"His canaille of an audience": Thomas De Quincey and the revolution in reading.
We need to begin, I think, by recognizing the extent to which scholarly accounts of De Quincey's writing about writing have detached his dismissal of the novel from its broader political context, both within De Quincey's work and beyond it. In fact, scholarly accounts of De Quincey's attitude to the novel have continued to operate within a critical vocabulary derived largely from De Quincey's own texts, although we might ultimately trace that vocabulary to William Wordsworth. De Quincey ostensibly relegates the novel to "the minor key of literature" because it falls outside that category of writing which he defines as the "Literature of Power," that writing, in short, which makes us "feel vividly, and with a vital consciousness, emotions which ordinary life rarely or never supplies occasions for exciting," which enables "deep sympathy with truth" (11.61; 10.48; 8.6). (5) In other words, De Quincey's work draws a fairly consistent distinction between the formal, thematic and affective characteristics of the novel and those of the poetry or "impassioned prose" that comprise the "Literature of Power." So, for example, while the "Literature of Power" produces an awareness of "the infinity of the world within," novels "speak to what is least permanent in human sensibilities"; while the "Literature of Power" "organizes" and "actualizes" "inert and sleeping" "modes of feeling," novels cater only to "meaner functions of the mind"; while the "Literature of Power" is "immortal," "all novels ... are hurrying to decay," etc. (10.49; 4.298; 10.48; 4.298; 11.58; 10.297). (6) Individual novelists, too, are singled out for critique. "How bestial and degrading at this day seem many of the scenes in Smollett!!", De Quincey enthuses, "how coarse are the ideals of Fielding ... what a gallery of faded histrionic masqueraders is thrown open in the novels of Richardson" (4.297).
It is not difficult to see how this kind of exaggerated, posturing condemnation of an entire genre could "seriously damage [De Quincey's] prestige as a critic" (to use Devlin's phrase). However, we also need to recognize the extent to which critical accounts of De Quincey's writing about writing have been prepared to take the Opium-Eater at his word here. (7) That is to say that while De Quincey's critics have sought to explain why he did not believe the novel to fad within the "Literature of Power," or to suggest--like Charles Patterson--that he did in fact have some "conception of the novel as literature of power" after all, they have not questioned the ostensible grounds for his dismissal of the genre. Rather, they have accepted his problematic account of the novel's generic inferiority at face value. Devlin typifies this acceptance: faced with De Quincey's "odd" attitude to the novel, he suggests only that "the overwhelming influence of Wordsworth had turned De Quincey towards poetry" and, by extension, towards poetic or "impassioned" modes of prose (26).
Let me not be misunderstood here: I have no wish to slight the contribution of these critics to our understanding of De Quincey's writing about writing, or even to suggest that their readings of his attitude to the novel are mistaken. However, it seems to me that in neglecting to go beyond the critical paradigms supplied by De Quincey's own texts, these readings have effectively detached his dismissal of the novel from its underlying political context. More precisely, they have not recognized the extent to which De Quincey's hostility towards the novel is bound up with a perception that the rise of the genre represents a threat to the "Literature" and authority of "Power," a threat which his writing construes in terms of revolutionary social insurgency.
An example here will serve to illustrate this point. Any account of De Quincey's attitude to the novel must begin with his 1848 essay "Oliver Goldsmith," ostensibly a review of John Forster's Life of same. (8) In this essay, De Quincey addresses the "enormous expansion in the reading public" during his lifetime, the "vast multiplication of readers" (4.298; 10.361). De Quincey emphasizes that this "vast multiplication" has been far from beneficial to "literature." The new influx of readers in our times," he affirms,
the collateral affluents into the main river from the mechanic and provincial sections of our population, which have centupled the volume of the original current, cannot be held as telling favourably upon literature, or telling at all, except in the departments of popularised science, of religion, of fictitious tales, and of journalism. (4.296)
The new reading public is thus, according to De Quincey, responsible for both the increasing proliferation of the "Literature of Knowledge" ("popularized science," etc.), and, more seriously, for the rise of what he clearly considers to be sub-genres like moral tracts ("religion") and novels ("fictitious tales"). Implicitly, the passage understands that these genres rise at the expense of the valorized "Literature of Power": their rise, that is to say, "cannot be held as telling favourably upon literature."
