ROMANTICISM, SINCERITY AND AUTHENTICITY by Tim Milnes and Kerry Sinanan, eds., Reviewed by Monica Smith Hart
 

ROMANTICISM, SINCERITY AND AUTHENTICITY
Eds. Tim Milnes and Kerry Sinanan
(Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) x + 268 pp.
Reviewed by Monica Smith Hart on 2011-08-03.

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For some literary critics, "sincerity" and "authenticity" are dirty words--contentious, elusive, and some would say, ironically disingenuous terms. This book argues just the opposite: that understanding sincerity and authenticity individually and in relationship to one another is central to understanding Romanticism.

The collection grew from a conference organized by editor Kerry Sinanan entitled "Acts of Sincerity: Authenticity and Identity in the Romantic Era," held at the University of the West of England in 2005. The difference between the conference title and the subsequent title of the collection is significant. Rather than explaining how authenticity and identity generate acts of sincerity during the Romantic era, this book gives equal weight to three ideas placed side by side. To understand any one of these concepts, the editors claim, we should study them all simultaneously, a rewarding and productive experience for the reader. While the editors and the contributors all express their great debt to Lionel Trilling's work, especially in Sincerity and Authenticity (Oxford University Press, 1974), this volume freshly examines concepts that have been treated with everything from indifference to doubt to outright hostility over the course of the last century. Ultimately, the essays gathered here show how these controversial concepts can be incorporated into current critical debates.

In their eloquent, challenging, and provocative Introduction , one of the strongest parts of the entire collection, Kerry Sinanan and Tim Milnes lead us not only into their volume but also into the literary, historical, theoretical, and philosophical underpinnings of their key terms-- "authenticity," "sincerity," and "Romanticism"-- with the greatest weight falling, understandably, on the former two. Obviously, tackling all three of these in a book length manuscript alone would be a monumental undertaking. Yet Sinanan and Miles do credit to the complexity of the issues at stake in the collection, a substantial achievement in and of itself.

The book's first full section, "Forging Authenticity," took this reader by delighted surprise. Opening an exploration of the sincere and the authentic with texts and authors usually thought insincere and inauthentic provides an unexpected beginning. The section that ends the book, "The Case of Austen," is also, in its own way, an ingenious choice, for Austen's fiction arguably presents the most paradoxical challenge to Romantic notions of "the sincere." These two outer sections bookend two interior sections, "Acts of Sincerity" and "Marketing the Genuine." All of the essays included in these sections, however, ultimately have much to show us about sympathy, sentiment, literary form, truthfulness, and assumptions. In microcosm, the section titles and concentrations serve the overall impetus of the collection: reshaping what we think is central to Romanticism.

Beginning the section on "Forging Authenticity," Margaret Russett focuses initially on Lady Elizabeth Wardlaw's nationalist ballad "Hardyknute" (1719). Though acknowledged as an imitation in the early eighteenth century, it became --late in the century--a springboard for poet John Pinkerton, who claimed to have "discovered" the ballad's "lost half," resulting in what Russett calls "an especially byzantine episode in the forging of the Scottish ballad tradition" (33). Through close examination of this episode, she delineates a tradition of Scottish Romanticism that "differentiates it in kind, and not merely in quality, from the 'authentic' Romanticism that developed south of the border" (33). Russett ends her essay by discussing two working-class Scottish writers, Allen Cunningham and James Hogg, and the "legacy of invention" they inherit and carry on. "Lacking, or eschewing, the self-similarity that guaranteed Wordsworth's authority," she observes, their works "suggest--in sometimes attractively unsettling, sometimes disconcertingly opportunistic ways--that, just as antiquity can be forged, so can the capably ingenuous poet ventriloquize his imagined community" (52).

Dafydd Moore takes a different but no less compelling approach to the forging of authenticity . "On the face of it," he writes, "trying to understand James Macpherson's Poems of Ossian in terms to do with sincerity of authenticity would seem a perverse and potentially frustrating activity," since these works have "gone down to history as an archetype of the inauthentic, the charlatan, the opposite of everything or anything that might conceivably be meant by literary sincerity" (58). Yet building on what Russett has written here about the eighteenth-century and the Romantic interplay between "fiction" and "forgery," Moore shows how Poems of Ossian becomes for the Romantics a work of possibility, both in what it can provoke from the imagination and what it can inspire.

Scrutinizing the tensions between satire and literary sentimentalism in mid-eighteenth-century writings, Daniel Cook shows how we can read these works "less as a moralizing agent and more [as] the textual interplay of modish contributors (81). He challenges the assumption that the Rowley forgeries constitute Chatterton's crowning achievement. Instead, pointing to his "modern" works, which are frequently dismissed as hack writing, Cook incorporates them into a larger reading of the 18th-century and Romantic ideals of "natural genius," the treasured belief, for some, that poeta nascitur, non fit.

