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  • "This Rhapsodical Work":Object-Narrators and the Figure of Sterne
  • Hilary Englert (bio)

It is conventional wisdom within literary studies today that Laurence Sterne possessed a unique narrative method, one which provoked wide, if largely unsuccessful, imitation. Modern critics have been vigilant to differentiate the most celebrated of modernist and postmodern authors—the true heirs to the legacy of Sterne—from those profit-seeking, coattailriding hack-writers who, shortly following the publication of the first installment of Tristram Shandy, began to shadow the fashionable novelist in great numbers. As Alan B. Howes has documented, it was on behalf of this critical effort, in the context of the early twentieth-century rehabilitation of Sterne's literary reputation, that the term "Sternean" was first mobilized. After nearly a century and a half of critical disfavor, which itself followed a brief but intense period of vogue, Sterne emerged in the 1920s as an icon—in Leslie Stephen's formulation, "perhaps the greatest artist in the language."1 In dubbing Sterne's brand of humor "Sternean" in 1921, Thomas Seccombe sought both to credit Sterne with inaugurating a tradition and to sharpen the distinction between this newly exalted artist and his lowly impersonators. Sterne's "Shandean . . . portraits," contends Seccombe, "stand out like chefs-d'oeuvre in a large gallery of uninspired replicas and other fifth-rate compositions."2 More recent scholars have closely guarded the Sternean pedigree against imposters and pretenders. [End Page 259] Take, for instance, Roger D. Lund's indignant response to Malcolm Bosse's suggestion that Charles Johnstone's 1760 Chrysal; or the Adventures of a Guinea be understood as distinctively modern in its formal design and experimental in its narrative disorder. Lund flatly rejects Bosse's characterization, contending that this novel, which he suggests is more accurately likened to a "modern supermarket tabloid," is "less modern than merely muddled" and that its structural discontinuity "derive[s] less from Sternean sophistication than . . . from haste and clumsiness."3

Late eighteenth-century critics, too, resented the Sternean striving that they attributed to the writers of these "uninspired replicas," many of which, like The Adventures of a Guinea, feature sprawling narratives told from non-human perspectives.4 A 1781 piece in the Critical Review dismisses another object-narrated novel, The Adventures of a Hackney Coach, as a "flimsy performance" in which it is impossible to trace any of the "marks of taste and genius which so eminently distinguished the truly original writer whom our author seems ambitious of imitating."5 This work is cast as a "servile copy of Sterne" by a "pretender to literary fame," seeking to "spin out" his book with disconnected materials joined by sudden Shandean transitions: to "fill it up as well as he can with something which he has ready cut and dried for the occasion."6 The same year, Helenus Scott anticipates just this critical treatment of her own rambling The Adventures of a Rupee when, in her preface, she archly distinguishes it from the "affected and foolish productions" of "the insignificant and ignorant imitators of Sterne," a gesture presumably designed both to poke fun at the critical discourse around Sterneana and to establish a potentially profitable link to the celebrity novelist.7

Eighteenth-century reviewers' efforts to fortify and police the boundary between this high source and his mean imitators betray the vulnerability of that boundary to attacks from both directions. While the Critical avails itself of the monument of Laurence Sterne to denigrate recent novelistic production, only a generation earlier Sterne had been routinely accused of the same shoddy compositional methods and narrative incoherence now associated with his inferiors. In fact, Sterne's celebrated experimental narrative techniques may well have been influenced by his contemporaries. If later-century object-narrators mobilize Shandean devices, tricks, and trappings, if they playfully invoke Sterne in their prefaces and advertisements, it is also the case that for a full decade before the publication of the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy, object-narratives had explored their own place within an increasingly commercialized print culture with features later elaborated and popularized by Sterne: among them, the direct address to both critics and readers, the taxonomizing of readers, the authorial self-consciousness...


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