In his slightly earlier precis of "Schlosser's Literary History of the Eighteenth Century," De Quincey had already ascribed the deleterious rise of these perceived sub-genres to the intellectual shortcomings of the new reading public. (9) Writing albeit some 24 years after Schlosser, De Quincey enthusiastically agrees with the German's perception that the new reading public wants to be "entertained, not roused to think; to be gently moved, not deeply excited" (11. 19-20). "To be a reader," De Quincey continues, "is no longer, as once it was, to be of a meditative turn" (4.296). Rather, he asserts that the "large majority" of the new reading public are "poor in capacities of thinking, and are passively resigned to the instinct of immediate pleasure" (4.298). De Quincey's concern, then, is that the "Literature of Power" will be sidelined because there will be no demand for it in a literary marketplace driven by readers who merely want to be "entertained" or "gently moved," rather than "roused to think" or "deeply excited." So, for example, he recognizes that "Poetry"--"the supreme of Fine Arts," effectively synonymous with the "Literature of Power"--will not be demanded or acclaimed precisely because "not a hundredth part" of the new reading public is intellectually capable of "unaffected sympathy" with "Poetry." (10) Rather, again, it is genres like the novel ("fictitious tales") that will proliferate at the expense of the valorized "Literature of Power": after all, "Oliver Goldsmith" affirms that "the novel-reading class" forms "by far the most comprehensive" section of the new, intellectually-challenged reading public (4.298).
Thus far, then, we are on familiar critical ground with De Quincey: the effect of the new reading public on the literary marketplace is such as to undermine the overall quality of the literature available to the public per se. As Patterson puts it, "the masses drink from a muddy fountain, muddied largely by their own influence" (381). The problem with this conventional and largely explicatory reading, however, is that it takes us no further than the mere fact of De Quincey's "odd" attitude to the novel, than the mere fact that he considers "fictitious tales" to be generically inferior to the "Literature of Power." If we want to get beyond this fact, if we want to understand why, we will need to recover those elements of De Quincey's attitude to the novel that this kind of reading does not address: namely, the extent to which his writing construes the rise of the novel in terms of middle-class social insurgency.
De Quincey was certainly not the first British writer to entertain politically charged doubts about the novel, although such an attitude is more immediately typical of the 1790s than of the 1830s and 40s. In the wake of the French Revolution, the genre was quickly identified as the preserve of populist Jacobinism. (11) Hence, for example, the one-time Radical Amelia Opie felt the need to subtitle her moral fictions "tales" rather than "novels" precisely in order to avoid the Jacobin connotations of the latter term. Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey--published in 1818, although a first draft was completed in 1803--is well-known evidence of an ongoing concern about the potential dangers of the novel for impressionable (and typically female) readers. And indeed De Quincey's already-cited 1830 fragment, "On Novels," apparently addresses this same concern in identifying "Young Ladies as the readers of Novels" (Works 7.289). What is important here, however, is not so much the extent to which De Quincey may have viewed the novel as a vehicle for Radical politics. Rather, it is again the extent to which he understood the rise of the genre to represent a threat to the "literature" and authority of "Power," a threat that he construes in terms of social insurgency.
In order to recover this understanding we need to return to De Quincey's already-quoted account of the new reading public in "Oliver Goldsmith." Specifically, we need to note that De Quincey is at pains here to identify the social background of the novel-reading public. The "original" "volume" of the reading public has been "centupled," he affirms, by "the new influx ... from the mechanic and provincial sections of our population," that "influx" which again "cannot be held as telling favourably upon literature" (4.296; my emphasis). In other words, De Quincey understands that "the large majority" of the reading public is now made up, as he puts it in an 1846 review of Antigone, of a "commercial class" who receive no "elaborate [or] liberal education, except those standing by their connexions in the richest classes" (10.360). (12)
On the face of it, this account of the new reading public seeks simply to explain the perceived intellectual poverty of that public in terms of its educationally disadvantaged social origins. However, and significantly, it also locates the source of the threat to the "literature" and authority of "Power" firmly in the burgeoning middle-class. In other words, it is the rise of the middle-class reader that is threatening the valorized "Literature of Power." It is the "enormous" middle-class "expansion of the reading public," De Quincey affirms, that has entailed the dangerous change for the worse "in the prevailing character of readers": "the minority has become the overwhelming majority ... the quantity has disturbed the quality" (10.360).
