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British Romanticism Unbound: Reading William St Clair’s The Reading NationA Review Essay

  • Maureen N. McLane

…plus d’informations

  • Maureen N. McLane
    New York University

About six years ago, William St Clair’s The Reading Nation in the romantic period arrived on the scene, simultaneously a monument of scholarship and a salvo fired on several research territories in the romantic period, with implications as well for scholarship throughout what Marshall McLuhan called the Gutenberg Galaxy. No romanticist can, or should, avoid this book (first published in 2004, reissued in paperback 2007); and anyone interested in book history, horizons of reception, print culture(s), and the possibilities—or impasses—of an actually literary history, will find much to ponder (and argue with) in St Clair’s 800-plus pages: some 300 of which are devoted to St Clair’s remarkable appendices and bibliography. If nomen est omen, it is peculiarly fortuitous for a scholar to be named William St Clair, for certainly one of the striking features of his Reading Nation is its commitment to clarity as it presents his vivid and occasionally pugnacious data-driven arguments.

It should be said up front that the “reading nation” posited here includes “the men, women, and children in Great Britain, and to a lesser extent, other English-speaking communities in Ireland, North America and elsewhere, who regularly read English-language printed books” (13); the Continent figures mainly as a zone for enterprising piratical publishers unconstrained by English copyright law. Within British romanticist and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century studies, Reading Nation is a sensational book in the full period sense of “sensation”; it is also a deeply conversable book, asking readers to join a conversation, an ongoing research project, and a horizon of argument. It is characteristic that St Clair has made available on line a distillation of his argument [1]: he aspires to a free exchange of ideas and welcomes vigorous debate.

Reading Reading Nation was for me a markedly singular experience, for unlike most books of literary-historical scholarship, this one constantly provoked me to wonder: is this true? Is that true? And if so, what then? For instance,

  • Were there no anthologies of Shakespeare published between 1594-1800 (as St Clair suggests)? Did Shakespeare disappear from popular reading for two hundred years?

  • Did the London publishing industry in its “high monopoly period” keep “the folk” stuffed with obsolete print materials for some two hundred years? Is the celebrated folk of the 16th-18th centuries itself an artifact of sentimental myopia?

  • Did supposedly long-cherished broadside and chapbook traditions vanish the minute the copyright regime shifted in 1774, forcing publishers to respond to a newly-liberated reader demand?

  • Does an “explosion of reading” occur in the eighteenth century, and if so, only after a 1774 judicial decision by the House of Lords (in Donaldson v. Beckett)? How to measure this?

  • Is it possible that Robert Bloomfield was a best-selling poet of the 1820s? Who was Robert Bloomfield? And what was Gertrude of Wyoming?

  • If Scott and then Byron were best-sellers in the period, how to account for the prestige of Wordsworth?

  • Were Italian and French pirate publishers the true midwives of what we now think of as “romanticism”?

Here we have a book strong-minded enough, some might think bullheaded enough, to make actual truth claims: Actual truth claims, in the humanities and social sciences!

St Clair asks us to put the book into book history—not book titles or book contents but book sales. “An analysis of the printed-book industry, furthermore, can proceed initially without reference to the nature of the texts being produced, the personal characters or motives of individual participants, the rise and fall of firms, or the claims and explanations offered by contemporaries, however honest and sincere they may have been” (8). His work opens up, perhaps inadvertently, a decisive disjunction between book history and literary history—and thus we must ask, though St Clair does not: What is literary about literary history? Does price give value? Can you read off value from price? Quality from quantity? Those on the literary side of literary history have tended to say no.

St Clair brings us not only to the limits of book history or British intellectual property regimes but to the limits of historicism itself. I suspect that one reason his widely-reviewed, much-acclaimed book has provoked such unease as well as praise is that it unmoors many of us from our methodological moorings. St Clair critiques what he rather starkly and amusingly labels the “parade of texts” and the “parliament of texts” models of literary history: the unfolding line of luminaries (parade) vs the synchronic debate or babble of texts (parliament). Touché, one must concede: parade and parliament models inform much intellectual and literary history, though scholars have worked hard to extend the membership in parliament (recovering women authors, “peasant poets,” and once-popular writers) and to complicate attendant debates about the parade (the parade of philosophes intersecting with, say, that of literati, antiquarians, and pornographers).

