Antiquarian Authorship: D'Israeli's Miscellany of Literary Curiosity and the Question of Secondary Genres

By Ferris, Ina | Studies in Romanticism, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Antiquarian Authorship: D'Israeli's Miscellany of Literary Curiosity and the Question of Secondary Genres


Ferris, Ina, Studies in Romanticism


BENJAMIN DISRAELI'S MEMOIR OF HIS FATHER, PREFACED TO THE POSTHUMOUS fourteenth edition of Isaac D'Israeli's remarkably successful antiquarian miscellany Curiosities of Literature (originally published in 1791), underlines his parent's intense bookishness, calling him "a complete literary character, a man who really passed his life in his library." (1) The elder D'Israeli indeed spent many if not all his days poring over printed books and manuscripts both in his own collection and, more importantly, in the library and archives of the British Museum, producing a stream of collections of curiosities, miscellanies, anecdotes, essays, and secret histories in a literary career spanning more than fifty years. A hybrid mix of extracts from and reflections on old books, these volumes are rooted in a deep commitment to a culture of reading and re-reading, and Isaac D'Israeli stands as perhaps the epitome in the period of the kind of literary figure defined by Leigh Hunt as those who "write books about books, or upon authors, or out of them, or are made up of scholarship and anecdote, who in any way ... would not have been authors, but for authors before them." (2) Such genres and their authors have generally fared poorly in critical discourse, both then and now, typically seen as parasitical, secondary, dim of mind and vision, as in the proverbial book-worm scorned by William Hazlitt in one of his more platonic moments as someone who sees "only the glimmering shadows of things reflected from the minds of others." (3) For someone like D'Israeli, however, reflections from the minds of others were precisely the point. "We learn to think, by being conversant with the thoughts of others," he asserts rather testily in a critique of the idea of inborn natural genius. (4) D'Israeli by no means denied the existence of such genius. His An Essay on the Manners and Genius of the Literary Character (1795), revised as The Literary Character (1818), celebrates as much as it interrogates the term, and throughout his career, he strenuously defended authorial rights, proposed the establishment of literary prizes and academies, and in general supported institutions linked to an authorial model of textual production. (5) But at the same time--and herein lies the specificity of his contribution to a history of the literary field in the Romantic era--D'Israeli actively sought to expand the category of "the literary character" by including auxiliary forms of publication and secondary genres of reflection typically cast in the penumbra of the literary sphere.

Genres of collection, compilation, and republication, they were typically gathered under the suspect sign of "book-making," regarded less as literary forms than as adjuncts of the book trade. Frequently initiated by booksellers rather than authors, they were understood as contingent and ramshackle collections rather than compositions, modes of lazy and opportunistic publication that exploited the technological power of the press to transfer and reproduce text rather than the mental powers proper to authorship and literary genres. (6) As an intervention in public culture, they threatened to strip the book of both its traditional learned aura and its newer authorial identity not just by turning it into a commodity but by eliding the distinction between reading and writing whose centrality to generic hierarchy in the Romantic literary field Lucy Newlyn has recently traced. (7) D'Israeli's own literary pragmatics is symptomatic. So long as a book is useful and agreeable, he argues in defense of the hybrid essay-extracts initiated in the Curiosities of Literature, "I believe the Public care little whether the Author has written every sentence himself, or like me, stands deeply indebted to the works of other Writers." (8) But wherein lay "the useful" to justify this casual dismissal of the original in out-of-the-way productions like the antiquarian miscellany? Other genres of collection such as the pedagogically-minded poetical anthologies directed at schoolboys or middle-class ladies might serve social utility by training inexperienced readers to develop aesthetic taste and literary knowledge, for they were made up of texts "publicly known and universally celebrated" (to cite the emphatic phrase of Vicesimus Knox). …

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