- Afterword:2017 Reads 1817
In reading Christine Woody's paper on Cockney consumption and periodical personae, I kept waiting for consumption to turn from commodities to food, and happily she obliged very quickly. I was waiting partly because eating is the master trope in thinking about consumption generally, but mostly because, as Woody shows, the peculiarly democratizing accounts of eating in the London Magazine and in Blackwood's are ecumenical. They rehabilitate the Cockney school by transforming its literary excesses into gastronomic ones; good taste is more about things tasting good. They also show that eating practices in Britain represented a leveling in advance and in excess of anything that Romantic culture, in its more exalted manifestations, managed to achieve. This leveling—figured, as Woody shows, in the Cockney eater/writer as Everyman—probably originated in the post-revolutionary diminution of the English court "as a style-setting centre."1 In contrast to France, where eating practices were typically exclusionary, British eating was a "Cockney" institution (as it were) regardless of location or milieu. Even the cookbook by Patrick Lamb, who cooked for four British monarchs, contained recipes such as "pease pudding," which was "an ancient stapl[e] of the peasantry" (Mennell, pp. 88–89).
Still, it is not Patrick but rather Charles Lamb who matters here, thanks to his filiations with the periodical culture that Woody analyzes. His writing about food casts the uncanny ecumenism of the Cockney appropriators and rehabilitators, even and especially in a place like Blackwood's, into sharper relief. We see this contrast in the essay "Imperfect Sympathies," where Lamb's persona Elia confesses to an unhealthy sensitivity to "differences of mankind, national or individual," refusing by his own admission to eat with blacks and Jews, the latter of whom are likely to "keck" or to make disgusting sounds "at our cookery."2 And in his most famous essay on food, [End Page 155] "The Dissertation on Roast Pig," Lamb actually reverses Claude Lévi-Strauss's narrative that savagism (the Raw) leads to civilization (the Cooked). Lamb characterizes that development in China as an accident—a house fire where adjacent pigs were incinerated and then consumed cooked for the first time—from which nothing was learned apart from the collateral benefit of burning down one's property (Lamb, ii, 120–26).3 Lamb then memorably extols the pleasure of eating a "child-pi[g]" (as he refers to it) (Lamb, ii, 124). But this embodied moment does not overcome the differences between people who are otherwise united by consumption's pleasures and aspirations to excess. The stakes of Cockney consumption are underscored by the essay's concluding anecdote, in which the young Elia gives away a plum cake that his aunt had baked expressly for him to a beggar who, he is convinced, is an imposter. Lamb's more mature, displaced persona attributes this seemingly virtuous act to "a vanity of self-denial" (Lamb, ii, 125). Elia's "out-of-place hypocrisy of goodness" persists because he fails to recognize the Cockney reality that basic need (in the case of a beggar) and basic desire (in the case of an imposter) are virtually inseparable (Lamb, ii, 125). Moral sympathy, either for the beggar or for a loving aunt, falls short of the belonging that Cockneyism ultimately promises.
The issue of not belonging—despite belonging—is central to Charles Mahoney's treatment of Coleridge's Biographia. Its reviewers represent an aggregate from which Coleridge means to distance himself but always as a critic himself. Rather unsurprisingly, this distancing led to the charge of hypocrisy from critics of all persuasions, who undertook for Coleridge what Lamb did more or less for himself. Yet in contrast to Lamb's retreat from his Cockney companions, Coleridge—for all his injury avant la lettre (in, for example, the long anecdote in the Biographia regarding Francis Jeffrey's treachery)—moves in the opposite direction by making hypocrisy or apostasy the signature of his belonging.
This pushback is evident in the Biographia's defense of Robert Southey, to which Mahoney rightly points us and which Hazlitt witheringly critiqued: [End Page 156]
Some people say, that Mr. Southey has...