St Clair’s complaints about the stale conventions of standard literary history, and the unfulfilled promise of Jaussian Rezeptiontheorie, are well-taken, if not as novel and unanswered as he might think: many scholars have been working for years to develop subtler and more comprehensive accounts of the feedback loops between readers, writers, publishers, and to chart more persuasively the ever elusive mentalité(s) of the period. For romanticists, Jon Klancher’s The Making of English Reading Audiences, 1790-1832 (1987) was one important venture into this zone, arguing that the famous periodicals founded in the early 19th century (e.g. the Edinburgh Review, the Quarterly Review, Blackwood’s) might be taken as indices of and engines for making newly-classed, -differentiated, and -conscious communities of readers and writers. So too Marilyn Butler’s work long attended to what she called (in one essay) “Culture’s Medium: The Role of the Review.” [2] In the past twenty or so years, moreover, we have witnessed an efflorescence of scholarship alert to the specific historical conditions of print production, distribution, and reception, with a heightened awareness of the vicissitudes and impact of copyright regimes: the 1774 House of Lords judicial decision, Donaldson v. Beckett, which declared that perpetual copyright had been illegal in England since 1710, is now widely understood to be a landmark not only in intellectual property law but in the construction of the horizon of romantic authorship and ownership.

Klancher argued some twenty years ago that historians of literature should scrutinize and abjure their habit of “counting” popular texts as opposed to (or while remaining committed to) “interpreting” canonical ones (ix). (This division, a form of high-low invidious distinction, accounts for the increasingly banal schizophrenia in many leading US book reviews: e.g. The New York Times Sunday Book Review, with its best-seller lists and sales chat lodged alongside its usually anemic attempts to evaluate specific books under review.) St Clair certainly rises, perhaps perversely, to Klancher’s challenge, for here there is no book that will remain uncounted, its quantification (in terms of sales, distribution, print runs, “tranchings-down,” optimized formats and so on) the prelude to any interpretation.

It is striking that, for all the interventions of Marxist and historicist and otherwise revisionist critics in the past thirty years, the general canon of British romanticism tended to remain fairly untransformed until very recently—one might think of Jerome McGann’s watershed, The Romantic Ideology (1983), or Marjorie Levinson’s work on Wordsworth and Keats: if their methods and presumptions were different from those of M. H. Abrams or Harold Bloom or Geoffrey Hartman or Paul de Man (to invoke only a few of the titans of the past century), their objects of study largely were not. I was able as late as the 1990s to exit graduate study as a romanticist having read barely a word of Walter Scott, and not a single word of Robert Burns, John Clare, Maria Edgeworth, Felicia Hemans, Anna Letitia Barbauld, Charlotte Smith, or Leigh Hunt, though this was perhaps more my fault than the program’s. It was, arguably, feminist scholarship that most decisively transformed our sense of the period: Stuart Curran’s essay, “Women readers, women writers,” in his 1993 Cambridge Companion to British Romanticism, was a strong indicator of the impact of new scholarship, as was Anne Mellor’s edited volume Romanticism and feminism (1988), her Romanticism and gender (1993), and McGann’s subsequent work on Mary Robinson, Hemans, Smith, and other women writers.

Not least transformed in recent British romanticist studies: the very notion of a “British” romanticism, so powerfully and complexly debated in a number of major books that to speak now of “English romantic poetry” or “English romanticism” as if it covered the terrain—which far too many scholars continue to do—is to commit a grievous solecism. For truly, one of the most important reorientations of scholarship in this period is to be found in work informed by a “four-nations” historiography and by Scottish studies: the newly salient place of Scotland in scholarship of the romantic period, and of Ireland and Wales, has enriched and indeed re-mapped our sense of literary production and reception in this era.

