Transcendental Buffoonery: Jacob Dousterswivel and the Romantic Irony of Blackwood's

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IN OCTOBER 1818, THE ANONYMOUSLY-PUBLISHED PAMPHLET HYPOCRISY Unveiled, and Calumny Detected proclaimed that Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine was "the vilest production that ever disfigured and soiled the annals of literature"--an impressive accomplishment for a periodical that was barely one year old. While the indignant author (whom we now know to be Macvey Napier) condemned the magazine for the "unmixed love of evil" evident in the magazine's personal attacks and harsh reviews, he also criticized its unorthodox style:

   [T]here is something in the style and manner of the two principal
   writers that has contributed to give a temporary consequence to
   this Magazine. Nobody will say that this something is
   comprehension, or judgment, or sincerity, or any other of the
   virtues either of style or morals.... With good memories, some
   fancy, and an overflowing bitterness of heart, these writers have
   hitherto contrived to please the malicious,--to dazzle and astonish
   the less informed, or, in other words, the greater portion of their
   readers. They have employed by turns the florid, the prurient, and
   the obscure style, each of which is calculated to impose upon a
   pretty numerous class.... In these compositions the design seems to
   be, like that recommended in the art of sinking in poetry, to form
   a labyrinth out of which nobody can get clear but the authors
   themselves. (1)

Conceding that the outrageous and glittering artifice of Blackwood's attracted the attention of a considerable (if undesirable) audience, Napier charged that the magazine intentionally defied comprehension and moral standards in favor of stylistic flash; his reference to Alexander Pope's Peri Bathous, Or the Art of Sinking in Poetry stressed the perceived superficiality and confusion. Two years later, the editor of the London Magazine, John Scott, voiced similar concerns about the baffling style of Maya (as Blackwood's was called), declaring that Blackwood's "forms the most foul and livid spot, indicative of an accursed taint in the literature of the day." Like Napier, Scott objected in part to Blackwood's' confounding humor, claiming that the journal "assumed the externals of harlequinade and buffoonery" and, through its frequent publication of anonymous and pseudonymous pieces, created "a mystification ... for dishonest purposes, and under cowardly motives." (2) For readers like Napier and Scott, then, Blackwood's was objectionable not only because its humor treated subjects roughly, but also because its elaborate jokes and ironic tone--the lack of sincerity noted by Napier--intentionally confused its audience.

In this essay, I explore the ways that Blackwood's defended its controversial style against such critiques. Although the magazine often resorted to mocking its critics, I contend that a striking and systematic vindication of its methods appears in a June 1822 review of the German philosopher Jacob Dousterswivel's treatise Theorie der Betrug, or Theory of Imposture. This piece defends the elusive style of Blackwood's by suggesting that it trains readers to stay alert to and aware of the possibility of other, more serious impostures, and in so doing makes them better interpreters of both texts and people. According to the reviewer, Blackwood's' hoaxes are educational tools, not dangerous deceptions. Yet the Dousterswivel review is not a straightforward defense of Blackwood's: it is a hoax, a phony review of a book that was never written. The Theory of Imposture is itself an imposture. Not only was there no German philosopher called Jacob Dousterswivel, but the surname alludes to Hermann Dousterswivel, a charlatan from Walter Scott's 1816 novel The Antiquary. The sophisticated defense of Maga's style is thus embedded within an especially mystifying example of that style.

The complexity of the Dousterswivel hoax and other mystifications perpetuated by Blackwood's leads me to my second claim, which is that the purpose and significance of the magazine's obscure humor and elaborate jokes are best understood within the framework of the aesthetic concept known as Romantic irony. …