The quasi-parliamentary vocabulary ("majority" and "minority") used here to explain the cultural impact of the new novel-reading public is revealing. More precisely, De Quincey's sense that the burgeoning middleclass is threatening the "literature" and authority of "Power" exactly recalls his concern about popular agitation for parliamentary Reform during the 1830s. In an 1831 Blackwood's article "On the Approaching Revolution in Great Britain," De Quincey had similarly laid the blame for what he believed to be the impending dissolution of the traditional order of British society--"the whole conservative interest of the country"--firmly at the door of "the petty shopkeepers" (Blackwood's 30: 323). And as with his 1848 concern about the burgeoning, middle-class reading public, De Quincey's account of the Reform movement worried precisely that the "commercial and manufacturing" classes were acquiring a "revolutionary" political "influence" in direct proportion to the "prodigious expansion" in their number (Blackwood's 30: 323; my emphasis). Nor let it be thought that the link between the "commercial" and the "revolutionary" in this passage is merely figurative. Conversely, De Quincey stresses that "disaffection to the government kept pace with commercial activity" throughout the English Civil War (Blackwood's 30: 324n). "This order of men," he concludes of the contemporary merchant classes, "is as purely Jacobinical, and disposed to revolutionary counsels, as any that existed in France at the period of their worst convulsions" (Blackwood's 30: 323). De Quincey's concern, then, is that the "next or reformed House of Commons will assemble with a prodigious expansion of democratic strength," an expansion that will effectively undermine the "authority" of the state, leading ultimately to the abolition of the national debt and the consequent ruin of public creditors (Blackwood's 30: 319).
The similarity between De Quincey's 1831 account of the threat to the British State from the Reform movement and his 1848 concern about the threat to the valorized "Literature of Power" from the new novel-reading public is, thus, unmistakable. In both cases, the burgeoning commercial classes are understood to be undermining the traditional framework of "authority." The new, "commercial" reading public has become "strong enough in numbers," De Quincey affirms, "to impress a new character upon literature" (10.360). And just as his 1831 account of the Reform movement represents the rise of the middle-classes in terms of "revolutionary" or "Jacobinical" insurgency, so does De Quincey's writing about writing represent the threat to the valorized "Literature of Power" in terms of social insurrection. "Readers," he argues, "who, being once an obedient race of men, most humble and deferential ... are now becoming intractably mutinous" (10.361; my emphasis).
This mutiny, or "fatal revolution" of middle-class readers makes itself felt, for De Quincey, in two distinct--albeit reciprocal--ways (4.312). On one level, the proliferation of perceived sub-genres like "fictitious tales" and "journalism" at the expense of the "Literature of Power" lies behind what De Quincey's well-known essay "On Style" identifies as the "contagion of bookishness," or the appropriation by the commercial classes of "the artificial dialect of books" (10.150, 149). "Formerly," De Quincey asserts,
the natural impulse of every man was spontaneously to use the language of life; the language of books was a secondary attainment, not made without effort. Now, on the contrary, the daily composers of newspapers have so long dealt in the professional idiom of books as to have brought it home to every reader in the nation who does not violently resist it by some domestic advantages. (10.149)
Significantly, then, De Quincey stresses that "formerly" the "professional idiom of books" was not attainable "without effort," i.e., "formerly" it remained the preserve of the educated upper classes, thereby effectively demarcating social strata. "Now," however,
the whole artificial dialect of books has come into play as the dialect of ordinary life. This is one form of the evil impressed upon our style by journalism: a dire monotony of bookish idiom has encrusted and stiffened all native freedom of expression, like some scaly leprosy of elephantiasis, barking and hide-binding the fine natural pulses of the elastic flesh. (149)
On the face of it, this passage voices a familiar--and by no means exclusively De Quinceyan--concern about the gradual corruption of a valorized, quasi-Wordsworthian "freedom of expression" or "language of life." Once again, however, that concern cannot be detached from an underlying political context. More precisely, the need to "violently resist" the "contagion of bookishness" emerges as a wholly political need, specifically as a struggle to preserve traditional class structures and barriers.
