- Authorship in Context: From the Theoretical to the Material, and: The English Cult of Literature: Devoted Readers, 1774-1880
These two volumes evaluate the roles of author and reader in the rise of the novel from the end of the eighteenth century to the present. While the books are strikingly different in tone and approach, they reach similar conclusions, demonstrating how very different critics can enlist historical and cultural analysis to enrich our understanding of how ideas about authorship have changed over time. The contributors to Authorship in Context provide a materialist analysis of the "cultural practices by which authors are constructed," "mapping" how notions of authorship have been transformed by cultural changes. They describe how the burgeoning business of publication has liberated and constrained those who have embraced what they call "the authorial function." William R. McKelvy combines textual and historical analysis to offer an absorbing account of [End Page 126] what might be called "the rise of the author." McKelvy's thesis will surprise readers who assume that, in the long nineteenth century, "literature was becoming Modernity's functional religion," eroding or erasing the primacy of religious discourses (1).
The English Cult of Literature challenges the traditional wisdom that, in the nineteenth century, as the tenets of Christianity were increasingly challenged by the theories of Darwin and Marx, literary discourses preempted and silenced orthodox religious discourses. McKelvy argues that during the nineteenth century England did not experience a steady decline in faith. Instead he describes a "realignment of authority" (2), a diffuse but widespread transformation in the popular perception of the relationship between church and state. For the first time since the Renaissance, British readers and writers began to draw boundaries between the powers of church and state and give profound consideration to the importance of individual faith and freedom of worship. Literacy, once the entitlement of the wealthy, became increasingly universal as the state mandated public education programs. During the same period when nonconformist denominations like Methodism began to flourish and neo-Catholicism became popular, writers like Carlyle declared literature to be "a branch of religion" and authors a "perpetual priesthood." Thus faith discourses broadened to include literature and other art forms. Authorship itself took on the trappings of religious vocation, with all the authority and responsibility of a clerical calling, capable of arousing and influencing readers who considered themselves acolytes of a new religious vernacular. Religious discourses and literary works developed a reciprocal and complementary relationship, effectively widening and democratizing popular dialogue about faith.
Combining historical and textual analysis, McKelvy focuses on the literary worlds of London and Edinburgh (the so-called "Athens of the North") from 1780 to 1880, "Britain's great age of the printing press" (271), a time when the dialogue between religious and literary writers was at its most intense. The first chapter addresses the history of what McKelvy calls "declinist" and "constructionist" accounts of literature's assimilation of religious authority. He points out that while some theorists, including Marxists, have celebrated the triumph of "modern literary authority" at the expense of "the lurid fate of an embattled religious culture" (9), others, like the structuralist Northrop Frye, have snatched aesthetic victory from the jaws of orthodoxy's defeat, rejoicing in the creative fusion of previously divided traditions.
McKelvy constructs his conclusions on an analysis of three complementary elements: clerical debate, popular literature, and legislative activity, matching up the key points where all three were in dialogue. Some of the texts he handles are still widely read, like Scott's poetry and Eliot's Daniel Deronda; others were bestsellers during their day but are now "all but unread by scholars of the age's poetry" (127), such as Keble's The Christian Year and Macaulay's The Lays of Ancient Rome. Macaulay sought to affirm his authority as a historian by adopting rhetoric strategies like parody, which enabled him to emphasize a...