John Thelwall's Polyvocal Politics
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Eighteenth-Century Studies 36.1 (2002) 122-125

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Book Review

John Thelwall's Polyvocal Politics

Michael Scrivener. Seditious Allegories: John Thelwall and Jacobin Writing(University Park: Penn State University Press, 2001). Pp. x + 305. $55.00 cloth.
John Thelwall. The Peripatetic. Ed. Judith Thompson (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2001). Pp. 447. $39.95 cloth.

Two recent texts treat John Thelwall's Jacobinism as a dynamic, uncompromising response to political and social injustice in two recent texts. The first of these, Michael Scrivener's Seditious Allegories: John Thelwall and Jacobin Writing, comprehensively examines Thelwall's life-long ideological commitments and the popular, government-based anti-Jacobinism that at once suppressed and stoked his radical views. The second, Judith Thompson's beautifully prepared edition of The Peripatetic (1793), a "politico-sentimental" text famed for its virtuoso multi-genericism [End Page 122] but somewhat neglected by modern readers, offers a new introduction, notes, and appendices that complement—and expand in important ways—Scrivener's wide ranging examination of Thelwall's oeuvre.

Thelwall's poetry, prose works, drama, scientific essays on oratory and speech impediments, trial transcripts, and publicly delivered lectures form, according to Scrivener, a coherent social and political position that is rationalist, progressive, and populist in nature. Scrivener demonstrates successfully that, by virtue of his particular brand of Jacobinism, Thelwall constructs flexible public identities that secure forums for artistic and political expression, even when such spaces do not allow for overtly radical dissent. This sense of flux is embodied more broadly, though elegantly, in a first chapter that lays bare the chain of associations woven together to form the term "Jacobin," whose astonishingly complex etymology Scrivener deems an instance of "politically motivated catachresis" intended to discredit radical thought (21). Scrivener's multi-layered account of the term's evolution is but the most striking example of his ability to synthesize and historicize the conceptual complexities of late eighteenth-century politics.

This first chapter also includes a thorough account of modern scholarship on Jacobinism and Thelwall's relative position within the movement, allowing Scrivener to reconcile opposing critical views (including those of E. P. Thompson and Perry Anderson), and to extend them usefully. Scrivener focuses on the flowering and attempted quashing of Thelwall's radical voice within a larger social narrative circumscribed by the eventual triumph of political conservatism over impassioned calls for widespread reform. Scrivener adds new interest to his subject's politics by claiming that Thelwall exploited both received and radical artistic modes, his movement between the two facilitated by the conflicting, but not necessarily opposed, relation between an emergent public sphere of conventionally educated readers and writers and a concomitant counter-public sphere of autodidacts, of which Thelwall was one (6-10).

This Habermasian dynamic emerges in subsequent chapters where Scrivener offers instructive contrasts to Thelwall's textual politics by examining those of Edmund Burke, Thelwall's avowed enemy, and those of Thomas Spence and Robert Wedderburn, Thelwall's more radical Jacobin peers. Seeking to expand the common pairing of Paine and Burke, Scrivener argues that Thelwall's refutation of Burke's "wild rhetoric" was particularly effective because achieved by emulating Burke more effectively than did other Jacobin commentators (45). Scrivener's lucid readings of Thelwall's rhetorical skill—notable for its alternation between control and "intemperance" (167)—and his commentary on the extent of Burke's own response to the radical, remind readers of Thelwall's central position within a public sphere shaped by the expression and suppression of Jacobin discourse.

Not defined only by his famous enemies, Thelwall likewise distinguished himself from his more radical Jacobin counterparts by occupying widely legitimated discursive realms. According to Scrivener, Spence and Wedderburn, who favored the marginalized modes of "enthusiasm" (135) and "plebian and oral culture" respectively, shunned Thelwall's "print culture references and tonalities" (146). At times, Scrivener seems to praise Thelwall at the expense of Spence and Wedderburn, privileging Thelwall's less radical reliance on print culture. Such a stance does little to advance Scrivener's central assertion that Jacobinism, because of its variety and plasticity, offered the most promising route to lasting...