The Odd Tale of Blackwoodian Terror and the “Medico-Popular”

Megan Coyer

Megan Coyer

Combining this determinism with the “well-known fact” of the malleability of the infant human skull, “Sir Toby Tickletoby, Bart.” makes a “modest proposal” to fashion mental caps that “by repressing the growth of the injurious, and encouraging the expansion of the good affections, would inevitably make all the future generations of Britons to think and act alike for the common welfare”. Further, once phrenologically identified, “[t]he grown up wicked people might be put to death without mercy, for the safety of the good”. Cool, scientific reasoning, bereft of humane feeling, becomes the source of ludicrous horror. This is the article that The Phrenological Journal and Miscellany particularly highlights when they declare Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine’s to be “the most persevering, and, of course, the most absurd of the assailants of phrenology, and enemies of phrenologists”.

The Blackwoodian tale of terror — the genre for which the magazine is most renowned — emerged against a backdrop of medico-scientific progress that was laden with Gothic potential: the development of pathological anatomy, phrenology, and forensic medicine. As the “champion of the Invisible World” in an age defined by “utilitarian philosophy and materialism”, Blackwood’s was suspicious of any reductive idiom that privileged progress or utility over aesthetic pleasure, scientific reason over humane feeling, and scepticism over belief. This does not imply that the magazine was “anti-science”, and the present chapter reads the tale of terror as an experimental, dually epistemic and aesthetic literary genre, which evinces a transauthorial attempt in Blackwood’s to counter the perceived “opposition between literature, aesthetics, and feeling, on the one hand; and science, utility, and reason, on the other”.

Gianna Pomata defines an “epistemic genre” as composed of “kinds of texts that develop in tandem with scientific practices” and are thus “linked, in the eyes of their authors, to the practice of knowledge-making (however culturally defined)”. Scientific practices relevant to the tale of terror include the writing of case histories, the collection of first-person narratives of unusual subjective experiences, and the introspective and experimental methodologies of Scottish philosophers of mind. I suggest that the genre may be read as a form of hybrid “medico-popular” writing to be classed alongside non-fiction medical texts such as Robert Macnish’s ‘The Anatomy of Drunkenness’ (1827) and ‘The Philosophy of Sleep’ (1830), as well as one of the most canonical “literary” medical case histories, Thomas Penson De Quincey’s ‘Confessions of an English Opium-Eater’ (1822) — first serialised in The London Magazine in 1821, but originally intended for publication in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine’s. The term “medico-popular” is derived from David Macbeth Moir’s response to ‘The Anatomy of Drunkenness’, and the first section of this chapter introduces Robert Macnish’s first medico-literary project in relation to Thomas Penson De Quincey’s ‘Confessions’, before moving on to an examination of the development of the tale of terror in relation to the type of popular medical material previously published in monthly magazines and the case history tradition. The chapter closes by discussing the engagement with the genre by early medical contributors to Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine.

In August 1827, Robert Macnish forwarded David Macbeth Moir a copy of his ‘Inaugural Essay on Drunkenness’. The two young surgeons had only recently met for the first time in Musselburgh, and in the accompanying letter Robert Macnish notes that although, upon making Moir’s acquaintance, ‘I forgot to mention that I was a brother lancet, . . . [t]his you will detect at once from the nature of the pamphlet’. This letter begins what would blossom into a lifelong friendship and medico-literary correspondence. Moir responded enthusiastically to David Macbeth Moir’s work, declaring in a subsequent letter that he has “managed to hit off the subject in such a medico-popular way, as to render it not only instructive to the disciples of Hippocrates, but to Coleridge’s “reading public” at large’. His term captures a certain type of Romantic writing that was equally of interest to the “literary republic”, the “reading public”, and the medical profession.

