Read Dr. Cynthia Richards’ The List Defense of “Tristram Shandy”

Three English Department professors — Dr. Cynthia Richards (Tristram Shandy), Dr. Robin Inboden (The Collected Poems of William Butler Yeats), and (Dr. Michael McClelland (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) — successfully defended their respective works at the annual The List event on November 15th.

Although the event could not be recorded, Dr. Richards has decided to share her defense for the blog, and is as follows:

“My Plain into a City”: Defending Tristram Shandy

“I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they” decided to marry, I might be less inclined to enjoy such long messy affairs or elaboratively embellished stories that challenge credibility and eventually patience—or recommend for reading lists, stories that can only be approached with a fortitude, bordering on the religious. My father, a teller of tale tales, preferred stories that repeated themselves, broad, exaggerated and full of self-focus. My mother, a devout reader of the scriptures, preferred stories that avoided self-disclosure and which were to be read only in small sittings, and then reread to make sure the message was understood.

Ah! Madam, but pray what a strange beginning!—did you really mean to say that you intend to remove Tristram Shandy from a reading list where its placement seems expressly designed to interrupt the quest of any English major to actually complete such a thing? And what did you say about your parents and their respective hobby horses? Surely, the success of an English Department reading list cannot be assigned to your parents’ respective, and one should say wildly irrespective, passions for storytelling? “Well, you may take my word for it, that nine parts in ten of [any professor’s] sense or nonsense, her successes and miscarriages in the world depend up such motions and activities, and the different tracks and trains you put them into.” Such a selection, dear Sir, you might say, may be better designed for a Geology major, as such rocky terrain is something they are quite accustomed to. Why, reader—let me explain.


Let me explain. I begin with a rather poor parody of the opening of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, and a considerably less bawdy one. My first sentence directly lifts the language of Sterne’s text until it abruptly detours to a more acceptable mention of marital union. Sterne’s novel, through Tristram’s narration, begins with conception, and attributes its eponymous hero’s difficulties as an adult to the interrupted coitus of his parents when the mother interjects at a crucial moment to inquire about the winding of the clock and the father responds by prematurely dispersing his seed, so to speak. Sterne’s opening is itself a parody of John Locke’s Association of Ideas when Locke talks about the different tracks and trains our minds might be put into when we imagine identity as a blank page that experience writes itself upon, and which Sterne reframes as a rather disquieting reflection on the arbitrariness of identity. For my opening, I, then, lift Sterne’s borrowing of Locke to reflect also on the randomness by which reading lists might be constructed, or rather, inversely, how they can seem pre-destined by the hobby horses—Sterne’s word, for passions—of our parents rather than our chosen disciplines.

It is that randomness, however, that Sterne’s text also takes seriously, and even celebrates. Life in Tristram Shandy is never a linear narrative. Consciousness makes all experience recursive, and a novel should not be any less so. Tristram takes a hundred pages to get born because to tell the story of his birth, he must first describe much that happened before, including his grandfather’s small nose, his parents’ marriage contract, a false pregnancy and an aborted stay in London—and even then, when Tristram’s birth happens, it happens off stage while his father and his Uncle Toby are listening to a sermon delivered by his uncle’s valet, Colonel Trim, while Trim is standing at a precise 90 degree angle. And that sermon, attributed in the novel to Parson Yorick, is composed by none other than Sterne himself, who before becoming a literary celebrity after the publication of the first two volumes of this nine-volume novel was an obscure clergyman, and can’t resist promoting his previous work even when forging a whole new identity. Then, when the birth is finally announced, it is done through the making of a bridge, not one over water, but one to repair Tristram’s nose which has been damaged through forceps in delivery when Dr. Slop applies this modern contraption over the mother’s objections and to the detriment of the baby. I imagine you are getting the picture of just how crazy this novel is, and how playful yet jarringly serious its narrative can be.