The dissipation of societal boundaries entailed by this "contagion" is well exemplified in De Quincey's account of shying "like a skittish horse" from an "old apple-woman" in the street who approached him with the phrase "I will avail myself of your kindness" (10.149; original emphasis). The woman's phrase voices an aggressive commercialism that attempts to constrain De Quincey to its wishes precisely by appropriating a--in effect, his--more genteel mode of speech. An even more telling example of this kind of appropriation, however, is the amusing if somewhat facetious anecdote that De Quincey tells of a prospective landlady "in a newly-built suburb of London" (10.150). De Quincey is keen to establish, for his readers, the social and (consequent) moral inferiority of the woman, describing her as
in the worst sense a vulgar woman; that is, not merely a low-bred person ... but morally vulgar by the evidence of her own complex precautions against fraud, reasonable enough in so dangerous a capital, but not calling for the very ostentatious display of them which she obtruded upon us. (150-51)
The woman, De Quincey affirms, was "in regular training ... as a student of newspapers. She had no children; the newspapers were her children; that branch of learning constituted her occupation from morning to night" (151). From her "cornucopia," he claims, this "semi-barbarian" woman "poured" the following:
First, "category"; secondly, "predicament" (where, by the way, from the twofold iteration of the idea--Greek and Roman--it appears the old lady was "twice armed"); thirdly, "individuality"; fourthly, "procrastination"; fifthly, "speaking diplomatically, would not wish to commit herself"; who knew but that inadvertently she might even compromise both herself and her husband; sixthly, "would spontaneously adapt the several modes of domestication to the reciprocal interests," etc.; and finally (which word it was that settled us; we heard it as we reached the topmost stair on the second floor; and, without further struggle against our instincts, round we wheeled, rushed down forty-five stairs, and exploded from the house with a fury, causing us to impinge against an obese or protuberant gentleman, and calling for mutual explanations; a result which nothing could account for, but a steel bow, or mustachios on the lips of an elderly woman; meantime the fatal word was), seventhly "anteriorly." Concerning which word we solemnly depose and make affidavit, that neither from man, woman, nor book, had we ever heard it before this unique rencontre with this abominable woman on the staircase. (151)
On the face of it--with the granted exception of "anteriorly"--there is nothing so remarkable or inappropriate in what the woman says here (even De Quincey is forced to admit that her "precautions" were "reasonable enough," and that her speech lacked all "malaprop picturesqueness") (10. 152; original emphasis). What is remarkable, however, and again this is precisely what the anecdote seeks to disguise, is the extent to which the woman's language actually resembles De Quincey's own. In fact, it is her appropriation of this (his) language--"the artificial dialect of books"--that "arms" her against him, and that results in his being put to flight: she turns his language, as it were, against him. As in De Quincey's encounter with the "old apple-woman," then, the landlady enlists "the professional idiom of books" behind an aggressive, "obtrusive" commercialism that contrasts and conflicts with the pseudo-aristocratic code of honor invoked by De Quincey in his account of the collision with the "protuberant gentleman." Faced with this commercial aggression, De Quincey the gentleman scholar can only succumb or flee. The "contagion of bookishness" must be "violently" resisted, then, not only because it represents a threat to the "language of life." Rather, and moreover, that "contagion" emerges from De Quincey's anecdotes as a threat to the social order, as the vehicle of a social insurgency that must be put down.
The "contagion of bookishness" is one way in which the middle-class revolution in reading makes itself felt for De Quincey: the proliferation of genres like "popular tales" and "journalism" is leading to a dangerous shift in the societal balance of linguistic power. The more immediate manifestation of that revolution, however, is again the very fact that these genres are proliferating at the expense of the valorized "Literature of Power," an effect best exemplified for De Quincey, as already noted, in the non-reception of Wordsworth's poetry.
As we have seen, De Quincey's essay "On the Approaching Revolution in Great Britain" emphasized the link between "commercial activity" and "disaffection to the government." His anecdotal accounts of the "contagion of bookishness" establish a similar link between commercialism and middle-class social insurgency. Unsurprisingly, then, De Quincey's writing about the rise of the novel is equally uncompromising in laying the blame for the threat to the valorized "Literature of Power" at the door of an "obtrusive" middle-class commercialism.
In his essay on "Oliver Goldsmith," De Quincey stresses that while the absence of a large reading public may have been "unfortunate for Goldsmith's purse," it was "a great escape for his intellectual purity" (4.298). In fact, the essay systematically opposes merchant-class commercialism to the traditional framework of "Power." More precisely, "Oliver Goldsmith" traces the threat to the "Literature" and "authority" of "Power" to the emergence of the literary marketplace in response to the "enormous expansion in the reading public," to the moment when literature "from the noblest of professions became a trade" (4.312; my emphasis). De Quincey understands that the threat to literary "Power" from genres like the novel originates in this "moment," and his examination of it in "Oliver Goldsmith" is intensely class conscious. He recognizes that the "vast multiplication" of the reading public has been matched by an increase in the number of professional authors. However, he is not prepared to accept that this increase might "be owing chiefly" to the growing number of "gentlemen that in our day have entered the field of literature," "gentlemen" with whom De Quincey himself clearly identifies (4.308; my emphasis). Rather, the threat to the "Literature of Power" stems from the work of insurgent "commercial" writers, from "the hacks and handicraftsmen ... [who] are correspondingly expanding their files" (4.308; original emphasis). The literary marketplace, then, is a site of class conflict. Gentleman authors like De Quincey, the self-styled champion of Wordsworth's genius, enter "the field" in order to defend the valorized "Literature of Power" against the "expanding" "files" of "hacks and handicraftsmen" (and we note the multivalence of the word "files" here, signifying at once military number, literary portfolios, and blunting instruments).
