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Five Questions: James Wood on Anecdotes of Enlightenment

James Wood is a Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century English Literature at the University of East Anglia.  He has degrees from Victoria University of Wellington and Stanford University, and worked as an Irish Research Council postdoctoral fellow at Trinity College, Dublin before joining UEA.  He has published essays and articles on authors including John Dryden, Samuel Richardson, William Wordsworth, Daniel Defoe and William Molyneux, covering topics including sociability, embodiment, periodical culture and the representation of travel.  His first book, Anecdotes of Enlightenment: Human Nature from Locke to Wordsworth, which we discuss below, was published in July 2019 by the University of Virginia Press.


1) How did you first become interested in anecdotes?

When I arrived at graduate school in the US, I didn’t know what I’d be doing as a dissertation project.  But I’d been interested in the New Historicist anecdote from taking a seminar on literary theory back in New Zealand, where we read two chapters from Stephen Greenblatt’s and Catherine Gallagher’s Practicing New Historicism.  I remember being impressed with what the anecdote could do in an essay: how it could enable these counterintuitive leaps between an apparently irrelevant artefact from the past and a canonical work of literature.  At that time, I felt sceptical of Greenblatt’s and Gallagher’s explanation of why the anecdote “worked” in critical essays, which for them has to do with the way the anecdote allows for a defamiliarizing encounter with the past in all its strangeness.  I’m not sure if I would have been able to articulate it at the time, but I’ve come to think that the power of the anecdote has to do with its specific formal qualities: its smallness and apparent self-containedness, its lack of connection or explanation.  The anecdote tends to pose an enigma, a problem to be solved.

So the anecdote was on my mind when I arrived at Stanford to do a PhD.  At that time a lot of graduate students were especially excited about the work of Alex Woloch, who had recently published his book on minor characters in the nineteenth-century novel.  Several graduate students were doing projects that were positioned against a kind of historicism presumed to be hostile or indifferent to form.  I didn’t necessarily see a conflict between the New Historicism and what was starting to be called the “New Formalism.”  But the intellectual climate of Stanford certainly shaped the project.  I suppose all first books are influenced by the universities at which they were written in one way or another.  The way Woloch writes about minor characters as distorted replicas of real human beings, who either explode out of the text in one disruptive moment or repeat the same aberrant behaviour again and again, fed into my thinking about the anecdote as a genre that relies on repetition for its effect as well as singularity.

So my interest in the anecdote came from a fascination with form.  I was—and am—interested in the thought process behind literary criticism and I carried that interest back into the eighteenth century and its miscellaneous writing on philosophy, travel, history, and social behaviour that tends to go under “non-fictional prose”—not that that is a very satisfactory term!  I wanted to explore how anecdotes worked in the great stew of writings on the human that the eighteenth century produced.


2) Your book examines ‘the enlightening potential of parafactual stories’.  For you, what are the most important manners in which anecdotes facilitated new thinking in the long eighteenth century?

I think that the awareness that anecdotes were parafactual made them central to the playful and sceptical intellectual style that characterizes much Enlightenment writing on human nature.  Writers tend to show an awareness that the anecdotes they tell might be true but almost certainly are not and in any case they probably distort or exaggerate the truth.  Anecdotes are stories that initially appear to be grounded in actual human life, but the awareness that they are anecdotes also tends to detach the stories away from actual human life into a hypothetical or suppositional realm.  The generic contract between the anecdote teller and tellee makes a certain latitude with the truth acceptable.

This sense of the anecdote being a free-floating story that nevertheless retains a persistent yet fragile connection to actual human life allowed it to become a kind of plaything of the mind.  So the power of the anecdote for me is not that it produces certain empirically grounded knowledge of human nature.  It’s almost exactly the opposite: the anecdote becomes a starting point from which to test out possibilities for conceiving human nature.  One advantage of the anecdote was that it did not presume anything about human nature in advance, so it helped Enlightenment writers think about the human as if from first principles.  They also helped focus thinkers’ attention on delimited aspects of human nature rather than obliging them to develop a theory accounting for everything pertaining to the human beforehand.

The anecdote was also readily “sharable”—here it is hard not to think about the little pictures, videos, and stories that “go viral” on the internet—and I’m especially interested in how key Enlightenment anecdotes like the anecdote of Polly Baker keep getting interpreted and reinterpreted.  Anecdotes moved easily between orality and print, providing focal points for the conversations and debates about the human that animated the Enlightenment.


