- Grammars of Approach: Landscape, Narrative, and the Linguistic Picturesque by Cynthia Wall
How many monographs promise to "approach" something? What this term typically proposes is a new way of handling old problems, of refreshing a field by recalibrating its vantage. "Approach" imagines critical method as the traversal of space, the incremental work of drawing nearer an object through an opening or intervention, an angle or an in. Scholarship, the metaphor insists, can yield ampler accounts of the world by coming at it.
Our modern habits of approach receive a compelling study of their own within Cynthia Wall's masterful new book, which traces the concept between the realms of language, typography, narratology, and landscape architecture. Wall finds her point of departure in eighteenth–century Britain, where "approach" was understood not as the ne plus ultra predicate of intellection, but a down-home noun: the road that conducted visitors between an estate's entrance and great house. Where broad, orthogonal avenues once hastened passengers from highway to front door, the winding and unhurried approach invited visual exploration and a "new perceptual experience" (1). This topographical choose–your–own adventure privileged the spectator's subjective glimpses and piecemeal prospects, revealing how the estate's "phenomenological whole" arises from "connections between its objects" (30).
These connections obey what Wall calls "grammar," a term that Anne Fisher glossed as the "Art of expressing the Relation of Things in Construction" in 1759, and which the OED today defines as the "principles or rules of an art or science" (6). Wall's insight that eighteenth–century grammars combined "things" as well as words launches her book's interdisciplinary search for "shared patterns between topographies of land, page, and narrative" (5). Among the most persistent "common denominators" she identifies are several design ideologies that made thinkable together the printscapes of books and composition of gardens (5). The approach's bit-by-bit disclosure manifests rhetorically within the suspenseful passages of Humphry Repton's morocco–bound client brochures, Clarissa's missives from the thick of it, and Ann Radcliffe's itineraries into the alpine sublime. "The language used to describe the approach simultaneously enacts it," Wall observes, marking prose's power to render trodden paths into illocutionary products (2). The elements of eighteenth-century style, we learn in this book, pursue and presage the features of its landscapes.
Grammars revives entirely our feel for eighteenth-century language, the orthography of its words, the layout of its characters, the look of its ink shapes. Following D.F. McKenzie's recognition that the making of a book entails stories "apart from that recounted by its text," Wall urges us to "look at the page while looking through it" to appreciate how writing's surfaces mediate its content (225). Grammars delights in unlocking from nouns the still-whirring predicate; in nudging sedimented phrases until they show life (how simple yet gripping to realize that prepositions are "pre–positional"); in showing how the mid–century decapitation of capital nouns cleared space for language's thumbtack articles to shine (135). Seeking the "impress of the invisible," Wall scans the in–betweens of land and [End Page 326] language for lodges and semi–colons, pastures and catchwords, anything "doing anything literary" (3). The resulting study of what is looked past and passed by is an achievement that should reshape not only how we read eighteenth–century literature, but how we conceive the scope of literary study.
Chapter one explains how two mid–eighteenth–century events, the recoinage of "approach" as a noun and Lancelot "Capability" Brown's arrival as Britain's premier landscaper, demonstrated growing concern for lands locked between "the center and the boundary" of estates (28). Brown, along with his detractors and quasi–successor, Repton, debated the best ways of engineering this "in between" through writing that imitated its favored landscapes, a form of mimesis that Wall labels "linguistic picturesque" (69). Whether accentuating Brown's gently–varied lawnscapes or the painterly fireworks of Uvedale Price's "fantastic roots of...