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Introduction: Romantic Cultures of Print – From Miscellaneity to Dialectic

  • Andrew Piper and
  • Jonathan Sachs

…plus d’informations

  • Andrew Piper
    McGill University

  • Jonathan Sachs
    Concordia University

Corps de l’article

The essays collected here consider the uses of print in Romantic literary culture across a broad spectrum of objects, practices, people, and spaces, both institutional and geographic. Our goal was to choose outstanding work, predominantly by emerging scholars (with some notable exceptions), that reflects how innovative approaches to the uses of print around 1800 can generate compelling new literary histories of the period. Indeed, one of the questions this issue raises for us is whether literary history of the Romantic period – a period both deeply suffused by print media and profoundly conflicted about such suffusion – can be written without recourse to questions of the role and meaning of print within everyday social, political and artistic life.

As scholars coming from different national perspectives, it was also important for us that a collection of essays on Romanticism and print showcase how these issues resonate beyond a single national culture. We’re interested in expanding our sights – and hopefully those of other researchers in the field – to a more international context, one that would put essays focused on literatures in English, German or French into dialogue with work being done in each of the other national traditions. The move beyond any single national framework will help expose us not only to the many parallels taking place across Europe and North America during this period. It will also underscore how one of the signature features of Romantic print cultures was a growing interconnectivity of literary markets (putting pressure on Benedict Anderson’s still influential thesis about the strong coupling of print and nationalism). Finally, attention to a more international context can allow us to see the extent to which the spread of print was a major factor in changing notions of locality itself, the way the international increasingly came to inflect the national and vice versa.

The result of such preliminary considerations is a collection of essays that, while addressing an overlapping set of concerns, do not necessarily stand as part of a single argument about the importance of print for Romantic period writing. There are no grand theses here, or perhaps better stated, that is our thesis. Whether understood as action or object (“to print” or “a print”), print by the turn of the nineteenth century does many different things at once. This seems only appropriate as one of the distinctive features of the Romantic period was a marked increase in the quantitative output of printed material, an increase that gave rise to profound anxieties about problems of cultural surplus and heterogeneity and led many to announce the decline of literature itself.

The emphasis on “cultures of print” in our title is an attempt to reflect upon this distinctive feature of the growing miscellaneity of Romantic literary life. It is intended to shift attention away from a conception of print in which print is too often seen as a single and singular outcome, effect, or action, and towards a more process-based understanding of an activity that includes diverse networks of advisors, collaborators, printers, publishers, editors, booksellers, and multiple communities of readers (as well as listeners)—networks that merge and separate as they shift and change over time. The attempt to shift emphasis from “print culture” to “cultures of print,” then, should be understood as an initial foray into focusing on the miscellaneous and the non-singular as key theoretical categories—or, alternately stated, as an attempt to theorize a methodological framework that can account for increasing degrees of cultural and medial heterogeneity.

This is not, however, to suggest that no coherent sense can be made out of this collection (or any other for that matter), just that the lines of connection that we are putting forth are explicitly contingent and necessarily personal. Like the readers of literary almanacs and pocket-books during the Romantic period, who were expressly encouraged to read “fragmentarisch” (according to one German example), we encourage readers to find their own pathways through our gathering. In the space remaining, we identify what we see as four points of commonality that run through some or all of the essays and that strike us as particularly important categories for thinking through the nexus of print and Romantic literary culture. They are, and have been, some of the more central issues in the study of print and show the extent to which our contributors are making significant forays into the history of scholarly methodology. These categories include: agency, spatiality, intermediality, and, finally, reflexivity and what we are calling the dialectic of print.


Ever since the publication of Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (1979), a vigorous scholarly debate has unfolded about the relationship between human and technological agency in connection with print media (Baron, Bennett, Eisenstein/Johns, Kelly). What does it mean to be an actor within a print network? Conversely, what does print “want”? How does this particular medium constrain or enable individuals’ sense of agency? Rather than get caught in the quagmire of conceptual binaries, however, a number of essays here take as their starting point the very problematic notion of agency that belongs to such human-technical assemblages. Mark Algee-Hewitt’s “Acts of Aesthetics,” for example, attempts to historicize the notion of print’s agency by showing how it was precisely during the Romantic period when print begins to be discursively coded as a kind of “action.” The famed Eisenstein-Johns debate can, in this view, be understood as nothing more than an epigone of a distinctly Romantic problematic.

