I am writing to you from Charm City – otherwise known as Baltimore. Jelly Bean, my husband and I are visiting my family for the long American Thanksgiving holiday weekend. Their house is high on top of Federal Hill looking down on Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. My great, great, great grandparents built this house and it is where my parents were married. It has always been a sentimental, romantic place for me. Everything about the city is rather romantic and charming making its pseudonym well deserved. It is so quaint and charming that it is hard to believe Federal Hill and Inner Harbor was the scene of ‘history on the boil’ for so many generations.
‘History on the boil’ is such a great phrase; I read it years ago in a Vanity Fair article and never forgot it. I cannot remember who wrote it to credit them properly, but salute their capturing the drama of lives and times. One great thing about studying English and Comparative Literature is the chance to see a world through someone else’s eyes. That is a highly romanticized view of literature but it is a rather interesting perspective from which to consider things like themes and narration – and effect upon the reader.
This reader is feeling highly contemplative today, as Jelly Bean and I pause on the path to rest. My old painted wheel barrow full of texts is difficult to push along the stone walk from our car to the little garden cottage our hosts kindly pronounced my study digs this week. My barrow is full of Renaissance and Restoration texts. I am reading Locke, Hobbes, More, Marlowe, and Antonia Frasier’s biography of Cromwell. Interestingly enough, the Battle of the Severn, the ‘last battle’ of the third English civil war was fought a few miles from here at Horn Point. Lord Baltimore struggled with the politics of the Interregnum then his heirs lost the province of Maryland during the American Revolution. Besides the politics of the Roundheads and Cavaliers and the Revolutionary War,Baltimore’s shipyards laid the hulls for its famous Clipper Ships, and was a market for sugar from Caribbean plantations, tobacco from Maryland plantations, and the Atlantic slave trade. It was the site of the first fatalities of the American Civil War, an important immigration center, and is the home of both Wallis Warfield Simpson and John Waters. That is history on the boil indeed; many of these issues frame important themes in the literature we study.
Studying literature is such a privilege. It is quite exciting to enter into magical worlds of fiction conjured from phonemes and tropes. Although I am reading other literary periods this term, for me, Baltimore is a ‘Romantic’ city; it is Poe’s city after all. Baltimore was incorporated in 1792 linking it with the Romantic Era in my mind; for me it is also linked to the Romantic Era because of its complicated social history. Knowing this history somehow makes the texts I read and attempt to analyze more human and compelling. This is one of the most fascinating things about the Advanced Units. It allows me to deeply consider ‘the inaugural moment of modernity,’ to borrow a phrase from Robert Hughes.
‘Romanticism’ and ‘romantic’ are not inter-changeable terms so let me clarify for a moment: my sentimental, ‘romantic’ notions about the sparkling harbor lights outside my window reflect the ‘imaginative and emotional appeal’ of this ‘charming’ city. Romanticism and its revolt against norms are as edgy as John Waters’s films. My Renaissance and Restoration texts are fascinating because I see the struggle to shape our modern world forming on their pages. This week, while my family is tacking around the Chesapeake Bay, I will be settling into my ‘Charm City’ cottage with a steaming cup of ginseng tea and a text from my enchanted wheel barrow. I will be thinking about the Lord Protector and Lord Baltimore, along with the stunningly real worlds and ‘true’ stories told on the pages of my texts. What a lovely holiday…