- Festschrift for John Barrell, or a Barrel of Culture
This engaging collection of eleven essays by leading scholars in the field of eighteenth-century studies is a fitting tribute to the distinguished career of John Barrell. A pioneer cultural historian, Barrell has helped to define our sense of how the interlocking conceptual categories of "Land, Nation, and Culture" originally developed in eighteenth-century Britain. In their introduction to the volume, the editors play down the degree to which Barrell represents not only its raison d'être but its shaping influence. They do so, I suppose, in order to justify the book's coherence (on its own terms) as a "multidisciplinary" study of the making of modern taste, figured spatially as a Pocockian "Republic." Nobody has time any longer––or so the story goes––amid the exponential increase of academic publication, both on the internet and in printed form, to thumb through a festschrift in leisurely fashion as an exercise in collegial curiosity. Respect for a scholar or his reputation might guide us toward one of his individual works, but it is less likely to induce us to sit down and read, from cover to cover, a group of essays gathered in his name. Knowledge production, as we know, has involved specialization at least since the period covered in this book, 1740–1840, and this tends not to promote the belletristic activity of reading humanistic scholarship for pleasure or profit (in the Enlightenment sense of improvement). So the book is not marketed as a festschrift. The editors instead situate it within the rubric of multidisciplinarity, providing a critical history of this emergent term and a thoughtful elaboration of each of the concepts contained in its title.
Yet, the essays themselves belie the reduction of Barrell to a mere participant in a larger flow of critical discourse that takes into account the visual [End Page 325] and the verbal. Barrell's work of the past three decades instead emerges as an organizing feature of the book and a motivating prompt for its authors: The Dark Side of the Landscape (1980) informs the first four chapters, by Stephen Daniels, Ann Bermingham, David H. Solkin, and David Simpson; The Political Theory of Painting (1986) impacts the following two, by Thomas Crow and T. J. Clark; and Barrell's English Literature in History, 1730–80: An Equal, Wide Survey (1983) figures into not only the introduction by Peter de Bolla, Nigel Leask, and Simpson but individual essays by de Bolla and Leask. Harriet Guest does a nice job situating her study of Charlotte Smith's novels within the cultural milieu described by Barrell in The Birth of Pandora and the Division of Knowledge (1992), Imagining the King's Death (2000), and "Coffee House Politicians" (2004). Frances Ferguson brilliantly winds up the volume by reaching back to The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place (1972). The editors have done a masterful job of selection, arrangement, and attention to style so that, should one wish to read the book in its entirety, one would not be let down. I would go further to say that the connections it enables between the diverse, but tightly linked, essays is a pleasurable aspect of the intellectual challenge it provides. While I do not have time or space for a thoroughgoing analysis of each chapter, I will highlight a couple and provide a brief synopsis of the rest.
The essays by Bermingham and Brewer offer powerful readings of changing class dynamics through the categories of cottage life and sentimental narrative. Bermingham considers cottages as picturesque icons, embodying the British nation's nostalgia for a precommercial world that never really existed, except in fantasy. Such fantasies involved the sentimental reimagining of cottages as safe havens of Christian values stripped of the stark realities of cold, hunger, sickness, and other features of economic privation. Through a study of materials (such as conduct books and architectural pattern books) related to the British obsession with rustic life as...