One of the landmarks of this turn was surely the volume of essays, Scotland and the borders of romanticism, edited by Ian Duncan, Leith Davis, and Janet Sorensen (Cambridge, 2004). In a vigorous introduction, Duncan et al. demolish several prevailing albeit underarticulated clichés: that Scotland experienced no romantic period; that Scotland was always belated vis-à-vis England and internally split along political and socio-economic lines; that there is a clear partition between “Enlightenment” and “Romanticism,” the latter succeeding the former; that “Romanticism” itself is largely an affair of British—that is to say, mainly English—responses to the French Revolution, which crisis hauled poets and novelists and critics out of the age of sensibility and propelled them into the furor of consciousness transformed, landscapes sublimed, travels versified, the historical novel launched. One should not forget that there was a long tradition in British romantic scholarship that ignored the status of Scottish and Irish literati, not to mention those from other “peripheral” or colonial zones, in the formation of an emergent “British” literature—this aside from the question of Scottish or Irish or American or European romanticisms “in themselves.” A striking efflorescence of scholarship has remedied that previous effacement. [3] In her influential Bardic Nationalism (Princeton, 1997), Katie Trumpener powerfully demonstrated how the so-called Celtic peripheries were crucial sites of cultural production in the period; after reading her work, scholars could no longer so comfortably ignore master practitioners of the national tale (e.g. Maria Edgeworth, Sydney Owenson) and Scottish novelists like John Galt; nor could they so easily dismiss Ossian as a ludicrous forgery. (Indeed, there is an argument to be made, though I cannot make it here, that the Ossian poems are the exemplary romantic literary-cultural production.) James Chandler in England in 1819 (Chicago, 1998) showed how Scottish historiography made possible the very “invention of the historical situation,” not to mention the historical novel. Susan Manning has written extensively and illuminatingly on 18th and 19th C. Scottish literature and culture, including its profound linkages to American thought (see The Puritan-Provincial Vision [1990] and Fragments of Union [2002]); her recent work on antiquarian and enlightenment inquiries into knowledge necessarily transforms our sense of romantic inquiry tout court. In his recent Scott’s Shadow (Princeton, 2007), Ian Duncan proposes an “Edinburgh, capital of the nineteenth century”—jousting not only with Walter Benjamin’s Paris but with British romanticists’ usual privileging of London (or, alternately, of the rural retreats favored by Wordsworth, or the Continental zones explored by Byron). The prolific Murray Pittock has long put pressure on Anglo-centric accounts of the period, his most recent book pointing us elsewhere: Scottish and Irish Romanticism (Oxford, 2008). [4]

The very notion of a “romantic period,” or of “romanticism” at all, is of course much vexed, and has been elaborately and properly worried over for more than a hundred years, from A. O. Lovejoy and René Wellek through Abrams to more recent scholars. One sees, moreover, both in calls for papers and in job advertisements posted by the MLA, that the romantic period is increasingly squeezed by a kind of century-creep: the rubrics of a “long eighteenth century” and a “long nineteenth century” often aim to absorb the works and days one might have thought “romantic.” Yet however debatable the periodization and spatialization and nationalization and pluralization of these various “romanticisms,” “Romanticism” persists, offering an intriguing albeit vexed usable past for readers and scholars and, I would argue, a horizon of futurity as well. [5]

I cannot be alone in feeling, for at least fifteen years, that academic literary studies—in the US at least, perhaps less so in the UK and elsewhere—have entered a super-refined, late and decadent age: we have all read amazingly brilliant, involuted monographs in our fields, commentary upon commentary by extremely sophisticated and subtle readers informed by Foucault, late and early, as well as by Said, Derrida, Bourdieu, Agamben, Negri, etc : and yet I am sure you too have finished some of these books feeling hungry—Where is the beef? What is our beef? Are we curators? Custodians? Provocateurs? Hermeneuts? Preservers of an old canon? Presenters of a new? Are scholars to imagine themselves producers of knowledge, à la Lyotard? Sociologists or evolutionary biologists of literature à la Franco Moretti? Media theorists à la Friedrich Kittler?

