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  • Those Who Write for Immortality: Romantic Reputations and the Dream of Lasting Fame by H. J. Jackson
  • Alys Mostyn
Those Who Write for Immortality: Romantic Reputations and the Dream of Lasting Fame. By H. J. Jackson. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. Pp. xiv, 294. Cloth, $35.00.

Those Who Write for Immortality is an eminently readable look at the vagaries of literary fame. H. J. Jackson's central thesis—that the "long-term survival" of an author's works depends more on "external circumstances and accidental advantages" than "on inherent literary worth" (p. 218)—is comprehensively and engagingly argued in relation to the work and afterlives of a wide range of Romantic period writers.

The study is immaculately structured, both as a whole and on the level of individual sections. Three methodological chapters—Chapter 1, the Interlude, and conclusion—introduce traditional models of fame (from the classical period to the eighteenth century), detail Jackson's "checklist" of significant factors in the establishment of a posthumous reputation (p. 107), and offer suggestions for how her research might be mobilized to help diversify reading and teaching practices both within and beyond the academy. The other four chapters are based on authorial case studies, each concentrating on a central issue of canonicity: audience, popularity, merit, and reclamation. Jackson's decision to arrange these chapters around groups of three writers, rather than two, allows for greater nuance in her comparisons and conclusions. Each author occupies a different position on the current map of literary fame, having achieved either lasting celebrity or moderate notoriety, or having fallen into obscurity, despite sharing apparently similar writing styles or personal circumstances with their chapter companions.

As Jackson's deft analysis shows, these initial similarities often belie significant, though subtle, differences in the cases of individual authors. Wordsworth, George Crabbe, and Southey make up the first trio, through which Jackson outlines her basic theory of audience and authorship. Most importantly, she argues, authors must be able to engage multiple audiences, each with their own measures of success and potential rewards. Wordsworth's diverse poetic catalogue—comprising long, philosophical works, along with shorter lyrics suitable for anthologizing—holds up better than those of Crabbe or Southey, who were devoted to longer poetic forms. Chapter 3 moves on to consider the paradoxes of popularity, focusing its discussion around Austen, Scott, and Mary Brunton. In this instance, appealing to a wide audience can do more harm than good to an author's reputation. Popularity may result in overexposure, and winning the approval of the masses can end up alienating readers who consider themselves more "discerning" (p. 81). Jackson skillfully unravels the problematic critical assumptions at the heart of such responses to an author's work, but also recognizes their continuing influence. Even Austen, it is suggested—who currently commands both popular and critical approbation—"seems more than likely" to "eventually lose her special status" (p. 105).

Chapter 4, which tackles the subject of literary merit, is potentially the most contentious. Though Jackson earlier concedes to a notion of "threshold quality" (p. 109) as necessary to an author's survival, here she generally emphasizes the limitations of merit-based arguments by reevaluating the relative strengths of Keats, Leigh Hunt, and Barry Cornwall. Perhaps due to her own desire to appeal [End Page 165] to a range of audiences, Jackson does not really consider in detail philosophical theories of aesthetic judgment. However, she is still able to make a convincing case by illustrating the circumstances that have led readers to prefer Keatsean imagination to Huntian fancy. Finally, Chapter 5 looks at recovery projects: specifically, the enthusiasts and scholars who recuperated the reputations of Blake and John Clare, and the question, articulated through the example of Robert Bloomfield, of how far it is possible to re-popularize any apparently neglected author.

Like Crabbe or Hunt, whom she describes as restrained in their opinions of their own merit, Jackson's claims for her achievement in Those Who Write for Immortality are modest: "one of my fears when I embarked on this project," she states, "was that the outcome was obvious, the conclusion foregone" (p. 217). While it is the case that the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2328-112X
Print ISSN
0453-4387
Pages
pp. 164-166
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-19
Open Access
No
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