ROMANTICISM AND BLACKWOOD'S MAGAZINE: "AN UNPRECEDENTED PHENOMENON" by Robert Morrison and Daniel S. Roberts, eds., Reviewed by Ian Duncan
 

ROMANTICISM AND BLACKWOOD'S MAGAZINE: "AN UNPRECEDENTED PHENOMENON"
Eds. Robert Morrison and Daniel S. Roberts
(Houndmills, 2013) xviii + 290 pp.
Reviewed by Ian Duncan on 2013-09-22.

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Launched in a blast of scandal in October 1817, Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine became the most influential periodical of the late Romantic period in Great Britain and arguably the most influential magazine in the English-speaking world through the first half of the nineteenth century. In its first two decades Blackwood's entertained and outraged readers with its volatile blend of reactionary Tory politics and radical literary innovation. It provided a forum for fictional alternatives to the novel in regional, satiric, and neo-Gothic modes of sketch, fragment, serial, and symposium; transgressive experiments in fictitious and collaborative authorship; and a full-blown ideology of Romantic cultural nationalism. Much of this was forgotten as the critical consolidation of Romanticism around a handful of lyric poets in the twentieth century reduced Blackwood's to little more than the vehicle of vituperative assaults on the "Cockney School" of Keats, Hazlitt, and Leigh Hunt. Only in the last decade or so has scholarship on Romantic print media and on Scottish literature begun a comprehensive reassessment of the magazine and its cultural impact. The volume under review complements another recent edited collection, David Finkelstein's award-winning Print Culture and the Blackwood Tradition (2007). Where Finkelstein attends to the magazine's longer history, Morrison and Roberts concentrate on the Romantic period: an appropriate as well as timely emphasis, since these were the years when Blackwood's took British literature by storm before settling into Victorian respectability.

The editors' introduction provides a vivid, detailed account of Blackwood's early decades, emphasizing its openness to literary developments abroad and to contemporary fiction. They are properly responsive to Jon Klancher's field-changing book, The Making of English Reading Audiences, 1780-1832 (1987), as well as to monographs by two contributors to this volume, Mark Schoenfield's British Periodicals and Romantic Identity (2009) and Richard Cronin's Paper Pellets (2010). But nowhere do the editors mention or cite in their Bibliography recent work such as Alex Benchimol's Intellectual Politics and Cultural Conflict in the Romantic Period (2010), which reconsiders Romantic periodic culture in relation to its political contexts, or books on the changing formations of Romantic print media such as Clifford Siskin's The Work of Writing (1999) and Andrew Piper's Dreaming in Books (2009), with its provocative account of the miscellany. Nor do the editors cite major studies of Blackwood's in its all-important Scottish context, such as Katie Trumpener's Bardic Nationalism (1997); my Scott's Shadow (2007), which treats Blackwood's, Lockhart, and Wilson extensively as well as making an argument about the magazine's role in the transformation of the post-Enlightenment literary field; Barton Swaim's Scottish Men of Letters and the New Public Sphere (2009), which includes chapter-length discussions of Lockhart and Wilson; and Margaret Russett's Fictions and Fakes (2006), a notably imaginative treatment of Blackwood's and authorship. In short, they have missed an opportunity to rethink the general field of British Romanticism in light of a renewed attention to Blackwood's.

Happily, however, almost all of the twenty essays that follow are informative and stimulating. Averaging about 12 pages each, they are grouped under five headings: "Blackwood's and the Periodical Press," "Blackwood's Culture and Criticism," "Blackwood's Fictions," "Blackwood's at Home," and "Blackwood's Abroad." While the quality of these contributions is generally high, some gaps in coverage reflect the shortfall in editorial awareness noted above. Even though Blackwood's plainly called itself an Edinburgh Magazine, this volume's account of its relation to British Romanticism retains the field's traditional English bias. "Blackwood's At Home" contains no essay addressing the Scottish scene, though Gillian Hughes's characteristically astute essay on James Hogg (under "Fictions") comes closest, situating Hogg's role in the magazine -- as at once a contributor and a semi-fictitious character -- within the literary arena of post-Waterloo Edinburgh. But there is no comprehensive reckoning with the larger Scottish context, so critical to the magazine's self-shaping as a national (not just regional) organ, and its absence is a major omission.

"Blackwood's At Home" includes four essays. "Blackwood's Abroad," with just two, makes for a disproportionately short coda to the book. The magazine's appeal to the English-speaking settler colonies (and former colonies), broached in Trumpener's Bardic Nationalism, goes untreated. The editors might have made room for an essay or two on Blackwood's and North America, and/or its engagement with and reception in continental Europe. The two essays we do get, however, are acute and illuminating. Anthony Jarrells's "Tales of the Colonies" analyzes the aesthetic of provincialism cultivated at Blackwood's and the complications it brought to the magazine's ideological investment in the expanding empire. As Jarrells suggests, the conflation of the provincial with the imperial, framing the metropolitan center, created a new way of imagining the world. Daniel Sanjiv Roberts's fascinating account of Blackwood's intervention in early nineteenth-century debates over India finds the magazine forging a path "between utilitarian and evangelical dismissals of Hinduism" (260) in a characteristically Janus-faced defence of empire. As Roberts shows, Blackwood's backward look to William Jones and the British Orientalists of an earlier generation coincides with the contemporary revaluation of Hindu literature and culture by German philologists and comparative mythologists, brought back into Great Britain at mid-century by F. Max Müller.

