Cottagers upon the Textual Commons, An Introduction
I began with the desire to read with the dead. Or, more accurately, with the desire to read one book with one dead person, to understand how and why Lady Mary Wortley Montagu read The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle in the way in which she did. In a letter to her daughter, Lady Mary wrote that she was "sorry not to see more of P. Pickle's performances." I was struck by this desire for "more" of a literary character, and puzzled by why it should be couched in theatrical terms (after all, Smollett's work is generally regarded as a novel). As a child, I had been a voracious reader of series fiction and had frequently wished a story might go on longer, but I had always regarded this desire as simply a mark of my own reluctance to accept closure of any sort. With Lady Mary, however, I was confronted by a clearly sophisticated and clever reader who nonetheless shared my interest in "more" and did so in ways that defied explanation as simply "a deep unconscious nostalgia for a past reading experience," a "wish to read the 'unforgettable' text once more, yet as if [she] had forgotten it." As I began to read the rest of Lady Mary's correspondence, along with some of the traces of reading left by her contemporaries in the form of letters, diaries, and marginalia, I came to realize that, eccentric as she was in many ways, Lady Mary's desire "to see more" was hardly unique. Indeed, as my research progressed, I discovered a sizable number of readers who not only pined for "more" but actually sat down and invented additional performances for some of the most celebrated characters in eighteenth-century British literature: Lemuel Gulliver, Captain Macheath, Inkle and Yarico, Sir Roger de Coverly, Pamela Andrews, Tristram Shandy. Indeed, some readers went beyond the productions of their own time to devise lives off-page for older characters, especially Sir John Falstaff. Lady Mary thus may well be unusual in her desire for more Peregrine Pickle (which has always been something of a specialty taste), but she can nonetheless be taken as exemplary, for through her desire "to see more" she was engaging in the provocative and deeply revealing reading practices which are the subject of this book: what I would like to collectively term "imaginative expansion."
I use "imaginative expansion" as an umbrella term for an array of reading practices in eighteenth-century Britain by which the characters in broadly successful texts were treated as if they were both fundamentally incomplete and the common property of all. Far from being the final word on the subject, the originary representation of these characters was, for readers engaged in these practices, merely a starting point-a common reference, but one perpetually inviting supplementation through the invention of additional details and often entirely new adventures. Consider, for a moment, George Saville Carey's Shakespeare's Jubilee, A Masque, in which Falstaff is "charm-call'd from his quiet grave" in order to attend the 1769 Stratford Jubilee. En route, "fat old Jack" is taunted by Oberon and Puck—who "talk of sack, but . . . remain unseen"—and kidnapped by the witches from <>Macbeth, who "force him across" a broom "and fly away with him," even as he upbraids them as "old carl-cats," "imps of old Satan, made up all of rags," and "faggots of filth" (14, 18). Once they have reached Stratford, though, all has been forgiven, and the "witches descend in thunder" as part of a grand procession "and introduce Falstaff, Caliban, Pistol, and all of Shakespeare's favourite Characters," who "walk two and two down the temple" of Apollo to great applause (20-21). As even this brief description should suggest, Carey's masque revolves around the invention of more adventures in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in Shakespeare's philosophy. Nowhere does Carey betray even the slightest sense that the Falstaff scenes in 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and The Merry Wives of Windsor (much less his reported death in Henry V) provide "all / Ye know . . . and all ye need to know" about Plump Jack. Nor does Carey seem to worry in the least that the "Genius of Shakespeare" (who also puts in an appearance) might resent this appropriation of what we have been trained to regard as his characters. If anything, Carey presumes that the best way to promote "great Shakespeare's matchless fame" is to conjure up "such sprites as owe / To his creative boundless muse, / Their existence, birth, and name" and set them loose in a series of additional performances which echo, but hardly replicate, their assorted Shakespearean originals (10, 23).
