Authorship and Audience: Literary Performance in the American Renaissance

Authorship and Audience: Literary Performance in the American Renaissance

by Stephen Railton

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Stephen Railton's study of the American Renaissance proposes a fresh way of conceiving the writer as a performing artist and the text as an enactment of the drama of its own performance. Railton focuses on how major prose works of the period are preoccupied with their readers—how they seek to negotiate the conflicted space between the authors, who brought to


Stephen Railton's study of the American Renaissance proposes a fresh way of conceiving the writer as a performing artist and the text as an enactment of the drama of its own performance. Railton focuses on how major prose works of the period are preoccupied with their readers—how they seek to negotiate the conflicted space between the authors, who brought to the act of publication their own anxieties of ambition and identity, and the contemporary American reading public, which, as a growing mass audience in a democracy, had acquired an unprecedented authority over the terms of literary performance. New readings of Emerson's orations, Poe's tales, the sketches of the Southwest Humorists, Walden, Uncle Tom's Cabin, The Scarlet Letter, and Moby-Dick relocate American writers in the dramatic context in which they suffered and thrived. The book attends closely to historicist issues, arguing that one of the most profound ways that the culture shaped these texts was also the most immediate—as the audience each writer had to address. Equally concerned with biographical themes, it appreciates each of the major works within the larger pattern of the writer's public career and private needs.

Originally published in 1991.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In approaching the prose works of the writers of the American Literary Renaissance (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, and Harriet Beecher Stowe), Railton focuses on their preoccupation with the literary form as dramatic performance and their potential readers as audience. After an introductory chapter in which he spells out his thesis more clearly, Railton devotes a chapter to each writer. A chapter on ``Southwestern Humor'' shows slight relevance to the others, while the concluding chapter does little to pull all of the strands together and leaves the reader a little at loose ends. For upper-division undergraduates.-- Lynn Randall, Caldwell Coll. Lib., N.J.

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Authorship and Audience

Literary Performance in the American Renaissance

By Stephen Railton


Copyright © 1991 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06925-8



[In America] the general reader, or the common reader (he who stands somewhere between the avant garde and the consumers of mass diversion), has had a greater and more direct influence on the writer than his counterpart in Europe has had. This statement can be documented conclusively from internal evidence in the work of our greatest writers. —William Charvat, Literary Publishing in America

The child is sincere, and the man when he is alone, if he be not a writer. —Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Journals

My main concern in this study is with the major prose works of the American Renaissance. My list of major texts is a traditional one—Emerson's "Divinity School Address," Thoreau's Walden, Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter, Poe's tales, and Melville's Moby-Dick—but I try to reread them from a new point of view: as performances. The context I am trying to define can be called a dramatic one, although the drama is peculiarly subjective. The paradox of writing is that it is at once an intensely solitary and an utterly public act. Although I am alone at my desk, you are with me as I write this paragraph. I can shut the door to keep other people out of the room, but I can hardly exclude you from my consciousness. What I think about the major prose texts of the American Renaissance is one thing; what I say about them, however, and how I say it—those things, these words, depend upon the complex and dramatic fact that I am saying them to you. Fully to appreciate the innumerable choices I have to make as I push this sentence across the page means taking into an account of it my ambitions as a person and my sense of an audience as a late-twentieth-century critic. Similarly, my account of Emerson's, Thoreau's, Hawthorne's, Poe's, and Melville's works attempts to relocate them in the space in which they were originally written: the space between the individual author, beset by his own hopes and fears, and the contemporary American reading public for whom he was writing. So while my main concern is with the texts themselves, I must also take into this account what lay behind them—the emotional lives of these American authors—and what lay before them—the values, appetites, and expectations of their mid-nineteenth-century American audience. Theoretically, this means subordinating the texts to the status of effect. The causes that governed them are to be found, at least for the purposes of this study, in the anxieties of their authors and in the assumptions of their audience.

The premise on which my account is based is that writing should be conceptualized as a public gesture, not as a private act. Experientially, I believe, everyone is already aware of this because everyone has been a performing writer, if only as a school child trying to produce a composition for a teacher and a grade. It is possible that some may be so solipsistic as to remain unaffected by the thought that what they are writing will be seen by other eyes—re-viewed—but surely even most student essayists can recognize their own self-consciousness as writers in Washington Irving's description, in the last paragraph of The Sketch Book, of his "peculiar situation":

The author is conscious of the numerous faults and imperfections of his work, and well aware how little he is disciplined and accomplished in the arts of authorship. His deficiencies are also increased by a diffidence arising from his peculiar situation. He finds himself writing in a strange land, and appearing before a public which he has been accustomed, from childhood, to regard with the highest feelings of awe and reverence. He is full of solicitude to deserve their approbation, yet finds that very solicitude continually embarrassing his powers, and depriving him of that ease and confidence which are necessary to successful exertion.

Although Irving's modesty is certainly exceptional, the situation he is describing is less peculiar than he thinks. The page on which anyone writes for publication is inevitably a "strange land." This page, for instance. Whose is it? Mine? On it I seem to have a godlike creative power and a freedom I could never find in the real world beyond the margins. I could spend two years at Walden Pond or meet Fayaway for a canoe ride. Apparently anything can happen here. Yet when I am finished with it, this page is yours. To the extent that my sense of myself is invested in a concern about your response, my apparent freedom shrinks dramatically. What Irving acknowledges, with a candor that few writers have chosen to imitate, is that the public before which he "appears" stands between him and the page, between his imaginative vision and the words in which he seeks to realize it. Certainly in the case of The Sketch Book, the painstaking casualness of Irving's prose, the tortured gracefulness of his style, the provincial cosmopolitanism of his allusions all reflect the anxiety about performing that, as he admits, he "continually" felt as a writer.

It was Cooper's career that first prompted me to think about the role that an audience plays in the work of literature. When, at age thirty, Cooper committed himself to the attempt to become a professional American novelist, he had to begin with his potential readers. If the prospects for American fiction were still an unexplored, largely empty territory (much like the continent), the realm in which his imagination could play rather resembled a baseball or football field; it had already been marked off and defined by a set of rules and conventions, the specific patterns that imported British novels had conditioned American readers to expect. As James D. Wallace has shown in his study of Cooper's first three novels, Cooper's stunning success at the start of his career resulted from his creative acceptance of the conditions that his audience's assumptions imposed on his imagination. In the way he appropriated and reshaped the elements of popular British fictions, he found the means to recondition Americans to read American tales and, as he put it, to please himself as well. Despite his success, however, Cooper was always extremely uneasy with the demands of literary performance. By the end of his first decade as an author, he was anxious to get his "neck out of the halter" of authorship. Disgusted, as he put it in a letter to a friend, with himself; mortified, as he put it in A Letter to His Countrymen, with his audience, he announced his retirement. Within a few more years he went back to writing novels, but in most of the fictions he wrote in this second half of his career, his mixed feelings about his audience became an explicit part of the performance. The ground on which his imagination had previously played was now conceived as a battleground for which his imagination had to fight. His quarrel with his country was actually a quarrel with his readers, and what started it was his quarrel with the dynamics of literary performance itself.

As I try to show in my study of Cooper, his various reactions to his American audience's reactions have to be labeled overreactions. Out of the slightest real causes he created another kind of fiction: "The Career of James Fenimore Cooper, Betrayed Novelist," which was then followed by a sequel, "The Revenge of the Writer." In my book I explain his overreactions in the Oedipal terms of his quest for identity as a son. But since the melodramatic shape of Cooper's career also resembles that of a number of others in the American nineteenth century—Brockden Brown's, Melville's, Mark Twain's, even Irving's—I came to realize that it also reveals a good deal about the quest for identity of the American writer: about American writers' peculiarly dependent relationship to the responses of their audience, and the amount of performance anxiety that vulnerability produced. One of Cooper's late novels, The Crater, yielded a paradigm, not just for Cooper's career but for thinking about the paradox of writing as both intensely private and utterly public.

Cooper's twenty-eighth novel, The Crater tells the story of Mark Woolston, an American seaman who, like Robinson Crusoe, is shipwrecked on an island he first cultivates and then colonizes. Its subject is ostensibly American society in the 1840s. By removing the setting to a Pacific island, Cooper tries to give his polemic exposé of the dangers of rabid egalitarianism the clarity of a political parable. But in its distribution of narrative emphases, the novel is more evocatively a parable about imaginative creation and publication. Effectively alone on the island for much of the story, Woolston delights in his uncontested possession of a realm over which his own will is sovereign. The crater is like the novelist's blank pages, ready to take the impress of his own designs: a new world for him to bring into expression. Indeed, Woolston's efforts "to create, and to adorn, and to perfect" are followed, thanks to a volcanic process that Cooper leaves rather vague, by an enormous enlargement of his kingdom. But he is not allowed to remain alone and undisturbed. Once his realm is exposed to other eyes, the idyll of creating a world in solitude gives way to the violence of having to share it with the public. Initially the violence is moral and emotional, but by the end it has been literalized. Rather than watch his beloved playground be desecrated by the mob of Americans who claim it for themselves, Woolston sails away; when he returns, he finds that another volcanic eruption has carried off the whole island—sunk it like the Pequod and its crew. Cooper wants us to accept this destruction as a judgment of God. Most readers view it instead as his own anger at the evils of American society. But we can also see in this apocalypse the rage of a novelist against the inevitable constraints of his art. In Genesis the creator is also the reviewer: "and God saw that it was good." Mortal artists, though, have to live with the feet that others will pass judgment on their creation. Under our eyes Cooper brings a world into being, but because he cannot find his own wishes reflected in those eyes, he destroys the whole world he has made. The pleasures of solitary creation are consumed by the trauma of public-ation.

