ROMANTIC MAGAZINES AND METROPOLITAN LITERARY CULTURE by David Stewart, Reviewed by Mark Parker
 

ROMANTIC MAGAZINES AND METROPOLITAN LITERARY CULTURE
By David Stewart
(Palgrave, 2011) x + 248pp.
Reviewed by Mark Parker on 2012-02-03.

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The study of Romantic periodicals has grown rapidly since Jon Klancher analyzed the readerships they formed in The Making of English Reading Audiences, 1790-1832 (1987). His approach--at once semiological and sociological in its reliance on the work of Bourdieu--has been modified by others. Mark Schoenfield has asked us to consider the play of voices within magazines; Kim Wheatley has taught us to parse the rhetoric of such magazines, whether "paranoid" or gothic, closely; Peter Murphy has urged us to reflect on the intense self-consciousness implied by the proliferation of magazine personae; and Lee Erickson has recommended particular attention to the economics of magazine production. To draw a loose analogy from the sciences, there is a recognizable and sturdy "standard model" for the study of magazines, and more recent books by Schoenfield, David Higgins, Karen Fang, Simon Hull, and Richard Cronin have applied and developed this model in ways both useful and edifying. This is a fairly remarkable achievement for any sector of literary criticism, and a reminder that scholarly work need not progress by ritual slaughter of one's predecessors.

The present book extends this shared project. While graciously paying its debts to earlier work, it richly explains the dynamics of magazine writing and reading from 1815 to 1825. To depict in detail the particulars of magazine culture, it cites passages and instances noted and discussed by other scholars. Accepting their high estimate of writing that, thirty years ago, would largely have been largely ignored or scanted by specialists in romanticism, it salutes the complexity and suggestiveness of texts such as the Noctes Ambrosianae and the ever more capacious work of Lamb and Hunt, and it continues the work of recovery, with engaging accounts of Thomas Griffiths Wainewright's essays on the fine arts for the London and Peter George Patmore's Rejected Articles. Most importantly, perhaps, it deepens our understanding of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, aka Blackwood's or simply Maga.

To differentiate his study from earlier work, Stewart insists that magazines developed a "heterogeneous" reader, one whose response to a given article would be shaped by knowledge of other kinds of magazines. He links this sensibility to city life more generally. "Magazines," he writes, "reflect a culture that, while it is not confined to London, is metropolitan in its size, scope and indeterminacy" (7). If earlier scholars sought to trace the forces that bound magazines together, Stewart stresses their indeterminacy, miscellany, and resistance to definition. While noting that their entropy made writers anxious, he prefers--like Schoenfeld-- to examine the opportunities that so fluid a market offered.

To show how magazines developed in the romantic period, Stewart examines the work of three editors: The Gentleman's Magazine's Sylvanus Urban, The Examiner's Leigh Hunt, and Blackwood's Christopher North. From his study of their magazines, Stewart infers that they did four things: redefined the miscellany, pursued the "heterogeneous reader," used personality to stabilize these centrifugal forces, and combined politics with literature. Stewart also reminds us of Blackwood's debt to Hunt, an acknowledgement made manifest in the Cockney School attacks.

In the second chapter, which reconsiders the apparent acrimony among magazines, writers, and editors, Stewart finds this "fighting style" purely spectacular: antagonists are applauded for their truculence and knowing readers savor the intricacies and calculated outrages of vituperation. Since this "single system of periodical publication" (62) let insiders preen and perform for an audience of cognoscenti, Stewart speculates that "politics was simply one of the many ways in which magazines attempted to establish a place for themselves within the magazine market" (80). The performative impact of periodical writing, we learn, is particularly exemplified by the career of Patmore: as a writer for several rival magazines he displays a remarkable grasp of the new market for them.

