Author, Author!

Questioning our cherished myths about literary fame

I was first introduced to the study of English literature in a British high school in the 1960s. At that time, English teachers around much of the world were instilling the mysteries of literary criticism in impressionable young minds by means of the writings of two men, I.A. Richards and F.R. Leavis, who over the previous 30 or so years had become the effective high priests of English studies. Of the two, by far the more assertive was Leavis. By the early 1960s he had recently emerged, in his own view the victor, from the notorious “Two Cultures” controversy. In defence of a national culture he saw as being under threat from the life-denying values of an increasingly “technologico-Benthamite” society, he had locked horns—although only he was really fighting—with the scientist and novelist C.P. Snow. These were stirring times, and would continue so for some years: not for nothing was one of Leavis’s final books entitled Nor Shall My Sword: Discourses on Pluralism, Compassion and Social Hope.

These tones of ringing Blakean defiance now sound embarrassingly hollow, so completely has Leavis’s influence evaporated from the current study of English. But at the time, his evaluative confidence and sense of moral urgency were as beguiling as the responsibilities attaching to them were daunting. Immature minds soon knew, courtesy of his prescriptive—and proscriptive—passion, which literary horses were most worth backing. It was very enabling to be told, at the age of 17, that “life isn’t long enough to permit of one’s giving much time to Fielding or any to Mr Priestley”; well, in that case, without further ado, on to Austen and Conrad. Such assurance opened up seemingly limitless opportunity for reading authors one had been told one ought to read, if only by the somewhat suspect route of leaving unread those it was almost a moral duty not to waste any time at all on: George Eliot not Anthony Trollope; Henry James not Thomas Hardy; the life-affirming Lawrence not that effete crop of Bloomsberries.

Heather Jackson, professor emeritus of English at the University of Toronto, may not feel inclined to thank me for saying that while reading Those Who Write for Immortality: Romantic Reputations and the Dream of Lasting Fame, her fascinating new study of literary reputation, I often found myself recalling those halcyon, if misleading, days of faux critical assurance. Her meticulously researched, elegantly written and wonderfully subtle account of the reputational fortunes, over time, of a select group of Romantic period writers unearths the treacherous pitfalls lying in wait for the overly confident evaluative critic. Its exploration of the changes and chances affecting literary eminence encourages thoughtful rearranging of the unstable props supporting what is often made to appear—in relation to a Keats, or an Austen, or a Blake—a kind of manifest literary destiny. Not the least of the many unpredictable delights this book’s flexuous structure and argumentative vitality spring upon the reader is a central bridging section, entitled “Interlude,” that includes an almost playful (although entirely convincing) “list of categories that appear to have been necessary or desirable to produce lasting fame for the cohort of Romantic writers under investigation.” In the absence of a spoiler alert, I will not weaken the rhetorical force of Jackson’s argument by listing them. Suffice it to say that while both quality and quantity of literary output inevitably play a major role in fulfilling that titular “Dream of Lasting Fame,” the other 20 factors should give substantial pause to anyone still naive enough to assume, when already halfway through this book, that quality alone confers both initial recognition and enduring reputation.

The book opens with a helpful clearing of the conceptual ground, a summary of “the fame tradition” that invokes Cicero, Horace and Samuel Johnson as its key theoreticians on the subject. This leads into the main body of Jackson’s argument about Romantic reputations. The authors she selects comprise both winners and losers, although during the course of the last two centuries her subjects have frequently played both these roles. Romping home to lasting victory from the perspective of the early 21st century are William Wordsworth, John Keats and Jane Austen.

Wordsworth shares his chapter, entitled “A Heroic Model of Authorship,” with that man of modest ambition, George Crabbe, and with Robert Southey, who by contrast had a desire for lasting fame that was considerably more developed than his ability to achieve it. Southey laboured in the fame stakes under the dual misfortune of being preceded as poet laureate by Henry James Pye (who is a serious contender for the position of worst, and certainly least known, poet laureate in the history of the institution) and succeeded by Wordsworth himself. From comparison of the careers, abilities, attitudes, circumstances and eventual reputational fates of Wordsworth, Crabbe and Southey, Jackson moves toward “a theory of literary fame that traces different kinds of fame to different groups of readers with different systems of rewards.” Those different groups are four-fold: roughly speaking, those who recognize a writer’s name without any knowledge of the writing; a smaller group that has casual knowledge of the work; a smaller group again that has a professional academic, or at least student-level, knowledge of the work; and “other artists who absorb the work and use it, whether or not they are aware of doing so.” This grouping strategy leads to the tentative hypothesis “that for a writer’s work to last, it must attract multiple audiences and bear diverse (even contradictory) meanings.”

