Reconfiguring Romanticism in the Information Age
A Special Session, Modern Language Assoc. Convention
Held on Dec. 29, 1996
Sheraton Washington, Washington, D. C.

(This page created 5/29/96, last revised 2/26/97.)

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The following is a slightly revised and updated version of the special session proposal submitted to the MLA Programs Committee in April 1996. It serves as a prospectus for the session as originally conceived. For the eventual shape of the actual session, see program.
This session explores a striking but as yet little understood convergence in Romantic studies. The convergence, which bears upon the profession generally but is at present especially acute in the Romantics field, is between canon revision and the creation of online resources.

Canon revision has recently come to a climax in the field with the closely spaced publication of four major print anthologies dedicated to expanding the curriculum beyond the traditional six male Romantic poets (McGann, 1994; Wu, 1994; Perkins, 1995; Mellor and Matlak , 1996).[1] (See the related session at MLA '96 on Anthologizing Romanticism.) As attested by the intense discussion of these anthologies on the NASSR-L listserv of the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism in 1995 and again in 1996, such publications are being received as effectively rewriting the period at the infrastructural level of textbooks. Meanwhile, the critical literature on the period has kept pace by increasingly focusing on women Romantic authors as well as on whole genres that had fallen by the wayside (e.g., drama). Even with the new anthologies, however, the constraints of the print medium continue to be a common source of complaint: either women and other previously "minor" authors are represented by a slim selection of works or pages devoted to the "major" authors shrink drastically.

Simultaneously, the last two years have witnessed an explosion of interest in online (and especially World Wide Web) Romanticism. The Romantics field is currently advanced in this regard owing not just to many individual scholars but to the preparatory work of such centers of Romantics digital development as the U. Pennsylvania English Dept. and the U. Virginia Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities and Electronic Text Center.[2] It was the early and ongoing work of such sites (initially in Gopher and SGML formats) that primed the field to exploit the Web. Currently, major archival-scale projects either online or underway include The Romantic Chronology (UC Santa Barbara & Miami U., Ohio), The British Poetry Archive, 1780-1900 (UVA), The Blake Archive (hosted at UVA), the various course-related resources at U. Penn (with their substantial non-canonical Romantics holdings), the Romantic Circles project (various U. S. locations), The Bluestocking Archive (U. Mass.), the Women Romantic-Era Writers Page (U. Nottingham, UK), Romanticism On the Net (Oxford U.), and Romanticism: CD-ROM (U. Alberta). The number of such projects both large and small has now reached a critical mass able to sustain not just scholarly and pedagogical interest but critical/theoretical inquiry. Of special importance to this confluence of interests is the fact that many of the projects have advanced well beyond putting plain texts on line to experimenting with hypertext and multimedia in a medium-specific and -aware manner. For Romanticists, after all, Blake was the first McLuhan; the Songs of Innocence and of Experience--in their visual/verbal experimentation and implicit media critique--were the first Web page.

The stage is thus set for combined scholarly, pedagogical, and critical attention to be drawn to the (virtual) site where the recovery of an expanded canon meets up with the discovery of a new medium. The way in which the "archives" located on that site are now mutating in both content and form raises issues that are at once intensely scholarly, aesthetic, and cultural. Above all, the question is what will happen to the canon in a medium that at least in principle does away with space limitations, rethinks the logic of the "page" (the result of a centuries old negotiation between textual, visual, and oral media with their affiliated population groups), diminishes the role of capitalized middlemen (editors and publishers), has no permanence, and resists hierarchical structure. For example, who will be canonically "marginal" on a Web that technically has no "center"? Is "surfing" the Web the end of "reading" the canon; or, contrariwise, how and for what purposes will reading the canon be reconstituted? Already, online Romanticists have begun addressing these issues; and, reciprocally, a majority of the print editors of the new anthologies have joined the advisory board of the Web Romantic Chronology.

And yet, at no time has a quorum of these people ever met.

"The Canon and the Web" is designed to gather this quorum for what amounts to a summit meeting on the above issues. The session will be introduced by Alan Liu, a Romanticist who established his reputation in print but then migrated much of his work to the Web. Four ten-minute, live-Web presentations will follow with speakers chosen to represent archival-scale projects: Laura Mandell on The Romantic Chronology, Joe Viscomi on The Blake Archive, Jack Lynch on Frankenstein: The Pennsylvania Electronic Edition (currently being developed for CD-ROM, with the possibility of a future Web interface), and Elizabeth Fay on The Bluestocking Archive. Because these presentations are intended to "seed" the critical discussion to follow, they will blend show-and-tell with critical argument (constituting a sort of "demo with attitude"). Particularly to be noted is the accomplishment not just of the projects but of their individual presenters. Mandell is co-editor of The Romantic Chronology and an active influence in the canon debate (she has edited a print-newsletter on "New Romantic Canons"). Viscomi is both a major print-based Blake scholar and part of the team developing the technically sophisticated The Blake Archive. Lynch is globally known in our profession for his well-crafted and extensive set of Web pages (On-Line Literary Resources) devoted to cross-period literary research. And Fay is not only Web-author of The Bluestocking Archive but print-author of two books exemplifying non-canonical approaches to Romanticism.

Following the brief presentations will be the "summit meeting" itself. Three respondents will lead off a round-table discussion of 35 minutes by making sharply-focused, informal position statements of 5-minute duration (they will be asked not to read from prepared text). Michael Gamer, one of the most prolific developers of non-canonical online Romantics texts (see his Romantic Links, Home Pages, and Electronic Texts), will criticize the Web for not being non-canonical enough. Morri Safran, co-editor of the Women of the Romantic Period project at U. Texas, Austin, with Daniel Anderson (of the U. Texas, Austin, Computer Writing and Research Labs), will discuss strategies for implementing new means of pedagogy. And Steven Jones, editor of the Keats-Shelley Journal (a print journal with a Web presence) as well as co-founder of Romantic Circles (a large-scale online project devoted to the second-generation Romantics), will reflect on the current moment of tense negotiation between print and online media.

Discussion among the respondents, panelists, and audience will then close the session. Several of the major print-anthology editors and online developers in the field not represented on the panel have expressed an intention to be in the audience. To ensure that discussion will involve this informed audience, therefore, the session organizers will put up well in advance of the conference a special Web page (with URL printed in the MLA Program Guide). This page will include not only information about speakers and respondents (including links to resources to be viewed during the session) but eventually a "Forum" section. Here, scholars and students will be able to place their own questions, statements, and links to online projects.

1. Jerome J. McGann, ed. The New Oxford Book of Romantic Period Verse (NY: Oxford UP, 1994); David Perkins, ed., English Romantic Writers (NY: Harcourt Brace, 1995); Duncan Wu, ed., Romanticism: An Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994); Anne Mellor and Richard Matlak, ed., English Literature: 1780-1830 (NY: Harcourt Brace, 1996).
2. An analogous instance is medieval studies, whose notable online advances were catalyzed in part by such centers of online development as The Labyrinth at Georgetown U.

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Session Organizers: Laura Mandell (Dept. of English, Miami U., Ohio) and Alan Liu (Dept. of English, U. California, Santa Barbara). You can write both of us together at this address.