I dwell upon the sheer unfamiliarity of Carey's presumptions because they, like Lady Mary's wish for "more," pose such an intriguing challenge to our usual ways of thinking about the relationship between authors, readers, and literary characters and signal how my investigation of imaginative expansion participates in-and, I hope, usefully extends-the broader reconsideration of the use of character, which has been one of the real highpoints of eighteenth-century studies over the past decade. For most of the twentieth century, serious studies of literary character conceived of their project as one of demystification. Countering what they saw as a naïve and pernicious tendency on the part of nonacademic readers and earlier critics to talk about characters as if they were actual people, these scholars insisted, in L. C. Knights's words, that a character "is merely an abstraction from the total response in the mind of the reader or spectator, brought into being by written or spoken words." Because she never really existed, Lady Macbeth necessarily had no children, so enumerating them was at best a patent fallacy. Harry Berger Jr. offers perhaps the most thoroughgoing of these critiques, insisting that
speakers are the effects rather than the causes of their language and our interpretation: in the unperformed Shakespeare text there are no characters, no persons, no bodies, no interiorities; there are only dramatis personae, the masks through which the text speaks.... Speakers don't have bodies, age, insomnia, corpulence, or illness unless and until they mention them, and when they do it is usually in the service of some discourse in which states of the body are signifiers used to mystify moral effects as physical causes. Speakers don't have childhoods unless and until they mention them. If, for example, John of Gaunt never mentions his youth, then he has and had no youth, no childhood whose critical events the analytical dialogue may recuperate and revise by the light of the future anterior.
Psychoanalysis or any other form of character criticism is thus, for Berger, a fundamentally misguided effort. What Knights and Berger and countless others have argued seems both irrefutable and commonsensical. Of course "speakers don't have childhoods"; they don't even have adulthoods. Yet to presume that readers who have pretended otherwise were just willfully blind to the obvious truth does them a grave disservice and simply perpetuates what E. P. Thompson has termed "the enormous condescension of posterity." Whatever else George Saville Carey and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu may have been, they were hardly idiots running around in an ontological fog unable to distinguish fiction from reality.
What most distinguishes the recent work on character from the tradition which Knights and Berger represent is its willingness to take seriously the apparent desire of many readers to imagine characters as in full possession of a deep interiority and a life that extends off-page, despite the patent counterfactuality of it all. That is, this recent work takes the desire to talk about characters as if they were real people as evidence of what that fantasy allowed readers to do, rather than as rope with which to hang them for their methodological felonies. Where these scholars part company, of course, is in their respective accounts of what the consideration of characters in this way did for those who so suspended their disbelief. Catherine Gallagher, following David Hume, has argued that "fictional characters were uniquely suitable objects of compassion" because of their immateriality: since they have no bodies, fictional characters pose no barriers to "the process by which someone else's emotion becomes our own," a process which cannot occur so long as those emotions are "conceiv'd to belong to another person." Accordingly, fictional characters were peculiarly well suited to help "women conform their emotional lives to the exigencies of property exchange" by giving them "practice in the various modes of having emotions, trying them out, holding them in a speculative, tentative, and above all temporary way" (193-94). By engaging in this sort of "emotional practice," readers could better prepare themselves for the constraints and indignities of life in a world increasingly dependent upon speculation of all sorts.
Deidre Lynch, on the other hand, is interested in how "people used characters . . . to renegotiate social relations in their changed, commercialized world" and "to derive new kinds of pleasure from these changes." For Lynch, readers "accommodated themselves to their increasingly commercial society" in two principal ways: either they plumbed "characters' hidden depths" in order to furnish evidence of "their own interior resources of sensibility" or they ostentatiously cultivated their enjoyment of finely wrought characters as "a way of asserting that [they] did not belong to the sort of undiscriminating audience that would take pleasure" in "illegitimate modes of inscribing character," such as caricature or burlesque (1, 10, 57). That is, "people's transactions with books came to be connected in new ways, first, to their endeavors to find themselves as 'individuals' and to escape from their social context, and, second, to their endeavors to position themselves within an economy of prestige in which cultural capital was distributed asymmetrically and in which not all who read were accredited to 'really read' literature" (6). Either way, valuing characters "for their indescribability, their exceptionality, and their polyvalence" could serve as a means of distinguishing oneself from the relentless world of exchange and universal equivalence (76).
Lisa Freeman has recently challenged these accounts as being far too devoted to "the novel's version of the modern subject when it was neither the inevitable nor the only configuration of identity in circulation at the time." For Freeman, "the rise of the subject," with its putative depth, independence, and continuity across time, "enforced" an "ideological conformity," which contemporaries, as well as modern theorists, found troubling (1). In order to resist "that identity formation," playwrights and other social commentators championed a counter-conception of character which refused "the illusory consolations offered in the novel through the figure of the transparent subject" and "highlighted" instead "the multiple, contradictory, and opaque surfaces of character," "the contingencies and contexts that shape perception and recognition" (1, 8). Far from affording readers a safe haven from market culture, the novelistic version of the subject simply interpellated them more securely in its grasp. Only by embracing "the culture's general anxieties over the instability of identity" and "staging" them "precisely as a competition in which actions, words, figure, and reputation could all be weighed against one another" could Britons hope to produce "a way to apprehend identity and locate value that was not dependent on an illusion of interiority" (16, 27, 237). Only by "understanding [the] identity" of a character "not as an emanation of a stable interiority, but as the unstable product of staged contests between interpretable surfaces," could audience members resist subjection (27).