If increasing degrees of mediation gave rise to new, and conflicted, questions about individual and technological agency at the turn of the nineteenth century, one of the most fundamental problems to emerge during this period centered around that of the crowd or mass (either as a political or medial category, a mass of people or a mass of material) (Franta, Gilmartin, Keen, Klancher, Plotz). Can the mass be an agent? If not, who controls the mass? Can we even speak of “control” in terms of the mass or is its very nature to devolve and run out of control? Few issues were more urgent to a post-Revolutionary landscape than this one. As reading spread, how was it to be understood as an agent of political stability versus instability? For Sanja Perovic (“Mediating Print Culture”), journalistic debates in France during the 1790s were significant because of the way they circled around this problem of representing the mass. Who or what could appropriately stand for the newly empowered populace? Whether at the level of representational governance or printed writing, mediation was a central category through which to think about modern political stability. As Mary Fairclough shows (“Radical Sympathy”), one of the strategies of the radical press in Britain in the 1820s was to draw on the science of physiology and co-opt a notion of “sympathy” as a crucial metaphor for the dissemination of ideas. “Sympathy” reframed dissemination not as a form of pathology or infection, but instead as the condition of equilibrium of the national body politic. As one of the key aesthetic categories of the eighteenth-century, sympathy was reappropriated in a Romantic context as an inter-technological condition of stabilizing the very large group, whether of material or people.

As Perovic’s focus on censorship suggests, juridical constraints played a major role in shaping any culture of print. But so too did emerging institutions such as private lending libraries. In thinking about the particular nature of Romantic cultures of print, it is essential that we account for the increasing degree of institutional mediation between authors and readers, the role that powerful new institutional actors like lending libraries played as agents within print cultures (Allan, Ferris 2004, Jäger). Where scholarship has traditionally understood the Romantic period as the birthplace of modern authorship in the strong, agential sense, as Carlos Spoerhase shows in “Reading the Late-Romantic Lending Library,” the lending library and its standardization of material format served to promote what he calls a form of “anonymizing” reading. As Spoerhase writes, “In a system of distributing fictional books dominated by the lending library, anonymity turns out to be a case of undercover authorship.” The “author” is by no means the primary framework through which a work reaches a public in the Romantic period. What all of these works show is the extent to which “agency” is, in Latour’s terms, a complex assemblage of individual, material, and institutional networks.


By their very nature, new institutional constraints give rise to new spatial arrangements. One of the salient features of print during the Romantic period was the growing interconnection of literary markets, the way Romantic cultures of print “could be understood as initiating a complementary element of transnationalism, of similar trends taking place across different national spaces” (Piper 6). The heightened sense of the translatability of culture – and the significance of translation itself – thus helped to complicate the shifting relationship between the local, the national, and the international. Print may, as Benedict Anderson has argued, enable variants of nationalism by allowing disparate readers, anonymous to each other, to partake in a common reading experience across a territorial zone (and hence to constitute and naturalize the meaning of that zone through that very experience of reading); but it also threatens the borders of those same territories by making possible other kinds of reading experiences that can be exported, circulated, and exchanged beyond national boundaries. Because it facilitates the importation of the extra-local into local contexts, print changes the meaning of locality itself, which, in turn, changes the meaning of the national and the international, both of which must be understood in connection with the local. In order to understand the Romantic “reading nation,” in William St. Clair’s words, one needs a far more interleaved sense of place.

In this context, Andrew Franta (“What Jane Austen Read”) turns to what would have been Jane Austen’s local newspaper and finds that, like other country newspapers of its era, instead of allowing direct access to life in an early nineteenth-century country village, the Hampshire Chronicle contains little local news and is instead rich with affairs farther afield. In Franta’s words, the Hampshire Chronicle “points us to potentially larger questions about what it meant to be concerned about and interested in ‘the local’ in the early nineteenth century—to arrive, that is, at the conclusion that ‘three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on.’” Attention to the local newspaper’s fascination with events abroad shows how the novel and the newspaper worked in concert to bring the extraordinary into ordinary, daily life, and thus produce a greater sense of “the domestication of the exceptional.”

For Tim Fulford (“Virtual Topography”), it was new developments in engraving technology that allowed for a more intense rendering of location. Works like William Westall’s Views of the Caves near Ingleton in Yorkshire (1818) belonged to a growing genre of illustrated travel books like Jakob Alt’s Malerische Donaureise or Charles Nodier’s Voyages pittoresques that brought readers out into the countryside and performed a contemplative stance towards a particular locale. This new visual culture was integrally tied to the movement of bodies, one that mapped the overseas classificatory impulses of colonialism with the newly discovered wilds of national landscapes, whether it was the Danube, Brittany, or the Lake District. In so doing, these books helped produce a distinctly modern form of travel: popular tourism. But what Fulford shows us is the way this new medially grounded social practice fed back into literary practices of the period giving rise to a new poetics – one of locale, not psyche. As Matthias Buschmeier argues in his piece on the crisis in travel literature at the end of the eighteenth century (“Fantasies of Immediacy”), new understandings of space changed writing, whether it was the poetry of Wordsworth or Southey or the once-popular statistical accounts of foreign spaces that were in vogue in the eighteenth century. New print genres generated new conceptions of space that in turn put pressure on existing forms of print.

