Laurence Sterne

Paul Goring

in British and Irish Literature

ISBN: 9780199846719
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:
Laurence Sterne

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Within just weeks of the appearance of the first installment of Tristram Shandy in London in 1760, this eccentric work of fiction and its eccentric author had become talking points among the literati and the public at large. How, readers wondered, should they respond to this odd yet entertaining pseudo-autobiography, and given the amount of bawdry it contains, was it appropriate that an Anglican clergyman should have authored such a thing? Laurence Sterne, by his own admission, “wrote not to be fed, but to be famous.” He achieved that goal in his own time, but he would also achieve a more lasting renown, as Tristram Shandy and his second major fiction, A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy, continued to intrigue critics and readers up into the present time. A result of this interest has been the generation of an enormous body of commentary and criticism, with many studies probing fundamental questions that resist easy answers and others opening up new questions either by virtue of a fresh approach or by honing in on a previously unscrutinized detail in Sterne’s writing. In fact, a type of scholarly approach to Sterne’s work began early, notably with John Ferriar’s Illustrations of Sterne (1798, Ferriar 1798, cited in Borrowings and Influences), in which Ferriar presented his tracing of numerous sources used by Sterne—a project undertaken largely to expose Sterne as a plagiarist. Since then the enmeshment of Sterne’s writing in a forest of other works has provided fodder for numerous hunts after sources or influences; at the same time forward-looking critics have asked whether the real interest lies not in where Sterne’s work came from but rather in the modernist and postmodernist techniques and tendencies it seems to preempt. Others have been more interested in the moral, ethical, and religious questions raised by Sterne’s writing. Was he a sentimentalist or a satirist of sentimentality? Does his fiction continue the work of his preliterary career as a clergyman and author of sermons and purvey a Christian ethic? Meanwhile, Sterne has found a home within almost every area of literary theory, not least, given his ludic approach to storytelling, within narratology. This bibliography provides a way into that mass of criticism; while not comprehensive, it highlights the major features on the map of contemporary criticism and attempts to signpost the way for those beginning an investigation of the work that has grown up around a fascinating and often puzzling author.

Article.  16738 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (British and Irish)

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