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ELH 72.2 (2005) 407-428
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Come, bright Love of Fame, inspire my glowing Breast: Not thee I call, who over swelling Tides of Blood and Tears, dost bear the Heroe on to Glory, while Sighs of Millions waft his spreading Sails; but thee, fair, gentle Maid, whom Mnesis, happy Nymph, first on the Banks of Hebrus did produce. Thee, whom Maeonia educated, whom Mantua charm'd, and who, on that fair Hill which overlooks the proud Metropolis of Britain, satst, with thy Milton, sweetly tuning the Heroic Lyre; fill my ravished Fancy with the Hopes of charming Ages yet to come. Foretel me that some tender Maid, whose Grandmother is yet unborn, hereafter, when, under the fictitious Name of Sophia, she reads the real Worth which once existed in my Charlotte, shall, from her sympathetic Breast, send forth the heaving Sigh. Do thou teach me not only to foresee, but to enjoy, nay, even to feed on future Praise. Comfort me by a solemn Assurance, that when the little Parlour in which I sit at this Instant, shall be reduced to a worse furnished Box, I shall be read, with Honour, by those who never knew nor saw me, and whom I shall neither know nor see.
The topic announced by this essay's title is seemingly old-fashioned—perhaps some would even say, reactionary. The word "style" invokes questions of aesthetic appreciation that several decades of contextualizing criticism in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s moved far from the center of literary study; to attempt to describe an individual author's style might seem to bespeak an antiquated belief in some ineffable quality adhering in that author, independent of his historical period or circumstances and of the import of his work. In one particularly hard-nosed view, for example, writing in 1978 on literature as an ideological form, Etienne Balibar and Pierre Macherey placed the word "style" in ironic quotation marks and used it to encapsulate all that a materialist approach to literature must reject: insisting on literature's "necessary place within the determinate processes and reproduction of the contradictory linguistic practices of the common tongue," they asserted that "the ideology of literature, itself a part of literature . . . work[s] ceaselessly to deny this objective base: to represent literature [End Page 407] supremely as 'style,' as individual genius, conscious or natural, as creativity, etc., as something outside (and above) the process of education."1 In his classic 1993 essay on imperialism in Austen's Mansfield Park, Edward Said dismissively referred to "stylistic finish" as one of the deceptively neutral literary values of those refined novel readers who nonetheless share "ideas about dependent races and territories" with "foreign-office executives, colonial bureaucrats, [and] military strategists."2 Seeking energetically to investigate, to understand, or even aggressively to "expose" literary works' relations to their historical moments, both as effects and as causal forces, literary critics of the late twentieth century also exposed the historical contingency of the category of "literature" itself as a separate and timeless realm, including the fetishization of style.
Without reverting to old notions of literature or the aesthetic as ahistorical and "pure," some literary critics of the mid to late 1990s initiated a rapprochement—some of them hesitantly, apologetically, others in a bold and polemical mode—with the term literature and with questions of the distinctively literary or aesthetic features, and even pleasures, of literary works. As George Levine commented in 1996: "[W]e have to understand that if there is no literature, there is no profession [of literary studies]." Less strictly pragmatically, he added his spare attestation of faith that literary study consists of "reading the sorts of texts that test most fully the possibilities of language and meaning, and using skills developed to engage those texts successfully."3 Meditating on the question of Fielding's style two hundred and fifty years after his death, I have found myself simultaneously brooding on the present and future state of literary studies. In what follows I will draw on critical approaches to...