Category Archives: Criticism

my review of lee morrissey’s constitution of literature, at the bmrcl

Here’s a link to my review of Lee Morrissey’s Constitution of Literature: Literature, Democracy, and Early English Criticism, in the Bryn Mawr Review of Comparative Literature.  Enjoy.


genre and distance

Over the past few years, the intellectual historian Mark Salber Phillips has been developing an interesting train of thought about historiography, genre, and distance, where he argues that distance constitutes one of the fundamental parameters of historical writing.  (For those with access to Project MUSE, some of these articles can be found here, here, and here). 

For Phillips, distance can serve both synchronically (as a stylistic option for writers in historical genres) or diachronically (to characterize the dominant paradigms and genres of history-writing at a particular point in time).   

The generic dimension of Phillips’s argument has always seemed pivotal to me, because by viewing genre as historically conditioned, it transforms genre “into an instrument of historical investigation.”  This seems to me a basic assumption that literary scholars have held for some time, but well worth applying to historical and other kinds of writing as well. 

Genres . . . are necessarily responsive to each other as well as to the social conditions that frame them. In this way, they form larger groupings or systems, which are themselves historically conditioned and variable. Accordingly, as authors innovate and the conditions of knowledge and communication change over time, genres undergo a process of revision that registers new relations of authors, readers, and disciplines (Histories 213).

Phillips transforms history from a single, continuous, unified category to an ensemble of genres with its own stratifications, its own highs and lows, its own contradictions.  This is clearly an empirical advance on earlier, more idealized notions of history and history-writing.  Moreover, it gives a very plausible account of the significance of the “minor” genres for registering the newest, most innovative forces at play at a particular moment. 

First, building on the idea that genres are contrastive and combinatory, I want to argue against the customary assumption that history is a single, stable, and rather decorous literature and suggest instead that it is best understood as a cluster of overlapping and competing genres, “low” as well as “high.” The result is a much more nuanced and flexible picture of historical thought—one that is better able to accommodate the range of methods, ideologies, and rhetorics that make up the practice of any given era of historical writing. And since the so-called “minor” genres often give us the best evidence of the force of new agendas or the demands of new audiences, a genre theory that pays attention to the full range of historical writing is much better able to capture the sense of new directions in thought or practice.

It seems to me that anyone trying to write a literary history of the late 18th century, with all its experiments and one-offs, would have to use an explanatory scheme like Phillips’s to account for this period’s peculiar character.

But thinking about genre as a communicative practice in the 18th century naturally raises the question of how it works for our own writing: to what extent does professional literary criticism enforce its own strictures on behalf of “distance”?  How might distance be understood differently when we move from the various genres of literary criticism to historical writing?  And how does distance organize the highs and lows, the major and minor genres of our canon of criticism?


Dwight Codr on ch. 4, Skin

Between the 1400 and 1500 blocks of St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans runs a single street that has two different names, depending on which side of the avenue one is. Running towards the lake and tracking into some of the most dangerous parts of the city is Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Running towards the river and tracking into one of the many wealthy and predominantly white blocks of the Garden District is Melpomene Street (the tragic muse and central figure of this chapter). The sign announcing this provocative intersection of black and white, modern and ancient, history and myth, would serve as an excellent visualization of the claims put forward in Joseph Roach’s “Skin” (Chapter 4, It). Like Reynolds’ portrait of Siddons as the tragic muse (1784, p. 152), Melpomene Avenue betokens a Classical past, but here it is transformed to suit American circumstance, taste, and history, where wrought-iron lattice work besmeared by time and consequently evocative of a dignified antiquity plays on the same psychic keys as finely shaped marble sculpture (such as the Apollo Belvedere) did for eighteenth-century English cultural consumers. In virtue of its proximity to a tragic American figure whose death itself serves as a kind of figure for the neighborhood his boulevard at times traverses, the situational irony of Melpomene Avenue’s architecture and cultural resonance is all the more palpable after a reading of Roach’s chapter, wherein the whiteness of tragedy is seen as less white than it is lustrous, antique, and suffused with heritage. Siddons’ skin, Roach argues, traded in the visual intersection of tragedy and tradition, and in so doing became the “It-girl” of her own time.

