Cox, Jeffrey N., Galperin, William, Wordsworth Circle
At the 124th Annual Convention of the Modern Language Association, the Division on the English Romantic Period offered three panels. The first, organized by William Galperin, took up "The Romantic Event"; the second, with Saree Makdisi presiding, discussed "Romanticism, Empire, and the Global." The third, simply titled "Joseph Johnson," might seem by comparison to be quaint even parochial in its focus on a single individual, and not a "major" figure at that. The three papers presented on the panel demonstrated that "Joseph Johnson" designates not so much a particular person as a circle and a network and that this circle was very much involved in the events of the Romantic period--including the important events of publishing books--and it was connected into a wide world marked by imperialism and the stresses of globalization. These three papers reveal the rich insights to be gleaned by studying the Romantic period not from the perspective of an isolated genius or from the godlike perspective of the universal but from the middle-space of human communities and collective human action.
While Joseph Johnson was once considered a minor figure, he has become significant in the lives of canonical writers and as Romanticists have come to appreciate the importance of circles, coteries, and other gatherings of writers, artists, and intellectuals. Biographies such as that of Mary Wollstonecraft by Claire Tomalin or of William Wordsworth by Kenneth Johnston demonstrated the key role Johnson played in the development of these authors. Special sessions at conferences and special issues of journals such as The Wordsworth Circle have focused attention on the extended Johnson circle. In 2003, Helen Braithwaite published Romanticism, Publishing and Dissent: Joseph Johnson and the Cause of Liberty, the first full length study of Johnson since Gerald Tyson's 1979 biography. The Johnson circle (or, really, circles, as Leslie Chard says) has become a key site--similar to the Lake School or the Cockney School to Holland House or the London theaters--for the investigation of the collective project that has become Romanticism.
While much debate has centered on placing him politically and religiously. Johnson appears eclectic in his interests and tastes. Himself a Unitarian, he worked closely with Anglicans, Catholics, and Jews as well as atheists. A religious man, he published some of the most advanced work in science and medicine. He was in the best sense of the word "liberal," open-minded and open to change, generous and committed to the pursuit of those arts and sciences "worthy of a free man" (OED). Joseph Johnson as a bookseller published some of the most pedestrian as well as some of the most striking works of his day; Johnson's publishing house was a force in disseminating the doctrines of religious dissent as well as the ideals of the Enlightenment and of advanced science; many of his authors wrote against the slave trade, and, in the 1790s, members of his circle offered intellectual support for political change, as Johnson published controversial responses to Burke's Reflections.
As a host, he gathered an astonishing group of artists and intellectuals who met to chat or take supper in his bookshop in St. Paul's Churchyard, where, according to Leslie Chard (BPNY, 1975) they ate "boiled cod, veal, vegetables, rice pudding, and wine under the brooding image of ... 'The Nightmare'" painted by Henry Fuseli. Gathering regularly at Johnson's were Fuseli, the Catholic Biblical scholar Alexander Geddes, John Horne Tooke, the philologist and radical organizer, the religious controversialist Gilbert Wakefield, and Mary Wollstonecraft. Sometime members included William Blake, Thomas Paine, and later in the 1790s. William Godwin. As the papers presented on the panel and published in this issue of TWC indicate. Johnson's network was extensive and intricate. While his London shop was a site of cultural production, his network moved out from the capital through ever widening connections. Johnson came from Liverpool, and early on in his career he published such works from his home town as John Newton's account of his life aboard a slave ship and W. Everard's treatise on Mercantile Book-Keeping. He remained in contact with such Liverpuddlians as William Roscoe, cofounder of the Liverpool Society of Encouragement of the Arts, Painting and Design and long at the center of Liverpool's intellectual life, even into the 1820s when Felicia Hemans was a part of his group, as Nanora Sweet has shown.
Raised a Particular Baptist, Johnson became attached to the Unitarians, including Joseph Priestley, the scientist and theologian, who linked Johnson to Warrington Academy, bringing into Johnson's orbit John Aikin and his daughter, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, and John Howard the prison reformer, among others. Priestley also joined the Lunar Society of Birmingham where he would meet Josiah Wedgwood, Mathew Boulton, James Watt, Erasmus Darwin, and Richard Lovell Edgeworth. These friendships helped Johnson establish his contacts with midlands dissenters, scientists, and radical thinkers as well as industrial innovators such as Wedgwood, with Johnson publishing Thomas Bentley's A View of the Advantages of Inland Navigations (1765), a project. Wedgwood supported. Johnson printed works from the Lunar Society. Darwin and Edgeworth's daughter Maria among his most successful authors
Johnson also had extensive foreign connections: in America, Benjamin Franklin, and, as Angela Esterhammer has shown, in German and France serving as a key publisher of Goethe and Schiller, Lavoisier and Lavater, Johnson issued important journals of the period, centrally the Analytic Review, taken up here by Susan Oliver, but he also helped Priestley with his Theological Repository, co-published The Monthly Magazine produced by Aikin, Barbauld, Mary Hays and others, and issued a medical magazine. As Nicholas Roe has shown, medical circles had important links to radical thought, and John Hunter was another fixture of the Johnson circle, appearing as Jack Tearguts in Blake's satire on this intellectual milieu. An Island in the Moon.
While perhaps most successful in publishing or reissuing authors from William St. Clair's "Old Canon" such as Milton and Cowper, Johnson also had important ties to literary experimentalism, publishing Hazlitt's first book and volumes by Wordsworth and Coleridge. After Johnson died, his partner and nephew, Rowland Hunter, continued Johnson's dinner parties, to which he invited his son-in-law, Leigh Hunt, so that the leader of the young experimental writers after Waterloo was connected to the radical sets of the 1790s in a direct and immediate way. As one moves out from Johnson's small bookshop, one finds links across England and beyond to most of the major intellectual and artistic movements of the day.
Networks such as the one that grew up around Johnson's shop are interesting in and of themselves, for they can provide a map through the masses of publication in an explosion in print culture. Beyond that, such complex, communal sites of cultural production reveal the creative process in different, ways. Scholars working on Johnson and his coterie have thus focused on collaboration (Debbie Lee), cosmopolitan interchanges (Angela Esterhammer), print culture (Braithwaite) the rise of the professional woman writer (Laura Mandell), and the impact of science on literature (Alan Richardson). Perhaps no one has done more to explore the Johnson circle as a location for culture than Marilyn Gaull, who in earlier work has shown how to think of the group as predisciplinary and has offered the notion of "contiguity" to expand the sense of literary influence.
Such ideas help explain the work of the Johnson circle, where ideas from a wide range of fields came together in a literary culture that had not yet been institutionalized and specialized. There were natural philosophers such as Erasmus Darwin who also wrote his massive and popular poem The Botanic Garden to illustrate the Linnaean classificatory system. Priestley was equally active as a scientific writer, a theologian, and an educational theorist. Godwin was a political philosopher and a novelist. Mary Wollstonecraft wrote widely in both fiction and non-fiction. There was considerable cross-fertilization among these thinkers, who gathered to discuss the aesthetic, political, social, and theological debates of the day. And even when they did not meet, they corresponded or read and knew each other's work, as when Johnson gave Wordsworth a copy of Malthus's Essay on Population or when he suggested that Malthus follow both Wordsworth's itinerary in Germany and Wollstonecraft's footsteps in Scandinavia.
There were projects on which the group collaborated, perhaps most clearly the journals published by Johnson, but also Darwin's Botanic Garden, illustrated by Fuseli and Blake, or the interconnected work of Wollstonecraft and Godwin. Gatherings of works coming from Johnson's authors take up similar issues, such as the many books he published on the rights of dissenters, or in the texts on electricity or chemistry or in the responses to Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France that included Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Priestley's Letter to the Inhabitants of Birmingham, the American Joel Barlow's Advice to the Privileged Orders, and Blake's French Revolution, though that poem remained unpublished. Other works contest common ground--as God-win in Political Justice, Wollstonecraft in The Rights of Woman, and Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Vision of the Daughters of Albion offer rather different takes on what it might mean to liberate sexuality--and, of course, there are works written in direct opposition to one another, so that Godwin's Political Justice was one text that spurred Malthus's Essay on Population.
The three essays published in this issue of The Words-worth Circle (Volume LIX, number 2, 2009) show how much can be learned by moving into Romanticism through the Johnson circle and other gatherings like it. Gaull considers Johnson as a webmaster, a one-man Google search able to find connections near and tangential. In doing so, she challenges the link between literary history and book history, to suggest that great literature arises within complex communities, lived and virtual. Susan Oliver explores a different aspect of the innovative work in the Johnson circle. She takes up the collective project, of the Analytic Review to show that the establishment was less worried about the specific content of the journal than by its communal voice, an embodied version of a print democracy, as a central editor is replaced by a gathering of anonymous writers. Oliver shows how this jointly-created editorial voice invited active, contestatory readings as well. Joseph Byrne's paper moves closer to canonical Romanticism, showing how Wordsworth's evolving Salisbury Plain poems track his movement in and out of Johnson's circle and the bourgeois public sphere in which he participated. Byrne shows how the poem moves from a condemnation of war and religion reminiscent of Paine to an analysis of corrupt class and legal systems influenced by Godwin to an exploration of a more private suffering in the "Female Vagrant" of Lyrical Ballads. Byrne places each of these revisions in relation to Johnson and the public sphere, as Wordsworth moves to create a "rustic" counter-public sphere.
It is our hope that this work will provoke others to think about Romantic sociability, about the concrete, everyday realities of print culture, or about a lived cosmopolitanism. As these pieces show, great literature neither springs fully grown from the head of the solitary genius nor emanates from an abstract spirit of the age but instead arises in the exchanges, debates, and contestations that occur within a circle such as Johnson's and between such a circle and the larger culture.
Jeffrey N. Cox
University of Colorado
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Joseph Johnson. Contributors: Cox, Jeffrey N. - Author, Galperin, William - Author. Journal title: Wordsworth Circle. Volume: 40. Issue: 2-3 Publication date: Spring-Summer 2009. Page number: 93+. © 2009 Wordsworth Circle. COPYRIGHT 2009 Gale Group.
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