Life and Letters in the City

Charlotte Sussman
Duke University

Engagement with urban life has long been seen as a hallmark of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literature—we can’t imagine the work of Dickens or Defoe without thinking about the emerging metropolis.   It is surprising, therefore, that the city typically has been ignored in literature of the intervening Romantic era.   Although the metropolis was where books were produced, and where they were consumed, Romantic literature has most often been defined in terms of its “commitments to nature and to the natural world” (1).   The excellent and far-reaching Romantic Metropolis: The Urban Scene of British Culture, edited by James Chandler and Kevin Gilmartin (Cambridge University Press, 2005) aims to remedy this misprision, providing a collection of essays that focus on the multivalent ways the new “ascendancy of metropolitan life” made itself felt in Romantic culture.   The collection provides a multidisciplinary view of the topic—including essays on visual as well as literary representation, political history, and accounts of many different kinds of urban cultural performance.   These essays, by an impressive array of prominent scholars, use the rise of the metropolis to generate some important questions about our understanding of British culture more generally.

To think about the city in this period is to take on the “Great Smoke” itself, for if, as the editors say, “the volume is not about London itself, …London looms as large in most of the essays as it did in the world they attend to” (and indeed, only two out of eleven essays are not primarily about London) (2).   For the people of eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century England, as well as those of the world beyond, London was an awe-inspiring, and sometimes terrifying, phenomenon.   Growing at an incredible pace, it held 400,000 people in 1650, and almost a million by 1801.   Between 1800 and 1850 its population doubled, largely through immigration.   London was ten times larger than any other English city.   Throughout the eighteenth century, its inhabitants pushed out from the old walls of the medieval City of London, building new neighborhoods to the west, to the east, and on the south side of the Thames.   Due to the growth of England’s trading empire, almost any kind of commodity, from any part of the world, could be purchased in the city.   Complicated new financial structures—stock markets, insurance companies, joint-stock companies—flourished there.   To many, it seemed that if anything important were to happen during their lifetimes, whether of a cultural, economic, or political nature, it would happen in London.   Of course, London of this era was also filthy and dangerous, afflicted by both disease and crime.   But it was truly a metropolis, the largest city in Europe, drawing innovative practitioners in every field from all over Great Britain and the world.   The city has perhaps been ignored by literary criticism because it was associated with the “popular” (the mob, the multitude, the masses), while Romantics (and earlier Romanticists) wanted to privilege elite forms of art and criticism.   But many of the essays included here show the connections between the crowded city and the solitary resorts of high art.

And yet, to what extent did the emergent metropolis influence—or even dominate—the broader world?   Do we delimit urbanism to the specific practices of people living in cities, or extend the term to the new structures of feeling that, while they might have originated in cities, also spread outwards into other regions of British life?   Many of the essays in this volume give nicely detailed examples of the forms of community or sociability that made the Romantic urban scene distinct.   John Barrell, for example, excavates the sites of the London Corresponding Society, showing   how its meeting patterns raise the important question of “what—or perhaps where—was London?” (100).   His answer explains why the metropolitan was so often equated with the radical.   The society’s structure of self-sufficient “cells” made it appear “On the one hand…to replicate the monstrous, dropsical, formless, numberless character of London…On the other, it appeared as something like the opposite of that…a powerful and dangerously uniform structure which…combined the possibility of local participation and collective action” (107).   Analyzing a less political form of community, Ann Bermingham details the “collective experience of looking” in London’s public art exhibitions, places where “the public could experience itself as a public” (171).   Peter Manning takes on a similar kind of intellectual community, analyzing the way Coleridge and Hazlitt’s public lectures on poetry were at the same time peculiarly urban phenomena and hugely influential in constructing the idea of a “Romantic poet” more generally—these impressive speakers constructed images of themselves that also circulated widely through all sorts of representations during the period.   It is perhaps the definition of urban experience that one can’t ever really sum it up.   But among these accounts of urban activity, I would have liked to see more attention to the association of the city with sexuality and vice:   Judith Walkowitz and others have shown the centrality of prostitution—the complicated intersection of commercialism and sex—what was the state of streetwalkers in the Romantic Metropolis?   Male dandies, too, were vital part of urban culture—were they the equivalent of what we now call “metrosexuals”?

Other essays in the volume explore forms of affective or imaginative community more loosely tied to the urban—or rather, those that may have originated in specific metropolitan settings, but which quickly came to exemplify modernity more generally.   The editors, for example, focus their introduction on the structures of feeling associated with city life that began to permeate Britain during this period.   Other contributors follow their lead.   In a fascinating essay on envy, Frances Ferguson examines the way a late eighteenth-century preoccupation with this emotion began in schools for impoverished London children.   “City children,” she notes,” were children numerous rather than children distinctive” (140), but the monitorial system of education (in which students are continually ranked and re-ranked according to their performance) “aimed to create an artificial association—among persons previously unknown to one another and contemporary with one another.   Sociability was being replaced with an association that included all comers, and hereditary connection was superseded by constant relationship to one’s age-mates” (141).   There is nothing inherently urban about this structure, and once it was proved on the bodies of city children, it was adopted widely.   In an essay on poetic representations of London, Anne Janowitz explores the movement of ideas in the other direction—the way ideas of the sublime were imported from thinking about nature to thinking about the city—fostering what she terms the “artifactual sublime.”

