CONVERSABLE WORLDS: LITERATURE, CONTENTION, AND COMMUNITY 1762 TO 1830 by John Mee, Reviewed by Kimberly J. Stern
 

CONVERSABLE WORLDS: LITERATURE, CONTENTION, AND COMMUNITY 1762 TO 1830
By John Mee
(Oxford, 2011) xiv+315 pp.
Reviewed by Kimberly J. Stern on 2012-02-10.

Click here for a PDF version.

Click here to buy the book on Amazon.

Literary scholarship has recently witnessed a turn to sociability -- a burgeoning interest in understanding the ostensibly solitary work of intellectual production as part of a larger and sometimes dizzying social world. One thinks especially of Gillian Russell and Clara Tuite's edited volume Romantic Sociability: Social Networks and Literary Culture in Britain, 1770-1840 (Cambridge, 2006), Stephen C. Behrendt's British Women Poets and the Romantic Writing Community (Johns Hopkins, 2009), and Susan Wolfson's Romantic Interactions: Social Being and the Turns of Literary Action (Johns Hopkins, 2010). The great Romantic writers can now be understood not as isolated individuals but rather as thinkers representing a variety of ideological and subject positions and engaging, to borrow Behrendt's words, "in an active -- even an interactive -- community of writers and readers" (British Women Poets 4).

This fascination with intellectual sociability bespeaks an interest in understanding the material conditions that shape intellectual work as well as the vital roles that intellectuals can and do play in forging and sustaining culture both within and beyond the academy. As John Mee explains, however, generating such bonds can also be very hard work. If scholars have begun to understand the Romantic author as created, at least in part, through "interactions" with other writers, Mee reminds us that "there is always hazard and uncertainty when interaction begins" (1). This is not to suggest that interaction is always hostile, reckless, or undesirable. Rather, Mee argues that all forms of intellectual mediation -- quarrels in the tavern, debates at the club, exchanges within the family circle, and so forth -- are shaped by subtle yet very specific ideological positions on conversation. Considered as both a social practice and a philosophical concept, conversation was constantly being theorized, modeled, and disputed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a period often regarded as crucial to our own understanding of how ideas and social worlds are created. In the end, Mee aims to complicate our understanding of the role conversation has played in British literary tradition, both as a site of intellectual production and as an intellectual subject in its own right.

Luxuriating in intellectual complexity, Mee's account is impressive, exhaustive, and at times dazzling. His willingness not only to examine but also to embrace conversation as a "combative tradition" (Mee 3) is refreshing. Indeed, one of the great strengths of this work is the fact that even as Mee clarifies the discrete perspectives of important theorists on conversation, he shows how any claim about sociable behavior must account for a range of contingencies, including the potential benefits and hazards of commercial society that shaped such behavior; a wide variety of attitudes toward gender politics; a tension between the security of "select company" and the eighteenth-century ideal of a wider participatory sphere; and, perhaps most importantly, the conflict between a culture of Rational Dissent and the eighteenth-century cult of sensibility (5). To this extent, conversation was not merely a contested term during the Romantic period; it was (and continues to be) a concept that is by nature subject to change and debate. Thus, whereas The Spectator presented conversation as a ritualized behavior that helped to cultivate polite society, Samuel Johnson is said to have practiced a sort of "talking for victory" (qtd. Mee 84) that sometimes bordered on the impolite, seeking to overwhelm his interlocutor with rhetorical savvy and wit. Rather than claiming that Johnson was unique in his departure from The Spectator's quest for civility, Mee argues instead that no one model of conversation reigned supreme at this time. His objective here is not simply to demonstrate that conversation meant different things to different people. By documenting these wide-ranging attitudes toward conversation, Mee unsettles our grasp of intellectual influence, collaboration, and social being, underscoring both the limitations and productive potential of gaps in the conversation. Conversation is far more than a medium for transforming and transmitting culture. Talking about talk -- negotiating the terms, behaviors, and parameters of conversation-- is itself a bulwark of modern culture.

Of the two parts that make up this book, the first presents two chapters on the culture of conversation in the eighteenth century, and the second charts the transformation of that culture over the course of the Romantic period. This logical structure reflects Mee's desire to historicize conversation in ways that scholars have not previously done. For instance, Mee links conversation or intellectual "exchange" to the commercial market, which encouraged an eighteenth-century culture of conversation (through the rise of coffeehouses and newspapers) even as it threatened to separate that culture from the more transcendent understanding of the social that so much of the period's literature celebrates. In other words, rather than treating the culture of conversation as a direct reflection of historical developments, Mee finds it shaped by historical pressures that produced significant, yet ultimately productive ruptures across the discursive field. Thus, despite the chronological arrangement of the volume, Mee refuses to reduce any single historical moment to a particular or even prevailing attitude toward conversation.

