Session 11D: Rereading the Romantic Sublime

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11D. Rereading the Romantic Sublime

Nicholas Mark Williams (Indiana): "DeQuincey's 'Sublime Contagion': The Virtual Public Sphere in the Murder Essays"
William Flesch (Brandeis): "Infinity and Subjectivity"
Denise Gigante (Princeton): "Creation-via-Expulsion: Re-reading the Wordsworthian 'Mind that Feeds'"

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"DeQuincey's 'Sublime Contagion': The Virtual Public Sphere in the Murder Essays"
Nicholas Mark Williams
Indiana University

As Charles Rzepka discusses in his Sacramental Commodities: Gift, Text, and the Sublime in De Quincey, Thomas De Quincey's relation to the publication mechanisms of his day was characterized by extreme anxiety. Indeed, as De Quincey himself said, "Failing the case of dire necessity, I believe that I should never have written a line for the press." De Quincey's essays, particularly those written for the medium of the popular press (as most of them were), are riven by contradictory desires both to satisfy his popular audience while, at the same time, creating an authoritative space above the literary market, a position of sublime prospect which denies the writer's body in favor of the author's sovereign mind.

This dynamic of simultaneous submission to and rejection of the media in which he participates is particularly palpalble in De Quincey's Murder Essays, the first two of which appear in Blackwood's Magazine in 1827 and 1839, while the "Postscript" first appears in Volume IV of Selections Grave and Gay from the Writings Published and Unpublished of Thomas De Quincey. The very difference in these two forums for publication itself indicates De Quincey's move in the last essay towards a more legitimate authorial stance. No longer the creature of the periodicals, he can at last present himself as a legitimate author. But even more telling for his negotiation with the popular press is De Quincey's manner of dealing with the subject of the infamous murders of two entire families by John Williams. I will suggest that De Quincey gains authority for his topic by tying it to an aesthetic of the sublime, through which an overwhelming stimulus serves as the occasion for the overcoming of bodily limitations and the aggrandizement of Reason. But where the sublime usually describes the creation of a single stable subject, De Quincey instead describes a kind of national sublime, in which the national subject (the Englishman) is created via the stimulus of a nationally reported murder. The dissemination of the news of murder to to the nation is made possible by a newly rational national media, the workings of which De Quincey describes as a "sublime contagion." But if this national media is presented as a corporate figure, it also allows De Quincey's self-presentation as a newly powerful author presiding over the now legitimate reporting of bodily catastrophe. In some of the same ways that Michael Warner discusses the effects of natural catastrophe in the creation of a virtual public sphere, the spectacle of murder can serve to solidify both a national audience and the newly professionalized journalist.

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Last updated June 6, 1999
by Kathleen McConnell