Anderson, Romantic Billboards on the Infobahn

NASSR '96 Seminar on Electronic Texts and Textuality

Romantic Billboards on the Infobahn

John Anderson, Boston College

Very likely everyone in the Electronic Texts seminar is more fully acquainted with the technology than I am. My office got a computer only this spring, and though I have spent a lot of my time in cyberspace since then, this is the first paper I have ever written with the slightest help from the Internet. In the manner of an old-style anthropologist, I intend to resist the temptation to tell stories about the cheap thrills and stupefying frustrations I have experienced in my explorations and to present instead field notes about the alien culture I have encountered. I have little doubt that I will sometimes express as original insight what is, to the initiated, a cliché of the genre, but that is an embarrassment one must risk in exploring. I hope that my very ingenuousness may allow me occasionally to recognize anomalies and contradictions perhaps invisible to the long-accustomed eyes of the older hands.

I became aware only gradually, for instance, that the metaphorical quality of computer activity that adopts the vocablary of desktops, files, cutting and pasting, clipboards and so forth extends into larger systems and structures. The ideas organizing our websites are often familiar enough from other settings. Marginal advertisements overrun the web these days, of course, and a paper called "Romantic Billboards on the Infobahn" might have been about those, but I want to talk about something closer to home. The old canonical problem of a common set of references, a common vocabulary--which gave rise in the early years of our discipline to a smaller and smaller, more and more compulsory Romantic canon--lives on in the information age in the form of shared indices, shared technologies, a clerisy of web-surfers. Besides the ads, the conventions one encounters earliest and most frequently are those of labeling and indexing which we adopt to direct inexperienced or browsing users to various sites. These labels and indexes are quite various and variously dependable. Sometimes they work like quickly outdated telephone books or highway maps, but often they more closely resemble billboards--tempting, selling, interpreting--marking the landscape with a corporate logo. I have chosen these latter for my subject.

Some of this is inherent in the form, and many of these things we do ourselves. Like the titles of papers at MLA, Romantic webpage titles give an insight into implied audiences and how to catch them. I write a lot about the women poets of the period, so I will use Adrian Cracuin's Women Romantic Writers page for my examples. Of the titles listed under the detached and efficient rubric "Women Writers Online Resources" is a page called "The Kassandra Project: Visionary German Women around 1800." Though its author predicts with ironic mock-confidence that "the kassandra project may eventually rampage through webspace with the agility of a berserk gazelle," a site like this would seem to have a limited potential audience. "19th Century American Women Writers Homepage," on the other hand, appeals to a far more extensive potential audience, in a correspondingly less idiosyncratic--but also less risky, and less flamboyant style. "Isis: The Written Word (Women Writers of Color)" sketches out a territory between these two, and the strain is visible in the title, which begins with the evocative syllables of the goddess's name and ends with that pedestrian parenthetical label.

I honestly don't know what the authors of websites stand to gain (I wonder if it isn't something insidious) from having the greatest possible number of visitors, but those little counters that tell me I am the 537,455th visitor since June indicate that volume is important. This explains the fact that after the manner of glitzy paperbacks, a website's name can be the most carefully crafted thing about it. The difficulties I have experienced in my web-crawling have often increased when I have clicked one of these titles to find what was inside. I will give just one example, again from the Women Romantic Writers page; namely, "Shameless Scribblers" (followed, in movie marquee fashion, by "More Shameless Scribblers" and "Shameless Scribblers: Part III"). This unpredictable page, inspired no doubt by the expiration of copyright, uses the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1911 as its source; nevertheless, that name, drolly embracing as a term of praise a rolling expression of old-fashioned derogation, may attract a rather popular browsing audience. Browsing is about all one can do with the chatty information available at the site, blending vague biographical facts with snippets interesting only to specialists.

