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  • Literary Advertising and the Shaping of British Romanticism by Nicholas Mason
  • Mischa Willett (bio)
Nicholas Mason, Literary Advertising and the Shaping of British Romanticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013. pp. 216. $49.95/£32 cloth.

Literary Advertising and the Shaping of British Romanticism helpfully chronicles the rise of advertising in periodicals, highlighting its methods and subjects, from shoe-blacking to tooth powders. In addition, it relates advertising to Romantic literary ideals, which Mason claims “produced an endless series of imagined desires, none of which once attained offers more than fleeting pleasure” (16). This Romantic hedonistic mood, he argues, “trapped consumers in a cycle of constantly imagining that their next purchase would finally be the one that delivered the long-anticipated gratification” (16). He cites lamentations from readers, critics, and poets alike over the ubiquity of advertisements—with London plastered over in bills and all reviews a sham.

Mason’s argument depends heavily on support from periodicals, with which he displays an impressive familiarity. The book opens with the creation of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine and proceeds through foundation stories, backroom editorial slights, hack jobs, and citations from such Victorian institutions as Notes and Queries, Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, the Quarterly Review, Ainsworth’s Magazine, the Literary Gazette, the National Standard, and Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine. Also of interest is the way Mason uses the enormous (and now, ever more searchable) archive of Victorian periodicals. He not only finds reviewers to support his theories but uses tech-supported search statistics to make his arguments. For example, to counteract the widely held belief in L. E. L’s instant success following the publication of her first poems and the reading public’s curiosity over the mysterious authoress, Mason runs searches, scanning British periodicals between the date of her first publication in 1821 and the appearance of her first book in 1824. Finding virtually nothing—no editorial attention whatsoever and only a few poems reprinted without comment—Mason rightly concludes that the nation was in no way “abuzz with talk of L. E. L.” following her first outing, as has been long believed (92). He thereby refutes Jerdan’s claims for his mistress’s popularity and details effective use of “bandwagon marketing” still so much in use today. It would be nice to see more use of tactics like these in studies of Victorian periodicals.

Mason is at his finest in the chapters on “The Progress of Puffery” and “L. E. L., Bandwagon Marketing, and the Rise of Visual Culture,” but he is less strong on the Romantics. In order to show that even the high-minded greats who generally despised the practice of reviewing and its attendant commercialism were nevertheless subject to its market allure, [End Page 526] Mason proffers some dubious examples. Of Coleridge, Mason writes, “It becomes clear that even this dedicated reviewer wasn’t beyond the occasional puff” (128). As support, Mason uses a section of the Biographia Literaria in which the poet interrupts his usual abstruse musings with a letter, purportedly from a friend, who says some favorable things about Coleridge’s writing. Since the author is actually Coleridge himself, Mason cites it as an example of the poet proffering his own wares for filthy lucre.

But in this section, Coleridge is doing something much more complicated and high-minded than that. Far from a commercial or publicity stunt, the poet is trying in that experimental space to render visible Kant’s notion of “negative quantities,” to which Coleridge tips off readers when he opens the section with the “venerable sage of Koeningsberg” (Kant’s hometown). His method for overcoming an overwhelming literary subjectivity (a positive quantity) is to turn his journal entry into a drama featuring a second voice.

To those familiar with the facts of Coleridge’s biography, this fraud will come as no surprise. Just as the thought of Greta intrudes and stops the poet dead in his experimental love poem “O Greta,” just as Sara’s moralizing intrudes on the poet’s quest for pure presence right when he would attain it in “The Aeolean Harp,” just as the glossalator confuses interpretive possibility right when the albatross’s death might cohere...


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pp. 526-528
Launched on MUSE
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