We had an interesting seminar the other day on Ignatius Sancho, and I realized afterwards just how hard it is to teach a writer whose work is in a non-narrative genre like the letter. Unsurprisingly, much of the discussion turned on Sancho’s heavy debts to Sterne and sensibility generally, mostly because we’d read the Sentimental Journey the previous week. It always interests me that Sancho’s writing can inspire debates like these, when Sterne’s own writings endured so much 19th century scorn for his supposed plagiarisms. So what does that make Sancho? A copy of a copy?
Of course, we can always take these hierarchical metaphors of copying and mimicry and turn them around by redescribing them as translations or displacements. In this case, one of the interests of Sancho’s writing is seeing how Sterne’s style functions when it doesn’t receive any of the narrative elaboration of fiction, so that Sterne’s novelistic sentiment gets displaced into something more static in the “letters” genre. As it turns out, this kind of translation ethically simplifies the sentimental situations that both writers enjoy describing, and removes at least one level of the irony usually deployed by Sterne.
But then other kinds of materials are admitted into this writing that otherwise never make it into more literary writing, whether that of Sterne or of anyone else. In my view, it’s Sancho’s alternately sententious and gossipy, backstairs tones that I find so interesting, especially when we have so few first-hand documents or former slaves’–or even servants’–lives at all. It’s also interesting to me that Sancho did not attempt, so far as we know, to offer an autobiographical narrative of the kind provided by Jekyll’s prefatory Life. So what we have instead is something that we could call, “the sentiments of Sancho.” But how much do ever learn about Sterne’s “gentleman” or his reactions to his surroundings?
Similarly, Sancho’s posthumous reputation as a rather polite and conventional sentimentalist (implicitly contrasted with the more heroic Equiano, for example, who does provide that all-important first person narrative) brings up all sorts of uncomfortable associations of Sancho with unconscious mimicry, parody, even minstrelsy. Yet these associations, too, of inauthenticity might be better understood using Bhabha’s notions of “mimicry.” After all, when considering Sancho’s uses of sentiment, why should we assume the perpetual subordination of periphery to center, or Sancho to Sterne?
This is one reason why I stressed Sterne’s not-so-easy-access to the public sphere late in life from remote Yorkshire, as well as the literary logrolling that took place when Sterne asked Sancho to prod the Montagus, Sancho’s former patrons, for his subscription money. It’s easy to overstate the insecurity of Sterne, compared to that of Sancho, but I think we should still remember how precarious Sterne’s hold was on gentlemanly status during this time.
While I was reflecting about some of these issues afterwards on my class blog (yes, I run one of those, too, though it’s closed), I couldn’t help returning to Sancho’s Gainsborough portrait. This version of Sancho smiles, though he is not a particularly comic figure in this painting (see above).
But Gainsborough’s image of a plump, smiling, prosperous-looking Sancho seemed to me an interesting emblem of transculturation, which I think is decidedly anti-heroic, plebeian, and ubiquitous in the Atlantic world of the 18th century. And Sancho’s writings document the extensive social networks that sustained him and his family for many years.
That night, I wrote the following post to my students:
[Here is the] source I’ve had in mind while we discussed the relation of subordination to sensibility: Michael Braddick’s essay on “Civility” in David Armitage/Michael Braddick, eds., The British Atlantic World, 1500-1800 (Palgrave, 2002) [which I've discussed before on the Long 18th]. My decision to portray the degraded, parodic, or “minstrel” relation of Sancho to Sterne as a matter of translation is really indebted to Braddick’s discussion of the difficulties of local elites throughout the Atlantic world whenever they wished to project cultural authority.
Braddick says, for example,
Everywhere, social distinction in the British colonies drew on standards of behavior, dress, and building current in the metropolitan core . . . . The social realities of life in Ireland and the American colonies forced the reinvention of European ideals: local elites could not simply reproduce conditions envisaged in conduct books in England but had to actively create a local form of Englishness . . . .
This quality of reinvented Englishness, gentility, and taste is what both Sterne and Sancho share, and Sterne is no less provincial or parodic in his impersonation of a gentleman than Sancho himself, I’d argue. After all, why honor the claims of the “mushroom” or the “nabob” (18c terms for recently enriched “gentlemen” whose fortunes were made overnight, particularly in the colonies), over those of Sancho?
Braddick reminds us,
Provincial figures who laid an unconvincing claim to metropolitan refinement were stock comic figures in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century drama, and it is easy to document anxiety in the colonies about movements of taste and fashion in the metropolis (107).
So to what extent does Sancho represent a universalizing language of metropolitan taste and fashion that suspends much of the effect of his blackness, at least in print?
UPDATE: after I posted this, I saw in Crooked Timber that Michael Medved has offered us something he calls “Six inconvenient truths about the U.S. and slavery.” Unfortunately, Medved uses what little he knows to distort the academic discussion of this history, in the interests of what he curiously calls “historical context,” but which I’d call “flattering the self-regard of his right-wing audience.” Tim Burke has an interesting response to the whole debate, which anyone teaching Equiano or Sancho would do well to look at, as a way to respond to the kinds of questions that undergrads (who, god forbid, may have read Medved at some point in their lives) may be forgiven for asking.