Turning to writers more common in discussions of Romantic sincerity and authenticity--Wordsworth, Byron, Landon, Hannah More--the second part of this collection also branches out to the early Victorian heirs of Romanticism, particularly Carlyle and Tennyson. Juxtaposing two different Romantic discourses of "sincerity," Angela Esterhammer aligns the first with an early Romantic Wordsworth, the second with a later Romantic impulse, specifically as manifest in the work of Byron and Landon. These differing perspectives both involve "performance": while sincerity for Wordsworth is the opposite of "acting," it becomes for the second generation explicitly performative and embodied. Tim Milnes follows a similar trajectory, using Wordsworth and The Prelude as an exemplar of the complexity and potential volatility of a concept of "sincerity." He shows how "a transformed language of "sense relates to an emerging discourse of sincerity," concentrating on "these two terms in particular [. . .] because of the way in which the problems that connect them converge on one question: how do we make sense?" (121).

Kerry Sinanan explores "the ways in which understanding more about the historical specificities of both sincerity and authenticity is crucial for how we inflect our critical analyses, especially when we consider the abolitionists whose literary outpourings coincided with the high watermark of Romanticism" (137). For many critics, as she frankly admits, Hannah More's "abolitionism, intertwined with Evangelical fervor, remains unpalatable" (137) for many critics. Sinanan leads us, however, to consider More's presentation of a "dialectical view of self that must simultaneously interrogate the sources of the self for sincerity and participate in the world as 'it is now'" (21). Ultimately, the essay asks us to reexamine our own precepts critically, especially when applied to ideologically unfashionable writers. Implicitly, then, Sinanan highlights one of the threads in this volume: the role of the working-class writer. While she does not consider More's relationship with poet Ann Yearsley, those interested in laboring- and working-class verse of the period will find Sinanan's interpretation of More's "sincerity" a thought-provoking read.

In closing this section, Jane Wright shows how--given the weight of their Romantic inheritance--Carlyle and Tennyson found sincerity perhaps even greater and more elusive than their precursors had. "Sincerity," Wright contends, "is fundamental to [Carlyle's] verbose inarticulacy" (162). Yet repetition, we learn, complicates sincerity in the work of "other Victorians whose writing highlights important literary relations between repetition and sincerity, though in ways that can seem to place sincerity and repetitive language at odds with one another" (162). Ultimately Wright argues that "such apparent opposition offers a means by which to appreciate the ineluctable relationship between methods of writing and sincerity--a relationship exposed as a matter of trust and exchange, and one which reaches an especial intensity in the work of a number of important Victorian writers" (162).

In the volume's third section, Sara Lodge investigates literary annuals of the 1820s and 1830s and early nineteenth-century periodicals, specifically London Magazine and Blackwood's, and the "conceptual and practical debate about authenticity [that was] not wholly benign" (191). Not benign indeed: London Magazine editor John Scott died in a duel with a representative of the editors of Blackwood's over "the use of pseudonyms to conceal those responsible for potentially libelous attacks and for the two-faced political gamesmanship the editorial mask permitted" (191). Not the sort of stakes one usually expects to find in a debate over the sincere and authentic, and a fascinating case study for this exciting chapter. In the ensuing chapter, John Halliwell examines the explicitly political discourse of Thomas Spence's radical periodical Pig's Meat (1793-1795). Spence, he argues, deploys a "complex strategy of excerption, adaptation, appropriation, imitation, and satire" to contest "not only the authenticity of the most potent tropes in political discourse, but also the way in which authenticity was assigned in the political sphere" (201).

In the final chapter, which treats the works of Jane Austen, Alex Dick aligns sincerity with the gold standard. More precisely, since Austen's novels regard sincerity with apprehension, he links that apprehension with the instability of the new finance in relationship to the gold standard. "Austen's peculiarly ironic sincerity," he contends, constitutes "an alternative standard to gold that inheres in writing, the medium of banknotes, political controversy, and fiction alike," namely the standard of "embarrassment" (223). Using "embarrassment" as a kind of "modern form of sincerity by which everything that is wrong can be acknowledged without jeopardizing the integrity of a social system" (223), Dick argues that Austen's fiction shows us that "in the wake of the crisis of value and the introduction of the gold standard--victories for a different kind of leveling, bourgeois confidence--this archaic social structure had to represent itself in a new, more self-conscious manner" (234). Finally, turning to Austen's short, early narrative works, Ashley Tauchett shows how they "resist and expose claims to 'mature' novelistic realism at a number of different levels" (239). Tauchert explores the "critical significance of this apparent division between early and late Austen as it divides on the works' claims to realism, where realism is understood as a sincere claim to represent an authentic vision of reality" (238). While "literary realism," Tauchert reminds us, "is always a construct," in order for the "realist claim to hold we have to be persuaded that the author is sincere enough in her representation and not just larking around" (238).

In various ways, the essays in this collection challenge our conceptions of Romantic--as well as eighteenth-century and Victorian-- sincerity and authenticity. Given its different perspectives, this rich compilation will interest not only Romanticists but also scholars working on print culture, laboring-/working-class studies, and narrative development in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Monica Smith Hart is Assistant Professor of English at West Texas A&M University.


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