Literature and the Marketplace: Romantic Writers and Their Audiences in Great Britain and the United States

Literature and the Marketplace: Romantic Writers and Their Audiences in Great Britain and the United States

Literature and the Marketplace: Romantic Writers and Their Audiences in Great Britain and the United States

Literature and the Marketplace: Romantic Writers and Their Audiences in Great Britain and the United States

Synopsis

Literature and the Marketplace addresses one of the great ironies of nineteenth-century British and American literature: the fact that authors of that era, in voicing their alienation from middle-class readers, paradoxically gave expression to feelings of alienation felt by those same readers. As William G. Rowland Jr. points out, romantic writers "thought of the market as conspiring against 'imagination' (Blake) or 'telling the truth' (Melville)" and consequently felt frustrated with literary institutions. Yet their "frustrations," writes Rowland, "helped to energize romantic work and explain its subsequent and continuing appeal."

The book opens with a survey of reading publics in Great Britain and the United States in the early years of the nineteenth century. Rowland then presents individual writers- including Wordsworth, Shelley, Hawthorne, Poe, and Emerson- and their relations to their readers. Finally, Rowland shows how the idea of genius was developed by writers as different as Coleridge, Blake, Whitman, and Dickinson and how that idea evolved as an antidote to the commercial literary marketplace of the nineteenth century.

A wide-ranging and provocative book, Literature and the Marketplace describes the relations between important British and American authors and the audiences and publishing industries of their era- relations that were troubled, uncertain, and remarkably productive of literature.

Excerpt

Since the mid-1980s, literary scholars have shown a growing interest in “the reader,” “the audience,” or “the reading public” and this entity’s role in shaping the form and influencing the content of works of literature, both canonical works and newly discovered or revalued ones. Studies of readers often proceed by studying reviewers, publishers, and book buyers or borrowers who, in the British romantic and antebellum American periods, are often called “the literary marketplace,” “the institution of letters,” or “the profession of letters.” These studies infer from contemporary reviews (which may or may not have been puffs), publishers’ comments in letters and advertisements, authors’ letters to publishers, sales figures, library records, and so on, what the climate of reception for romantic works might have been or possibly was, at least in those circles of readers whose responses have been preserved. But clearly these studies, which have been both celebrated and dismissed as sociological, are more easily focused on living readers, whose responses can be queried and surveyed, rather than dead ones. We simply do not know and cannot find out what most readers of the past thought about a particular book. Sales figures and library circulation records can tell us what people were buying or borrowing, but can they tell us whether the buyers or borrowers read the book more than once, or read it carefully from cover to cover, or even read it all the way through, or at all?

Take, for example, a simple but rarely asked question: How many readers reread a given book? That is the practice of academics and students, but is it a characteristic practice of many or most readers, or an . . .

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