To add to this cacophony, sexual innuendo punctuates nearly every line, certainly every paragraph. Nothing is safe from the prurient imagination: buttonholes, fiddlesticks, whiskers, and of course, noses. It can admittedly get tiring, especially when the novel digresses soon after Tristram’s birth and the news of his older brother’s unexpected death to tell the story of a stranger with a very big nose. But that story, we learn, rather than deflecting from loss, functions more as an explanation: a comic, overdone tale that makes the case that our fascination with fundamental bodily functions—and some of the parts that make them possible—can bring us, oddly, intellectually together. When the news becomes known of the stranger’s large nose that is all anyone in the town of Strasburg can think of—the same way a dirty joke can make us all uncomfortable at once or simultaneously blush. That immediate shared understanding—and the community, even communion, it can create—is what Sterne seeks, particularly during periods of loss and trauma—hence, his detour from birth and death to the story of a large nose.

For at the heart of this text is the tragic tale of miscommunication—a story about how hard it is to be understood by others and to name what is important to us. Sterne tells this story most fully through Uncle Toby, who returns from war wounded in the groin, and then comically, tragically, repeatedly interprets others’ queries about precisely where he was wounded as meaning where in the battlefield he was wounded, when we, as readers, know that they mean something else altogether. Within the novel, these queries lead to frustration, isolation, impatience, and briefly an ill-fated love, but as readers, they make us unfailingly feel for Uncle Toby and for his loss. Even if we never learn exactly where he is wounded on his body, we come to understand the value of the care he displays for the concerns of others and learn to admire his creative attempts—ones that go so far as leading him to construct his own miniature battlefield—to transcend the separations between us.

Sterne’s narrative technique is often compared to stream of consciousness as developed by Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, but that term in its modernist application evokes images of an isolated, fluid mind untethered from the world, especially when we think of Woolf. But Tristram Shandy, even at its most intellectually fluid, is a book that can never escape the body, especially when delineating consciousness. Tristram coughs, Uncle Toby whistles, a hot chestnut rolls down the trousers of a prelate and all pretense of disinterested, disembodied exposition disappears. Rather than the story of a life, I tell my students, this novel tells the story of the progress of a body through time; “life” is just a construct that exists only on the page. We are always creatures of our bodies, at their mercy, but also deeply enriched and enabled by them. This is especially true when our bodies become disabled by time, by circumstance, by birth, by fortune, and by war—a context central to a novel written during the Seven Years’ War and amid the growth of British nationalism. By constantly reminding us of our bodies, Sterne pushes back against artificial divisions, such as nationalism and even war, that compromise our love for others and a shared, fundamental sense of humanity.

This focus has made this work the cornerstone of a course that I teach on the body in eighteenth-century literature. This semester marks the fourth time I have taught this work in this context, and the fourth time I have experienced, if only sporadically, those moments of communion this novel seeks. There is also, as you can imagine, lots of confusion that also happens when I teach this work, and even a kind of weariness that settles in half way through, but it is also one of the few texts I teach where there are such shared moments of revelation, moments where we are all realizing the same thing at the same time and understanding that what we are realizing is an experience fundamental to being human. It has made for the most rewarding of my teaching experiences.

It is also a text that over time and as my body has aged and my loss accumulated that I find increasingly consoling. If initially I was drawn to the playfulness of its language—something I learned to appreciate from my father’s extravagant tales—now my interest most resembles my mother’s devotions. Tristram Shandy includes many parallels to Sterne’s own life, but none so remarkable as when death coming knocking at the beginning of Volume VII. Tristram immediately flees, grabs a boat to France, and then pursues a journey across that country designed to leave death in his wake. That journey follows the same path Sterne takes when after a pulmonary embolism, he is ordered by his doctor to seek refuge in a warmer clime to stave off the progress of the tuberculosis that will take his life at 54, two years after he completes the novel and more than 30 years after his first pulmonary incident as a college student at Cambridge. That imagined journey, driven by such a clear foil, makes for the most linear of the volumes. We seem to speed through all of France, stopping only briefly to visit designated tourist attractions or remember a past journey. But at the end of this volume, Tristram stops running, and decides to linger yet again even if it means death will catch up with him. It happens when he reaches a “large rich plain,” anathema, he argues, to travel writers as it “presents nothing to the eye, but one unvaried picture of plenty.” In other words, there is seemingly nothing to describe, no point to tale or no conventional way to frame its meaning.

