By Casie LeGette
(Palgrave, 2017) ix + 245 pp.
Reviewed by Ian Newman on 2017-10-16.

Click here for a PDF version.

Click here to buy the book on Amazon.

At the heart of this book--a bracing study of how radical texts of the Romantic period were circulated--lies a question about transmission. What happens when a text moves from one context to another? And how are literary texts adapted, modified, and reinvented as they travel through time? The "agents" of LeGette's story are not so much the authors as the publishers and editors who seized on Romantic-period texts, excerpting and anthologizing them for their own (often explicitly political) ends. It is a fascinating story of familiar texts that become distorted and warped as they pass through various hands on their way to our present.

Along the way, LeGette answers some important questions about the perseverance of late eighteenth-century radicalism into the nineteenth century and beyond. Thus the book usefully complements some other studies that have sought to link the 1790s and the Chartists, such as Iain McCalman's Radical Underworld (1993) and James Epstein's Radical Expression (1994). LeGette's perspective, however, differs notably from the perspective of these historical studies, for hers is partly inspired by Kevin Gilmartin's Print Politics: The Press and Radical Opposition in Early Nineteenth-Century England (1996), with its focus on the print public sphere. Synthesizing these two approaches, LeGette chiefly aims to show how printed texts of the 1790s--notably William Godwin's Political Justice (1793) and Caleb Williams (1794), and poems by Wordsworth, Southey and Coleridge--are transformed when excerpted in the radical press of the early nineteenth century. Under these conditions, the narrative about the radical tradition looks significantly different.

Godwin is a particular case in point. LeGette powerfully demonstrates that Godwin's works remained alive in radical circles even while Hazlitt dismissed him as "sunk below the horizon... enjoy[ing] the serene twilight of a doubtful immortality" (21). In the 1830s, for instance, Political Justice was frequently quoted by The Working Man's Friend, the Chartist Circular, and the Northern Star, where passages from Godwin's work appeared alongside excerpts from other texts of the 1790s, such as Thomas Paine's Dissertation on the First Principles of Government and Southey's Wat Tyler.

Perhaps more surprising, however, is the frequent reprinting of sections of Caleb Williams, a novel whose radicalism Godwin himself had tried to downplay by calling it an exercise in the psychological representation of individuals, not a call to arms. As critics have frequently pointed out, Godwin was no friend of mass movements. He preferred to spark political change by means of private conversation rather than the large scale meetings held by radicals such as John Thelwall, and in Caleb Williams he treats even mass reading practices with distrust. Yet in the early 1840s, as LeGette reveals, Caleb Williams is conspicuously featured in the radical Chartist Circular. Here, speeches by Caleb that were meant to satirize the revolutionary rhetoric of Paine are quoted as if they had been uttered by Godwin himself (44). This belies the prevailing consensus (derived in part from Hazlitt) that while his works were still read, Godwin himself was no longer relevant by the 1830s. LeGette also shows how Chartist editors rewrote Godwin's political theories so as to make them fit the populist political agendas of Chartism even though he would surely not have entirely approved its appeal to the masses.

As this example suggests, LeGette's study is most compelling when it reads the radical reception of canonical works from 1790s against the intentions of their authors. The political apostasy of poets such as Wordsworth and Southey is well known. But in spite of their careful attempts at retroactive self-fashioning, LeGette shows how radical periodicals of the nineteenth-century kept re-animating their revolutionary-period zeal. Southey's Wat Tyler, for example, was written in 1794 but suppressed until 1817, the year Southey became Poet Laureate. In resurrecting a play by the radical young Southey, newspapers such as Thomas Wooler's Black Dwarf are said to have gleefully retaliated for the older poet's denunciation of the radical press. But LeGette also shows that what began as an exercise in ridiculing the conservative Poet Laureate quickly became a serious endorsement of the sentiments expressed by his play. In Chartist- period newspapers such as the National Association Gazette, the radicalism of speeches quoted again and again from Wat Tyler was--as with Godwin--ascribed to Southey himself rather than to the characters who originally spoke them.

Radical periodicals in the early nineteenth century, we are told, likewise misrepresented several poems by Coleridge, including "Fire, Famine and Water, a War Eclogue," "On the Present War," "Religious Musings," and "Fears in Solitude." In each case Coleridge's much more complex attitudes towards popular protest are simplified by carefully selected extracts that voice only Coleridge's support for the poor and oppressed, while excising any hint of his contempt for the ignorance of the multitude.