Ranging from patina, or, the accreted sense of historical weight and significance on the most superficial visual element of celebrity identity (i.e. skin), to deep skin, or “a phenomenon [involving] the attribution of enormously important (and not infrequently tragic) consequences to differences that are in fact only skin deep,” to brand, in which the public image of the celebrity contains Whitmanesque multitudes (nobility/vulnerability, strength/tenderness, etc.), “Skin” offers the reader a series of ostensibly simple terms theoretically re-imagined for immediate and wide critical appropriation and consideration. One would expect an account of skin and “It” in the eighteenth century to turn on images of blackness, the link between blushing and sexual (im)purity, the threat of sullied skin to the socialite (smallpox, measles, etc.), or the wealth of literature and imagery of the female toilet and cosmetics, but Roach here approaches what is ultimately a racial problem by looking at the power of a particular kind of whiteness in popular culture.

One question that arises in this context concerns precisely the form of Roach’s primary object text in this chapter: Reynolds’ painting of Siddons. While the book is clearly not designed to provide the kind of ethnographic information we suppose to be relevant to the evaluation of such things as effervescence or even popularity, I do wonder what is at stake in defining “It” largely in terms of a painting whose visual consumption takes a decidedly more private form than, say, theatrical consumption. Roach asserts that actresses such as Anne Bracegirdle and Siddons set “the terms of the It-Effect, [partly] because their images began to circulate widely and hyperbolically in the absence of their persons” (149). Were their images circulated? In what forms? Do we have any accounts of reception? If they were circulated widely, in what sense was that circulation hyperbolic? It is comparatively easy to follow Roach’s reading of Princess Diana, whose image was so heavily circulated that the market for her image was directly responsible for her death, but I would like know a bit more about Roach’s sense of his critical method, and particularly his criteria for evidence. This book seems at times to deliberately flout scholarly conventions, leaving me to wonder whether Roach would prefer that we cite his work or muse upon it.

Roach, ch. 6: whittling IT down


 [“Karen Carpenter” and “Agnes Carpenter,” from Todd Haynes’s Superstar (1987)]

As our earlier commenters have noted, Joe Roach’s IT is more concerned with the play of surfaces in history than with a full investigation of its depths.  Yet as anyone who has undressed a Barbie knows, the magic does not come from what is in the clothes, or underneath the clothes, but in the quality of belief invested in the object, however it is clothed.

This is something I learned from watching Todd Haynes’s Superstar many years ago, when I was first amused, then unspeakably moved, by the death of “Karen Carpenter,” as she was portrayed by a Barbie doll that was literally whittled away in successive scenes.  As Haynes’s dwindling Karen-doll demonstrated to me, it does not take much to inspire the strongest possible feelings from an audience, but that little something–that IT-factor–is always poised between loathing and admiration, and digging deep tends to complicate, not simplify, such matters. 

This, I think, is Roach’s tacit message about conventional Enlightenment narratives of demystification, which assume a completed historical process of Weberean disenchantment, along with the emotional distancing that such a completion would entail.  Roach, however, concentrates his attention upon a past that is not and perhaps never will be completed in his subjects’ affective lives: his version of the past features semi-historical ghosts, uncanny recurrences, surprising afterlives, out-of-control personal fantasies–in other words, all the possibilities of idiosyncratic retellings–that allow his historical narratives to reverberate indefinitely into the future.  Consequently, IT focuses upon the stakes of “reenchantment” in a world where the eighteenth century has never really gone away, because its magic, meaning its fairies and its monsters, are still with us in ways that we are barely conscious of (16).  All we need to do is clap our hands.

