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Reviewed by:
  • Redefining the Modern: Essays on Literature and Society in Honor of Joseph Wiesenfarth
  • Allan Hepburn (bio)
William Baker and Ira B. Nadel , editors. Redefining the Modern: Essays on Literature and Society in Honor of Joseph WiesenfarthFairleigh Dickinson University Press. 222. US $47.50

Redefining the Modern is a miscellany. It includes eight scholarly essays, an interview with Margaret Drabble, twenty-eight letters written by George Eliot and George H. Lewes, a flippant essay on God and comedy, and information about Joseph Wiesenfarth, to whom this collection is dedicated. The introduction claims that modernists perpetrate 'redefinitions and realignments' of culture in response to Victorian predecessors. These essays do not demonstrate such redefinitions or realignments, except by happenstance. Most scholars writing in this volume simply take on an interpretive problem without any redefinition of 'the modern' per se.

The quality of the essays is uneven - an inherent problem in an edited collection but not a fatal one. James R. Kincaid's contribution, 'God's Disappeared,' slides into irrelevance, unscholarliness, and silliness. Like a self-important undergraduate, Kincaid writes, 'It is important first to secure a correct understanding (my understanding) of comedy.' Ironic grandiosity does not help this essay: 'Comedy doesn't live free or die; it lives free and lives.'

Superb essays by Joseph A. Kestner, Thomas Schaub, and Ira Nadel compensate for Kincaid's. Kestner supplements scholarship on New Women with a detailed analysis of Grant Allen's Miss Cayley's Adventures and 1890s magazine debates about women's adventures and women as adventuresses. Schaub's essay on Richard Wright's Native Son contrasts Bigger Thomas's private world of feeling with the public world of action, racism, and justice. By focusing on household space, Schaub demonstrates that race inflects domestic relations: African Americans sleep in the basement by the furnace; white folks bunk on the second floor. Ira Nadel expertly untangles intertextual connections between Charles Dickens's Our Mutual Friend and James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. Garbage heaps generate literature, as both Dickens's and Joyce's representations of refuse, bits of paper, and acronyms suggest. 'From the litter comes the letter as from the dump,' Joyce writes. Coincidentally, Nadel refers to texts as riddles, a notion that Schaub pursues in Native Son. This connection is probably accidental, but it confers some unity on a volume of otherwise disparate essays.

Affording another kind of unity, Jane Austen frames this volume. In his essay on comedy, Paul Goetsch manoeuvres through instances of satirical and corrective laughter in Pride and Prejudice. When Lydia elopes with Wickham, she claims that she can hardly write because she is laughing so hard. Laughter for Lydia brings no improvement; she remains committed to fun even when her marriage isolates and financially distresses her. [End Page 352] Goetsch cites conduct books that instruct women not to laugh aloud for fear of risking vulgarity. Writing about Margaret Oliphant's Miss Marjori-banks as a parody of George Eliot's Romola, Elizabeth Winston invokes Austen's Emma as a plot about absent mothers and mentors.

An illuminating interview with Margaret Drabble about Jane Austen concludes this volume. Originally broadcast on radio in 1998, this exchange between Drabble and Emily Auerbach is filled with insights about gender and influence. As the general editor of The Oxford Companion to English Literature, Drabble is ideally placed to comment on Austen's abiding impact on writers over the last two centuries. Drabble expresses anxiety about imitating Austen's marriage plots in her own narratives. She extols Austen's comedy: 'I think she's one of the funniest writers who ever wrote. I think there are sublime moments of comedy - some of them satiric comedy, some of them pure fun; moments of repartee, moments of comeback.' Drabble comments adroitly on the differences between men and women in their appreciation, or dismissal, of Austen. Charlotte Brontë and Mark Twain disliked Austen, yet Drabble herself has absorbed Austen's comic vision and technique into her world view.

Errors of syntax, spelling, and punctuation throughout Redefining the Modern escaped the editors' notice. 'Christabel LaMotte' in Possession is misspelled as 'Christable.' 'Homogenous' is used when 'homogeneous' is meant. 'Information concerning postmarks and watermarks have [sic...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 352-353
Launched on MUSE
2006-02-10
Open Access
No
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