Inter- and Remediation

Fulford’s attention to the circuitry of text and image – and the way that interaction generated new social practices – underscores our third point of methodological intervention: the intermediality of Romantic cultures of print (Interacting with Print). For an earlier generation of scholars, print’s “rise” or “coming” was understood in largely universal terms (most notably in Febvre and Martin’s groundbreaking The Coming of the Book). According to these earlier accounts, print not only did the same thing to individuals in all places and at all times, but its social prominence depended on a full scale displacement of already existing communicative practices. Print was synonymous with writing and writing became synonymous with culture (Siskin). But whether it was the proliferation of non-print media (such as manuscript albums, epistolary correspondence, or salon conversation), the popularity of performative practices (such as reading aloud, displaying tableaux vivants, playing sheet music, or listening to the public lecture or the declamatory concert), or the circulation of imagery (prints, ballads, or gift books), such non-printed and non-written forms of mediation continued to thrive well into the nineteenth century. Indeed, they thrived not just alongside of printed writing, as anachronistic or defensive practices, but through interactions with printed writing. As Fulford demonstrates, by the 1810s the publication of illustrations and text cannot be understood separately from one another. The popularity of the genre of “views” changes the nature of reading, just as the poetry of place alters how viewers looked out onto their world.

Intermediality, though, might also be understood in a more diachronic sense in how it changes the meaning and afterlife of a body of work. The growing degree of reproducibility that marked Romantic cultures of print not only meant that readers were confronted with an at times startling degree of sameness in their lives. As the work of Leah Price and Ina Ferris (2006) has shown, it also meant that they had to cope with the “chop and change,” in Robert Browning’s words, of editorial and commercial intervention. This is but one reason, as Christopher Lendrum argues in his contribution, “Periodical Performance,” for the rising prominence of the editor as an authorial figure during the period. Editors made authors: not only through their editions or their reviews in the press, but in the way they constructed notions of authorship and made them culturally available in print.

If questions of print’s agency disturb our conventional notions of authorship, the prevalence of reprinting and repackaging during the period only further complicates what it meant to be an author by the early nineteenth century. Such problems of dissemination, however, were not exclusively limited to print genres such as the literary miscellany that collected shorter works or anthologies that excerpted fragments of longer ones. Reception in print was complemented by a vibrant field of oral practices such as lecturing or delivering sermons, which were based on a high degree of literary citation (or mis-citation) and which could themselves then reappear in print. As Tom Mole argues (“Contingencies of Mediation”), the changed contexts in which passages appeared in print, either through selection or recombination, and which were encouraged by the demands of the literary marketplace, force us to think beyond authorial intention and attempts to determine a work’s meaning from the particular historical circumstances of its initial appearance. Acutely attentive to the remediation of Byron’s work and persona as they were deployed to new ends by the popular Victorian preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Mole shows us the complex dynamics between print and speech, poetry and the sermon, in the nineteenth century, and in the process makes a persuasive case for the innovative methodologies of a revised reception studies over and against more conventional new (or old) historicist interpretive strategies.

This “feedback loop” of remediation between print and speech, the way that an author’s words can be cut out, repackaged, and then reinterpreted in profoundly different ways by those reading in revised contexts, was essential for another important Romantic “genre”: that of the public lecture. Because they often consisted of manuscript notes orally delivered and then subsequently published, the lecture might be understood in recursive terms as an intermediate medium between speech and print. But the process was not always so straightforward. The lecture’s public prominence was reinforced by its print visibility in advertisements, handbills, and announcements in print periodicals. Furthermore, because lectures were often quickly translated into print and also re-delivered, it was possible that the increasingly bookish audiences of the nineteenth century could read along with the words of a lecturer as he declaimed his ideas. The German Romantic novelist, critic, and lecturer Jean Paul built much of his career around the intermedial paradoxes -- and the dreams of immediacy -- that were sparked by such media saturation. As Sean Franzel shows (“The Romantic Lecture”), Jean Paul was keenly aware of the interplay between print and speech in the Romantic lecture. In his Aesthetics, or rather “Preschool of Aesthetics,” Jean Paul obsessively returns to the numerous ways print and oral media remediate each other, suggesting new possibilities for how we might understand the accumulation of media technologies, which is for Franzel “a feature of literary and scholarly cultures often neglected by narratives of older media being supplanted by more technologically advanced ones.” As in Mark Algee-Hewitt’s work, Franzel draws attention to the way the genre of aesthetics served as one of the most important media-theoretical spaces of writing in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Far from constituting a field in its own right, the newfound popularity of aesthetics (“our age swarms with nothing so much as aestheticians,” writes Jean Paul) served a crucial function in making sense of the changing media landscape. Such work highlights the way an emphasis on print carries with it new ways of thinking about our traditional habits of grouping texts.

