The Keats-Shelley Association of America came into existence as a belated offshoot from an Anglo-American philanthropic consortium that in 1903 purchased the house in Rome in which John Keats died. The badly deteriorated edifice was subsequently converted into a museum and library and opened to the public as the Keats-Shelley Memorial House in 1909. (In 1819 the Shelley family had rented quarters on the Via Sistina, the street directly behind the house above the Spanish Steps; hence the easy association of the two contemporary poets.) The house at 26 Piazza di Spagna has been administered ever since by the British Keats-Shelley Memorial Association, with additional and substantial gifts initially coming from an American committee composed of bibliophiles and philanthropists, in addition to rents from apartments in the building not integrated into the Keats-Shelley House. With the advent of World War II the intrepid curator, Vera Cacciatore, sequestered its rare books and valued relics outside the city, then removed identifying markers, and closed the House for the duration of the war. For all that attempt to hold on for another day, however, after the war its finances were in such dire straits that it could not be reopened without a fundamental restructuring.
This is the point (1949) at which in England and the United States separate committees were formed to revivify interest in the second generation of British Romantic poets and to secure a financial basis for the Memorial that symbolized and honored their lasting value. To enlarge the basis for their endeavor from the small nucleus that had bought and supported the house, both committees invited in a general public of academicians and literary connoisseurs and began to publish annual periodicals with slightly different foci: the British Keats-Shelley Memorial Bulletin (now the Keats-Shelley Review) was revived in 1950, with a bias toward biography, literary associations, and primary texts, and the American Keats-Shelley Journal (subtitled Keats, Shelley, Byron, Hunt, and Their Circles) debuted in 1952, with an abiding interest in academic literary criticism and scholarship. Yet, though the preponderance of articles in the first issues of the K-SJ came from academic sources, the initial President of the association was Ruth Draper, the celebrated theatrical monologist, and the Vice-President was one of the great book collectors of mid-century, Arthur A. Houghton, Jr. From the beginning, then, the association attempted to form a bridge between the academy and a general public with strong literary interests. With the accelerating growth of an academic industry called British Romanticism, however, abetted by the slow decline of the book culture that initially formed the heart of the Keats-Shelley alliance in England, Italy, and the United States, the structural underpinnings of that bridge grow less substantial year by year. The fact that the association’s current President is the first academic to hold that position in its over-sixty year history speaks to what appears an inevitable change in the nature of the association.
From the first, the Keats-Shelley Journal held itself to high standards, publishing both articles and reviews of substance. In the early ’70s it added an annual bibliography in the field, which has been an important component ever since. For a generation after its inception the K-SJ held an undisputed place as the central venue for major scholarship in British Romanticism, particularly its second generation, and from the ’80s, under a succession of specialist editors (Stuart Curran, Steven Jones, Jeanne Moskal), it has maintained a reputation as a rigorously vetted scholarly periodical of major repute, even as some dozen journals serving the Romantic movement have grown up around it. Many of these, it should be noted, publish on a quarterly basis, whereas the K-SJ has maintained its annual format (though the 2012 issue was 216 pages long, the size of a substantial monograph). So, to the alteration in the community out of which the association arose, we must add that the public voice through which it iterated its range of interests and values must now compete with a number of others. And, though the pages of the K-SJ and the activities supported by the association have in recent years strongly supported the growing diversity of academic interests, including women authors and cultural studies, by name and tradition it is still strongly associated with the centrality of individual, strong male poets that was the cultural norm of a century ago.
A quick comparison with the principal sister organizations of the association would here be helpful. The Byron Society, formed in 1971 with national affiliates now in over forty countries, publishes an international Byron Journal as a twice-yearly periodical (with a separate cahier issuing from the French affiliate). The Society also sponsors an annual summer excursion to various countries of which Byron had links, and there is an annual literary seminar in England as well. The Byron Society, thus, given the continuing fascination of Byron’s personality and peregrinations, seems to be bucking the trend toward a majority academic membership noted above. The Wordsworth-Coleridge Association publishes The Wordsworth Circle four times a year, in a thin, double-columned format, still under the tutelage of its founding editor, Marilyn Gaull, and, in association with the principal British sponsor, the Dove Cottage Trust, the association helps organize an annual two-week series of lectures, seminars, and walking tours in the Lake District of northwestern England. Though the majority of attendees are academics, the two-week event is mainly Anglo-North American in its constituency. It should be noted that there is considerable overlap in the constituencies of these literary associations.
- Stuart Curran, President