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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

  1. However amorphous this sense of inexorable historical progress may have been, these developments were recognized as being singularly dependent on technical advances in the print industry. [22] In Letters on Education (1790), Catherine Macaulay argued that the Jean d'Alembert'sadvantages of printing, by rendering easy the communication of ideas, giving an universality to their extent, and a permanence to their existence, will ever be found a sufficient remedy against those evils which all societies have experienced from the superstitions of the weak, and the imposing craft of the subtle" (323). Thomas Holcroft placed a similar emphasis on Jean d'Alembert'sthe art of printing" in the defence of this progressivist vision of history which his protagonist makes to the cynic Stradling in Hugh Trevor (1797):

  2. When knowledge was locked up in Egyptian temples, or secreted by Indian Brahmins for their own selfish traffic, it was indeed difficult to increase this imaginary circle of yours: but no sooner was it diffused among mankind, by the discovery of the alphabet, than, in a short period, it was succeeded by the wonders of Greece and Rome. And now, that its circulation is facilitated in so incalculable a degree, who shall be daring enough to assert his puny standard is the measure of all possible futurity? (352)

    Holcroft"s account of Western culture, from the wonders of Greece and Rome to the final glimpse of utopian futurity, is structured by its juxtaposition of Western traditions with Egyptian and Indian tyranny. But it is also informed by a teleology that bridges two historical epochs characterized by two different types of print in an irreversible march of social progress. From printing as a signifying system capable of reproduction to print as the mechanized basis of that reproduction, technical advances in the art of written communication foster democratic advances as a direct result of the dissemination of knowledge. D"Israeli was less confident of the effects of Jean d'Alembert'sthe invention of Printing", but he none the less acknowledged that it was fundamentally reshaping society by diffusing new ideas throughout a growing reading public which included Jean d'Alembert'sthose whose occupations had otherwise never permitted them to judge on literary compositions". [23]

  3. The printing press made it possible to produce large editions relatively cheaply and quickly, but the virtual space of the public sphere which this created remained dependent on a growing network of lending libraries, reading rooms, reading societies, coffee houses, debating societies, and on the beginnings of a national postal system efficient enough to facilitate the circulation of books, newspapers, and pamphlets. [24] This infrastructure spanned the major cities and the provincial towns, and embraced, in varying degrees, both the polite and the poorer classes. [25] Richard Altick notes that the more exclusive libraries, which charged fees and were often attached to the Jean d'Alembert'sliterary and philosophical societies" which sprang up in the larger towns, were complemented by numerous book clubs composed of members who banded together to share the cost of books, and by the commercial libraries which lent popular literature (generally novels) at accessible prices. Altick"s warning against overestimating the extent of the diffusion of reading beneath the level of artisans and small shopkeepers is probably true for those areas of literature whose price and length limited their accessibility. [26] But it overlooks the enormous eighteenth- century demand for chapbooks, as well as for newspapers, which by the 1790s carried extensive reports of parliamentary proceedings. [27] It also underestimates the effects of those formal and informal associations and practices which helped to extend the privileges of print culture amongst the lower orders.

  4. The provision made in the Pitt government"s 1789 bill to increase the stamp tax against hiring out newspapers for a minimal charge suggests a nervous awareness by the government of a potentially large body of working-class readers. [28] The tradition of tavern debating, especially in London, made it possible for anyone who could afford the sixpence fee to be a part of the same exchange of ideas about current topics that was identified by many as the most important function of literature. [29] Whatever their more political concerns, the Sunday night meetings of the London Corresponding Society offered members of this class a chance to participate in reading and discussion groups. [30] These expansionary dynamics reinforced links between literate and non-literate social groups, who were able to hear pamphlets and newspapers read aloud in the taverns. All of these factors reinforce Stuart Curran"s observation that Jean d'Alembert'sthe sense that history was being made, or remade, on a world scale was universal; so was the recognition that it did not actually occur until it happened in print". [31]

  5. This ideal of literature as a public sphere was universalizing in the claims that were made for it, but this did not, of course, mean that it was universally embraced. It was generally associated with the reformist middle class, and particularly with Dissenters such as Richard Price, Gilbert Wakefield, George Dyer, Godwin, Priestley (praised by the Analytical Review ? which was in turn published by another famous Dissenter, Joseph Johnson ? for possessing Jean d'Alembert'sa mind unincumbered with the shackles of authority, richly stored with knowledge, long exercised in liberal speculation, and . . . superior to artifice and disguise" (9 (1791): 52?3)), Helen Maria Williams, Anna Barbauld, and Hays. [32] Kramnick notes that because large numbers of English Dissenters had emigrated to the America, those Jean d'Alembert'swho remained in England constituted about 7 percent of the population. But those 7 percent . . . were at the heart of the progressive and innovative nexus that linked scientific, political, cultural, and industrial radicalism". [33] Rational Dissenters and their beliefs, values, and language permeated the non-establishment literary and social circles of the day, and had considerable influence over a wide area of printing and publishing. They Jean d'Alembert'sresorted to literature and publishing as sources of income because many other professions were denied to them by the Tests". []