Writing about Cooper taught me about writing as a performance in a more visceral way as well. I had read what writers themselves have said about reading reviews of their work. On the record they mostly affect indifference to the process of publication. Yet after my book on Cooper was published and I waited for some echo to come back from the emptiness into which it had gone, I came to realize how much I had at stake in what other people, whose feces I might never see, would say about my work. When at last there were reviews to read, I had to give up any lingering pretense to a disinterested sense of achievement. Reading what others said—or failed to say—I learned that it was not just my book, but somehow my self that was vulnerable to their judgments. I doubt my experience was at all unusual. In October 1838, in the midst of the controversy aroused by "The Divinity School Address," Emerson confided to the pages of his journal: "I am sensitive as a leaf to impressions from abroad. And under this night's beautiful heaven I have forgotten that ever I was reviewed." The italics are Emerson's, and of course, as the passage itself reveals, he had not forgotten.

Probably the most important, at any rate the most inescapable, thing that a critic brings to the study of literature is his or her own obsessions. It can hardly be a coincidence that I soon noticed how preoccupied with their audience are the nineteenth-century American works I teach. Because typically Emerson's audience was in the room with him when he first "published" his essays as lectures, it is perhaps obvious why he devoted so much attention in his journals to the topic of performing, to the anxieties and rewards of addressing a public. It is less obvious, however, why he would erase almost all traces of this concern when he revised his journal entries into lectures and essays. On the other hand, Walden and Moby-Dick are written works, yet in each a narrative mode is displaced by a rhetorical one; as texts, they are essentially organized around a direct encounter with their reader, who is not merely repeatedly addressed, but even given lines to speak. The Scarlet Letter too inscribes an audience right into its text: before the "story" begins, the throng of Puritan men and women is put in place as its immediate audience. Poe's well-known aesthetic doctrine, the theory of a "unity of effect" that he develops in his critical pieces, puts the reader's mind at the very center of his imaginative project; by claiming that the work of literature is to produce an effect, Poe implicitly makes each of his tales and poems as much a performance as any of Emerson's lectures. Writers, as Emerson noted, are never alone. But as a group, the major writers of the American Renaissance were particularly preoccupied with the drama of literary performance. To appreciate the achievement of their works, and the conflict out of which it came, we need to set their texts back in this dramatic context and to look at the role the contemporary American public played, in this drama and in these texts.

It might help clarify my theoretical concerns if I locate them in our contemporary context. As Susan R. Suleiman has pointed out, "in the field of literary theory and criticism ... [t]he words reader and audience, once relegated to the status of the unproblematic and obvious, have acceded to a starring role." Within the last twenty years, critics working from such disparate methodological traditions as linguistics, philosophy, psychoanalysis and sociology have arrived at the problem of "the reader in the text." The large and growing body of work on this issue is summarily referred to as "reader-response criticism"; included under this rubric are many kinds of "reader" and many categories of "response." My concern with "readers," however, responds to an essentially different set of questions from those asked by reader-response criticism. To put it simply, I am less interested in the experience of reading the major prose texts of the American Renaissance than in the experience of writing them. To put it positively, I am more interested in the writer's consciousness than in the reader's, in the dynamics of literary creation than in the dynamics of interpretive or affective response.

I have no desire to be polemical about this difference. Yet I think criticism should preserve a distinction that is often blurred—as Suleiman blurs it in the passage above: the distinction between "reader" and "audience." Once I commit my words to print, "you" may be anyone; this potential and ahistorical "you" we can call the reader that most reader-response criticism identifies as its object of study. But while I write this, my sense of "you" is more determinant; as a late twentieth-century critic of American literature, I have in mind a particular audience for my prose. While I have a measure of freedom in deciding what kind of audience I want to try to address, and while, in any case, as Walter J. Ong points out, my sense of audience is essentially a fiction—a conceptual category rather than, say, a real group of men and women, an abstraction rather than a set of faces, the way I define an audience cannot be detached from the circumstances of a particular time and place. As the reader-response critics say, a reader comes into existence every time someone, some place opens a book and begins to process a text. An audience, however, is something that is there before a writer begins to write—it is "there" in the real world he or she inhabits, as the set of potential readers for the text; more significantly, it is "there" in the author's mind as his or her sense of the people to whom the text is addressed.


Excerpted from Authorship and Audience by Stephen Railton. Copyright © 1991 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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