A limitation in Romantic print culture studies is that the world of periodical publication is largely mapped and analysed with the conventional literary compass points in mind. We are interested, for the most part, in the involvement of canonical authors in the world of the press and we refer to all the familiar touchstones: we cite Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s views on the press, we read Hazlitt and Hunt to uncover Romantic-era journalism, we hold up Jeffrey’s review of Thalaba as an important moment in periodical history. Such an approach is understandable, given that most scholars in this field are from literary studies and are consequently more interested in the points where the canon and the press intersect than those where they do not. But it is nevertheless a limited and limiting way of viewing the Romantic period’s vast output of print artefacts and it is not surprising that two of the most influential and persuasive books in the field, Jon Klancher’s The Making of English Reading Audiences and Kevin Gilmartin’s Print Politics, gained their reputations and stimulated debate by attempting a much broader and less literary survey of the scene. When periodicals and other publications are mined for their references to literary heavy-weights, it begs the question whether we are actually getting a clearer view of print culture in the Romantic era or simply collecting a scrapbook of canonical memorabilia.
British Romanticism and the “Edinburgh Review”, edited by Massimiliano Demata and Duncan Wu, gets around this potentially myopic focus through sensible organisation. The editors’ introduction and the opening essay on the Scottish critical tradition by Philip Flynn help fill in the contextual gaps, making the Edinburgh Review seem simultaneously the “new luminary” that Henry Cockburn remembered (1) and the logical manifestation of Francis Jeffrey’s background, training and interests. The following three essays on topics which dominated the periodical, Scotland, Ireland, and travel literature, not only provide excellent readings of the Edinburgh Review as a continuous text with obvious preoccupations but also help explain why such topics would have appealed to Jeffrey, his fellow contributors and his readers. Fiona Stafford’s essay on the representation of Scotland in the Edinburgh Review acknowledges the difficulty of establishing “just what being Scottish suggested at the turn of the nineteenth century” (35) and suggests that the periodical helped to define and manage an emergent national character. This idea is picked up in Timothy Webb’s essay on Ireland and Massimiliano Demata’s piece on travel writing, both of which place the Edinburgh Review at the centre of a reconsideration of Scotland’s role in the British Isles and in the world. By the time readers reach the final group of essays, which focuses more explicitly on canonical figures like Scott, Byron, Hazlitt, Coleridge, Baillie and Edgeworth, we have developed a strong sense of the periodical’s character and themes, allowing the various literary relationships and battles to take their proper place within a much broader matrix of ideas and attitudes. The only missing element from this matrix is a detailed consideration of the Edinburgh Review’s relationship with other publications; an essay on this topic would have helped to contextualise the periodical’s contribution to the world of print culture and the inevitable shaping effect of market forces.
The title of Romantic Periodicals and Print Culture, edited by Kim Wheatley, suggests that the volume will tackle the question of the press in the Romantic era without much reference to the literary scene. As Wheatley rightly points out in the introduction, “[w]hat Jerome McGann has labeled the ‘Romantic ideology’ stands for everything that periodical writing does not. It elevates, among other things, inspired (and solitary) authorship over routine (and collaborative) composition; self-exploration or an ahistorical aestheticism over immersion in commodity culture; and immortal fame over transient publicity” (2). And yet the essays in this volume, while sometimes expertly connecting Romantic literature to the press more generally, do not often address writing that is routine or collaborative or transient. Adriana Craciun’s fascinating analysis of Mary Robinson’s “Metropolis” essays, for example, argues for the importance of this series by showing that it was not transient but instead a possible influence on Wordsworth and a piece often reprinted and plagiarised long after its author had died.
Most of the pieces in this volume either focus upon a member of the expanded Romantic canon or cite such authors as key voices in broader debates about the press. There are notable exceptions; Bonnie J. Gunzenhauser’s essay on Cobbett’s Two-Penny Trash, Lisa Niles’s exploration of Blackwood’s and the single man, and Nanora Sweet’s overview of the New Monthly Magazine in the 1820s all provide instructive readings of the tone and climate of some prominent periodicals. But the other essays in the book, while compelling as works of individual scholarship, seem to belong to another, hypothetical volume, perhaps titled Romanticism and the Periodical Press or Romantic Literature and Print Culture. Their clear literary and canonical focus seems out of place in a collection whose title suggests that it will engage principally with the press in the Romantic era. Gunzenhauser raises a key point when she notes that “[b]y positioning the Two-Penny Trash as an agent in its own right, Cobbett establishes the periodical, rather than himself, as the central identifiable force in the ongoing discursive war against corruption” (94). The idea that reviews, magazines, periodicals and newspapers ought to be the focus of discussion, with canonical authors and literary links fading into the background, is one that Romantic print culture studies is only slowly embracing.
Whether we can, as Wheatley urges, find “the Romantic in the Romantic-era periodical” (10) is an important question, one that has implications for the canon and also for the curriculum, where the need to demonstrate connections between literature and any non-canonical material is crucial to justifying the broad cultural overview that we would like our students to possess. But reading for a Romantic quality in the era’s periodicals presupposes both the centrality and the prior establishment of Romanticism as the characteristic mode of the era. The more challenging question might be whether we can find evidence that Romanticism is an idea negotiated between literary works and periodical works and between literary authors and periodical authors.