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Kevin Gilmartin, Print Politics: The Press and Radical Opposition in Early Nineteenth-Century England.

Monday, May 17, 1999 - 07:15
Kevin Gilmartin, Print Politics: The Press and Radical Opposition in Early Nineteenth-Century England. Cambridge Studies in Romanticism, no. 21. Cambridge University Press, 1996. xiv + 274pp. $59.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-521-49655-1).

Reviewed by
John Kandl
Walsh University

Kevin Gilmartin's Print Politics: The Press and Radical Opposition in Early Nineteenth-Century England is a timely and useful exploration of the radical press's complex and often contradictory relationship to the print culture of the early nineteenth century. Gilmartin particularly focuses upon the radical movement's "style of political opposition that aimed to replace the distinction between whig and tory with a more ominous one between the people and corrupt government, and to make the press a forum for mobilizing this distinction on behalf of parliamentary reform" (1). In studies of the various political and rhetorical strategies of such radical voices as Wooler, Carlile, Wade, Cobbett and Hunt, Gilmartin explores the "contradictory energies generated by the radical effort to remain engaged with a corrupt system while resisting its influence" (196).

One of the strengths of this study is its conscious participation in the development of a new field of inquiry within Romantic studies, which Anne Janowitz has suggested "we might call plebeian studies" (2). This emphasis is supported in the introductory chapter, and throughout the book, in a critical engagement with an impressive range of recent studies of radical culture such as Iain McCalman's Radical Underworld: Prophets, Revolutionaries and Pornographers in London, 1795–1840 (Cambridge University Press, 1988); Jon Klancher's The Making of English Reading Audiences, 1790–1832 (University of Wisconsin Press, 1987); Michael Scrivener's Poetry and Reform: Periodical Verse from the English Democratic Press, 1792–1824 (Wayne State University Press, 1992); Marcus Wood's Radical Satire and Print Culture, 1790–1822 (Oxford University Press, 1994); Paul Thomas Murphy's Toward a Working-Class Canon: Literary Criticism in British Working-Class Periodicals, 1816–1858 (Ohio State University Press, 1994); and of course the foundational work of Raymond Williams and E.P. Thompson. Among these recent plebeian studies Gilmartin particularly emphasizes John Mee's Dangerous Enthusiasm: William Blake and the Culture of Radicalism in the 1790's (Oxford University Press, 1992); Leonora Nattrass's William Cobbett: The Politics of Style (Cambridge University Press, 1995); and David Worrall's Radical Culture: Discourse, Resistance, and Surveillance, 1790-1820 (Wayne State University Press, 1992), "because they have described specific discourse strategies in plebeian radical culture that open it up to sophisticated literary-historical analysis" (2).

Chapter one addresses the cultural displacement of the radical writer and the radical press, seeing this in light of the radical press's refusal of the two-party system of Whig and Tory, reframing the debate as between a disenfranchised populace and a corrupt government. From here Gilmartin examines the complex relationship of the radical writer and his audience, especially noting the economic basis of political power, particularly ownership of property, which forced the radical writer into a substitution of language for power—a situation "fraught with tension and contradiction" (53). Gilmartin traces this tension in the arenas of public meetings and trials of radicals, as well as in the radical press's engagement with its own place in the public sphere, a place in which political discourse was often necessarily shaped by economic and production concerns.

Chapter two examines the sheer diversity of radical formal strategies in print. The radical weeklies "assimilated an impressive range of heterogeneous material: foreign and domestic news, market prices, reprints from books and pamphlets, transcriptions of radical meetings or trials, reports of parliamentary debates . . . and so on" (78). Most impressive here is Gilmartin's treatment of newspaper parody and "cross readings" as practiced by Wooler's Black Dwarf; Gilmartin usefully underscores the significance of such misleadingly humorous and "playful" formal engagements with the printed page, pointing out that "it is important to see that the struggle between print protest and state repression had long been played out at the level of form" (97). Finally, Gilmartin suggests that the very range of stylistic modes and materials presented by the radical periodical can be seen to counteract tendencies toward specialization of labor: "In a world suspended between modernization and corruption, the radical synthesis of discrete print materials and modes was a powerfully utopian project" (111).

Chapter three examines ways in which the trials of radicals such as Wooler, Hone, Hunt, and Cobbett ironically became powerful theatrical forums for radical discourse. The chapter is particularly strong in pointing up the ways in which the radical press made public the corrupt proceedings of the trials by printing disallowed testimonies for the defense, describing the packing of juries, and publicly decrying the unjust libel laws. Gilmartin points out the insistence upon "fact" in radical defense, and notes, with Klancher, Paine's identification of "'the surplus of power with the surplus of signs'" (148). Gilmartin links this radical insistence upon "fact" over "sign" to the prophetic dimension of radical discourse, pointing to a rhetorical equation of radical reform and revelation of divine truth. The relation of religious dissent and radical politics which emerges here is significant, though not explored in detail.

