Five Questions: Ian Newman on The Romantic Tavern

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Ian Newman is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame. His research encompasses, among other things, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature and song; politics; aesthetics; urban space; John Keats; Charles Macklin; and the transmission and circulation of popular culture. He is the co-editor, with Oskar Cox Jensen and David Kennerley, of Charles Dibdin & Late Georgian Culture (Oxford University Press, 2018) and was recently the guest editor of a special issue of Studies in Romanticism on “Song and the City” (Winter 2019), to which he also contributed an introduction co-written with Gillian Russell. His first monograph, The Romantic Tavern: Literature and Conviviality in the Age of Revolution, which we discuss below, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2019.

1) How did you first become interested in Romantic-period taverns?

There are really two answers to this question, once personal and sentimental, and one more intellectual, although they may in fact turn out to be the same thing.

The personal first: I grew up in England in a family of enthusiastic drinkers. Most of my childhood holidays involved camping in the back gardens of pubs, or hiking in the Welsh mountains and stopping off at a pub (usually in the beer garden) for lunch. So long before I reached drinking age, I had a strong emotional connection to the institution of the pub as a source of pleasure, which only increased when I was old enough to actually go inside. As an undergrad I spent more hours in the Hat and Feathers in Cambridge than I’m comfortable admitting here. Then, in 2002 I moved to Los Angeles and the thing I missed about England more than anything was the pub. Not the drinking, so much as the forms and rituals of pub culture: the architecture, the hand pumps that frothed the beer into the glass, the clocks on the barbacks, the mirror decorations and elegant tiling, even the smell of piss on a urinal cake, and of course, the forms of talk.

When I first moved I just didn’t understand how young Americans spent their spare time. Where did people go to discuss politics, or TV, or events in the news? Where did students go to talk about the books they were reading or discuss their ideas about a lecture or grumble about the poor behaviour of a classmate? Where did they go to form friendships, to meet people, to flirt and to argue? Where, in short, was the glue that held the culture together? (Brief answer: America affords plenty of ways for these things to happen; they just don’t all happen in the one-stop shop we have in the pub). So, my interest in taverns was really a result of recognizing the value of something that I had taken for granted only when it was no longer available. And in its absence I understood that there was something important about British pub culture that needed to be understood better and explained – especially, I thought, to Americans.

When I started graduate school – and here I’m moving into the more intellectual answer to your question — I grew fascinated by the London Corresponding Society, and in the way politically disenfranchised artisans gathered together in alehouses to read Paine’s The Rights of Man, to talk about their own stake in political discussion and in general to give themselves a political education. (I should say that recent work on the LCS has vastly complicated this narrative, but this, broadly speaking, was the story I’d inherited from E.P. Thompson). I had been tracking the alehouses that the LCS met in, largely just out of a sense of curiosity about what they were like, and wondering if any still existed that I could go and visit.

So I knew that I wanted to write about pubs and the politics of the early Romantic period –- this powerful moment when new political ideas were permeating culture in a tremendously exciting but also potentially frightening way. But the penny really dropped when I was sitting in the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles and I saw an image of the interior space of the London Tavern for the first time. I remembered that the London Tavern was a place that Edmund Burke referred to in the Reflections, and was immediately struck that this was a colossal space, far bigger than the little pub I’d been imagining when I read the word “tavern” on the pages of Burke’s treatise.  It was truly colossal with magnificent decorations and classical pillars and pilasters, and could accommodate up to two thousand people in just one of its several rooms. And I had an immediate, palpable sense that many critics, myself included, had been referring to “taverns” for a long time without really understanding at all what they were talking about, certainly without recognizing the importance of the distinction between taverns and alehouses. That really opened the door for the book, as I realized that rather than trying to explain pub culture to an American audience – which was a dreadful, patronizing idea anyway – I needed to recover the history of the pub for a British audience too, as we had lost sight of these extraordinary institutions which were right at the center of culture of all kinds, literary and extra-literary, shaping all those energetic political disputes out of which modern democracy was born.  

2) In the course of your research, what emerged as the key touchstones for tavern sociability, and in what ways did these shift over the course of the later eighteenth century?

One of the central claims of the book is that in the second half of the eighteenth century there developed a distinctive form of sociability that was associated with, though not confined to, the tavern that went by the name “conviviality.” This is a form of sociability that had important links with earlier models of eighteenth-century sociability discussed by the likes of Addison and Hume and theorized by Habermas, but which distinguished itself by an assumption of inclusivity. The model for thinking about eighteenth-century sociable conversation is largely antagonistic and improving, with conversation and argument helping to shape opinion. The default assumption of conviviality, on the other hand, is that everyone is already in agreement, and so a variety of forms develop – toasts, drinking songs, speeches – to help articulate what are assumed to be shared values. This shift, from sociability as something that shapes opinion, to conviviality as something that affirms shared belief is one of the defining changes in conceptions of sociability in the second half of the eighteenth century, and there develops a series of key concepts that helped to articulate this change. These include “humour,” meaning both funniness and good humouredness; “sentiment,” a familiar idea from the late eighteenth century but that has a particular convivial inflection because a sentiment was a kind of toast; and “mutuality” a word frequently used to mean the shared desires and affections of an entire room. Together these terms emphasized collectivity, and the confirmation of ideas that had already been settled, rather than ones that might be open to change.