In a chapter entitled “The Stigma of Popularity,” Jackson then moves from poetry to prose to test her hypothesis further, with Sir Walter Scott, poet turned novelist, recruited as a handy transitional figure. His exemplary role in the unfolding argument is shared with the now universally lauded Jane Austen and the niche-occupying—though once, if only briefly, well-known—Scottish novelist Mary Brunton. (It may be of passing interest to note that, as I typed those names, “Austen” was immediately recognized, even in these victoriously technologico-Benthamite times, by the Microsoft spellcheck, while “Brunton” elicited the accusatory red line indicating total unfamiliarity.) In these three authors, Jackson identifies “instructive examples of different attitudes to literary fame; different models of authorship; different career paths; and, of course, different outcomes.” It is with Austen that the multiple audience/diverse meanings hypothesis finds its fullest vindication, in an audience that encompasses “reader and non-reader, young and old, male and female, gay and straight … moviegoers, heritage tourists, quarreling academics, readers of popular romance, and historically minded reenactment buffs.” In short, Austen’s pole position in the fame stakes seems at the beginning of the 21st century close to unchallengeable. But then at a comparable point in the 19th century, so did Scott’s.

After the brief but argumentatively crucial “Interlude” section, with its 22-point “Checklist” (ordered by chronology) and “Scorecard” (ordered by importance) of the apparent requirements for achieving enduring literary fame, comes what will surely be for most readers the million dollar question, advanced challengingly as a chapter title: “What About Merit?” Jackson fearlessly grasps this nettle: “I maintain … that no more than threshold competence—a relatively low standard of merit—has ever been necessary to keep a writer’s work in favor.” The bravery of this assertion is enhanced by her choice of exemplary poets. On the one hand is John Keats, the Romantic poet’s Romantic poet; on the other, are two of his now least-read contemporaries, Leigh Hunt and Barry Cornwall (the pseudonym of Bryan Waller Procter). Rarely can the advancer of an orthodoxy-challenging critical hypothesis have willingly presented potential dissenters with such vulnerable hostages to argumentative fortune. It is, perhaps, in this section of the book that Jackson’s steel as a practical critic is most severely tested. Her argument that, but for extra-textual circumstances that make the perceived superiority of Keats to his two contemporaries a self-fulfilling prophecy, the qualitative distinctions between them are far from self-evident might have been strengthened somewhat by more detailed analysis of works by Hunt and Cornwall. But her claim is convincing, and certainly intriguing, even without that additional evidence, to send the curious reader back to both neglected poets.

A final chapter, “Raising the Unread,” focuses on the 19th century “recovery” of the poetry of William Blake, the similar rescue of John Clare’s work from obscurity in the 20th century, and the prognosis for a comparable recovery of Robert Bloomfield’s work in the 21st. This modulates into a brief conclusion that in some ways constitutes the ethical heart of this remarkable study. By this point, Jackson’s informing intuitions, tested on her generous sampling of Romantic writers, have hardened into confident assertion: “In contrast to the common assumption that over time, the best writers come out on top, the reception histories selected and compared in this book show that for this cohort of writers—without denying the importance of exceptional abilities in the first place—long-term survival has depended more on external circumstances and accidental advantages than on inherent literary worth.” For Jackson, what is ultimately more concerning than the contribution made by mere luck and circumstance to the survival of those undeniably talented writers who are still read two centuries on are the fates of those who are not. She sees this as a kind of scholarly betrayal: “The concomitant casual assumption that the writers we no longer hear about are not worth reading (they are deservedly forgotten, as the members of the first group are deservedly remembered) is also unsound. That is where I feel most let down by my teachers and studies over the years.” In a kind of curtain-line atonement for her profession’s sins of omission, Jackson makes a final appeal to the four audience groupings identified earlier—non-readers, leisure readers, literary professionals and writers/other artists—to take up, each in ways appropriate to their own purchase on the literary past, their share of the task of recovering and maintaining lost literary reputation.

That Jackson’s book founds its argument in one of her own main areas of scholarly interest, the English Romantics, is almost incidental to its importance. Still, the Romantics happen to be a particularly appropriate focus for her purposes, since we stand sufficiently close to them to know a great deal about their writing lives and their relationships with each other, and with a rapidly growing publishing industry that they fed and that sometimes even fed them. We are also sufficiently distant from them to know what hands posterity has so far variously dealt to any dreams of lasting fame they may have had. The questions that inform this study, however, would be equally explorable in relation to other periods, many of which provide their own bleak evidence of how rapidly a seemingly assured literary reputation can fade. But perhaps the even more valuable contribution this book makes to literary scholarship is to take us back to the urgency of those times when the reading and study of literature seemed to matter, and the scholars involved in it, even those as irascible as Leavis, were confident of an important intellectual and social role for their enterprise—a role that had an impact extending far beyond the trivial coterie squabblings of the university. That sense of genuine purpose has deserted English studies of late, and a sign of this is how little of what goes on in literature departments any longer has significant effect on broader cultural life, or has much at all to say that is of interest, or even accessible, to the general informed reader. By contrast, Jackson’s welcome study has a very great deal to say to both leisure readers and literary professionals, all of it richly suggestive of why literature matters, and why some at least of the nine tenths of it that has disappeared beneath the waves is worth rescuing.