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As its title suggests, Kim Wheatley's absorbing study examines the reception of selected works by Shelley within a critical and political discourse characterized by the "paranoid style." Wheatley takes this phrase from historian Richard Hofstadter's The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1965); with it she describes the hostile and aggressive rhetoric of contemporary reviewers who attacked not only Shelley but also reformist writers in general. Romantic-era paranoid rhetoricians indulged in conspiratorial fantasies: imagining their entire value system as under impending threat, they greatly exaggerated the power of their opponents. They eschewed any comprehensive analysis of social unrest and instead ascribed to individuals the power of influencing or controlling large groups of people. And since, as Wheatley points out, "the publication of reformist texts was a key element in extraparliamentary political activity," these practitioners of the paranoid style exhibited "a preoccupation with the efficacy of the printed word" (p. 2). Their fears and suspicions were heightened by the perception that reformist texts automatically effected readers and that the contagion of reformist ideas reached even the illiterate.
In Wheatley's hands, Hofstadter's "paranoid style" becomes a useful analytic tool in describing the unstable discourse of such establishment journals as the Tory Quarterly Review and the Whig Edinburgh Review, one that Wheatley continually complicates as her research unfolds. In her introduction, for instance, she discusses what she calls the "Satanic scenario," in which attacks by establishment critics generate counterattacks by their relatively powerless opponents, including poets, who do not realize that they are allowing the paranoid rhetoricians to dictate the terms of public debate. The reformers or poets play the part of Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost in that "Satan is always God's product, structural complement, and support-system."  Wheatley's examination of the dialogue between Shelley's poetry and its public reception reveals a move away from the dynamics of the Satanic scenario in Shelley's later poems. She argues that Shelley's early, radical poem, Queen Mab (1813), "reveals its limitations in welcoming a derivative Satanic position, a position that the poem's contemporary reception confirms." His later poems, Prometheus Unbound and Adonais (1821), also "take their place within the simultaneously enabling and disabling dynamics of the Satanic scenario"; however—and this is the central claim of Wheatley's argument—"these later poems, in dialogue with the reviewers, succeed in avoiding a merely oppositional stance" (p. 3). Wheatley sees Shelley's movement away from paranoid politics as a movement towards transcendental idealism; in opening up a nonpartisan aesthetic space Shelley offers a way out of an unethical and closed system of political discourse.
In her project of recuperating Shelley's idealism Wheatley brings together two main schools of Shelley criticism, historical and formalist, in order to focus on Shelley's political involvements and his interactions with contemporary reviewers while at the same time to provide close textual analysis both of the poet's works and of his critics' commentaries. She centers her analysis on three major works representing "certain highly charged episodes in the reception history of Shelley's poetry [that] constitute a temporary bringing to life of his idealism" (p. 7). The book's strength is in Wheatley's ability to astutely combine methods: her research in the historical and political context of Shelley's works is meticulous, and it thoroughly informs her insightful close readings of the reviews and poems. Her scholarship offers a model of particular depth and elegance.
Wheatley begins chapter 1, "Paranoid Politics," by analyzing examples of the paranoid style from the Quarterly Review and the Edinburgh Review, providing a context for her discussion of Shelley's poems and their reception in later chapters. Robert Southey figures largely in this section as an exemplar of the highly partisan rhetoric. His attacks on radical writers such as Thomas Spence and William Cobbett exhibited "key elements of the paranoid style" such as "the sense of immediate danger, sinister and powerful conspirators, an atmosphere of persecution, [and] a belief in the subversive effect of the printed word" (p. 25). Wheatley continues this chapter by examining the dialogue between Shelley and his critics in the Quarterly Review. She points out that Shelley was an ideal object for politically motivated personal attacks in that critics could make the connection between his radical opinions and immoral behavior; Wheatley goes on to suggest, however, that Shelley learned from these attacks that it is impossible to directly evade the oppositional dynamics of the Satanic scenario.
Shelley had not learned this lesson when he composed Queen Mab. As Wheatley argues in chapter 2, "Contagion and Personification in Queen Mab and Its Reception," both the poet and the reviewers of this poem failed to challenge the assumptions underlying paranoid rhetoric. For Shelley's contemporary reviewers, Queen Mab confirmed many of the assumptions that drove their rhetorical practices, including the idea that an individual is capable of effecting large-scale change, and that the printed word can have an immediate and direct impact.
In the following chapter, "Prometheus Unbound: Reforming the Reviewers," Wheatley examines Prometheus Unbound and its reception, showing that although Shelley continues to antagonize the reviewers, he nevertheless succeeds in moving beyond the confines of paranoid rhetoric. With this poem Shelley begins to challenge the assumptions of his reviewers, including their perception that an individual can effect change through the publication of a reformist text. From her careful reading of reviewers' responses to this poem Wheatley finds that the reviewers' objections to the innovative style of Shelley's lyrical drama provide evidence of a reformulation of taste. They also register a shift, in some cases, from a "paranoid-style aggressively politicizing way of reading to a more purely aestheticized conception of poetry" (p. 149).
In chapter 4, "The Elegiac Reception of Adonais," Wheatley looks at posthumous reactions to Adonais that "constitute both a historically specific and a genre-influenced manifestation of Shelley's idealism" (p. 152). Wheatley finds that for a fleeting moment, the dialogue between the poem and Shelley's mourners actualizes the version of transcendence that Adonais inscribes. Recent scholarship has recognized the need to re-assess canonical authors in relation to their volatile social and political milieu, especially since so much work has lately emerged—on women and radical writers, for instance—to reshape the literary landscape. Wheatley's Shelley and His Readers makes a welcome addition to this work.
Here Wheatley quotes Marjorie Levinson, Keats's Life of Allegory: The Origins of a Style (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988) p. 41.