Robert Macnish’s text originated as an inaugural dissertation presented before the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow in 1825. However, according to David Macbeth Moir’s posthumous ‘Life’ of Robert Macnish, published as the first volume of ‘The Modern Pythagorean; A Series of Tales, Essays, and Sketches’ (1838), the essay stood out from the “mere crambè-recocta common places” typically presented before the Faculty, and the Glasgow publisher William Lyon M’Phun “conceived it might be adapted to the perusal of a wider circle than the one for which it was, originally, altogether intended”. William Lyon M’Phun’s assessment proved true, and by 1834 the text was in its fifth edition. However, its success is attributable to its distinctive literary character, rather than any great degree of medico-scientific novelty. According to Robert Macnish, the two major faults in past writings on drunkenness are, first, their faint and even inaccurate descriptions of the phenomena of drunkenness, and, second, their neglect of the modification of drunkenness according to temperament and inebriating agent. ‘The Anatomy of Drunkenness’ provides florid descriptions of the phenomenological experiences, appearances and behaviours of sanguineous, melancholy, surly, phlegmatic, nervous, and choleric drunkards and distinguishes between the kinds of intoxication produced by wine, ale, spirits, opium, and tobacco.

Thomas Trotter’s ‘An Essay, Medical, Philosophical, and Chemical on Drunkenness and its Effects on the Human Body’ (1804) was the first full treatise to treat drunkenness as a medical subject, and Thomas Trotter does provide a brief description of the phenomena of drunkenness and the variations of these due to “natural disposition and temperament”. A comparison of the two authors’ descriptions of the first stages of drunkenness reveals the key difference between the texts. Thomas Trotter writes: “The first effects of wine are, an inexpressible tranquillity of mind, and liveliness of countenance: the powers of imagination become more vivid, and the flow of spirits more spontaneous and easy, giving birth to wit and humour without hesitation.”

While mirroring the same phenomenological sequence, Robert Macnish provides a more “literary” description, drawing upon vivid figurative language and a nearly poetical rhythm to portray a rich range of sensory transformations: “First, an unusual serenity prevails over the mind, and the soul of the votary is filled with a placid satisfaction. By degrees, he is sensible of a soft and not unmusical humming in his ears, at every pause of the conversation. He seems, to himself, to wear his head lighter than usual upon his shoulders. Then a species of obscurity, thinner than the finest mist, passes before his eyes and makes him see objects rather indistinctly. The lights begin to dance and appear double. A gaiety and warmth are felt at the same time about the heart. The imagination is expanded and filled with a thousand delightful images. He becomes loquacious, and pours forth, in enthusiastic language, the thoughts which are born, as it were, within him.”

In his review of the second edition of Robert Macnish’s book for Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, Wilson compliments its “vivid and breathing picture” and includes his own richly poetic descriptions of the horrors of delirium tremens — a phenomenon rife with potential for the tale of terror.

In ‘The Anatomy of Drunkenness’, Robert Macnish responds to a broader valuation of literary men within certain circles of Romantic medico-scientific culture. While he could complain in a letter to David Macbeth Moir that “doctors […] are truly a s et of dull dogs” and “perfectly contemptible on every subject not immediately connected with pills and potions”, in setting down his views on the origins of nervous diseases in ‘Hygeia: or, Essays Moral and Medical on the Causes Affecting the Personal State of our Middling and Affluent Classes’ (1802–3), Thomas Beddoes sufficiently valued imaginative literature to conclude that his own medical “project required an inwardness with the ways of the mind that only a creative writer could possess and he called for one to take his place”. Sir Humphry Davy’s nitrous oxide experiments at Thomas Beddoes’ Pneumatic Institute in Bristol (1799– 1802) were in fact performed upon men and women of acclaimed literary merit, and their descriptive reports formed the substance of the experimental data. Robert Macnish includes both Coleridge’s and Richard Lovell Edgeworth’s phenomenological descriptions in the second edition of ‘The Anatomy of Drunkenness’. However, the key Romantic medico-literary predecessor for Robert Macnish is Thomas Penson De Quincey. Writing to David Macbeth Moir to request permission to dedicate the second edition to “Delta, Author of ‘The Legend of Genevieve’”, Robert Macnish notes that, should he decline, he will dedicate the book to “that strange genius the English Opium-Eater”.

