- Reviewed by
There is a remarkable, unprecedented directness in Jacob Sider Jost's monograph Prose Immortality, 1711–1819. The opening paragraph is so short it can be quoted in full: "How do writers memorialize and preserve the dead? When John Dryden died in 1700, poets wrote elegies. When Samuel Johnson died in 1784, biographers wrote lives. This book is about what happens in between" (1). With such brevity of expression, this is a print version of what MLA-bound scholars call the elevator pitch. And as far as elevator pitches go, it is compelling. But it does not do justice to what unfolds: a genuinely witty, intelligent study of eighteenth-century literary history that agilely links the history of fiction with journalism, theology, and philosophy. For eighteenth-century authors, this book suggests, the rhythms of everyday life were too rich to be distilled into verse, and so prose genres such as the periodical paper, novel, memoir, essay, and biography offered a new kind of lastingness that responded to the challenges and opportunities of Enlightenment philosophy and evolving religious thought. The area of research seems so obvious, so necessary, when put so thoughtfully into those terms.
Despite the title, really the book ends in the 1790s—appropriately enough, in terms of the scope, and in line with the elevator pitch. The epilogue, "Keats Imagines the Life of Shakespeare," jumps ahead to the late 1810s, which explains the quirkiness of the dating in the book title. This is not to suggest that the final section is misplaced. On the contrary, the author quietly and cannily revisits themes and figures addressed in [End Page 678] the body of the monograph. Like Laetitia Pilkington, we learn, Keats "has inscribed Shakespeare's language within the book and volume of his brain, to the point that his appropriation of phrases and even individual words goes beyond allusion to what can only be called deep influence" (178)—the guidance of the Harvard school of book history can be keenly, pleasingly felt. Sticking with the author's stated aims, we certainly find some important, clear-sighted thinking: in "the age of prose immortality," here loosely defined as the period from Joseph Addison to James Boswell, "writing is imagined as a way of immortalizing not only heroic acts or transcendent beauty but also the rhythms and events of daily life" (2). Across well-balanced and wide-ranging chapters, Sider Jost outlines different ways in which writers first used a documentary approach to preserve a particular individual's personality and life history in sufficient detail so that the historical personage seemed to survive beyond their earthly death. Boswell's Life of Johnson is here not the inaugurator of the Great Man tradition but rather the culmination of an emergent interest in the quotidian—that works for me. As a history of literary form, moreover, this study expands upon Stuart Sherman's influential Telling Time (1996), wherein we learn about the extensive manner in which the new chronometry of the period influenced narrative time.
Sider Jost's book also nestles within the Pocock school of thought, which has examined the strong connections between theological thinking and the literary imagination as understood within the period under scrutiny—or so the author notes. Rather, I think Sider Jost makes a striking advance on that well-worn approach, not least of all because he studiously avoids teleology (or, at least, he asks us to be duly wary of the arbitrariness of teleology). Few poets die at convenient times for literary periodization, he quips, though Dryden is an obliging exception. The gag is a good one, the point it raises about our reliance on literary periodization a salient one.
Prose Immortality will be of interest to anyone working on eighteenth-century prose in any form, not merely the memoir or the biography (as one would expect), but also the novel. Is Clarissa a religious novel? asks Sider Jost. Among scholars, the question has long been a vexed one, despite Richardson's inaugural yes ("The Author … imagined...