Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"His Canaille of an Audience": Thomas De Quincey and the Revolution in Reading

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"His Canaille of an Audience": Thomas De Quincey and the Revolution in Reading

Article excerpt

IN A JULY 1907 LETTER TO H. S. SALT, EMILY DE QUINCEY CLAIMED THAT her father's taste in prose fiction "never got beyond the Mrs. Radcliffe stage." "He was but a poor judge of a novel," Emily affirms, "he could make nothing of the modern novel with its pictures of real life." (1) Emily's claim that De Quincey "could make nothing of the modern novel" is, of course, something of a generalization (and no compliment to Anne Radcliffe). However, it is undoubtedly true--as D. D. Devlin points out--that "De Quincey's failure to take the novel seriously has damaged his prestige as a critic." (2) "It must seem odd," Devlin concludes, "that someone so intelligently alert to Wordsworth's greatness should [have been] blind to the genius of Dickens or Emily Bronte" (26). The aim of the present piece is to reappraise this particular De Quinceyan "oddity," specifically to recover an historical and political context for De Quincey's attitude to the novel. This recovery is important, it seems to me, not only because De Quincey's writing about writing has yet to benefit from the recent renaissance in De Quincey studies per se, but also because that writing bears significantly upon Romanticism's arguably defining engagement with the new reading public. (3) De Quincey's dismissal of the novel cannot be detached, I will argue, from his sense that the rise of the novel represents a threat to the model of literature and, moreover, to the model of authorship, that he valorizes under the rubric of the "Literature of Power." More precisely, De Quincey sees the rise of the novel as symptomatic of a dangerous shift in the balance of power in the author-reader relationship, a shift provoked by the "enormous expansion of the reading public" and attendant commercialization of "Literature" (4.298). His writing about writing construes this threat, explicitly, in terms of revolutionary social insurgency. In fact, as I will argue, De Quincey's concern about the threat to "Power" from the rise of the new reading public echoes his earlier anxieties about the origins and implications of popular agitation for Parliamentary Reform. In both cases, an expanding merchant middle-class is understood to represent a revolutionary threat to traditional 'authority,' a threat that is being facilitated by the perceived apostasy of those who should have most reason to oppose it, be they landed gentry or gentleman scholars. De Quincey's own allegiance in this revolution, as gentleman scholar turned professional journalist, remains self-consciously and uncomfortably ambiguous. The larger claim of the present piece, then, is that De Quincey's writing about writing, and his writing about the rise of the novel in particular, sheds significant light on the politics of Romanticism's relationship with the literary marketplace. (4)

We need to begin, I think, by recognizing the extent to which scholarly accounts of De Quincey's writing about writing have detached his dismissal of the novel from its broader political context, both within De Quincey's work and beyond it. In fact, scholarly accounts of De Quincey's attitude to the novel have continued to operate within a critical vocabulary derived largely from De Quincey's own texts, although we might ultimately trace that vocabulary to William Wordsworth. De Quincey ostensibly relegates the novel to "the minor key of literature" because it falls outside that category of writing which he defines as the "Literature of Power," that writing, in short, which makes us "feel vividly, and with a vital consciousness, emotions which ordinary life rarely or never supplies occasions for exciting," which enables "deep sympathy with truth" (11.61; 10.48; 8.6). (5) In other words, De Quincey's work draws a fairly consistent distinction between the formal, thematic and affective characteristics of the novel and those of the poetry or "impassioned prose" that comprise the "Literature of Power." So, for example, while the "Literature of Power" produces an awareness of "the infinity of the world within," novels "speak to what is least permanent in human sensibilities"; while the "Literature of Power" "organizes" and "actualizes" "inert and sleeping" "modes of feeling," novels cater only to "meaner functions of the mind"; while the "Literature of Power" is "immortal," "all novels . …

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