Cosmopolitan Flanerie: Leigh Hunt as Literary Cartographer

Article excerpt

  Imagination enriches everything. ... Even brick and mortar are
  vivified, as of old at the harp of Orpheus. A metropolis becomes no
  longer a mere collection of houses and trades. It puts on all the
  grandeur of its history and its literature. ("On the Realities of
  Imagination")
  A map of fictitious, literary, and historical London, would, of
  itself, constitute a great curiosity. ("The World of Books")

Leigh Hunt's career was as long as his personae were various. Child prodigy, theatrical critic, editor of the Examiner, "the wit in the dungeon," the poet of Rimini, head of the "Cockney School," Hampstead host, "friend" of Shelley and Keats, expatriate liberal, the "friendly essayist," "the Companion," the avuncular man-of-letters, model for Dickens's Skimpole, Victorian autobiographer ... the list goes on and on. Nowhere, however, is he cast as a flaneur. Or as a cartographer. Yet it is in these two related guises--principled idler of the streets and literary map-maker--that he did some of his most sustained, most characteristic, and most important work. Without Hunt's literary rambles, that is to say, the maps of both British literature and British literary history would be significantly different.

Throughout the latter half of his long career, Hunt can often be found at work surveying the expanding territory covered by his maps of the metropolis as well as of the "world" of books. From the 1820s through the 1850s, Hunt wrote over 100 essays, under such headings as "The Townsman" and "The Streets of the Metropolis," in which he chronicled his musings on a London at once urban (the contemporary signs of steam omnibuses, gas illuminations, and waterworks) and pastoral (an idealized realm of literary associations, allusions, and memories). Whether walking in the City, strolling through Chelsea, or lounging in Kensington, Hunt increasingly styled himself as the sole cicerone to a London no one other than he seemed to have charted. Ultimately, this literary cartography yielded two distinctive results: most concretely, it produced the three-volume atlas or "physiology" of London comprised of The Town: Its Memorable Characters and Events (1848); The Old Court Suburb; or, Memorials of Kensington, Regal, Critical, and Anecdotal (1855); and A Saunter Through the. West End (1861). More pervasively, Hunt's promenades created him as English literature's most convivial flaneur. Hunt's idiosyncratic map consists of a seemingly inexhaustible collection of cultural, topographical, architectural, historical, and literary anecdotes, all conversationally related to the reader along the course of a promenade through a London which is equal parts evidence and evocation. Read individually or collectively, these musings inspired by the streets of London present Hunt's readers with a singular brand of British panoramic literature as well as of British literary history. Oddly enough, they have received next to no critical attention.

Though these writings are amongst Hunt's least well-known, they exemplify his greatest strengths as an amateur belletrist and a professional man-of-letters. As Hunt meanders from, say, Regent's Park to Finchley or rambles through Chelsea--musing on how the streets ought to have been named, or what sort of books night-watchmen favor, or why it was that Johnson was so fond of Fleet Street--the man-of-letters effortlessly metamorphoses into the man-about-town, an unrivaled literary flaneur who assures his readers that "streets shall bud with pleasant memories, like old walls with ballads" ("The Townsman" 251). His persona in these writings is both recognizably "romantic" and conspicuously "modern": he reads London both as an elysian fairyland, populated by the spirits of departed writers, and as a modern metropolis, punctuated by its bustling crowds and industrial innovations. Hunt's highly literary flanerie conjures two writers in particular: his attention to the material details of the streets and the phenomenality of walking echoes Gay's instructions along the same lines in Trivia, or The Art of Walking the Streets of London (1716), while his cultivation of the persona of one who abandons himself to the impressions of the moment resembles Baudelaire's idler in the arcades in The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire (1938). …