- London and the Making of Provincial Literature: Aesthetics and the Transatlantic Book Trade, 1800-1850 by Joseph Rezek
Joseph Rezek’s London and the Making of Provincial Literature examines the crucial role of early-nineteenth-century London for the advent of Irish, Scottish, and American literatures of the period. London’s centrality on the busy stage of transatlantic publishing prompted the birth of what Rezek calls “a provincial literary formation” (2), an influential body of work by authors such as Sydney Owenson, Maria Edgeworth, Walter Scott, Washington Irving, and James Fenimore Cooper, whose visibility and success depended on the whims of the “London-centered marketplace” and its readership (3). It was a necessary process, Rezek argues, whereby provincial authors, through their uneven “struggle with the London book trade” (8), developed literary strategies—“appeals to readers’ sympathy, aestheticized displays of national character, figurations of cross-cultural communion” (18)— that allowed them to transcend politics and establish the “the independence of literary experience” (8). This illusion of literature’s autonomy fostered by provincial authors was a direct product of “the aesthetics of provinciality” that marks their literary productions (8). There is a creative paradox at work here, Rezek insists: this ameliorative “representational mode” was designed to mitigate these authors’ “subordinate position in the literature field” by at once appealing to their “national character” and “projecting literary exchange into an exalted realm” (64). By mid-century, as a result of “a parallel trend toward nationalization,” this “center/periphery model” was replaced by a “binational model of literary competition” between the US and Great Britain (38). As Rezek contends in his reading of The Scarlet Letter in the book’s epilogue, Hawthorne completes this process by embracing “literary autonomy in its purest ideological sense” (197), thus rescuing the literary exchange from its earlier “cross-cultural purpose” (198).
The complexity of the story of the “transnational movement of texts” between these three “provinces” and London reveals itself in Rezek’s astute account of the book trade as an “interconnected” and “dynamic” system (25). Texts travelled from one province to another and from all three to and from England, with London all the while exerting its imperial influence on the trade, not least due to its uncontested political, economic, and demographic advantage. The study is at its most impactful when it puts its three-pronged interpretive strategy—the material, the transatlantic, and the aesthetic—to work. The accounts of what Rezek calls “the transatlantic revision[s]” (86) of Irving’s The Sketch Book (chapter 4) and Cooper’s The Pioneers (chapter 5) for the London market, for example, best illustrate just how “mutually illuminating” the “history of books and history of aesthetics” can be (8). Similarly, when Rezek brings to life long forgotten marginalia—written by American readers in response to negative portrayals of US culture by some prejudiced British travelers—he [End Page 395] makes good on his promise to let “readers take center stage as anonymous participants in transatlantic print culture” (151). In these ways, Rezek “tune[s] in to another archive” in order to “denaturalize texts” and expose “the contingencies that shaped them” (88).
Less convincing are those moments in the book that tend to provide one master narrative, reiterated throughout, according to which the works by the book’s central novelists “banished politics” (18). In the case of Owenson, Edgeworth, and Scott, such evasions served to “mitigate the effects of distance between their subjects and their audience” (63). Irving and Cooper did so to “promote Anglo-American literary fellowship” (102) and “Anglo-American camaraderie” (116), respectively. In Rezek’s readings of Edgeworth’s and Owenson’s oeuvres, for example, the reader is asked to accept at face value the causality between the fact that both novelists often resort to narratives of cross-cultural encounter between Ireland and England and the book’s claim that such narratives necessarily symbolize these authors’ “idealized aesthetic relationship between an Irish writer” and the London marketplace, in general, and “her English readership,” in particular...