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The Crisis of Literature in the 1790s:
Print Culture and the Public Sphere

by Paul Keen

Chapter One: The Republic of Letters

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  1. Conservative critics suggested that the inflated self-image of reformist authors had, ironically, led to the devaluation of serious research. In a published version of a sermon preached on 19 April 1793, a day appointed for a general fast, Walter King denounced what he described as Jean d'Alembert'sa sort of independence of mind, a disdain of all superiority’ that could be traced back to the age’s exaggerated faith in individual ability. {49} These Jean d'Alembert'sphilosophers", the British Critic agreed in a review of Godwin"s Enquiry concerning Political Justice, lacked the humility that ought to be consistent with real intellectual endeavour:

    few pretend to deny the present to be an indolent and superficial age, though at the same time they will extol it as informed and enlightened; putting these detached assertions together, we have something very like the truth; which is, that it is an indolently informed and superficially enlightened age: despising all former wisdom, chiefly from not knowing it precisely; and free in assertion rather than enquiry, merely from that impudence which ignorance alone produces, and from a childish love of novelty, unchecked by fear of consequences, or veneration of any principles. (1 (1793): 308)

    Faced with this era of mediocrity, the British Critic countered with their own ironic vision of futurity. So great was the arrogant superficiality of enlightened philosophers such as Godwin, that it would necessarily be left to a future age, when the proper task of intellectual enquiry would once again become the rightful goal of learned endeavours, to redeem the abuses of the present:

    There is much reason to apprehend, that if this enlightened age should be succeeded by times of real wisdom and of sound research, the general laugh of posterity will attend those high pretensions which a few have uttered with such courage, and multitudes have admitted with such levity. (1 (1793): 308)

    A correspondent of the Gentleman"s, satirizing the hyperbolic expectations of these new philosophers, wryly congratulated England on the good fortune of this Jean d'Alembert'svast increase of genius". For himself, though, he admitted,

    I am almost tired of seeing so many geniuses, and heartily wish we had a peace on the Continent, that I might retire to some quarter where I could meet with a few plain, dull fellows like myself, and not run the risk of being knocked down by a Genius in every turning". (69 (1799): 199)

    As the French Revolution developed, reformist authors became identified, not merely with the atheistic tradition of Voltaire, but with the Jacobins themselves. The Anti-Jacobin magazine, whose name enshrined this negative identification, insisted that its satirical efforts were required precisely because literature had as strong an influence as it did. The Gentleman"s Magazine warned that the threat of Jean d'Alembert'sthese new-fangled doctrines, this strange and heterogeneous philosophy, which has deluged France with blood", was especially insidious because however greatly Britain"s martial bravery could be depended upon to repel invaders in honest combat, ideas could never be similarly contested: Jean d'Alembert'sOur native force and native courage would prompt us to avoid no encounter in the martial field: but what would even the magnanimity of Britons avail against the venom of poison mysteriously prepared, and communicated with the malignant silence of assassins?" (63 (1793): iii). The intellectual route was a kind of stealth attack which ran against the grain of British ideas about fair play in military affairs. It was an unfair battle because these ideas insinuated themselves invisibly like a poison rather than challenging British defences in any forthright way. Regardless of the nature of the ideas themselves, Jean d'Alembert'stheory" could be denounced as a very un-British manoeuvre whose real purpose was to attack the existing structures of authority without becoming involved in anything that could reasonably be described as a fair fight. [50] In practice, of course, attacks on Jean d'Alembert'sforeign ideas" referred just as much to the enormous circulation of radical pamphlets which originated and found their target audience in the British working-class reading public. But the identification of Jean d'Alembert'stheory" – and all of the abuses that were associated with it – as foreign, provided effective ammunition against those social constituencies which lay outside of established ideas about the limits of the informed reading public; groups whose illegitimacy as members of that public was, for their critics, revealed in their abuse of the press.

