In the interest of full disclosure, of showing people what it is that I actually do without the discrete organization that so often commits our work to invisibility, I include here my NEH Fellowship proposal that was not funded. The reviews were fair and highlighted some issues with the project that I’ve known about for a long time but don’t have any idea how yet to resolve — most likely because I’m still not really sure how to complete this type of project.
You see, I write literary history from the point of view of print culture and history of the book. Long hours in archives pouring over 19th-century correspondence, bank records, and manuscripts have taken me as far as the Hague, Netherlands to see German versions of literary annuals. Thus far, it’s a 10 chapter book complete with over 80 images. The book proposal itself, available under My Research Projects, has been tweaked over the last 6 years. After this most recent failure, and after an extremely trying year professionally, I’m going to apply my pedagogical stance to my research projects: failure = productivity. In constructing this particular proposal, I received mentoring from some very smart people — the first time I’ve really showed my work to others in draft form. I’d like to institute their suggestions for the overall project. Also, because the NEH funded only 7% of 1400 applications and most other grant agencies and entities are receiving three times the proposals, I think I’ll stop writing in the genre of grant applications and just get to work.
The Poetess and the Literary Annual in Nineteenth-Century British Print Culture
With the support of an NEH Fellowship, I propose to complete a book about nineteenth-century British literary annuals, a much-maligned but vitally important form that defined beauty, femininity and the “poetess” for massive reading audiences 1823-1860. I argue that the literary annual in its textual production is best seen as a female body, its male producers struggling to make it both proper and sexually alluring, its female authors and readers attempting to render it their own feminine ideal. This project is significant not only as a contribution to the reclamation effort of the poetess tradition, but also because it analyzes a moment in literary history when poetry was a public, valuable form of entertainment and instruction that fit into the everyday lives of ordinary people. Drawing on textual critics such as Jerome McGann, David Greetham and Don McKenzie, and literary critics such as Meredith McGill, James Raven and Anne Mellor, I adopt an interdisciplinary approach that invokes textual and social contexts to explore a site of subversive femininity, where warfare and the masculine hero were not celebrated. The annuals survived, even thrived from the attention offered by its readers despite – or as I argue, because of – its poetess writing and beautiful form.
Despite critical claims that the 1820s in England were a dormant and unproductive decade in literary production, the landscape was fairly bursting with the “poetess” and her primary publishing venue, the literary annual. By wrapping beauty, literature, landscape art, and portraits into an alluring pocket-sized package, editors and publishers saturated the 1820s with one of the most popular and best-selling genres, the literary annual. From the first title in 1822, the genre experienced a wild, popular frenzy that drove the success, failure, and recognition of authors, publishers, and editors alike. By 1828, 100,000 copies of fifteen separate annuals earned an aggregate retail value of over £70,000. By November 1829, the number rose to forty-three different titles published in Britain, more than sixty in America and fifteen in various European colonies. Not until 1840 did the number of annual titles fall below forty. By 1860, the annual and its poetess tradition had been subsumed into women’s magazines and the periodical press only to be resurrected briefly in 1920 by Modernist author, Vita Sackville West, in an homage to the popular form, the Romantic-era poetess and the annual’s creator, Rudolph Ackermann.
Though commercially successful during the first decade, the annuals were accused of being the “cakes of literature,” causing an “epidemic” and inspiring an “unmasculine and unbawdy age.” However, as the author of an 1858 Bookseller article notes, annuals exposed women to “very many of the best lyrical poems of nearly all [the] most popular contemporary writers [who] appeared in the first instance in their pages.” Robert Southey, one of England’s nineteenth-century poet laureates, writes in 1828 that “‘[t]he Annuals . . . are now the only books bought for presents to young ladies, in which way poems formerly had their chief vent.’ And the young ladies found them much more to their liking than the manuals of conduct.” The initial editors and publishers of the annuals often competed to present the most beatific representation of family, woman and the domestic.
