"All These Lovers of Books Have Themselves Become Books!": Leigh Hunt in His Library

Article excerpt

Book-love was an epidemic among many second-generation British Romantic writers, for whom relationships between books and people were decidedly reciprocal affairs. By incorporating subjective and cultural characteristics into the ordinarily material qualities of books, these individuals could, at different moments, regard books as people, people as books, books as objects of cultural cachet, books as embodiments of memory, and books as the enablers of and vehicles for social contact. In each of these cases, the printed word was infused with thoughts and sensations - a phenomenon present only, of course, in these readers' imaginations, but with acute consequences for their social worlds.

Leigh Hunt, with his fervor for books and his writings about books and reading, offers us a picture of a Romantic-era reader for whom the acts of collecting, sharing, and reading books created a unique space between person and book, subject and object, imagination and reality. It was in this space, I will argue, that Hunt recognized a psychic life in the printed page with which he could communicate and identify, ultimately aspiring to become a book himself. In this essay, I will consider Hunt's collection of books - which grew, shrunk, and changed throughout his life - as a community that, like the people around him, shaped his work and his self-conception. For Hunt, reading books, owning books, and living among books created a kind of "triple" vision, a unique way of perceiving the world that he describes in his autobiography: "I know not in which I took more delight - the actual fields and woods of my native country, the talk of such things in books, or the belief which I entertained that I should one day be joined in remembrance with those who have talked it."1 These three realms - the actual world, the world described in books, and the world of literary canonicity - together form a map upon which I will chart Hunt's relationship to books at different points in his life. Like Hunt's own world-view, my navigation of these various realms will occasionally overlap, revealing crucial points at which Hunt's relationship with books were the subject of inter-subjective fantasy in which his texts became "alive" with persons, feelings, and convictions.

Jeffrey Cox's critical work on Leigh Hunt and his circle highlights Hunt's collaborative efforts and identifies the Cockney School as an intellectual circle of great cultural significance.2 Cox's cultural analysis of this circle in Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School opened a new avenue for the study of Hunt by engaging with theorized concepts of group dynamics and collaboration - an approach that has influenced my own interest in Hunt and his contemporaries. Like Cox, I find it fruitful to "locate romantic culture in the group, ... to place second generation Romanticism within the circle around Leigh Hunt."3 Unlike Cox, however, I am interested not so much in the social surroundings of Hunt and the Cockney School as I am in the physical features of this community - the concrete circumstances within which they lived and worked.

Chief among my concerns is the relationship Hunt shared with the books with which he chose to surround himself (and he nearly always chose to surround himself with books). His relationship to his library sheds light on the complex, reciprocal, and often paradoxical associations between books and people - associations made possible, I will argue, via the forms of the books themselves. More specifically. Hunt's relationship to his books, conceived in his imagination but realized in his personal and professional milieus, can be connected with a particular moment in history when the popularity of book collecting converged with other cultural changes - namely the coalescing of the British literary canon and the advent of cheap reprints - creating what I will identify as a collective bibliomania.

For a number of consumers in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Britain, the value of books had little to do with reading per se, but rested instead upon a book's very existence. …