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  • Romanticism's Radical Connectivity
  • Deven M. Parker (bio)

In his 1831 essay "The Letter-Bell," William Hazlitt reflects on what would have been a prosaic feature of London's urban soundscape: the bell that signaled the arrival of the mail. While, for some, its ringing likely faded into the background like so many urban noises, for Hazlitt the bell's cadence conveys a meaning more complex than its intended purpose:

[T]his sound alone… brought me as it were to myself, made me feel that I had links still connecting me with the universe, and gave me hope and patience to persevere.… [at] this time the light of the French Revolution circled my head like a glory, though dabbled with drops of crimson gore: I walked comfortable and cheerful by its side.1

The sound carries him to memories of himself as a young radical in the early years of the French Revolution. As it reminds him of his youthful hopes and ideals, it also signifies his participation in a network of fellow radicals. Like the ping of a Twitter notification or the buzz of a cell phone, the bell communicates his connectedness, the "links still connecting me with the universe." Hazlitt, like other Romantic radicals, believed that sociability could be a catalyst for revolutionary upheaval; the letter-bell and the postal system it evokes, serve, as he sees it, as a medium for fostering connectivity and, by extension, radical idealism. [End Page 158]

The irony, of course, is that even as Hazlitt imagines the letter-bell and the mail as instruments of radical connectivity, Britain's postal networks were established and expanded to sustain the government's power. It is no surprise that their expansion in the 1790s coincided with the Pitt Administration's crackdown on radicalism, which employed postal surveillance to detect treasonous correspondence and plots. As Hazlitt makes the sound of the bell communicate a politics that directly opposes the state, I see him undermining the state power vested in this particular network. Resistance begins by exposing and coopting the networks that prop up the state. Though the letter-bell is only one small cog in this system, its transformation from a means of state communication to one of radical protest constitutes a subversion of this particular medium.

Romanticism's media landscape saw unprecedented connectivity. The expansion of state-sponsored telecommunication networks allowed, for example, Charles Lamb to correspond with friends in Australia, Keats to write to his brother in America, and Office of the Admiralty to learn if there was a French invasion by way of optical telegraph. These rapidly expanding networks changed people's experiences of time and space and made them feel closer to things happening far away.2 At the same time, networks that gave people greater access to each other and to once distant events also allowed them to be more easily surveilled and policed. As we, too, experience the benefits and pitfalls of unprecedented connectivity, what can Romanticism teach us about the ways power operates in the networks that mediate our communication, and how can it inspire us to develop new ways of resisting it?

Deven M. Parker

Deven M. Parker is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the School of English and Drama at Queen Mary University of London.


1. William Hazlitt, "The Letter-Bell," in The Collected Works of William Hazlitt, ed. A. R. Waller and Arnold Glover (London: J. M. Dent and Co., 1904), 235–236.

2. See Mary A. Favret, War at a Distance: Romanticism and the Making of Modern Wartime (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), which explores both mediations of distant war in newspapers and periodicals and the effects of war and dislocation on Romantic writing. See also James Chandler, England in 1819: The Politics of Literary Culture and the Case of Romantic Historicism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), which takes up the effects of distant war on Romantic writers' acute awareness of their present as historical moment and their sense of themselves as historical subjects.



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