Two myths pervade the study of this immensely important and influential body of writing. One is that canonical writers shunned this work, refusing to publish in well-paying annuals and choosing instead to create great, high art; the other is that poetess poetry is “bad” writing. In Where We Stand: Women Poets and Tradition, Sharon Bryan protests against using “the ghastly [term] poetess.” Such a reaction is understandable. The term “poetess” has been shunned by women writers and feminist literary critics for so long because the diminutive “ess” is grammatically unnecessary in English and thus is added, it seems, to belittle the women poets it names. Moreover, the term uncritically embraces “the feminine,” an idea rightly interrogated by feminists. But at a certain moment in history, as can be seen in the title of Alexander Dyce’s collection, Specimens of British Poetesses (1825), the term was used to designate “woman poet.” The more prominent poetesses include such popular nineteenth-century figures as Felicia Hemans, L.E.L. (Letitia Landon), and Lydia Sigourney. Working in a vital transatlantic poetic tradition, the poetess wrote according to conventions collectively forming a “bourgeois” and “feminine” aesthetic. However, men wrote in this tradition as well—both Keats and Poe are prime examples. As feminine, the poetess tradition has been continuously maligned: an early nineteenth-century reviewer remarks that female poets “disregarded the high art of poetry”; mid twentieth-century New Critics attack the “women with three names.”
Recent revisionary critical responses to the popular “sentimental” women’s writing are overturning this vitriolic criticism. Only now are we finally seeing new editions of neglected women poets such as Edna St. Vincent Millay, L.E.L. Felicia Hemans, Anna Barbauld, Mary Robinson, and Charlotte Smith, new biographies, newer critical appreciations, and new anthologies devoted exclusively to women poets. From Paula Feldman’s early ground-breaking work to the most recent essay in Publications of the Modern Language Association about that quintessential poetess, Felicia Hemans, the poetess is finally receiving good press. This re-evaluation renders most striking the long history of denigration that comprises its critical reception: wherefore the energy of those attacks? It is not assignable in any simple way to misogyny since women critics as well as men have found the poetess wanting. Rather, this poetry has been rejected by the literary establishment until recently precisely because of its main strength: its intense popularity. Even textual scholars, such as William St. Clair, have attempted to qualify this type of popular publication and its reading audiences during the Romantic period but essentially ignore the annuals. Studies in Victorian periodicals have accumulated accounts of the serial’s impact on literary reception and authors’ successes but also have not addressed literary annuals.
No comprehensive literary history of the annuals and their publishers, editors and authors exists due in part to a significant lack of accessible archival materials, especially of the most popular literary annual titles: Forget Me Not (1822-1847), Friendship’s Offering (1824-1844), The Literary Souvenir (1825-1835) and The Keepsake (1828-1861). With research already completed at the Pforzheimer Collection NYPL, based on my personal collection of annuals of all of the above annual volumes and in consultation with Miami University of Ohio and University of South Carolina’s collections of annuals, my project links this literary form with its poetess tradition. Archival research into the publishers’ and editors’ correspondence has revealed a nineteenth-century consumer sponsorship of popular poetry that has not been previously discussed in scholarly work.
Since a history of literary annuals must include the bibliographical (physical description of the object), cultural (economic and social influences), and literary (poetry, prose and engravings) to understand the success of this popular form and the poetess tradition, a theoretical and historical introduction will provide context for both textual debates and nineteenth-century publishing history. The next chapter, a version of which has been published, will define the literary annual form with explicit textual evidence from its first publisher, Rudolf Ackermann. By defining the annual, I also define what it is not: emblem, almanac, pocket-book, anthology, album, scrap book, commonplace book and gift book. Using examples of these other genres, this chapter creates a bibliographical genealogy of the annual by pinpointing the elements that Ackermann appropriated from other successful German and French forms.
The next chapters provide textual studies of the actual material object and require further visits to archives to complete the following research: (1) Compare the first-established anthology (“anthologia”), published in 1750 and held at the University of Miami Ohio, to Robert Southey’s early version of a poetry anthology, both of which are named after flowers, a tactic employed by most literary annual publishers. According to Richard Sha, perhaps in naming the annuals after flowers, the editors and publishers were also subscribing to a type of perverse and revolutionary Romanticism; (2) Continue reading through the correspondence, ledgers and journals of London-area publishers, printers and binders to discern the trade practices of the early nineteenth-century literary annuals publishing industry and the commercialization of the poetess. Most of these documents are not collected in a single volume and require onsite visits to the British Library, University of Edinburgh Publisher’s Archives, Rothschild’s Archive, Bryn Mawr Special Collections, Victoria and Albert Museum and the Bodleian Library; (3) Compare the 25 volumes of The Forget Me Not annual in my collection with editions held in the Pforzheimer Collection NYPL and the University of South Carolina Special Collections to discover if textual variants will indicate a breakdown in the publishing process. In other words, was the publisher responsible for the printing or were printers, binders and booksellers contracted to create and disseminate the literary annuals? These types of variations offer insight into the piracy that so often occurred when the printing plates of British annuals were sold to American publishers. This could also account for the popularity of certain poets, some of Britain’s greatest exports during the Romantic era.