De Quincey accordingly recognizes that the threat to the "Literature of Power" does not stem solely from a middle-class revolution in reading. Rather, that revolution is being facilitated by apostate authors, by authors who are complicit--whether by choice or from necessity--with the "obtrusive" commercialism of the literary marketplace. "However painful such a state of things may be to the keen sensibilities of men pursuing the finest of vocations," De Quincey concludes, "still we most hold that the dishonour to literature has issued from internal sources": "literature it was that gave the first wound to literature; the hack scribbler it was that first degraded the lofty literary artist" (4.312-13).
In this concern about authorial apostasy, De Quincey's writing about writing again echoes his 1831 strictures on the Reform movement. "On the Approaching Revolution in Great Britain" makes it abundantly clear that "nothing could have ensured" the politically disastrous" co-operation of the middle and lower classes"
short of that treason to itself in the very highest and most influential class, which two great servants of the state first originated, and which the subsequent convulsions in France have made irretrievably contagious. (Blackwood's 30: 319; my emphasis)
Briefly put, the impending, disastrous success of the Reform movement had been facilitated, De Quincey believed, by the perceived apostasy of those who should have most opposed it. The "Grey ministry," he concludes, is "shaking the very foundations of our civil institutions, and removing all the ancient props and buttresses, in order to profit by a momentary burst of popularity" (Blackwood's 30:316; my emphasis).
This very same notion of "treason to itself," of apostasy amongst the aristocracy, also informs De Quincey's account of the threat to the "Literature of Power" from the revolution in reading. "For three and a--half centuries," De Quincey affirms, "the nobility of England have ... personally practised literature as an elevated accomplishment" (4.313). "Our royal and noble authors are numerous," he continues, "and they would have continued the same cordial attention to the literary body, had that body maintained the same cordial composition" (313). Here, then, we have the Republic of Letters reconstituted as the (ideal) British state, with an aristocratic ("royal and noble") authorial parliament "cordially" ministering to its reading public. As was the case with the reform of the actual parliament, however, the problem with the authorial parliament is, precisely, that apostates have disturbed its "composition" (a resonant pun, no doubt, on the act of writing). Once again, De Quincey recognizes that the "fatal" middle-class "revolution" in reading is being facilitated and promoted by the complicity of authors who seek precisely--like "the Grey ministry" before them--to "profit by a momentary burst of popularity." "Oliver Goldsmith" accordingly slams the "self-degraded ... sycophancy to the lowest order of minds" of those authors who seek "extensive ... popularity" for purely "mercenary purposes" (4.298; my emphasis). "A litterateur, simply as such," De Quincey affirms, "it is no longer safe to distinguish with favour":
Once, but not now, he was liable to no misjudgement. Once he was pretty sure to he a man of some genius, or, at least, of unusual scholarship. Now, on the contrary, a mob of traitors have mingled with the true men; and the loyal perish with the disloyal, because it is impossible, in a mob so vast and fluctuating, for the artillery of avenging scorn to select its victims. (313; my emphasis)
In short, then, a "disloyal" "mob" of "mercenary" authors--the type of those "traitors" in "the highest and most influential class" who had "ensured" the success of parliamentary Reform--is now facilitating the revolution in reading (4-312). It is this "mob" above all who constitute the most serious threat to the status and security of literary "Power," formerly the "true" gentleman author's guarantee of social "favour," or Public Credit. Consequently, it is they--and their "fictitious tales"--who are the victims of De Quincey's own critical "artillery."
What I have been suggesting, then, is that we cannot come to terms with De Quincey's generic dismissal of the novel without situating that dismissal within his broader concern about the threat to the "Literature of Power" from what he identifies as the revolution in reading. What we also need to recognize, however, is that De Quincey's strictures on the apostate authors who are complicit with that revolution sit rather uneasily with his own status as gentleman scholar turned professional journalist. Indeed it is arguably only in terms of this unease, I want to conclude, that we can finally come to grips with De Quincey's dismissal of the novel.
De Quincey's correspondence with his publishers and editors is full of apologies for delayed or poor quality copy, and much of his published work contains similar apologies. Both appeal to difficult compositional circumstances. While some of this is more than likely to be posturing on De Quincey's part, he certainly understood only too well the damage that having to write for money could do to the quality of the writing produced. "Oliver Goldsmith" is accordingly sympathetic towards those "whom poverty compels to labours not meriting the name of literature" (4.308; my emphasis).