This strategy allows Mee to recognize the complexity of each historical moment, while also charting important developments across time. His discussion of Coleridge's "conversation poems," for example, acknowledges the poet's divergence from the "smoky tavern sociability of London" in favor of more retiring habits (187). While the connection between Romantic retirement and eighteenth-century sociability may at first appear tenuous, Mee points out that Coleridge's conversation poems help to bridge the historical gap by exploring the possibility of a "higher communion" -- a conversation free from disparity or conflict (192). Mee acknowledges that Coleridge's attempts at creating an "imagined community of his friends" through poetry sometimes risks "converting conversation into monologue"(190), so that his attempt to situate Coleridge as a theorist of conversation paradoxically seems to reinforce an older model of the solitary Romantic poet. Ultimately, however, Mee's analysis suggests an intriguing elision of solitude and sociability, which helps to take recent discussions of Romantic writing communities in a provocative new direction.

Given Mee's multigeneric approach to his subject, this reassessment of the "conversation poem" may have benefited from a more extensive treatment of Coleridge's prose. In the Biographia Literaria (1817), for instance, Coleridge distinguishes at great length between conversation and literature, and this might have helped to further contextualize Mee's point about Coleridge's attempt to imagine a conversation that takes place in the mind of the individual poet or reader. Perhaps more importantly, Coleridge's short-lived paper The Friend (1809-1810) self-consciously rejects The Spectator as a model of intellectual exchange and presents a curiously monologic model of communion that seems to dovetail with Mee's point about the conversation poems. Including these prose works alongside his analysis of the poems would have helped to reinforce precisely how central this approach to conversation may have been for Coleridge, as well as how important it may have been to Romantic discussions of social being in general.

Mee opens the book by admitting that conversation is a rather unwieldy and sometimes abstract concept. Conversation, he contends, is not a natural behavior that everyone practices in precisely the same manner; it is a cultural behavior that people practice, both deliberately and unwittingly, in a variety of different ways. Moreover, different approaches to conversation also reflect divergent outlooks on the aims, ethics, and outcomes of intellectual exchange. By Mee's account, almost every major thinker from the period held a unique and highly theorized understanding of what conversation should be. What a particular individual thought about conversation is thus every bit as important as what they might or might not have actually said.

This striking claim reflects the author's desire to embrace a more nuanced approach to intellectual history. Yet the expansive and, to some extent, elusive nature of conversation also makes it an exceptionally challenging subject to set down on paper. Keeping such a subject in focus must, of necessity, require extreme diligence on the part of the author. Recognizing this challenge, Mee presents the book itself as a "conversational gambit" that "ends by acknowledging the hazards of its dissemination" (281). By admitting that he has presented only one part of a conversation that his interlocutors must sustain, he simultaneously welcomes and attenuates attempts to critique the volume. This is more than fancy rhetorical footwork on Mee's part: his own argument re-enacts precisely that openness to intellectual exchange that his book so carefully documents.

It is thus with a deep respect for and understanding of Mee's approach to his topic that I point out a few inevitable limitations of the study. If conversation is subject to the manifold forces of a sprawling and always changing society -- a point that Mee makes quite convincingly -- then any remark on the subject is likely to take us in many different directions. At times, Mee initiates lines of inquiry without sufficiently developing them for the reader. Take for instance the question of gender. Women, Mee notes, were regarded by many (including, perhaps most notably, David Hume) as the guardians of polite culture and "Sovereigns of the Empire of Conversation" (qtd 10). Since women were seemingly marginalized within intellectual culture at the time, this is a provocative observation in its own right, and Mee repeatedly notes that women were implicated in -- as well as excluded from -- various strains of conversational culture. But is it enough to observe that men and women were subject to different conversational practices, or that the feminization of discourse was a point of contention within some intellectual circles? One wonders, for instance, whether Mee's capacious view of conversation might help us to revise and diversify our understanding of women's influence in literary culture. Since he often ties conversation to particular genres -- the commonplace book, the critical preface, the instruction pamphlet and so forth -- his account of conversation, pushed a bit further, might transform our very understanding of female authorship during this vital period. As Mary Waters notes in her recent volume British Women Writers and the Profession of Literary Criticism, 1789-1832 (New York: Palgrave, 2004), Dissenters made up a "politically active and intellectually vigorous community wherein social relationships merged into professional ones," thus serving as a crucial springboard for aspiring women writers and female intellectuals (Waters 139). Mee's account is certainly well-positioned to extend this argument (especially in his discussion of Wollstonecraft and Hays in Chapter 3), and I would have liked to see him do so. In part, then, Mee's commitment to conversational openness seems to have kept him from intervening more assertively in current debates about the shifting terrain of gender politics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Even engaging with some of the more recent accounts of Romantic authorship, which move beyond a narrative of female exclusion -- the more recent work of Betty A. Schellenberg, Norma Clarke, and others comes to mind -- might have helped to more clearly demonstrate how Mee's volume intervenes in current discussions about female participation in the intellectual cultures of the past.

