Reflection by Michael Gamer
The Romantic Tavern brings together at least three fields – music, politics, and performance – and shows them not just working together within the space of the tavern, but also in many ways constituting that space culturally. The work is methodologically inventive, taking critical approaches usually associated with literary sociology and genre and asking to what degree understanding a key space might transform our sense of a period’s literary production. Part of the book’s project is, of course, to expand our notion of the “literary” to include non-stage performance – not to mention showing how the tavern’s cultural centrality and literary legacies find their ways into the most central literary works of the period, including Lyrical Ballads, Waverley, and Keats’s odes. Chapters 3 and 4, for example, focus on the famous political songster, Captain Morris, chronicling his tavern performances to illuminate key episodes in late eighteenth-century history. Newman offers, in succession, new readings of the Duchess of Devonshire’s canvasing for Charles Fox’s 1784 campaign, of Robert Merry’s Bastille Day Ode of 1791, and of the Treason Trials of 1794. Each case study foregrounds the central role played by Morris as a tavern singer, recreating the spaces and scenes of his performances in ways that make that foundational decade, the 1790s, come alive.
Even more powerful, however, is the book’s implied argument about the power of non-government institutions – in this case taverns, private clubs, and other meeting establishments – to transform genres, shape political discourse, and even authorize texts. Here, “The London Tavern” chapter is particularly impressive, offering a superb reinterpretation of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. It opens in canonical territory, with the event that supposedly spurred Edmund Burke to write Reflections on the Revolution in France: Richard Price’s “Discourse on the Love of Our Country” preached at the Old Jewry on the 4th of November, 1789. Newman’s first intervention is to shift our attention away from Price’s sermon to what happened immediately after it, when the Revolution Society adjourned to the London Tavern and, amidst celebratory toasts and further speeches, drafted a congratulatory address to the National Assembly of France. Accounts of Price’s sermon and Burke’s response usually dwell on Price’s dissenting roots; here instead, Newman locates the beginnings of the French Revolution controversy in the institutional identity of London’s largest tavern.
I’ll confess that it’s only been in recent years that I’ve understood the specificity of “tavern” at the end of the eighteenth century. Taverns differed markedly from inns or public houses. Specializing in fine wine and dining, they were designed for family celebrations, banquets, and business meetings, sporting magnificent rooms that could be rented for private functions. Having moved Price and the Revolution Society from the Church in the Old Jewry to the London Tavern, Newman proceeds to present this latter institution in all its glory. His descriptions and chosen illustrations throughout are one of the book’s pleasures. Here, architectural drawings and guidebook descriptions help to capture its sheer size and elaborate grandeur: its rooms seating up to 500 persons, its culture of masculine and mercantile sociability, its status as the headquarters of the East India Company’s annual dinners from 1768 to 1876. While this connection to the Hastings Trial is suggestive, Newman’s point is more general: “Burke opposes the Revolution Society meeting at the London Tavern because it takes place in a tavern — a space that facilitates the meetings of private clubs who make claims to public authority — and because Richard Price is one of the ‘unpropertied, disaffiliated, extra-institutional intellectuals’ whom Burke held responsible for circulating propaganda that eroded support for older institutions in favor of a society founded on the principle of the pursuit of wealth” (65). The threat for Burke, then, is one of monied citizens bypassing traditional institutions of power and creating their own.
In Newman’s reading, the Romantic tavern emerges as the seat not just of powerful monopolies like the East India Company but also of an emerging political regime based not in land but in a burgeoning global trade. I found its social excesses, its rituals and toasts, fascinating – both in themselves and for the questions they invited me to ask in relation to my own project, Romantic Melodrama: Feeling in Search of Form. What does it mean to place a space centerstage? How might specific kinds of public spaces might be invested with institutional authority, conferring legitimacy and even aesthetic identity onto performances and texts? The Romantic Tavern will be welcome to readers interested in corporate authorship, coteries, collaboration, and sociability. My own delight in it comes from the ways it’s helped expand my ideas about cultural institutions, spaces, and genres. It’s not often that a book manages to shift one’s gaze, even at its strongest moments. This did for me.
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