Nicholas Mason. Literary Advertising and the Shaping of British Romanticism.
The astringencies of publishing history are always tonic. Nicholas Mason's Literary Advertising and the Shaping of British Romanticism is an illuminating reminder of the importance of economics and system in the production of the literature that we have come to call Romantic.
Mason opens his study with two anecdotes that sketch the decline from high literary ideals to market realism in the book trade. The first concerns the founding of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. Although William Blackwood intended an independent and impartial magazine, Blackwood's quickly made a graceless dive into "the mire of literary puffery" (7). Regular contributors like John Gibson Lockhart and John Wilson reviewed each other with shameless enthusiasm. Mason follows this edifying vignette of Romantic logrolling with a modern instance: Amazon's swift turn from "savior" of literature into sales agent, as it merged its initially independent editorial staff with the marketing division and began to sell packaged reviews and prominent placement to authors and publishers. But Mason's purpose here is not simply to moralize over hucksterism among minor Romantic literati and today's global booksellers: he wishes to explore the connections between literary idealism and the marketplace. Fie sets out four broad claims: 1. That literature and advertising share a "common genealogy"--in fact, they "co-produced each other"; 2. That "periodical criticism and the author function were born out of the advertising logic that permeated Britain in what has come to be called the 'Romantic Century'" (5); 3. That modern advertising methods generally originate in the book trade; and 4. That this same detested advertising culture inspired and continues to inspire literary idealism.
Mason lays out his case with uncommon care, clarity, and a welcome dash of sly humor. Chapter One begins with a consideration of George Henry Francis's 1852 essay in Fraser's Magazine, "The Science of Puffing," which neatly anticipates one part of Mason's argument and confirms another. Francis clearly sees advertising as both "a system" and "scientifically employed" (12); he dates the establishment of this system to the early part of the century, and he assumes that advertising and literature are entwined. Francis does not support his claims--he apparently considers them so obvious as to need no argument or evidence--but Mason does. He carefully lays out the scholarship supporting the claim that advertising began earlier in the 19th century and that it is entangled with literature.
This effectively clears the ground for Mason's own argument. Chapter Two traces the development of puffery in the book trade. William Caxton, who not only introduced the printing press to Britain but also created the first print ad, epitomizes the common genealogy of literature and advertising. Mason then shifts to other exemplary figures, such as Alexander Pope, who benefited greatly from various publicity schemes, and Samuel Richardson, who managed to arrange for puffs of his Pamela in pulpit, in bespoke article, in the book itself (with carefully placed testimonies), and perhaps even through a denunciatory pamphlet that conveniently pointed out the lubricious passages of the novel. Mason then widens his scope to consider the Ralph Griffith's Monthly Review, which "can be said to have further accelerated the incursion of advertising logic into the production and dissemination of literature" (45). By 1770, puffing had become fairly common in the world of books and bookselling. Sheridan's 1779 The Critic makes this clear, as its satire details the means and modes of the puff sharply. By the time of Sheridan's play, advertising had become routine: there were professional critics, they worked according to a system, and they were accepted in this role.
Chapters Three and Four present a pair of compelling case studies in the entanglement of literature and advertising: Byron's careful development of a "brand," and William Jerdan's adroit positioning and repositioning of L. E. L's work and image. Mason notes Byron's early preoccupation with fame and his family name (in Fugitive Pieces, Poems, and Hours of Idleness) and his strategic "rebranding" via English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. But more central to Mason's argument are the adroit maneuvers Byron executes in the run-up to Childe Harold. In a flurry of prepublication activity Byron rebuilds relations with poets he had ridiculed in English Bards, speechifies grandly in Parliament, and withholds Hints from Horace for fear that its satire might blunt the romantic edge of his new role as pilgrim. Mason clinches his account of the build-up to "brand Byron" with a discussion of the assiduous marketing of Childe Harold carried out by Robert Charles Dallas and John Murray, which ranged from the revision or excision of passages deemed problematic, a pre-publication puff piece by Dallas himself, the wooing of William Gifford, and the delay of less enthusiastic reviews. Readers "flocked to bookstores not to buy a generic volume of poetry but a product they had been trained to ask for by name" (80). If Byron's remark on the eclat of the poem--"I awoke one morning and found myself famous"--is to be credited, he must have been a remarkably effective sleepwalker.
