A Sentimental Journey Through …

Laurence Sterne was dying of consumption, the polite yet dramatic term that people used to employ for pulmonary diseases, especially tuberculosis. He had contracted it by 1740, when he was still in his 20s, and he fought for his every breath for his remaining three decades of life.

In 1765, he left England in search of better breathing, and he traveled abroad to France and Italy. He was a surprise best-selling author by this point, a clergyman who had decided on a whim to start telling the life story of a character but by not telling it in a straightforward manner, to comically digress his way through “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.” One of the earliest novels in English or any language, “Shandy” was an instant success when its first two volumes started appearing in 1759.

The genre we call “travel writing” was not as common in the 1760s as it is now, and most works in that genre at that time were quite unsentimental: verbal pictures of natural phenomena and wonders of the man-made world and warnings-slash-complaints about the foreignness of foreigners on their strange home turf. In his 1765 journey, Sterne encountered fellow novelist Tobias Smollett, and the stern, dry Smollett left such an impression on the always amused Sterne that in his book, “A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy,” he based a character named “Smelfungus” on Smollett. Nice revenge.
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No Man Is an Island

Daniel Defoe is officially credited as the author of 28 titles, but it is likely that he was the author of twice that, if one counts the pamphlets, essays, and other works he published under pseudonyms.

One of his titles keeps his name famous almost three centuries after he published it: “Robinson Crusoe.” Its full title on publication in 1719 was longer (ahem): “The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates.”

Defoe did not attach his name to the book; after that long title a single line of type is set aside with a dark line above and one below and “Written by himself” between.

Thus, from the birth of the novel in English, one of its creators started toying with the basic concept of fiction. It is the truest conceit of all fiction writing and it is there from the beginning: “This is a true story, I swear.” (“A guy told it to me once,” provided the next variation.)

Defoe was no castaway, although more than once in his life he might have desired a desert island life away from creditors and the crown. A dissenter, he was once put in the pillory and sent to Newgate Prison for writing a satirical pamphlet; a lifelong merchant who was sometimes on the unscrupulous side of unscrupulous deals, he spent time in debtors’ sanctuaries and on the run. He even died on the run, aged 70 or so. (His birth date, even the year, was not recorded.) He added the Francophilic “de” to his plain-sounding birth name of “Foe” to give himself a name redolent with upper-classiness.

And he wrote what many consider the first novel in English.

Sir Thomas Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur” was written and published more than two centuries before “Robinson Crusoe” and is a work of prose fiction that was popular enough to have been read by Defoe and his contemporaries, but its tales are interlocked, not interwoven. It is a collection of semi-separate tales. “Robinson Crusoe” is a first-person account of events that never happened to someone who never existed written by someone who was not that (fake) person. It is an adventure and it is a novel.

Within two decades, other types of novel were added to the fiction shelves: Samuel Richardson’s “Clarissa” and “Pamela” (picture for yourself modern-day romance novels with Fabio on the cover), Henry Fielding’s “Joseph Andrews” and “Tom Jones” (endless, convoluted plots and comic characters), and Laurence Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy” (a story about how impossible it is to tell a straight story), and most of the elements that make the novel as we still read it to this day were in place. (The mystery novel and police procedural came along later and complete the picture.)

By 1719, ships had been sailing between the Old World and the New for more than two centuries. The Caribbean was well-mapped, America was colonized by multiple countries, and the South Pacific was being explored, but the idea of a ship running aground on a previously unknown island was no mere fantasy: it was a reality and the story of a shipwrecked sailor long thought dead returning home would have been a familiar one to 18th Century readers.

One such sailor had returned home to London in 1711 after spending the years 1704–1709 alone on an island off the coast of Chile. His name was Alexander Selkirk, and while literary scholars still debate whether Defoe was writing a version of Selkirk’s story or that of one of the many other shipwrecked European sailors, it appears most likely that Robinson Crusoe’s tale is an amalgam of Selkirk’s remarkable story and the others. Crusoe was shipwrecked in the Caribbean and Selkirk had been marooned by his own request in the South Pacific; Crusoe made a friend of a local cannibal and named him Friday, and Selkirk spent more than four years utterly alone. (Why was Selkirk marooned by his own request? Rather than sail any further on what he considered a compromised and not seaworthy ship, he asked to be let off. His request was complied with, and, indeed, the ship sank further on.)

After his return to London, Selkirk was the subject of many books and gazetteer articles about his life alone far from home, but he quickly returned to his pre-maroon life of continuous bar fights interrupted by brief jail stays and took to the sea again, where he died of yellow fever in 1721. In 1966, the government of Chile renamed the island on which Selkirk had resided, Isla Más a Tierra, Robinson Crusoe Island and one of its companion islands, Isla Más Afuera, as Alejandro Selkirk Island.

