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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

Never was a republic greater, better peopled, more free, or more glorious: it is spread on the face of the earth, and is composed of persons of every nation, of every rank, of every age, and of both sexes. They are intimately acquainted with every language, the dead as well as the living. To the cultivation of letters they join that of the arts; and the mechanics are also permitted to occupy a place. But their religion cannot boast of uniformity; and their manners, like those of every other republic, form a mixture of good and evil: they are sometimes enthusiastically pious, and sometimes insanely impious.

Isaac D'Israeli, 'The Republic Of Letters'


  1. In a review of Jean d'Alembert's History of the French Academy,in October 1789, the Analytical Review acknowledged the intellectual preeminence of the author, but rejected his arguments in favour of such academies. D'Alembert was, the review allowed,

  2. a man distinguished in the most learned society in Europe by the universality and depth of his knowledge; by his proficiency in grammar, particularn and universal, philology, metaphysics, history, the fine arts, and, above all, geometry. (5 (1789): 161)

  3. Jean d'Alembert's History of the French Academy, though, was written "rather in the character of an apologist than that of a philosopher", biased by his personal position as the historian to the institution. In fact, the review suggests, the social advantages that d"Alembert attributes to Jean d'Alembert'sacademies, or literary societies, will be found, on reflection, to be the very strongest argument that can be brought against them" (163). Such societies may well act as a safeguard against Jean d'Alembert'slicentiousness and extravagance", but at the price of [page 25] deterring Jean d'Alembert'sgenius and invention" (ibid.). Only in the absence of so venerable an institution could intellectuals be expected to retain an integrity in their work that would have otherwise been constrained by the temptation to conformity that the presence of such an institution would inevitably exert. Indeed, one implication of the Analytical Review's suggestion that d"Alembert wrote in the character of an Jean d'Alembert'sapologist" rather than that of a Jean d'Alembert'sphilosopher", that he was committed to defending something rather than discovering the truth about it, was that his History was evidence of this very point; Jean d'Alembert's critical abilities had been influenced by his private connections with the Academy, his perceptions swayed by his personal obligations. Free of the influence of such an institution, the Analytical Review suggested, Jean d'Alembert'sthe solitary student . . . views things on a grander scale, and addresses his sentiments to a wider theatre: to all civilized and refined nations! To nations that are yet to rise, perhaps in endless succession, out of rudeness into refinement" (ibid.). [1]

  4. Not everyone shared this opinion. Isaac D"Israeli suggested that Jean d'Alembert'sit is much to the dishonour of the national character" that Jean d'Alembert'sno Academy, dedicated to the BELLES LETTRES, has ever been established". [2] Those who agreed with D"Israeli insisted that such an academy would stand as a monument to the advanced state of British civilization, and would encourage the exertions of authors by the powers of public recognition which it would be able to bestow upon them. Nor, many implied, was the regulating effect of such an institution wholly undesirable; literature, like any human activity, was prone to excesses which detracted from its greater glory. The disciplinary function of such an institution, where it was properly exercised, would help to foster, rather than impede, the literary efforts of the nation. None the less, despite the enthusiasm of advocates such as D"Israeli, the Analytical Review"s scepticism about the usefulness of academies was widely shared. It was informed by a belief in the different national spirit of Catholic France and Protestant England: the former characterized by too unquestioning a respect for dogmatic power, the latter blessed with a love of liberty. Linda Colley notes that these perceptions were strengthened by the long series of wars fought between England and France throughout the century. The British Jean d'Alembert'sdefined themselves as Protestants struggling for survival against . . . the French as they imagined them to be, superstitious, militarist, decadent and unfree." [3]

  5. Because of the perceived connection between liberty and knowledge, the debate about academies reflected a series of distinct but overlapping views about what the Monthly Review described as Jean d'Alembert'sthat grand palladium of British liberty, THE FREEDOM OF THE PRESS" (17 (1791): 121). Print was for many both an index and a guarantee of freedom ? one of the glories of an advanced civilization and an important means of opposing arbitrary authority. Arthur O"Connor insisted that the invention of the compass and the printing press had determined the course of history in a direction which Pitt"s repressive measures were powerless to halt unless he was prepared to Jean d'Alembert'sconsign every book to the flames" and Jean d'Alembert'sobliterate the press". [4] An anonymous pamphlet entitled TEN MINUTES ADVICE TO THE PEOPLE OF ENGLAND, On the two Slavery-Bills Intended to be brought into Parliament the Present Session (1795), agreed that Jean d'Alembert'swhenever a tyrant wishes to abandon himself to the lust of dominion, his first step is to reduce and degrade his subjects to a state of ignorance . . . by cutting off that social intercourse, and unrestrained exchange of opinions, from which all knowledge, all information is derived, and from whence flows the consciousness of dignity, and the rank of human nature" (6).

  6. As the political divide widened at the end of the century, a belief in the centrality of print culture to British liberty remained one point on which ? however differently they might interpret it ? opposed critics could still find some measure of common ground. The unparalleled social, economic, and political advantages which were seen to be enjoyed by the current generation, and the unprecedented productivity of authors in all fields of literary endeavour, were hailed by critics from various political perspectives as proof of the equation between print and the public good.