I have learned a great deal from each of these accounts, and I wholeheartedly share their impulse to focus upon what characters allowed readers and viewers to do, rather than upon what those characters might mean in and of themselves. My own project differs from this work, however, in three important ways. First of all, Gallagher, Lynch, and even Freeman (somewhat surprisingly, given her focus on the theater) all presume that eighteenth-century readers and viewers are fundamentally operating in alienated solitude. For them, whatever a reader does with a character proceeds first and foremost from an underlying sense of anomie brought about by the wrenching transformations of commercial culture. Accordingly, anyone engaging in emotional practice, attempting to distinguish herself from the marketplace, or resisting subjection is always already attempting to compensate for what Freeman calls "the culture's general anxieties over the instabilities of identity" (16). I do not doubt that this was often the case. Anxiety and modernity seem to go hand in hand. But most of the readers with whom we shall be concerned seem remarkably calm and even playful in their invention of various characters' lives off-page. Perhaps they were just whistling in the dark, but their tone consistently suggests a pleasure not ordinarily associated with coping mechanisms. Moreover, far from being essentially alone, many of these readers seem to have readily imagined themselves as part of larger virtual—and occasionally actual—communities devoted to the sharing and circulation of these further adventures. Reading, for someone like Carey, may well have begun in solitude, but it was hardly a solitary activity. Indeed, these readers went out of their way to emphasize how much their inventions could forge new sociable ties with a broad range of their fellow readers.
Additionally, these recent scholars have all located the compensatory power of characters in their respective materiality or immateriality. For Gallagher and Lynch, the heroes and heroines of novels could serve as objects for emotional practice or proof that one had that within which passeth show precisely because of their disembodiment. Conversely, Freeman attributes the resistance to subjection afforded by theatrical characters to the ways in which the "bodies of actors and actresses" mimicked "the kinds of epistemological confusion experienced over identity in everyday life" (18-19). My own research suggests that what readers found attractive about characters was neither their materiality nor their immateriality per se, but rather the ways in which one enabled the other in a perpetual feedback loop. As we shall see, the characters for whom further adventures were invented tended to be those whose immateriality was paradoxically guaranteed by the sheer material proliferation of different and differing editions, formats, and performances.
Finally, as my opening with Lady Mary should suggest, I am far more devoted than my predecessors have been to reconstructing the specific practices of actual readers in all their puzzling eccentricity. As a result, my inquiry has been conducted much closer to the ground, which has necessarily required what Jacques Revel terms "a change in the scale of analysis." This, in turn, has allowed me to notice interconnections and patterns which have escaped previous, more overarching observers. None of my departures from this recent (and for the most part extremely valuable) scholarship necessarily undermines that work—although I have my doubts about Lynch's chronology and Freeman's stark division between the novel and theater—but it does, I hope, suggest that this is still very much an emerging field, one in which a premature consensus would be both counterproductive for the living and unjust to the dead.
Obviously, not all readers in eighteenth-century Britain engaged in imaginative expansion any more than all readers in any era read the same way. The century's single most famous reader, Samuel Johnson, once pointedly dismissed the desire for "more": "Alas, Madam! . . . how few books are there of which one ever can possibly arrive at the last page! Was ever yet any thing written by mere man that was wished longer by its readers, excepting Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, and the Pilgrim's Progress?" But in this respect, as in so many others, Johnson cannot be treated as fully representative (indeed, alarm bells should go off whenever Johnson makes one of these blanket pronouncements). Robert DeMaria Jr.'s contention that "Johnson was a great reader and read in so many different ways . . . that the categories I use to describe his life of reading are adequate for describing any other life of reading" simply cannot be sustained, no matter how tempting it might be to have the Great Cham as our model. In the course of this study, we shall encounter many readers wishing many texts longer, fuller, and richer. And most of the originary texts with which we shall be concerned were never continued by their authors, and so seem to most modern readers self-contained and complete—unlike the three titles Johnson singles out as exceptions, each of which received an authorial sequel or two, as well as augmentations by other hands.
