Jon Mee lecture: "Talking Books: Literature’s Conversable World 1760-1830"
“Talking Books” addresses the emergence of the idea of literature as a conversable world. Around 1700 a new commercial society was emerging that thought of its values as the product of exchanges between citizens. Conversation became increasingly important as a model and as a practice for how community could be created. A welter of publications, in periodical essays, in novels, and in poetry, enjoined the virtues of conversation. These publications were enthusiastically read and discussed in book clubs and literary societies that created their own conversable worlds. From some perspectives, the freedom of a distinctively English conversation allowed for the “collision” of ideas and sentiments. For others, like Joseph Addison and David Hume, ease of “flow” was the key issue, and politeness the means of establishing a via media. For Addison and Hume, the feminization of culture promised to make women the sovereigns of what Hume called the “conversable world.” As the culture seemed to open up to a multitude of voices, anxieties appeared as to how far things should be allowed to go. The unruliness of the crowd threatened to disrupt the channels of communication. Clubs and societies fractured over whether religion and politics were legitimate subjects of literary conversation. There was a parallel fear that mere feminized chatter might replace learning. This lecture looks at some specific examples these developments in the Romantic period, including the transition from the eighteenth century to “Romantic” ideas of literary culture, the question of the withdrawal from mixed social space, the drive to sublimate verbal exchange into forms that retained dialogue without contention in places like Coleridge’s “conversation poems,” and the continuing tensions between ideas of the republic of letters as a space of vigorous exchange as opposed to the organic unfolding of consciousness. John Mee is Professor of Romanticism Studies and Co-Director of the Eighteenth-Century Centre at The University of Warwick, UK. He is the author of Conversable Worlds: Literature, Contention, and Community 1762-1830 (Oxford 2011), the research for which was funded by a Phillip J. Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship, the University of Chicago, the Yale Center for British Art, and the Australian National University. He is editor of The Cambridge Introduction to Charles Dickens and co-editor of Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities and the French Revolution (Palgrave, 2009), Letters from Denmark, Sweden, and Norway (Oxford, 2009), Blake and Conflict (Palgrave, 2009), Trials for Treason and Sedition, 1792-4 (Pickering & Chatto, 2006-7), and The Cambridge Companion to English Literature, 1740-1830 (Cambridge, 2004). He has also published Romanticism, Enthusiasm, and Regulation: Poetics and the Policing of Culture in the Romantic Period (Oxford, 2003) and Dangerous Enthusiasm: William Blake and the Culture of Radicalism in the 1790s(Oxford, 1992). A reception will follow the talk. This event is sponsored by the Willson Center for Humanities and Arts, the UGA at Oxford Program, the Rodney Baine Lecture Fund, and the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library. It is free and open to the public.