- Sterne and the Culture of Commemoration
Endings always proved messy for Laurence Sterne, in both his art and his life. Consider that his own body seems to have enjoyed its own grotesque afterlife, when his corpse was discovered, soon after its interment on 22 March 1768, on the dissection table of a neighboring anatomy school—the apparent victim of bodysnatching. An ending represents little more than a new beginning, and one is tempted to say that Sterne followed so many of his characters in resisting a final conclusion: like Tristram Shandy, attempting to outrun the specter of Death; or Yorick, who remains a vibrant presence throughout Sterne’s writing despite numerous reminders of his death; or even Tristram’s brother Bobby, whose death cannot be comprehended within Shandy Hall through the simple declaration that he is “gone.” So Sterne’s body may be seen as suffering its own cock-and-bull ending.
Warren L. Oakley’s A Culture of Mimicry develops the anecdote of Sterne’s bodysnatching into a full-fledged reading of his literary career. Focusing on the myriad works inspired by Sterne’s writings and flourishing during the immediate decades following his passing, Oakley argues for the concept of literary body-snatching, by which Sterne’s physical presence was recalled, summoned, and even reassembled postmortem, as though his death might be ignored or even reversed. As Oakley puts it, “Sterne’s dissection and articulation provide a physical embodiment of, and a way of understanding, the creative processes of writers, editors, and anthologists who wielded a literary scalpel” (4). Representative texts like the anonymously published anthologies The Beauties of Sterne (first edition, 1782) or Sterne’s Witticisms (1782); erotica like John Hall-Stevenson’s Crazy Tales (1762) or the anonymous Yorick’s Sentimental Journey Continued (1769); Covent Garden’s 1783 production of Leonard MacNally’s stage version of Tristram Shandy; and William Combe’s edition of The Original Letters of the late Reverend Mr. Laurence Sterne (1788) therefore look less like hackwork than what Oakley describes as “mimicry,” the sophisticated attempt to channel Sterne’s spirit, or perhaps even to reincarnate his dead body. I should note here that “hackwork” is my word rather than Oakley’s, for one of his book’s central claims is that much post-Sternean literature has been all too quickly dismissed as unliterary. [End Page 307]
Is this claim convincing? Not entirely, in my view. To say that Combe’s “edition” of Sterne’s letters (most of which are forgeries) is anything but a shallow attempt to capitalize on Sterne’s celebrity strikes me as extraordinarily generous, to say the least. Sterne himself, after all, seems to have had little patience for appropriations of his work; “The scribblers use me ill,” he wrote to William Warburton on 9 June 1760, soon after the publication of the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy made him world famous. Such scribblings flourished just as much during Sterne’s life as they did after his death. In fact, one of Oakley’s core texts, Hall-Stevenson’s Crazy Tales, is very much in media Sterne, as opposed to post-Sterne—a fact that compromises the usefulness of the bodysnatching metaphor. Ultimately, bodysnatching never does seem more than a metaphor, and a confusing one at that. Typically, bodysnatching implies a willful plunder undertaken purely for material rewards; Oakley’s revision of hackwork into bodysnatching, by contrast, implies that Sterne’s corpus was raided by sympathetic agents from more exalted motives than simply crass profiteering.
Still, it is worth reflecting on the merits of the book. With the exception of René Bosch’s Labyrinth of Digressions, never has a critic given such sustained attention to Sterne’s “imitators.” Such ephemeral productions should, it must ultimately be conceded, be viewed differently from...