All this is to say that St Clair’s Reading Nation invites a profound and timely reckoning: what do we think we are doing? What are we talking about when we talk about romanticism, poetry, the novel, literature, audiences, reading, nation, history? What are our claims, what is our evidence, what is our method?

In Reading Nation there is no place for hermeneutics, stylistics, tropologics, explication de texte, close reading, etc. And, perhaps, fair enough. St Clair comes to this material as a much-published scholar of the period but also as a former senior official in the British Treasury: political economy has been his career concern in a way unusual for most academic humanists. In Reading Nation St Clair aims to offer what he calls “the political economy of reading,” not philology or textual scholarship or cultural studies, as commonly understood. Not only is there no close reading in Reading Nation: there is not much distant reading, as Franco Moretti (among others) has called for, for example in his Graphs, Maps, Trees: abstract models for a literary history (2005). Yet St Clair models his own kind of distant reading: he offers us analyses of demand curves, “book costs, prices, and margins” (to invoke appendix 5); “markets, book production, prices, and print runs” (cf. appendix 1); sales, multipliers, readerships.

Among the words you will not find in St Clair: Subversion. Colonization. Metaphor. Dialectic. You will find, however, important reflections on genre, strongly substantiated by research: for as St Clair powerfully demonstrates, the most important poetic genre in the period, both in terms of sales and in terms of critical acclaim and influence, was the metrical romance. Verse romance narratives were best-sellers and establishers of critical reputation: Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel, Byron’s Childe Harold, Campbell’s Gertrude of Wyoming, Moore’s Lalla Rookh. Against older and still-regnant notions of a “Big 6” roster of major romantic poets (Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Byron), St Clair meticulously recovers for the period what he calls “the canonical eight” (210), poets whose work sold at various rates but whose contemporary critical esteem lifted them into a pantheon of living poets: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, but also Walter Scott, Thomas Moore, George Campbell, Samuel Rogers, and Robert Southey. “The contemporaneous canon was a judgment of literary value, not a list of bestselling authors” (216). St Clair also discovers post-1774 a “large and widening price differential between the newly published romantic literature and the old canon” (Thompson, Young, Cowper, excerpts from The Spectator, etc.) which “coincide[d] . . . exactly with the cultural differential” (234)—that is, between more venturesome, privileged readers and those more complacent. For Anglophone scholars, St Clair’s book makes the best positive case for a change of focus evident in much recent work in the period, however differently driven: the much-celebrated and -dissected “Age of Wordsworth” must be reconceived as—or at least put in a historicized, dialectical relation to—what contemporaries saw as the “Age of Scott.”

Scott’s spectacular success in many genres and print enterprises (backing the Quarterly Review, for example) points as well to several aspects of the ongoing reconfiguration of scholarship in the period, which St Clair’s work both supports and furthers: if until recently, US university courses in “romanticism” typically accented the so-called Big 6 poets, with perhaps an Austen novel or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein thrown in, romanticist studies are now increasingly open not only to many formerly occluded poets and poetic genres but to a much wider array of prose fiction, as well as to the scientific, moral-philosophical, political-economical, and journalistic discourse so prevalent in and constitutive of this era’s emergent literary public sphere. In Reading Nation the law of genre meets the law of supply and demand: among St Clair’s many mordant observations is his noting that in the early nineteenth century, novels followed a demand curve, while poetry followed a supply curve. When freer to chose their recreational reading, people demanded novels, not poems, and poetry consolidated its status as the more rarefied luxury output, not least because poets like Wordsworth passionately agitated for long copyright. He like many authors desired not simply more readers but higher prices and authorial ownership.