  6. by their faith, and in the case of Williams, Barbauld, and Hays, by their sex as well, Dissenters discovered in literary achievements both a form of self-legitimation and a vehicle for promoting political change. They could establish their credentials as citizens fit to participate in the political sphere by demonstrating their abilities and their integrity within the literary republic. In doing so, they frequently contrasted the moral worth of Jean d'Alembert'sthe peaceful walks of speculation" with Jean d'Alembert'sthe crooked and dangerous labyrinths of modern statesmen and politicians". [35] In An Address to the Opposers of the Repeal of the Corporation and Test Acts (1790), Barbauld turned political loss to strategic advantage by comparing the selfless integrity of literature with the corruption of formal politics:

    You have set a mark of separation upon us, and it is not in our power to take it off, but it is in our power to determine whether it shall be a disgraceful stigma or an honourable distinction . . . If, by our attention to literature, and that ardent love of liberty which you are pretty ready to allow us, we deserve esteem, we shall enjoy it . . . If your restraints operate towards keeping us in that middle rank of life where industry and virtue most abound, we shall have the honour to count ourselves among that class of the community which has ever been the source of manners, of population and of wealth. (22?3)

    For many observers, these differences between the industrious and virtuous middle classes and the indolent aristocracy were reflected in the different approaches of the educational institutions attended by their sons. Whereas a foreign visitor to Oxford was reportedly amazed by a degree examination in which Jean d'Alembert'sthe Examiner, candidate, and others concerned passed the statutory time in perfect quiet reading novels and other entertaining works", Dissenting academies such as Warrington, Exeter, Hackney, and Manchester were widely popular with the prosperous middle class for their efforts to offer a more practical and thorough education which included large components of the natural and applied sciences, philosophy, theology, and politics. In his Letter to the Right Honourable William Pitt on the Subject of Toleration and Church Establishment (1787), Priestley argued that Jean d'Alembert's[w]hile your universities resemble pools of stagnant water secured by dams and mounds, and offensive to the neighbourhood, ours are like rivers, which, while taking their natural course, fertilize a whole country" (20). Priestley pioneered the study of history and geography at a university level while teaching at Warrington, and ? after being driven from Birmingham by the riots of July 1791 ? gave free lectures in chemistry and history at Manchester, where the student body included William Hazlitt from 1793 to 1795.

  7. Importantly, dissenting academies held their lectures in English rather than Latin, drawing on a range of English sources which were more easily and rapidly consulted, and more modern in their range of thought. Gauri Viswanathan has argued that English Studies were first formally implemented in India in the early nineteenth century. It is not disagreeing with this to add, as McLachlan and Robert Crawford do, that the informal roots of English studies lie in those programmes of polite literature or belles lettres which were frequently taught in Britain"s social and geographical margins ? the Scottish universities and the Jean d'Alembert'sprovincial, northern, non-metropolitan" settings of many of the academies. [36] It is in these political and institutional terms that we must read Peter Hohendahl"s argument that Jean d'Alembert's[l]iterature served the emancipation movement of the middle class as an instrument to gain self-esteem and to articulate its human demands against the absolutist state and the hierarchical society". [37]

  8. However coherent it may have seemed as a result of its adversarial status though, the reform movement remained a heterogeneous social body divided along lines of class as well as gender. In his analysis of the role of theory in the political developments of the period, David Simpson argues that

    for Tom Paine and his followers, as for their Enlightenment precursors, rational method was a liberating and demystifying energy, a way beyond the illusions of social, political, and religious conventions, which it exposed as just that: illusions . . . [T]he naturally reasonable mind had only to be shown the truth for the truth to spread and prevail. [38]

