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Reviewed by:
  • The Portable Bunyan: a transnational history of The Pilgrim's Progress
  • Corinne Sandwith (bio)
Isabel Hofmeyr (2004) The Portable Bunyan: a transnational history of The Pilgrim's Progress. Johannesburg: Wits University Press, Princeton and Oxfordshire: Princeton University Press

One of the many memorable images in Isabel Hofmeyr's fascinating study of Bunyan's imperial travels in the Protestant Atlantic is of young Baptist boys in the English town of Bath standing on a giant floor map of the Congo and singing 'Congo boat songs' as they enact the perilous mission journey up the Congo river into the heart of the African interior. This intriguing example of the way in which 'Africa' comes to figure in the imaginations of those in England provides an excellent illustration of one of the central aims of Hofmeyr's study: in contrast to long-standing 'centre-periphery' models of the imperial domain, Hofmeyr invokes a complex web of connection, interaction and exchange which, in the manner of much recent postcolonial research, seeks to dismantle 'national'/'international' dichotomies in favour of a much more integrated perspective, one which recognises not only a single discursive and material field, but also dispenses with the patronising image of one-way colonial influence and meek, receptive colonial subjects. In this perspective, Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress emerges, not as one of the main lynchpins of a formidable English literary canon, but as a text which has a long and complicated extra-English history, a text which has also been profoundly shaped and changed by the intellectual formations with which it came into contact, and in which it was embedded. Focusing mainly on Bunyan's text's extensive travels in Africa (it was, as Hofmeyr points out, the site of eighty translations), this study examines the hidden intellectual [End Page 106] history of this famous evangelical text, a history of indigenisation, transmutation and 'translation' which, Hofmeyr argues, has been completely erased from the dominant literary record.

It is this notion of the shifting, unstable text of imperial mission translation that provides some of the most fruitful departure points for this investigation. In this regard, The Pilgrim's Progress emerges as an extraordinarily 'pliable' text, a vast Mary Poppins-like 'portmanteau' which can accommodate a seemingly endless number of interpretations. As Hofmeyr shows, this indigenisation of The Pilgrim's Progress exceeds conventional postcolonial models of anti-colonial 'writing back' or postcolonial 'subversion'. While 'outlandish' interpretations (Nixon 1987:577) and anti-colonial readings are certainly important, Hofmeyr's detailed analysis of the many examples of Bunyan consumption across the African continent reveals a plethora of responses to the text which would have remained invisible had the investigation relied solely on a model of resistant anti-colonial response. This, in fact, is the naive colonial reading that is attributed to someone as class-conscious as Christopher Hill who, in his analysis of The Pilgrim's Progress in Africa (as Hofmeyr suggets), tends to abandon his more habitual sensitivities in favour of a version of the colonial context which highlights only the stark racial antinomies of the colonial domain. By contrast, Hofmeyer's emphasis on the complex class formations of African colonial societies leads to a much more nuanced sense of the various 'public spheres' inaugurated by the text. In this regard, she demonstrates how The Pilgrim's Progress was able to support a number of wide-ranging and even contradictory deployments: in South Africa, for example, it was seized upon by influential African elites as both a document of anti-colonial resistance and as an important tool of upward class mobility. Similarly, by focusing on the interpretative strategies of African peasant communities —interpretations which, interestingly, foreground a completely different set of Bunyan tropes in relation to the readings of colonial elites —Hofmeyr also manages to unearth some of the nuances of a more 'popular' response. An investigation which already stands as an exemplary model of painstaking historical reconstruction, this notoriously difficult recovery of the histories of marginal social groups is surely one of the more remarkable achievements of this book.

The attempt —in Hofmeyr's terms —to 'stitch together' the 'colonial' and 'metropolitan' domains is also part of an effort to resist...


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pp. 106-108
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