Here, for instance, is everything about Sara Coleridge: "Sara was the fourth child and only daughter of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. She grew up in the Lake district with an extended family that included her uncle, Robert Southey, and her aunt Lovell, widow of the poet Robert Lovell. The Wordsworths were neighbors. She was educated at home by her various relatives, especially Southey. Her first published work was a translation she did for him while he was writing the Tale of Paraguay. Her next work was translating from medieval French. Sara married her cousin, Henry Nelson Coleridge, in 1829. Verses she wrote for her own children were published and very popular, as was the fairy story. After Henry's death in 1843, Sara was left with the task of editing her father's works." This all sounds tantalizingly badly transcribed, like a professor's nightmare about her student's hurried notes; and it is, in fact something like that. The internet passage is a hatchet-job paraphrase of a really quite graceful article in the old Britannica, one which, ironically, includes a much more enlightened ratio of material about the poet to that about her male relatives. What do we care about the poet Robert Lovell or his widow? What difference can it make that (as the original article mentioned only in passing) Southey was writing the Tale of Paraguay at the time? In contrast to such stuff, the Britannica tells us, as the internet does not, that Coleridge "read by herself the chief Greek and Latin classics, and before she was five-and-twenty had learnt French, German, Italian and Spanish."

The internet article, in short, is a spooky echo of those male-biassed dismissals of women writers that modern scholars cite to demonstrate the blindness of those writers' contemporaries. This is not scholarship, this is scavenging, of no assistance to any researcher; it is painfully ironic to find this sort of thing among scholarship aimed at reclaiming writers who have already suffered once from this kind of shabby treatment. About the only thing positive to be said for this is that anyone concerned about the dangers of a steamrolling of our profession by centralized, corporate purveyors of information--and I am bothered by that concern myself--may find the durability of inefficient homemade sites like this one oddly comforting.

A bit farther down the organizational path from webpage titles--and a lot more mediated by corporate interests--the jacket blurb has made it to the Internet. This is not, on reflection, terribly surprising. The jacket blurb has long been a powerful force. Outside of the college classroom, the most frequent and significant place of intersection between Romantic poetry and the public may still be the inexpensive paperback editions of the most canonical writers. Jacket blurbs are the hook publishers have developed to sell this kind of book. One can of course tell a lot about a book by its cover--especially about the place the book occupies in contemporary culture. These effects are only rarified when the cover, but not the text itself, is translated onto the computer screen.

In such a popular web site as Alan Liu's Voice of the Shuttle, jacket copy is repeated verbatim as an unedited means of summarizing the most significant new publications in Romanticism. Alan Liu is himself one of the most significant pioneers of Romantic cyberspace, and no doubt he knows what he's doing. He is supremely interested in corporate manipulations of knowledge via the internet, and in the distinction between what he calls "the distinctive humanities paradigm of knowledge--historical-cum-interdisciplinary" versus 'the equally distinctive anti-historical interdisciplinarity of 'global knowledge.'" He knows, also, that we in the profession are a wary bunch, reading between all the lines. Nevertheless, it can't hurt, given the very speed that this technology makes possible, to slow down now and then and subject our practices to some self-conscious critical thinking. I have been reading these blurbs closely, asking what information they convey. What is their rhetorical stance? What kind of reader do they assume? What characteristics of Romanticism do they emphasize? Surely they encourage us to allow our pedagogical and critical practices to be dictated by the marketplace; is scholarship slouching towards marketing, in these vastly accessible new resources?

I don't want to be alarmist, so I will limit myself to the mildest possible example, the publisher's description of Rodney Stenning Edgecombe's Leigh Hunt and the Poetry of Fancy (Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, 1995). This is the most civilized of blurbs, composed in careful, understated prose to appeal to the discerning English professor. Its techniques of persuasion are familiar enough, but it may be instructive to see how softly and insistently they work.

The blurb's first sentence is less about Hunt than about a more familiar poet. "Leigh Hunt has long been stigmatized as Keats's evil genius, a superficial and mannered poet whose influence can be observed in such early poems as I Stood Tip-Toe and Sleep and Poetry." The phrase "Keats's evil genius" is brilliant--it places Hunt on a level with Keats, endows him with the interesting quality of evil, at the same time reminding us of Keats's poetic genius. The only two poems mentioned in the entire blurb are these two Keats poems, which resound through the rest as if Hunt had not merely influenced but written them himself. Then the writer goes yet further afield, indirectly building up Hunt's importance by reference to the importance of his famous detractors. "His portrayal as Harold Skimpole in Bleak House has also fostered an impression of triviality and selfishness in the minds of those who do not trouble to read him." Dickens did not like him, but he noticed him.

