The Magazine

The Magazine Game

When Scotland's team excelled.

Sep 7, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 47 • By SARA LODGE
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Scottish Men of Letters
and the New Public Sphere


by Barton Swaim

Bucknell, 219 pp., $51

p>The most distinctive thing about English literary journalism in the early 19th century is that it was Scottish. This was the great age of the magazine. As John Wilson, alias "Christopher North," the editor of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, smugly observed in 1829: "Look at our literature now, and it is all periodical together. A thousand daily, thrice-a-week, twice-a-week, weekly newspapers, a hundred monthlies, fifty quarterlies, and twenty-five annuals!"

He was, as usual, exaggerating--but not much. Books were expensive during and immediately after the Napoleonic wars. New print technologies, meanwhile, meant that journals could be produced at greater speed and in greater numbers than ever before. The result was that, after 1800, and for at least three decades, it was the periodical, not the hardback, that dominated literary discourse. All the great Victorian writers--the Brontë sisters, Charles Dickens, George Eliot--learned their strokes by swimming in the mighty river of print journalism.

And that river flowed from north to south. The Whiggish Edinburgh Review (founded 1802), the Tory Quarterly Review (1809), the capricious Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine (1817), and its metropolitan rival the London Magazine (1820)--all were edited, and in large part written, by Scots. The first three set a standard for rhetorical flourish, intellectual scope, and biting wit that all subsequent literary journals would imitate. Indeed, in producing the magazines that dominated literary criticism in the first decades of the 19th century, Scotland was not merely asserting the skill and sophistication of her sharpest writers, she was setting the tone for British national conversation about politics and culture.

Barton Swaim's Scottish Men of Letters and the New Public Sphere sets out to ask how and why Scots came to dominate the field of literary journalism in this period and how they conjured a "public sphere" in prose. He takes as case studies four lions of the periodical realm: Francis Jeffrey, John Wilson, John Gibson Lockhart, and Thomas Carlyle. None of these figures has been very kindly treated by recent historical memory: The orotund voice and the 15-page feature are not fashionable in current journalism. Swaim rightly asks us to reassess the importance of the contribution these authors and editors made in their magazine writing, particularly the way in which they conceived their audience and, in doing so, changed it.

Francis Jeffrey is now often known, if at all, as the man who was wrong about Wordsworth. The famously damning opening of his 1814 review of Wordsworth's long poem The Excursion--"This will never do!"--became a sound bite that bit back in the same way as the unfortunate studio pronouncement that Fred Astaire "can't act; can't sing; can dance a little."

As Swaim draws out, there is much more to Jeffrey's journalism than this. As master of ceremonies in the Edinburgh Review, Jeffrey created a magisterial yet complex and sometimes contradictory persona that even politically unsympathetic readers felt they could not afford to ignore. His encomia and diatribes might sometimes be unpalatable, but they were never dull. Where previous magazines had attempted comprehensiveness, offering brief reviews of a score of publications, the Edinburgh Review was selective: It dared to declare what was worth reading, and why.

Jeffrey, who insisted upon the inseparability of literary and political life, established the authority of the Review as (in Swaim's words) "an engine of social and political progress presiding over a nascent public sphere." A "benevolent dictator," he at once lauded the democratic possibilities offered by an intelligent, educated, mass audience--the kind of audience that Scotland, with her higher relative literacy levels and more egalitarian educational system, seemed to promise--and shrank from the implications of devolving power.

As such, Jeffrey was a more thoughtful and politically nuanced writer than Wordsworthian scholars often assume. Swaim suggests, intriguingly, that Jeffrey objected to Wordsworth's idealized poetic portrayal of the peasantry not because it represented a radical challenge to traditional social hierarchies but because he felt it to be a falsifying and sentimental view: a portrait of the poor that ignored their real condition. Where Wordsworth valorized the countryside and denounced the enervating effects of urban commerce with its cheap stimuli, Jeffrey saw the town and its crowded periodicals as a source of enlightenment and potential escape from the worst hardships of manual labor.