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"Romantic Fandom: Introduction"

Eric Eisner
George Mason University

1.        Depending on your perspective, this volume’s title might appear either oxymoronic or simply redundant. If your Romanticism tends to be disdainful, even phobic, of popularity; if it is self-reflexive and critical, full of obstinate questioning of sense and outward things; if it is dedicated to reforming as well as experimenting on the public’s taste, then fandom might look to you like Romanticism’s very opposite: fandom after all marks the faddish and the popular; we often characterize it as embracing its objects with reckless abandon or unthinking absorption. If on the other hand your Romanticism involves primarily the overflow of powerful feeling, an exuberance recollected perhaps somewhat ashamedly in moments of tranquility, a going out of our own nature in search of an ideal other, you might ask what kind of fandom worth the name wouldn’t be deemed Romantic.

2.        While commentators in the early nineteenth century would not yet have spoken of “fans”—the term is an American coinage from later in the century—the period swirled with talk about crazes, manias, idols and idol-worshippers, enthusiasts, and devotees. The period also saw the popularization of recognizable “fan practices,” spurred by the growth of consumer culture and the development of a mass audience for culture generally. Admirers collected autographs, souvenirs, portraits and relics of celebrity writers, artists, performers, military heroes, and athletes; snapped up mementos associated with beloved plays or books or music; visited the homes and haunts of celebrities; pored over gossip-filled periodicals and newspaper notices; imitated celebrities’ fashion statements; fantasized about becoming friends or lovers with celebrities; wrote fan mail and formed communities of like-minded aficionados.  [1]  Romantic-era celebrities, of course, not only encouraged but also frequently participated in such practices themselves: Leo Braudy observes of Byron, for example, that he was “a fan before he was a star…[a]ll sorts of fame intrigued him,” from the world-historical to the more local and ephemeral (407). Byron famously adorned his rooms with a portrait of his “little pagod” Napoleon, but also kept a “screen pasted with scraps of boxers and actresses” (Marchand 4:256; Peter Quennell, qtd. in Braudy 407).

3.        This volume does not propose a single definition of fandom, and it does not isolate a particular moment in time when modern fandom can be said to begin. In general terms, however, we might distinguish fandom from other forms of admiration or interest by foregrounding a few distinctive qualities. Fandom is, as John Fiske puts it, an “intensely pleasurable, intensely signifying” form associated with mass-cultural structures and mass-mediated society, though it may not be restricted to mass-cultural or mass-mediated objects (30). Fandom is a participatory activity embedded in a series of more or less routinized practices or rituals (e.g., collecting, writing fan mail), and connected to more or less exhibitionistic forms of display. Fandom has powerful emotional and affective dimensions—it can involve love, passion, excitation, unbearable curiosity or longing, near-total absorption, as well as feelings of shame, anxiety or abjection—though again, degrees of fandom obviously vary and such passions come and go. Fandom is also powerfully linked to fantasy, and often to forms of transferential identification. Both its emotional component and its fantasy elements often make it central to constructions of identity, but fandom also gives rise to communities of like-minded fans, to a fan culture. Finally, fandom can be crucially productive or creative: most clearly in the genre of fan fiction or the playful readerly practice David A. Brewer has called the “imaginative expansion” of narratives or characters (Afterlife 2), but also more generally in the invention of modes of engagement, expression and performance.  [2] 

4.        When I contacted potential contributors to this volume, I suggested they consider some of the following questions: How does the concept of fandom help us think about the development of new kinds of publics, new formations of culture, and new ways of consuming culture in the Romantic period? What dynamics of class, gender, nation and sexuality emerge around the figure of the fan or specific forms of fandom in the Romantic period? How do Romantic writers themselves participate in such cultures of fandom? How do the material practices around fandom condition, reflect or support specific modes of reading or spectatorship associated with Romanticism? What can fan practices tell us about the development of new kinds of subjectivity or feeling in the period? How do we understand the fan’s desire, and how does that desire mirror, predict, or precede our own investments in Romantic-era texts and writers, as scholars, teachers, and 21st-century fans? Contributors were free to look at any of the possible topics projected by the phrase “Romantic Fandom”: Romantic-era fans; fans of the Romantics; fandom that is in some sense Romantic. Responding to these questions and possibilities, the four very diverse essays in this volume together show how taking fandom seriously might help reshape our understanding of Romantic-era audiences and Romantic-era forms. Conversely, these essays also demonstrate that attention to emerging practices of fandom in the Romantic period can open up valuable comparative perspectives on our own modes of admiration and response.  [3] 

