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Orrin N. C. Wang reviews Peter Gay’s Why the Romantics Matter

Peter Gay. Why the Romantics Matter. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. 176 pp. Cloth, $24.00.
Reviewed by Orrin N. C. Wang
Peripatetic and non-systematic, distinguished historian Peter Gay’s short last book, Why the Romantics Matter, begins by citing A. O. Lovejoy’s seminal 1923 argument that descriptions of Romanticism end up being so contradictory and messy that coming up with one single, definitive, totalizing definition is an impossible task. Gay’s subjects, who noticeably tend to be from the last part of the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth century, prove that point.  Gay does start with a chapter on the German Romantics’ relation to erotic and religious feeling and he explicitly mentions the English Romantics there.  But his other short chapters then move on to the rise of the “new Romantics,” the avant-garde moderns; the commercial middlemen enabling Victorian and modern art; Oscar Wilde as the avatar of art for art’s sake; Beethoven’s personal and creative struggles; and, most suggestively on its own terms for me, a meditation on the place of self-portraiture in modernist art.  Several through lines in the book do associate themselves with what some might consider a Romantic topos: artistic creativity and non-conformity and the struggle with a disenchanted world.  But in spite of Gay’s stated intention to fill in that missing part of his historical research, having famously explored the Enlightenment and Modernism, he makes Romanticism matter by using it to allow him to talk about his one true intellectual love, Modernism.
That’s fine, since Why the Romantics Matter isn’t really a polemic.  Readers coming to Gay’s work will already possess enough cultural capital to be curious about Romanticism—or Modernism for that matter.  In that sense, his urbane book provides people with interesting facts and observations to deepen an appreciation of the arts and culture that they already have.  I haven’t looked at the other titles in Yale’s Why X Matters, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the dynamic on display throughout the press’s series.  But, of course, the very cultural capital that this view takes for granted— we could call it an investment in Romanticism, but also in literature or the humanities—is not at all secure right now in higher education.  That investment is something that a number of faculty and students in the present academic landscape can’t assume their institutions share.  To be vulgar (in the Marxist sense): I’m at a research I university and there’s a good chance that I’m going to be the last tenured or tenure-track Romanticist hired at my school. The intellectual work being done now by Romanticists is exciting stuff, but the field at many places might be facing extinction.  So while charmed by this coda to Gay’s esteemed career, I find it difficult not to feel that a book on why the profession of Romantic studies matters would be much more en pointe with regards to the fate of reading Romanticism today.