Far more successful, in my opinion, is Mee's fourth chapter, where he explains how conversation helps to enrich our understanding of Romanticism as a cultural idea. Drawing upon a range of examples, Mee suggests that in the early nineteenth century the Romantic ideal of a natural, religious, or social communion repeatedly had to contend with the limitations of verbal expression. For writers like Wordsworth and Coleridge, this was a dilemma fundamental to their aesthetic practice and worldview; for Hazlitt (who is discussed with animated dexterity in Chapter 6), it was a source of insight to be consciously pursued. In effect, Mee has re-affirmed the case for what Lovejoy called a "prima facie plurality of Romanticisms" ("On the Discrimination of Romanticisms" Essays in the History of Ideas [1948] 235) by arguing that conversation (and conversations about conversation) was vital to the spirit of the age. The end result of such a claim is not a categorical denial of intellectual continuity or influence. On the contrary, Mee skillfully demonstrates that by confronting and even embracing the uneven developments in our own culture, we can understand nearly all forms of intellectual production as in some sense collaborative.

In a brief epilogue, Mee explains how the history of conversation in the Romantic era might inspire a more dynamic approach to the undergraduate classroom. In some ways this is a natural terminus for a study about intellectual community, for modern academics spend much of their time talking in the lecture hall, conference room, or seminar. Of course, Mee's volume does not actually discuss the history of pedagogical exchange in any great detail; thus, while I appreciate the significance of his raising this subject toward the close of this study, I would also have liked to see him consider how conversation has changed among modern academics, particularly as we rely more on emails, tweets, texts, and blogs as modes of exchange. As emoticons increasingly substitute for intonation and as language becomes reduced to a series of abbreviations (as, for instance, in the case of leet or netspeak), how has our own conversational culture changed? In her recent book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011), Sherry Turkle argues that we have "invented ways of being with people that turn them into something close to objects" (168). For Turkle and others, the new culture of techno-conversation has had a dramatic and largely negative impact on social behavior, since it has normalized the practice of circulating ideas instantaneously, often anonymously, sometimes out of context, and (especially in the case of listservs or blogs) to a much wider audience than ever before.

The historical account presented in Conversable Worlds, however, will prompt readers to approach this issue with greater flexibility and nuance. Today, as in Johnson's day, conversation takes many different forms and serves many different ends. While conversation may in some ways seem to be on the decline -- and while technology sometimes raises the stakes of debate, as more and more voices come to join the conversation -- it can also help to facilitate a speedier and more inclusive conversation among scholars. Scholars continue, it would seem, to theorize and practice conversation in ways that reflect their unique approaches to intellectual community. Collaborative online sites like NINES and the Romantic Circles have helped to preserve and adapt the eighteenth-century salon, debating society, and other conversational circles to the twenty-first century. Do online conversations facilitate a vigorous culture of debate, following the spirit of Hazlitt? Or have these discussions become something more akin to Johnson's "talking for victory"? Is the intellectual moment in which we now operate more or less intimate, competitive, productive, selective, or diverse than those in which our predecessors participated? Mee does not take up these questions in this book, but we find here the necessary tools for doing so ourselves. To this extent, Mee has brought to the conversation something very significant indeed.

Kimberly J. Stern is Assistant Professor of English at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia.


Leave a comment on Kimberly J. Stern's review.

Name:
Email:
Comments:

 Subscribe to RSS feed

Search NBOL-19.org
Loading