The imagined life of a solitary shipwrecked sailor, far from the madding crowd and free to read his Bible (as Selkirk said he spent his days), retains its hold on readers, almost three centuries after Defoe fictionalized what was already a remarkable tale.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 1 asks, “We’ve all been asked what five objects we’d take with us to a desert island. Now it’s your best friend’s (or close relative’s) turn to be stranded: what five objects would you send him/her off with?”

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Time and Dr. Johnson

Samuel Johnson wrote, “He that hopes to look back hereafter with satisfaction upon past years must learn to know the present value of single minutes, and endeavor to let no particle of time fall useless to the ground.”—Rambler 108, March 30, 1751

Dr. Johnson was 41 in March of 1751 and several years into his work on his most lasting project, his Dictionary. Unlike most of the dictionaries developed for any language, and all dictionaries in English, Johnson’s “A Dictionary of the English Language” was written by one man. An entire dictionary, with more than 40,000 word entries and over 100,000 literary quotations to back up and explain Johnson’s definitions and create an etymology (the study of the origin of words). It took Johnson nine years to complete it; 75 years later, Noah Webster published his own dictionary, which had 70,000 entries, took 25 years to complete, and cites Johnson throughout. The first completed edition of the Oxford English Dictionary took 75 years and dozens of scholars to compile its first edition, published in 1928.

Johnson’s Dictionary is not the best one written for or in the English language—the dictionary that sits forgotten on your shelf is probably named Webster and not Johnson, and the website that you use instead of a book is also not named “Johnson.com” or something like that. Johnson’s definitions are often complete sentences and are sometimes essays on the topic inspired by the word under consideration. His treatment of the word “time,” for instance, offers fourteen different meanings for the word: “1. The measure of duration. 2. Space of time. 3. Interval. 4. Season; proper time. 5. A considerable space of duration; continuance; process of time. 6. Age; particular part of time. 7. Past time. 8. Early time. 9. Time considered as affording opportunity. 10. Particular quality of the present. 11. Particular time. 12. Hour of childbirth. 13. Repetition of any thing, or mention with reference to repetition. 14. Musical measure.” (“Time,” Johnson’s Dictionary)

Johnson offers a quote from English literature, usually the King James Bible, Shakespeare, Milton, Swift, or Dryden, as a pertinent example for each particular definition. Sometimes he offers as many as seven quotes. For his fourteen definitions of “Time,” he uses forty-six quotes.

Samuel_Johnson

Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds

This project would be difficult enough to produce in our era of desktop publishing (is there an app for dictionary creation?); Johnson put together his Dictionary in his house, with workmen appearing every so often to assemble a printing press and run off some pages. He paid them out of his own pocket. His personal library, large but not comprehensive, was supplemented by books borrowed from friends. The books were so covered with his markings that they were not worth being returned, the friends remembered.

It took him nine years to complete the Dictionary, yet he had promised it in three. For the rest of his career, Johnson was ridiculed as a slow worker; he proposed to work up an edition of Shakespeare’s plays (the first ever single source, authoritative edition that would be created) in 1756 and started attracting subscribers, but by 1762 another writer took a public jibe at him: “He for subscribers baits his hook/and takes your cash, but where’s the book?” His Shakespeare was published in 1765.

While working on his Dictionary, he published a self-written, twice-weekly periodical, The Rambler, to earn a living. (In other words, he wrote a blog while working on his big project.) Then, while working on his edition of Shakespeare, he published a weekly blog, um, magazine, called The Idler.

Samuel Johnson visited the topic of time over a dozen times in those two journals, and perhaps for understandable reasons: For someone so productive and yet considered a slow worker (The Idler was so named as a joke about his avoiding the long slow work on his Shakespeare), it is likely that few writers had considered time in so many facets. Any waking hour not spent earning a living was indeed “a particle of time (dropped) useless to the ground.”

Johnson had many health issues, ranging from regular bouts with a bleak depression, which he was the first to name the “black dog”; nearsightedness that glasses did not aid (or vanity made him avoid them); a disfiguring skin condition; and Tourette syndrome, a condition that did not have a name until the late 1800s and was not considered a medical condition in Johnson’s lifetime. The tics made him seem an odd character, and he felt he had to win people over with his wit. (Asked once why he made noises, he said it was a bad habit.) His many tics and violent gesticulations are described in every contemporary account about him written by his friends, so the posthumous diagnosis seems a trustworthy one.

A year and a half before his death, he described time and its slowness in old age thus:

The black dog I hope always to resist, and in time to drive, though I am deprived of almost all those that used to help me. … When I rise my breakfast is solitary, the black dog waits to share it, from breakfast to dinner he continues barking, […] After dinner, what remains but to count the clock, and hope for that sleep which I can scarce expect. Night comes at last, and some hours of restlessness and confusion bring me again to a day of solitude. What shall exclude the black dog from an habitation like this?