Thomas Penson De Quincey presents his ‘Confessions’ as a “useful and instructive” account of “excess, not yet recorded”, intended to provide knowledge of the “fascinating powers of opium”, which have been alluded to but not yet explained by medical writers. Critics have noted the original reception of the ‘Confessions’ as a genuine medical case history, and Robert Macnish cites Thomas Penson De Quincey authoritatively on the ability of the body to withstand increasing doses of opium. Like the Opium-eater (and in contrast to Trotter), he also ranks the effects of opium above those of alcohol, declaring “[t]here is more poetry in its visions, more mental aggrandisement, more range of imagination”. Both Robert Macnish and Thomas Penson De Quincey aestheticise pathological experience, yoking a Romantic aesthetic of intoxication to epistemic forms of medical writing, and in the opening of the text, as it first appeared in The London Magazine, the opium-eater presents his distinctive literary abilities as enhancing the value of his “case”. Appealing both to a Coleridgean intellectual ideal of subtlety of thought and a Wordsworthian ideal of the “virtuous poet”, as David Higgins notes, Thomas Penson De Quincey declares that he has not only sufficient intellect to relate his case, but also an appropriate “constitution of moral faculties, as shall give him an inner eye and power of intuition for the vision and mysteries of our human nature”. He concludes that “English poets” have had this and “Scottish Professors” have not.

Thomas Penson De Quincey’s reference to “Scottish Professors” alludes to his original intention to publish his ‘Opium article’ in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. By December 1820, he had promised an essay on the topic of opium to Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, and in a letter of December 19th, he notes it is “very far advanced”. However, in January 1821, he and William Blackwood quarrelled, and Thomas Penson De Quincey soon took the side of The London Magazine in the notorious “cockney school” feud that led to the death of John Scott, editor of The London Magazine, in a duel with William Blackwood’s representative, Jonathan Christie. Regardless of any ill will towards Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, Thomas Penson De Quincey includes a footnote to “disclaim any allusion to existing professors” (i.e. John Wilson) from his general denunciation, and his reference carries forward the magazine’s early critique of ‘Common Sense’ philosophy. A well-known article on William Wordsworth in the ‘Essays on the Lake-School of Poetry’ series in December 1818, for example, opens with the declaration: “As in this country, the investigations of metaphysicians have been directed chiefly towards the laws of intellect and association, and as we have nothing which deserves the name of philosophy founded upon an examination of what human nature internally says of itself […] we must turn to the poets if we wish to hear what our literature says upon these subjects.”

Lockhart’s Peter Morris takes a more extreme stance, concluding that Thomas Brown’s and Dugald Stewart’s philosophic methods evince “a very cold and barren way of thinking”. Denouncing the idea of extending “the empire of science” into the realm of the moral feelings, Peter Morris warns his readers against “reposing too much confidence in the powers resulting from science” and refers them to William Wordsworth — the English poet who “has better notions than any Scotch metaphysician is likely to have, of the true sources, as well as the true effects, of the knowledge of man”.

The insight into “the vision and mysteries of our human nature” provided in Thomas Penson De Quincey’s ‘Confessions’ develops, however, in parallel with a scientific discourse of containment and quantification. As Susan Levin has indicated, the Opium-eater is both a utilitarian, “a practical being who would analyze everything”, and a dreamer “who submerges himself in the opium experience”. She concludes that in his inability to scientifically analyse his opium dreams, the Opium eaters confessional text “becomes a romantic examination of the inadequacy of utilitarian philosophy” that should be read in relation to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘A Defence of Poetry’ and William Hazlitt’s ‘The New School of Reform’, in taking “a stand against the rigidly rational and practical as it dramatizes the justness and power of creative imagination and visionary dreaming”.

The ‘Anatomy of Drunkenness’ contains a similar tension but strikes a more confident balance on the side of the scientific analysis. Robert Macnish contains his poetic descriptions and aesthetic analysis of the phenomenology of drunkenness within a scientific system that classifies modifications according to temperament and inebriating agent. The Blackwoodian tales of terror also engage with tensions between scientific utility and literary aesthetics, and hence participate in the wider Blackwoodian valuation of “[p]oetry and eloquence” in providing knowledge of human nature inaccessible to “the empire of science”. However, prior to the advent of this “medico-popular” genre, the treatment of medical subject matter in the magazine’s first incarnation as the Edinburgh Monthly Magazine (which lasted for just six months before the launching of Blackwood’s in October 1817) was remarkably inauspicious.

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