  2. All of this was reinforced by the contributions of authors who, like Burke, argued that this Jacobin philosophical tradition, far from being simply naive, had manipulated a tone of universal benevolence in order to further its own interests. Two books, Abbe´ Barruel"s Memoirs, illustrating the History of Jacobinism (1797) and John Robison"s Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the Religions and Governments of Europe (1798), reminded English reading audiences of Burke"s more literal charge of conspiracy. [51] Barruel argued that the conspirators had dedicated themselves to spreading atheistic books across the continent. More dangerously still, in order to further their mischief they had seized on the Encyclopédie, which, because of its authoritative status, was all the better calculated for the dissemination of subversive ideas. And, led by none other than Monsieur d"Alembert, the infidels had taken control of the French Academy, converting it into a bastion of atheism.

  3. The conspiracy which John Robison felt he had unearthed, an infidel society called the Order of Illuminati, intent on toppling all existing forms of government and religion, originated within the Masonic Lodges in Germany. But the organization had spread, Robison warned, throughout the civilized world Jean d'Alembert'sunder the specious pretext of enlightening the world by the torch of philosophy, and of dispelling the clouds of civil and religious superstition which keep the nations of Europe in darkness and slavery" (11)– a transformation which would rid the world of Jean d'Alembert'sgovernment, subordination, and all the disagreeable coercions of civil governments" (205). None of this was to be trusted though, Robison explained, since the Illuminati"s Enlightenment rhetoric was only a means of imposing a greater tyranny than existing regimes had ever contemplated. Robison reproduced letters allegedly written by the different conspirators which suggested that, like their French counterparts, the Illuminati had seized on literature as the most suitable medium for luring new initiates:

    We must bring our opinions into fashion by every art – spread them among the people by the help of young writers. We must preach the warmest concern for humanity, and make people indifferent to all other relations. We must take care that our writers be well puffed, and that the Reviewers do not depreciate them; therefore we must endeavour by every mean to gain over the Reviewers and Journalists; and we must also try to gain the booksellers, who in time will see that it is their interest to side with us . . . A learned or literary society is best suited to our purpose, and had Free Masonry not existed, this cover would have been employed; and it may be much more than a cover, it may be a powerful engine in our hands. By establishing reading societies, and subscription libraries, and taking these under our direction, and supplying them through our labours, we may turn the public mind which way we will. (191–5)

    Robison"s investigation of this conspiracy was intended to be taken literally, but his analysis of British culture slipped into a more figurative level of interpretation in which the Illuminati became a symbol of deluded Enlightenment thinkers, and an explanation for the ills of literature generally. Joseph Priestley, he explained, was a perfect example of the true extent of this influence: Jean d'Alembert'sThis writer has already given the most promising specimens of his own docility in the principles of Illuminatism, and has already passed through several degrees of initiation" (482). Whether these conspiracies were to be taken as genuine, or whether they were simply to be read as an effective way of conceptualizing the inadequacies of reformist thinkers, they foregrounded the danger of unchecked freedom of debate generally, by reminding readers of Burke"s connection of the abuse of literature with the origins of the French Revolution. As Burke had himself warned in his references to Price, those who disagreed with this reformist view could ill afford to ignore it. It was, for both its supporters and detractors, the focus of the most important debates of the period about the nature of literature.


  5. Arguably, these denunciations of the reformist ideal of literature could be recontained within the limited relativism of the belief that Jean d'Alembert'sno man can write down TRUTH", which emerged instead as the gradual product of unrestrained debate (MR 14 (1794): 393). Far from signalling the subversion of the public sphere, such criticisms could be celebrated as ironic examples of its true potential – collisions of mind with mind that helped to clarify the central role which literature played as an engine of social progress. Burke"s Reflections was frequently praised for having stimulated so extensive a debate about the rights of man. The Analytical used its review of Paine"s Rights of Man as an opportunity to make precisely this point:

    The public, or rather mankind in general, have very considerable obligations to Mr Burke, for bringing under review and discussion in his celebrated publication, so many topics of the highest importance to human happiness. Fortunately for the present age, politics and government are no longer mysteries enveloped in the dark shades of divine right and feudal prejudice; in the present dispute men will be taught by their interests to determine on which side the force of argument preponderates. (9 (1791): 312)

    The charge that this Enlightenment vision encouraged each individual to value his own little stock of knowledge over the inherited wisdom of previous generations could similarly be put down to the misunderstanding of critics who failed to see that reformist thinkers thought of truth as the product of an ongoing exchange of ideas between individuals – a process which did not, in any case, negate the importance of knowledge inherited from the past.

