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Reading Public Romanticism
By Paul Magnuson
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1998 Princeton University Press
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THE CORRESPONDING SOCIETY: THE PUBLIC DISCOURSE
In these two opening chapters, I offer a preliminary sketch of the public discourse from 1789 to 1830, a survey of paratextual conventions, and readings of poems to illustrate their significance within the field of discourse. We commonly read Romantic poetry in anthologies or editions of an author's works that illustrate the author's poetic development, or else read it in anthologies that sample Romantic literature, where the context of literature is literature itself. With such editions, scholars such as David Erdman, Carl Woodring, and Kenneth Cameron have mapped the explicit political and social themes in Romantic literature, the allusions to contemporary events, the terms of political debate, and the evolution of a writer's political thought. More needs to be done with the politics of writers relatively neglected in the twentieth century, particularly women and the laboring poor, but it should be done with an awareness of the discursive field in which their works are published. My method is to locate a work in the discourse and then to read its significance. Although this procedure places a priority on discursive networks rather than on the individual work, it does not reduce authorial intention to a historical illusion or minimize it as mere agency. To center a discussion of political and social thought exclusively within the individual expressive acts of single authors is to ignore writing's inevitable public nature. TD define that public nature, it is necessary to explore a public discourse.
In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Jürgen Habermas described a public sphere as it developed in eighteenth-century England from merchants' associations and coffee-house discussions, a bourgeois society that gathered to create and sustain a market for private individuals separate from the intrusions of church and state. In a century of emerging capitalism, private individuals came "together as a public" for the purposes of "commodity exchange and social labor": "The fully developed bourgeois public sphere was based on the fictitious identity of the two roles assumed by the privatized individuals who came together to form a public: the role of property owners and the role of human beings pure and simple." Their humanity was expressed by the publication of private letters of feeling, the great epistolary novels of the eighteenth century; and their private interests as owners of capital motivated a rational inquiry into the general good. The public discussion, conducted in the increasing number of journals and magazines, transformed a social sphere based on the arbitrary display of courtly power into a "public competition of private arguments" that led to a "consensus about what was practically necessary in the interest of all" (83). This consensus, he argued, formed the basis of the modern constitutional state, that is, individual rights of free speech and assembly.
Habermas dated the decline of the English public sphere to about 1832 with the Chartist movement, which he claimed so divided public opinion that no consensus was possible, and to a time later in the nineteenth century when the state began to regulate the marketplace and control public opinion. Up to that point, he argues, "a certain rationality admittedly expressed itself in the reasonable forms of public discussion as well as in the convergence of opinions regarding the standards of criticism and the goal of polemics" (131), a rationality that he implies is fundamentally a calculation of an independent individual's economic self-interest. Habermas's account agrees with the assumptions of Edmund Burke and William Godwin that rational discourse on public matters should be restricted to a limited circle of educated, enfranchised men. Terry Eagleton has pointed out in The Function of Criticism, however, that there was a "counter-public sphere" in the corresponding societies, political associations, dissenting churches, and in the radical press represented by such journalists as Daniel Isaac Eaton, Thomas Spence, and William Cobbett. To Eagleton, the "'public sphere' is a notion difficult to rid of nostalgic, idealizing connotations; like the 'organic society,' it sometimes seems to have been disintegrating since its inception." The exchange among free and autonomous individuals is an idealization of "real bourgeois social relations." In the view of those within the public sphere in the 1790s, a clear boundary existed between the public and the private, but if one changes perspective with Eagleton and looks outside the public sphere, one hears diverse individuals speaking out. For those within the public sphere, its boundaries should be preserved; for those outside the public sphere, the boundaries exist only to be crossed, violated, or ignored.