Tristram, however, finds a different way of looking at it, and I would like to share some of this passage with you. It is one of my favorites and the one I turned to when I lost my 23-year-old nephew last year. My nephew’s beautiful life ended too soon, too abruptly, and the brevity of his life and its seeming incompleteness meant no linear narrative could do it justice. It would only make it seem too short. Sterne’s novel, however, offers another way of measuring life.

How far my pen has been fatigued like those of other travelers, in the journey over it, over so barren a track—the world must judge—but the traces of it, which are now set a vibrating together this moment, tell me tis the most fruitful and busy period of my life, for as I have made no convention with any men with the gun as to time—by stopping and talking to every soul I met who was not at a full trot—inviting all parties before me—waiting for every soul behind—hailing all those who are coming through cross roads … in short, by seizing every handle, of what size or shape soever, which chance held out to me in this journey, I turned my plain into a city.

This passage helps me name the fullness of my nephew’s life, how no one was a stranger to him and how, even as a toddler, he would stop and talk to every soul, often in their driveways. And later, when he moved to New York City, how he embraced its streets and its various “handles” with a pet cat curled around his neck. More broadly, it helps me name why I read, and perhaps, I like to think, captures some of why he loved to read as well.


So, no Sir, or Madam for that matter, I am not recommending that we remove this text from The List. In fact, I think I might instead require that it be read more than once, or perhaps started, not completed, then picked up again. In other words, it is a work that must be returned to, and then turned to when needed. Arguably, Sterne never completed his novel, and he would probably have the same attitude about completing our list. It is the interruptions that matter—how we slow down, stay connected, and find meaning along the way.

Dr. Cynthia Richards


TOMORROW: What Can You Do With An English Major

On Thursday, December 6th, the English Department is hosting its annual event What Can You Do With An English Major (WCYDWAEM) featuring four Wittenberg graduates: Rhea Jones-Price, Nathan Dillahunt, Kalie McDorman, and Marisa Burwell.

The four panelists will be answering questions from SAGE members in reference to their careers, post-graduate life, and everything they did with their English major post-graduation.

There will be free food available, as well as a cash bar. The English Department hopes to see you tomorrow at 6:30 p.m. in Founders Pub!


This Thursday: Dr. Richards, Dr. Inboden, and Dr. McClelland Defend Their Choices on The List

The List, an annual English Department event, will be happening in Founders Pub this Thursday, November 15th, at 6:30 p.m.

The List is a compilation of book suggestions that English Department faculty have designated as books to be read before graduating college. A full list of the book selections as well as a description of how to complete The List can be found here.

The event will feature Dr. Robin Inboden who will be defending Collected Poems of William Butler Yeats; Dr. Michael McClelland who will be defending The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; and Dr. Cynthia Richards who will be defending Tristram Shandy.

English majors that attend can receive colloquium credit, and refreshments will be provided.


A Look Back at the Literary Halloween Party

Last Wednesday, the English Department hosted its annual Literary Costume Party. Here are some of the costume highlights and photo reels from the event, including quite a few Gryffindors, a starving writer, Jessamine Lovelace (from The Infernal Devices series by Cassandra Clare) and some characters from Jurassic Park:

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Thank you to all who showed up for our annual Halloween party. We enjoyed it very much, and can’t wait to see next year’s array of costumes! Congratulations to Emily Schinker (Jessamine Lovelace), who won this year’s costume contest!

Take Some Literary Costume Inspiration

On Wednesday, October 31st, the English Department will be hosting its annual Literary Costume Party. To receive colloquium credit, you must dress as your favorite literary character or as an author and you must be able to knowledgeably answer questions from faculty about the person/character. A prize will be given to the student with the best costume!