  7. Janet Todd is right in noting the extent to which celebrations of the quasi-political authority of the reading public anticipate Percy Shelley"s emphasis on poets as unacknowledged legislators. [5] Marilyn Butler similarly describes this growing interest in current issues as an Jean d'Alembert'sinformal Congress of the educated classes" ? a shadow government of enlightened public opinion which would have no formal role within the political process, and no direct influence, but which no responsible government would wish to, or could even hope to, oppose. [6] In his unsuccessful but highly publicized defence of Thomas Paine for Rights of Man, part 2, Thomas Erskine offered a stridently reformist version of precisely this proposal: Jean d'Alembert'sgovernment, in its own estimation, has been at all times a system of perfection; but a free press has examined and detected its errors, and the people have from time to time reformed them. ? This freedom has alone made our government what it is; this freedom alone can preserve it". Jean d'Alembert'sOther liberties", he continued later in the same trial, Jean d'Alembert'sare held under governments, but the liberty of opinion keeps GOVERNMENTS THEMSELVES in due subjection to their duties".[7] The Analytical Review insisted in similar terms that Jean d'Alembert's[l]iterature, by enlightening the understanding, and uniting the sentiments and views of men and of nations, forms a concert of wills, and a concurrence of action too powerful for the armies of tyrants" (2 (1788): 324?5). As Thomas Holcroft more succinctly put it in his novel Hugh Trevor (1797), the Jean d'Alembert'snation that remarks, discusses, and complains of its wrongs, will finally have them redressed" (364). [8]

  8. William Godwin presented a classic version of this reformist argument in a section entitled Jean d'Alembert'sLiterature" in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793):

    Few engines can be more powerful, and at the same time more salutary in their tendency, than literature. Without enquiring for the present into the cause of this phenomenon, it is sufficiently evident in fact, that the human mind is strongly infected with prejudice and mistake. The various opinions prevailing in different countries and among different classes of men upon the same subject, are almost innumerable; and yet of all these opinions only one can be true. Now the effectual way for extirpating these prejudices and mistakes seems to be literature. [9]

    Godwin"s description of literature as an engine may sit a bit uncomfortably with our own age"s more aesthetically based assumptions, but it reflects the practical side of late eighteenth-century middle-class culture. For many authors, but for political dissenters especially, the question of what you could do with literature was more important than the question of what belonged to it. Literature was valuable because, as an engine, it was both a means of facilitating debate between an unlimited number of participants, and a vehicle for spreading the lessons which emerged from those debates throughout a growing reading public. What was vital was that literature remain characterized by a widerange of exchanges between different authors, rather than merely a means of reporting the isolated discoveries of unconnected individuals:

    [I]f there be such a thing as truth, it must infallibly be struck out by the collision of mind with mind. The restless activity of intellect will for a time be fertile in paradox and error; but these will be only diurnals, while the truths that occasionally spring up, like sturdy plants, will defy the rigour of season and climate. In proportion as one reasoner compares his deductions with those of another, the weak places of his argument will be detected, the principles he too hastily adopted will be overthrown, and the judgements, in which his mind was exposed to no sinister influence, will be confirmed. All that is requisite in these discussions is unlimited speculation, and a sufficient variety of systems and opinions. (15)

    Such a vision synthesized a recognition of the paramount importance of private judgement with the Humean ideal of sociability. People would decide their opinions for themselves, but they would do so as members of a community dedicated to intellectual exchange. In Godwin"s Political Justice, Mark Philp suggests that this perspective emerged out of Godwin"s own immersion within a literary community that Jean d'Alembert'slived in a round of debate and discussion, in clubs, associations, debating societies, salons, taverns, coffee houses, bookshops, publishing houses and in the street . . . conversation ranged through philosophy, morality, religion, literature, and poetry, to the political events of the day" (127). Our impressions of the period may have traditionally focused on the charismatic image of the Romantic outcast, but as Philp notes, Jean d'Alembert's[t]hese men and women" who dominated the late eighteenth-century literary scene Jean d'Alembert'swere not the isolated heroes and heroines of Romanticism pursuing a lonely course of discovery; they were people who worked out their ideas in company and who articulated the aspirations and fears of their social group" (127).

  9. Godwin"s position may have balanced the energies of private judgement against the constraints of social exchange, but it remained a potentially anarchical vision, as we will see below. It licensed an endless number of authors to engage in an endless series of debates on every imaginable subject, including politics, guided only by the decisive force of something known as reason. But Godwin insisted that unchecked debate ultimately led to social cohesion rather than dissension by developing widely shared standards of opinion amongst the reading public:

    Literature has reconciled the whole thinking world respecting the great principles of the system of the universe, and extirpated upon this subject the dreams of romance and the dogmas of superstition. Literature has unfolded the nature of the human mind, and Locke and others have established certain maxims respecting man, as Newton has done respecting matter, that are generally admitted for unquestionable. (III, 15)

    Behind the anarchic spectre of apparently random intellectual collisions lay the reassuring teleology of the gradual progress of truth ? a force which, because it was both unifying and liberating, was ultimately the strongest ally of sound government.

  10. Godwin"s ideas about literature as an overtly political communicative domain represented an extreme version of a set of beliefs that had been evolving over the previous centuries. In her study of the republic of letters in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Anne Goldgar notes that the Jean d'Alembert'sterm first appeared in its Latin form in the fifteenth century and was used increasingly in the sixteenth and seventeenth, so that by the end of that century it featured in the titles of several important literary journals".[10] Lacking any official regulations or geographic territory, the identity of this community was consolidated by those modes of affiliation ? exchanges of books, visits, and letters of introduction ? which evoked an ethos of cooperation between its members. Their goal may have been the pursuit of knowledge, but scholars were expected to pursue this ambition in a virtuous and disinterested manner guided by a paramount concern for the republic of letters itself.

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