How did nineteenth-century critics debate the place of the periodical press in a larger literary economy? How did critics adapt rhetorical concepts like sincerity, character, or personality, for the conditions of writing for a mass readership? Jason Camlot takes up these and other issues in a survey that ranges over some seventy years of British publishing history. Beginning in the 1830s, he argues, writers attempted to show how a “discourse of sincerity” could succeed in creating “a coherent, sympathetic ‘fellow,’” or familiar character, within “a growing periodicals market that seemed . . . to threaten the very possibility of knowing anyone in print.” Drawing on the terms in Lionel Trilling’s Sincerity and Authenticity, he argues that for nineteenth-century critics, sympathy (“a socially implicated, rhetorically informed discourse”) gave way to the idea of “an immediately transparent, self-evident being, manifest as autonomous and authentic” (3). Although Trilling uses the terms in a primarily ethical sense, for Camlot they function primarily to distinguish theories of style. “One broad aim” of his book, therefore, is to trace “the gradual end of sincerity as a self-consciously cultivated mode of discourse” (2). The other broad aim is to survey discussions about the nature and effects of the new literary marketplace that took place during “key moments of change in the history of nineteenth-century publishing and rhetorical theory.” Each chapter combines one of these discussions with “the oppositional theory or problem of an individual author”—chiefly John Stuart Mill, Thomas De Quincey, Matthew Arnold, Walter Pater, and Oscar Wilde. Put most broadly, Camlot’s aim is “a selective history of conceptions of style in writing from the beginning to the end of the nineteenth century.”
That is a huge subject for a monograph to bear, even if “selective,” and this one is even shorter than it looks: although the volume contains 194 pages, the actual text is closer to 125 pages, with fairly brief chapters interspersed by very extensive reference sections. It is therefore better to think of the book as a set of representative episodes, or samples, of ways the problems of writing for the periodical press influenced, directly or indirectly, canonical writing about style that we often read outside of that context.
Camlot’s most sustained analysis is contained in his first two chapters, on the critical essays Mill wrote in the 1820s and 1830s, particularly the essays on poetry. Mill’s theory of poetry is expressive and anti-rhetorical, since he imagines the lyric as an utterance occurring in solitude which an audience overhears (as opposed to a direct appeal directly heard, which for Mill is rhetoric). Strictly speaking, such a poet is not “sincere” because the very concept of sincerity depends on words and signs by which an audience can interpret the speaker’s true feelings and intentions. The situation is similar to Trilling’s account of readerly sympathy in Wordsworth’s “Michael”: since Michael expresses his suffering in solitude, Trilling argues that it would “go beyond absurdity” to question the sincerity of Michael’s grief. Camlot also usefully examines the implications of Mill’s theory for the reader, who in his apprehension of the lyric internalizes the poet’s thought processes. But why is a theory of poetry relevant to the writing of philosophical articles for an impersonal audience?
The answer is that since authorship is fragmented (often anonymously) across scattered issues of a review, and since any writer can mimic ideas not his own instead of presenting genuine products of his own thinking, it becomes necessary to imagine a way that “character” can emerge for a reader without relying on rhetorical techniques; the way this happens, for Mill, is that the consistent quality of the thought itself, and not the performance of personality through rhetorical “sincerity,” is what emerges as character, a consistency that an audience then comes to associate with a name.
For the rest of the book, Camlot loosely applies the expressive critical model to discursive situations that mimic audiencelessness, or in Mill’s metaphor, the lyric that is overheard, which he then opposes to style as performance, or “sincerity.” This runs counter to the usual account, which would see Thomas Carlyle’s adoption of a flamboyant rhetorical style as the quintessential solution to the dilemma of the abstract readership, or what Camlot aptly calls “the anxiety of audience.” Yet there’s no doubt that later critics rebelled against “sincerity” in this sense (urgent, direct, polemical speech), seeking to let both character and authority emerge through a style that, if not transparent as to rhetoric, is at least quieter than, for example, John Ruskin’s. Thus, he argues that the (gendered) attack on Ruskin’s “hysteria” in the Unto this Last essays led to a preference for the Arnoldian ideal of disinterestedness.