In order to get in the spirit of Halloween, here is some inspiration for your costume for the party:

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A classic: Harry Potter (or, one of his friends/allies in the novel). You can’t go wrong with reusing your old house robe from middle school, or digging out that old wand you got at Universal (let’s face it, that wand is still on your dresser at home). You never know what magic you might bring with you. Courtesy: Party City

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Another Harry Potter classic is J.K. Rowling herself. You can’t go wrong with dressing as the author that brought us our favorite childhood book and movie series’. Courtesy: EW.

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Now you can’t forget Katniss Everdeen, the Girl on Fire, can you? Katniss is a classic, as you’ve got a small shopping list of black clothes and a pseudo-bow and arrow. Plus, Katniss’ braid is the easiest hairstyle for a costume. Courtesy:

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Effie Trinket is another Hunger Games classic, as it’s the perfect opportunity to not only dress up but to show your talent with face make-up. It will most certainly provoke a reaction from the party, as they’ll all be admiring your handiwork. Courtesy: Pinterest.

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Need an excuse to dress up with your boyfriend or fellow friends? Partnering up as Nancy Drew and Joe Hardy provides the perfect opportunity not only match, but to wear a simple, yet distinguishable, costume. Courtesy: Pinterest.


Eleanor and Park

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Dorian Gray is another literary classic that’s an easy costume to pull off. Just grab a suit, part your hair down the middle, and grab yourself a photo frame and you’ve perfectly captured The Picture of Dorian Gray. Courtesy: ITM Archive.

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Dressing as one of the Bronte sisters might prove a little difficult in comparison to some of the other costumes here, but being one of the Bronte sisters gives you an opportunity to dress in a hoop skirt and to stay comfortably warm during the cool October evening. Courtesy: Pinterest.

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Dressing as Jane Austen gives you another opportunity to get dressed up while also remaining relatively simple and comfortable. Courtesy: Pinterest.

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The Great Gatsby’s Jay and Daisy provides yet another couples costume idea. It’s an easy costume for the boys, and a fun dress-up opportunity for the girls. Besides, who doesn’t love getting a little glittered up with their costume? Courtesy: Cinema Autopsy.

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Dressing as Frankenstein is yet another literary classic. Like Effie Trinket, Frankenstein gives the wearer the perfect chance to mess with face make-up for the ultimate look. Plus, putting patches on your already ripped up clothes is the best way to re-purpose them for ultimate use. Courtesy: Pinterest.

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You can’t go wrong with dressing as Edgar Allan Poe. The costume requires a black outfit and a fake (or real, depending on your budget) raven on your shoulder. Plus, you’d be reciting The Raven all evening. Sounds like the perfect night, if you ask me. Courtesy: Best Race Costumes – WordPress.

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And for those of us that literally cannot pick one character or author, there’s only one option left: being an actual bookworm. The costume is fairly simple: just grab some cardboard, paint, and a cute solid-colored dress to spice up. Add some pipe cleaner ears and jumbo glasses, and you’re a bookworm! Courtesy: Pinterest.

Got any other costume ideas? We look forward to seeing them at this year’s Literary Costume party! And don’t worry, we’ll be posting a highlight reel following the event!

Recap of “The Spirituality of ‘Walden'”: Versions of the Sacred in Play

Junior English major Reese Harper recently attended Dr. Bob Davis’ colloquium event, “Sacred Play: The Spirituality of Walden” and published an article covering the event in the Wittenberg Torch.

On behalf of The Torch, here is Reese’s article.

Last Thursday, Professor of English Bob Davis presented a synopsis of his upcoming book to be titled “Sacred Play: Spirituality and American Literature.” The book will focus on American spirituality through the lens of Henry David Thoreau’s transcendentalist literary masterpiece Walden.

Former English professor Emerita Mimi Dixon introduced Davis and “Walden” itself.

“Bob’s classes are interdisciplinary, integrating literature and science, for example,” Dixon said. “Thoreau similarly combines religion with literature in Walden.”

Published in 1854, Walden details Thoreau’s thoughts and experiences in response to a pond near his residence over the course of two years. The text engages with themes such as contemplation and man’s relationship with nature. However, Davis is most interested in Thoreau’s version of the sacred: buoyancy, freedom, playfulness and possibility.

