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Reviewed by:
  • The Literary Genres of Edmund Burke: The Political Uses of Literary Form, and: Party, Parliament, and the American War, 1774–1780. Vol. 3 of The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, and: Edmund Burke: A Life in Caricature
  • William Levine
Frans De Bruyn. The Literary Genres of Edmund Burke: The Political Uses of Literary Form. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Pp. xii + 318. $72.00.
Warren M. Elofson with John A. Woods, eds. Party, Parliament, and the American War, 1774–1780. Vol. 3 of The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke. ed. Paul Langford. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Pp. xx + 714. $109.00.
Nicholas K. Robinson. Edmund Burke: A Life in Caricature. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996. Pp. x + 214. $45.00.

The three books under review complement one another in unexpected ways: Burke the late-Augustan humanist, Burke the Whig idealist, and Burke the materialist Irish adventurer who was subject to incessant caricature almost from the moment he entered public life. These three distinct approaches to their subject’s manifold writings and political engagements provide an implicit system of checks and balances upon one another. As a figure who has been claimed by historians, political scientists, and literary scholars, among other disciplines, Burke has never been easily contained by any single field of study. The three works to be discussed all make a significant contribution, though of quite different kinds, to the diffuse world of modern academic Burke studies: De Bruyn illuminates several of Burke’s later writings by placing them in a highly sophisticated and theoretically enhanced Augustan literary and cultural context; the most recent volume of the Writings and Speeches brings modern editorial methods to and systematically consolidates the works of a crucial phase in Burke’s career, including the Speech on Conciliation with America and Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol; Robinson’s meticulously compiled book provides a seemingly inexhaustible wealth of graphic satire and historically specific commentary. Taken as a whole, these three books also pose, without fully answering, a number of traditional questions in Burke studies: How does one account for the exceptionally belligerent tone of Burke’s later years, compared to his more moderate, conciliatory tone at the time of the American War? How should one view Burke’s recurrent conflict between his meritocratic aspirations and the rather inert aristocratic party he served, or the rigidly hierarchical order of society he later defended? Should he be judged as true to his principles of “improvement over innovation” throughout his life, as the later Coleridge, one of his prodigal sons, would argue? Or is he an apostate [End Page 533] from 1789 onwards, whose false class consciousness reveals itself in the 1794 A Letter to a Noble Lord, a text whose contradictions the young radical Coleridge pounced upon? Finally, do the various ad hominem satires (both by and about Burke), graphic caricatures and the largely personal or personally motivated, class-based level of argumentation in the political sphere outweigh the basis for such debate in conflicting party ideologies? Does Burke’s public character typify a Namierite view of political history in the eighteenth century, despite such extensive revisionary works as John Brewer’s 1976 Party Ideology and Popular Politics at the Accession of George III?

Both De Bruyn and the editors of the Writings and Speeches point to a 1775 letter in which Burke refers to himself as one of the Laputan “flappers” who need to wake their rulers from drowsiness or excessive abstraction. Given this convergent example, the points of departure are clear: the editors will further elaborate on Burke’s frustrations in being the most politically active member of the ineffectual aristocratic Rockinghams, while De Bruyn will build his claims for the “Augustan humanist” basis of Burke’s writings on this and similar allusions, overlapping genres, rhetorical parallels, and inherited modes of evaluating cultural decline drawn from Swift, Pope, Scriblerian satirists, and other earlier eighteenth-century literary writing. Importantly, these critical genres are balanced by Burke’s use of constructive, socially stabilizing forms, and De Bruyn relies upon a broadly inclusive notion of literature, or a learned public writing, in this period to consider various genres of...

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