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.

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.

Ironically, of course, it was that very mechanization that enabled Carlyle and other periodical writers to reach a wide audience and, Swaim argues, to conceive of a new "public sphere" in which individuals of different ranks, independent of church or crown, could debate public issues through rational argument.

Scottish Men of Letters is clearly based on a doctoral thesis, and the casual reader may be deflected by the detail of the bones Swaim picks, which can distract from the larger skeleton he excavates. That skeleton--the vast body of Scottish journalism during 1800-1830--has lain too long neglected, however, and Barton Swaim's thoughtful analysis draws welcome attention to its power and influence.

In the last 20 years we have experienced our own communications revolution: Texts and emails, Facebook and Twitter, have created a world in which to type is to talk. Everyone speaks to everyone else in print. This has produced a new global intimacy, but also new masks and bluffs, as Joe Public realizes his potential to write as Joe Pesci or Joe Conrad.

It has also opened new pathways for participative democracy. It is good to be reminded that early 19th-century Britain experienced a similar phenomenon: The growth of print journalism created a new national conversation in which unprecedented numbers of people could participate, but also a contest over authority and style and debate about how a newly expanded audience might relate to the newly expanded media.

If our era produces commentators of the caliber of Jeffrey, Wilson, Lockhart, and Carlyle, we will have no cause for concern.

Sara Lodge, lecturer in English at the University of St Andrews, is the author of Thomas Hood and Nineteenth-Century Poetry and Jane Eyre: A Reader's Guide to Essential Criticism.

Next Page