Turning next to the "heterogeneous" reader constructed by these magazines, Stewart argues that such a reader scans them with a "cockney's eye," that is, with habits of urban perception: enjoyment of spectacle, relish of parts without reference to any discernible whole, untroubled acceptance of the discord of city life, and a certain ease with the attendant lack of perspective. Above all, perhaps, this kind of reader relishes what Stewart calls "the Cockney style," with its "blurring of boundaries, social, visual, and aesthetic" (102). For Stewart, the Cockney style is epitomized by the work of Wainewright, one of the more marginal figures of the magazine world, and specifically by his art criticism for the London.

Returning to the scene of production, Chapter Four shows how the periodical system affected writers. They adopted a conversational style in the new magazines, he suggests, precisely because they felt a heightened sense of separation from their readers. Like so many other features of the magazine world, their tone of intimacy betrayed its opposite: anxiety about the reading public. Hence Blackwood's "non-comprehensible" system--its quizzes, ambiguities, and inside jokes--is both symptom and would-be cure. For all the charm that critics such as Thomas McFarland have found in them, Lamb's Elia essays paradoxically memorialize "the lost closeness between reader and writer" (121). Their elegiac qualities are less personal than professional, marking a change in the relation between readers and writers.

But change had its advantages. However much the new economics of publication might have troubled writers such as Coleridge and Wordsworth, the magazine system offered singular opportunities for others. Stewart concludes with a chapter on the realization of those opportunities in various instances: De Quincey's successful projection of himself as failed writer through many magazines and periodicals, William Frederick Deacon's parodic Warreniana, and, of course, the work of pseudonymous contributors to Blackwood's. Rather than lamenting the encroachment of the market upon the literary realm, Stewart argues, writers like these developed a style that made literature commercial.

This book presents the periodical writers of the romantic era as deft performers meeting various demands and constraints within the system of magazine production. But just how deft were they? If Klancher warned against positing a reader whose cunning, knowledge, and sense of play knows no bounds, should we not also guard against overestimating a writer's knowledge of the intertextual repertoire, commitment to mastering the system, and relentless drive to forge a periodical self? Is the "magazine system" always a field of unlimited semiosis, in which textual play is ceaseless, unstable, and undecideable? Blake's wise aphorism about limits--"Enough, or too much"--might be worth consideration here. One might ask whether the play ever ends or, at the very least, becomes less prominent. For instance, is politics so easily subsumed in the pursuit of commercial success and style? In a letter of 23 June 1821 to John Wilson Croker, William Blackwood describes the aims of Blackwood's as fundamentally political: "the papers in my Magazine," he writes, "opened the eyes of our young men, and have quite turned the tide among the lawyers who were formerly so devoted to the little despot of the Edinburgh Review." Such a passage suggests that his magazine's political rancor was not simply spectacular, and that "squabashing" one's opponent had an extra-textual dimension. While Blackwood displays, in other letters, the kind of arch sophistication that Stewart imputes to the magazine system as a whole, he could also write of his Tory faith with dogmatic conviction. Blackwood's fought with the weapons of style, but to Blackwood the fight itself mattered.

Where does the system of play end and the sense of purpose begin? In pondering the complicated modalities of these magazines, we might recognize not only the limits of play but the limits of agency within the player and his comprehension of the system. William Maginn, writing as "Odoherty" in Noctes 4, sets the terms of this engagement clearly: while Blackwood's, he notes, has shown that "'tis all quackery and humbug" in the magazine world, Maga nevertheless retains "two or three principles" beyond the celebrations of personality, success and financial gain. A knowing reader, Odoherty concludes, can separate the magazine's "balaam" from the work of the "true men."

It is not at all clear that we can fully read the periodical writing of the late romantic period through the lens of our postmodern textual condition. Though they often decried the seas of printed matter swirling around them, writers of the late romantic era lack the frantic preoccupation with new media familiar to us over the last two decades. In seeking to understand how the fluidity of their media may have engulfed the substance of their messages, political and otherwise, the question of whether or not we can set a limit to this process is well worth pursuing.

Mark Parker is Professor of English at James Madison University.


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