5.        Celebrity has become something of a hot topic within Romantic studies, with a wave of studies building on groundbreaking articles and books by Peter Manning, Susan Wolfson, Judith Pascoe, and Karen Swann, and including recent work by Tom Mole, Ghislaine McDayter, David Higgins, Clara Tuite, myself and many others. There have been, too, in recent years several excellent collections of essays examining the fan cultures built up around individual writers: Frances Wilson’s Byromania and Deidre Lynch’s Janeites, for example. This volume aims to continue the conversation this scholarship has begun, but asks what different questions or insights arise if we shift the emphasis from the celebrity to the fan. The essays in this volume use this shift in emphasis to open up alternative views of the history of reading, and they take up the problem of fandom as a methodological challenge that requires new thinking about how to recover and analyze varieties of audience response. That is, the focus here is not on the topics of traditional reception history: the development of reputation, the strategies by which texts are marketed or distributed, a legacy of changing judgments or expectations or interpretations. Nor is the focus on cults of a particular author as reflections or betrayals of the reception that author might imagine. Rather, these are essays about the sometimes very ordinary, often very quirky activities of fans, though they show, unavoidably, the complex interrelation and interaction—mutually influential but not mutually determining—between forms of response and the forms that inspire such response in the first place. These essays reveal Romanticism’s publics as highly complicated, heterogeneous, inventive and unpredictable.

6.         Nicola Watson’s essay makes clear both the diversity of modes of fandom in the period and how little these fan practices actually conform to some of our frequent assumptions about the period. Watson’s topic is the practice of reading writers in situ—touring locations associated with writers or their characters and experiencing those scenes through the lens of one’s literary experience, often with book in hand. Her essay takes as a case study the cultural tourism of the socialite Lady Frances Shelley—a distant relative of the poet, “well-read yet unintellectual, and a crashing snob”—whose encounters with writers and the places they made famous are richly detailed in nearly half a century’s worth of letters and diaries. While we now typically see such tourism as a middle-brow if not mass-cultural phenomenon, Watson explains by contrast how Lady Shelley’s fandom is in fact dogged by an “anxiety of readership” tied to her elite class position. Though it anticipates later throngs of tourists in the Lake District in the nineteenth century or to places like Stratford or Haworth today, Lady Shelley’s reading of landscapes and locales reflects an effort to “distinguish the elite tourist-reader from an otherwise worryingly large and undifferentiated mass readership” (Watson).

7.        The social distinctions Watson turns up in her analysis of this particular reader’s fan practices have suggestive implications for our understanding of the relationships between readers and books more generally in the Romantic period and, indeed, in the present. Watson uncovers a contest between two modes of literary fandom driving the cultural tourism she investigates: on the one hand, an “author-centered” mode “organized towards visiting, being, or envisioning the author;” on the other hand, a “fiction-centered” mode through which the tourist-reader uses a particular landscape to project himself or herself imaginatively into a narrative, or imaginatively to project the reality of fictional scenes. If the author-centered mode of fandom suggests the writer and reader are on equal footing, Watson argues, the fiction-centered mode of fandom “connoted a propensity to confuse the real and the fictional, a dangerous and risible lack of sophistication which contemporary discourse typically associated with the new mass readership” (Watson). As Watson observes, this is a distinction still active in the gap between visiting someplace like Austen’s Chawton or the Keats House and a theme park like Dickens’ World. Yet I might add that these two modes of fandom, of course, draw on and feed back into types of fantasy and identification possibly present, and overlapping, in any given experience of losing oneself in a book. Watson’s discussion ultimately, then, points us to the spillover—in both directions—between the way we experience imaginative worlds in reading and the cultural practices through which we seek to extend those experiences into reality.

