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ELH 68.4 (2001) 831-856
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Avoiding the "Cooler Tribunal of the Study": Richard Brinsley Sheridan's Writer's Block and Late Eighteenth-Century Print Culture
A commonplace characterization of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's professional career is that he was driven by delusive social ambition to leave a brilliantly successful life as a playwright in order to become a member of the House of Commons. His thirty-two years in elective office (1780-1812) were doubly frustrating: virtually his whole tenure was spent in the Whig Opposition, where his lack of wealth and education, combined with the taint of his background in theater, disqualified him from a leadership role. Nevertheless, Sheridan "at no part of his life, liked any allusion to his being a dramatic author, and if he could have spoken out when they were burying him, he would have protested loudly against the place where they had laid him, as Poet's Corner was his aversion; he would have liked to be placed near [his parliamentary comrade] Fox." 1 I would like in this essay to trace Sheridan's ostensibly drastic and ill-starred career change not to his ambition but rather to his attitude toward print culture, and I would like to argue more generally that Sheridan's professional choices and his distrust of the commercial circulation of writing participate in an important countercurrent of suspicion about the expansion of the reading trade during the mid- and late eighteenth century. This countercurrent hinges on a very simple concern, namely that one consequence of mass publication is that the author forfeits both a clear understanding of the makeup of his or her audience and the ability to interact in the interpretive process by which that audience makes sense of any given book. The loss of authorial control transforms readers into the figures described by Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life: "they move across lands belonging to someone else, like nomads poaching their way across fields they did not write." 2
This development transforms the nature of authorship as well, making clear that the author is a figure who, in Roger Chartier's [End Page 831] words, is "both dependent and constrained. He is dependent in that he is not the unique master of the meaning of his text, and his intentions, which provided the impulse to produce the text, are not necessarily imposed either on those who turn his text into a book (bookseller-publishers or print workers) or on those who appropriate it by reading it. He is constrained in that he undergoes the multiple determinations that organize the social space of literary production and that, in a more general sense, determine the categories and the experiences that are the very matrices of writing." 3 I would argue that Sheridan is one of several authors writing after mid-century who resists the dependencies and constraints that Chartier describes, authors whose works are chronologically conterminous but who are nevertheless rarely considered together. The fear that the printed text alone is an insufficient means of conveying meaning to an invisible and anonymous audience informs not only the key choices in Sheridan's career that I will outline in this essay, but also the nascent genre of sentimental fiction, which privileges a language of gesture and touch over verbal communication; the early stages of the oratorical revival of the 1760s and 1770s (led largely by Sheridan's father, Thomas), which deems the "living voice" superior to the "dead letter"; the obscure and esoteric verse of Thomas Gray, who stopped writing well before his death in 1771 because he believed that "the still small voice of Poetry was not made to be heard in a crowd"; and the individually engraved illustrated manuscripts of William Blake, who opted out of the conventional book trade altogether in order to exercise complete control over the meaning of what he writes. 4 Each of these instances is, I would suggest, part of a definable tendency among several late eighteenth-century writers...