restricted access Sterne, Tristram, Yorick: Tercentenary Essays on Laurence Sterne, ed. by Melvyn New, Peter de Voogd, and Judith Hawley (review)
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Reviewed by
Sterne, Tristram, Yorick: Tercentenary Essays on Laurence Sterne, ed. Melvyn New, Peter de Voogd, and Judith Hawley
Newark: University of Delaware Press; Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.
xviii+268pp. US$85. ISBN 978-1-61149-570-6.

For Laurence Sterne’s most enduring creation, Tristram Shandy, the concept of posterity is oddly negative: the “gutter of Time” in his own memorable expression (Tristram Shandy, ed. Melvyn New and Joan New [London: Penguin, 2003], 555). Time itself may be precious, but this makes the inevitable loss of it all the more painful. Instead of being cherished or savoured, it is, like every other resource in Tristram Shandy (1767), something to be squandered, ineptly managed, or, to invoke Tristram’s own words again, wasted: “Time wastes too fast” (555).

It is therefore a circumstance worthy of Shandean irony to find Tristram’s name attached to a volume celebrating the endurance of Sterne’s work in the present century. The existence of both this volume as well as the event that occasioned it, the 2013 Sterne tercentenary conference at Royal Holloway in London, suggests something that Sterne probably understood even if Tristram did not: that he, along with Yorick and Sterne’s other literary creations, would swim down the gutter of time ably. Time, contra Tristram, would ultimately grant him a measure of immortality, even as it made waste of his body.

At their best, the essays collected in the volume celebrate what has made Sterne studies an increasingly vibrant subfield within eighteenth-century studies: its almost infinite adaptability to any variety of topics. Scholars interested in the history of celebrity, post-Walpole British politics, Anglican theology, common-sense philosophy, the history of sexuality, the Cervantine novel, the materiality of travel, and the aesthetics of the everyday, to name just a few topics, will find something to slake their thirst. Sometimes the essays even seem to present almost contradictory versions of Sterne. In the hands of Thomas Keymer, for example, Sterne emerges as a pivotal figure in the history of celebrity, an antecedent to the idea of “Romantic interiority” more strongly associated with later figures like Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In the hands of Elizabeth Kraft, by contrast, Sterne emerges as a bohemian avant la lettre, interested less in cultivating a public image and more in exploring the aesthetics of oddness, eccentricity, and iconoclasm. For John Owen Havard, Tristram Shandy is explicitly political, satirizing the idea of partisanship in the era following Walpole’s fall from power in 1742. For Donald R. Wehrs, by contrast, Tristram Shandy is explicitly religious, meditating on Erasmian grace in a manner that removes it from the concerns, political or otherwise, of Sterne’s own day. Two essays, those by Ashleigh Blackwood [End Page 529] and Amelia Dale, examine gender in Tristram Shandy. But whereas for Blackwood, Sterne’s perspective is decidedly masculine, exploring the uncertainties and anxieties faced by men during eighteenth-century pregnancy and childbirth, for Dale, Sterne’s perspective is more subtly feminine, embracing the concept of female impressionability with respect to both mind and body.

As Pat Rogers describes in the valuable introduction, much has changed since 1968, when the Sterne bicentenary conference took place in York. In 1968, there existed a collective mission among Sterne scholars in establishing Sterne’s place within a smaller canon of writers. Thus, according to the proceedings volume produced from that conference, the aim was twofold: “on the one hand to place his work more precisely into the broad history of his era or into the English literary traditions, and on the other to look critically at the timeless characteristics of his fiction” (The Winged Skull: Bicentenary Conference Papers on Laurence Sterne, ed. Arthur H. Cash and John Stedmond [Kent: Kent State University Press, 1971], x). Today, with Sterne’s position in the canon more solidly cemented (due in no small part to the efforts of previous scholars) the ultimate aim of a celebratory conference, as well as its proceedings volume, is more diffuse. Rogers writes that the current volume seeks merely to present the “wider range and broader set of cultural concerns” (xvi) animating Sterne studies in the present. If so, then the field might...