 Though Roach’s final chapter title, “Bones,” might seem to offer readers the metaphor of an essential structure disclosed beneath appearances, we soon learn that the bones of this chapter have never settled down to silence and stillness, nor are they content to serve as the moralizing conclusion of the story, its memento mori.  No, the mummified head, lips, and torso of Queen Katherine of Valois (sadly detached from her legs and pelvis) lead us from her posthumous encounter with the pervy Samuel Pepys, to a quick march over to Macheath and a procession of his offspring–both legitimate and illegitimate–via Polly Peachum, Lucy Lockit, and Lotte Lenya.  Then, in this chapter’s watery underworld, we discover, as if by a miracle,  Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, parading Lady Di and Emma Thompson on each arm like a pair of Vegas showgirls, a vision that leads to a final flourish with the closing scenes of Henry V and the romance of kingship with which we began, and which apparently has no end.

As this sketch might suggest, this chapter is both a dialogue and a somewhat frantic dance of the dead.  Like the book as a whole, I think it could be accused of flittiness, or of being so pleased with its own associations and historical analogies, which are indeed dazzling, as to lag behind a little in its explanations, like the little boys who once had the job of following Anne Bracegirdle onstage, holding her train and parasol.  (I will remember this image of Bracegirdle for a long time) Though I don’t think such a response would do justice to the strengths of this book, I did develop some reservations along the way, which I’m hoping other commenters, or perhaps Roach himself, might like to comment upon.

I wondered, for example, how such idiosyncratic uses of history (Charles II as Glyn’s “Dear Good King,” Macaulay’s whipping-boy, or Barrie’s strange pirate-king compound of Captain Hook) might relate to one another, or how they might relate to more conventional scholarly accounts, though I do admit that this kind of plonking discussion might destroy our delight in Roach’s fast-moving argument. 

More importantly, the relative degree of representativeness or idiosyncrasy in these responses would constitute important evidence for Roach’s claim that we are dealing with synthetic, which I take to mean collective and therefore shared experience.  So to what extent are these fantasies spun out of private or public materials?  We know, for example, that Glin’s fantasies of a naughty Restoration were shared by many popular histories and editions of Restoration writing sold in the early 20th century.  Equally common was the stock anti-bolshevism of her would-be aristocratic attitudes.  These elements, then, seem common enough, though their condensation into the specific forms of her lifestyle and writings does indeed seem unique.  Then again, Glin, for all her loopiness, may very well have helped to create a new and perhaps more popular taste for the Good King Charles, and so we might also pursue her after-effects, and examine how much her retelling of this story affected scholarly or popular views of Charles.  In other words, is it possible to document how far this reading of the Restoration traveled beyond her and her own self-image?  At the same time, Roach’s treatment of Glin invites us to ask similar questions about Macaulay’s and Hazlitt’s versions of this period, and to assume that all these accounts were to some extent fashioned from idiosyncratic motives and materials.  This juxtaposition of Macaulay’s canonical account of the period with Glin’s is one of the greatest strengths of this book, and responsible for some of its most surprising insights.

Despite my occasional reservations about method, I do think that Roach has generated an extremely powerful set of historical metaphors in this book, largely because of his willingness to approach the past from the perspective of unofficial, popular, or idiosyncratic histories (that is, through kitsch or fantasy, which are, after all, merely the despised modes of historical imagination).  This openness to kitsch, pathos, and anachronism actually helps readers to reimagine, and therefore comprehend, the book’s ultimate subject: the historicity of performance, and the often tacit social contexts in which it occurs.


“A Bloody Shirt; or, The Lurid Details” (Ch. 2 of *It*, “Clothes”)

In this chapter, Roach takes a fresh look at three topics that have been of significant interest to me these past years—the dressing room, clothes, and satire—and offers promising forays into current ones—interpretation, methodology, and “lurid details”(101). So I am especially pleased to have the opportunity to talk about this chapter with everyone and extend thanks to Laura Rosenthal and Dave Mazella for organizing this forum.