Mason's discussion of the L.E.L. phenomenon demonstrates the restless innovation characteristic of the early days of advertising. Mindful of Byron's success, Jerdan cleverly extended the practice of branding. In the two years running up to the publication of the The Improvisatrice, Jerdan assiduously asserted the existence of a wide audience for L.E.L. This campaign effectively made her reputation, convincing the reading public that she was famous long before she actually was. As in the case of Byron, such promotional success required intermediaries. Mason traces the logrolling set in motion between Jerdan and Bernard Barton. Barton's serviceability, evident in his repeated letters seeking notice for his work (he even proposed to John Taylor of the London that he review himself anonymously), suited Jerdan's campaign well. After a series of glowing reviews of Barton in the Literary Gazette, the so-called "Quaker poet" responded with "To L.E.L. On his or her poetic sketches in the Literary Gazette." Jerdan, not missing the opportunity, framed the poem with what Mason argues is "the first major advertisement of L.E.L.'s career" (94). The uncertainty of Barton's title allows Jerdan to kick off his campaign by noting that L.E.L. is a lady, and young, and fair--all salient features of her early reputation. The clarity of Jerdan's marketing strategy is matched by its compression and calculation: he also begins his second line of attack by asserting her renown. Mason notes that this use of the so-called "bandwagon effect" was both effective and early in the history of advertising.
These case studies set the stage for a larger point about scholarly method. Chapter 5, "Puffery and the 'Death' of Literature," argues that the ubiquity of puffing requires a significant reconsideration of the role of the review in late Romanticism. After listing some egregious bits of puffing--such as Walter Scott reviewing his Tales of My Landlord--and briefly recalling Henry Colburn's brazen system of self-promotion in the journals and newspapers he owned, Mason considers what this shifty state of affairs might mean for scholars. While it would be intriguing to gauge the effect of advertising on literary reputation or canon formation, Mason prefers a less fraught option. He urges that scholars proceed cautiously in using reviews as evidence: as his argument demonstrates clearly, such estimates are never to be taken only at face value. For instance, discussion of the Blackwood's attacks on Keats might better be framed in terms of the ubiquity of puffing in literary magazines. If puffing has become routine, then the Cockney School attacks might be viewed as a response to puffery as well as a politically motivated attack.
Thoroughly informed and conceptually sophisticated, Literary Advertising and the Shaping of British Romanticism has unusual clarity, economy, and levity. As does Lee Erickson in his more abstract account of the economics of literature, The Economy of Literary Form, Mason enjoins us to take less for granted in our reading of periodical literature. Of course the suspicion Mason counsels cannot be easily contained. Like the "universal acid" of old science fiction, it eats through whatever it touches. Reviews emerge within a system in which critics carry out a dual role, as cultural arbiter and commercial middleman. If periodical criticism is bound up with advertising and "advertising logic," it cannot rise above the charge of being a testimonial. One might well expect Mason's account to end in either the disgust of Adorno at yet another betrayal among the intelligentsia or the uncritical celebration of neo-liberal economists at yet another triumph of the invisible hand. But the scrutiny he recommends has positive value as well. Mason regards Romantic era reviews as "some of the best and most woefully neglected writing of the age" (142). Reviews, like the magazines in which they appear, deserve the same critical rigor that we apply to poems and novels. In sorting out the complex strands of the "common genealogy" of literature and advertising, Mason wisely reminds us that we must know more about this strange relation before we say what it might mean.
James Madison University
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|Publication:||Studies in Romanticism|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2015|
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