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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. The difference was not that the enlightened understood, unlike their less educated counterparts, that ideas could be reflected upon without necessarily being put into action; the real difference was that the enlightened understood that this was a form of action. As the Analytical Review put it, reason would Jean d'Alembert'striumph over tyranny without external violence" (22 (1795): 545). Or as Erskine had expressed it somewhat more poetically, Jean d'Alembert'ssuch reciprocations of lights and intelligences . . . make their way imperceptibly, by the final and irresistible power of truth". [62] Reason acted by asserting itself in the form of broadly held opinions; its lessons did not, therefore, need to be acted upon in any direct way. The mistake of the unenlightened was to misconceive of the nature of this inseparability of thought and action. Because they lacked an adequate education, they could be stirred into irrational behaviour. Their response was unnecessary, however, not because action ought to follow debate at a suitable distance, but because they ought to recognize that the two apparently very different processes were really only a single phenomenon.

  2. However radical his vision of social change might have been, Godwin"s views about the role of literature as an engine of reform were based on a strong sense of this distinction. Jean d'Alembert'sIt is the characteristic of truth", he argued, Jean d'Alembert'sto trust much to its own energy, and to resist invasion rather by the force of conviction than by the force of arms", which would be to Jean d'Alembert'sgive birth to deformity and abortion". Nor was Godwin free from a connected sense of the identity of those who failed to understand this distinction. Jean d'Alembert'sSociety, as it presently exists in the world", he explained:

    will long be divided into two classes, those who have leisure for study, and those whose importunate necessities perpetually urge them to temporary industry. It is no doubt to be desired, that the latter class should be made as much as possible to partake of the privileges of the former. But we should be careful, while we listen to the undistinguishing demands of benevolence, that we do not occasion a greater mischief than that we undertake to cure.

    The reparation of social injustice required that the privileges of learning be extended to the people who had previously been denied them, but one of the effects of social inequality was that those who lacked these privileges were unfit to be trusted with them. In trying to extend the power of knowledge to those who were incapable of properly understanding the reflective nature of this power, benevolent people faced the possibility of Jean d'Alembert'spropagating blind zeal, where we meant to propagate reason". [63] To seek redress because one was too thoroughly unrewarded within existing social relations, according to this cautionary stance, was to be disqualified from doing so. [64]

  3. As the radical reform movement gathered pace in the years following the publication of Political Justice, Godwin became hardened in his certainty about the importance of respecting these sorts of distinctions, and about the social identity of those groups who threatened the sovereignty of reason. In his Considerations on Lord Grenville"s and Mr Pitt"s Bills concerning Treasonable and Seditious Practices (1795), he used familiar terms in defending the freedom of the press in the face of legislation that was widely seen to encroach upon it:

    A doctrine opposite to the maxims of the existing government may be dangerous in the hands of agitators, but it cannot produce very fatal consequences in the hands of philosophers. If it undermine the received system, it will undermine it gradually and insensibly; it will merely fall in with that gradual principle of decay and renovation, which is perpetually at work in every part of the universe. [65]

    Nothing could be more natural than this process of change, which would be virtually unnoticeable, manifesting itself only through those larger and unstoppable processes of universal evolution. None of this was automatic, however. The freedom which was central to the unconstrained play of reason must be as strictly limited in its access as it was absolute in degree:

    reform is a delicate and an awful task. No sacrilegious hand must be put forth to this sacred work. It must be carried on by slow, almost insensible steps, and by just degrees. The public mind must first be enlightened; the public sentiment must next become unequivocal; there must be a grand and magnificent harmony, expanding itself through the whole community. There must be a consent of wills, that no minister and no monopolist would be frantic enough to withstand. This is the genuine image of reform; this is the lovely and angelic figure that needs only to be shewn, in order to be universally adored. [66]

    The democratic tone of this call for the development of unequivocal public opinion was balanced against the selective nature of those who were to be entrusted with instigating and stimulating these processes. The angelic figure of reform was too pure to be sullied by the wrong hands. It was precisely this sense of distinction which William Burdon singled out for praise in his defence of Godwin in his pamphlet, Various Thoughts on Politics, Morality, and Literature (1800):