Roach opens the “Clothes” chapter with a rich description and analysis of the clothing adorning Charles II’s effigy in Westminster Abbey—down to the royal underpants that once held the royal seat, as it were, but are now wrapped around a stuffed canvas that supports the king’s costume in perpetuity. Clothes in this chapter are exclusively “fabulous” or “smart,” and in this way Roach’s discussion differs from recent considerations of how women’s clothing, in particular, was a nexus for sensibility and consumption, sexuality and commerce (see Jennie Batchelor for an example of this argument). For Roach, clothing is a vehicle through which It is confirmed or anointed; thus the story about the amount of money that Buckingham spent on his coronation outfit (an impossible £30,000) is notable not for its plausibility, but for the excess and awe that the story reflects.

Starkly, then, Roach turns our attention to the specific valences of clothing in the production and circulation of It, arguing that clothing in particular “reveals the double-edged nature of the It-effect” (88). I think it’s worthwhile to quote from his long iteration: “Clothing in this usage functions as both noun and verb, as prop and performance, engaging in a double action, each part of which recalls the other as object and subject, which oscillate, adoringly or punitively, between glamour and abjection, charismata and stigmata” (88). Associated always with the dressing room—one of two key ‘it-zones’ that Roach identifies (the other is Covent Garden)—clothing promises allure and threatens denigration. The topic of clothing enables Roach to describe the process of what he calls nominating a role-icon, a move that implicitly points to the fact that It is always being constituted or challenged, that It is anything but static (I think that this can be a little easy to forget through the course of the book). To read clothing as an object, but even more important, as a verb encapsulated by the public intimacy of the levee and the dishabilee, brings our attention to the instability and productive dynamism of It. Clothing read in this way also—at the very least implicitly—points to the simultaneous promise and confounding of boundaries between things such as public and private, a phenomenon I see as associated with the dressing room in particular.

Picking up Laura Engel’s very helpful questions about the ideologies of gender and sexuality, it is important to recall that clothes, for the most part in this chapter, mean men’s clothes, and as such the majority of the material is drawn from the Restoration—a full century before the “great male renunciation” of sartorial splendor and the gender’s fade to black. (By way of a side note, much of our sartorial attention is focused on Burney’s Evelina, with her new hair and new clothes, to the extent that we can forget that Lord Orville is powdered, wigged, and colorful as well.) Though there is a brief foray into the Glyn sisters’ voyeuristic witnessing of Jersey Lily adjusting her clothing before her public introduction, the focus of the chapter—and of clothing’s relation to It—is figured through Buckingham.

George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham (1628-1687) is a particularly provocative and telling example for Roach because the narrative necessarily follows the mandates of tragedy—Villers’ star falls in its after-image, rendered hubristic and pathetic by the succeeding cultural imagination, available always (or almost always) as a symbol of a rake suffering his due reward, a golden boy becoming tarnished. Amidst the crowd of fallen Stuarts, those romantic, monarchical ‘losers of history’ that Laura Rosenthal describes, Buckingham shines brightly.

But it is the way that the shaming of Buckingham is achieved—at least in the cultural imagination, as Roach reports it—that is stunning: satire. While there are other discussions of the costs of the It-effect (Diana comes to mind), one of Roach’s most extensive considerations of the stigmata of It is funneled through satire. He reads satire as a curse and Dryden’s portrayal of Buckingham in Absalom and Achitophel as a tour-de-force of afterimage manufacture, with Dryden at long last winning by cloaking Buckingham forever in the satiric equation with Zimri. But I actually think that Roach could have drawn out the relation of satire to It more fully, for satire is a mode energized and frustrated by the superficial, by surfaces, by charismata and stigmata. It is a performative and a speech-act, and I think offers one of the most telling ways that ‘celebrity’ in the eighteenth century was negotiated.

Which brings me to the interrelated questions of interpretation, methodology, and what Roach calls “the lurid details” (101). He explicates for us the drive “to establish freedom of conscience in matters of religion” (100) that shaped Buckingham’s career, but does so with an awareness that these nuances and specificities are for the few self-identified specialists. Roach writes, “If little of this seems especially apropos to Buckingham’s character as a ‘rake,’ that is not at all surprising. The genesis of a role-icon requires not the exposition of nuanced positions, in which the shades of gray are duly rendered, but rather the vivid flash of lurid details” (101).

