This post is the first in a series presenting blog publications from the authors featured in the latest volume of the Keats-Shelley Journal, Volume LXV. In these short pieces, authors reflect on their recent work and dialogue with other scholars in the discipline. Below is a Q&A with James Bryant Reeves addressing his article “Unbelief and Sympathy in Shelley and Hogg’s Letters to Ralph Wedgwood”. This series is curated by Lindsey Seatter, for the Keats-Shelley Association of America Communications Fellows Team.
You note at the beginning of your article that, though the Shelley-Hogg letters were acquired by Oxford over a decade ago, they have “received minimal scholarly treatment.” Can you speculate as to why the letters were ignored for so many years? Does something about our particular cultural moment connect to the content of the letters or make it an apt time to explore the correspondence?
If I had to guess, I’d say the neglect might have something to do with the letters’ genre. First and foremost, the letters are an extended epistolary prank, one of many such pranks Shelley and Hogg were playing at the time. So, perhaps that has deterred others from taking their theological/philosophical speculations seriously. In addition, the collection’s lengthiest, most substantial letters were written by Hogg, not by the more famous Shelley, which might explain why they’re just now receiving more attention.
What excites me about the collection is that the letters’ playfulness and anonymity allowed the undergraduates considerable scope to explore various formulations of unbelief—at a time, of course, when they had not yet made their atheism public—and that these formulations have little in common with clichéd notions of cold, soulless materialism. The letters illustrate the ways in which nuanced spiritual stances proliferated in secularization’s wake (a process Charles Taylor has famously called the “nova effect”), and they have much to offer recent attempts (like The Immanent Frame’s online forum on “Recovering the immanentist tradition”) to understand irreligion using its own terms, rather than simply seeing it as the absence or negation of religious belief.
Archival work is unpredictable and unique to each individual researcher. Describe your experience working in the Bodleian archive with the Shelley-Hogg letters. What drew you to the letters? Were the letters a serendipitous discovery or did you seek them out? Were the letters situated with any other artefacts that helped contextualize them or illuminate their significance?
I couldn’t have completed my research or this article without an incredible amount of help. My larger project focuses on atheism in the long eighteenth century, so my original intention was to search Oxford’s college archives for evidence of irreligious or heterodox behavior by students throughout the 1700s. Thanks to the wonderful assistance of archivists like Judith Curthoys, I spent much of my time in Oxford during the summer of 2015 reviewing the disciplinary records of Christ Church, John Locke’s collection of materials (Bodleian Locke MS b. 4, fos. 86–106) related to the infamous 1697 blasphemy trial of the young Thomas Aikenhead, and so forth.
For my knowledge of Shelley and Hogg’s letters to Wedgwood, I am entirely indebted to Dr. Robin Darwall-Smith. Darwall-Smith alerted me to the letters’ existence and the lack of scholarly attention they’d received at the time, and both he and Dr. Bruce Barker-Benfield provided timely responses to my inquiries about the letters’ provenance, their contents, and the events surrounding their composition. In addition, Barker-Benfield introduced me to another manuscript collection mentioned briefly in my article, MS. Don c. 180, which helped flesh out my account of Shelley’s early atheism, his various epistolary pranks, and the responses his unbelief elicited. In short, like much archival work, my research was a collaborative effort, and I’m grateful to the archivists and librarians who helped me along the way.
Your article details an intellectual exchange for which you only have half of the correspondence (because the Wedgewood letters are not extant). How did you navigate the challenge of having to capture the nature of a conversation while missing a significant portion of materials?
To some degree, deducing the contents of Wedgwood’s letters was relatively simple, in large part because Shelley and Hogg often go out of their way to recapitulate Wedgwood’s points (if only to mock them, of course). In some cases, the undergraduates quote directly from Wedgwood’s letters—in his first letter, for instance, Hogg writes, “You [Wedgwood] affirm that ‘the deprivation of the Universal Language was the means of banishing peace & harmony out of the world. &c’ (University College MS 210, f. 18v), before rebutting Wedgwood’s point. And, as I briefly mention in the article, Shelley’s mock-regret that his and Hogg’s initial letters “have occasioned your [Wedgwood’s] silence” (MS 210, 4r) allows us safely to assume that Wedgwood—perhaps startled by the pair’s heterodox opinions—was rather hesitant to correspond after receiving a few troubling missives from the boys.
So, while we don’t have Wedgwood’s letters, Shelley and Hogg’s tactic of undermining the inventor by using his own words and ideas against him makes determining his letters’ contents somewhat less difficult. Of course, the possibility always exists that the boys were exaggerating or overplaying some of Wedgwood’s statements for comedic or satiric effect. However, for the purposes of this article, I was more interested in the heterodox responses his letters engendered. Determining the precise contents of Wedgwood’s letters was therefore less pressing.