    Mr Godwin"s is not a noisy, tumultuous address to the passions of men, calculated to set the world in an uproar, but a calm, rational system, intended to develope and improve the judgement, and therefore slow in its operation, and silent in its effects: it is addressed to the individual in his closet, and not to the multitude in camps, and courts, and crowds. (35)

    For his many advocates, Godwin"s Considerations was a perfect statement of precisely this disposition towards peaceful change. Signed by Jean d'Alembert'sA Lover of Order", it objected equally to those pieces of government legislation that would encroach upon the sacred liberty of the press, and to those illegitimate groups whose activities had given occasion to the two bills.

  4. More particularly, Godwin identified those sacrilegious hands that would lay hold of the angelic figure of reform with a group whom many acknowledged to be the unspecified target of the Jean d'Alembert'stwo bills", the London Corresponding Society. For Godwin, the LCS (based, he pointed out, on the Jacobin Club in Paris), and other political societies like it, were the apostasy rather than the consummation of his vision of radical change. These groups recruited Jean d'Alembert'sfrom the poorer classes of society", welding them into an Jean d'Alembert'sextraordinary machine":

    it has forced itself upon public notice, by the immense multitudes it has collected together in the neighbourhood of the metropolis, at what have been stiled its general meetings. The speeches delivered at these meetings, and the resolutions adopted, have not always been of the most temperate kind. The collecting of immense multitudes of men into one assembly, particularly when there have been no persons of eminence, distinction, and importance in the country, that have mixed with them, and been ready to temper their efforts, is always sufficiently alarming . . . It is not, for the most part, in crowded audiences, that truth is successfully investigated, and the principles of science luminously conceived. But it is not difficult to pronounce whether the political lectures that are likely to be delivered by an impatient and headlong reformer, are entitled to approbation. [67]

    Literature"s role as an Jean d'Alembert'sengine" had nothing to do with those groups which operated as a Jean d'Alembert'smachine"; quite the opposite, Godwin"s Jean d'Alembert'spublic opinion", however unanimous it must ultimately be, was wholly distinct from mass meetings or movements in which the private identity of each participant was obscured. Those who failed to recognize the difference between private readings and public meetings, which was broadly homologous to the difference between ideas and actions, and between speculative and seditious writings, were the enemies rather than the advocates of reform because they failed to appreciate that reason was intimately connected with the reflective process of literary debate. This position, ensuring the purity of reform by articulating the traditional distinction between those types of exchanges which ought to be exempt from legal attentions and those which required these attentions, ought to have maintained for Godwin that freedom which his own literary efforts required. And indeed, unlike many of his contemporaries, Godwin was never arrested for his writings.

  5. The problem, however, was that this distinction, like the distinction between speculative and seditious writings, was one of the casualties of the 1790s. In his A Second Letter to the Right Hon. Charles James Fox, upon the Matter of Libel (1792), Bowles argued that the characteristics which many felt ought to protect an author from the law could be used to conceal far more sinister intentions. Because a seditious text Jean d'Alembert'sdoes not display its real tendency but by means of a connect [sic] with something else . . . and though in appearance it be merely speculative", he warned, Jean d'Alembert'sit may be practicably intended, under the mask of theory, to disturb the peace of society, and to produce public heats, tumults, and insurrections" (44). Nor was the problem simply that publications which seemed to be inspired by legitimate intentions could actually be designed with the opposite purpose in mind. More fundamentally, the reformist emphasis on free debate as a process capable of producing cultural truths precluded the possibility of deciding in any final way what the nature of legitimate intentions should be. In its review of George Dyer"s An Address to the People of Great Britain, on the Doctrine of Libels, and the Office of Jurors, the Gentleman"s Magazine argued that uncontrolled enquiry was characterized, not by the inflexible opposition between discourse and practice, but by the easy transition from free ideas to unrestrained actions:

    The rock on which such assertors of the truth split is the want of distinguishing between speculative and practical truth. In order that their opinions may be established, all others are to be admitted, is the great preliminary article of their creed. They forget that, whether society be in a civilized or uncivilized state, it cannot subsist while men are allowed to say what they please of each other, which must finally lead to doing what they please to each other. (69 (1799): 320)

    The problem with reformers such as Dyer, the Gentleman"s suggested, was that they wanted to limit the effects of their emphasis on the free play of reason by situating it within a framework that dictated what counted as rational enquiry. Once people had been granted the power to determine their interests for themselves, however, this foundationalist recourse to distinctions which could help to limit this freedom became negotiable as well. Far from promoting social stability by reconciling the authority of the government with the opinions of the people, the freedom of expression championed by advocates of reform would only introduce a note of permissiveness that would in turn open the flood gates to the wholesale neglect of any restrictions whatsoever on individual behaviour. Like Mathias in The Pursuits of Literature, correspondents of the Gentleman"s were quick to cite the destruction of Priestley"s house and library in the Birmingham riots of July 1791 as proof that whatever Priestley"s own beliefs, freedom of ideas and ungoverned actions were points on a dangerous continuum of licentiousness rather than alternative forms of intervention.

  6. In its review of Godwin"s Considerations, the Gentleman"s suggested that Godwin"s support for freedom of expression, however much he himself might oppose these dynamics, played directly into the hands of those who could least be trusted with the control of public opinion: Jean d'Alembert'sThis is begging the question . . . who will stop the progress of one man"s reasoning to another and perhaps a worse man"s acting, upon such occasions?" (66 (1796): 142). Far from precluding seditious actions, the Gentleman"s argued, the unchecked exchange of ideas tended to provoke them. Worse, Godwin"s argument, pushed to its logical extremes, failed to offer any obvious way of stabilizing political authority in order to rule on the legitimacy of these actions. Once people had subscribed to the idea of unconstrained debate, who was to deny the legitimacy of other people"s more dangerous ideas about the limits within which all interaction was acceptable?

  7. Nor was Godwin always identified as a member of that misguided community of thinkers who erroneously but honourably believed in the possibility of preserving the difference between ideas and actions. Despite his best efforts to distinguish himself from potentially violent insurrectionists, Godwin was often denounced by conservative critics as one of the radicals" greatest spokesmen. Mathias warned that in the hands of Jean d'Alembert'sMr Godwin and other speculative writers", ideas and actions were inseparably intertwined:

    I can laugh at their metaphysics, and even be amused with their pantomime fancies, as such. But when I know that their theories are designed to be brought into action, and when they tell us, that they hate violence, bloodshed, revolution, and misery, and that truth and happiness are their objects . . . I declare from private conviction and from public experience, that I oppose the admission of their doctrines, whether recommended by Thomas Paine or William Godwin. [68]

    Mathias stressed that he was not against freedom of the press. But unlike Jean d'Alembert'sthe speculators of former times", modern theorists tended to publish in ways which transgressed the boundaries that protected literature from inflammatory propaganda:

    The lucubrations of Montesquieu and Locke were given as the result of long experience and continued meditation, and were designed to produce not subversion, but slow and gradual reformation, as the various states of Europe would admit. The writers of these days on the contrary, throw out their ideas at a heat, and intend they should be brought into immediate action. [69]

    Mathias did not so much reject the distinctions offered by Godwin between speculative and seditious writings, and between ideas and actions, as turn them back against Godwin in the way that Godwin had done with the LCS. The end result was the same: the opposition between ideas and actions could no longer ensure the integrity of radical political authors, however committed they may have seemed to be to limiting themselves to rational exchanges.