Despite this understanding, however, De Quincey's account of apostate authors also suggests that the motivation for such complicity with the will of the new reading public may not be solely "mercenary." Conversely, "Oliver Goldsmith" worries that this apostasy may result from an entirely different kind of guilt. "Every man has two-edged tendencies lurking within himself," De Quincey affirms, "pointing in one direction to what will expand the elevating principles of his nature, pointing in another to what will tempt him to its degradation" (4.298). Thus far, then, we are on familiar ground: the "mercenary" temptations of the literary marketplace may lead certain individuals to willingly "degrade" both "Literature" and their own "natures" for financial reward. As the passage continues, however, it becomes clear that De Quincey also has another kind of self-degradation in mind. "A mob is a dreadful audience for chafing and irritating the latent vulgarisms of the human heart," he suggests, "exaggeration and caricature, before such a tribunal, become inevitable, and sometimes almost a duty" (298-99; my emphasis). "To them," De Quincey concludes of the new reading "mob," "the writer must now chiefly humble himself ... so servile is the modern novelist's dependence upon his canaille of an audience" (298; original emphasis).
Here, then, we have a reversal of De Quincey's ideal author-reader relationship, a vision of an already accomplished revolution in reading. But here we also have an extra layer of accusation against authors. In order to be popular, and therefore financially successful, the "modern novelist" must "humble himself" to the will of the reading "canaille" (a politically loaded term since the French Revolution). But De Quincey is now suggesting that such submission may not always be voluntary, that it may, in fact, "be inevitable, and sometimes almost a duty." Even the harshest critic would surely forgive the "duty" of providing for a large family--if not, necessarily, for an opium habit--that might "compel" someone to curry popular favor for financial gain. Clearly, however, the notion of authorial submission to the will of the "mob" plays directly into the fear of social insurrection that informs both De Quincey's writing about the reform movement and his writing about writing. Moreover, he seems to have been incapable of dissociating poor quality writing--however justifiably motivated--from the idea of treason against the literary state, a treason made all the more culpable if it originated only in weakness of character, or a lack of "intellectual purity" (as "Oliver Goldsmith" puts it).
This inability can be usefully glossed by comparing De Quincey's account of authorial submission to the will of the reading "mob" with a recurrent childhood dream that he describes in The English Mail-Coach (1849). In Section 2 of the Mail-Coach, "The Vision of Sudden Death," De Quincey recounts a dream "so familiar to childhood, of meeting a lion, and, from languishing prostration in hope and vital energy, that consequent sequel of lying down before the lion." (13) This dream, De Quincey suggests, "publishes the secret frailty of human nature--reveals its deep-seated Pariah falsehood to itself--records its abysmal treachery" (EMC 212). De Quincey suggests that this dream "repeats ... the original temptation in Eden," but the terminology of guilt here--" Pariah falsehood to itself," "abysmal treachery" (212)--clearly echoes both his 1831 examination of Parliamentary reform and his account of authorial apostasy in "Oliver Goldsmith," published just one year before the Mail-Coach essays. (14) John Barrell has read the lion dream in terms of De Quinceyan fears about impotence (27, 44-45, 77-78). However, the dream also operates, I want to suggest, in connection with De Quinceyan anxiety about his relationship, as an author, to the new reading public (a connection initially signalled in his claim that the lion dream "publishes the secret frailty of human nature"). (15)
In his 1826 overview of "Gillies's German Stories," De Quincey recalls "an anecdote in Mungo Park's travels" in which Mungo, "riding one fine day through a forest in Africa," encounters a lion (Works 3-4). (16) More precisely, De Quincey invokes this anecdote to "figure" the relationship between a periodical reviewer and an aspiring author; De Quincey the critic is the lion "reposing under the ample umbrage of Blackwoods' Magazine" while the author is the hapless--though on this occasion unscathed--Mungo (Works 6.4). The relationship between these encounters--they are described, explicitly, as "types and similitudes" of each other--allows us to conclude that De Quincey believed authorial submission to the pressures of the literary marketplace (as embodied in the reviewer) to be another form of lying down before the lion (Works 6.4). That is to say that for an author to curry popular favor--for whatever reason--was to repeat an archetypal "rebellion" (as the Mail-Coach explains the lion dream); to abandon "hope" and "vital energy" through an "infirm ... will"; to betray the aristocracy of "Power" to the reading "mob" (EMC 212; my emphasis). And once again, the only possible response to this "infirmity," or lack of "intellectual purity," is "the artillery of avenging scorn."