Wordsworth, meanwhile, is said to have been adopted by the radical press not for his poetry of the 1790s but for his series of "Sonnets Dedicated to Liberty," which have traditionally been read as signifying his turn to a conservative patriotism, urging loyalty to the British government during the War with France. In the pages of the Black Dwarf and the Chartist Circular, however, sonnets written to depict the cruelties of France no longer target a foreign power but seem instead to critique domestic policy. The very form of the Petrarchan sonnet, as LeGette points out, played into the hands of radical editors, since the "turn" dividing the octave from the sestet encourages reversals of logic and argument. By quoting just the radical lines of a sonnet, editors erased the complexity of the opposition embedded in the form (100).

In a tour de force of reception history, the final chapter shows what happened to Percy Shelley's "Song: To the Men of England." Though prompted by the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 and written that year, it was not published until Mary Shelley's 1839 edition of Percy's works. Besides reviewing the publication history of the whole poem, LeGette shows how it was variously abridged as it was integrated into speeches, songbooks, and compendiums of quotations. Dropping the last two stanzas of Shelley's poem, in which--LeGette notes--he grimly suggests "that the 'Men of England' will in fact change nothing" (173), radical hands turned Shelley's poem into a radical song, leaving little room for equivocation and doubt. Books of quotations often reduced the song to a single stanza: "The seed ye sow, another reaps / The wealth ye find, another keeps, / The ropes ye weave, another wears, / The arms ye forge, another bears." To LeGette's credit, however, she does not treat these adaptations and abridgements as lamentable corruptions of the original. Instead they mark various stages in the long history of the reception of the poem, and they demand explanation and patient understanding.

LeGette's own history of Shelley's posthumous reputation begins with early attempts to depoliticize and "etherealize" him -- partly at the insistence of his father (169)--and thus to rescue him from the taint of radicalism. Eschewing the "radical Shelley" (author of "England in 1819," "Song: To the Men of England," "The Masque of Anarchy" and Queen Mab), this rescue project canonized the "schoolroom Shelley" (author of "To a Skylark," and "The Cloud"). This Shelley was a lyric poet whose overtly emotional poetic speakers exemplified "the kind of indirection Shelley imagines in 'Defence [of Poetry],' where the nightingale-poet sings to itself" (183). But the radical Shelley still sang to the masses. He was favored not only by the Chartists but also the Socialists of the late nineteenth century, largely through various musical settings of "Song: To the Men of England." These two versions of Shelley--the lyric poet and the radical polemicist--are not unfamiliar, but LeGette's examination of the print record (including the print record of oral performance) sheds new light on how and why they were so constituted. Furthermore, she demonstrates, even though the "declawed" version of Shelley prevailed in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the radical Shelley continued to infiltrate the classroom, showing how "radical recitation practices came to influence the British literary canon" (202).

Undeniably, the odd man out among the chapters of this book is the one on poetry written by imprisoned radicals. This is a fascinating introduction to several lesser-known poets whose work appeared in the radical press. The correspondence between Henry Vincent and Francis Place is particularly revelatory about the operation of radical networks in the late 1830s and early 1840s. Such a chapter might have held an important place in a book on prison literature, or one dedicated to the trope of Romantic isolation. But since this chapter lacks the energizing transhistorical sweep of the others, its place in the present study is somewhat anomalous.

Nevertheless, the remaining chapters amplify our understanding of how and why our literary canons and institutions developed in the way that they did. For all the necessary skewing that results from an emphasis on radicalism, LeGette is not just reviewing the forms of radicalism already investigated by McCalman and Epstein. Ultimately, her book converses with John Guillory's Cultural Capital (1993), Leah Price's The Anthology and the Rise of the Novel (2000), Jonathan Rose's Intellectual Life of the Working Classes (2001), and William St Clair's The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (2004). Part book history, part history of canon formation, and part sociology of literature, this book powerfully demonstrates that the history of radicalism is not separate from the institutional histories of literature, but essential to them.

Ian Newman is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame.

Leave a comment on Ian Newman's review.


 Subscribe to RSS feed