TURN, TURN, TURN AGAIN: Elizabeth Carolyn Miller’s ‘Slow Print: Literary Radicalism and Late Victorian Print Culture’

Elizabeth Carolyn Miller Slow Print: Literary Radicalism and Late Victorian Print Culture (Stanford University Press, 2013)

by Owen Holland

“Turn! Turn! Turn! (to Everything There is a Season)“ is a song adapted almost entirely from the Book of Ecclesiastes and set to music by Pete Seeger in 1959. Seeger waited until 1962 to record it, singing that there is “a time to cast away stones and a time to gather stones together.” Bob Dylan perhaps had Seeger’s recording in a nook of his mind when he penned “Percy’s Song” in 1963 – an outtake from the sessions for The Times They Are A-Changin’. The song has that insistent refrain – “Turn, turn, turn again” – which Joan Baez can be heard singing in D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary film Don’t Look Back. This micro-constellation of the 1960s American folk revival refused to leave my mind when I read Elizabeth Miller’s Slow Print. It lodged itself there for no other reason than that the book is structured around a series of “turns,” which Miller identifies and painstakingly pursues through the sub-cultural byways of late Victorian radical print culture.

Miller defines the specificity of the period which she examines by delineating its inheritance of, but simultaneous scepticism towards, the Enlightenment ideal of “free print,” manifest in earlier struggles of the unstamped press in the early nineteenth century and the Chartist ferment of the late 30s and 40s. As such, Miller’s book provides a useful complement to studies of earlier radical print cultures, such as Ian Haywood’s The Revolution in Popular Literature: Print, Politics and the People, 1790-1860 (2004) and Joan Allen and Owen Aston’s edited collection Papers for the People: A Study of the Chartist Press (2005). By the late nineteenth century, the “dream of limitless print” (5) had been exposed as having fallen prey to what E.P. Thompson described as the “rationalist illusion.”[1] The proliferation of print in an era of (relative) liberal tolerance had not lead to mass radicalisation, a conundrum which caused fin-de-siècle radicals to reconsider their media strategies. It was not so much the censor, but, rather, the indifference of a mass public in an anonymous market place that was the main obstacle to the growth of radical and oppositional political sentiment. In a fin-de-siècle version of what Herbert Marcuse conceptualised as “repressive tolerance,” radical attempts to carve out alternative cultural spaces through the medium of print did not escape the contradictions of commercial capitalism. Nevertheless, many of the small-scale radical periodicals discussed by Miller were sufficiently dissimilar to the national, pro-capitalist dailies and weeklies to constitute a domain of “slow print” (2) – differentiated in being both explicitly political and agitational, as well as actively opposed to “literary and journalistic mass production” (ibid.). As the capitalist newspaper barons such as Lord Northcliffe, Arthur Pearson and George Newnes built their empires of inky paper, there was also a sharp rise in the number of printed periodicals and magazines; as Miller puts it, the turn-of-the-century “microsurge in the radical press paralleled the macrosurge of periodical publishing in general” (3).

Slow PrintMuch of Miller’s material is garnered from the pages of low-circulation radical and socialist newspapers and journals, prominent amongst which are the Socialist League’s Commonweal, the Socialist Democratic Federation’s Justice, Robert Blatchford’s Clarion, Tom Maguire’s Labour Champion, Annie Besant’s Our Corner and The Link, Alfred Orage’s New Age, the Labour Leader, To-Day and Seed Time, amongst numerous others. The ongoing digitalisation of nineteenth-century newspaper collections by multinational academic publishing companies such as Gale Cengage and ProQuest has thus far overlooked the late Victorian sub-cultural formation reconstructed by Miller.[2] It is a cunning ruse of capitalist “reason” that the late nineteenth-century “radical literary responses to the consolidation of the print industry and the emergence of a mass print market,” which shared in an “effort to generate an anticapitalist counterpublic through literature” (25), might well go ”missing” from today’s archive, thick as it is with the aroma of transmutation, as the contemporary print industry continues to migrate to the cloud.