In place of Habermas's public sphere, I offer a description of a public discourse that is far more inclusive. By "public" I mean works that are published and thus exist in a public space, available to any reader who can afford to buy them, or who receives them through free distribution by either reformist or conservative societies, or who hears magazines or newspapers read in public houses and meetings. A published and circulated work is both a material object and the site of public debates. The public discourse includes the pamphlet warfare on the principles and events of the French Revolution beginning in 1789 with Dr. Richard Price's Discourse on the Love of our Country, answered by Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France and the flood of pamphlets answering Burke. The public discourse also includes the publications of the periodical press, the newspapers, reviews, and magazines, whose number and circulation were expanding rapidly during these years. It includes as well records of parliamentary debates and trials, published versions of lectures and sermons, and printed texts of dramatic performances. Some of these sources are reasonably reliable records of what was actually said. Others, such as printed texts of addresses or dramatic performances, may be intentionally inaccurate records and must be used with caution. Coleridge's 1795 Bristol lectures, for instance, may have been published in a form less likely to be judged seditious in order to avoid accusations of sedition from those who heard them. Also dramatic texts were changed in performance. Sheridan deleted speeches in his adaptation of Kotzebue's Pizarro and inserted his own from Parliament. It is not possible to recover the spoken word, with all the nuances of oral expression, so a tracing of the public discourse must rely on the written word, which was available to a wide audience and capable of being reviewed and reread.
There was, in addition, the practice of the private circulation of literary works, which, although not frequently a factor in the debates on public issues, offers an opportunity to trace the circulation of a work and its audience. Legally, circulation of any kind constituted publication. William Wickwar explains that publication "included the wholesale selling which we call publishing; but it also included retailing, and booksellers and newsvenders were therefore publishers at law. Furthermore, to let what one had written come into the hands of another person, even without any publicity, was an act of publication." In the eyes of the law, "publishing is a popular term and it is a legal term; legally speaking every seller of printed matter is a publisher." Coleridge's "Christabel" is an obvious example of a work that before its publication circulated in manuscript, was read at social gatherings, was imitated, and was well known to the Wordsworths, Scott, Hazlitt, and Byron. Tracing the circulation of unprinted manuscripts forms an important element in the history of the poem, its publication with Coleridge's apologetic preface, its reviews, and Coleridge's subsequent revisions and annotations in presentation copies. Some works were privately printed. The most notorious instance was Byron's private printing of fifty copies of two poems on his separation, "Fare Thee Well" and "A Sketch from Private Life." Within a week, John Scott published them in The Champion with severe criticism of Byron, causing a scandal. Byron seemed determined to repeat the mistake when Murray's advisors insisted that the Dedication to Don Juan be omitted, and he insisted that fifty copies be printed for private circulation. Even without that private printing, the Dedication was well known, since detailed word of it reached Southey in the Lake District. The tracing of circulation of manuscripts defines a writer's first audience, an audience that is in a position to comment, to respond, to imitate, and to criticize. This answerability, whether it takes place in the privacy of a drawing room or in the public press, constitutes one form of the discourse that surrounds a work. As James T. Boulton remarked, once a "pamphlet is published it becomes part of a highly fluid situation; its words may be pillaged and distorted or, owing to some new factor, it may be necessary to redirect the pamphlet to an audience for which it was not originally intended," (259) such as happened to abridgments of Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France.
The larger audience may be defined in a number of ways. Literary production was a social act, and some recent critics, following Jerome McGann's suggestions, have insisted that the history of its printing and sale form part of its significance. Some works such as Southey's Joan of Arc were printed in expensive quarto format intended for a wealthy audience. A public may therefore be defined by its economic status. But as Jon Klancher has so ably shown, it is possible to segment readers into various interest groups in the same way that individual journals and reviews took political positions: a middle-class audience, a mass audience, a polemical and radical audience, and an institutional audience, all of which are defined not as much by their economic class as by their ability to read semiotically, to read the signs and the theatricality of public significance. Since I am interested in the forms of literature's discursive responsiveness, I am less concerned with anonymous readers as consumers and construers of a material product, or with theories of exchange value in an age when the much radical as well as the most conservative literature for the lower classes was freely distributed. I will not attempt to document the reactions of silent readers, either individually or collectively, by inferring their readings from evidence within the text itself, always a highly speculative procedure. I will emphasize the responsive nature of reading, the significance of a work's answerability, the ways in which it is shaped both by what has previously been uttered and by potential responses.
