- Literary History Writing, 1770–1820
Set against the backdrop of changes in British print culture following the end of perpetual copyright, April London’s Literary History Writing, 1770–1820 explicitly differentiates itself from efforts to offer a comprehensive narrative of the history of literature, and instead considers efforts to construct such narratives during the fifty-year period it studies. London rejects the widely held notion that literary history writing was relatively homogenous in form and that literary historians have concerned themselves primarily with constructing a transcendent literary canon. Rather, she argues that, originating in opposition to such hegemonic efforts as Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, early instances of literary history take an array of forms, including biography, autobiography, memoir, antiquarianism, bibliography, specimens, anecdotes, and “secret history” (5). This variety accommodated a diverse readership much broader than the traditional reading audiences among the learned classes while allowing literary historians to embed into discussions of Britain’s literary past implicit or even overt stances on the nation’s political culture. [End Page 166]
As a study tracing several related analytical threads rather than arguing a single tightly focused thesis, the book benefits from its robust structuring. In addition to a general introduction, conclusion, and subheadings within chapters, it features four separate sections, each consisting of a brief section introduction followed by two chapters. The first section, “Writing and Rewriting Lives,” opens with a chapter that explores essays by Henry Headley, Robert Anderson, and Alexander Chalmers. Together, these writers reject a literary historiography model based on classical historiography as exemplified by Johnson’s Lives of the Poets. They favor instead a less idiosyncratic and biased approach that encourages greater reader engagement. The section continues with a chapter in which London reads literary life writing by Robert Bisset, William Godwin, William Beloe, and Samuel Egerton Brydges to show each attempting through his respective text to bind the wounds of political discord left in the wake of the revolutionary decade.
The second section, “Literary History and Books,” turns attention to authors who raise questions of access and reception that contest, as London argues, Coleridge’s notion of an elite class of readers charged with recognizing and preserving literary treasures, past and present. The texts explored in chapter 3 bring discernment of literary genius into dialogue with questions of popular taste, while chapter 4 studies the sense among authors publishing collections of literary “specimens” that the preservational functions of these collections coincide with a view of literature itself as lending to the preservation or reformation of social and political institutions. These first two sections are the strongest in the book, articulating the most in fresh insights.
The book’s entire third section, “Isaac D’Israeli and Literary History,” reads D’Israeli’s forty-year literary career as engaging questions of historiographic method and text reception from a vantage point of progressive political disillusionment. Its two chapters show that D’Israeli’s emphasis on opinion and anecdotal material undermines classical historiographic methods and brings questions about evidence and the grounds of knowledge into the construction of literary history. Initially espousing a belief that intellectual change precedes social change, D’Israeli reveals in his late career greater consciousness of limits on the remediating power of literary history and a solemn prognosis for the future reputations of socially marginalized writers like him. Because this section brings the work of a single writer under the lens of arguments developed over the preceding four chapters, its effect is less compelling than what came before.
The final two-chapter section, “The Genres of Literary History,” explores literary history’s decline in power at the conclusion of the half-century period demarcating London’s study. Chapter 7 maps the simultaneous increase in literary genre specialization and skepticism about inexperienced readers through the rise of periodical reviews and institutional lectures about literature. In the chapter that follows, the transformative power of literary history fades as debates conducted in the burgeoning new literary periodicals and reviews increasingly center around who is competent to issue pronouncements on literature. During the Regency period...