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for February 25 asks, “If you could slow down an action that usually zooms by, or speed up an event that normally drags on, which would you choose, and why?”

The WordPress Daily Prompt for November 1 asks, “If you could slow down an action that usually zooms by, or speed up an event that normally drags on, which would you choose, and why?”

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To Be Brief … No Such Thing in Some Books

Most copies of “Tristram Shandy” by Laurence Sterne are about 600 pages long. The book is a fictional autobiography in which Tristram, the not-quite hero of a story that is not quite his own, attempts to tell us about his life from birth onward. However, he does not even begin to begin telling us about his birth and his first day on earth until the fourth volume because, like his own conception on page 1, his story is much interrupted.

(On page one, at the very moment Tristram is to be conceived, his mother asks his father if he remembered to wind the clock, an ill-timed interruption that, according to Tristram, produced an author who is incapable of telling a story straight to its end without breaks, questions, and digressions.)

The full title of Sterne’s masterpiece is “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman,” and it was published over almost eight years from 1759 to 1767. It made the Irish writer world-famous and wealthy.

At the end, one more character brings in one more story and Tristram’s mother asks, “L–d, what is all this story about?” It is the second-to-last sentence in the book and it is also the question most readers ask as they conclude reading Sterne’s great comic novel. “Tristram Shandy” is one of the most entertaining novels in English because it never gets to its point.

Christopher Ricks once described Sterne’s novel as “the greatest shaggy-dog story in the language.” By the end of all these pages Tristram has only brought us all the way into his own toddlerhood, leaving with us the thought that, should he continue the attempt to tell his life-story, he will never catch up to himself.

Thus, not much of Tristram Shandy’s life nor many of his opinions appear in the book, but many other characters—and their opinions—do. The title is the novel’s first joke. Tristram Shandy is not a character in his own story. He often criticizes himself for his many digressions and his way of not getting to the meat of his story very quickly, but he always steps away from criticizing himself, and he even sets out in one chapter to finally tell his own story in a “tolerable straight line,” but not before drawing his narrative schemes for the volumes we have just read in a series of diagrams:

tristram

He opens a chapter in which he promises a straight story with an interruption about how hard it is to do that. He identifies for us which interrupting anecdote corresponds to which bend away from the “tolerable straight line” and defends the sections that he labeled with “ c c c c c ” as “nothing but parentheses, and the common ins and outs” of life. Several paragraphs later, Tristram lays out an estimate for us: If he writes two volumes a year for the next 40 years, he will be all caught up … to where he is now, 40 years before that imagined future, at which time he would have written thousands of pages yet have decades of life yet to tell us about.

Tristram recognizes that his own storytelling method has created a paradox for himself: If it took him one year to bring himself in his own story to one full day old, yet he lived 364 additional days in that writing process, that means that 364 days have been added to his job, 364 days that he did not write about because he had not yet gotten to them in the process of getting to be one day old in the narrative. “… [A]t this rate I should just live 364 times faster than I should write”—just?! that implies he might slow down!—”It must follow, an’ please your worships, that the more I write, the more I shall have to write—and consequently, the more your worships read, the more your worships will have to read.”

Sterne’s Shandy is self-entrapped in an ever-present present which interferes in real time with his recounting of the past. And Sterne loved finding every conceivable method to interrupt his character’s storytelling. Shandy wants desperately to be brief, but how brief should he be? How brief can he be? If an experience takes X amount of time to live through, and if a story about that experience takes more than X amount of time to tell—because listeners need the context and background—then every story in a life takes longer to tell than however much time it took to live it. Every writer will live forever by that logic.

Tristram’s mother asks at the end, “What is all this story about?” At the moment, Obadiah has been complaining about a cow that will not give birth, perhaps because the Shandy bull was not successful in impregnating it. He thinks he is owed a calf. Tristram’s mother asks her question and the answer is about both Obadiah’s story and the book we are have been reading: “‘L–d! said my mother, what is all this story about?—’ ‘A Cock and a Bull, said Yorick—And one of the best of its kind, I ever heard.'”

Cue the rimshot. A “cock and bull story” is a derogatory term for a fanciful tale; Obadiah’s complaint was literally an accusation having to do with that phrase. It also describes the book in the reader’s hands. Sterne’s punchlines are brief, as they always should be, but there are many of them in Tristram Shandy, as he builds joke after joke, scene after scene, chapter upon chapter.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for September 20 asks, “‘I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.’—Blaise Pascal. Where do you fall on the brevity/verbosity spectrum?”
There is an expression, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” And another: “The more the merrier.” As in “Tristram Shandy,” the punchlines and wit should be quick and brief, but plentiful.