Foolish knowledge: The commercial modernity of the periodical press
This article adds to critics' growing interest in Romantic periodicals by focusing on weekly periodicals' role as the Historian of character and manners. If the monthly reviews and magazines boasted of their panoptic survey of the whole of recent literary production, the single-essay periodicals defined their importance by embracing what was in many ways the opposite perspective. Preoccupied with the resonant power of local truths, they gravitated towards a style which functioned as a microcosm of a larger order that could only ever be delineated through fragments rather than through any more encompassing structural analysis. If their fragmentary style left weekly periodical writers vulnerable to the charge of contributing to the age's cultural decline by satisfying readers with a stream of brief and highly conversational essays, they countered this objection by insisting that their disconnected form fostered an active process of critical engagement by training readers to participate in what Samuel Johnson called the miscellaneous and unconnected nature of a modern commercial society. In doing so they helped to translate the discourse of polite sociability into a basis of cultural authority which reflected the domain of middle-class life at the expense of the aristocratic connotations that critics such as the Earl of Shaftesbury had associated with it.