In his First Letter on a Regicide Peace (1796), Burke calculated the numbers of the British public:
We are a divided people.... I have often endeavoured to compute and to class those who, in any political view, are to be called the people.... In England and Scotland, I compute that those of adult age, not declining in life, of tolerable leisure for [political] discussions, and of some means of information, more or less, and who are above menial dependence ... may amount to about four hundred thousand.... This is the British publick; and it is a publick very numerous. The rest, when feeble, are the objects of protection; when strong, the means of force.
Of this number, Burke calculates that one-fifth are "pure Jacobins; utterly incapable of amendment; objects of eternal vigilance; and when they break out, of legal constraint. On these, no reason, no argument, no example, no venerable authority, can have the slightest influence." In 1796 Burke defined a Jacobin as one who opposed the war with France and claimed that the Jacobins hoped that if the war were ended, the rest of their political program would succeed. Burke's definition of a British public, separate from the institutions of government yet still a legitimate voice of the people and a natural expression of a public opinion, includes the two elements commonly assumed as qualifications for entering what Habermas calls the public sphere; education and enfranchisement based on some form of property. Burke's "numerous" public includes not only those whose opinions are published but all those who are able to engage in some form of public discussion. If we think of all who expressed opinions, Burke's numbers may be far too small. Surely thinking of Paine's Rights of Man and Thelwall's lectures, Burke recognizes that those who oppose the war will not be persuaded by others. Thus, while he includes Jacobins in his calculations, he leaves them out of his dialogue and recognizes that the British public is so sharply divided that no fruitful or reasonable debates can occur. The goal of Habermas's idealized public sphere is to reach a consensus, which Burke knew was impossible.
Burke's fear of Jacobin intransigence—the clamorous meetings of the London Corresponding Society for example—and his admission that they were unconvinced by his rhetoric was shared on the opposite end of the political spectrum by William Godwin, who in Political Justice (1793) expressed wariness of public meetings designed to arouse the populace. In a section titled "Of Political Associations," Godwin defined associations as "voluntary confederacies of certain members of the society with each other, the tendency of which is to give weight to the opinions of the persons so associated." With a fear similar to Burke's, he warned that "associations must be formed with great caution not to be allied to tumult. The conviviality of a feast may lead to the depredations of a riot.... There is nothing more barbarous, cruel and bloodthirsty, than the triumph of a mob." Further agreeing with Burke, he was certain that political discussion must originate in "the conceptions of persons of some degree of study and reflection.... Society, as it at present exists in the world, will long be divided into two classes, those who have leisure for study, and those whose importunate necessities perpetually urge them to temporary industry." Leisure and some means of education were necessary for the few to deliberate and to disseminate their policies. These few individuals are "prepared by mutual intercourse, to go forth to the world, to explain with succinctness and simplicity, and in a manner well calculated to arrest attention, the true principles of society.... Reason will spread itself, and not a brute and unintelligent sympathy" (PJ 1: 205–14).
Coleridge's notion of a clerisy, focused on a national church but including the learned professions as the legitimating deliberative body in the nation, differs from Burke's and Godwin's notion of a popular voice, of a Socratic and rational debate, only in that Coleridge saw it institutionalized in the Church, where it was located later in the nineteenth century alongside the clerisy of the academy. Hazlitt disagrees. In an essay titled "What is the People?" he seems to agree with Habermas that "the people" is the opposite of hereditary government but extends membership in "the people" much more widely than does Habermas. For Hazlitt, the voice of the people is public opinion and universal suffrage (Howe 7: 259–81). Yet for Burke, Godwin, and Coleridge, the public debates, the rancorous and passionate uproar, was less than rational and polite conversation. Coleridge complained in the first of his Lectures on Shakespeare and Milton (1811) when he enumerated the impediments to a just criticism: "the enormous multiplication of Authors & Books—At first Oracles, then preceptors, then agreeable Companions, but now Culprits by anticipation—& they act accordingly flattering basely the imaginary Word, Public—which is yet of pernicious effect by habituating every Reader to consider himself as the Judge & therefore the Superior of the Writer who yet if he has any justifiable claim to write ought to be his Superior." Authors had lost the aura of their authority. The public, in the individual voices of tendentious reviewers, assumes the role of audience and legitimating jury.
Excerpted from Reading Public Romanticism by Paul Magnuson. Copyright © 1998 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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