By way of contrast, Roach offers the “lurid detail” of a shirt stained with the blood of the Earl of Shrewsbury, his mistress’s husband whom Buckingham killed in a duel; the story is flexible enough to admit the possibility that either the duchess or Buckingham actually wore the shirt, but pointed enough to assert that the lovers had sex immediately thereafter. The bloody shirt is the key afterimage of Buckingham the rake, and in this way I am reminded of Roach’s statement elsewhere that history, like the sea, always returns its dead. Thanks to a distinction drawn by Laura Rosenthal between ‘history’ and ‘memory’—which I read in part as claiming ‘history’ as organized into the narrative forms of progress or decline, and ‘memory’ as a mode of lingering and recirculation that girds the ‘deep eighteenth century’—I see that the ‘lurid detail’ of the bloody shirt (or whatever the lurid happens to be) is the evidentiary unit of memory. Lurid details hang on, linger, and circulate through time, barely changing under the pressure of their recirculation and mightily resisting analysis (in the end, disagreements be what they are, the lurid detail remains intact). Lurid details evoke, for me, what Naomi Schor calls the “lure” of details. While the bloody shirt could be analogous to the material details that are the bread-and-butter of new historicism and cultural studies, as a lurid detail, the bloody shirt instead functions analytically like an It-icon itself. I think that one of the things that the Buckingham material exemplifies then is the methodology of ‘memory’: whatever the ‘truth’ of that bloody shirt story, its stained fabric sticks to Buckingham’s reputation, and that is why It matters.

 Tita Chico 

Laura Engel on “Accessories”


In the chapter “Accessories” Roach begins and ends his discussion with funerals and bodies “accessories after the fact.” He explores how the accessory functions as a nexus of meanings for the expression and impact of the “it-factor.” Juxtaposing subjects as diverse as English politics, actresses, Shakespeare, masturbation, portraiture, wax figures, and Hollywood, Roach brilliantly weaves together various narrative threads that support his claims about the “deep eighteenth century” and how its legacy still plays out in contemporary culture.


Roach is right that we are still obsessed with the absence and presence of celebrity bodies—their deaths, incarcerations, illnesses, pregnancies, and reincarnations, what he calls their “after-images” or how they appear and re-appear in our own dreams. (I’m thinking most recently of morbid photos of Heath Ledger’s body being wheeled out of his apartment building, the strange images of Brittany Spears in an ambulance on her way to a psychiatric ward, the haunting video of a deranged Anna Nicole Smith right before her death). We have evidence everywhere of how the “it-effect” operates and is magnified and manipulated by the contemporary media in order to create the illusion of knowledge or understanding – what Roach terms “public intimacy.” We want celebrities to be just like us and then again we don’t. We want to understand their bizarre and often destructive behavior, but we also want them to remain a mystery.


I’m really struck by Roach’s analysis of how accessories function as a bridge between the celebrity’s body and our own “synthetic experience” of the “it-factor.” Roach writes:


Beholding these elements synecdochically–seeing them as separate parts made tangibly available from abstracted and elusive wholes–ordinary people can experience a spurious but vivid intimacy with the public figures they represent…In fact, at the juncture of the It-effect and modern synthetic experience, celebrities themselves become accessories–useless for all practical purposes but symbolically crucial to the social self-conceptions of their contemporaries (55).


