Sunday, August 06, 2006
The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period
[X-posted from The Little Professor.]
William St. Clair’s The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (2004) is one of the most ambitious literary-historical projects in recent years, akin to Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (2001). Although St. Clair’s title may suggest that the book covers relatively confined territory, it in fact ranges over everything from publishing practices in the sixteenth century to the fate of Frankenstein during the Victorian period, and everywhere from France to the United States. Moreover, St. Clair hardly confines his project to "merely" (as if it were mere) the study of Romantic-period audiences; instead, he offers a full-scale alternative to current practices in literary history.
At the root of this complex book is a simple point: current models of literary history do not adequately account for actual, as opposed to theoretical, readerships. Moreover, literary historians have not truly wended their way into the world of numbers--of books sold, of prices, of potential audiences, and so forth. As St. Clair repeatedly reminds us, for there to be influence, there must first be access. Book prices determine access, but copyright laws help determine book prices. More drastically, St. Clair argues that copyright laws have exerted considerable force on the literary canon--in some cases, more force than aesthetics .
For the purposes of St. Clair’s project, perhaps the most significant epoch in the history of British intellectual property laws stretches from 1774-1808. St. Clair dubs this the "copyright window": perpetual copyright was officially disallowed, prompting a sudden spill of older texts onto the market. (The window closes again with a series of laws passed between 1808 and 1842, each lengthening the copyright period.) Once the first window "opened," publishers began marketing large-scale anthologies of the English (or British) "classics." In fact, the Scots, operating under a differents set of copyright laws, jumped the gun in 1773 with The British Poets--soon followed by the various anthologies published by John Bell (124-25) . For St. Clair, this window produces what he calls the "old canon," which would persist well into the Victorian period:
The old canon began with Chaucer and ended with Cowper. In some old-canon lists there are more than fifty authors, in others a dozen or less, but the core was nearly always the same. It consisted, alphabetically, of Samuel Butler, some works of Chaucer, Collins, Cowper, Dryden, Falconer, Gay, Goldsmith, Gray, Milton, Pope, Shakespeare, Spenser, Thomson, and Young. The canon contained no Gower, no Marlowe, nor any of the other contemporaries of Shakespeare, no Drayton, no Herrick, no Lovelace, no Marvell, no Herbert, and no women writers. Donne was reprinted once in Scotland and once in England, but did not feature in the many collections which followed. (128)
St. Clair uses the phenomenon of the "old canon" to make several points of interest to literary historians. First, he argues that publishers formed and replicated the old canon without much regard at all to critical considerations; to the contrary, the old canon consisted, by and large, of what was out of copyright and easily available. Second, he shows that there was a "generation gap" separating readers in different economic strata. Less well-off readers during the Romantic period had access to the old canon, but not to the now-canonical "Romantics." Third and finally, the collapse of the old canon itself followed from shifting copyright laws, as well as from (believe it or not) an explosion of cheap pirated texts.
St. Clair further contributes a number of case studies, some of which correct academic received wisdom. Thus, he shows that below a certain economic range, post-Shakespearean readers didn’t read Shakespeare--because for years there was no affordable Shakespeare for them to read. Along the same lines, far from being a best-seller, Frankenstein was unavailable for much of the nineteenth century; many Romantic and Victorian readers knew the story only from its multitudinous stage adaptations. (Those of us who grumble about students only knowing novels from their film adaptations may feel a certain twinge at this juncture.) Ditto the Vindication of the Rights of Woman--most references to Wollstonecraft were made by people who had never seen, nor were likely to be able to see, the rare surviving editions of her work. Chapbooks, often romanticized as authentically by and for "the people," were in fact produced by elite (and sometimes very wealthy) publishers; moreover, their readers purchased them because they were affordable, not because they had some natural affinity for their contents. And nineteenth-century American readers probably had more up-to-date access to the British literary scene than the British did. Some of St. Clair’s less iconoclastic points also bear repeating, particularly his reminder that the most-read authors of the Romantic period (and a good chunk of the nineteenth century) were Scott and Byron.