At the conclusion of this archival research, the following partially-drafted bibliographically-focused chapters will be revised and completed: (1) First-Generation Annuals, 1823-1828: The first generation of annuals enjoyed a resounding embrace from reviewers, consumers and readers until Charles Heath’s 1828 Keepsake appears. By tracing both physical and literary modifications in the Forget Me Not (the first annual) and its competitors, this chapter analyzes the production and commodification of the poetess as a representation of British ingenuity; (2) Second-Generation Annuals, Beauty and Comedy, 1828-1845: With the development of the Literary Souvenir and other less popular annuals, Ackermann’s utilitarian vision disappears and is replaced by the cult of “beauty” annuals, an incredibly competitive market from 1828 through the 1840s. This chapter assesses the alterations imposed by Heath’s Keepsake as well as Thomas Hood’s parodic, and sometimes highly political, Comic Annual; (3) The Annual’s Engraving “Copyists”: This chapter discusses the engraving process, its importance to the success of annuals and its impact on the poets who created ekphrastic renderings to accompany the images. By comparing original paintings to the well-copied, but much denigrated engravings, this chapter explores the production of portable artwork in the annual’s popularity; (4) Printers’, Booksellers’ and Publishers’ Profits: It is a common misconception that editors and publishers of annuals earned a large profit from these sales. However, as I discuss in this chapter, editors often supplied initial funds, treating the annual publication as a business venture and further incorporating the annual into specious economic and social hegemonies. Using circulation and sales figures, this chapter chronicles the profits, losses and book-selling adventures of various editors, publishers, and literary annual titles. This discussion presents new evidence about the relationship between the annual’s popularity, its supposed economic success and its “feminine” status; (5) Influencing Public Response with Reviews and “Puffery”: To gain publicity, many publishers planted puff pieces (or gossip) about authors and editors. The annual’s publishers were no different except that they puffed the literary annual itself with positive reviews. These reviews often provided an introduction and public face to each annual by recommending, denouncing or simply excerpting its contents. In this chapter, I reveal the varied and complicated relationships among reviewers and literary annuals with the reviewers often situating themselves as gatekeepers of literary morality.
After defining the literary annual’s form and establishing its publishing history, I will complete three chapters that focus on critical studies: (1) Female Readers Consuming the Literary Annual: In this chapter, the literary history relies on the previous chapters to study the literary annual’s impact on its readers. Readers and consumers of the annuals privileged its feminine aspects – not those promoted by patriarchal annual producers, but those aspects of these texts best suited to female writers and readers. This chapter relies upon a historical contextualization of female education, from Wollstonecraft’s revolutionary Vindications to conduct manuals as a form of patriarchal control; (2) Subversive Feminine Voice & Authorial Identity: Annuals, while preserving patriarchal femininity, also preserve an alternative femininity which incorporates women’s images and voices. Using close reading of poetry, excerpts from journals and letters from canonical authors, I re-situate the voice of women poets not as conforming to patriarchal ideals but as subversive representatives of powerful femininity couched in poetess poetry. This chapter examines the role of women as authors, editors and contributors to literary annuals and the subsequent re-definition of femininity in the early 1830s; (3) Gothic in the Annuals: This chapter focuses on the “new gothic” that was established with Mary Shelley’s first edition Frankenstein and solidified with the 1831 version. By surveying short stories published in the most popular annuals 1823-1831, this chapter provides evidence that the Gothic tradition and women’s authorship evolves as a result of the annuals’ popularity.
Armed with basic information regarding the construction and evolution of the literary annual, this book will interest readers studying women authors, women readers, canonical authors, ekphrasis, art history, literary movements, economic and sociological shifts, and editorial and publishing innovations. Versions of two chapters have been published as articles, and a version of another chapter will be published as the introduction to a scholarly edition of gothic short stories from the annuals. Indiana University Press editor Wayne Storey has requested the full manuscript for review once it is complete. The sixty images of engravings, bindings, covers and handwritten annotations have been acquired and digitized for final publication.
(See my Zotero library)
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