What interests me, in particular, is how ideologies about gender and sexuality operate within and around this process. In other words, what is at stake when the celebrity becomes an accessory? What gets lost or collapsed in this equation? And, are these different questions for actors and actresses? Does the “it-factor” have a variety of meanings that are specific to female bodies? Much of the chapter is about the female bodies that figure prominently in the erotic imaginings of Samuel Pepys, whose diary serves as a “glimpse into a private nodal point in the larger network of the It-effect (74).” Roach does point out that there is a distinction between this expression of the “it factor” and the loftier model of Sarah Siddons’ celebrity later in the century. Using the example of William Hazlitt, who found the portraits of the celebrated Windsor Beauties to be “painted and tawdry” but wrote rapturously about Siddons and the effects of her performances, Roach gestures towards the ways in which the “it factor” becomes more complicated as the possibilities for female celebrity and for fashioning female celebrity increase as the century progresses. The question of how female performers understood and actively participated in manipulating the narratives of their own “it-factors” is another side of the story that isn’t told here, but perhaps that is part of Roach’s larger point about the celebrity as accessory. We are more interested in how they affect us than in how they participated in shaping their own images.


Roach’s book and this chapter have been tremendously helpful to me in writing a piece on portraits of eighteenth-century actresses with muffs – an accessory that epitomizes the double edge of the it-factor – on the one hand a sign of glamour and status on the other of vulgarity and scandal. As Roach explains, “There is a kind of freakishness to having It; and despite the allure, a potential for monstrosity…Charles Addams capitalized on this disturbingly elastic sense of the word by naming a beguiling amorphous character ‘Cousin it’ (11).” Indeed “Cousin it” is in fact a walking muff, an ambiguously gendered mass of hair. It’s true the deep eighteenth century is everywhere! 


Introduction to *It*


                In its contemporary meaning, “It,” Joseph Roach explains, was “coined in 1927 by a British expatriate, romance-author, and Hollywood tastemaker Elinor Glyn (1864-1943)” to describe the unusual allure of certain people. Glyn herself had “a quirky interest in animal magnetism.”  For Roach, though, Glyn was not the inventor of “It” but a pivotal figure who reveals “It’s” transatlantic migration.  In Roach’s study, Glyn also serves as a synecdoche for a larger phenomenon of cultural transmission, providing a bridge between eighteenth-century theatricality and early twentieth-century Hollywood. A “Tory radical” with a fascination for the Stuarts, Glyn helped shape early Hollywood sensibilities. She fashioned Clara Bow as the “It Girl”—both a new phenomenon and an echo of a particular charisma/ stigmata born in London, 1660.  Roach’s study is not, however, a history of “It”; instead, the book explores the ways in which the Restoration ushered in this charisma/stigmata mode as part of the theater’s new claims to some of the traditional power of religion and royalty.  As I read it, Roach’s argument suggests that with the waning of the traditional powers of divine right from the monarchy unleashed the possibility of another related of force—“It.” Thus, as the cover of the book suggests, the figures of Charles II and Clara Bow parallel each other in their combination of residual aristocratic magic, theatricality, erotic allure, earthiness, and vulnerability.

            This argument seems to me to both draw on and differ from classic new historicism. In one of the originary new historicist essays, Louis Montrose argued that Queen Elizabeth, faced with the challenge of ruling as a woman, harnessed her erotic power as a political strategy, the success of which was evidenced by the pleasant dreams of Simon Forman and explored in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Similarly, one might say that Charles II cultivated his apparently copious erotic appeal as part of his monarchical strategy.  Yet at the same time, royal seduction after the beheading of Charles I became an entirely different matter.  Charles II’s performance of kingship came to share quite a bit more with the actor Thomas Betterton’s performance of kingship than Elizabeth’s ever did with the boy who played Titania.

            This brings us to perhaps the largest claim of the book: what Roach calls the “deep 18th-century century,” adding a third dimension to our current confidence that our period’s length and width. The significance of “It” in modern culture might be taken to be one example of many ways in which the eighteenth century has not ended.

            How, then, does the naming of the “deep” eighteenth century differ from what many in the field have been claiming for a long time—i.e., the invention of modernity, for better (Sprat, Habermas) or worse (Swift, Horkheimer and Adorno)?  One difference lies in what exactly the period has left us.  It does not characterize the eighteenth century as having bequeathed Enlightenment reason, Richardsonian sentiment, or even Gothic uncanny.  Alternatively, (although not necessarily to the exclusion of these other legacies) the century gives us “public intimacy,” a mode that depends on print culture and a public sphere (which is another way in which Roach’s argument about Charles II necessarily differs from Montrose’s classic argument about Elizabeth.)  The Renaissance certainly had theater, but not anything like the reproduction of images in a commercial public sphere we see in the 1700’s. 