Chapters four, five, and the "Afterword" offer discussions of Cobbett, Hunt, and Hazlitt, respectively. The discussion of Cobbett, mainly in his capacity as editor of the radical flagship The Political Examiner, is most useful in its insistence that Cobbett's "work needs to be understood as a serious and systematic response to an increasingly systematic world" (159). In answer to those who have over-simplified Cobbett's radicalism, Gilmartin emphasizes Cobbett's awareness of a complex of "systems" of domination and his propensity for conceiving counter-systems in opposition. (The chapter offers a usefully comprehensive list of "systems" Cobbett had identified in the Political Register.) Insightfully, Gilmartin compares the material-political counter-systems of Cobbett with the systematized "mental categories" of William Blake: "Where a Blake dictionary has entries under Golgonooza, Luvah, and Reason, a Cobbett dictionary, were one to be compiled (and it would be no less useful), would have entries under Pitt, Canning, paper money, potatoes, and turnpikes" (159). While Blake, however, "did not envision an end to dialectical strife, Cobbett, by contrast, did seek to get beyond system and political dispute, in order to recover for himself and the nation a rural and domestic repose" (159). True to the study's focus upon discursive strategies and language, the chapter briefly examines Cobbett's attention to grammar as system—making good use of an unpublished paper by Peter Manning on Cobbett's Grammar of the English Language (1818), a book intended as a grammar-primer for schoolboys, but which was subtly informed by Cobbett's politics. Manning notes that Cobbett's linguistic theories were "grounded in a 'simple intentionalism' that encouraged readers, writers, and speakers to seize control of their words" (169). Following this, considering Cobbett's prose, Gilmartin notes a dynamic relationship between "situations outside language . . . and language about those situations" (177). The treatment of Cobbett's Rural Rides in this chapter indicates clearly the kind of "rural and domestic repose" Cobbett may have aimed for—but never settled for: "Cobbett inevitably rose from his fireplace and returned to circulation and to opposition" (194). Throughout this significant chapter, Gilmartin convincingly counters readings of Cobbett as "unstructured" and "impressionistic"—and Cobbett emerges, with all his contradictory energies, as something of a paradigmatic force within radical print politics of the age.

While Cobbett, however, can usefully stand as an exemplar of the radical press, the placement of Leigh Hunt in this declared "plebeian" study is less convincing. Gilmartin aptly traces a progression in Hunt from radical writer to Hunt's self-declared "new position" as an early Victorian "ministerialist," but the problem here is in considering Hunt a radical on the order of Cobbett or Wooler in the first place. Throughout the study Gilmartin has departed usefully from Jürgen Habermas's distinction of the liberal from the radical public sphere—equating (with historical evidence) the words "liberal" and "radical." But Habermas' distinction can be preserved in the treatment of Hunt and Hazlitt. Both are reformers, but neither can be firmly linked to the plebeian, radical reform movement. In fact they both, at times, seem distrustful of this movement. As Gilmartin points out, considering Hazlitt's anxiety over questions of "legitimacy" and merit, his prose is remarkable for "the way an anxiety about merit was channelled from politics into culture" (229). It may be more useful to follow up on this insight and to consider Hunt and Hazlitt within another register of print reform—a register which addresses the dominant or official culture not in a polarized confrontation, but in a more insidious way—in the "polite" vocabulary of "educated" discourse on aesthetic, religious, moral, and political matters, all the while intentionally presenting a value system directly counter to that of the dominant sphere. This is a reform of the vocabulary of public discourse itself, and a challenge to the various ways in which "official" authority is represented and legitimized culturally. While Hunt and Hazlitt do not serve the more overtly "plebeian" emphases of the book, which are less problematically represented in the thorough treatments of Carlile, Wooler, Wade, and Cobbett, however, the analysis of Hunt and Hazlitt in the context of this study is welcome indeed—and Gilmartin is especially persuasive in his treatments of their class-anxieties and ways their politics informs their prose. The subtitle of the "Afterword"—"William Hazlitt – a radical critique of radical opposition?"—emphasizes a significant question concerning both of these figures.

One final, editorial consideration: in a book which is so well-researched and which so usefully furthers an important new field of inquiry, the lack of a bibliography is regrettable, but perhaps understandable in light of practical exigencies of academic publishing these days. At any rate, Gilmartin makes up for this with a detailed commentary on pertinent works in his introductory chapter. Bibliography or no, this is a profoundly important plebeian study which will prove indispensable to scholars and historians of the period, and of print culture in general.