- Leigh Hunt and the London Literary Scene: A Reception History of His Major Works, 1805–1828
The publication in six volumes of The Selected Writings of Leigh Hunt (2003), of which Michael Eberle-Sinatra was one of the general editors, consolidated the recent revival of interest in the life and writings of Leigh Hunt. Jeffrey N. Cox's Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School: Keats, Shelley, Hunt and Their Circle (1998) first brought into vivid focus Hunt's role in fashioning a political and artistic community apart from which it is no longer possible to understand the careers of Keats, Shelley, Hazlitt, and others. Since the appearance of The Selected Writings in 2003, Hunt has now come into his own. In the same year, Nicholas Roe's edited collection, Leigh Hunt: Life, Poetics, Politics, assembled a group of essays covering a wide range of subjects opened up by Hunt's activities as poet, journalist, reviewer, theatrical and cultural critic, and central figure of early nineteenth-century Romantic sociability. The year 2005 then saw two major biographies, Anthony Holden's The Wit in the Dungeon: A Life of Leigh Hunt and Roe's sparkling Fiery Heart: The First Life of Leigh Hunt. The next stage of Hunt scholarship will find Eberle-Sinatra's latest contribution to be an eminently useful survey, as his title suggests, of the reception history of Hunt's major works during the Romantic period.
The book represents an attempt, in the author's words, 'to reassess Hunt's substantial contributions to several different genres and to offer an account of their significant impact on audiences during the Romantic period through an episodic, chronological approach.' It is accordingly divided into four chapters titled simply by ranges of dates, and students of Hunt will recognize the rationale behind this organization. Chapter 1 ('1805–1811') begins the survey with Hunt's early innovations as a theatrical critic and the founding of the Examiner. Chapter 2 ('1811–1816') explores the reception of The Feast of the Poets, and Hunt's responses to Robert Southey, S.T. Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and others in that [End Page 452] work. Chapter 3 ('1816–1821') then focuses on the reception of The Story of Rimini and the subsequent Cockney School debates. And chapter 4 ('1821–1828') concludes the study with the Liberal, Hunt's years in Italy, and the fallout over Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries.
Eberle-Sinatra admirably meets the goal he sets for himself by providing a largely descriptive survey, but he also offers an engaging discussion of Hunt's generic innovations and a sustained reading of the difficult idea of 'independence' that Hunt both championed and struggled with over the course of his career. Two instances where the book's treatment of these themes is particularly strong are in its discussion of Hunt's contributions to the genres of theatrical criticism and travel writing. Hunt's insistence on an independent response to plays and actors, Eberle-Sinatra suggests, allows him to create a new kind of cultural criticism, at once intensely personal yet unbiased and neutral, written by a critic who 'empowers his readers by informing them of the principles that guide his judgment.' In his reactions to Italy, we find, Hunt revises the established genre of travel writing by combining it with the new essayistic, familiar, and informal mode that, in typical Cockney fashion, attempts to widen the circle of sociability by addressing the reader as 'another friend, welcome to eavesdrop on Hunt's conversations.'
In spite of, or rather because of, the successes of this somewhat modest book, one does wish for more, especially in light of the fact that author is so well positioned to offer a more ambitious treatment. Above all, though, by providing a clear guide to the reception history of Hunt's major works, Leigh Hunt and the London Literary Scene performs a notable service for scholarship currently underway and soon to commence on this dynamic and enduring figure.