Observers of the growing metropolis debated whether the concentration of so much economic, social and creative energy in the city benefited the nation, or drained material and creative resources from other parts of the country and redirected them out into the larger world.   In other words, was urban culture tied more to the making of national identity, or to a kind of European cosmopolitanism?   The contributors to Romantic Metropolis provide several different answers to these questions.   Ian Duncan, for instance, in a compelling essay on “Edinburgh, capital of the nineteenth century,” demonstrates that Romantic-era representations of that city helped consolidate a new kind of national identity for Scotland, a “nominal identity, which inheres in publicly circulated representations rather than in determinate territory, a body or a bloodline” (49).   Duncan identifies the roles of various cultural producers, but most importantly Walter Scott, in producing a new idea of “culture,” which would preserve “national distinction by fixing it on past identities, diverting it from the contentious arena of contemporary politics” (51).   In his essay on “the Lyceum and Romantic show business,” Simon During also looks at the uses of “culture,” in this case popular theater, in the production of a new kind of national identity.   Through a detailed analysis of the Lyceum, he argues, we can see the “passage of magic to culture, where culture as agricultural production was being mutated—ritualistically—into culture as leisure industry”—which then served to “domesticate nationalism” (218).   For both writers, the definition of nation through culture was new to the Romantic period, and something that happened primarily in cities.

Jon Klancher, meanwhile, defines a new kind of Romantic cosmopolitanism against the eighteenth-century Republic of Letters.   If Enlightenment cosmopolitanism was “universalizing and often philosophically skeptical; tolerant of cultural or religious differences, yet finely discriminating in matters of taste; oriented to particular markets of publication but writing in broad and unspecialized prose; bowing to no king, yet always well-connected, prizing association over division,” the breakdown of many of these ideals between 1790 and 1830 created a Romantic cosmopolitanism that, he argues was “considerably more wary, tense, alternately exuberant and abrasive” (66, 67), a commercialized public sphere that “[was] no longer principally argument against argument, nor confrontation face to face, but [was] now increasingly experienced as an incremental, unprepared for, astonishing process of erasure and disappearance” (70).   This violent space, for Klancher, is distinctly urban, rather than broadly national.   Taking a different approach to imagining the metropolis outside of, or beyond, the nation, Celeste Langan looks at the “dissolution of Byron’s Englishness” in the works he wrote while resident in Venice, arguing that this dissolution is “aligned with his recognition that the metropolis, not the nation, has emerged from revolutionary conflict as a the locus of state power” (262—emphasis Langan’s).   Furthermore, Langan argues that in works like Marino Faliero, Byron “stress[es] the permeability of three privileged figures of autonomy—the city of Venice, the home, and the body—to suggest that the sovereign subject of the new world order (the national-state as well as its microcosm, the citizen) is a canalized subject, traversed by flows of power that originate elsewhere” (262).   For Langan, even more than Klancher, focus on the Romantic-era city has the critical advantage of dislodging the long-standing focus on the nation state.

At a conference I recently attended, the question of how best to structure the contemporary reader’s understanding of the Romantic era was a hotly debated topic. The turn towards theory and discourse analysis, some participants argued, had led literary and cultural criticism to shy away from the power of narrative to convey information about the past.   But why, they asked, shouldn’t we embrace that power, and make literary history more accessible to a broader array of readers, as biographers and some popular historians have done?   I could see echoes of that debate in the essays collected in Romantic Metropolis, which take a number of different approaches towards structuring our understanding of the Romantic-era city—Some writers, like Barrell, use a quantitative approach, replete with graphs and maps, some like Langan, use literary analysis; but the force of narrative criticism—cultural history that isn’t afraid to tell a story is evident in Iain McCalman’s essay on “Mystagogues of Revolution: Cagliostro, Loutherbourg and Romantic London,” which uses the biography of the rogue mystic Cagliostro as a way of illuminating the “cross-pollinations between late eighteenth-century radical, artistic and occultist subcultures” in Paris and London (1770).   It’s a wild story, well-told, and provides a revealing glimpse into a little-known aspect of the late Enlightenment.

For those of us who study the eighteenth century, however, it seems worthwhile to ask what made the Romantic Metropolis different from the eighteenth-century city.   Understandably, most essays do not focus on this question, but those by Klancher, Duncan, and Langan do suggest some interesting possible answers.   Klancher, most explicitly, sees the decline of an international Republic of Letters spurred by the growing commercialism of the cultural world, and an awareness of the segmentation of London society.   Duncan and Langan, from different perspectives, see a kind of sea change in the formation of cultural identity in the first few decades of the nineteenth century—particularly post-Waterloo.   For both critics, an idea of national territory can no longer define cultural production, even as new definitions of place inspire deeply held affiliations.   But if Romantic Metropolis doesn’t focus on the transition from the Enlightenment to the post-Enlightenment city, it does work to redefine the Romantic era itself.   Long considered an era that not only revered the countryside, but also celebrated the solitary individual in rural isolation, literary historians have now made us aware of “Romantic sociability and Romantic “circles.”   Romantic Metropolis deepens our understanding of the Romantic period as an era during which new forms of intellectual and political community flourished in the boundless energy of city life.