Yet DeMaria's example of Johnson begs an important methodological question for a project like this one. If Johnson is not representative—and hence DeMaria's categories are not in fact "adequate for describing any other life of reading"—then how can we claim with any certainty that George Saville Carey or any of the other readers with whom we shall be concerned are illustrative of larger trends? The problem is simply the paucity of evidence: the vast majority of readers do not leave any sort of trace and so those who do are necessarily going to be atypical, at least in this area. We are in possession, of course, of what Robert Darnton describes as "a great deal of information about the external history of reading," but John Brewer is quite right to note that such sources—"inventories, library catalogues and salesroom lists"—tend to be "inert" and "exceptionally difficult to animate." Conversely, the surviving commentary of individual readers, like Lady Mary, can often seem "perfunctory and elliptical," not to mention wildly eccentric. What possibilities remain reasonably open for antiquarian souls like myself who want to read with the dead? Must we choose only from the rather stark menu which Darnton and Brewer present to us? Must, as Janusz Slawinksi wonders, "the history of readers, somehow counter to its own nature, . . . be practiced mainly as a history of eminent readers?" or else simply as a history of what, rather than how, people read? And if the former, must "eminent" necessarily mean unrepresentative?
Most histories of reading seem caught in this bind, albeit often brilliantly so. Historians like Darnton, Brewer, and Roger Chartier have reconstructed the cultural significance of reading and reading matter largely through the judicious sifting and interweaving of what Darnton would call "external" evidence: probate inventories, publishers' records, library catalogs, and the like. When their accounts required a more vivid example, they pluck a supposedly representative reader, like Brewer's Anna Larpent, out of the archive. But well aware of the infrequency with which such readers have come down to us, most of these historians draw upon other kinds of evidence, including the hints given within texts as to their intended readers and the clues yielded by the scrutiny of books as bibliographic objects. Chartier, for example, has made a number of intriguing suggestions concerning the reading practices of the French peasantry based upon the kinds of abridgments made for those readers by the publishers of chapbooks. Efforts like Chartier's are both noble and necessary—otherwise, we could have no access whatsoever to those peasants—yet, given their meditation by both the necessity for deciding what various bibliographic features mean and by the presumption that we can then infer reading practices from those features, they are at least as conjectural as anything based upon more ostentatiously "elliptical" evidence.
Other historians have eschewed these macroscopic accounts, choosing instead to focus upon reconstructing individual readers from the past in all their particularity and (oftentimes) peculiarity. Carlo Ginzburg's meticulous recreation of the inner life of the heretical sixteenth-century Friulian miller Domenico Scandella (Menocchio) is perhaps the best-known example of this kind of work, although Darnton, Brewer, Lisa Jardine, Anthony Grafton, and Kevin Sharpe have all written fascinating explorations of the practices of particular readers. Individually, these accounts are quite intriguing and persuasive, but—as perhaps they should—they resist synthesis: the leap made in the subtitle of Ginzburg's book from Menocchio to "the cosmos of a sixteenth-century miller" is a rather large one. Menocchio seems so wacky that it is hard to believe that he is at all representative, yet surely he must have something in common with his fellow millers, fellow Friulians, fellow heretics. Pinning down what exactly that common ground is, however, seems an impossible endeavor, given that most of his fellows never had to face the obsessively record-keeping Holy Office. Accordingly, trying to write a history of reading based upon case studies like Ginzburg's seems hopelessly fraught: not only would it be at best only a "history of eminent readers," but it is not even clear what that "eminence" would tell us about any readers other than those specifically selected for study.
