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.