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  • The Portable Bunyan: A Transnational History of The Pilgrim’s Progress
  • Anne Fuchs
The Portable Bunyan: A Transnational History of The Pilgrim’s Progress By Isabel Hofmeyr Princeton: Princeton UP, 2004. xiii + 314 pp. ISBNO-691-11656-3 paper.

If the first part of The Pilgrim's Progress had already been translated in France by 1684 (232), the primary focus of this "transnational history" is clearly stated (3) to be on Africa. We get inklings from Isabel Hofmeyr's book of other histories that might be told: Bunyan and New England Dissenters, Southern Black Baptists, Indian Protestants, and Chinese revolutionaries, respectively. Appendix I records the numerous translations throughout Africa dating from the 1830s to the 1960s and Hofmeyr's intimate knowledge of this region obviously accounts for her concentration on the book's progress from London's Camden Road Baptist Mission Centre to the Congo, from Black Baptist missions in Jamaica across the Atlantic to the Cameroon, and from the various Missionary Societies in London to the Eastern Cape. The third and last part of the study deals with how "[f]rom being a transnational writer of the world, Bunyan became a national writer of England" (213).

Two pervasive themes are that of the circulation of the book as an object, having a quasi-magical or fetishist status in the Congo (73) and that of its appeal to Africans on account of its links with oral literature (105-21). More specifically Hofmeyr shows in what consists the "universal appeal" of Bunyan's work, lending itself to various adaptations and transformations at a local level. In postcolonial terms, the Christian's burden is no longer that of original sin but that of colonial oppression (85) and certificates required to enter heaven turn into "passes" (146); for the Eastern Cape elite (contrary to Christopher Hill's allusions to peasant resistance (230)) The Pilgrim's Progress was a spur to their political aims, and the analyses of Thomas Mofolo, the character of Great-Heart and Protestant manliness are particularly perceptive. Equally so are those illustrations suitably transformed for an African audience. In Nigeria, Fagunwa and Tutuola had so Africanized Bunyan's story, that their work in turn became African sources for writers such as Ngugi and Dangaremba with Marxist and feminist readings of the fable.

One might confront Hofmeyr's description of intertextuality (in Mofolo but also in Ethel M. Dell and Marie Corelli) as "a parliament of texts" or "intellectual transhumance" (171-72) with Bakhtin's notion of dialogism; again the discussion in part III of the universality and humanity of Bunyan might benefit from Todorov's latest contribution on the subject. This last part of Hofmeyr's study leaves me in some doubt: the establishment of the canons of English literature was indeed mainly about the English racial inheritance, but notwithstanding the opinions of Noyes and the contemporary emphasis on Empire, I am more inclined to agree with Charles Kingsley's 1860 introduction where race is not concerned with "whiteness" as such: "Bunyan's men are not merely life-portraits, but English portraits; men of the solid, practical, unimpassioned midland race" (220). Indeed when I was a child, the wogs began at Calais and the goings-on in Continental Europe at the end of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth seemed to most English at least as foreign to their race and its "narrow" values as what could be considered the usual class [End Page 126] struggle translated into terms of black and white in the Empire. Paradoxically if one looks more closely at the dates, it appears that Bunyan's dissemination throughout the Empire and particularly Africa parallels rather than precedes (213) the establishment of English Literature. A most thought-provoking and fascinating study highly relevant to the making of today's global society and its attendant nationalisms.

Anne Fuchs
University of Nice Sophia-Antipolis

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.
Todorov, Tzvetan. Devoirs et délices: une vie de passeur. Entretiens avec Catherine Portevin. Paris: Seuil, 2002.


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