- Historical Boundaries, Narrative Forms: Essays on British Literature in the Long Eighteenth Century in Honor of Everett Zimmerman
Everett Zimmerman was exceptionally gifted not only as a master of critical studies in the field of history and fiction in the eighteenth century, but also as a teacher. In this attractive and well-stocked volume in his honour, a number of his NEH students as well as friends and colleagues from the University of Santa Barbara have contributed a wide-ranging group of essays revolving around his lifelong subject-one of the persistent discursive obsessions of our time-the links between history and fiction. But this apparently timeless-one might say ahistorical-opposition can mean many things. To the dismay of practicing historians, literary critics understand the narrative structure of history-writing to indicate that imagination rather than citation is the dominant methodology of their field. For the common reader, it means character drama in a more or less authentic historical past. Alternatively, fictions from that very past may be read as signifying the social or political history of their times. And there are those fictions more typical of the eighteenth century than the present that use the term "history" in [End Page 311] their titles-Fielding's Tom Jones, or the History of a Foundling, and the History of the Life and Vast Variety of Fortunes of Mme De Beleau, Defoe's Roxana-which, though the intention has been the subject of many a critical dispute, seem in general to indicate the truthfulness of the account, whether facetiously or in straight-faced disingenuousness.
The various essays in this elegantly produced volume tend to resonate with each other, to clarify or to raise new and fruitful areas of discussion. In addition to dividing the collection into two parts, Boundaries and Forms, the editors have performed a very neat process of parallelism and juxtaposition. The book begins and ends with a consideration of Defoe, the first by Maximillian Novak and the last by David Marshall, which focuses on Coetzee's inspired intertextual spin-off, Foe. Novak's essay does a service by circumscribing the Utopian ideals that have sometimes been applied to the plot of labour by an ingenious European in an untilled New World. By distinguishing between Mediterranean and Atlantic voyages of discovery, "ruminations on alternate forms of government" (28), and survivalist narratives, in which the castaway creates "a projection of contemporary Britain on an imaginary Caribbean island," Novak creates a genre for Robinson Crusoe-none other than a fiction in which the protagonist's actions create "problems and consequences" (32) more appropriate for novels than for Utopias. Marshall's concluding piece takes the question of genre to another level when he anatomizes the themes of writing instruction in Foe. The mysterious narrator, Susan-a projection possibly of Roxana (whose name this was)-tries to usurp Defoe's authorial role by occupying his house and teaching Friday to write. She fails; however, by some delicate skipping between clefs, with the aid of a reference to Rousseau's critique in Émile of women writing and thence to Marsyas the flayed flutist, Marshall takes "the novel to warn us of the dangers of demanding proof of the interior of the other" (246).
Other essays approach this question of the interiority of historical writing that Henry James famously declared impossible to achieve. Ted Ruml and Robert Mayer direct their attention to two Scotsmen, Gilbert Burnet and Walter Scott, in order to show that the genre of history is stretched out upon frameworks that ultimately ambiguate the reader's perceptions. For Mayer, meditating on the paratexts, in Genette's formula, of Scott's Magnum Opus edition of his novels, the plethora of fictional commentators, footnotes, and prefaces that Scott appends confuses rather than illuminates the genre-something, Mayer observes, that seemed to puzzle Scott himself. Is he writing history/romance, history/novel; does he intend to offer "idle pleasure...