Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Flash Romanticism: The Currency of Urban Knowledge in Tom & Jerry

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Flash Romanticism: The Currency of Urban Knowledge in Tom & Jerry

Article excerpt

To know the city as Romantic writers knew it and to know, with Wordsworth, "common life ... in a selection of language really used by men" (598-7), requires knowing the language "really used" in the city, because the available styles of representation delimit what and how any society knows. The best records of the everyday language of Romantic-era London are dictionaries of cant and popular street literature, like Pierce Egan's concisely-titled Tom & Jerry: Life in London; Or the Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn and His Elegant Friend, Corinthian Tom, Accompanied by Bob Logic, the Oxonian, in Their Gambles and Sprees Though the Metropolis. Engraved by George Cruikshank and published monthly starting in 1821 for a shilling an issue, Life in London combines picaresque narrative (Williams 217), caricature, and slang dictionary (although it does not always define the slang that fills its pages).

The first examples of cant dictionaries in the mid-18th century catalogued specifically criminal, low-life terminology; but, as Janet Sorensen shows, by the late 18th century this "vulgar" language had become coterminous with the "common" language of "the people" and included all current classes of slang, puns, and fashionable phraseology: "at the same time as a wide set of popular practices and beliefs were criminalized and rendered invisible," Sorensen writes, "a set of 'criminal' linguistic practices became highly visible and came to be understood as an expression of popular British culture and a uniquely British liberty in a dialectic of social repression and rhetorical rehabilitation of the people" (Sorensen 438). I say "current" classes of slang, not only because these dictionaries register historically-specific, current--as in contemporary--forms of speech, but also because slang functioned in Romantic literature as a form of currency, a medium of exchange that Londoners or "cits," used to register and capitalize on their urbanity in lieu of the three dominant figures of realist narrative--character, plot, and an interpretive narrative voice. Cits called this current language "flash," (1) and the style of flash genres--which include ballads, dictionaries, annotated engravings like Thomas Rowland-son's Dr. Syntax series, and Newgate and silver-fork novels--implies that the common reading public, everyday city readers, privileged this medium of exchange, flash, over character, plot, narrative voice, and the forms and effects of cultivation, morality, immorality, idealism, individuality, and self-knowledge that writers typically ascribed to these narrative features. Whereas sympathy with characters and adherence to plots implied property transfer, marriage, inheritance, growth, development, education, and change, exchanging flash was an impersonal mode of interaction that left individual characters and readers alike unexposed and unaltered. Flash was the medium of urban narrative and urban knowledge.

Immensely popular, even among the educated upper-classes, Egan's Life in London profitably built upon antecedents like The Newgate Calendar and Johnson's Life of Savage; and, as would be the case with Dickens's novels, theaters and hack writers staged and published pirated versions of Life in London before it was finished. The text remained in print throughout the 19th century. The 1869 edition, edited by John Camden Hotten (who contemporaneously published The Dictionary of Slang), introduces the work as "the book--the literature--of that period, the one work which many elder gentlemen still remember far away in the distance of their youth" (1). And sure enough, re-envisioning his boyhood self with a book on his lap, William Thackeray imagined, "behind the great books which he pretends to read, [behind even Scott's The Heart, of Mid-Lothian], is [Life in London'], which he is really reading" (qtd. from The Roundabout Papers in Egan 2).

As what people were "really reading," as the text tucked inside more austere and now-canonical texts, Life in London might index what features everyday 19th-century readers actually attended to as they read. …

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