Of course, these were just aspirational models, and in no way reflect the lived reality of any particular meeting, but these ideas had conceptual weight and influenced the way people perceived the successes or failures of the social occasion.

3) To what extent was the nature of tavern conviviality determined by the particular architecture of tavern spaces?

Well, provisionally I’d say that tavern conviviality wasn’t really determined by the physical space, but I do think the architecture and the practice evolved together along mutually reinforcing lines. So, for example, if you design a pub with a series of little cozy nooks and snugs, it reveals something about the assumed use of the space – it suggests small gatherings of a few people in intimate conversation, which itself might reveal something about the desire for privacy and discretion. But if, as with eighteenth-century taverns, you create a massive space that can accommodate hundreds, or sometimes thousands of people – a space that can be used as a banqueting hall, ball room or an assembly room – then that suggests something quite different about the sorts of gathering you have in mind, and the sorts of conversation that might be possible. So both the forms of sociability and the architecture are motivated by underlying ideas about sociability’s relationship to privacy and publicness.

But to complicate that a little, one of the interesting things about late eighteenth-century taverns was that a change in architecture coincided with the explosion of new forms of sociability, especially ones that included women. Gillian Russell is of course the authority here, but anyone who’s read Burney’s Evelina will have a good sense of the giddy excitement that surrounded these novel forms of urban entertainment. The tavern, a traditionally masculine space, attempted to cater to the rage for mixed gender socializing, and huge rooms were added on to older taverns, and built as part of the new ones, to accommodate balls, concerts, and assemblies, on a large scale.

Of course, architects didn’t have crystal balls and didn’t know how the spaces they designed were going to be used. And one use of these assembly rooms that became extremely common was large-scale meetings organized to gather support for a political cause, whether that was Charles Fox campaigning for an election, or the Society for Constitutional Information campaigning for universal suffrage. These large meetings, with hundreds of attendees were almost exclusively male gatherings, but they had been enabled by the development of these large rooms that had been designed to accommodate mixed gender sociability.

So while initially I would suggest that architectural space can’t determine behavior, it can certainly influence it. It seems likely that the idea of conviviality as inclusive and consensual rather than antagonistic that I talked about in my answer to your last question, was necessitated to a degree by the sheer scale of these vast meetings, the size of which was made possible by the architecture.

4) Four of your chapters focus on particular genres: political ballads, Anacreontic odes, bawdy and lyrical ballads, and the toast.  How can situating these genres in their tavern contexts help to reanimate texts most commonly encountered by Romanticists in often-chastened collected forms?

In general terms, part of my aim was to point out that lyric poetry is only one verse form among many, and that several other forms are best understood in performance rather than as printed texts. And while we have access to these forms only through their textual traces, we can reanimate the world of late eighteenth-century verse by attempting to imagine the social occasion in which performances happened. One of my larger claims then is that we can only really understand these often-chastened collected forms when we see them in the context of the competition between different verse forms. So for example, it’s really hard to understand what’s going on in Keats’s “Ode to A Nightingale” with its references to draughts of vintage and Bacchus if you don’t understand the culture of convivial Anacreontic poetry it was responding to, and suggesting it could supplant. Nor do I think it’s possible to recognize what is distinctive about Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, unless you set it in the context of a robust culture of ballad singing, which is inherently performative and not (as the Lyrical Ballads are) purely textual. Part of what’s getting worked out in these canonical moments is the claiming of the lyric’s special relationship to print rather than performance, and especially the lyric’s relationship to the codex form of the book, which can lend longevity to verse. And this often is opposed to more ephemeral verse forms like the performed drinking song, or political verse, or the broadside ballad, or any of the other myriad forms of poetry that made a virtue of spontaneity, immediacy and embodied presence rather than timelessness. What thinking about taverns and tavern performance can do then is to raise the question of the temporalities of verse, asking us to reconsider the value systems that made a virtue of the now, which have been obscured a little by the Romantic lyric’s idea that the value of the present lies in its ability to provide life and food for future years. Admittedly, an extremely powerful idea, just not the only one available.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I’ve been acutely aware that the research I did on ballads for The Romantic Tavern barely scratched the surface of what is a vast world of verse in performance – or what you might, I suppose, call “song”. This work has been spinning out in various directions, one of which is an interest in the role of song in the theatre, and in particular trying to think carefully about what it means when a performer or the audience begins to sing in the middle of a play. What does that performance suggest about the affective bonds between audience, actor, and character, and what exactly is the status of the song in the context of the dramatic action? Some of this thinking will appear in an edited volume I’m working on with David O’Shaughnessy on the Irish actor Charles Macklin called Charles Macklin and the Practice of Enlightenment, for which I’m contributing a chapter called ‘Macklin and Song’. I’m also working on a monograph about the idea of the ballad as a narrative poem called Song Stories. I’m interested here in the kinds of narratives that ballads (by which I mean performed songs, not just printed ballads) provide, attending in particular to the narrators of ballads (who are often curious characters) and the interplay between words and music in providing narrative satisfaction.

And obviously, I remain very interested in drinking songs.