Davis referred to Thoreau’s philosophy of the sacred as “divine play” and this term will form the basis of Davis’ book.

“Thoreau’s literature is based on experiences of the sacred that are larger and more enduring than ourselves,” Davis said. “Play is an experimental model of religious devotion tuned in to the divine.”

Davis quickly clarified that Thoreau’s spirituality differs from the piety associated with organized religion. Thoreau resisted “associating faith with the special province of religion,” Davis said.

“Thoreau compares religion to a pond, its ripples different than ones caused by insects or fish,” Davis said. “His goal of religious practice is perseverance and being faithful to a divine spirit that’s infinitely variable and free.”

After clarifying Thoreau’s spirituality, Davis shifted to the text’s historical and theological origins.

“Versions of the sacred in play can be found in the theology of south Asia,” Davis said. “We know that in the fall of 1840, Thoreau studied key texts in Hindu spirituality. These texts refer to some gods as ‘divine creators.’ They are ends in themselves. Their existence is play, and it is sacred. For example, Vishnu is both discreet and indiscreet, substance and spirit. Krishna appeared with multiple faces studded with jewels, a god whose face is everywhere. Likewise, in the plot of Walden, the pond is a sacred grove, a prism that helps Thoreau experience objects from multiple standpoints, its prisms and hidden facets. The pond opens his mind to a god whose face is everywhere.”

Davis also found origins of the text’s spirituality in Christian thought.

Some Christian theologians refer to a concept like sacred play called ‘nimbleness of mind:’ being able to sense shifts in perception,” Davis said. “Christ ‘plays’ in many places. Jesus is a gardener, carpenter, revolutionary or stranger depending on the scene where he appears in the gospels.”

For those unfamiliar with Walden and skeptical of the immense symbolism within his pond, Davis concisely reasserted his position.

“People who have never read Walden would say ‘it’s just water;’ it’s never just water in Walden,” Davis said. “Walden is a very busy book. It uses up every myth, idea and color the mind has made up before it allows the one to wander.”

Davis did, however, qualify his findings.

“When other people break his rules of faithful living, Thoreau is just as quick to condemn as adherents to organized religion,” Davis said. “Thoreau’s lifelong quarrel with dogmatic Christianity was also a lifelong quarrel with himself—a rigid and serious man who claimed to never have changed his mind about anything. He shares that head-on religion is dangerous, and pursuing god directly leads to various ego traps. He tells us to look at god like stars, not face to face, but to notice them from the side.”

In the end, Davis succinctly relayed what he believes lies at the core of Walden.

“Thoreau teaches us to love our day, love our homework and love the facets of the pond,” Davis said.

A Civil Rights Activist Too Often Forgotten: Bayard Rustin

Last week, a lecture series featuring the life of Bayard Rustin, a gay Civil Rights activist, was presented at Wittenberg University.

Courtesy of The Torch, Witty English features junior English major Reese Harper’s article, who covered the event.

When thinking about the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement, big names like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X are usually the first to come to mind. However, many other figures were involved in the movement and not all of their legacies appear in history textbooks.

Last Friday, scholars and activists, including Jared Leighton, Ph.D., Walter Naegle and John D’Emilio, Ph.D., visited Wittenberg’s Shouvlin Center. This event was in conjunction with Wittenberg’s English professor Rick Incorvati’s “Writing for Social Change” class to bring light to a civil rights activist too often forgotten: Bayard Rustin.

Rustin’s greatest accomplishment included organizing the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August of 1963, which advocated for the social, economic and political of rights of African Americans and is where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The march resulted in the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin.

Historians and social scientists cite Rustin’s sexuality—as an openly gay man—as his greatest obstacle in the face of his opponents and the main reason his legacy is often forgotten. Other civil rights activists believed that Rustin’s sexuality would undermine the movement and although Rustin hoped to connect the black civil rights movement with the fight for gay rights, those around him feared that they would lose key forces working with them, such as churches.