St Clair unembarrassedly traffics in “books as highly differentiated capital assets from which reading services were taken by purchasers and others” (31); in his final chapter, he analogizes the publishing industry to the pharmaceutical industry, books to drugs, and doesn’t seem to give two hoots about the possible slippage here, much less about arguments that books may not be the most relevant objects-in-view when assessing any “reading nation.” What of broadsides? Journals? Newspapers? Manuscripts? Marginalia? These are arguably the print and scribal media most central for tracking the activities and transformations of reading publics in this period. St Clair nods to these media (see for example appendix 8, “Periodicals”) but tends to dispense with them, not least because his core archive is that of publishers’, printers’, and booksellers’ records. Ephemera moreover remain resistant to secure quantification, on which St Clair boldly hangs his hat. Yet those who live by quantification may also die by the tyrannous limited hand of the quantifiable. Still, St Clair brilliantly demonstrates the possibilities as well as the potential limitations of this kind of empirical work, and he flushes out of their coverts the many literary and cultural historians who profess to do historical-material analysis without any rigorous empirical survey of the terrain. If St Clair had accomplished nothing else—and he certainly has—we would be in his debt.

St Clair aims to rescue the middle- and lower-classes of the romantic period (indeed, of the entire Gutenberg era) from the condescension not only of posterity (to invoke E.P. Thompson) but also of high-monopoly capital: he exults in the post-1774 thawing of a “frozen” print culture, which had until then (according to him) stuffed readers with the obsolete, misinforming, superstitious dreck of past ages (e.g. quack medical treatises, bogus almanacs, bumptious medieval romances). These were kept in circulation (he argues) by an unfortunate coincidence of monopolistic book publishers, punitive libel laws, and an intellectual property regime which favored producers (the publishing industry even more than authors) over readers. What would have seemed to be a taste for these reading materials is shown by massive readerly shifts around 1800 to have been an effect of enforced supply, of the publishing industry’s former stranglehold on readers: when copyright loosened, the supposed taste for these texts withered, and readers exercised more freely their demand for new scientific and political information, vibrant travel writing, intellectually lively work, as well as a continued demand for some old standbys—the Bible not least—as well as for the burgeoning anthologies of “old canon” authors, favorites from before the mid-eighteenth-century whose work had now (as of 1774) passed out of copyright and was free to be commandeered. “[We] have an example here of how intellectual property combined with commercial monopoly kept a large constituency of marginal readers in ancient ignorance,” St Clair asserts (351). Laying down one of many gauntlets, he argues that the shift in the “intellectual property model provides a more precise and convincing explanation [for shifts circa 1800] than speculations about changing readerly tastes” (347).

St Clair suggests a utopia of an ever freer market of ideas, in which all citizens (or subjects) up and down the class scale might exercise their reason in the pursuit of knowledge and pleasure. (The possible rift between “knowledge” and “pleasure” is one St Clair does not much pursue: for him, knowledge—sometimes reified here into a notion of accurate information—gives pleasure. The possibility of reader demand for completely frivolous, un- or anti-enlightened books haunts the cheerful serene of St Clair’s optimized enlightenment media regime.) While some might find St Clair’s economic and economistic discourse perilously close to an unreflective neoconservative/neoliberal logic (with books unproblematically evanesced into exchangeable, quantifiable assets the content of which would seem to be superfluous), Reading Nation strikes me as a profoundly progressive enlightenment project, propelled by a reanimated liberalism inspired by Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments as well as his Wealth of Nations; a liberalism that puts great stock in the reason of men and women and children, and believes the ideas inscribed in books can speak to that reason; that Man is, as Raymond Williams put it, “the communicating being,” and that our job (as citizens as much as scholars) is to foster that communication and to liberate its flows. Thus St Clair’s Jeremiahic denunciations of the high monopoly period in British publishing (which he locates between 1710—with an Act of Parliament [largely ignored] giving intellectual property to authors, transferable to the book industry, for 14 years, extendable for 14 more should the author be alive —and 1774, when English jurists finally followed Scottish judges, enforced the limits of the 1710 Act, and broke the publishing cabal which had preserved a de facto perpetual copyright throughout the eighteenth century): “At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the London book industry thus found itself with all the privileges and institutions of the guild system, but without any of the controls which normally accompanied such a regime. They were able to act as an unregulated and unrestrained private commercial monopoly over the whole text-based culture of England, and this is what they proceeded to do” (93). Thus St Clair’s celebration of what he sees as a brief copyright window between the defeat of the monopolistic copyright regime (1774) and the (to him ignoble) re-establishing of long copyright in Acts of 1808 through 1842 (see Table 3.1, “Summary of the changing intellectual property regime, sixteenth to nineteenth century,” 54).

