EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY FICTION, McMaster University
Volume 15, Number 1 (October 2002) pp.178-180
Paul Giles. Transatlantic Insurrections: British Culture and the Formation of American Literature, 1730-1860. Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. 262pp. US$55 (cloth); US$19.95 (paper). ISBN 0-8122-3603-3.
Comparative literature had its beginning in the Renaissance search to define "genre": assuming that Homer and Virgil, for example, were writing the same sort of poem, what shared features could be extracted from their texts to form a template for the ideal epic? The task was not easy. Boccaccio worked hard to persuade himself and his readers that Achilles was as pious as Aeneas, and the definitions of satire and pastoral were notoriously problematic. But the various genres as eventually defined became the basis for much eighteenth-century comparative criticism. Addison prefaces his influential study of Milton , "I shall therefore examine [Paradise Lost] by the Rules of Epic Poetry, and see whether it falls short of the Iliad or Aeneid, in the Beauties which are essential to that Kind of Writing" (Spectator, 5 January 1712.)
The academic discipline of comparative literature, however, more studious to divide than to unite, has often worked less to define genres than to define national variations within genres, contrasting Rasselas and Candide, Rousseau and Richardson. Yet comparative studies of British and American literatures, rare until recently, used to be driven not by difference but by the concept of a cultural time-lag-English metropolitan creativity being provincially adapted to the American environment, much as the tavern sign of George III in "Rip Van Winkle" was touched up to represent George Washington. Even George Dekker's masterly The American Historical Romance (1987), tracing the "Waverley" tradition in Cooper, Hawthorne, and others, comes near to validating this Anglo-oriented thesis.
The very natural and proper reaction against such a view of American literature had been a sort of isolationist reading-F.O. Matthiessen's focus, sixty years ago, on Transcendentalism instals Emerson and Thoreau at the centre of the canon, and the Civil War as the nation-defining event. The national culture stood by itself, making everything new-breaking what could be broken. But comparative studies have been much in vogue since A. Owen Aldridge's Early American Literature: A Comparatist Approach (1982) brought a new theoretical sophistication to the cross-reading of American and other literatures. Paul Giles's new book is a major reinvestigation of the topic, dealing less with traditional ideas of influence and more with the subtle cultural intertwinings of British and American writings in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Giles builds his study around the Revolutionary War-clearly the defining comparative moment in the Anglo-American relationship, and a moment that had a more profound and protracted influence on both nations' sensibilities and anxieties than the Matthiessen thesis would allow. Franklin and Jefferson, the War's idealogues, and Washington Irving, its mythologist, are his principals on the one side; Richardson, Sterne, and Austen on the other. (His book begins with an analysis of the impact of Pope on the Connecticut Wits, and ends with chapters on Hawthorne, Trollope, and Poe. This review focuses on Giles's treatment of eighteenth-century fiction.)
The Revolution was a family quarrel, and Giles proposes that in the years surrounding it British and American prose narratives each tended to represent, as subtext, the other's constitutional and intellectual positions. In Austen's stories, the inheritance of a social and domestic stability which seemed, for many readers in the early twentieth century, to provide the nostalgic comfort of an amiable world, may also be seen as a legal and political confinement which the characters strive to transgress, even as the "colonists" transgressed in 1776. Yet, paradoxically, Austen's texts can oscillate between each set of values. Sense may sometimes predominate, sometimes sensibility. The harmony of Mansfield Park resonates against the discord of the " Plantation ." And similarly, in Irving 's "Legend of Sleepy Hollow" there is marked tension between the apparently genial pastoral comedy as if in the good-tempered English ballad-operas by, of all people, Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne-and the issues of power and dominion underlying the personality of the schoolmaster and his distinctly creepy love-sickness. Though each engages with problems of authority, neither Austen nor Irving can be "interpreted" in a conventional way-the ludic disturbances in their texts reflect not so much ethical priorities as aesthetic themes and variations. (The recent Austen movies and the Tim Burton Sleepy Hollow tend to clarify the narratives, in the latter case with cheerfully unambiguous violence.)
The subtlety of Giles's approach is apparent. Austen and Irving both write prose narratives, but their generic similarity ends there-characters, settings and story-lines could hardly be more different. Yet in their "pattern of perverse, parallel narratives and an aesthetic reconstruction of authority" each writer plays off, or contextualizes, the other.
Giles's chapter on Franklin and Richardson works similarly with the play of ambiguities, but here with ambiguities probably not intended by the one writer or generally recognized by readers of the other. Richardson 's texts were "racked from the first by internal tensions between the imperatives of moral virtue and the charms of transgressive sensibility." Giles suggests that these tensions are generated by a disjunction between the narrative and the mode of narration-in Pamela, for instance, the simple, austere moral of the story is betrayed by the complex and guilt-ridden emotions of Pamela as story-teller. The consequent "swerving away from a plain integrity of meaning," Giles suggests, taught Richardson 's first American publisher, Franklin, how to devise a multifaceted style in which an ethical certainty is consistently undermined by playful deceit. His Autobiography juggles the necessarily incompatible roles of the Richardsonian inner self and the Revolutionary political animal. Jefferson and Sterne are a less unusual pair- Jefferson is well known as a philosopher of sentiment with a remarkable gift of ethical flexibility, and Sterne, a cleric with a libertine bent, can keep pace with him in what Giles calls his "chameleonic capacity." Jefferson 's writings and his political activities were equally performative and, as Giles demonstrates, Sterne was a crucial mentor in Enlightenment duplicity.
Behind all these slippages of meaning lies the crisis of authority culminating in and generated by the Revolutionary War.
Paul Giles has a difficult rhetorical task-as Tristram observes of life in general, "there is so much unfixed and equivocal matter starting up, with so many breaks and gaps in it." To define, explain, and analyse the polysemy that marks his texts without himself sliding into indirection is a notable accomplishment-unlike many theoretical studies, his is readable and convincing. Transatlantic Insurrections expands our sense of both British and early American literatures. In its overall thesis and in its specific readings it is a powerful, important book.
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