Skip to content

H. J. Jackson. Those Who Write for Immortality: Romantic Reputations and the Dream of Lasting Fame

H. J. Jackson. Those Who Write for Immortality: Romantic Reputations and the Dream of Lasting Fame. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. 294 p., ill. ISBN: 9780300174793. US $35.00 (hardback).

H. J. Jackson’s insightful book not only examines what she terms the “fame system” (6) responsible for immortalizing authors, but also investigates the interrelationship between authors’ “present” fame and authorial reputation, the latter of which she glosses as fame of “the posthumous kind” (2). The study includes useful discussions of types of authorship that are conceptualized by writers contemplating the afterlife of both their works and their posthumous authorial personae. These types include Samuel Johnson’s “assisted” authorship involving numerous agents of print who promote an author’s reputation by exploiting the property value of particular works. Assisted authorship, because it relied on the marketability of literary works, ensured an author’s renown by means of asserting his or her presence in the marketplace through printed copies of works. This type of authorship necessitated that posthumous reputation developed from marketable success in the past. By contrast, the heroic type of authorship that William Wordsworth formulated in his 1815 “Essay, Supplementary to the Preface” to Lyrical Ballads is underpinned by the poet’s conviction that true recognition of original genius will be conferred upon the author only after death and that popularity in an author’s lifetime, as Jackson elaborates throughout her volume, frequently results in the author’s reputation being short-lived. While popularity in Johnson’s notion of success in the marketplace was essential to forming a reputation, Wordsworth’s concept of authorship attributes a role to popularity that is negative and that—because of the mass appeal of the author’s texts it supposes among reading audiences—vanishes once the fashions to which popular authors catered are superseded by new ones. Wordsworth’s notion thus argues against following literary fashions and in favour of “radical independence” (63).

Wordsworth’s contemporary, George Crabbe is shown to have adopted a pragmatic notion of authorship, writing, like Johnson, to make money. He neither fits the Johnsonian nor the Wordsworthian types of authorship, but his major difference from Wordworth, in terms of his posthumous reputation, consists of his lack of versatility. Crabbe produced long poems, like Wordsworth did, but without generating a more diversified oeuvre, including lyric productions. Jackson demonstrates that it was Wordsworth’s lyric poems which survived in anthologies and school books during the Victorian period, when the modern Romantic canon was being defined; at that point, the longer productions of Crabbe (and of Robert Southey, who had been enjoying a position of popular eminence in his lifetime) were neither adopted for reprinting in anthologies (because of their length), nor included in school books because of the (realist and esoteric) subjects with which they dealt. While the types of authorship that Jackson outlines for each author are useful exercises in identifying differences between individual writers’ conceptions of a lasting literary afterlife, these types are frequently too decidedly mutually exclusive.

Jackson’s volume is wide-ranging in scope and offers excellent case studies of authors such as Samuel Johnson, William Wordsworth, George Crabbe, Walter Scott, Robert Southey, Mary Brunton, and Jane Austen, as well as William Blake and the labouring-class poets, John Clare and Robert Bloomfield. She examines how these authors’ branded identities as well as their works were mediated throughout their lifetimes and after their deaths. The author pays attention to how different mechanisms in the “fame system” facilitated lasting reputations for some and resulted in declining reputations for others. Factors affecting the fame of authors included the genres they used for their published works and whether these genres became embedded within university syllabi, as well as whether these authors’ texts were popularized beyond the academy among as heterogeneous a reading audience as possible. Immediately after an author’s death, the foundation of posthumous fame could be laid by family members or groups of admirers solicitous to promote the deceased writer’s renown and recognition into a lasting reputation by putting together a monumental edition of the author’s works, including, if available, correspondence, and, most importantly, a biography. Reputations were consolidated by the posthumous inclusion of authors’ works in anthologies and school books as well as the reprinting of the authors’ complete works.

These and many other factors Jackson explores in her book. But it is to be regretted that the “Interlude” — in which she identifies a range of these mechanisms — is introduced only after Chapter 3. In the “Interlude” Jackson offers a methodology for the study of the making of reputations that would have benefited readers more if it had been placed at the beginning of the book. To the literary critic, Chapter 4, entitled “What about Merit?,” is probably the most interesting, as Jackson relates John Keats, Leigh Hunt, and Barry Cornwall to one another, asking why Keats survived the test of time, in spite of his works possessing less merit than some of Hunt’s and Cornwall’s productions. Disappointingly, the idea of literary merit, despite the author’s promise of offering detailed close readings, is never fully explained. Nevertheless, it is an intriguing question that the chapter raises. Did literary historians of the late nineteenth century not focus on the merit of the authors they canonized and do modern historians continue this canonizing on the same principles? I agree with Jackson that, in each case she discusses, it is the circumstances surrounding the individual, his or her embeddedness within a social and political framework, as well as the particular genre-specific or locality-related appeal of the authors’ works, that were essential to their canonization and literary “immortality.” In Chapter 4, however, Jackson probes the issue of merit, which if done on the grand scale of literary period, would relativize the importance that literary critics have attributed to poetic form and aesthetic achievement. In the investigation of literary fame along Jackson’s lines, merit is thus the subject that will separate the literary critic from the literary historian. Jackson’s stimulating work has offered many answers to questions related to the mediation of authorial reputations. Beyond that, her introduction of merit in her account should be taken up by future scholars in the remapping of literary history.

Sandro Jung
Ghent University

Published inBook review

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.