As for the turns I mentioned at the outset, George Bernard’s Shaw’s anti-realist turn away from novel-writing to the theatre, discussed in chapters two and three, is shown to have precedents and analogues in the anti-realism of William Morris’s socialist anti-novels, Alfred Orage’s New Age and Oscar Wilde’s aestheticism. Miller’s account of Shaw’s “socialist theatrical turn” (p. 123) is also embedded in a scrupulous reconstruction of the period’s wider theatrical milieu, in which private at-home readings of newly-translated versions of Ibsen’s plays ranked alongside the revivalism of the Shelley Society, whose private staging of The Cenci on 7th May 1886 was part of an “emerging theatrical counterpublic” (149). To-Day serialised the first English translation of Ibsen’s Ghosts in 1885, translated by Henrietta Lord, whilst Lord’s translation of A Doll’s House had been published under the title of Nora in 1882. As Miller comments, “Edmund Gosse may have been the first to translate Ibsen into English, but Lord translated him for radicals” (143). Lord’s translations were complemented by Havelock Ellis’s 1888 edition of The Pillars of Society and Other Plays, which included translations by Lord, William Archer and Eleanor Marx – who had learned Norwegian for the express purpose of translating Ibsen. The subversive edge of this sub-culture was linked, in large part, to the progressive sexual politics of many of the movement’s participants. Some late Victorian socialists, anarchists and radicals found common ground with (some) first-wave feminists on issues such as free love, marriage and the sexual division of labour. Miller’s final chapter, entitled “Free Love, Free Print,” contends that the movement took a biopolitical turn at the fin de siècle, in part because “[s]exuality had replaced labour politics as ground zero for […] censorship debates” (260) – as witnessed in the causes célèbres surrounding George Bedborough’s journal The Adult and Henry Vizetelly’s English translations of Zola. The prosecutions of Bedborough and Vizetelly for obscenity point to the intersection of the struggle for free print (“the residual effect of the radical Enlightenment” [263]) and the fin-de-siècle discourse of free love which challenged the dominant social morality as articulated in the mainstream press.

The first chapter examines William Morris’s print ventures of the 1880s and 1890s, making a compelling case for a connection between his “two major experiments in […] slow print” (35): namely, the revolutionary socialist newspaper Commonweal and the Kelmscott Press. In case you were wondering, “Morris’s turn toward print production corresponded nearly exactly with his turn toward revolutionary socialism” (41). Miller stresses the “important continuities” (26) between these ostensibly antithetical projects of Morris’s later years, arguing that both “print enterprises construct themselves as utopian spaces outside the ‘march of progress’ narrative […] that had accrued to print and to capitalism” (ibid.). Miller’s interpretation of the Press usefully qualifies earlier interpretations of the Kelmscott Press as an apolitical feature of Morris’s final years – a late turn away from politics into the fantastic landscapes of romance – by emphasising the way in which the Press’s mission to produce beautiful books was continuous with the “struggle against utilitarianism” (55) which was a crucial element of Morris’s socialist politics. The utopian characterisation of the Commonweal occasionally strikes the wrong note; it is not quite accurate, for example, to say that “[i]t preached a revolutionary vision that called for disengagement with contemporary politics in service of total social transformation” (51). If the Commonweal called for disengagement, none of the Socialist League’s members would ever have bothered to attend a demonstration, or to turn up to a picket line. E.P. Thompson suggests that the Commonweal “never seemed to reconcile the twin tasks of a theoretical journal and a popular propaganda weekly,” but the latter of these two tasks did not involve calling for a complete disengagement with contemporary politics, even if palliative measures were frequently criticised as a road to nowhere (rather than Nowhere).[3] Such nit-picking aside, Miller’s elucidation of the connections between the Commonweal and the Kelmscott Press illuminates both ventures as part of the selfsame endeavour to “reform print at the level of production” (39).

Mural on Leeds Road, Bradford. The Independent Labour Party was founded in Bradford by Keir Hardie in 1893.  Photo by Tim Green (aka atoach, Flickr)
Mural on Leeds Road, Bradford. The Independent Labour Party was founded in Bradford by Keir Hardie in 1893.
Photo by Tim Green (aka atoach, Flickr)

Part of that attempt operated at the level of ideological production. The ideological function of the so-called “free press” in capitalist society is that it is instrumental in creating the impression of a pluralistic and multi-faceted public sphere, in which divergent views can be espoused within a framework of rational, agonistic discussion. Commonweal, and other papers like it, was established to probe the ideological limits of this public sphere, by exposing to scrutiny the unspoken consensus of values which delimits it. Morris was keenly aware of the function of newspapers as a site of ideological production, noting their influence on the “formation of public opinion,” suggesting that “the so-called educated classes stick with great fidelity to the opinions of their favourite newspapers, and by this time have learned to conduct an ‘argument’ on [any given subject] by those means.”[4] His attitude to journalism, however, spoke to a certain denigration of the form. In another article for the Commonweal, dated 30th June 1888, he wrote that “I believe, indeed, it is thought by some that this habit of the consumption of newspapers is the first step in education. Good! the second step, I take it, will be the cessation of that habit.”[5] Morris’s scepticism towards the value of print journalism is further testament to the ambivalence with which some late Victorian socialists regarded the legacy of the radical Enlightenment. In Morris’s case, in particular, John Ruskin’s criticisms of John Stuart Mill’s valorisation of liberty of thought as little more than liberty of “clamour” – to which Miller calls attention in her introduction – was one of the channels through which this ambivalence was mediated.

