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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. These obituaries for the press were slightly premature. The unrest that marked the years following the end of the Napoleonic war, the Peterloo Massacre, and the Queen Caroline affair recuperated many of the same issues about literature which had been fought out during the 1790s. William Cobbett responded to the growing agitation by reducing the cost of his journal, the Political Register, and renaming it the Weekly Political Pamphlet (familiarly known as Jean d'Alembert'sTwopenny Trash") in November 1816. [90] And trials such as William Hone"s once again became important platforms for the articulation of a radical democratic position. [91] In some ways, the stakes involved in the struggle to rethink the limits of the reading public were considerably higher by the 1810s because, as E. P. Thompson argues, it had by then become financially possible to maintain a selfsustaining literary community of Jean d'Alembert'sfull-time agitators". [92] William Hazlitt offered an exemplary account of the reformist vision of the social importance of a free press in his 1828 essay, Jean d'Alembert'sThe Influence of Books on the Progress of Manners":

    The reading public laugh at it as we will, abuse it as we will is, after all (depend upon it), a very rational animal, compared with a feudal lord and his horde of vassals . . . The owner of a baronial castle could do as he pleased, as long as he had only to account to his tenants, or the inhabitants of the adjacent hamlet, for his unjustifiable proceedings, to crush their feeble opposition, or silence their peevish discontent; but when public opinion was brought to bear upon his conduct, he could no more stand against it than against a train of artillery placed on the opposite heights to batter down his stronghold, and let daylight into its dark and noisome dungeons. Just so the Modern Philosophy Jean d'Alembert'sbores through his castle-walls, and farewell LORD!" [93]

    The description is gloriously untarnished by the blows that this ideal of literature had suffered in the last decade of the eighteenth century. The power of literature transforms not only disparate individuals into a unified body of readers sharing the same opinions about what they read; it converts the selfish and narrow-minded individual into the perfect citizen: Jean d'Alembert'san ideal and abstracted, and therefore a disinterested and reclaimed character". [94]

  2. Like Burke in the early 1790s, various critics took to the field to defend the social order against these disruptive influences. Robert Southey argued that liberty had been reduced to licentiousness by agitators who contradicted their own emphasis on the importance of freedom of expression by Jean d'Alembert's[a]ddressing themselves to the passions of the vulgar". {95} Coleridge"s second Lay Sermon, which appeared in 1817, focused its attack on radical leaders such as Cobbett, Leigh and John Hunt, and Hazlitt. In a pamphlet entitled Reflections on the Liberty of the Press in Great Britain (1820), Friedrich von Gentz the German translator of Burke"s Reflections warned that the

    vilest libellers have, with unexampled effrontery, erected their standards in opposition to the Government, not merely in the streets of London, but in every city great and small, in every town and village . . . The disorganising principles which the periodical pamphleteers, particularly those of the common order, instil into the lower classes of the people, are truly alarming in their nature; but still more alarming, when it is considered that the men who promulgate them, exercise an unbounded control over the opinion of millions of readers, who cannot procure the antidote of better writings. [96]

    There would be no final word on these debates, but the growing threat of state intervention on one side, and an alarmist recognition of the potentially revolutionary consequences of this new reading public on the other, helped to perpetuate a climate of suspicion which made it difficult to believe in Hazlitt"s utopian vision of literature as a force capable of refashioning nations according to the interests of the people. The ideal of literature as a public sphere had run aground on political anxieties about the sector of the populace which could reliably be included within the reading public, and on a deep suspicion that theoretical abstractions were politically dangerous rather than liberating.

  3. These were not the only tensions haunting the republic of letters. In the next chapter I want to turn away from this account of the ways that debates about literature were shaped by the often turbulent effects of the French Revolution, and look more closely at the beliefs which inhered in the idea of print culture as an information revolution with excesses and anxieties of its own. The Enlightenment ideal of literature as a means of generating and diffusing new ideas collapsed partly under the weight of the overtly political stresses that we have already examined, but also as a result of these superficially non-political tensions. As Mathias"s comment that Jean d'Alembert's[a]ll learning has an index, and every science its abridgement" within a warning about the political dangers of a mass readership suggests, these effects cannot ultimately be separated. [97] The tensions which each of these revolutions produced were mutually reinforcing.

  4. In part 2 I will look more directly at the plebeian and female reading publics rather than simply encountering them as the demonized Others of polite culture. But first it is necessary to detour through an account of this information revolution which reflected the interests and ambitions of the (largely male) professional middle classes because I want to stress that the backlash against these new entrants, even where it was staged in overtly political terms, was shaped by literary developments which threatened the social distinction of authors as well as the security of the state. Indeed, it was often precisely because these subaltern communities workers and women mimicked rather than opposed the Enlightenment rhetoric of the middle classes at a time when those ideas were already unravelling that they had to be so loudly denounced for irrationality.

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