Wilkinson, Emily Colette. The Miscellaneous: Toward a Poetics of the Mode in British Literature, 1668-1759. Stanford University, 2009.
This dissertation argues for the importance of the "miscellaneous" as a major literary mode in Britain from the late seventeenth to the mid-eighteenth century. In this era, miscellaneous writing, also called Modern writing, became the locus of debates about the value of mixed, disorganized, and polymorphous forms—not just in terms of literary aesthetics, but also in terms of personal, social, and cultural identity. The eminent moral and aesthetic philosopher Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury, coined the term "miscellaneous writing" in his Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711), and defined it as literary work that cast aside the old neoclassical rules of art that dictated order, balance, and simplicity in favor of the “wild,” “disfigured,” and “grotesque." Miscellaneous writers mixed genres, digressed, disregarded chronology, moved desultorily from subject to subject, interrupted their work to address the reader with asides, and stuffed their writings with commonplaces and borrowed verses and stories—theirs was a casual, confused (and often confusing) approach to literary form and intellectual purpose. Throughout the era, readers and writers evoke aspects of Shaftesbury’s definition of the miscellaneous to describe and parody “Modern” writing. My project offers a poetics of this unruly and previously overlooked literary-aesthetic idiom.
My first chapter describes the intellectual and cultural contexts that framed ideas about miscellaneousness. I argue that Shaftesbury, Pope, Swift, and others distrusted miscellaneous writing because they saw it as a figure for and a means of fostering intellectual and moral disorder. I explain this confusion of the aesthetic, moral, and intellectual through the idea of “uniformity"—which in this era meant both aesthetic regularity or unity and also the state of having a consistent, orderly character that was the mark of spiritual well-being. Miscellaneous writing was the literary idiom of those who rejected uniformity as a personal and literary ideal—those who saw chaos and flux as the defining principles of existence; those who embraced their own protean potential and intellectual uncertainty; those willing to submerge and dissolve themselves in "the Miscellany of Mortality” to be found in the streets of London (as the miscellanarian Tom Brown put it).
In this embrace, the miscellaneous undermined such standards of neoclassicism as the Stoic ideal of self-consistency in feeling and action, Aristotle’s strict view of genres as rule-bound and inviolably discrete, and Horace’s insistence on balance, unity, and simplicity as the essence of beauty. According to conservative cultural critics, the Moderns’ disorganized and irregular artistic productions and tastes were not revelatory of a new, more elastic species of identity, but a dangerous unraveling of unified identity, whether personal or cultural. This first generation of literary Moderns turned away from the aesthetic first principles of the Ancients in attempts to represent the disorder they found to be the true condition of intellectual, personal, and civic life.
My subsequent chapters are individual case studies: Swift’s Tale of a Tub (1684-1710) is the subject of my second chapter. I argue that the Tale is perhaps the earliest instance in British literature of the longing for a lost cultural unity and wholeness that is usually associated with early twentieth-century modernism. In Swift’s critical parody of Modern writing, he appropriates miscellaneous techniques to reveal the destructive power of Modern aesthetics. Modern authors were, sometimes quite literally, tearing the Ancients to pieces, as Swift reveals in the shreds of classical learning (badly chosen Latin quotations lifted from ancient texts) that his invasive hack author qua narrator strews throughout his Tale. For Swift, miscellaneous aesthetics were not merely aesthetic, they were symptoms of other more terrifying forms of destruction and disorder like madness, sin, and revolution. Through a series of close readings, I draw connections between the Tale’s parody of Modern writing in its fragmentary structure and its monomaniacal thematic preoccupation with broken and disfigured forms. For example, Swift’s reference to the new British taste for jumbled foreign dishes like the French ragout and the Spanish olio is not just a satirical jab at the culinary equivalent of jumbled Modern writings: the ragout also becomes a microcosm of the political and religious turmoil of the middle decades of the seventeenth century, and an example of, as well as a figure for, the corruption of British culture by foreign influences. Swift insinuates that in such mangled and distorted forms lie the seeds of cultural and political anarchy, an anarchy that begins in the aesthetic.
Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) bears out some of Swift’s fears in turning to the miscellaneous for its mimetic power in the representation of chaos. In the midst of the collective suffering and disorder the plague brings to London, the Journal's narrator-protagonist, H.F., cannot focus on himself as Defoe's other novelistic narrators do. Instead he (and Defoe) turn to the miscellaneous, the literary-formal counterpart of the archetypal chaos wrought by the plague. H.F. offers a nonlinear account of the 1665 plague interlarded with public documents, borrowings from medical and scientific works, and numerous accounts of other Londoners' plague-time experiences. Thus a literary work that might have been a novel -- the form emblematic of individualism and self-interest in the early eighteenth century -- becomes something more akin to the collective and chaotic form of the miscellany. Seeking respite from the chaos of the plague, and his own literary formal evocation of it, Defoe enters into the Journal’s longest continuous narration: the story of the founding of a rural commune by a group of poor Londoners fleeing the plague. This community of perfect harmony and uniformity, however, is a fantasy that Defoe/H.F. himself acknowledges with Christian nostalgia to be an otherworldly ideal. Whether or not the world is in the grip of plague, that “archetype of chaos,” it is the tumult of miscellanity that prevails.
While Defoe uses the miscellaneous to represent public, civic disorder, Charlotte Charke, in her 1755 A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Charlotte Charke, uses it to represent her own protean character and her conflicted attitudes toward her herself and her estranged father, the famous actor, playwright, and Drury Lane manager, Colley Cibber. A cross-dresser both on and off the stage who tried her hand at everything from acting to pig farming, Charke reveals a miscellaneous self, a self unwilling to settle into fixed categories of any kind, whether sexual, professional, or affective. The formal character of Charke’s book reflects and amplifies her protean nature through a host of miscellaneous techniques—digression, disordered chronology, wild tonal shifts, gaps and ellipses, and inserted quotations, encomiums, and advertisements. I argue that Charke’s protean elusiveness is a meaningful iteration of selfhood akin to that found in Tristram Shandy (1759), if lacking in Sterne’s self-consciousness. Rather than a dispersion of self into a series of disconnected pieces (as Victorian and some recent critics suggest), Charke’s Narrative offers her protean character as a genuine, if elusive, expression of self, and a means of self-assertion and self-advancement in the life of perpetual exigency she led after the Stage Licensing Act of 1737 ended her career on the London stage. While attending to the socioeconomic hardship that defined Charke’s life, I suggest that Charke used her miscellaneous, protean capabilities as a carnivalesque leaven that allowed her to endure a life of relentless squalor and disappointment (a life that might otherwise have been unendurable).
Against the novel, philosophical systems, dictionaries, and encyclopedias as the crucial forms of eighteenth-century thought, my dissertation makes a case for miscellaneous writing as a nascent or primitive modernism, reminiscent in some ways of the twentieth century's high modernism. In the tradition of eighteenth-century studies that contests the enduring vision of the age as one of reason or Enlightenment with concepts like the uncanny, mania, and masquerade, The Miscellaneous delineates the literary-formal mode of the era that was the inverse of the neoclassicism still too often taken to be the dominant aesthetic idiom of the age.