  8. More than Godwin or any other writer in the period, it was Jean d'Alembert'sthat rude and left-handed fencer, Thomas Paine", who did the most to confuse these distinctions, both by the themes and style of his writings, and by the sorts of audiences that they attracted (GM 66 (1796): 397). Part 2 of Rights of Man (1792), for which Paine was tried, announced on its title page its aim of Jean d'Alembert'scombining Principle and Practice". This intention, for many of Paine"s critics, was embodied in the vulgarity of his writing style, which catered to those who were unable to reason adequately upon these matters, and by his decision to issue part 2 in a cheap sixpenny edition, at the same time reissuing part 1 at the same price. [70] As E. P. Thompson argues, it was Paine Jean d'Alembert'swho put his faith in the free operation of opinion in the Jean d'Alembert'sJean d'Alembert'sopen society"". [71] Olivia Smith similarly suggests that Paine"s achievement was the creation of a style which, for disenfranchised but politically motivated readers, Jean d'Alembert'ssuddenly brought one"s own language into the realm of the literary". [72] But it was equally true that for Paine, the exchange of ideas could never be abstracted from the issue of social intervention. Nor, Paine might have added, was this position unique to radicals. The class-determined interpretation of the ideal of free speech confirmed that ideas were always reinforced by particular forms of social pressure.

  9. The threat that critics identified in Paine"s efforts to target a plebeian audience was reinforced by the industriousness with which many reform societies disseminated abridged versions of Rights of Man and Age of Reason.In Radical Satire and Print Culture, Marcus Wood warns that it Jean d'Alembert'shas not been sufficiently recognized that for working people in the 1790s The Rights of Man [sic] would frequently have been read not in the form of the lengthy pamphlet, which in its combined form ran to some 120 tightly printed pages, but in highly simplified forms which included broadsides, chapbooks, handbills and selections" (94). The deliberate circulation of Paine"s work was, as Smith notes, an example of the inseparability of ideas and actions: the political clubs were strengthened by the popularity of Paine"s work and also helped to reinforce his popularity by publishing cheap editions of his writing (60). For Paine, the test of the importance of any work was the extent of its diffusion amongst an eager reading public. In the introduction to part 2, he bragged that unlike Burke"s Reflections, part 1 of Rights of Man had sold Jean d'Alembert'snot less than between forty and fifty thousand" copies (177). Because of its echoes of traditional Enlightenment ideas about literature as a medium for the communication of knowledge, his point was vital. Implicit in it was the suggestion that, for his critics, this very process of diffusion had become a test of criminality.

  10. The anonymous author of A Defence of the Constitution of England against the Libels that have been lately Published on it; Particularly in Paine"s Pamphlet on the Rights of Man (1791), offered his own pamphlet as Jean d'Alembert'sa way of guarding the people against those who offer them poison" (5), an antidote designed Jean d'Alembert'sto prevent the effect of immediate surprize on weak minds; and to bespeak their attention to the discussions and measures of reasonable men, even those who advance the principles which are adopted by Paine, but who advance them like Scholars and Gentlemen" (334). Another anonymous pamphlet entitled Remarks on Mr Paine"s Pamphlet, Called the Rights of Man (1791), reiterated the distinction between ideas and the forms of communication which made those ideas dangerous. Jean d'Alembert'sMen of sanguine temper" could safely exchange Jean d'Alembert'sviolent opinions" because, regardless of how little else they agreed upon, Jean d'Alembert'sspeculative" thinkers understood the importance of confining their message to other speculative thinkers (5). But the security of this arrangement had been compromised by the vulgar writing style of authors such as Paine, and by the efforts of reformist groups to subsidize the dissemination of Jean d'Alembert'ssix-penny pacquets of sedition, for the study of a common people, but lately and scarcely emerging from the darkness of ignorance" (67). Paine"s book, the author suggested, was very similar to a weapon popular in France which, ironically, was also called the Rights of Man:

    [It] was sold at a reduced price, and contained within itself every principle of human annoyance. It was something like a loaded whip, of about five feet in length, and concealed a cut-and-thrust sword. By this contrivance every man was enabled to purchase for a few hours, a thing which armed him with power to knock down, cut, and stab his fellow creatures, as he pleased. It was long, heavy, pointed, sharp, and cheap. (80)

    For the author of this anonymous pamphlet, as for other loyalist critics, price reduction (when it was radical rather than conservative literature that was being subsidized) not only emphasized the author"s and bookseller"s desire to spread poison throughout society, it highlighted the unnatural status of the book"s readership.

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