Journalism, Literature and Modernity: From Hazlitt to Modernism

By Robertson, J. Michael | Journalism History, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Journalism, Literature and Modernity: From Hazlitt to Modernism


Robertson, J. Michael, Journalism History


Campbell, Kate, ed. Journalism, Literature and Modernity: From Hazlitt to Modernism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004. 234 pp. $30.

One after another, the critics in Journalism, Literature and Modernity repeat the insults that literary culture has bestowed on journalists: vampire, louse, prostitute, dilettante, lazy and effeminate member of the lower cksses, and enemy of the "modern sensibility" no matter how one defines it

Since those imprecations were for the most part culled from the period in British journalism examined in the book's ten contemporary scholarly essays, covering the period roughly from the early nineteenth century and William Hazlitt to 1940 and Laura Riding, perhaps we are accentuating the negative to quote them today. Collection editor Kate Campbell says not. A teacher at the University of East Anglia and the University of Cambridge, she quoted American media critic Joli Jenson, writing a decade ago: "Renowned scholars in history, literature, philosophy and sociology seemed unable to shed their mistrust of, and disdain for, mass communication in any form. They returned over and over to a monolithic vision of the mass media as individual, social and cultural corruption. I struggled to get past this vision."

In just the spirit of diose "renowned scholars," contemporary literary studies have refused to grant journalism status as literature, "neglecting and disparaging journalism," Campbell says. However, invidious comparisons in place and ready to be swept aside, this collection is not a simple exercise in contradiction. Each of these critics places her or his subject in the context of journalism-if only as an editor of or a contributor to a literary periodical-and of "the modern," no matter how it is defined. Most of these essays say only that the writer's work as a journalist is worthy of study. They do not celebrate or strain in defense.

A caveat Some essays refine what we already knew. Jon Cook talks about the essayist Hazlitt's conversational style, which earlier scholars might simply have called an example of early nineteenth-century Romantic individualism. Cook links it, in its "freedom of subjectivity," to Hegel, McLuhan and Derrida. Geoffrey Hemstedt reminds us how Charles Dickens was a working editor of Household Words and All the Year Round in the 1850s and 1860s and roamed the streets of London at night, finding in the experiences of those he encountered "the terms in which a reformist program might be framed.

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