Michael Eberle-Sinatra - Leigh Hunt and the London Literary Scene: A Reception History of his Major Works, 1805-1828. Review by Christine Woody
University of Pennsylvania
In this meticulously researched book (now available in paperback), Eberle-Sinatra deepens our understanding of Leigh Hunt’s work during the first half of his career. Leigh Hunt and the London Literary Scene unites the reception history of Hunt’s poems with an examination of his earlier theatrical criticism, extending rather than challenging our growing critical understanding of Hunt. Eberle-Sinatra’s central claim is for Hunt’s positive influence on different genres in the Romantic period. He works assiduously to make and explore connections between Hunt and key Romantic figures, moving us beyond Hunt’s mentorship of Keats to explore the links between Wordsworth’s linguistic project and Hunt’s own and the impact (largely negative) of Hunt’s friendship with Byron on his reception.
The first chapter is devoted to Hunt’s theatre criticism before the Examiner. Eberle-Sinatra argues for the uniqueness of Hunt’s approach to the task both in terms of the length of his reviews and his commitment to actors and performance. He positions Hunt in opposition to the later critical methods of Coleridge, Lamb, and even Hazlitt, stressing that Hunt’s position as a “dramatic journalist” prevents him from making the same sweeping rejections of performance in favor of private reading (24). Hunt’s “independence”—his refusal to puff plays as personal favors—underlines his overall approach, setting him up as a figure who rejects the conventions to the publishing world. The second chapter is devoted to the writing, reception, and revision of The Feast of the Poets (1811-1814). This provides an occasion for Eberle-Sinatra to explore further Hunt’s ideas of independence and how they influence his relationship with, and criticism of, other poets. By tracking the changes in Hunt’s attitudes towards Wordsworth and Coleridge, Eberle-Sinatra reveals a more balanced evolution of opinions than contemporaries like Hazlitt offered. What this chapter also casts into relief are the contingencies of Hunt’s own reading—the section on his reception of Wordsworth, in particular, provides fascinating insights into the role of book reviews and excerpts in the writing of The Feast of the Poets. Chapter three treads the more familiar ground of The Story of Rimini (1816). Eberle-Sinatra strives to provide a more balanced picture of this work’s reception, arguing for the largely positive reaction to its engagement with “vernacular” language prior to the Cockney School of Poetry attacks in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. Dealing less with the content of those personal attacks (already much discussed by Jeffrey Cox and others, as Eberle-Sinatra mentions), this chapter makes two main points: first, the connection between Hunt’s preface and the prefaces to Lyrical Ballads; secondly, the importance of his dedication to Byron to those who attacked them poem. The final chapter treats what Eberle-Sinatra calls the two “final blows” to Leigh Hunt’s reputation: the failure of The Liberal and the “transgression” of publishing Lord Byron and some of his contemporaries (1828). While the negative reviews dominate the arc of the chapter, Eberle-Sinatra also provides a tight analysis of the conventions of travel literature in the Romantic period and Hunt’s subtle subversion of them in his own contributions to The Liberal.
This book will be of value to scholars of Hunt for its meticulous exploration of the first three decades of his career. The attention it pays to otherwise Hunt’s periodical criticism constitutes a substantial contribution to our understanding of him as a writer. The links that Eberle-Sinatra draws between Hunt and more canonical poets like Byron, Keats, and Wordsworth will be of interest to Romanticists less intrigued by Hunt particularly and provides a valuable incentive to weave Hunt more fully into the canon. The comparison between Hunt’s and Wordsworth’s prefaces in Chapter three, for instance, invites comparison of the two poets not only within critical analysis but also within our syllabi.
Where the book is perhaps most tantalizing is in its exposition of how Hunt’s position in the publishing market—as an editor and journalist rather than a poet or other book-author—influenced the type of work he produced and its independence from (some) publishing conventions. The book’s submerged narrative of Hunt’s fall from his apex of prestige as the imprisoned editor of the Examiner invites further reflection into those aspects of Hunt’s cultural influence that cannot be captured in the books he authored. Eberle-Sinatra’s refusal to hierarchize the genres and contributions that Hunt made in favor of his “episodic, chronological” approach (6) has allowed this volume to take stock of a much wider range of productions and to explore Leigh Hunt’s influence through its anonymous, pseudonymous, and infamous byways. The texts that Eberle-Sinatra has recovered here, along with the contemporary conversations he has reconstructed, invite our deeper investigation into what it means to be not only a poet but a journalist and editor in the Romantic period.