It is no surprise, then, to find that De Quincey's writing consistently praises Wordsworth--as in the well-known essay "On Wordsworth's Poetry"--precisely for maintaining his creative integrity despite "the strength of resistance [to his work] in public taste" (10.321). But what, again, about the Opium-Eater himself? Did De Quincey the hack journalist and onetime novelist--we remember all those apologies for poor quality writing--feel personally guilty of the "abysmal treachery" he so readily condemned in others? (17)
Certainly, the description of authorial submission to the reading "canaille" in "Oliver Goldsmith" is very close to De Quincey's account of the "morbid sensibility to shame" that The Affliction of Childhood identifies as the "foremost" of the "infirmities" of his youth (1.44). De Quincey claims that he used to "reproach" himself with this "infirmity" by supposing that
if I were summoned to seek aid for a perishing fellow-creature, and that I could obtain that aid only by facing a vast company of critical or sneering faces, I might, perhaps, shrink basely from the duty. It is true that no such case had actually occurred; so that it was a mere romance of casuistry to tax myself with a cowardice so shocking. But to feel a doubt, was to feel condemnation; and the crime that might have been, was in my eyes the crime that had been. (1.45; original emphasis)
Here, then, we have the anxieties of the child. But do we also have a vision of the would-be champion of the "Literature of Power" shrinking "basely" from his "duty" when confronted with the "critical or sneering faces" of the "vast" reading public? We are thus returned to those vexed questions of discursive priority. Arguably, however, the close verbal echoes here reconfirm that De Quincey's vehement dismissal of the novel should be seen not so much as a matter of taste as of a deep-rooted need to disassociate himself from the perceived treachery of "hacks and handicraftsmen." Certainly, by refiguring the Republic of Letters in the image of a feudal state, De Quincey, the self-styled intimate and champion of the Wordsworthian literary aristocracy, could be cast as the guarantor of De Quincey, the magazine hack. Hence while he might fall victim to the revolution in reading, he could hope to avoid the "avenging scorn" reserved for its treasonous perpetrators.
University of York, UK
(1.) Quoted from Charles I. Patterson, "De Quincey's Conception of the Novel as Literature of Power," PMLA 70.1 (1955): 375. Where possible, all quotations from De Quincey's works are from The Works of Thomas De Quincey, ed. G Lindop et al., 21 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2000-2003), hereafter cited as Works. Otherwise, all quotations are from The Collected Writings of Thomas De Quincey, ed. David Masson, 14 vols. (Edinburgh: A. & C. Black, 1889-90), hereafter cited in the text by volume and page number.
(2.) D. D. Devlin, De Quincey, Wordsworth and the Art of Prose (London: Macmillan, 1983) 26.
(3.) For a history of this public and its relationship with Romanticism, see J. P. Klancher, The Making of English Reading Audiences, 1790-1832 (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1987).
(4.) Clifford Siskin has recently examined this relationship in The Work of Writing: Literature and Social Change in Britain, 1700-1830 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1998). Significantly, Siskin suggests that the emergence of the literary marketplace was inextricably bound up with the rise of the novel, an idea very much endorsed by De Quincey's writing about writing.
(5.) De Quincey first articulated his often-quoted, quasi-Wordsworthian dichotomy between the "Literature of Power" and the "Literature of Knowledge" in his 1823 Letters to a Young Man Whose Education has been Neglected (serialized in the January-March, May, and July numbers of the London Magazine). He subsequently refined the distinction in his 1848 essay "On the Poetry of Pope," which appeared in the August number of the North British Review. In contrast to the affective "Literature of Power," the "Literature of Knowledge" speaks to the "mere discursive understanding," offering only contingent, factual or speculative data (8.6, 5).
(6.) I describe De Quincey's exclusion of the novel from the "Literature of Power" as fairly consistent because--like so many other De Quinceyan exclusions--it is not rigid. In the 1848 incarnation of the "Literature of Power" versus "Literature of Knowledge" distinction, for example, De Quincey allows that "the commonest novel" participates in the "Literature of Power" by "moving in alliance with human hopes and fears, with human instincts of wrong and right" (11.57). Similarly, in his little-known 1830 fragment "Novels," De Quincey affirms that "a false ridicule has settled upon Novels, and upon Young Ladies as the readers of novels" (Works 7.289). In "view of the grandeur which belongs to the passion of Sexual Love in the economy of life," he concludes, "Novels have an all-sufficient justification; and Novel-readers are obeying a higher and more philosophic impulse than they are aware of" (290). However, while these "semi metaphysical" (290) concessions are revealing when it comes to De Quincey's understanding of the novel's subject matter and target audience, it is also important to remember that they remain very much the exception in his writing about the genre.