St Clair notes the peculiar and fortuitous effects of this “window,” 1774-1808, when whole new zones of literature (or shall we say “print media”) became available for anthologization, publication, dissemination (thus, he argues, the sudden upsurge of anthologized Shakespeare after two hundred years of de facto suppression); when crucial canons of “British” poets were finally formalized by London publishers (having been anticipated by enterprising Scottish publishers unconstrained by English law); when an “Old Canon” dominated by the ethos of conduct literature emerged alongside something more plural, unpredictable, and responsive to other kinds of reader demand—the very demand that high-monopoly publishing had foregone in favor of sustaining a narrow yet profitable market of books conceived as luxury goods. “After 1774,” he asserts, “a huge, previously suppressed, demand for reading was met by a huge surge in the supply of books” (115). Other scholars have disputed St Clair’s account of “the explosion of reading,” as he calls his sixth chapter (about which more later); it will clearly take some time before a consensus (or even a stable dissensus) emerges about eighteenth-century readerships, their growth, and the rates of and reasons for.

Beyond his impressive analysis of the complex interplay of book publishing practice, intellectual property law, and criminal law—and of the impact of this nexus on writing and reading in the period—St Clair has astute things to say about the multiple temporalities of reading in any period. St Clair reminds us that “no historical reader, whatever his or her socio-economic or educational status, read printed texts in the chronological order in which they were first published” (3). If “parliament” and “parade” critics are overly preoccupied with linearity—this work (idea, debate) following upon that one—readers largely were not: they read a mix of old and newer and just-published and many-times-reprinted books and media, in fluctuating ratios, just as a twenty-first-century American might peruse in the course of a day some verses from her Bible or Qur’an, a post on a fashion blog, an article in the daily newspaper, a graphic novel, a menu, a subway map, fifty emails, ten text messages, twenty tweets, and a chapter in a Trollope novel. One of the salutary effects of St Clair’s work is to remind us of the messy, determinate simultaneity of reading in any synchronic field.

St Clair thus calls into question many periodizing presumptions of literary and intellectual history: the assumption, for example, that Counter-Enlightenment follows Enlightenment, or—to use terms more often deployed among British romanticists—that “reaction” followed “revolution.” As St Clair emphasizes, many British readers discovered Enlightenment only after, or through, the key-texts of Counter-Enlightenment: Burke most notably. He charts the emergence of what he calls “the radical canon,” from the 1820s onward (not from what one might have thought, the 1790s onward), including works of Paine, Godwin, Byron, and Shelley, but strikingly eliminating Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which he says was little sold and less read (337). So too we might say that, to read St Clair’s neo-Enlightenment monument now, after the structuralist, linguistic, feminist, postmodern, postcolonial and other turns, is to return to Enlightenment after a prolonged and in many ways persuasive critique.

St Clair’s empirical approach yields several other striking revelations: for example, that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was not accessible “to the whole reading nation” (365) until the late nineteenth century, when the novel came out of copyright and cheaper and abridged editions proliferated. From the 1820s onward, theatrical adaptations—not subjected to copyright, unlike the novel—were the main vehicles for disseminating what would soon become a “Frankenstein” topos quite different from the novel’s. The famous visual iconography of Frankenstein derives from film versions themselves dependent on a long theatrical history of adapting the novel.

