The book's introduction redefines the widely hailed romantic desire to change how we perceive where nature ends and the human begins, in linguistic terms. It flags the book's key interventions, arguing that we should recognize a transatlantic poetics over the "romantic century" (1750–1850) that tries to dismantle linguistic form with natural images, in order to diversify historical time. In its temporal imagination, this romantic tendency both challenges Eurocentrism, and contributes to the "roots" of nineteenth-century philology and racial science. The introduction argues that we still have much to learn by returning to the romantic-era writers who reorganized language and social life using images of durability, vulnerability, and revolution borrowed from the natural world. The introduction closes with a chapter overview for the rest of the book.
Chapter 1 provides a methodological overview and introduction to key terms, ideas, and thinkers appearing throughout the book, including the coinages uprooted word and gray romanticism. It begins by proposing to open new possibilities for the field and period of romanticism, by considering the folded temporalities of "A Mende Song," recorded by Black linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner in the 1930s. It then describes a broader theoretical turn to literary temporalities, and introduces "gray romanticism" (in contrast with green naturalism), an ambiguous chronopolitical tendency that interrupts linear history with geological images. This romantic chronopolitics was a rejoinder to a history of colonial linguistics that used the enlightenment's "alien word" to give language history. Guided by thinkers in postcolonial studies and linguistic anthropology, the chapter argues that this linguistic uprooting led writers of the romantic century, like Herder, toward nondualist materialisms that gave language different kinds of time.
Chapter 2 proposes that what Phillis Wheatley calls a "softer language," linking images of poetry, freedom, and the afterlife, offers a vision of language in motion through "scenes of transport." In emphasizing the texture of language softened by free movement, Wheatley intervenes in the monolithic chronology of language that emerged through the enlightenment's stadial theories of civilization. In her conscious role as exceptional, representative, lettered Black lyric subject, Wheatley's management of her own audibility instructively differentiates her balance of license and constraint from the compromised agency celebrated in later romantic formulas (whose prototype for my purposes is Wordsworthian "wise passiveness"). Against a backdrop of influential theories of language, stadial civilization, and organicism (in the work of Adam Smith and Wilhelm von Humboldt),I show how Wheatley, described as previously an "uncultivated Barbarian," uses her poetry to unravel the primitivist timeline of linguistic modernity.
Chapter 3 turns to the political force of William Blake's exemplary poetic investment in radically expansive temporalities and mixed durations. In the context of his mediation of Britain's possessiveness over the literary "property" of its colonies, the chapter recovers Blake's desire to rewrite how we think about history and historical agency against the background of long eighteenth-century European philosophic discourses concerning geologic agency (in Spinoza, Diderot, Hutton, and Goethe), extending in the process a reading of Blake's "The Clod and the Pebble" into several illuminated books from the 1790s (The Book of Thel and The Book of Urizen). It shows how the geological strata in Blake's poetry give language deep time and an ongoing actualism resonant with his anti-imperial politics.
Chapter 4 places the much debated desire for the vernacular in Wordsworth's early poetics—or the infamous "real language of men"—in the context of a dissolution of linguistic categories under way in British radicalism of the 1790s. It recounts the stir caused by John Horne Tooke's immensely influential etymologies in The Diversions of Purley (1786/1812), which grafted political radicalism onto linguistic roots. This philological lens leads to new insights into the grayer undertones of Wordsworth's so-called "green language." The chapter culminates in a reading of "Hart-Leap Well," building on scholarship that shows how native antiquarianism drew on a broader colonial imaginary. The chapter closes by suggesting that the idea of freedom grounding Wordsworth's ambivalent radicalism is clarified by contrasting approaches to Haiti and history in the sonnet "To Toussaint L'Ouverture" and in a contemporaneous ode to liberty by the Haitian poet Antoine Dupré.
Chapter 5 accounts for the complex primitivism of Henry David Thoreau's writings, under the phenomenological influence of figures like Emerson and Goethe, but also of a wide range of contributors to the linguistic study of Indigenous American languages, such as Heckewelder, Du Ponceau, and Schoolcraft. The chapter examines Thoreau's desire for proximity to Wabanaki languages of the Northeast, like Penobscot, alongside his inability to understand them as contemporary with his own utterance. It locates the contradictions that stem from the persistence of Thoreau's racialized primitivism with respect to Indigenous life, in the face of his meticulous work with etymological tropes against origins-thinking and his regard for variation, mixed durations, and regeneration in the natural world. Among other texts, the chapter examines The Maine Woods, Walden, the Journal, and the unpublished Indian Notebooks.
The conclusion offers a glimpse of romanticism's afterlives in language study, following the romantic century. It addresses some of the forgotten ironies in the gradual turn away from a bluntly racializing organicism, which had already been censured as a suspect romanticism by earlier antiracist linguists. Discussing a handful of white antiracist linguists—Whitney, Saussure, Boas, Sapir—it reads a reference to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin as an ironic demonstration of the enduring power of literary language to shape racial time. It then returns to linguist and literary scholar Lorenzo Turner, whose fieldwork on the creole Gullah from the 1920s to the 1940s treated seriously the elasticity and mobility of linguistic phenomena resulting from the forced migration of speakers of African languages overlapping with the romantic century, pointing toward other, submerged romanticisms.