Michael Gamer, Romanticism, Self-Canonization, and the Business of Poetry

Michael Gamer, Romanticism, Self-Canonization, and the Business of Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017) 330 pp. $80.00 PDF. £75.00 Hb. ISBN: 9781107158856

The value of Michael Gamer’s new book is not the novelty of its central argument. Jerome McGann has long since established his post-Althuserian conception of the textual materialities, both bibliographical and economic, which underpin Romantic literary reproduction. And it is now nearly fifteen years since Ian St Clair succeeded in translating those theoretical insights into a wide-ranging articulation, constitutive of a new understanding of Romanticism itself. Gamer’s vision of Romantic writers ‘whose creative impulses were constrained, highly mediated, and all the more compelling as a result’ is hardly a departure from these theses (11). The paratextual framework for the study describes it as an attempt to ‘[explode] the myth of Romantic poets as naïve, unworldly, or unconcerned with the practical aspects of literary production’; one has to wonder whether or not this particular Romantic myth persists exclusively in order to be continuously (re)exploded? Yet whilst the central thesis of the book does feel a little platitudinous, Gamer’s reiteration of the argument is more than justified by the fruitfulness of the insights it prompts. What readers will value in this work is a close attentiveness to the material negotiations of specific authors, as opposed to the more abstracted approaches of Gamer’s predecessors.

The study centres around the idea of ‘(re)collection’ – a term distinct from McGann’s ‘reproduction’ and Stephen Gill’s ‘revisiting’ by virtue of its greater emphasis on the reorganisation of literary materials ‘by the living’ (2). In his introduction, Gamer offers a useful distinction between ‘writer’ and ‘author’: author ‘denotes the public, institutional figures that appear on the title pages of said texts’, whereas writer ‘refers to individuals who work with publishers to create and publish literary texts’ (8). And this distinction chimes with Gamer’s central aim in the book, which is to explore the ‘collision between the aesthetic and the economic’ as manifested in the codex (1).

Wordsworth’s proclivity for revision is addressed over the course of two chapters, though the first also comprises a useful section concerning the history of ‘self-collection’. Such processes, Gamer tells us, ‘[extend] back before the invention of the printing press, even to antiquity’. But most of Gamer’s own examples are post-Gutenberg, with particular emphasis on publisher’s reprintings of the so-called ‘old canon’ following changes to copyright law at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Building on St Clair, Gamer argues that such publications – particularly the miscellanies of British Poetry edited by Bell, Johnson, Anderson, Cooke, Bagster, and Chalmers – provide a potent bibliographical context for Wordsworth’s Poems of 1815. In this (re)collection, Gamer argues, Wordsworth makes ‘claims to coherence and completeness more characteristic of standard collections of British poetry’ (41). In turn, the chapter draws attention to Wordsworth’s correspondence regarding copyright law, which Wordsworth sees ‘not merely [as] deficient on pecuniary grounds’ but ‘characteristic of a broader system that favours derivative publications over “original productions”’ (42). What emerges is a sense of a poet endeavouring to present his work in a bibliographical context designed to contend with a precedent canon of British poetry – a canon with which he must assert equivalence. 

Returning to Wordsworth in Chapter Four, Gamer focuses on his ‘remaking’ of the second edition of Lyrical Ballads. This edition, Gamer argues, ‘shows Wordsworth constructing a model of poetic authorship radically different from those he proposed later in his career’, one that is ‘materially focused, financially motivated, and very much in sync with an age where poietic authorship was becoming increasingly lucrative and social’ (120). A similar approach characterises his chapter on Charlotte Smith, whose Elegiac Sonnets were likewise repackaged by their author, when ‘brisk sales led her to correct the collection’s second printing and expand the third’ (57). Gamer examines a ‘fundamental problem’ faced by Smith: ‘how to sell – at more that five times the price of the original edition – a book already five years in circulation, the majority of whose poems were already published’ (58)? In answer to this problem, Gamer guides us from the first edition of Elegiac Sonnets (published in a bid to remedy the debt accrued by Smith’s husband) through to its fifth edition. Particular emphasis is given to the third and fifth editions. And Gamer makes a convincing argument regarding Smith’s involvement and incorporation of her audience, both in the sonnets themselves, and in the list of subscribers attached to the fifth edition: ‘the list’, writes Gamer, ‘stood as a new work in itself; at least for those purchasers who expected to find their names contained within’ (90). 

A chapter on Southey returns us to the Lake School, and seeks to challenge our tendency to read Southey as ‘incoherent and contradictory’ (159). Gamer details the financial issues surrounding Southey’s laureateship and his investments in the burgeoning market for ‘life insurance’; he connects these habits to the ways in which financial exigencies dictated Southey work schedule. We learn that Southey ‘devoted his most productive hours, those after breakfast, to writing articles and books that paid. Poetry was relegated to the hours before breakfast usually spent in rest’ (173). The ‘heterogeneity of Southey’s writings’, Gamer argues, thus amounts to a form of ‘hedging’ necessitated by Southey’s resolutely practical approach to professional authorship, which demanded ‘that he write in quantity across a range of genres’ (184). The chapter ends with discussion of The Poetical Works of Robert Southey, Collected by Himself. Gamer calls this an ‘edgy collection’ which seeks to impose ‘a coherent authorial identity’ whilst simultaneously continuing Southey’s proclivity for making ‘a series of hedged bets’ – decisions ranging from ‘publisher, size, number of volumes’ to ‘paratextual strategies and organisation’ (196).

Two other chapters focus on projects of (re)collection undertaken by publishers and editors as opposed to authors themselves. Chapter Three details how Edward Topham and John Bell ‘began to re-collect and republish’ Della Cruscan poetry ‘in book form’: ‘It is within this transition back to a specific brand of self-canonizing […] that the Della Cruscans comprised their most serious threat to established notions of literary authority’ (93). In Chapter Four, Gamer focuses on Shelley’s executors – particularly Mary Shelley – and the ways in which they created ‘powerful textual counterparts that anchored and secured the anecdotes of which Shelley’s Victorian readers rarely tired’ (201). Both of these chapter are insightful and energetic, though here, perhaps, Gamer’s distinction between recollection and reproduction runs into some trouble.

There are points at which this study does feel a little well-trodden. Much of the argument involves a familiar critical manoeuvre in Romantic studies of this kind, which consists in highlighting an apparent discrepancy between theory and practice. How can Romantic writers preach an aesthetic sensibility based on their rejection of market forces, whilst at the same time seeking to control and exploit these same forces? Like others, Gamer seeks to challenge such Romantic notions of artistic disinterestedness, foregrounding the extent to which Romantic poets ‘worked under more explicitly economic imperatives’ than are commonly acknowledged (232). What he sometimes overlooks is the fact that a flourishing notion of Romantic artistry – a mode of personal expression free from the trammels of economic reality – exists precisely because of the increasing commercialisation of literary production. The one does not undermine the other. The marketization of literary production is a central precondition for the Romantic mindsets that stand in opposition to it, and it is hardly surprising that these developments in the aesthetics and economics of literature are historically concurrent. Gamer’s argument perhaps suffers from want of nuance with regard to this dialectical relation of opposites. Yet this, perhaps, is also true of other critics working within the same vein. 

That said, the ultimate quality of Gamer’s study resides in the acuity of its close readings, and in its attentiveness to a novel range of authors. The chapters on Smith and the Della Cruscans feel particularly fresh. Those discouraged with the recondite nature of McGann’s early work in this field, and those looking for more in the way of the literary analysis that is to be found in St Clair’s work, will therefore find much to admire in this book.

Andrew Raven, Lancaster University