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  • Poetics of Character: Transatlantic Encounters, 1700–1900 by Susan Manning
  • Hannah Spahn (bio)
Poetics of Character: Transatlantic Encounters, 1700–1900 Susan Manning Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013 315 pp.

The scene is ancient, but with modern resonances. Fifty fugitive women from Africa have landed on the European coast. The representative of the state, who doubts their identity and the legitimacy of their asylum claims, approaches them. Putting his ethnographic knowledge of an increasingly interconnected world on display, he tries to substantiate his impression of nonidentity in a characterization that consists of a series of strangely overlapping comparisons:

Like Libyan women rather; not a lineI trace in you that marks our native race.Nile might produce such daughters; ye do bearA Cyprian character in your female features,The impressed likeness of some plastic male.Of wandering Indians I have heard, that harnessCamels for mules, huge-striding, dwelling nearThe swarthy Æthiop land; ye may be such;Or, had ye war’s accoutrement, the bow,Ye might be Amazons, stern, husband-hating,Flesh-eating maids.

(Aeschylus 227–28: Suppl. 279–88)1

This first preserved use of character, in Aeschylus’s The Suppliants (c. 463 bc), occurs at what, following Susan Manning, could be called a metaphorical or translational moment that unites, as Aristotle’s discussion of metaphors suggests, the proper and the “foreign”: a moment when meaning is transferred or transported from one continent, nation, race, gender, or, in this case, also animal species to another. Although Manning’s [End Page 616] Poetics of Character: Transatlantic Encounters, 1700–1900 sets its focus on different shores and different times, it helps uncover why character, even in this early formulation, is steeped in comparative practice. Seeking to establish a comparative poetics of the transatlantic—an approach sensitive to the specifically literary dimension of transatlantic writing—Manning proposes character (rather than identity) as a category that can be understood as both an “intrinsically relational” form of ethical representation and a rhetorical figure that “reveals itself in patterns of textual relationship” (xii, 5). In this combination of moral and literary concerns, the relational lens of character promises to make possible “a comparative mode of reading able to sustain ethical perspectives in the context of contingency” (32). Manning’s resulting alternative literary history can provide fascinating new insights into what she calls “the ‘texture’ of likeness” in a transatlantic context while avoiding problems of sequential and nation-based narratives whose remnants she finds at work even in many of today’s transnational and “performatively anachronistic” approaches (7, 36, 156).

Hence, what may be said of many impressive books—that in reviewing them one cannot do justice to their richness and complexity—would be rather too obvious to state in the case of Poetics of Character, which presents both a new, if paradoxically old, method of studying (indeed of thinking) literary history as literary history and an extremely fruitful application of this method. By necessity, the following paragraphs can aspire to nothing but a very rough likeness of its argument. With this goal, however, they may be able to remain within the outer reaches of the analytical framework set up in part 1, which is itself premised on the pertinence of likeness, association, and analogy. As Manning explains, “[a]nalogies are by their nature not identities: similarity necessarily also implies difference, as correspondence implies distance” (xiii). Her project can be summarized as a sophisticated “recovery” of analogical thinking, that is, of a “proportional” thinking organized, broadly speaking, by propriety and probability, by likeness and likelihood (xi, xiii, 4). Central to a worldview dominated by rhetoric, arguments from analogy experienced a last conspicuous flowering in the Scottish Enlightenment, she shows, before largely disappearing from view in the nineteenth century.

The implications of Manning’s work “recovering” these arguments are twofold. On the one hand, she intentionally forges her critical tools at the convergence of, first, recent theoretical discussions and, second, the intellectual [End Page 617] world just predating the advent of modern conceptions of history and the nation, in order to systematically bypass dominant assumptions shaping national (literary) histories. For instance, she points to the comparative practice of Adam Smith’s “Poeticall method...


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