By Jon Klancher
(Cambridge, 2013) x + 307 pp.
Reviewed by Daniel Brown on 2014-08-16.

Click here for a PDF version.

Click here to buy the book on Amazon.

This book argues that the Romantic era is "the age of institutions" (221). The Royal Institution, founded in 1799 and opened the following year, provided the model for other institutions of public lecturing launched in the early 1800s, including the British Institution (1805), the London Institution (1806), the Surrey Institution (1808), and the Russell Institution (also 1808). These institutions are known today as scientific establishments, mainly because subsequent historians of science have focussed on the Royal Institution, the only one to have survived. Klancher, however, documents and considers the full intellectual and social breadth of these institutions of "arts and sciences:" institutions that reached across our categories of science, moral philosophy, history, bibliography, literature, and the fine arts. Through the activities of "arts and sciences" institutions, Klancher argues, these now-considered-disparate categories were once drawn together to effectively define the "modern conception of what literature is" (23).

The institutions examined here offered popular lectures in the still porous fields of the "arts and sciences" to audiences drawn from the upper and middle classes. These public lectures provided a new source of work, reputation, and often celebrity to such practitioners as Humphry Davy, S. T. Coleridge, William Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt. Resolutely separating and distinguishing such specialists from the audience, the institutions played a crucial role in facilitating new conceptions of the expert professional. Decisively important to the institutions, Klancher argues, was the administrator, a new figure at the turn of the nineteenth century whose importance, he notes, has been neglected in accounts of cultural history.

By 1830 all of the institutions except the Royal had closed. Having tested and clarified the parity of the "arts and sciences" they were born to expound, the institutions unwittingly worked themselves out of existence. Comprehensive in presenting both "arts and sciences," they were replaced by new specialist organizations such as the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1831) and the National Gallery (1824): organizations that drew the line between science and the fine arts, giving science a would-be monopoly on knowledge while asking the fine arts to furnish leisure entertainment and rouse the feelings. In light of this development, the book elaborates and contextualizes what was once a new way of thinking about literary texts, a formula which, Klancher observes, has since become entrenched as "a disabling distinction . . . for the humanities as a whole" (161). The formula is epitomized by what Thomas De Quincey wrote in 1823: "All that is literature seeks to communicate power; all that is not literature, to communicate knowledge" (qtd. 161).

Klancher has thus identified a liminal point in cultural history, the passage between the early modern Republic of Letters and the separatist, disciplinary model embedded in the departmental structure of the modern university. Accordingly, this book should powerfully interest not only Romanticists but also anyone working on Modernity. Looking beyond the field of English Literature, it also re-examines the relation between the arts and sciences of our own time.

Among its revelations is the point that arts and science institutions reached out to women. Unlike the academies and societies that came before and organizations that followed, like the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the early institutions that Klancher examines enabled women to learn about contemporary science as well as literature and the fine arts. Institutional lectures inspired, for instance, such popularizers of science as Jane Marcet. For this reason the book should fascinate and enlighten anyone who wants to know how women were affected by Romantic science and by the Victorian professional science that effectively superseded it. Likewise, specialists in the resurgent field of book history will value the chapter on Romantic bibliography and Bibliomania.

This book also sheds new light on Romantic ideology, which was partly shaped by the institutional lectures of Coleridge, Hazlitt, and others. For instance, Klancher notes that after hearing Davy's inaugural lecture at the Royal Institution, Wordsworth revised his account of the relationship between science and poetry in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads.

Klancher himself probes this relationship in Part II of the book, "Questions of the literary," which examines the "literariness" of the "arts and sciences" field as it set the stage for the twentieth-century discipline of literary study. Coleridge is the key figure here. Citing J.S. Mill's essay on Bentham and Coleridge in a chapter on "The Coleridge Institution," Klancher defines the antithesis between the two figures in terms of their contrasting relations to arts and sciences institutions. Also, by explaining P. B. Shelley's ambivalence toward these institutions, Klancher provides a new context for his notorious assertion that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world" ("Defence of Poetry").

Well-known for his work on Romantic-era periodicals, Klancher here considers what they did to help or hinder the arts and sciences institutions. Henry Brougham, for instance, founder of the Edinburgh Review, initially attacked the Royal Institution in 1803, but his co-founder Sydney Smith lectured there the following year. Accordingly, Transfiguring the Arts and Sciences meshes with recent scholarship on the new periodical press and the long nineteenth century. Furthermore, an early essay on "Scientific Institutions" by a young Charles Lyell in the Quarterly Review (1826) prompts Klancher to show how it exemplifies the differentiation of knowledge in the institutional context. For Klancher, Lyell's essay constitutes a little-known history of science to be set against the books of William Whewell, specifially The History of the Inductive Sciences: From the Earliest to the Present Times (1837) and The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, Founded upon their History (1840).

Since London was the only major European capital without a university, this book reminds us that institutions were commercial enterprises that initiated modern public education in the advanced fields of the arts and sciences. Although most institutions were failing and closing in the 1820s, they furnished the new London University (founded in 1826) with an academic staff and a modern model of educational enterprises--what Coleridge called "lecture-bazaars under the absurd name of universities" (225). These early emporia of lectures would eventually beget the modern British factory of research and teaching, where a democratic push for inclusiveness goes hand in hand with a relentless demand for "Research Excellence": since the reign of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, government funding of British universities has to a significant extent depended on their research outputs, and students have been recently required to pay large fees and take out loans to do so.

Like Klancher's earlier book, The Making of English Reading Audiences, 1790-1830 (1987), this fascinating and important study should prove a stimulating and standard reference for a wide range of scholars. Impressively thoughtful and scholarly, it shows how early institutions anticipated the multi- disciplinary practices of our own time. By re-examining the Romantic confluence of the arts and sciences, it prompts us to revisit -- to ground, temper, and develop -- the critiques of disciplinarity that came with post-1968 "Theory," and to recognize what may link these self-reflexive moments of cultural history.

Daniel Brown is Professor of English at the University of Southampton.

Leave a comment on Daniel Brown's review.


 Subscribe to RSS feed