Saturday, May 4, 2019

John Owen Havard's "Disaffected Parties"

John Owen Havard is Assistant Professor at Binghamton University and received his PhD from the University of Chicago.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Disaffected Parties: Political Estrangement and the Making of English Literature, 1760-1830, and reported the following:
Disaffected Parties looks at authors at an unsettled remove from the political arena, neither actively engaged nor entirely withdrawn. Chapter 2 examines Laurence Sterne’s involvement in scabrous partisan journalism, writing and copying articles for his uncle (and facing ad hominem attacks from political opponents). The year 1742 saw William Pulteney take power from Robert Walpole before backtracking on a ‘Patriot’ platform. This seeming defection helped to crystallize cynical attitudes towards politics, while initiating a retraction of interest in the political press. As I argue on page 99, these events
marked a crucial tipping point, in which attitudes towards a specific party and grouping of politicians coincided with a growing disdain towards politics as such. The response to Pulteney was not simply a localized controversy. This particularly well-publicized and widely vilified instance of ‘apostacy’ became a lasting emblem of perhaps the final possibilities for a viable opposition movement. This event coincided with the onset of a newly critical, if not altogether dismissive, attitude towards politics and political discussion that would reverberate for a long time to come, in what was, arguably, the first widespread popular expression of cynicism towards the political establishment.

Critics and biographers have been inclined to view Sterne’s turn away from politics as a personal decision. Yet his departure from the political arena was inextricable from this larger national realization. Sterne underlined the connection in his final contribution to the political press. In July 1742, he announced his retirement from political journalism in the York Courant. Noting ‘by some late Preferments, that it may be not improper to change Sides’—in a letter itself published, tellingly, in the rival newspaper—he begged pardon for his ‘abusive’ writings. While he may also have been alluding to local disputes, Sterne, in pointing more obviously to the promotion of Pulteney to the peerage just two weeks previously, implied that his withdrawal from political activity was of a piece with a larger national realization.
Several months later, a poem appeared in the York Courant purporting to give ‘L—Y’s Reasons for writing no more Gazetteers’ and describing the author ‘scribbl[ing]’ to ‘baffle Common Sense’, taking ‘Pains by Logick Rules / To prove myself an Ass’. The poem concludes:
But now my Pen I’ve splinter’d quite,
And thrown away my Ink,
For ’till I see which Side will win,
I’ll neither write nor think
This squib was the latest in a series of anonymous poems lambasting Sterne for his political opportunism. Yet these lines show surprising levels of insight into his situation, even sympathy for the events that had made an ‘Ass’ of their putative author. The poem looks ahead to his exculpatory letter on ‘chang[ing] side’ in the same rival newspaper (and also uncannily anticipates his remarks about being ‘tired of employing [his] brains for other people’s advantage’). I conjecture that Sterne wrote this poem himself, exploiting the circuits of anonymous journalism, in a muted act of revenge on both parties, through a proto-Shandean form of self-critique. Regardless of whether the poem was written by Sterne or dictated by his example, he unquestionably internalized its message. Sterne’s involvement in political journalism had degenerated into serving as an amanuensis for his uncle or Bartleby-like abstention. Combining a beleaguered stance of retreat with suggestions of rejection and refusal, the poem stages a volatile and incomplete disengagement, its author left spent, ‘splinter’d,’ but not completely brain-dead.

As the chapter goes on to show, Sterne remained animated by these events in his comic masterpiece The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, where his sentimental side contended with these disaffected impulses—a conflict emblematized in my book’s cover image. Kenneth Burke’s account of literary form, as a “strategy” or “attitude” forged in a recognizable situation, applies to this episode, in ways that connect with the book’s concluding discussion of Byron’s “cynicism.” The poet, Burke wrote, “will tend to write about that which most deeply engrosses him—and nothing more deeply engrosses a man than his burdens.” The poem on Sterne’s “splinter’d” pen offers a means of sharing political burdens. In Tristram Shandy, he suggested ways to dispense with them altogether
Learn more about Disaffected Parties at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue