Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Ralph Waldo Emerson, George Dawson, and the Control of the Lecture Platform in Mid-Nineteenth Century Manchester

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Ralph Waldo Emerson, George Dawson, and the Control of the Lecture Platform in Mid-Nineteenth Century Manchester

Article excerpt

Despite recent increased interest in the politics of the spoken word, the history of the English lecture platform is still dominated by interpretations derived from the rather different experience of America. This article seeks to uncover the extent to which in England, far from serving as an affirmation of community identity, the early Victorian lecture often exposed the raw edges of intra-class conflict. Juxtaposing the relatively well-known experience of Ralph Waldo Emerson as lecturer in Manchester in 1847-1848 with the more sustained engagement in the city by the British Carlylean George Dawson illuminates the degree to which the ambivalence that greeted Emerson derived from a broader conflict over the function of the lecture platform, and the latitude to be allowed to its leading figures. The disillusionment of Emerson and the marginalization of Dawson suggest that even at the moment of the triumph of free trade liberalism, crucial barriers were erected to free expression on the public platform. From this perhaps derives the failure of the public lecture to impose itself at the heart of mid-Victorian bourgeois culture.

Introduction

The conventional image of public lecturing in mid-nineteenth century Britain derives largely from the picture of public lecturing within the American Lyceum movement originally established by David Mead and Carl Bode, and largely reinforced by the more recent work of Donald Scott and Mary K. Cayton. (1) According to these studies, the public lecture in America emerged in the 1840s and early 1850s as creation and affirmation both of community identity and the American republican myth. Whether via the elite control more prominent in the early years of the movement, or through the disciplines of the market more prominent later, the lecture platform evolved into a neutral space, "bled of any philosophical, political or religious implications" as Cayton has expressed it, and the lecture into "a collective ritual that invoked the values thought to define and sustain the community as a whole." (2)

Recent years have seen a considerable re-awakening of interest in oral communication, rhetoric, and oratory in nineteenth century Britain, although, as Patrick Joyce has recently pointed out, we are a long way from a modern synthesis. British historians, including H.C.G. Matthew, James Vernon, Miles Taylor, and Joyce himself, have begun a long-overdue process of recovering the significance of what Vernon has described as "the politics of the spoken word" (3) in the Victorian period, but they have concentrated on the political platform, and especially on performance, on the drama or the semiotics of the orator and the mass meeting, rather than on the public lecture. (4) For Britain, nineteenth century public lecturing is still largely the province of the social history of science, which, for all the subtlety of its analysis, has tended to focus on the cultural status of science rather than on the cultural status of the lecture. (5)

The dominance of the American model which has resulted is unfortunate. In particular, it has inhibited full recognition of the contested nature of the lecture platform, and the complexity of the cultural roles and meanings of the public lecture itself. There has been a tendency, even in more sophisticated recent work, to present the public lecture in a simple diffusionist light, as a tightly controlled medium for the uncomplicated transmission of the values and ideologies of elites to the masses, or even as a relatively straightforward aspect of urban leisure. (6) Where tensions over the lecture platform have been noted, the suggestion has been that the conflicts were episodic rather than sustained, and that lecturing societies were able to create what R.J. Morris has recently described as "a neutral area [that] could then become the base for class action in cultural and philanthropic matters." (7) This has allowed the lecture to take its place unproblematically within those arenas of"rational discussion" that constitute the bourgeois "public sphere. …

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