Monday, March 12, 2012

Nikki Hessell's "Literary Authors, Parliamentary Reporters"

Nikki Hessell is Senior Lecturer in the School of English Film Theatre and Media Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Literary Authors, Parliamentary Reporters: Johnson, Coleridge, Hazlitt, Dickens, and reported the following:
My book began when I noticed the remarkable coincidence that four of English literature’s most prominent writers—Samuel Johnson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Hazlitt, and Charles Dickens—had worked as parliamentary reporters. As I researched this period of their development, I became aware that each writer’s reporting was being mined for hints of their later style, personality or opinions. As a consequence, the writing was not being judged according to the journalistic norms of the time. My aim was to restore the reports to their original context as pieces of parliamentary journalism.

Page 99 discusses an important example of the misreadings that can occur when we assume that we know what a writer must have thought about something. It falls in the chapter on Hazlitt. Hazlitt joined the press gallery exactly 200 years ago, in 1812, but he already had some experience with parliamentary oratory through a collection of speeches he had published in 1809, entitled The Eloquence of the British Senate. Hazlitt’s remarks in the advertisement to Eloquence are usually used to support the idea that he was dismissive of parliamentary oratory. He wrote (in a comment that makes 21st century readers smile at the persistent disappointments of democratic politics) that “a very small volume indeed, would contain all the recorded eloquence of both houses of parliament.” This sentiment chimes with our knowledge of the later Hazlitt, the man who believed that “the definition of a true patriot is a good hater,” Hazlitt the critic. From this point, scholars extrapolate that he loathed parliamentary speechmaking and thus must have loathed working as a reporter.

Not so. Hazlitt appears to have been happy during his spell in the gallery, as friends at the time testified, and an examination of his reporting, such as I undertake in this chapter, reveals a consummate team-player, at home with the norms of press gallery work. The context of his comment about “recorded eloquence” in the advertisement makes it clear that he is not dismissing parliamentary speechmaking but pointing out that it is important despite its frequent lack of eloquence. The speeches he chose to include in Eloquence were not, regardless of the title, chosen solely for their eloquence: Hazlitt instead decided to include significant but dull speeches, or mediocre speeches by famous men. What this decision reveals is an absolute commitment to the historical and democratic value of parliamentary oratory.
Learn more about Literary Authors, Parliamentary Reporters at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue