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 ...
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.