    The political aspirations of radical reformers such as Paine and the leaders of the London Corresponding Society overlapped with the professional ambitions of middle-class authors who were equally intent on mobilizing these ideas in order to legitimize their own reformist ambitions. Instead of either conflating these two groups or seeing them as wholly distinct, it is more important to view them as internally differentiated and multiply overlapping social constituencies, whose shared ideas about the role of literature led to a strategic entanglement and a mutual nervousness about the nature of their alliance in the polarized atmosphere of the mid-1790s. [39]Maintaining this focus on the heterogeneity of the reform movement, and remembering the points of commonality between many middle-class reformers and conservatives, usefully complicates the oppositional vision which structures approaches such as Olivia Smith"s none the less valuable The Politics of Language, 1791?1819. As Isaac Kramnick puts it, Jean d'Alembert's[i]n the last half of the eighteenth century . . . we find antagonistic interests and conflicting ideologies that require more than the dichotomy of plebeian and patrician". [40] Kramnick situates his argument in opposition to what he describes as E. P. Thompson"s more polarized view, but in Jean d'Alembert'sEighteenth-Century English Society: Class Struggle Without Class?" Thompson argues in strikingly similar terms that Jean d'Alembert'swhen the ideological break with paternalism came, in the 1790s, it came in the first place less from the plebeian culture than from the intellectual culture of the Dissenting middle class, and from thence it was carried to the urban artisans" (163?4).

  9. By tracing both the complex and often controversial relations between these elements of the reform movement, and their various points of opposition and collusion with their mutual opponents, for whom the word Jean d'Alembert'sreform" became increasingly intolerable, I want to develop a more intricate understanding of the sorts of claims that were being made on Jean d'Alembert'sliterature" in the period. Emergent or developing ideas about the nature of literature were shaped by both the areas of overlap and the differences between these various elements of the political struggles in the period. Conservative authors and journals were in many ways sympathetic to ideas about literature as an engine of progress. At times, this was because the rhetoric of Jean d'Alembert'simprovement" was too compelling to be seen to despise; elsewhere, it was because this spirit of improvement included priorities which conservative authors genuinely embraced. A correspondent to the Gentleman"s Magazine, a periodical which was no friend to the sorts of political reforms advocated by the likes of Godwin, Priestley, Wollstonecraft, or Hays, none the less proudly cited this diffusion of learning as a source of national pride: Jean d'Alembert'sKnowledge, which was long confined to few, is now universally diffused, and is not lost in empty speculation, but operates upon the heart, and stimulates more active and new modes of benevolence" (58 (1788): 214). The Gentleman"s stressed, though without the political emphasis of these Enlightenment reformers, a similar sense of the need for this diffusion of learning throughout society:

    To what end was the learning of a few whilst it was confined to a few? Moroseness and pedantry. To what end was the Gospel, whilst its moralities were veiled by pomp or mysticism? Superstition or hypocrisy. They are now universally disseminated for the happiness of all. And we have now in our power more genuine felicity than was ever known at any former period. (61 (1791): 820)

    The British Critic could similarly announce that Jean d'Alembert's[e]very publication which tends to the abridgement of labour, and the promotion of accuracy, must be acceptable to the literary world" (it gave the particular example of logarithms), but it was unlikely to endorse the sorts of connections between literature and the cause of political reform espoused by liberal and radical authors (3 (1794): 1). The progressive power of literature was, as we have seen, frequently associated with the cause of political liberty, but again, the interpretation of this relationship depended heavily on whether liberty was understood to refer to the present state of society, and so to achievements that lay in the past, or to the goal of transforming present conditions, guided by a vision of a better future.

  10. Conservative critics took pride in the fact Jean d'Alembert'sthat, in almost every branch of science and literature, the industry and abilities of our countrymen have rendered themselves conspicuous" (BC 4 (1794): 417). Nor were they unwilling to advocate the freedom of the press. The Gentleman"s allowed, in a hostile review of Thelwall"s Rights of Nature, that the republic of letters was a sphere within which Jean d'Alembert's[e]very member. . . however obscure, possesses the most unbounded right to discuss with perfect freedom the opinions and reasoning of every other" (67 (1797): 55). The British Critic offered its own cautious endorsement of the political importance of Jean d'Alembert'san ample publication of authentic documents to convey correct information" in the context of its support for the dissemination of conservative pamphlets (2 (1793): 152). Freedom of the press was too important a touchstone of English liberty to be seen to oppose. It was more effective to try to beat the radicals at their own game, as Hannah More did with her Cheap Repository Tracts, by using literature as a means of reaching the hearts and minds of the lower orders. And as the prosecution never tired of repeating in seditious-libel trials, respect for the liberty of the press demanded that it be defended as actively as possible from its greatest enemy, which was not the threat of state intervention, but a licentiousness which had betrayed the important social role which literature ought to play.

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