Other highlights of the collection include essays by Tom Mole and Nicholas Mason in the section on "Culture and Criticism." Focusing on Blackwood's treatment of Mary Shelley (surprisingly friendly, given her politics and associates), Mason probes the magazine's contribution to a "communal Romanticism" defined by literary "schools" -- -quite a few of which the magazine invented. Attitudes to Shelley's work varied, Mason shows, according to reviewers' identifications (and misidentifications) of its author: Walter Scott's famous review of Frankenstein is "more about the Frankenstein Scott imagines Percy had written than the one Mary actually wrote" (108). Mole's contribution revisits the vexed question of Blackwood's "personalities" -- its scandalous breach of the boundary between public and private character, the flashpoint of controversy in its early years -- to show how the magazine redefined not only the genre of the review but the cultural situation of literature itself as "a special kind of public discourse" (95). It did so by identifying the author with his or her writing, collapsing the ontological difference between them, turning literature into the emanation of authorial character.

Jason Camlot's "Prosing Poetry" deftly characterizes Blackwood's popular satirical symposium "Noctes Ambrosianae" (1822--1835) as "a periodical laboratory for multi-generic experimentation" (153). Camlot highlights the technique he calls "generic transposition." Beyond juxtaposing fictional with non-fictional articles and prose with verse, and beyond even the "rough-mixing" of modes and registers within a single piece (see David Duff, Romanticism and the Uses of Genre [2009], 181), Blackwood's stretched the formal logic of the miscellany to include translations of metrical works into prose and prose works into meter -- a remediation that problematizes the distinction between form and content. Also in this vein, Tim Killick surveys the ephemeral, fragmentary, mixed-genre experiments in short fiction that preceded the nineteenth-century formation of the "short story" as we know it. Killick concentrates on the semi-fictionalized meteorological and medical case histories that were something of a Blackwood's specialty. One of numerous short fiction forms pioneered in Blackwood's, the case history would reach its apogee in Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes tales for the Strand Magazine in the 1890s.

Elsewhere, Mark Schoenfield provides a lively treatment of what contemporaries viewed as Blackwood's signature reviewing practice, "violence as a mode of critical, literary, and social engagement" (187). Besides the symbolic assassinations carried out in the magazine's pages, this entailed real-world bloodletting in a succession of brawls and duels provoked by its satirical excesses. "To appear in Blackwood's was to disappear into Blackwood's," as Schoenfield wittily puts it (193). In "All Work and No Play" Nanora Sweet tells how Felicia Hemans's association with Blackwood's reveals the heartily masculine character of the magazine and (hence) its role in turning "Romanticism" into a boy's club. Blackwood's, we learn, treated Hemans both as a contributor (one of only two women poets published in its pages) and as a critical object: first flattered and encouraged, then bullied and managed.

In his chapter on the proliferation of scientific topics in the magazine, William Christie argues that in the early nineteenth century the Enlightenment project of a universal philosophy broke up into two spheres, one professionally disciplined and the other public, reliant on popularizations. Christie highlights the contributions of Robert Jameson and David Brewster, the leading Edinburgh authorities (respectively) on geology and optics. Meanwhile the documentary, fictional, and semi-fictional case histories published in Blackwood's (and discussed by Killick) positioned the magazine at the forefront of the emergent (and controversial) biomedical, psychological, phrenological and other sciences of the mind-body relation. But for all its learning (scientific and otherwise), David Finkelstein reminds us that Blackwood's aimed to sell itself. Recalling its early promotional strategies and its refitting of the cover design for its relaunch in October 1817, Finkelstein bracingly shows that Blackwood's was not just a literary and political venture but also a commercial one.

Several essays (besides Hughes's on Hogg) discuss the major contributors to Blackwood's. It is a shame the editors could not find room for an essay on John Galt, who established serialization as a popular format for magazine fiction with "The Ayrshire Legatees" and its sequel "The Steam-Boat" in the early 1820s. Instead we have rather a lot of Thomas De Quincey. Morrison provides an interesting, indeed eye-opening discussion of De Quincey's continuing fraternization "across enemy lines" with John Wilson, the dominant figure at Blackwood's after De Quincey defected to that Cockney stronghold called the London Magazine. Morrison's account of "interconnectedness and cross-fertilization" (62) complicates the standard view of a periodical arena relentlessly split along party lines. Tracking Wilson's trajectory from wild man "Christopher North" into pillar-of-the-community "Professor Wilson" by the 1840s, Richard Cronin perceptively casts him as a case study in the changing status of authorship between Romantic and Victorian regimes. Thomas Richardson's essay on John Gibson Lockhart undertakes a welcome rescue of Wilson's comrade-in-arms from the netherworld of Romantic demonology. In this account, Lockhart emerges as a critic of rare intelligence and versatility.

In sum, readers interested in Romanticism and nineteenth-century print culture should find much to learn from and admire in the essays that comprise this volume, even if it sometimes appears out of touch with current work in the larger field.

Ian Duncan is Florence Green Bixby Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley.


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