The blurb continues, "Leigh Hunt and the Poetry of Fancy, so far the only book devoted exclusively to his verse,"--don't you love that "so far"!-- "takes issue with these received opinions and argues that, overshadowed by the work of his more gifted contemporaries, Hunt's output has suffered repeatedly from invidious comparisons." This is mere doubletalk, but it gets worse. "Author Rodney Stenning Edgecombe suggests that we need to bring his admittedly minor poetry out of the shadows and, approaching it on its own sunny terms, find a way of enjoying its slightness and delicate charm." The playful imagery here picks up the word "overshadowed" from the previous sentence and juggles it skilfully to associate Hunt's optimism with his obscurity; the felicitous image is not attributed to Edgecombe, though it may be his. Poor Edgecome doesn't really matter much here, any more than Hunt himself does. Either way, the blurb's rhetoric must not distract us from the simpler manipulation in which it is nested. We "need" to "find a way of enjoying" Hunt's "admittedly minor" poetry? How so? This need was never suspected before; it is never justified here. It is an artificial need, and the book is already there to fill it.

"With this in mind," the blurb goes on, though by now at such length that the potential buyer's critical faculties may be growing dull, "Edgecombe urges that we approach the poet as a rococo artist, using this aesthetic category to legitimize and focus the decorative impulse that informs his vision, and the escapism that sometimes led him, as a poet, to skirt many of the issues he so bravely fought for through his Radical journalism." This, though prosy, appears remarkably frank, even to a fault--Edgecombe seeks to "legitimize" Hunt's "decorative" poetry by placing it in a new "aesthetic category" and thereby discouraging comparison to the "more gifted" Romantics. But any negative effect from the word "decorative" is counteracted by that term of praise "vision." The critique of Hunt's non-political poetry is an occasion to point out the political courage of his life. And anyway, the blurb writer renews the implied comparison to the Romantics in the following sentence.

Like Wordsworth, Hunt divided his output into loose generic categories when he began preparing a select edition of his poetry toward the end of his life, categories retained and amplified by H. S. Milford in his 1923 edition.

What is Wordsworth doing in this sentence? The comparison is not significant enough to justify his inclusion. He is clearly there to round out the reference to Keats, to appeal to those whose interest is especially in the first-generation Romantics -- and possibly to counteract any negative effects from the reference to Radical politics in the preceding sentence. The reference to the scholarly edition of Hunt appeals to the vanity of those who have heard of this edition, and it shows those who have not that Hunt was still a hardy canonical as late as 1923.

"Edgecombe has used these divisions as a way of organizing his study, and also of illustrating the immense range of forms and genres that the poet explored in the course of a long career." This purely organizational statement is almost the only sentence in the blurb that has to do with Hunt's poetry itself. It comes here because the blurb is built like a pyramid, as if on the assumption that only the very interested will continue reading through to the end, and that they can't be sold anyway, or will be impressed only by a balanced appraisal.

It goes on. "He furthermore offers close readings of many seminal poems." That is a suspiciously casual phrase. The word "furthermore," indeed, encourages us to think that these "many seminal poems" are just a small part of Hunt's achievement. This tips the balance pretty strongly in Hunt's favor. "in an effort to show that Hunt, dismissed by Carlyle as a sort of poetic 'tinker,' was a generally creditable craftsperson."--The implication is surely not that a tinker cannot be a creditable craftsperson--in fact, that faint praise is removed by only a breath from what Carlyle meant by his dismissal. The description concludes with the swelling observation "that when the occasion inspired him, he could write very well indeed."

The reluctance to talk about the poet himself, the desire to talk instead about the more familiar figures surrounding hime, the failure to quote a single word from the poet (or even, in this case, from the critic whose book is being described)--all these characteristics make this publisher's description resemble the encyclopedia paraphrase available elsewhere on the internet. But instead of assuming the carelessness or incompetence of the writer as we could in the previous case, we must here assume his or her guile. I do not know if this blurb in the Voice of the Shuttle has sold a single copy of Edgecombe's book. But is it really necessary to allow this sort of manicured salesmanship even slightly to direct our conversations about it? I suspect that this phenomenon, too, has to do with intellectual property rights. Publishers don't copyright their blurbs. Criticism is expensive. The internet is hungry.