingston, in the Aurora or General Advertiser (July 2, 1798), argued that the Federalists sought to "excite a fervor against foreign aggression only to establish tyranny at home; ... like the arch traitor, we cry 'Hail Columbia' at the moment we are betraying her to destruction." If the darker purpose of all this was indeed, as Miller suggests (47–48), to deprive the Republican party of its foreign-born voter pool, the attempt misfired badly. The Alien Act expired in 1800, and on becoming president, Thomas Jefferson pardoned all those still serving prison terms under the protocols of the Sedition Act (231). This was by no means the end of the manipulation of the rhetoric of xenophobia in American politics, but its overuse on this occasion does seem to have helped demolish the Federalists as a viable political party forever after.

Meanwhile, in Britain, the pamphlet war that followed the 1790 publication of Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, which was followed by yet more extreme rhetoric in Burke's later speeches and publications on French affairs, was also high on melodramatic xenophobia. Like his sworn enemy Robespierre, Burke was obsessed with the dangers of money circulating under the control of foreign agents, a problem he localized under the name of "old Jewry." Burke's later writings made much of the legions of anonymous and secret revolutionaries at work in Masonic lodges and in the back rooms of public houses, but in 1790 he was more concerned with defending the uses of obscurity as a vehicle for the best elements of traditional culture: religion, chivalry, and polite sociability, whose implicit and unsystematic rituals were threatened by the new empire of light and reason. The British government began a formal system of surveillance in the winter of 1792, paying informers and assigning observers (sometimes incognito, sometimes not) to keep track of radical activities. Pitt's own "Reign of Terror," as Fox dramatically called it, produced the famous Gagging Acts, which were aimed at inhibiting public assemblies and open discussion of reform, and the radical cause was consistently the object of aggressive legislation throughout the decade, partly prompted by fears of a French invasion and by the experience of the Irish Rebellion. But the spectacle of the foreigner-stranger was inflected in Britain by the fact that most of those seeking asylum were French royalists and members of the better classes. Pitt's Alien Act, passed in 1793 (33 Geo. III.c.4), thus aimed not to keep foreigners out but to control the terms on which they might be welcomed. Masters of ships were told to report all foreign passengers arriving in Britain or face a fine of £10, while the passengers themselves were registered and made to report to the local justices of the peace. The brunt of Pitt's legislative animus was directed toward radical Britons rather than toward foreigners. Habeas corpus was suspended between 1794 and 1801, and there followed two acts of 1795 against treasonable practices and seditious meetings. A network of government spies was developed with sufficient manpower to tail Wordsworth and Coleridge and (in later years) to chase Shelley across the Welsh countryside. The designated enemy of the state was not so much or not only the foreign stranger but the stranger within, all the more credible for being unseen and unpredictable. All strangers, not surprisingly, become a potential threat: both the easy aristocratic cosmopolitanism of the eighteenth-century elites and the purely rational universalism of the prerevolutionary radicals become harder to sustain, and the preoccupation with the other takes on a heightened political urgency even when it does not devolve into outright violence. Categories become confused: domestic and foreign, strange and familiar, friend and enemy, unremarkable and uncanny lose their usefulness in a world where any one of them can look like its other or turn into its other. The emphasis on the secret and invisible workings of the radicals began to dominate the conservative press, taking popular form in Robison's Proofs of a Conspiracy (1797) and Barruel's Memoirs (1798). Here again we enter into the rhetoric of the unknown unknowns, where the evidence for the existence of dangerous organizations is precisely that we cannot find any evidence: they operate so secretly that we don't know we don't know them. The primary (non)exhibit in this paranoid discourse was the Illuminati, a German secret society deemed largely responsible for the French Revolution and said to continue to function in deep cover all over the civilized world. Robison wrote of the "total uncertainty and darkness that hangs over the whole of that mysterious Association," which "still subsists without being detected, and has spread into all the countries of Europe." Robison's book was also read in the United States, where it played its part in the debate about the Alien Acts. The most dangerous stranger is the one you cannot see or even know that he is there—which leads you to be sure that he is.

Of course, the question of the stranger long predates 1789. It was important in the two foundational traditions to which eighteenth-century thinkers most often referred: the classic-pagan and the Judeo-Christian. These traditions have both historical and paradigmatic importance; they are often invoked as authorities, and they display complex exemplary episodes involving strangers. One of the most prescient classical paradigms is embodied in the arrival of Dionysus (though he goes by many names) before the gates of Thebes in Euripides's The Bacchae, a play he wrote late in life while in exile that was performed posthumously in Athens around 406 BCE, at about the same time as another host-guest masterpiece, Sophocles's Oedipus at Colonus. Sophocles's play is in part a vindication of prudent behavior by hosts toward guests, local dwellers toward strangers. The stranger is dangerous but responsive to benevolence; treated well, he imparts secrets, which will, if respected, preserve the security of the city. But Pentheus, the ruler of Thebes when Dionysus arrives, gets it horribly wrong. He fails to imagine the possibilities inscribed in his own name (penthos means "grief") and seems deaf to the synthetic identity of host and guest as designated in the single word xenos, which describes them both, so that in his efforts to keep his visitor boxed into the category of foreigner and enemy he unwittingly describes and destroys himself. Dionysus appears to Pentheus as both a foreigner and a political stranger, as neither Greek nor suitable for residence in Greece. Both distinctions are inadequate: Dionysus has a Theban mother, and his values are those which the Greeks must learn to respect and domesticate. He is also divine. The more Pentheus rejects and seeks to punish the disguised god, the more he is seduced into fascinated identification with him. The more he resists the strangeness of women, the more like them he becomes. The more single-mindedly he tries to apply the law of the tyrant, the closer he comes to his own eventual dismembering at the hands of his maddened mother. His paranoid commitment to the safety of the state as he sees it leads to the exile of his surviving kin from their homeland. Prudence and piety alike dictate a different policy: welcome the stranger in case he turns out to be a god after all. You cannot be sure that the stranger is not a god in disguise, and angry gods mean trouble.


Excerpted from ROMANTICISM AND THE QUESTION OF THE STRANGER by DAVID SIMPSON Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: After9/11: The Ubiquity of Others

1. Theorizing Strangers: A Very Long Romanticism
2. Hearth and Home: Coleridge, De Quincey, Austen
3. Friends and Enemies in Walter Scott’s Crusader Novels
4. Small Print and Wide Horizons
5. Strange Words: The Call to Translation
6. Hands across the Ocean: Slavery and Sociability
7. Strange Women


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