Reading and the Public Sphere

Marcie Frank
Concordia University

In The Constitution of Literature: Literacy, Democracy, and Early English Literary Criticism (Stanford, 2007), Lee Morrissey takes a new approach to the history of English literary criticism by introducing a hitherto overlooked perspective: critics’ attitudes towards reading.   In his account of the different ways John Dryden, Joseph Addison, Alexander Pope, David Hume, and Samuel Johnson understood reading, Morrissey depicts laws and rules yielding to standards.   He emphasizes his main figures’ shared interest in delimiting readers’ interpretive freedom, which, he argues, they associated with the political violence of the English Civil War.   In fact, Morrissey reads the history of English criticism as the retrenchment of privilege in the face of the democratizing possibilities represented by increased literacy.   He thus would call into question Jürgen Habermas’s identification of literary criticism with the development of the public sphere.[1]   The book contributes to the history of criticism an account of what reading meant to early English literary critics, but this new angle won’t alter profoundly our sense either of that history or its politics, partly because of the ways Morrissey conceptualizes “reading” and “politics.”   The book’s major strength lies in its ambition to use the history of criticism to provoke a remapping of the contemporary critical terrain, even if its polemic to sustain the unfinished project of deconstruction isn’t entirely successful.

Considering Roger Chartier’s question–“How did people in Western Europe between the end of the Middle Ages and the eighteenth-century attempt to master the enormously increased number of texts?”–from “a more qualitative angle,” Morrissey claims that literary critics try to do for reading what cataloguing does for bound volumes (7).   He thus proposes that, by examining what it means to read during the Restoration and eighteenth century, ” The Constitution of Literature describes something like an ‘order of literature’ within the order of the book” (7).   Morrissey’s attention to reading is generative and insightful; however, despite his stated interest in the order of literature, Morrissey does not provide an account of the emergence of the category of the literary as distinct from other forms of textuality, and only intermittently signals his awareness of other accounts of this emergence, such as recent histories of the formation of the English canon.[2]   Morrissey links reading with understanding, responding to, and interpreting texts, but not with other activities analogous to cataloguing, such as classifying, indexing, or otherwise conceptually organizing literature.   Nor does he distinguish ways of reading literature from reading other materials.   This weakness stems from his critical goal to marry deconstruction to the history of the book.

According to Morrissey, Habermas is wrong to see rational critical debate as a feature of early English literary criticism.   Early English literary criticism, he argues, was interested in the imagination and the passions, not in reason; moreover, it was anti- and not proto-democratic; it therefore cannot be seen as either a symptom or an engine of the public sphere.   Dryden, Addison, Pope, Hume, and Johnson want to limit rather than disseminate interpretive authority.   Their consolidation of authority, rules, or standards in their own practices, he argues, should properly be understood as successive repudiations of the genuine democratization of interpretive authority that occurred during the Civil War.

The location of the politics of early English literary criticism in critics’ attitudes towards reading is a good move, and Morrissey’s story of how critical reading practices evolve from Dryden to Johnson often sits well with other accounts of these critics, though Morrissey leaves it to the reader to supply the other relevant contexts for criticism, which are also sometimes political.   His assumption that each of the political crises from the Restoration of 1660 to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the second Jacobite rising of 1745 was experienced as a recapitulation of the trauma of the Civil War and Interregnum, and regicide is not without warrant, though his extraction of critics’ descriptions of and prescriptions for reading from other overlapping interests often produces mixed results.   In his account of Pope’s Essay on Criticism (1711), for example, Morrissey elegantly situates Pope in relation to both science and belles letters, proposing that he “creates a new position [on the ‘rules’], one that combines the Newtonian sense of a current scientific discovery of the laws of Nature with the Addisonian sense of the importance of certain works” (122-23).   Pope’s “rules” thus resolve the practical question of how one should read, for which his own example provides the model.   However, when Morrissey unpacks Pope’s “regularity” only in terms of perspective, and other architectural terms, he leaves it to the reader to collate “the rules” with the widespread debate on the status of neoclassical prescription, which has a political logic of its own.