St Clair’s approach also helps us to understand the peculiar publishing history of Byron’s Don Juan: the first Cantos were published in 1819 by Byron’s longtime publisher John Murray, who was sufficiently anxious about whether the work might be charged with seditious or blasphemous libel that he left his name off the title page. This was, St Clair argues, a signal to pirate publishers that Murray was “uncertain whether intellectual property rights could be enforced” (324): if a text was judged libelous or “injurious” (in the legal diction of the day), no author or publisher could hold property in it, and no author or publisher of a work thus judged could sue for copyright infringement. With Murray unwilling to stand publicly behind his author’s work—seemingly unwilling to bring claims against pirates, lest the work be judged “injurious” and Murray himself be prosecuted —the pirate publishers got busy and immediately published cheap knock-offs of the first Cantos. The great success of these pirated cantos revealed the huge demand for Byron’s work at lower reaches of the reading nation. Murray soon got injunctions to stop the pirates, but in the end—amazingly enough—a pornographer and publisher went to court arguing that Don Juan was injurious, licentious, likely to breed skepticism and pro-revolutionary sentiment, and thus should not be accorded intellectual property protection. This argument prevailed: “The injunctions were lifted. Anyone who wished could now reprint Don Juan without fear of the law,” St Clair writes. (325) Here, as in other such cases (Shelley’s Queen Mab similarly challenged and abandoned to pirates), “contradictions between the criminal law and the intellectual property law had brought about the very effects they were intended to prevent” (319)—the wide and inexpensive dissemination of provocative literature.

As for Don Juan, still a work-in-progress, St Clair observes that “Byron wanted to keep his intellectual property rights, and he was willing to make textual changes to ensure that the remainder of the poem was not ‘injurious’ in the eyes of the law” (325). Tired of Murray’s penchant for producing expensive books narrowly aimed at a rich, conservative audience, Byron made sure to capitalize on the already-demonstrated demand for Don Juan and published the rest with John Hunt, who brought out Cantos 6, 7, and 8 in several differently-priced formats at once: “For the first time in English literary history . . . a great new work of literature was designed, manufactured, and priced, so as to be able to address the whole reading nation simultaneously” (327).

The complexities of Don Juan as a test case point to St Clair’s larger theme of unintended consequences, when regimes of political and moral suppression sometimes complemented and sometimes interfered with the various interests of book publishers (legitimate and pirate), authors, and readers. And it should be noted too that St Clair reanimates for us the force of such a poem as Don Juan, not only the vagaries of its publishing history: or rather, he shows how intertwined were these aspects. The poem was, as St Clair observes, a profound insult to the mainstream view of literature, which held that poetry should ennoble the reader, instill virtue, and enshrine good conduct. Instead, “in Don Juan he [Byron] made war seem pointless, casual, and essentially ridiculous” (288). That literature might be a mode of critique was not new, especially to elites; that this might be easily available to the masses was new, and St Clair shows how revolutionary such works were—not only in their content but in their possibly broad distribution. The new poets “damaged the old nexus between poetry and piety” (288), St Clair argues: thanks to his work, we can see more clearly how they did so.

If St Clair is alive to the surprising implications of the complicated histories he has teased out, his book challenges still other aspects of received literary-historical wisdom. His book puts salutary pressure on anachronistic nationalistic accounts of early American literature: as he observes, readers in colonial America and then in the new United States of America often had better and more immediate access to contemporary British writing than did readers within Britain. America functioned as an off-shore printer for Britain, but Britain did the same for America: Benjamin Franklin sent his work to London to be published there just as if he were any writer from the English provinces, sending in his work from Bristol instead of Philadelphia.

