The Magazine

The Magazine Game

When Scotland's team excelled.

Sep 7, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 47 • By SARA LODGE
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As Swaim puts it, "In a limited but real sense Jeffrey attacks Wordsworth from the left rather than the right."

If Scotland's more broad-based and accessible education system, which prepared the ground for a mass magazine audience, was one reason for Scottish dominance in early 19th-century journalism, the importance of rhetoric in Scottish educational culture was another. Several of Scotland's universities appointed university chairs in rhetoric, and Hugh Blair's Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres was one of the most widely taught texts of the late 18th century. Swaim persuasively argues that the new wave of Scottish periodicals, particularly Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, developed a new style of "conversational" journalism that foreshadowed the art of rhetorical performance and debate.

John Wilson ("Christopher North"), the flamboyant editor of Blackwood's, fulfilled the role of exhibitionist raconteur par excellence. Wilson, so arch, waspish, and exuberant that his voice now sometimes seems camp, made a point of including the reader in the highly decorated drawing room of his prose as an imagined physical presence. Talking about potatoes, he exclaims: "Reader! Lay your hand upon your heart and say, have you ever more than thrice, during the course of a long life, eaten .  .  . a boiled mealy or waxy? We hear you answer in the negative."

Readers, unaccustomed to literary celebrities asking about their eating habits, lapped Blackwood's up. A regular feature in the Magazine was the "Noctes Ambrosianae" (Ambrosial Nights), which affected to present conversations between different Blackwood's contributors as they boozed at Ambrose's Tavern. Something between a piece of discursive journalism and a piece of creative fiction, the "Noctes" offered something new: an imaginary opportunity to join Blackwood's contributors at the bar for a frank and free exchange of views. Not until the Internet invented the interactive blog would periodical writers and their public get so close again.

Swaim's third chapter deals with John Gibson Lockhart, now chiefly remembered as Sir Walter Scott's son-in-law and biographer, but also a prominent editor and journalist. This, the weakest chapter in the book, makes the argument that Scottish writers and readers were particularly drawn to journalism in this period because of lingering Calvinist mistrust of the dangers of imaginative literature: poetry and novels.

That such (to us surprising) mistrust was a feature of early 19th-
century life is undeniable. But it was not particularly or peculiarly Scottish. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in his Biographia Literaria (1817), reflected that novel reading was no better than "gaming, swinging or swaying on a chair or gate; or spitting over a bridge." In an 1813 letter, Lord Byron remarked that "when I do read, I can only bear the chicken broth of--anything but novels." And Jane Austen, tongue firmly in cheek, was commenting on a general prejudice when, in Northanger Abbey, she lamented that "there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them."

Swaim, however, makes the reasonable point that John Gibson Lockhart seeks to resolve the barely respectable position of the writer in this period by conceptualizing him as a new blend of selfless amateurism and dignified professionalism. In effect, he contends, Lockhart holds up Sir Walter Scott, who was both a working lawyer and a part-time novelist, as the very model of what a modern author should be.

Certainly the newly self-referential magazines of the early 19th century raise questions about who writes, and how, and when they find the opportunity to do so. Many journalists were also lawyers, clerks, or clergymen; several were women. As articles were typically pseudonymous, the magazine was a masked ball in which peasants and princesses might (theoretically) mingle on equal terms. This is one of the ways in which periodicals of this time prepare the ground for the greater democratic participation that followed the extension of the franchise in Britain in 1832 and 1867.

Swaim's final chapter discusses Thomas Carlyle and argues for the influence of the Presbyterian sermon in Carlyle's writing and, more generally, in generating the assertive periodical culture of early 19th-century Scotland. This is not a difficult case to make: Carlyle is a pulpit orator who loses his faith in Christianity without ever losing his faith in jeremiad. History becomes the "real prophetic manuscript" from which he interprets "Signs of the Times" that include the fatal mechanization of modern life.