To take another example, Morrissey’s strict adherence to his own critical agenda means that he proposes that Dryden’s attitudes towards reading are put forth most definitively in Religio Laici (1682), which offers “a model of reading that can steer between no access and too much interpretation” (81).   According to Morrissey, Dryden advocates a “profoundly logocentric though not necessarily rational” (83) process of interpretation when he recommends, “Whatever is obscure is concluded not necessary to be known.”   This solution to the problem that readers may produce unusual destabilizing readings thus offers a counterexample to the public sphere discourse of rational critical debate.   Yet Morrissey himself notices that Dryden had invited readers to more active participation in MacFlecknoe (1682) (78).   Morrissey’s account of Dryden’s consolidation of interpretive authority in the hands of the experts is consonant with most other accounts of his critical career.   Although he privileges a poem that maximizes the difficulties of distinguishing among religious, political, and literary interpretations over one that determines the proper succession of wit to be a literary as well as a political matter that operates at arm’s length from religious controversy, he misses the opportunity to analyze an early instance of literary critics’ interest in literary reading.

Morrissey’s interest in maintaining the political valences of reading makes him unwilling to distinguish literary from other kinds of readings.   This yields the interesting argument that John Milton is, perhaps, the most important figure to the history of criticism understood as a history of reading.   Milton’s status as a regicide republican certainly made him a problematic figure in early English literary criticism, as Morrissey demonstrates, but he does not locate in Milton’s critical reception the separation of the poetic from the religious or political meanings of his work.   Thus, while Morrissey recognizes Johnson’s discomfort with the religious and political demands Milton makes on the reader, he can only ascribe Johnson’s distaste to his religious and political differences from Milton.   He does not see Johnson also expressing the understanding that literature ought not to make these demands.   To recover the separation of literature from politics and religion in the history of criticism would be to give a history of literature’s depoliticization.   Such an account would not necessarily reproduce a view of literature and politics as incompatible; rather it would show their divergence to have been a contingent feature of historical circumstances.

For Morrissey, however, the politics of literary criticism are straightforward: constituted by and for a privileged elite of educated male interpreters, literary criticism is anti-democratic.   He can thus construe even Addison as an elitist.   Whereas Morrissey is correct that Addison seeks to restrict and codify interpretation, I know of no other account that would equate this interest in regularization with the delimitation of access to interpretation, a claim Morrissey supports partly with reference to Addison’s ambivalent attitude towards women readers who he desires both to include and exclude.[3]   It may be accurate to say of each of Morrissey’s major figures that he is anti-democratic from the perspective of twenty-first-century democratic theory, but surely we need a more nuanced account of the politics of literary criticism, one that at least would register the different political views of Addison and Pope.   Such an account, I would wager, could emerge from an account of literary criticism’s specific interest in literature.

Though he claims that he “has focused on what the aesthetic might have meant to early English literary critics” (189), Morrissey treats the scholarship on the development of the category of the aesthetic or the literary as though it belonged in a separate sphere from the one he undertakes to examine.   In his account of Hume, for example, Morrissey creates the impression that Hume barely figures in accounts of eighteenth-century literary criticism.   This is true only if we use the most circumscribed understanding of the history of literary criticism; there have been many discussions of Hume’s contributions to aesthetic discourse by literary critics.[4]   On the one hand, Morrissey’s notion of reading is generalized beyond literature; on the other, he understands literary criticism as a highly specialized activity.

It is tempting to see his unwillingness to distinguish the literary from other kinds of reading as flowing from Morrissey’s investment in the history of the book paradigm, in which literature represents only one type of book.   Yet Morrissey likewise ignores the empirical archive on the history of reading assembled by William St. Clair in The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period; St. Clair persuasively argues that literacy didn’t equal access to books, whose prices delimited their circulation to elite circles, until changes in copyright law in 1774 made the production of cheap editions profitable.[5]   Whereas clearly Dryden, Addison, Pope, Hume, and Johnson were all concerned about the codification of what we call aesthetic judgment, St. Clair’s research suggests that these early critics may have been less anxious about access than Morrissey suggests.

Despite his interest in using the history of the book paradigm to historicize deconstruction, Morrissey adheres to the deconstructive, rhetorical definition of reading.   The equation of reading with interpretation is the one created by twentieth-century professional literary studies, going back to I. A. Richards’s practical criticism, visible in the idea of close readings inculcated by New Critics that also continued to be privileged by Paul de Man.   It is ironic that by importing this concept of reading back into the eighteenth century, Morrissey produces a circularity of argument that partially incapacitates him from giving the very history he aims to provide.