Roach’s method also distinguishes this study from previous claims about the Enlightenment. There is little discussion of how public intimacy may have changed since the eighteenth century; little discussion of the difference between Clara Bow and Charles II. Thus, this is not a progressive narrative of change over time, but instead a sort excavation that begins in the near-present with the pivotal figure of Glynn, tracing cultural movement through Glynn’s apparent idiosyncrasies that turn out not to be idiosyncratic at all. We all, in Roach’s argument, participate in the production of “It”: “Like the mythical figure of Pygmalion, who modeled an image with which he promptly fell in love, the consumer of celebrity icons does the work of creating the effigy in the physical absence of the beloved.”

Casting my vote yesterday in the “Potomac Primary” (yes, for the one who has “It”), I wondered exactly what kind of power “It” possesses.  Roach convincingly suggests that having “It” can bring considerable pain along with privilege to the bearer, who can become the target of malice. (I’ll leave the Brittany Spears analysis to others.)  Yet doesn’t the migration of “It” from Charles II to Clara Bow suggest a different kind of power as well?  The politics of celebrity have attracted much attention in cultural studies, and certainly the power of the media to shape the lives of women in particular has been the object of considerable attention in feminism.  If “It-” girls and boys can’t necessarily wield their it-power to their advantage, who benefits from “It”? What are “It’s” costs and who pays them?

My provisional answer to this question is that Roach’s study excavates the power of theater rather than a theater of power.  It is not a cost-benefit analysis (although this doesn’t mean that we can’t go on to ask those questions, I think).  There is even perhaps a hint of weariness with this critical strategy, one I have seen in other quarters as well.  Theater, including contemporary media images, operates in part through fraught memories of both allure and loss.  I think it is important that Glyn’s attraction was to not just any royal family, but to the Stuarts; to the “losers of history” (to borrow Luke Gibbons’ phrase).  Thus the political and ideological force of our world of mediated “It,” which has attracted considerable analysis, is not really under scrutiny here, but rather (I think) a very particular kind of royal echo that lends considerable force to the world of images.  The story of the Stuarts has long been one of exile and loss, of a “charisma and stigmata” as Roach puts it, that has little to do with the Georges.  Or another way to put it might be that the particular combination of allure, eros, privilege, authority, and spectacular loss that the Stuarts represent created the perfect storm for the generation of “It.”  In Roach’s formulation, “It” depends on a certain undermining of royal authority and thus could not have existed in quite the same way before Charles II.

Roach’s study, then, offers a powerful and uncommon strategy for identifying the importance of the eighteenth century, not so much as the origin of modernity, but as the beginning of a still-present mode of cultural organization, expression, and circulation.

Laura Rosenthal

Read *It*; Talk about *It*; Blog *It*

The Eighteenth-Century Reading Group here at the University of Maryland will next be discussing Joe Roach’s It (University of Michigan Press).  We will meet on Friday, Feb 8 from 1-3. It would be great if others want to read along with us and post their responses. Would there be interest in a McKeon-style “collaborative reading” again?  Maybe we could start posting a few days before the discussion?


UPDATE (via DM): Here’s the link.