The trajectory he builds from Ruskin to Arnold, Pater, and Wilde is familiar enough. One feature of the argument that is unclear (in addition to the absence of Carlyle in Camlot’s “selective history”) is the use of terms that remain ambiguous in part because we never see them at work in a concrete instance. How, for example (to return to the discussion of Mill), might Mill’s anti-rhetorical theory apply to his own periodical essays? Mill’s father certainly schooled him in the elements of traditional rhetoric (clarity of reasoning, order of arguments, nature of evidence, and so forth); possibly Camlot would consider the studious, careful tone of the essays to be not “rhetorical” in his sense and therefore more transparently expressive of the mental process itself. In fact nowhere in the book does Camlot comment, even briefly, on a writer’s language, which in a book on style is an anomaly. He could certainly reply that his purpose is not to write a history of style but to show how the problems of mass market authorship provide a fresh historical context to theories of style—and in this aim he succeeds.
Wilde is for Camlot the end-point of his survey, the author most notorious for his attacks on the possibility of sincerity. “For Wilde,” he concludes in the final chapter, “style was . . . a process of exploring an opaque signification of identity within the parallel contexts of an audience of intimates who take pleasure in it, and a broader public that tries to understand it” (159). Does this mean, finally, that Wilde is on the side of sincerity? That depends on how one reads Camlot’s original invocation of “a socially implicated, rhetorically informed discourse of sincerity” (3). At the beginning of the book, we recall, Camlot argued that his critics moved away from this discourse towards something called authenticity. In the last (of several) summaries of his argument, he concludes that the ideal of sincerity survived among British critics to the very end of the century because they relied upon sincerity as “an ever-useful critical stance or rhetorical mode” (169). But since “sincerity” now means almost anything, there is no wonder that the term ends up producing opposed arguments—generalizations too vast to be supported by fragmentary studies as brief as these are. (In the case of Wilde, at least, he might have been helped again by Trilling, whom he unaccountably drops after the first chapter. But Trilling’s moving reading of Wilde in Sincerity and Authenticity was one of the first instances of a critic’s taking Wilde seriously as an original thinker.)
Terminological confusion, as I’ve already indicated, remains a problem at several levels. (A case in point is the subtitle, which readers will find obscure. Camlot glosses Wilde’s epigram “An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style” as referring to “a sincere, sympathetic relationship with his reader,” but by the next page, “a sincere, sympathetic relationship” has shifted to the concept of sincerity alone. He then wittily applies the phrase “sincere mannerisms” to his own subject, though the book is not really about mannerisms.) More seriously, the text is fraught throughout with awkward phrases, malapropisms and mixed metaphors—a carelessness especially unfortunate in a book on style.
Unsurprisingly, Camlot is clearest as an archival researcher, and this is the dimension of his work that readers are most likely to find useful. He never fails to use archival material to illuminate the context of his canonical essayists. Thus, he places Pater next to debates on a pure English etymology in order to identify Pater as a member of the opposite party, the party advocating perpetual enrichment of English through assimilation of foreign sources. In turn, he plays off Pater’s cultivation of impersonality against the rage for personality in the popular press of the close of the century. Along the way, we meet the eccentric poet William Barnes, whose chauvinist linguistic theories compelled him to replace any Latinate term with homespun neologisms. Among many others, I was pleased to be introduced to “M,” a writer for a magazine of the 1830s that Camlot has identified as one Thomas Charles Morgan, who iconoclastically celebrated the ephemerality of literature as opposed to solemn claims about its permanence. In a rare aside to his reader, Camlot playfully questions his right to resurrect a writer who declared he deserved no posthumous fame: “If much of our work is motivated by the need to assert the importance of our subjects of research, to prove that they deserve a second life, then what does one do with a figure such as Morgan whose literary conceit is consistently that he has no real importance, and who seems quite content with the literary life-span of a firefly?” (62). (“Conceit” is a slip for “ruling conception,” but functions nicely as an unintended ironic pun.) The answer, of course, is that one reason to do Victorianist research is to poke into the odd corners of that vast archive and to be happily surprised by how much of the “original, spare, and strange” still lies hidden.
Paul Sawyer is a professor of English at Cornell University and director of the writing program there. He is the author of Ruskin’s Poetic Argument (Cornell, 1985), and most recently, of essays on George Eliot, Martin Luther King, and the anonymous author of My Secret Life.