In striving to avoid the methodological pitfalls of both macro- and microscopic approaches to the history of reading, I have tried—in good eighteenth-century fashion—to carve out a middle way, a kind of analysis attentive to individual eccentricity and caprice, yet not limited by it. I want to preserve the ways in which attention to individual cases can usefully undercut grand theorizing, yet I hope to show the larger significance of those cases without simply presuming their exemplarity, for the traces left by individual readers are never going to be wholly exemplary, if only because most readers do not leave traces. In trying to define my quest for explanatory relevance through particularity, I have been heartened by a concept central to Italian microhistory: "the normal exception." I would like to hypothesize that the eccentric reading practices I group together under the rubric of imaginative expansion constitute a kind of "normal exception" and so deserve a form of historiographic attention which, as Giovanni Levi argues, "tries not to sacrifice knowledge of individual elements to wider generalization . . . but, at the same time . . . tries not to reject all forms of abstraction since minimal facts and individual cases can serve to reveal more general phenomena." That is, imaginative expansion is far from representative behavior per se, but it is nonetheless quite revealing. Indeed, such reading practices may be all the more revealing because of, not despite, their "anomalous" character: one of the chief insights of microhistory has been Ginzburg's contention that "the more improbable sort of documentation" is "potentially richer," because, as Levi reminds us, "in a weak science [such as cultural history] in which, if experimentation itself is not impossible, that aspect of experimentation involving the ability to reproduce the causes is excluded, even the smallest dissonances prove to be indicators of meaning which can potentially assume general dimensions." This seemingly paradoxical situation obtains because it is precisely "those traces, those clues, those details previously overlooked"—or dismissed as merely whimsical or opportunist—"which upset and throw into disarray the superficial aspect of the documentation" upon which the standard histories have drawn. Once we recognize "the decisive importance" of these normal exceptions, "it is possible to reach a deeper, invisible level, the one comprising the rules of the game, 'the history that men do not know they are making.'"
In pursuing my microhistorical via media, then, I hope to show how a sustained attention to the apparently eccentric practice of imaginative expansion can "assume general dimensions" and reveal "the rules of [a] game" whose players extended well beyond those specifically involved in the practices I am describing. By focusing upon the paradoxes inherent in these practices—lack stemming from plenitude, the seemingly teeming ever in need of more, the privately owned being treated as if it were common to all—we can discover an entire constellation of more broadly held readerly presumptions concerning literature, publicity, and property, the traces of which still shape our experience of cultural community. Indeed, our investigation of imaginative expansion can substantially complicate and revise three of the most pressing issues in literary and historical study today: namely, the emergence of proprietary authorship, the processes by which canonical texts gain their canonicity, and the related practices through which virtual communities are invented.
Evaluation is, of course, inescapable, but I have purposely striven to take my evidence on its own terms, employing what Ginzburg describes as a "flexible rigor," rather than reject or distort it, no matter how alien or wrongheaded it might seem. Indeed, I cannot imagine doing otherwise with this kind of project, for if we were to confine ourselves to those few traces of past reading that "coincide with the rights of the text," as Umberto Eco puts it, then we would exclude almost everything that makes a historical investigation interesting and simply confirm our own prejudices concerning what those textual rights comprise. This, then, will be a story not of good readers or bad readers, misreaders or proper readers, much less of readers who are types (in the sense of typology) of ourselves; it will simply be a tale of past readers who, like Oliver Twist, wanted some more.
* * *
Yet in order to understand how an investigation of eighteenth-century readers' desire for more might "assume general dimensions" and so productively complicate some of our current ways of thinking about the field, we need first to survey the underlying presumptions of imaginative expansion, beginning with what we have already noticed in the case of Carey's treatment of Falstaff: namely, a persistent fantasy that literary characters were both fundamentally inexhaustible and available to all. Their alleged inexhaustibility stemmed from what I would like to term their felt immateriality, which in turn seems to have been the paradoxical consequence of the sheer extent of their material dissemination. In an ontological puzzle which will recur throughout this study, the more copies or performances of a text there were in circulation, the more the characters who inhabited that text came to be regarded as what Carey describes as disembodied "sprites" (23). That is, they seemed to be simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, in the hands of countless strangers and yet never wholly reducible to any particular manifestation. The extent to which characters appeared to "transcend" their textual origins (to adopt Gérard Genette's terms) was thus directly proportionate to the sheer number of sites in which they seemed to be "immanent." Falstaff was no more (or less) present in any of, say, James Quin's performances of 1 Henry IV than he was in Carey's own copy of that play, but by virtue of those hundreds of performances and tens of thousands of printed copies—not to mention his additional iteration in texts like Shakespeare's Jubilee—he could seem exempt from the ordinary laws of physics: "we nor pay, or tax, or toll / No mortal law can us controul" (9). As such, he could be envisioned as ultimately inexhaustible: one cannot wear out a "sprite" capable of appearing in thousands of places at the same time any more than one can deplete an "immortal spirit" by conjuring it up yet another time (7).