(7.) Scholarly accounts of De Quincey's literary criticism have sought both to outline a De Quinceyan critical methodology and to discern a De Quinceyan "theory of literature." See, for example, J. E. Jordan, Thomas De Quincey, Literary Critic: His Method and Achievement (Berkeley: U of California P, 1952); and S. K. Proctor, Thomas De Quincey's Theory of Literature (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1943). Faced with a mass of fluctuating statements--best exemplified in De Quincey's ever-shifting opinion of Pope--Jordan's approach has proved the more fruitful: he provides a number of acute analyses, suggesting that De Quincey preferred affective or psychological readings. Proctor, in all fairness, struggles in his attempt to shape the mass of De Quincey's statements into a coherent, underlying "theory."
(8.) John Forster, The Life and Adventures of Oliver Goldsmith, 4 vols. (London, 1848). De Quincey's "review" was published in the May 1848 number of the North British Review.
(9.) F. C. Schlosser, History of the Eighteenth Century and of the Nineteenth till the Overthrow of the French Empire, with Particular Attention to Mental Cultivation and Progress, trans. D. Davidson, 8 vols. (London, 1843-52). De Quincey's selective review of the earlier volumes was published in the September and October 1847 numbers of Tait's Magazine.
(10.) De Quincey makes this claim in the "Prefatory Memoranda" to the 10th volume of the Edinburgh collected edition of his works. It is a curious claim given, say, the ongoing popularity of Byron's work (of which De Quincey makes scant mention, doubtless in view of his political distance from the Radical lord), or even of Walter Scott's more politically conducive verse. In fact, De Quincey's claim points up the extent to which he remained steeped in Wordsworthian theories of poetic reception. His critique of a reading public that is incapable of "unaffected sympathy" with poetry is, after all, very close to Wordsworth's attacks on public taste in the Essay, Supplementary to the Preface of his 1815 Poems. And indeed, the threat to the valorized "Literature of Power" from the new reading public was always best exemplified for De Quincey in the non-reception of Wordsworth's poetry, in the fourth of his "Society of the Lakes" papers, De Quincey characteristically affirms that "no applauding coterie ever gathered around him." Quoted from David Wright, ed., Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968) 368. This edition hereafter cited in the text as Recollections.
(11.) For a thorough account of this identification, and of its ramifications for Romantic prose fiction in general, see Gary Kelly, The English Jacobin Novel, 1780-1805 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1976). See also Gary Kelly, English Fiction of the Romantic Period, 1789-1830 (New York: Longman, 1989).
(12.) De Quincey's review, "The Antigone of Sophocles as Represented on the Edinburgh Stage" was first published in the February and March 1846 numbers of Tait's Magazine.
(13.) Quoted from Grevel Lindop, ed., Confessions off an English Opium-Eater, and Other Writings (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995) 211-12. Hereafter cited in the text as EMC.
(14.) As so often in De Quincey's work, then, questions of discursive priority present themselves. Do the autobiographies--written very much after the fact--reveal the psychological makeup that determined De Quincey's reaction to public topics, or did his reaction to those topics color the imaginative reconstruction of his life as autobiography? As John Barrell correctly notes, however, there is no definitive answer to this kind of question: any answer is simply a matter of personal preference, depending "on the assumptions you start with, or your point of entry into De Quincey's texts." John Barrell, The Infection of Thomas De Quincey: A Psychopathology of Imperialism (London: Yale UP, 1991) 207, n. 6.
(15.) For a reading of the Malay episode of the Confessions as an indication of De Quincey's ambiguous "apprehensions" of his "anonymous reading public" see Charles Rzepka, Sacramental Commodities: Gift, Text, and the Sublime in De Quincey (Boston: U of Massachusetts P, 1995) 5-6, 8-9.
(16.) "Gillies's German Stories" was first published in the December 1826 number of Blackwood's.
(17.) For a useful account of the extent to which De Quincey was aware that much of his writing inhabited the "limbo between literature as mass-produced goods and Literature as productive of imaginative genius" see E. Michael Thron, "Thomas De Quincey and the Fall of Literature," in R. L. Snyder, ed., Thomas De Quincey: Bicentenary Studies (London and Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1985) 5-6. De Quincey's own gothic novel--Klosterheim, or, The Masque--was published by William Blackwood in 1832.
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|Title Annotation:||works of an English writer|
|Publication:||Studies in Romanticism|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2005|
|Next Article:||Degrading forms of pantomime: Englishness and shame in De Quincey.|