Revealing Character and Concealing Identity in the Romantic Familiar Essay

Hansen, Traynor Frank III. Revealing Character and Concealing Identity in the Romantic Familiar Essay. 2013. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.

This dissertation argues that the elements of informality, self-revelation, and direct address in the Romantic familiar essay are evidence of concerted efforts for securing a relationship with readers and setting up standards of proper reading. In other words, what appears to be the strong presence of a writer's personality in the essays is really a means for constructing sympathetic readers in an age of increasingly hostile criticism. While other scholarship on Romantic essayists has focused on individual writers or, more narrowly, on particular essays, this is the first major study of the genre of the familiar essay in the early nineteenth century since 1934. This is a significant contribution to studies of Romanticism, which tend to ignore the genre and dismiss the essays as dated or quaint. By focusing on the generic components of the essays of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Leigh Hunt, William Hazlitt, and Charles Lamb in the political and social context in which they were written, I show that these writers used their essays to intervene in contemporary critical discussions about authenticity and the relationship of authenticity to writing.

The complexity of the familiar essay was intensified in the Romantic period by the emergence of several social formations, including a rapidly expanding reading public; the proliferation of mass-market periodicals and literary criticism aimed especially at the middle classes; anonymous publication practices; and emerging constructions of identity and authenticity. In other words, the self-fashioning and audience formation in the familiar essays in the Romantic period are determined neither by the generic conventions of the essay nor by the spirit of the age, but rather by an intersection of the two. Despite their diversity, the essays share a preoccupation with cultivating a relationship of familiarity with sympathetic readers in the midst of a volatile periodical scene. Although writers of the familiar essay frame their projects differently, each points to the importance of establishing an intimate relationship with his unknown readers. This emphasis on relationships over mere rhetoric is symptomatic of a desire for change in the dynamic between readers and writers in the early nineteenth century.

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