If characters were unconstrained by "mortal law," then they could also be regarded as perpetually available through what Simon Stern has usefully termed an "economy of abundance." This way of thinking about literary property postulates that "any future use becomes a form of increase," that value is added merely by additional iteration and circulation. Needless to say, this is just a fantasy, a conjecture concerning the supposed fundamental nature of literary property, not a description of the actual material conditions of the book trade, which, like any sector of the economy, involved finite resources. But for our purposes, and those of the readers with whom we are concerned, the accuracy of this fantasy was irrelevant. The important thing was the way in which it could provide a compelling alternative to the (equally far-fetched, but to us far more familiar) "economy of scarcity, driven by the logic of an inelastic marketplace," which many booksellers promulgated in their attempts to secure perpetual copyright. In an economy of scarcity, literary property was conceived as a zero-sum game: a reader's gain must mean an author's loss. In an economy of abundance, on the other hand, no such dispossession could occur, since "with respect to Intellectual Labours, we may improve the Discoveries of others without invading their Property." By imagining themselves as participants in an economy of abundance populated by inexhaustible "sprites," readers could feel free to invent whatever additional performances struck their fancy without having to worry that they were being unjust or larcenous.
Like most pseudolegal discourse, this way of thinking about literary property proceeded more through metaphor and analogy than rigorous argument. Perhaps the single most readily available metaphor was that of the traditional village commons, albeit with the caveat that these commons, unlike the actual wastes and Lammas lands, were in no danger of overuse. Consider only the analogy as it was formulated by William Kenrick (to whom we shall return in Chapter 3—indeed, he is one of the heroes of this book). In the epilogue to the 1766 version of Falstaff's Wedding, Kenrick compares a reader's relation with literary characters to the common right of cottagers. In order to counter a trumped-up charge of plagiarism, Kenrick asserts that "Dramatic sprites" "as mere ideal characters exist, / And stand as cyphers mark'd on Nature's list." Accordingly, figures like Falstaff are "free to range in fancy's pimlico: / . . . . Ferae naturae there, their preservation / Is purchas'd by no game association: / The poaching plagiary alone denied / A privilege, granted to each bard beside; / Who' tho' a cottager, to try his skill, / May shoot, or course, or hunt them down at will; / In his own paddock may the strays receive, / And scorn to ask a lordly owner's leave." Let us take a moment to unpack Kenrick's tangle of metaphors. He first asserts that dramatic characters are immaterial ("mere ideal . . . cyphers") and hence "are free to range" like "ferae naturae": wild beasts incapable of becoming the objects of absolute property. Then, in a conflation of the game laws with common right, he claims that "each bard," "tho' a cottager," has the right to receive stray characters "in his own paddock," thereby gaining a qualified property through the labor of confining them, despite the existence of "a lordly owner"—presumably of the commons upon which "the strays" were being shot, coursed after, or hunted. Consequently, so long as "each bard"—which, for Kenrick, means "each reader"—does not claim an absolute property right in a character, as a "poaching plagiary" would do, he need not worry about the propriety of his actions, for they are part of the same customary tradition as grants cottagers common right.
Clearly Kenrick's analogy has no legal authority. Nonetheless, it richly captures the underlying economic logic of imaginative expansion. For Kenrick, readers have a traditionary right to use characters, just as cottagers have the right to use the commons, and in both cases that right extends from the peculiar status of its object vis-à-vis conventional property. As ferae naturae grazing on the commons, characters are doubly forms of what Carol Rose terms "inherently public property." Accordingly, they pose a significant challenge to our usual ways of thinking about property as the right to exclude the public. For example, William Blackstone famously defined property as "that sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe." Yet common right undermined that dominion by allowing a "kind of possession without ownership, a profit which a man hath in the land of another." Herein, presumably, lay part of the analogy's appeal: if readers were cottagers exercising their common right, then their "possession" of a character could be regarded as not only innocent but profitable and productive. And since the textual commons, unlike the actual commons, were manifestly inexhaustible, those profits could be enjoyed without any more risk of injury to the "lordly owner" than was incurred by The Spectator's "Man of a Polite Imagination," who "often feels a greater Satisfaction in the Prospect of Fields and Meadows, than another does in the Possession." Indeed, as Addison's language suggests, pinning down absolute ownership was a bit irrelevant in the economy of abundance; what mattered was use and the satisfactions it could afford, satisfactions that, like common right, somehow mysteriously translated into "a kind of Property in everything he sees."