For quite a few years now, both copyright law and economics have been something of a moderate rage in literary-historical circles, so wherein lies the novelty here? St. Clair charges that contemporary literary history divides into roughly two models:
...The printed writings of the past have been presented as a parade of great names described from a commentator’s box set high above the marching column...According to the conventions of this approach, those texts of an age which have later been judged to be ‘canonical’ in a wide sense, are believed to catch the essence, or some of the essence, of the historical situation from which they emanated. In recent decades this parade model has been supplemented by studies which present the printed texts of a particular historical period as debating and negotiating with one another in a kind of open parliament with all the members participating and listening. (2)
One might quibble that St. Clair’s "parade" model does not account for a type of literary history (especially literary history influenced by A. O. Lovejoy) as practiced well into the 1950s or 60s; that model frequently supposed that the high canonical texts could not embody the "essence" of the age, precisely because they were exceptional rather than representative. He is more on target with the "parliamentary" model, which tends toward an egalitarian interpretation of the literary world: if Emily Sarah Holt talks, John Henry Newman listens. As St. Clair notes, there is simply no empirical evidence to support this model; two authors purportedly engaged in the same "debate" will not necessarily be debating with each other. We cannot delineate the contours of literary influence, unless we know something about reading patterns and textual distribution--and that means delving into publishers’ archives, not just the literary reviews. Hence the turn to quantitative studies.
Unfortunately, the book is at its most disappointing when it tries to tie reading practices to "mentalities"; after the lovingly detailed accounts of sales numbers and book prices, St. Clair’s large-scale generalizations feel like an afterthought. Readers may also find the very occasional literary analyses a bit undercooked. St. Clair is much better when reminding us of the sheer unevenness of textual distribution and reception--the extent to which readers came to texts at wildly different times, places, and orders.
As a shot across the bows in the literary history wars, this book may be aggravating to more than one class of critic. On the one hand, St. Clair’s reader-centric model of literary history takes dead aim at narratives based on "the canon"--not because he denies that some literary works are greater than others, but because he finds that such judgments are near-useless as either organizing principles or historical explanations. On the other hand, this model is equally unfriendly to literary history practiced on more recent theoretical principles. For example, he shows that while many Romantic women wrote poetry, only Felicia Hemans managed to attain a temporary "new canonical" status (in the form of later nineteenth-century reprints); the others vanished almost as soon as they appeared, or (as in the case of L.E.L.) barely managed to hang on by their fingernails. St. Clair isn’t warning us against "recovering" these poets--after all, an author may be historically or even aesthetically interesting without having anything that resembles a widespread readership. But I suspect that he would argue that the "women’s tradition" model of literary history is, at best, of dubious worth; after all, there’s no proof that the women even read (or even knew of) each other’s work.
The hidden irony of St. Clair’s book is its price. At $150 (or $120, depending on your Amazon discount) it lies well beyond the reach of most junior--or even senior--academics. Moreover, smaller college libraries may well balk at purchasing it. In a fine example of uneven chronological distribution, my own library didn’t acquire the book until this spring, even though it was released two years earlier. And thus the economics of academic publishing affects even books on the economics of publishing.
 A point made independently by Kevin J. H. Dettmar in a recent issue of the CoHE.
 St. Clair frequently notes that the Scots usually got to "English" literature first, a point that has been made most powerfully by Robert Crawford, Devolving English Literature (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1992) and ed., The Scottish Invention of English Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998).
Though I have taken great pleasure in many canonical authors, I have no particular investment in their canonical status. But I have come to have a significant intellectual investment in the role readers play in determining which texts sink or swim. That reader’s choice is influenced by their ability to pay for their pleasures is a fact of life.
A fact of life that affects me too. Not sure I can spring for this book. But if and when it becomes a mass-market paperback I’ll buy it.
I wonder what Moretti would think of this book?
It sounds as if St. Clair is really beating a dead horse. And he seems to be pretending that other literary critics are completely ignorant of the history of the book.
In recent decades this parade model has been supplemented by studies which present the printed texts of a particular historical period as debating and negotiating with one another in a kind of open parliament with all the members participating and listening.
I wasn’t quite sure from your very interesting review whether this was St. Clair’s model or if he was describing someone else’s. Anyway this bit reminded me of E. M. Forster’s injunction that students of the novel should begin by imagining all the novelists at work in a round room.
That said I am presently feeling my ignorance of the history of the book rather powerfully and would really appreciate some pointers, from Matt or Miriam or anyone else, about novels and nineteenth century illustration - I did a fairly thorough search and didn’t find what I expected to find and desperately need, namely a recent book-length critical study of illustration’s part in promulgating certain interpretations or perceptions of novels that came to be regarded as standard or classic. Any suggestions?
It’s St. Clair’s description of a model with which he disagrees. Like his “parade” model, it’s an overgeneralization, but with more teeth.
Richard Maxwell’s The Victorian Illustrated Book (2002) may have some of what you’re looking for; Rosemary Mitchell covers relevant territory in Picturing the Past (2000), which is really about historiography. Robert L. Patten has written at length about Victorian illustrators.
Thanks very much.