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Nicholas Mason - Literary Advertising and the Shaping of British Romanticism. Review by Kellie Donovan-Condron

Tuesday, December 29, 2015 - 10:34

Nicholas Mason, Literary Advertising and the Shaping of British Romanticism (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013). 216 pp., 26 b&w illus. (Hdbk., $49.95; ISBN 9781421409986).

Kellie Donovan-Condron
Babson College

Advertising that masquerades as news or unbiased opinion is rampant throughout twenty-first-century consumer culture, but it is hardly a new marketing tactic. Although the term “advertorial” is an early twentieth-century American coinage, Nicholas Mason convincingly argues in Literary Advertising and the Shaping of British Romanticism (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013) that the practice originated during the British Romantic Century (1750-1850). In this deeply revisionist project, Mason overturns several pieces of received cultural and literary wisdom, particularly the standard account that advertising developed in Victorian England and flourished in America. Mason’s book is an engaging, interdisciplinary study of the “shared ‘rise’ narratives of advertising and modern literature”(6) that seeks to historicize the “clash between literary idealism and market realism” (5). Born in the economic and cultural turbulence of this period, modern literature and advertising were not mutually exclusive, but rather, he argues, “co-produced each other” (5). Literary Advertising draws on a wide range of scholarship, from key themes and figures in Romantic-era literature to the literary review genre, from the history of book production and periodicals like Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine and the Quarterly Review to the history of advertising and the significant expansion of consumerism in the nineteenth century.

The brief introduction lays out Mason’s theoretical and critical base, which incorporates Gérard Genette’s structuralism, Jennifer Wicke’s analysis of the links between advertising and literature in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and Marcus Wood’s and John Strachan’s separate studies in the history of advertising, among many others. Mason identifies two key questions throughout his project: “[W]hat role did British writers and publishers of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries play in the development of the modern advertising system?” and “[H]ow did the new forms, methods, and philosophies of advertising influence the production, distribution, and reception of Romantic-era literature?” (9). Chapter one establishes the Romantic-era origins of modern advertising, rebutting the dominant focus on Victorian England and the United States. Mason highlights how three inter-related conditions in the eighteenth century—increased literacy, more effective use of print’s capacities, and the accelerated development of industrial production and consumer attitudes—made the advertising boom of the Romantic era possible. Chapter two explores eighteenth-century writers’ struggles to promote their work within the confines of decorum, and how advertising, particularly the “puff,” publishers’ non-traditional forms of advertising, increasingly infiltrated the literary market (34).

Chapters three, on Byron, and four, on Letitia Elizabeth Landon, examine the effects of advertising practices on two writers who directly benefitted from them. Chapter three asserts that “Byron” was a carefully-constructed brand long before Lord George woke up to supposedly-overnight fame following publication of Childe Harold Cantos I and II. Mason shows how the writer, his publisher, and his agent parleyed their cultural moment, in which brands came to signify both commercial products, moving from promoting dubious quack medicines to respectable Wedgwood pottery, and personal identities, which Mason links to an expansion of baby naming practice to include more idiosyncratic names.

If Byron’s carefully managed brand preceded his “overnight” fame, chapter four argues that Landon’s hyped-up fame preceded her genuine popularity. Her publisher, William Jerdan, a relentless, innovative puffer, created the bandwagon effect, in which L.E.L.’s fame in the early 1820s was presented as a widely-accepted fact despite her slim literary output before publication of The Improvisatrice in 1824. When puffing lost its efficacy, Jerdan and Landon turned to newly-popular portraiture to reinforce her literary reputation.

Chapter five follows the naturalization of puffery in a variety of nineteenth century publishing venues, including the Minerva Press and Henry Colburn’s several publications, and among many of Romanticism’s canonical authors, including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Robinson, and Walter Scott. Mason pays particular attention to Leigh Hunt and the Cockney School and compellingly argues that the puffing of John Keats’s reputation was not to redress the critical harms wrought by Tory attacks on his work, but had actually started before those negative reviews were published. Because the practice of puffing writers’ work was perceived as ethical and was so widespread, Mason urges his readers to exercise a great deal of caution when working with reviews from the Romantic—or any—century.

Literary Advertising presents a persuasive account of the intertwined histories of advertising and modern literature, particularly the literary review, but Mason does not quite go far enough to answer his second key question about the degree to which advertising “influence[d] the production […] and reception of Romantic-era literature.” There is little close reading of the relevant texts by Bryon, Landon, and the other writers discussed. Likewise, while Mason shows that insiders of the publishing industry recognized puffing when they saw it, he does not directly address the extent to which the general reading public was aware of the practice. However, these omissions point to the great deal of work that remains to be done at the junction of commerce and literature. Literary Advertising is a strong starting point.

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