Bad Idea 5

The Crowd, the Public, and the Mass


Walter Benjamin was one of the first to draw attention to the way the crowd emerges in nineteenth-century literature as a problem. Benjamin cites Hugo as his opening example, but he could just as easily have cited Walter Scott (think for example of Old Mortality or Heart of Mid-Lothian with their plots of subdued mobs) or Goethe’s reflections on the role of the crowd in his Italian Journey or the “Prologue” of Faust. The point of these fictionalized crowds is, I think, an engagement with the rising anonymity of the reading public, the move towards a mass audience that is underway during the romantic period.

The recent work by Andrew Franta, Romanticism and the Rise of the Mass Public, takes us in important ways in this direction, a book that appeared too late for me to incorporate in my introduction. When nineteenth-century writers like Wolfgang Menzel referred to the “mass of literature,” we need to take such concerns seriously and see how the romantic period was defined by writers contending with what it meant to write for people one did not know. How could the stranger become a “friend”? How was, to use Tom Mole’s words, a “hermeneutic of intimacy” (Byron’s Romantic Celebrity) to be produced either textually or paratextually through an apparatus of celebrity?

The question of the rise of “mass literature” or “mass communication” kept swirling around this project from the beginning. What I continually found, however, was that readers today kept finding these terms too alienating and anachronistic to refer to the world of romanticism and the still often hand-press driven literary market. So I took most of these references out, but it still strikes me as an important component of how books were tied to this process of negotiating relations with an increasingly distant and unknown “public.”

Below are some of the reflections that went in and then out of the book. They were indebted to the following observation by John Durham Peters: “Mass communication -- a concept too long seen as the historically recent production of electronic media -- is in fact an old form, maybe the most basic form of communication.” (John Durham Peters, “The Gaps of Which Communication is Made,” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 11.2 (June 1994): 117-140; 132.)
At the same time that the book’s ubiquity led to a growing bibliographical heterogeneity, it also began to lend the book a cosmological identity as well, a sense that there was a universe of books that one could no longer be outside. “Readers” or the “reading world” were increasingly being equated with everyone, the “crowd” a new sociological and bibliographical problem. It was precisely this growing abstraction of the reading public as it coalesced into a universal and unknowable mass that romantic narratives like Alfred de Vigny’s “La bouteille à la mer” or Edgar Allen Poe’s “Mss. in a Bottle” were designed to address. The heterogeneity of the romantic book thus represented the inverse of its growing universality. The more present it became, the more numerous the identities it needed to assume.


Broadly stated, what we can see happening in the romantic period is a gradual shift of the book as a site of interpersonal relations between patrons, authors, courtiers, salonnières, and familiar readers to the book as a manifestation of broadcast communication with an anonymous and unknowable reading public. Menzel’s acknowledgment of the “mass of literature” was coeval with an emerging understanding of the reader as a mass. It marked the origin of a larger problematic of reading masses in a double sense, one that, it should be noted, did not always coincide with technological changes in book production (steam presses, paper machines, rail distribution, penny papers). The adaptation to problems of “mass communication” during the romantic age were in many ways technologically indeterminant, a function of mentalities that predated some of the most significant technological realities.


Whether it was Walter Scott’s Jeanie Deans or Sophie Mereau’s Princesse de Clèves or cross-dressing Spanish heroines, we find numerous romantic characters, and particularly female characters, contending with the sudden publicity of their speech as the confession was reconfigured as a social, plural, and crucially risky performance. In the referential ambiguities behind Hoffmann’s economy of sounds, the crisis of the genitive in Irving’s “An Unwritten Drama of Lord Byron,” the enigmas of Balzac’s overwritten scribbles, or finally, the metonymical expansionism of Goethe’s refashioning of the work of art as a prototype or Präparat, we can see the ways in which the growing “forwardability” of bibliographic communication in romantic texts was always tied to a crucial opening-up of reference, of an ambiguous deixis or disclosure.

This fundamental orientation towards dis-closure in romantic writing was of course a crucial means of contending with the expansions of the romantic bibliosphere. But it only marks one side of the process of adapting to books. One can also identify the equal and opposite process of recuperation and repersonalization at work within the bibliographic containers of these literary dramas of communication. The capacity of romantic miscellanies to establish interpersonal networks of gift-exchange; collected editions to motivate the autobiographical identity of writing through the prioritization of the “unpublished” or the “faciality” of the book; the novel’s paratextual strategies of advertisements and reissues that incorporated readers’ feedback; or finally, the critical edition’s reframing of bibliographic transmission through genealogical trees – these were all devices designed to locate writing, to give it an address and thus ground it in the personal and the interpersonal, whether inter-generational or among friends.