  6. There were, however, several developments in the 1790s which changed the terms of the debate in ways that reformers could not accommodate. Most obvious was the increasing state presence, which included specific pieces of legislation, the sharply increased number of politically motivated arrests, the interruption of mail between suspected dissidents, the widespread use of spies, threats to revoke the licences of publicans who continued to host politicized debating societies and to carry reformist literature, and cooperation with loyalist groups intent on intimidating reformist activities. [52] There were attempts to curb these state interventions. Fox"s libel bill, which gave juries the right to decide on whether a piece of writing was seditious, passed into law in May 1792, and was widely hailed as a victory for the freedom of the press. But it was more than offset by the King"s Proclamation condemning Jean d'Alembert'swicked and seditious writings . . . tending to invite tumult and disorder", issued on the same day that Fox"s bill received its third reading in the House of Lords.[53] Thomas Erskine"s successful defence of Thomas Hardy, John Horne Tooke, and John Thelwall in the 1794 treason trials was similarly overshadowed by the suspension of habeas corpus early in 1795, and by Grenville"s and Pitt"s bills to curb seditious and treasonable practices – the so-called Jean d'Alembert'sgagging acts" – later that year. I will turn to these aspects of the struggle to determine the social role of literature below, but it is equally important to emphasize a more subtle discursive shift that undermined the central propositions of reformist ideas about literature.

  7. In practice, freedom of the press referred to the absence of a state licensing body. All citizens were free to publish their views, but if these views were intemperately expressed, they were subject to the charge of seditious libel. As Sir William Blackstone put it, Jean d'Alembert'sthe liberty of the Press . . . consists in laying no previous restraints upon publications, and not in freedom from censure for criminal matter when published". [54] The potential criminality of particular pieces of writing was premised on an indefinite but strongly perceived distinction between those publications that were speculative, or designed to participate in an exchange of ideas, and which therefore deserved protection from the law, and those works that were merely designed to inflame the minds of disgruntled sectors of society, and which therefore deserved to be punished with the full weight of the law. Learned works whose composition required a considerable amount of time, and which targeted a selective audience through both their price and their writing style, and which were not therefore Jean d'Alembert'sliable to excite popular commotions", were to be distinguished from those more dangerous pamphlets, essays, and periodical publications that were Jean d'Alembert'swritten in a short time . . . circulated at a moderate expense, and [had] an immediate action upon the public mind".[55] This distinction, Thomas Erskine pointed out in a speech delivered to the Friends of the Liberty of the Press in January 1793, was as important as it was indefinite: Jean d'Alembert'sThe extent of the genuine Liberty of the Press on general subjects, and the boundaries which separate them from licentiousness, the English law has wisely not attempted to define; they are, indeed, in their nature undefinable." [56] The interpretative boundaries must be determined in each particular case, but the distinctions upon which the decision must be based remained broadly understood. Erskine, for instance, expressed his surprise at having to defend the Dean of St Asaph in 1784 for publishing what he insisted was Jean d'Alembert'sthe first abstract speculative writing, which has been attacked as a libel since the Revolution". [57]

  8. The problem with this arrangement was not merely that, until the passing of Fox"s libel law in May 1792, the decision as to whether a piece of writing constituted libel was left to the determination of the judge rather than the jury. Nor was it simply that the indefinite nature of the distinction between these two types of writing could be easily manipulated by judges and specially picked juries responding to the growing spirit of alarm. What was more difficult for reformers to counter was the increasing association of precisely those types of work, which, as Jean d'Alembert'sabstract speculative writing", ought to be entitled to exemption from prosecution, with the Jean d'Alembert'sJacobin" or Jean d'Alembert'snew philosophy" that was thought by many to be most dangerous to the security of the state. The very qualities which could, in the past, be argued to entitle a piece of writing to exemption from legal reprimand came to be the defining qualities of those works which for many critics posed the greatest danger to the security of the state. Within the courtroom of public opinion, if not always in the legal courts themselves, speculative writing, instead of being defined in opposition to seditious writings, became seen as a style of enquiry which was deeply implicated in the practice of fomenting unrest. [58]