Miller’s book is deeply immersed in what Morris referred to as an “enormous mass of printed paper which is not books or literature, but which the public pays for every day, since I suppose a faculty once acquired produces a habit and must be exercised, even when it is the mechanical one of reading print.”[6] The digital transmogrification of such habits in the contemporary world is both defamiliarising and disorientating, insofar as our changing reading practices are also changing the way we store, process and remember information. The democratic potentiality of the internet, which can shade off into a debilitating kind of idealistic cyber-utopianism, goes together with a manifold reduplication of the question posed by Miller: “Did [does] print function as a synecdoche for capitalism, wordlessly conveying the values of mass production, homogeneity, and invisible labour?” (6). The internet is a place where the possibility of limitless expansion goes hand-in-hand with the actuality of relentless contraction: is it a space for enlightenment or anomie? Each new blogoscule is a solar system unto itself, exerting a gravitational pull on those not-so-celestial bodies that happen to fall into the orbit of the “central” sun. It was Hal Draper who once wrote that “[w]hat the future socialist movement needs is a network of informal socialist circles – or formal ones if you will – which have an integral relation to the real struggles people are carrying on.”[7] In part because Slow Print is a study of a radical print culture, Miller tends to shirk the subject of praxis, as such, a concept which is frequently sublimated into a discussion of aesthetic “value,” as instanced in the section of chapter four on the politics of formal innovation. The “real” struggles people were carrying on – or, at least, those that were not chiefly conducted through the medium of print – are mostly absent.[8] This is another minor quibble, though, which should not detract from the book’s achievement in restoring such a large treasury of material to critical attention. Miller’s careful recovery of an extinct media ecology also speaks implicitly to the predicaments of the present moment.

Slow Print is ambitious in its scope, in part because the “diverse interconnected radicalisms” (151) of the period have left such a kaleidoscopic array of textual traces. Miller’s discussions of Tom Maguire’s poetry for the Commonweal and Labour Champion, Annie Besant’s autobiographical writings, Julia Dawson’s journalism for the Clarion and Henrietta Lord and Eleanor Marx’s translations of Ibsen illustrate the multifarious kinds of formal experimentation at play in late Victorian radical culture, at the same time as they speak to Miller’s virtuosity in handling such an extensive array of material. Much of the book’s material is drawn, as Miller acknowledges, from the radical press archive of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but the book’s critical payload is directed at modernism studies. Its force is felt in the concluding pages, which refracts the six preceding chapters through a different lens by offering an “alternative genealogy for an emerging modernist aesthetic” (301). A short section merits slightly lengthier quotation:

I find in radical print culture a reminder that a rejection of capitalist modes of print production and circulation was just as constitutive of the modernist moment as was an appeal to niche markets and readerships. Forming a separate literary and print culture was not simply a savvy response to a fragmenting marketplace; it was a gesture with a radical political history, a recent radical political history. Little magazines and private presses have a political form that was, at the turn of the century, still associated with anticapitalist dissent. Our understanding of the cultural rupture effected by modernist print is poorer if we do not see this rupture as connected to a history of aggressive political protest against market capitalism such as we see in the late Victorian radical press (300).

As this passage should suggest, Miller’s book is not only an important contribution to the study of late Victorian literary and political culture, it also supplies something of “missing link” between this period and the modernism(s) of the early twentieth century: Клином красным бей белых.[9]

  1. E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, 4th edn (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991), p. 806.
  2. Commonweal and To-Day are two notable, and welcome, exceptions.
  3. E.P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, 2nd rev. edn (London: Merlin Press, 1976), p. 392. Elsewhere Thompson does find fault with Commonweal for being “out of touch with the working-class movement” and for being “difficult to sell” (463). Miller also quotes Thompson’s assessment that the League never learned to understand the “impossibility of preaching purism to workers engaged in bitter class struggles” (438). A “purist” ideological position, though, cannot strictly be identified with calls for disengagement from politics, if only because some measure of engagement, in one context or another, will be required in the attempt to persuade the intended audience of the truth of any given position.
  4. William Morris, Journalism: Contributions to Commonweal, 1885-1890, ed. Nicholas Salmon (Bristol: Thommes, 1996), p. 66.
  5. William Morris, Political Writings: Contributions to Justice and Commonweal 1883-1890, ed. Nicholas Salmon (Bristol: Thommes, 1994), p. 377. John Bruce Glasier confirms that “Morris undertook the editorship of the Commonweal with great reluctance, and only because there was no one else who had the time or capacity for the work who could be entrusted with it.” John Bruce Glasier, William Morris and the Early Days of the Socialist Movement (London: Longmans, 1921), p. 177.
  6. Morris, Political Writings, p. 376.
  7. Hal Draper, ‘Anatomy of the Micro-Sect’, unpublished document circulated privately in 1973, available here [last accessed 25/9/2013].
  8. I am mindful, here, that print is praxis, or one form of it, at least. The Egyptian socialist Hossam el-Hamalawy, for instance, has pointed to some of the ways in which the new technologies of virtual print can play a functional role in the work of political organisation.
  9. The Russian title of El Lissitzky’s Smash the Whites with the Red Wedge.

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