Mediating Immediacy, or, The Dialectic of Print

Jean Paul’s reflections on the numerous inter- and remediations surrounding print stands as a sharp reminder of the high degree of self-reflexivity that informed Romantic cultures of print. Romantic irony is here elevated to the level of media theory. Such thinking about print in print has of course a venerable lineage, one stretching back to the very origins of printing. But what sets such Romantic self-reflection apart from its early-modern predecessors, we would argue, is the way it is founded not upon the principle of critique, of unmasking something undesirable, but on one of paradox, of coming to terms with an inescapable contradiction. When E.T.A. Hoffmann writes a fictional tale about an author going out into a public marketplace and meeting one of his readers (Spoerhase, “Lending Library”), he was not simply engaging in the familiar practice of Romantic mise-en-abyme. He was drawing attention to the way such mediating structures as the lending library were the precondition of readers’ development of a more immediate relationship to the text that in turn helped to promote literature’s (and the author’s) commercial dominance in the period, a dominance that we now know had far-reaching effects for the organization of modern knowledge.

This then is what we see as the unifying, and slightly subterranean, thread running through just about all of the pieces in our collection. At the risk of betraying the very principle of miscellaneity with which we began, not to mention reviving a term that seems largely to have faded from the critical landscape, we want to take a risk and posit that such a dialectical understanding of mediation was one of the signal contributions of Romantic cultures of print to a larger history of print. To return to Tim Fulford’s piece, the popularity of Wordsworth and Southey, whose collaborations with engravers helped them reach wide audiences for the first time, benefited from the increased sense of immediacy and detail enabled by new engraving techniques. But the verbal texts that they joined to these images also sought to remediate this sense of immediacy and detail enabled by new engraving techniques in order to “make pictures yield insights into human nature formed by and forming the place pictured.” Wordsworth and Southey, in other words, used the intermediality of word and image to elicit new moral possibilities for a broad audience that went beyond those which could be achieved by either medium singly. For Matthias Bushmeier, the inherent timeliness of travel literature – of writing not just to a place but to a moment – created increasing anxieties about the adequacy of the book as a medium to capture this new dynamic nature of time and space. Friedrich Nicolai’s monumental failure, Beschreibung einer Reise durch Deutschland und die Schweiz im Jahre 1781, served as a crucial threshold to an emerging fantasy space that would continually envision new forms of mediation that were able to transcend the representational limitations of old media, a process that by definition can never achieve closure and within which we still largely operate today. We are continually on the hunt for more immediate media.

Such contradictions were no less true for the world of Romantic periodicals where strategies of generating discursive intimacy, as in the examples of both Chris Lendrum and Sanja Perovic, were used in the service of gaining readers, which of course necessarily diminished the sense of readerly intimacy, thus reinstantiating the process all over again. Or, as Mary Fairclough highlights, a vocabulary of sympathy premised on a notion of fellow feeling paradoxically becomes the precondition of making the “stranger relationality” (in Michael Warner’s words) that belongs to textual publics not only possible but also potentially more stable. In Tom Mole’s work, print’s proliferation, which was formerly imagined to be the condition of textual stability, makes the practices of mis-citation, mis-using, and mis-understanding that much more prevalent, requiring in turn an ever greater investment in techniques of institutional control of texts and their meanings (more Spurgeons, more pulpits). For Andrew Franta, it is the increasing mediation of the nonlocal that paradoxically gives birth to a sense of the local, just as for Mark Algee-Hewitt (to end with the piece with which we began), the attempt to control print discursively in reaction to its overproliferation inevitably just leads to more print. In the Romantic context immediacy is repeatedly understood as a function of mediation, not its opposite.

We think this idea is worth dwelling on because it helps address the way the history of print – and media history more generally – is most often written from either side of an uncrossable fence. Either print is a story of liberation and access OR it is a story of decline and fall. Either print arrests the word and stabilizes knowledge OR it proliferates writing and drowns out authority in a sea of competing voices and versions. Either print replaces older forms of mediation OR it does nothing of the kind, one among many. We lack a theoretical framework that can account for both of these phenomena together, for they are undeniably copresent from the beginning. What the history of Romantic cultures of print has to tell us then -- what makes it uniquely compelling in the historiography of print -- is the way it marks out this moment of thinking dialectically about print, of how the negative emerges as the condition of possibility of the ideal. Only through mediation can we arrive at some semblance of immediacy. Only through dissemination can we arrive at greater degrees of community. And only through increasing technical virtuosity in representing the virtual can we arrive at more intensely imagined states of moral reflection. Romantic irony indeed.

Parties annexes