  9. Other elements of the distinction remained unchanged. The size, cost, and difficulty of any piece of writing still protected many radical authors from prosecution. The point was frequently repeated that the use of accessible language at a cheap enough price, designed to capture the attention of the disenfranchised, was more of a crime than were the seditious ideas that were being offered. The Gentleman"s Magazine allowed that Richard Brothers would have had nothing to fear if he Jean d'Alembert'shad written in a more respectable manner", but, it warned, Jean d'Alembert'sit should seem [Brothers"s writings] are calculated to worse ends, and written for the understanding, and adapted to the purchase of the lower class" (65 (1795): 208). [59] The British Critic made the same point in the opposite way when it suggested that Godwin"s Political Justice might escape prosecution because it was written in a style that was not likely to attract the attention of the most dangerous sectors of the reading public.[60] Jean d'Alembert'sSecure in these great pledges of obscurity", the British Critic suggested,

    full many a copy have we seen with its title page exposed in a window, with its leaves uncut, till flies and dust had defaced its open front, and many an one, perhaps, shall we see descending from the flies above to those of subterranean London, guiltless of having seduced one wavering mind, or excited even a wish to prosecute, much less to persecute, the author. (1 (1793): 307)

    Having criticized the Jacobin tendencies of Holcroft"s Hugh Trevor, the British Critic similarly suggested that Jean d'Alembert'sthe length of the tale (for these three volumes are only the beginning of Trevor"s sorrows) is the only chance it has of not rendering its writer answerable for a great deal of mischief " (4 (1794): 71).

  10. Related to the distinction between speculative and seditious works was the equally important and homologous distinction between ideas and actions, which also rested upon the issue of social class. Central to the claim for the autonomy of literature as a public sphere free from government control was the conviction that rational individuals were capable of exchanging ideas, however radically misconceived, without being tempted into acting on them. Social improvement, it was frequently stressed, was the almost passive and apparently inevitable result of the pursuit of learning. Knowledge, properly diffused, was sufficient in itself to storm the barricades of tyranny.

  11. Critics warned, however, that this distinction between thought and action was being undermined by the distribution of literature designed to appeal to the labouring masses. Jean d'Alembert's[I]n vulgar minds", the British Critic suggested, Jean d'Alembert'sthe transition from contempt and dislike to acts of violence is but too easy" (7 (1796): 262). Thomas Erskine, prosecuting Thomas Williams for publishing a cheap edition of Age of Reason, offered a longer meditation on the importance of confining potentially inflammatory literature to readers who understood the significance of this distinction between thought and action:

    An intellectual book, however erroneous, addressed to the intellectual world upon so profound and complicated a subject, can never work the mischief which this Indictment was calculated to repress. – Such works will only incite the minds of men enlightened by study, to a closer investigation of a subject well worthy of their deepest and continued contemplation. – The powers of the mind are given for human improvement in the progress of human existence. – The changes produced by such reciprocations of lights and intelligences are certain in their progression, and make their way imperceptibly, by the final and irresistible power of truth . . . But this book has no such object, and no such capacity: – it presents no arguments to the wise and enlightened; on the contrary, it treats the faith and opinions of the wisest with the most shocking contempt, and stirs up men, without the advantages of learning, or sober thinking, to a total disbelief of every thing hitherto held sacred; and consequently to a rejection of all the laws and ordinances of the state, which stand only upon the assumption of their truth. [61]

    The audience targeted by Age of Reason would be misled into drastic courses of action because they lacked the advantages of education necessary, not only to distinguish helpful from destructive ideas, but also to understand that ideas, properly digested by enlightened minds, would achieve the desired effects without recourse to action. Unable to govern themselves, they would be inclined to challenge the political authority of their own government.

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