Leighton, a professor of African-American and LGBTQ+ history at the University of Nebraska started off the lecture by reading a paper he wrote about the connections between black civil rights activists and LGBTQ+ activists in the 1960’s. He noted that LGBTQ+ people came together around the civil rights movement because of its high ideals of equal opportunities and freedom. However, gay rights activists tended to organize separately, rather than drawing civil rights networks to form a massive group.

In response to the subversion of LGBTQ+ civil rights activists in the 1960’s, “The entirety of the past is not always legible, especially when discussing oppression,” Leighton said.

D’Emilio, author of “Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin,” also noted the difficulty of honoring lesser-known activists like Rustin.

“The way history is put out there, only the biggest names come out to us unless we’re actively searching for people like Bayard Rustin,” he said.

D’Emilio also discussed the difficulty in “coming out of the closet” during the 1960’s.

“It was nearly impossible to be ‘out’ in the 1960’s,” D’Emilio said. “’Coming out’ was a key phrase, but it meant only allowing other LGBT people know you’re gay.”

The discussion and responses to the essay were followed by Q&A session with the audience that included questions like, “How did you find a way around the family and church being for racial equality but against LGBT rights?” and “How do we increase solidarity between Civil Rights Groups and LGBT activists?”

Naegle, Rustin’s former partner, answered from his first-hand experiences.

“The response to the church and family is alternative institutions: alternative definitions of family and relationships as well as the creation of new churches,” Naegle said. “Rustin knew nonviolence and had the practical experience that King didn’t have, but sometimes King found it difficult that Rustin was gay.”

Naegle connected the question of solidarity to one of the most prominent civil rights movements today, Black Lives Matter.

“We need open communication between groups along mutual causes and true inclusiveness to make sure everyone has their voice heard,” Naegle said. “I could see it happening in BLM, considering two of its three founding members identify as queer. It’s intersectional in its founding.”

The closing question from an audience member asked if Rustin, as a leader in non-violent change particularly, felt that civil disobedience undermined the cause of civil rights.

“From protest to politics, no matter what movement, we will never win on our own. We wouldn’t be in this situation in first place if we could, and that was Rustin’s underlying principle,” Naegle said.

Welcome Back!

Witty English welcomes all of the new freshmen and returning students back to Wittenberg for the fall semester and the 2018-2019 academic year.

The English Department’s first event will occur on Wednesday, September 5th at 4:00 p.m. in Ness Auditorium.

For those considering an English major or Creative Writing and/or Journalism minors, this is a great opportunity to talk with current majors/minors and faculty/staff. Undeclared students may also have the opportunity to declare their major/minor at the event.

For declared majors/minors, class pictures will be taken at 4:30 p.m. Pizza and light refreshments will be served promptly at 4:00 p.m.


Matchbook Poems: ‘Hook, line, sinker’

At Thursday, April 12th’s Matchbook Poetry event, many students came forward to read poems as created from the lines in their matchbooks. Some have asked that their poems be shared on Witty English, so over the course of the rest of the semester, these poems will be released in installments.

Here is the sixth installment of the matchbook poems, senior Drew Pool’s poem: ‘Hook, line, sinker.’

They said they still love you.
Just needed some time to figure things out.
They told others you were insane.
Denying every sweet nothing they whispered to you last time you spoke.

They said you will always be the one they think of for a future.
A wedding and children always something that would be shared.
They started dating again,
Between the lines of lies they sprouted to you.

They said they were just trying to mend,
But in the placing of their stitches,
They lacerated your heart.

They had your heart in the palm of their hands.
Instead of caring they placed a hook,
Line and sinker.
To drag you down to the depths of depression,
Mental degradation and pain the only result.

You were asked how you could not be getting the hint!
When they were giving you facts to contradict them.
You were pulled in close with a kiss,
They would later compare you to a rapist for the kiss born of a promise to rekindle
The love you once had.

You started to mend.
They came back again.
In your naive heart you opened up again.
They ripped you up again.

Time and time again
There were millions of chances.
They had every single one.
They stretched the never ending line,
Until it broke.

Now you are a husk.
Unable to open up like before,
Unable to love like before,
Unable to commit when commitment was your key promise before,
Until all that you can say to any chance at love is,
I’m sorry.