8.        While all of the essays in this volume bring out fandom’s richly social and even communal dimensions, it’s also a paradox of fandom that the typicality of any given fan’s pleasures must lie in their idiosyncrasy. Clara Tuite’s case history of Stendhal’s momentous meeting with Byron in 1816 builds a strong argument both for the individuality of Stendhal’s response to Byron (it’s a quintessentially Stendhalian response) and for its representative status with regard to Byronic fandom in particular and modern mass-cultural fandom, perhaps modern masculinity, more generally. Floored when he realizes he’s sharing an opera box with the poet he idolizes, Stendhal is at once thrilled and deeply embarrassed, but in Tuite’s account this is not just another story of enthrallment to Byron’s seductive figure. Indeed, part of what’s so intriguing about this exchange is the uneasy, competitive, and erotically charged triangular relationship that governs it— Stendhal/Napoleon/Byron—with both Stendhal and Byron engaged in an on-going and unstable process of identity-formation through the public performance of ambivalent identification with figures also engaged in such an on-going and unstable process of self-invention. As Watson does also, Tuite emphasizes that the fan acts in ways not always scripted or anticipated by the author, but here the fan’s independence takes on a more Barthesian quality. In Tuite’s provocative argument, fandom “spectacularizes the transformative agency of the reader, producing new circuits of exchange that empower reading and reception, and endow them with new pleasures and sensations. Far from entailing an exclusively passive position—in docile thrall to the sovereignty of author and text—fandom can be seen to transform a traditional textual economy of active and passive, thereby enabling reception as a mode of delirious productivity—proliferating often disobedient and indiscreet disclosures” (Tuite). But Tuite painstakingly shows as well how Stendhal’s emotion and its display are conditioned by and as the social ritual of a very specific time and place, the immediately post-Napoleonic moment of the encounter between these two recent exiles, one British and one French, at the opera in Italy.

9.        Crucial to Tuite’s analysis of the affective dimension of Stendhal’s fandom is the category of the “impulse,” on the edge point between “the desire to act and the act itself,” and ambiguously located between body and mind (Tuite). Stendhal’s experience of fandom as unwilled feeling chimes not only with accounts of present-day fandom but also with the language of other nineteenth-century accounts of fan feeling: Elizabeth Barrett Browning would write in the 1840s of her own “impulses to lionizing,” for example (1:145). As Tuite suggests in linking Stendhal’s “impulse” to the older literary-historical and philosophical category of the “sensation”—important in Stendhal’s thinking about love, memory and emotion— Stendhal’s fascination with his feeling on this occasion might be assimilated to the entire complex project through which Romantic writers work to refashion and revalue eighteenth-century understandings of the relation of emotion and knowledge, producing a new “history or science of feelings” (Wordsworth, Note to "The Thorn," Lyrical Ballads 289). (We might, for example, read Tuite’s discussion of impulse and sensation in Stendhal’s fan feeling against Noel Jackson’s recent work on sensation in British Romantic poetry: Tuite sees Stendhal pushing sensation away from scientific knowledge while Jackson sees the two as more closely allied in British Romantic thought [ Jackson 1-2]). Tracing Stendhal’s shifting recollections and rewritings of the encounter with Byron over the years, Tuite zeros in on what these rewritings tell us about “that most Stendhalian concern with the fraught interrelation between desire and memory”—a concern so central to Romantic writing generally. As I have suggested elsewhere, Romantic fandom turns out in this way to be surprisingly close to the dynamics of the Romantic lyric, with its focus on memory and memorialization and its attempted coordination between deeply personal and transpersonal feeling. Just as the Romantic lyric is supposed to provide a passage between an almost incommunicable meaning and public meaning, the fan’s response is felt at once as uniquely individual experience and as shared or social experience. Is it possible really to imagine oneself the lone fan of anything? Fandom is perhaps always something we think of as shared, or at least as something we want to share, even as our embarrassment about our fandom speaks not just to its excesses of feeling but to the way we take it as revealing deeply personal truth. It’s too much sharing.

10.         Mark Schoenfield’s engaging contribution to this volume, " Byron in the Satirist," analyzes a much less adulatory—if perhaps no less obsessed—response to Byron. Schoenfield teases out the complex political and cultural rhetorics through which the journal refracts the figure of Byron in its reviews, its social satire, and its verbal and visual parodies, starting with its 1807 review of Byron’s Hours of Idleness. Animating this interaction in large part is the personal animus between Byron and the Satirist writer Hewson Clarke, who was at Cambridge with Byron and for whom Byron represented not only a rival but the (frustrating) epitome of aristocratic privilege, a privilege Clarke and The Satirist will target in attacks on what they brand Whiggish indolence. Schoenfield demonstrates how even at this early stage in Byron’s career, the Satirist’s attacks function to deflate, by redeploying, Byron’s figuration of his own fame, reflecting back to the poet and his audience “the fragility of his public self.” In other words, despite being captivated by Byron’s figure, Clarke is hardly a fan of the poet, but both Clarke and Clarke’s Byron write with an anxious eye on the poet’s real or potential audience of devoted admirers, the “real” Byron’s claims to nonchalance or indifference notwithstanding. In Schoenfield’s nice summary, the journal thus influentially produces “a competing version of Byronic celebrity to that produced by Byron.”

11.         Schoenfield’s essay is perhaps most exciting in the way it shows us the vexed interdependence of periodical writing and poetic production in the first decades of the nineteenth century, a mutually bound relationship whose antagonistic dynamic is captured by the reversibility of these hostilities: as Schoenfield explains, “who binds whom is determined by an economy of cultural production.” The antagonism of satire in this way proves suggestively parallel to the mutually bound and sometimes very antagonistic relationship between fans and the objects of their interest. The close connection Schoenfield examines between poetic production and periodical culture reflects, of course, the position of each within a rapidly developing literary marketplace, but also, especially in Byron’s case, the way a kind of seriality was emerging in the publication of poetry (even before the Oriental Tales) that lent itself to sustained engagement with and by the seriality of magazine publication. If periodicals like The Satirist require a Byron as an organizing figure for their own reading of culture, we’re also coming more and more to see how powerful a role the periodicals played not just in the reception of Byron but in shaping the poet’s self-representation.

12.        While Schoenfield, Tuite and Watson each describe how particular individuals responded to famous writers and their works, Brewer’s essay on the craze for Pierce Egan’s Life in London asks a somewhat different question about fandom: how to account for the “phenomenon” of a book like Life in London? As Brewer recounts, it’s not just that the book itself sparked a craze, but that it gave rise to so many also wildly popular imitations, theatrical adaptations and spin-offs, and even cross-merchandising (clothiers pushed Tom and Jerry fashions, for example). Histories of reading and reception have a tough time making convincing sense of such reader response: the mania inspired by Life in London may stand as a particularly inexplicable instance, but, as Brewer points out, we still need to develop critical languages or frameworks through which we might approach this kind of fandom productively. Brewer’s brilliant solution is radically to shift the scale of analysis: rather than situate the response to Life in London within ideological or cultural patterns mapped through broad swaths of literary or social history, or even the more limited “Regency culture,” Brewer’s analysis goes micro. Building on Franco Morretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees, Brewer’s essay literally maps the publication, adaptation and reception of Life in London down to the month-by-month level of the book’s serial appearance and down to the street-by-street level of the particular London neighborhoods where the characters go on their larks, where theaters stage adaptations, or where we have evidence of particular reader response (including police reports of overexcited readers acting out Tom and Jerry’s sprees). The results are astonishing: not only do we, in reading this essay and looking at these maps, experience the temporality of reception in an entirely new way, but we see in new terms how and why this craze played out as it did across forms and media. As in all the essays in this volume, we get a powerful sense of the peculiarly mediated space fandom occupies. We also, excitingly, get a new sense of how we might understand the history of reading and theatergoing through the problematic of form.

13.        I confess that when I began contacting potential contributors to this volume, I was anxious about the terminology I’d chosen: would the label “fandom” impel readings that merely projected our own forms of desire back onto Romantic-era readers? Surely, there are striking continuities between today’s fan practices and their pre-history in Romantic-era forms of reception, as Nicola Watson remarks: “in the climate of today’s celebrity culture, it has become possible to rediscover Byron as a necessary precondition for Mick Jagger, as the first famous poet to inspire certain modes of feeling on an international scale.”  [4]  The essays in the present volume do suggest some potential rewards of analyzing Romantic-era reading practices in terms of a “presentist” understanding of the affective dynamics of celebrity and fandom (“presentist” because derived from an analysis of those dynamics as they are familiar to us).  [5]  Ultimately, however, I find what comes across in these essays is in fact the historical difference that separates Romantic-era fandom from more familiar fan routines, rather than any putative similarity between the two. If these essays contest literary criticism’s abjection of the fan as “naïve, obsessive, desirous, and dangerously predatory” (Watson), they also resist simply celebrating the fan or identifying Romantic-era readerly desire with our own.  [6] 

14.        Indeed, each of these essays describes scenes of fandom that come very quickly to belong emphatically to the past. Travelling down the Rhine in the 1850s, Lady Shelley, Watson tells us, finds herself unable to re-experience her own earlier feelings of romance amid these scenes, even though she keeps her copy of Childe Harold open beside her. Stendhal’s encounter with Byron may set the stage for later developments in his life and his writing, but almost on the scene, in Tuite’s account, it is already subject to the revising and corroding action of memory. The Satirist’s exchanges with Byron set in motion recurring tropes in the poet’s reception, but as Schoenfield explains, these exchanges belong to an early moment in Byron’s career, before the full appearance of “Byronism” and its transformative effects on the poet’s public persona and on the literary market itself. Brewer explains that the craze for Life in London faded as quickly as it came on; by the middle of the century, even those who’d been swept up in it in their youth professed themselves mystified by the book’s popularity. This pattern isn’t just about aging or the passage of time: what it reveals is the way fandom is always historically situated, always tied to specific and shifting cultural as well as individual situations. In the Romantic period in particular, the fading of forms of fandom indexes the rapid and uneven development and transformation of institutions of writing, reading, and publication across the period. The essays in this volume show how an analysis of fandom can limn these changes in provocative and revelatory fashion. They point the way to more work on Romantic-era readers and reading practices that needs to be done, and they suggest some of the innovative and varied methodologies scholars might put to use in charting this underexplored but very rich terrain.

Works Cited

Altick, Richard. Lives and Letters: A History of Literary Biography in England. New York: Knopf, 1965. Print.

Braudy, Leo. The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and its History. New York: Vintage, 1997. Print.

Brewer, David A. The Afterlife of Character, 1726-1825. Philadelphia: U. of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. Print.

Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. Women of Letters: Selected Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Mary Russell Mitford. 2 vols. Boston: Twayne, 1987. Print.

Byron, George Gordon, Lord. Byron’s Letters and Journals. 13 vols. London: John Murray, 1973-1994. Print.

Eisner, Eric. Nineteenth-Century Poetry and Literary Celebrity. New York: Palgrave, 2009. Print.

Fiske, John. "The Cultural Economy of Fandom." 30-49. Print.

Gamson, Joshua. Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Contemporary America. Berkeley: U. of California Press, 1994. Print.

Harvey, Oliver. " Lord Byron’s life of bling, booze and groupie sex ." The Sun (15 August 2008). Web. 22 June 2009.

Higgins, David. Romantic Genius and the Literary Magazine: Biography, Celebrity, Politics. New York: Routledge, 2005. Print.