On the value of connoisseurs, from T.B. Macaulay’s “Madame D’Arblay”

I was poking around the web the other day, looking for additional materials to help me teach Burney’s Journals and Diaries, and I found this little digression on “Daddy” Crisp that I thought others might also find interesting:

“It is an uncontrolled truth,” says Swift,” that no man ever made
an ill figure who understood his own talents, nor a good one who
mistook them.” Every day brings with it fresh illustrations of
this weighty saying; but the best commentary that we remember is
the history of Samuel Crisp. Men like him have their proper
place, and it is a most important one, in the Commonwealth of
Letters. It is by the judgment of such men that the rank of
authors is finally determined. It is neither to the multitude,
nor to the few who are gifted with great creative genius, that we
are to look for sound critical decisions. The multitude,
unacquainted with the best models, are captivated by whatever
stuns and dazzles them.  . . . . A man of great original genius, on the
other hand, a man who has attained to mastery in some high walk
of art, is by no means to be implicitly trusted as a judge of the
performances of others. The erroneous decisions pronounced by
such men are without number. It is commonly supposed that
jealousy makes them unjust. But a more creditable explanation may
easily be found. The very excellence of a work shows that some of
the faculties of the author have been developed at the expense of
the rest; for it is not given to the human intellect to expand
itself widely in all directions at once, and to be at the same
time gigantic and well proportioned. Whoever becomes pre-eminent
in any art, in any style of art, generally does so by devoting
himself with intense and exclusive enthusiasm to the pursuit of
one kind of excellence. His perception of other kinds of
excellence is therefore too often impaired. Out of his own
department he praises and blames at random, and is far less to be
trusted than the mere connoisseur, who produces nothing, and
whose business is only to judge and enjoy. One painter is
distinguished by his exquisite finishing. He toils day after day
to bring the veins of a cabbage leaf, the folds of a lace veil,
the wrinkles of an old woman’s face, nearer and nearer to
perfection. In the time which he employs on a square foot of
canvas, a master of a different order covers the walls of a
palace with gods burying giants under mountains, or makes the
cupola of a church alive with seraphim and martyrs. The more
fervent the passion of each of these artists for his art, the
higher the merit of each in his own line, the more unlikely it is
that they will justly appreciate each other. Many persons who
never handled a pencil probably do far more justice to Michael
Angelo than would have been done by Gerard Douw, and far more
justice to Gerard Douw than would have been done by Michael
It is the same with literature. Thousands, who have no spark of
the genius of Dryden or Wordsworth, do to Dryden the justice
which has never been done by Wordsworth, and to Wordsworth the
justice which, we suspect, would never have
been done by Dryden. Gray, Johnson, Richardson, Fielding, are all
highly esteemed by the great body of intelligent and well
informed men. But Gray could see no merit in Rasselas; and
Johnson could see no merit in the Bard. Fielding thought
Richardson a solemn prig; and Richardson perpetually expressed
contempt and disgust for Fielding’s lowness.

Mr. Crisp seems, as far as we can judge, to have been a man
eminently qualified for the useful office of a connoisseur. His
talents and knowledge fitted him to appreciate justly almost
every species of intellectual superiority. As an adviser he was

Spoken like a historian, I suppose, and another bit of evidence about unsuited he was to judge Johnson’s achievements.  Johnson seems like the best-known exception to this commonsensical rule, but I wouldn’t dismiss Macaulay’s observation, either.  TBM is insisting that the most important intellectual influence on FB was not Johnson, but the bad poet and connoisseur, Crisp.  This is a very plausible argument, I think.  But what kinds of conclusions should we draw from it?

What I find curious is how much we ignore the effects of this kind of phenomenon when we think of the role of the Creative Writing Program in the midst of the English Department.  Certainly the working assumption in universities and departments is that the bigger the names, the better the instruction young writers will receive.  For that matter, we could say the same thing about celebrity-scholars and their usual neglect and/or abuse of their students and proteges.

Rather than arguing for departments to fill their ranks with mediocrities and wannabes, I’d say that the Burney/Crisp relation suggests that “mentoring” is something highly contingent and unpredictable, and when successful, usually succeeds because it fulfills emotional and intellectual needs on both sides.  It also suggests how hard it is to institutionalize or regulate, because the kind of mentoring needed by a student at one point may very well be superseded by new needs and new interests.  So for all his unfairness to Johnson, maybe Macaulay had some insights into the formation of Burney after all.


Teaching Ignatius Sancho, UPDATED


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.