The Scrapbook Mind of Laurence Sterne
"He had a scrap-book mind that collected diverting information regardless of its importance or its source." -- J.A. Work.
Laurence Sterne (born on this day in Clonmel, Tipperary, Ireland in 1713) took London and the literary world by storm in 1760 with the publication of the first two volumes of his ground-breaking book The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy -- a work which has been hailed as the first "modernist" novel in English. This lasting fame would have surprised Sterne, who did not set out to write a novel so much as a whimsical, extended rhetorical argument on whatever topics held his interest on the day he held his pen -- though Sterne would no doubt have accepted the honor grinning with pride.
He was the son of an English Army officer and lived his early years as an Army camp-follower. He went to Jesus College, Cambridge, following in the footsteps of his uncle (an Archdeacon of York) and his great-grandfather (an Archbishop of York). As he left Cambridge, the image he conveyed was one of an odd, unfocused man, tall and lean as a skeleton, pallid, without an ounce of harm in him -- a young fellow who had talent but was prone to misapply it.
One morning shortly after college he awoke to find his bed full of blood, the victim of a burst blood vessel in his lung -- an event which gave him a lifetime's fear of death hovering around the corner. Broke and unable to decide on a career, he entered the church, principally to take advantage of his family's contacts for preferment. For a time he roamed the city of York as a bachelor preacher and noted social wit, until marrying and settling down as the dilettante vicar of the sleepy Yorkshire villages of Sutton on the Forest and Stillington -- one who preferred painting, fiddling, farming and hunting to studying the scriptures. His rash enthusiasm with the absurd and the mildly bawdy led him to take up Luke 5:5 as his text for a sermon the week following his marriage -- "We have toiled all night," goes the verse, "and have taken nothing."
Though emotionally volatile and sentimental to the point of being considered "crack-brained" by his neighbors, his rhetorical skills made him a capable preacher and political operator. His flirtations with politics indirectly led him to write Shandy: in 1759 he wrote a political satire directed at a local church lawyer, The History of a Good Warm Watch-Coat, which he subsequently withdrew from publication because it might have proved embarrassing to the church in Yorkshire. Nonetheless, the reactions of his close friends to the work led him to believe he might be a writer, and he quickly began to scribble away at Shandy, publishing the first volumes in 1760, with subsequent volumes appearing until 1767.
There had been nothing like it: bastardizing John Locke's theory of the "association of ideas" as a rhetorical device, Sterne's narrator roams blithely from the history of fortifications to art theory to musical notation to reflections on Biblical tales, Shakespeare and Cervantes (he also drew heavily upon themes from Rabelais and Robert Burton) while ostensibly telling the story of the moment of his own conception -- a chronology which barely advances over several volumes -- occasionally employing such ludicrous, unorthodox devices as a misplaced preface, irregular typography and a missing chapter.
While Sterne became the celebrity of the moment in London society, a gangly, charming country preacher who had authored an irreverent book, he had his share of critics: Samuel Richardson, no doubt smarting over Sterne's veiled satire of Richardson's newfangled novels of morality, indicted Shandy as "incoherent" and "indecent"; poet Oliver Goldsmith similarly condemned the work as "bawdy." While resting in Europe for his health, Sterne wrote a memoir of his travels thinly disguised as a tale involving his fictional alter ego, the preacher Yorick, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (1768), his only other significant composition. Sterne died at age 55 on March 18, 1768.
Tristram Shandy, long loved as a work of literature but generally considered unfilmable, is the basis for a film by the controversial director Michael Winterbottom, released in time for the recent Toronto Film Festival; though I have not seen it yet, I note that in general the critical response has been one of bewilderment. No doubt that would have pleased Sterne as well.
Seen below is yours truly, taking time out from a day's cycling in the fall of 1983 to visit Sterne's grave at Sutton-on-the-Forest in Yorkshire, England.