I have written here, as may be obvious, as an American scholar of British romanticism, oriented primarily to literary-historical and theoretical concerns; those more versed in intellectual and cultural history, or in, say, eighteenth-century studies, or in the field of book history, or in comparative romanticisms, would and have shed other lights on St Clair’s work. [6] Richard B. Sher for one believes St Clair seriously overestimates the impact of copyright, deploys an excessively “rigid theory of monopoly” to explain “book production in the period 1710-1774 (6),” over-accents 1774 as a watershed, and underplays the relations among printers, publishers, and authors, particularly in the Scottish context (see Sher’s own magisterial tome The Enlightenment and the book: Scottish Authors and their publishers in eighteenth-century Britain, Ireland, and America [Chicago, 2006]—a work that can and should be read alongside St Clair’s and the aforementioned work on Scottish Enlightenment and book history). Some ballad scholars have moreover suggested that St Clair’s account of the eighteenth-century ballad trade is off; and I for one cannot wait to read what Shakespeare scholars have to say about his various forays into the publication (or non-publication) of Shakespeare from 1600 on. St Clair’s intensively-researched, exhaustively-documented book is exhilaratingly, sometimes maddeningly provocative, filled with implicit goads to scholars in several disciplines and to researchers throughout the print era. It will take years to metabolize, sift, challenge, and perhaps revise his claims. [7] One can more immediately put pressure on some of his conceptualizations and his configuration of his field of inquiry, as I have hoped to suggest. Meanwhile, he has put us all on our mettle, which is a most excellent thing.

St Clair’s project strikes me as the work of what William James called in Varieties of Religious Experience “the healthy-minded temperament”: he writes as an optimist, an enlightened progressive who believes that information transforms consciousness and that better informed citizens create better societies. Some of us are alas perhaps more at home among those James called the morbid-minded—the pessimists, the nihilists, the lovers of negation. But St Clair forces us at least for a moment out of that wallow and points as well to the high stakes of ongoing debates about intellectual property now: it remains to be seen whether we are entering the heaven-haven of a generalized Open Source networked universe or a Brave New World of corporate/governmental surveillance and lockdown.

St Clair’s relentless commitment to empiricism—to a certain version of empiricism—will likely be antipathetic to those readers more interested in the literariness of literature and the phenomenology of the reading experience itself: something St Clair is also keenly interested in, but which he notes is difficult to reconstruct. He begins with a sharp critique of existing models of literary and cultural history, and proposes his “political economy of reading” as a far surer mode of inquiry into the mentalités of the period. Still, in a remarkable moment toward the end of his book, even St Clair acknowledges that his strenuous efforts and prodigious research may be but a prelude to a return to “literature itself”:

When we have reconstructed the production, access, sales, and readerships of the materiality of books, when we have identified reading constituencies, collected the historical evidence of recorded individual reading, constructed horizons of expectations, when we have drawn all we can from the macro and the micro empirical approaches, but not till then, our best resource for understanding the impact of the reading of the literature of the romantic period may be literature itself.


After submitting to the askesis of St Clair, one may wish to return to Frankenstein’s isolated yet literate monster, that creature who so passionately reads his way into an all-too-human subjectivity, the record of which is the core of the novel. Like Frankenstein’s monster, we might encounter literature as a paradise or an inferno of texts, not a ledger of books-as-assets.

St Clair’s magisterial monument to Enlightenment is such a heavenly tome that it generates what Blake would have called its own Bible of Hell—the negative space, so to speak, of his great work: an infernal paradise of texts, not books, finding deferred and perhaps miniscule audiences decades or even centuries later, those “fit audiences though few” who escape the demand curves of their own moment. Thus Blake, hardly read in his own life; thus Shelley, whose Defence of Poetry appeared years after his death and whose embers yet glow.

We might say--invoking American vernacular--that the William St Clair of Reading Nation is in some ways “The Man,” and that he is certainly not de Man.

Put together, St Clair and De Man might generate a dialectical portrait of reading and the romantic age itself—and of the kinds of work we might continue to pursue in literary studies and the humanities more broadly construed. “Quantification produces a different picture,” St Clair asserts (348). So too qualification.

Parties annexes