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