- The Constitution of Literature: Literacy, Democracy, and Early English Literary Criticism by Lee Morrissey
In this fine study of the theory of reading in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, Mr. Morrissey discusses how writers and philosophers in the seventeenth century understood the process of acquiring meaning from the page. Rules describing how to read, as he shows, were offered by writers to formalize and rationalize the process: Shaftesbury, Toland, Dryden all participate in this, alongside less well-known writers. Mr. Morrissey turns the insights learned from this to more canonical critical writings from the period, including Pope’s Essay on Criticism, Addison and Steele’s Tatler and Spectator, and Johnson’s essays in the Rambler. Further chapters examine Milton’s Areopagitica, Hobbes’s Leviathan, Dryden’s verse and prose, Addison and Steele’s essays, and various writings by Hume, including his essays and histories. Through careful and insightful analyses, the book accounts for the emergence of literary criticism in the Restoration and eighteenth century, and while acknowledging precursors, Mr. Morrissey confirms that in this period criticism emerges as a distinct intellectual and professional project, found in specialized periodicals, consolidating a specific English literary canon. Focusing on “the critics’ debate over theories of reading,” he offers a distinctive and original historiography. This debate, between the 1640s and 1770s, he calls the “constitution of literature,” using constitution in a transitive sense, pointing to literature being constituted as a separate category of knowledge (though also keeping alive the pun, where “constitution” continues to refer to a set of fundamental principles governing an organization).
Entwined with this important research on the history of reading theories and the emergence of literary criticism is a more complicated, but ultimately less satisfying, discussion engaging Habermas’s public sphere. Mr. Morrissey identifies Habermas’s model as the “standard” for the period. In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962, translated 1989), Habermas argues that through reading literature and criticism, citizens make public judgments. This literary and critical practice trained them to trust their judgment when they turned to politics: the inconsequential [End Page 278] discussion of the former giving citizens the courage to debate the latter. This supposed scenario of customers reading and discussing the Spectator in a coffeehouse allowed readers to debate and form judgments, deployed later in relation to politics.
There are reasons to find this narrative factitious and unconvincing, and Mr. Morrissey shows why Habermas’s argument fails to give a good account of the emergence of literary criticism. But while The Constitution of Literature is clearly critical of the public sphere argument, it relies so heavily on Habermas’s account that it grants it a status it does not need or deserve. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, thus, is not a reliable or thorough guide to the politics of writing in the eighteenth century. It is a tendentious philosophical argument—a debate—but it is not an authority about what actually happened in eighteenth-century England. In addition, Mr. Morrissey insists on describing the extension of the reading public in this period, and the discussions on print culture in periodicals like the Spectator, and in institutions like the coffeehouse, as a contribution to a process of democratization or “democratic access.” As a term, “democracy” is interesting, but it was not much used, and not always in the modern sense. Recent research on the rise in religious publishing, or on faction and sectarian politics in the coffee-house, emphasizes the hastiness of easy assumptions about democratization and the growth of the reading public. At its core this book is an excellent study of eighteenth-century reading theory and rules of criticism. Though thorough and well researched, its complicated theoretical framework does not do it any favors.