Of course, if readers were cottagers exercising their common right, then they were necessarily bound together by their shared use of the same property. After all, cottagers do not have the right to graze their cattle upon just any waste: their right is tied to a specific locale and so too is their sense of felt commonality with other cottagers. They were not just cottagers in the abstract but rather, say, the "Cottagers, Day Labourers, Shopkeepers, and other little Housekeepers" of Sutton Coldfield. Yet as the sheer bagginess of this list testifies, the collective entity thus formed is impossible to delimit with any real precision: common right attaches to anyone who can persuasively claim to be one of "the other little Housekeepers." Carol Rose insists that this ambiguity is inherent in the very notion of "customary rights," as "custom is the means by which an otherwise unorganized public can order its affairs" by vesting "property rights in groups that are indefinite and informal yet nevertheless capable of self-management" (124). No census of little housekeepers could capture for more than a moment who was entitled to use the commons of Sutton Coldfield, any more than a catalog of likely readers could delimit who had the authority to receive stray characters in "fancy's pimlico." Yet far from translating into "a wasteland of uncertain or conflicting . . . claims," this demographic imprecision was precisely what marked the commons as common in the first place, since "indefiniteness of use—abstracted from numbers or intensity of use—count[s] as the essential measure of 'publicness'." Public property and the public are thus mutually constitutive, since, as Michael Warner has shown, the thing which most characterizes a public as such is that it "can be . . . participated in by any number of unknown and in principle unknowable others." Accordingly, public property is simply that which is used by a public.
Moreover, given the logic of scale returns, which we have already seen vis-à-vis the issue of felt immateriality, the attractiveness of treating characters as if they were public property increased in direct proportion to how public they already felt, which is to say, how large their public seemed to be. Additional use could only enhance a character's felt publicity by further strengthening his or her public's imagined self-identity as a public: "as with festive activities generally, the more members of the community who participate, the more they come to feel as one. . . . Activities of this sort . . . have value precisely because they reinforce the solidarity and fellow-feeling of the community as a whole; thus the more members of the community participate, even only as observers, the better for all." With greater scale come greater returns, such that "one values one's own" interest in, say, the afterlife of a given character "all the more because others do so as well": like other "practices that enhance the sociability of the practitioners . . . one cannot get too much of them." Granted, the sociability afforded by the textual commons was almost wholly virtual, but that seems to have only sped up the cycle of scale returns: readers would invent further adventures for a particular character, see that strangers were apparently doing the same (as evidenced by publications like Falstaff's Wedding), and so conclude that both they and the strangers were far from alone, that there were still others, yet unknown, with whom they all shared a desire for "more." Here, in a nutshell, we have the central link between publicity, canonicity, and virtual community which both underpins imaginative expansion and drives this book: namely, that readers who imagine characters as common, and hence available to the public, also imagine themselves as part of a public, a virtual community interested in the same things as they are, which in turn requires a common object to rally around even as it enhances that object's felt value—what we will call its social canonicity—by making it the commons around which the virtual community organizes itself.
These practices thus set up a feedback loop or bandwagon effect in which they reinforce one another: characters came to seem more socially canonical and desirable as they came to seem more common and used by all, which in turn enhanced their value and publicity that much more. This process of increasing collective value and publicity through repeated individual use is neatly formulated by another one of the heroes of this book: Charles Churchill. Churchill spoke for many when he proclaimed, in defense of his Rosciad, "The Stage I chose—a subject fair and free— / 'Tis yours—'tis mine—'tis Public Property. / All Common Exhibitions open lye / For Praise or Censure to the Common Eye." The apposition here is actually an equation: for Churchill, the stage was public property precisely because it was both "yours" and "mine" and so defied any pretensions to absolute ownership. "Exhibitions" were "Common" because all who attended (in theory, all who could scrape together a shilling or two for admittance) could stake a proprietary claim "meerly by employing more Labour on them." And this felt commonness or publicity was what in turn ensured not only the availability of the stage as a "subject" but also its attractiveness: it is, after all, both "fair and free." The textual commons—what Sir Joshua Reynolds would term "a magazine of common property, always open to the publick, whence every man has a right to take what materials he pleases"—thus paradoxically stems from the proliferation of private claims upon the same artwork, from the oscillation between individual appropriation and imagining the individual appropriations of others. As with the roads, the mere fact of repeated public use could transform private property into a public benefit.