Jackson, Noel. Science and Sensation in Romantic Poetry. New York: Cambridge UP, 2008. Print.

Jenkins, Henry. "Introduction: Confessions of an Aca/Fan." Fans, Bloggers and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. New York: NYU Press, 2006. Print.

Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992. Print.

Jensen, Joli. "Fandom as Pathology: The Consequences of Characterization." 9-29. Print.

The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media. London: Routledge, 1992. Print.

Janeites: Austen’s Disciples and Devotees. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000. Print.

Mandell, Laura. " A Forum: Presentism vs. Archivalism in Research and the Classroom ." Romantic Circles Praxis (February 2002). Web. 22 June 2009.Romanticism & Contemporary Culture.

Manning, Peter. "Childe Haroldin the Marketplace: From Romauntto Handbook." MLQ 52 (1991): 170-90. Print.

McDayter, Ghislaine. Byromania and the Birth of Celebrity Culture. Albany: SUNY Press, 2009. Print.

Mole, Tom. Byron’s Romantic Celebrity: Industrial Culture and the Hermeneutic of Intimacy. New York: Palgrave, 2007. Print.

Romanticism and Celebrity Culture, 1750-1850. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009. Print.

Pascoe, Judith. Romantic Theatricality: Gender, Poetry and Spectatorship. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1997. Print.

Swann, Karen. " Shelley’s Pod People ." Romantic Circles Praxis (February 2005). Web. Romanticism and the Insistence of the Aesthetic.

Tuite, Clara. "Tainted Love and Romantic Literary Celebrity." ELH (Spring 2007): 59-88. Print.

Watson, Nicola J. The Literary Tourist: Readers and Places in Romantic and Victorian Britain. New York: Palgrave, 2006. Print.

Byromania: Portraits of the Artist in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Culture. New York: St. Martin’s, 1999. Print.

Wolfson, Susan. Borderlines: The Shiftings of Gender in British Romanticism. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2006. Print.

Wordsworth, William, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Lyrical Ballads. London: Routledge, 195x. Print.


[1] An entertaining and detailed survey of some of the practices defining this emerging fan culture can be found in Altick 112-45. On fandom and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century reading practices, see also previous work by the contributors to this volume, including David A. Brewer’s work on eighteenth-century fan fiction in The Afterlife of Character, Clara Tuite’s analysis of the Byron-Caroline Lamb relationship in "Tainted Love," and Nicola Watson’s The Literary Tourist. BACK

[2] John Fiske observes that “all popular audiences engage in varying degrees of semiotic productivity, producing meanings and pleasures that pertain to their social situation out of the products of the culture industries. But fans often turn this semiotic productivity into some form of textual production that can circulate among—and thus help to define—the fan community. Fans create a fan culture with its own systems of production and distribution that forms…a ‘shadow cultural economy’ that lies outside that of the cultural industries yet shares features with them which more normal popular culture lacks” (30). BACK

[3] For influential studies of contemporary fandom, see Gamson, Fiske and Jenkins, Poachers; for a review of recent academic work on fandom and the academy’s changing relationship to fandom, see Jenkins, "Confessions of an Aca/Fan." BACK

[4] For a great instance of running with such an equation, see "Lord Byron’s life of bling, booze and groupie sex," The Sun’s 2008 article reporting (somewhat spuriously) on Corin Throsby’s research on love letters to Byron in the John Murray archive: “His passions included brandy and bling…and bedding hundreds of lust-crazed groupies. The dashing aristocrat’s racy lifestyle, palatial homes and oceans of female fan mail created a circus not unlike the one surrounding David Beckham today… Now never-before-published letters have emerged proving his female fans were every bit as smitten as those who were later to swoon over Becks and his fellow stars.” BACK

[5] For thoughtful discussions of the uses and risks of “presentism” see the Praxis volume on the topic edited by Laura Mandell. BACK

[6] On the pathologization of fandom as obsessive and hysterical, see Jensen 9. BACK

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April 2011