Likewise, his concept of Enlightenment derives less from the historical study of the figures of the period than from the debates on the matter between Habermas and Jacques Derrida, which, to his credit, Morrissey distances himself from after his examination of actual Enlightenment figures.[6]  As he notes in conclusion, “The point is not that Hume or Johnson are anti-Enlightenment figures but rather that literary critics confound our sense of the Enlightenment in part because it seems that literature and literary history do so as well” (183).   It’s too bad that this reasonable conclusion was not Morrissey’s point of departure.   We might then have been spared sustained partisan attacks on Habermas that do not materially advance Morrissey’s account of criticism.

As right-minded feminists, we may decry, along with Morrissey, the eighteenth-century restriction of critical authority to educated men, a category to which it became possible for those not privileged by birth to aspire in greater numbers as the century wore on.   Yet, this restriction has itself been subject to historical revision, as can be seen in scholarship on female critics.[7]  Furthermore, this restriction is not in itself evidence against the existence of the public sphere.   The past fifteen years of successive critiques taking issue with the exclusivity of the public sphere, with the dating of its emergence, and with its links to Habermas’s idealization of communication, have not succeeded in rendering the concept useless for historical analysis.[8]   On the contrary, the concept of the public sphere has been immensely productive to eighteenth-century literary studies as well as to the history of political thought.   To recognize this is neither to slag Derrida, nor to resuscitate Habermas.

There is much to enjoy in Morrissey’s book.   He’s a clear writer who generates insightful accounts of the critics he analyzes.   He draws a suggestive parallel between the place of literary criticism in print culture and that of interpretation in digital culture in order to alert us to the ways literacy, be it print or digital, can be faultily linked to democratic politics.   Like Morrissey, I am interested in using a historical awareness of literary criticism to help us understand the ways we practice it today, though we diverge on the question of how best to derive this historical understanding.   In the end, Morrissey’s desire to rescue deconstruction for historicist analysis suffers from limitations that stem from his preference for polemic at the expense of history.


[1]   Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger with Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge, Mass., 1992), 25.

[2]   Morrissey refers twice to Jonathan Brody Kramnick’s Making the English Canon: Print-Capitalism and the Cultural Past 1700-1770 (New York, 1999), twice to Trevor Ross’s The Making of the English Canon: From the Middle Ages to the Late Eighteenth Century (Montreal, 1998), and not at all to John Guillory’s Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (Chicago, 1993).

[3]   Ros Ballaster and other feminist readers of Addison observe the ambivalence, but emphasize the periodical papers’ translation of Latin emblems as modes of including new readers: men with no classical education and women: see Ros Ballaster, et al., Women’s Worlds: Ideology, Femininity and the Women’s Magazines (Houndmills, 1991), and Kathryn Shevelow, Women and Print Culture: The Construction of Femininity in the Early Periodical (New York, 1989).

[4]   Recent treatments of Hume’s contributions to aesthetic discourse that could belong to a more expanded sense of the history of literary criticism would include Mary Poovey’s A History of the Modern Fact: Problems of Knowledge in the Sciences of Wealth and Society (Chicago, 1998); Carol Kay’s “Valuing Practices in Hume,” New Literary History 30, no. 4 (1999): 757-67; Jody Greene’s “Arbitrary Tastes and Commonsense Pleasures: Accounting for Taste in Cleland, Hume, and Burke,” Launching Fanny Hill: Essays on the Novel and its Influence (New York, 2003), 221-65; and David Marshall’s “Hume’s Standard of Taste,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 28, no. 3 (1995): 323-43.

[5]   William St Clair, The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (New York, 2004), 436-37.

[6]   For a full contextualization of the debates between Habermas and Derrida, please see The Derrida-Habermas Reader, ed. Lasse Thomassen (Chicago, 2006).

[7]   For examples, see the anthology, Women Critics 1660-1820, ed. the Folger Collective on early women critics (Bloomington, Ind., 1995), and Susan Staves, A Literary History of Women’s Writing in Britain (New York, 2006).

[8]   For a variety of critiques of the concept of the public sphere, see the collection of essays edited by Craig Calhoun, Habermas and the Public Sphere (Cambridge, Mass., 1992).   On the dating of its emergence, see the special issue of Criticism edited by Joseph Loewenstein and Paul Stevens: “When a Public Sphere?,” 46, no. 2 (2004).