I dwell upon the paradoxical logic of the feedback loop because it helps to illuminate several important ways in which the phenomenon of imaginative expansion might challenge our usual ways of thinking about authorship, canonicity, and the public. The full force of these challenges will emerge in the course of my narrative; for now it will suffice to catalog them. First of all, the pattern of scale returns which we have been tracing offers an implicit justification for my use of not only the letters, diaries, and marginalia to which I have already made reference but also a wide array of materials originally intended for publication (including Falstaff's Wedding and Shakespeare's Jubilee). Some historians of reading would reject the latter kind of evidence as inauthentic or overly mediated. DeMaria, for example, rather puzzlingly insists that "a real reader is not a writer," which means that, since "writing about reading is writing," it is illegitimate to consider "the history of remarks about reading" as anything other than "contributions to" "a branch of literary criticism" (xii). What DeMaria is after is "evidence of reading that is unsullied by being part of the history of writing," that is "a part of personal rather than public life" (xiii, 2). Yet the logic of the feedback loop suggests that the publicity of something like Shakespeare's Jubilee, far from being an obstacle to regarding it as part of the history of reading, is in fact its greatest contribution. By making his masque available to hundreds or thousands of strangers, Carey could enhance the felt commonness and value of Falstaff and company that much more, even as that commonness and value justified his project in the first place. Indeed, it would not be too much to say that the practice of imaginative expansion not only relies upon the publicity of beloved characters, it aspires to bolster that publicity through making its own additional iterations as public as possible. Accordingly, it would be not only counterproductive to exclude published evidence from an inquiry into imaginative expansion, it would obscure the very motives driving the practice in the first place, motives which call into question the sustainability of DeMaria's distinction between "personal" and "public life."
The logic of the feedback loop can also help us to recognize and begin to theorize the rather different sense of canonicity at work here and to see how it might complicate our current accounts of what John Guillory has termed "the problem of literary canon formation." In recent years, we have been taught—chiefly by Guillory—to consider canon formation as ultimately a matter of "the social function and institutional protocols of the school," "which regulates and thus distributes cultural capital unequally" as a means of reproducing "the social order, with all of its various inequities." For Guillory, assessments of value "are necessary rather than sufficient to constitute a process of canon formation. An individual's judgment that a work is great does nothing in itself to preserve that work, unless that judgment is made in a certain institutional context, a setting in which it is possible to insure the reproduction of the work, its continual reintroduction to generations of readers" (28). Accordingly, the culture wars of the late 1980s were fundamentally misguided when they cast the issue of canon formation as one of blinkered aesthetics, rather than the institutional regulation of linguistic and symbolic capital. There is much to recommend Guillory's analysis of the recent past, just as there is much to be learned from the literary historians who have followed his lead and credited various eighteenth-century institutions—most notably antiquarian scholarship, Scottish reprint publishing, and the House of Lords—with the invention of the vernacular canon. However, the phenomenon of imaginative expansion challenges the adequacy of these accounts by presenting us with a host of individual readers whose supposedly impotent value judgments nonetheless uncannily anticipate those of generations to come. That is, with the possible exception of Falstaff, Sir Roger de Coverly, and Inkle and Yarico, none of the characters for whom further adventures were invented were part of the curricula of English literature introduced into the primary schools in the mid-eighteenth century, nor were many of them championed by influential orderers of the arts like Thomas Warton. Yet one would be hard pressed to find characters who were more familiar to and valued by "generations of readers" than, say, Lemuel Gulliver or Pamela Andrews. All this suggests that what we are dealing with is a form of canonicity which exists both prior to and outside the institutions which have been so central to recent accounts of canon formation.
Following Franco Moretti, I would like to describe this other form of canonicity as the "social canon": that unwritten list of texts kept alive in the hearts and minds of myriad individual readers from generation to generation. Obviously, the social canon is a much broader phenomenon than imaginative expansion. Nonetheless, I would like to propose that the normal exceptionality of imaginative expansion can lay bare some of the underlying presumptions of the social canon and so reveal the radical incompleteness of accounts like Guillory's. Perhaps the most obvious difference between the social canon and what we could term the academic canon lies in their respective relation to popularity. For most academic canon makers, beginning in the eighteenth century, value was inversely proportionate to a text's current number of avid readers. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how it could be otherwise and still serve as a mode of distinction. Reading Spenser would cease to be an accomplishment if all could both readily and eagerly do so. With the social canon, on the other hand, popularity—especially what Moretti describes as "steady survival from one generation to the next" (210)—was not only compatible with canonicity, it was in large part constitutive of it. As the logic of the feedback loop suggests, what marks the characters who populate the social canon as desirable is precisely that others have already desired them. Their felt value, that is, resides in the possibilities they provide for forging a sense of ongoing kinship with one's fellow readers, rather than in the opportunities they afford for polite self-fashioning or philological one-upmanship. Taste is here demonstrated by commonality, rather than distinction. [. .