3) Your four chapters study successively a form (the essay), an author (David Hume), an event (the voyage of theEndeavour) and a collection (Lyrical Ballads).  How did you come to select this approach and these particular case studies?

The general structure of the dissertation was in place quite early in the writing.  To be honest, when I was writing the introduction I noticed that the different chapters did have a different principle of organisation so I decided to highlight that—though it wasn’t really an idea to take a different principle of organisation for each chapter from the beginning.  I had a biographical affinity for many of the authors and topics: William Wordsworth from my early childhood just outside the Lake District, the Endeavour voyage from growing up in New Zealand, David Hume for the stories of social awkwardness I enjoyed reading in Ernest C. Mossner’s biography.  I had been fascinated by the essays of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele from taking Denise Gigante’s seminar.  That general plan of organisation worked well in that I discovered plenty of material to keep me going.  I found a photocopy of a manuscript entitled “Banksiana” in the British Library that was full of Banks anecdotes and looking at the “Boswelliana” in the Houghton Library gave me the perfect transition from the David Hume chapter to the Endeavour chapter: an anecdote about a friendly argument between Hume and Alexander Erskine, 3rd Earl of Kellie about whether human nature is one or many in the aftermath of the tales about Tahiti carried back to England by James Cook and company.


4) What do you think that Romanticists in particular might gain by paying more attention to the culture of the anecdote during the Enlightenment?

I’m tempted to turn the question around and ask what Enlightenment scholars have to learn from the Romantic culture of the anecdote!  I think it is fair to say that there has been more work done on the anecdote as a literary genre by Romanticists than by scholars whose centre of gravity is the period before 1790: James Chandler, Kevis Goodman, Alan Liu, and David Simpson spring to mind here.  An exception is Helen Deutsch in Loving Dr. Johnson, who I feared for a while had pipped me to the post on the anecdote.  I ended up going in a quite different direction to Deutsch, however.  I became interested in the way the universal abstraction of the human as such gets thought about through the concrete and aberrant particularity of the anecdote.

I’m struck that it is the 1790s that the anecdote begins to be theorized as such, with Isaac D’Israeli’s A Dissertation on Anecdotes (1793) and Novalis’ very brief but extremely suggestive remarks on the anecdote in his unpublished Logological Fragments (c.1798-1800).  I think that one thing that Romanticists could take from these writings on the anecdote is that for both D’Israeli and Novalis the anecdote is not necessarily a historical genre—in the sense that it tells us something about history or historical characters.  D’Israeli and Novalis are, of course, interested in how the anecdote can be introduced into a work of history.  But they also emphasize the usefulness of the anecdote in telling us something about human nature or getting us to think about the human differently.  One of the aims of the book is to try to get people to see the anecdote as one of the key genres through which writers in both the Enlightenment and Romantic periods thought about the human.  I’d be delighted if the book helped stimulate more work on that function of the anecdote in a moment when Enlightenment moral philosophy was beginning to break up into the human sciences.

I hope too that the project might stimulate more work on the Romantic-era essay, which maintains strong links to its eighteenth-century precursors.  I’d also be delighted if the book in some small way helps foster more work on Romantic narrative poetry, especially poetry by women writers.  One of my regrets in the book is that I didn’t really have space to discuss Mary Robinson’s Lyrical Tales.  I’m thinking also of Charlotte Smith’s “On Being Cautioned Against Walking on an Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because It Was Frequented by a Lunatic”—which illustrates, also, how anecdotes are not necessarily about events as such but are often more about circumstances, real or imagined.  (I’m grateful to Jenny Davidson for pointing this out to me.)  Smith never sees the lunatic but only imagines him wandering about on the headland and the poem becomes a little micro-world unto itself.

One of the baneful effects, I think, of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, is that it has helped contribute to a snootiness about Wordsworth’s anecdotal poetry—it is Wordsworth’s anecdote-poems like “Alice Fell” that Coleridge singles out for censure on the grounds he would have rather had them told to him as prose tales.  So I think that taking anecdotes seriously can also help us revalue texts even in the corpus of writings by the “Big Six.”  I think that anecdotes are actually very complicated things and we should take them seriously—even when they strike us as silly or absurd.  Anecdotes can teach us a lot, I think, about how the category of literature itself was beginning to be defined in the Romantic period.  D’Israeli and Novalis seem to see the anecdote as a genre on the threshold of what we would now call “the literary.”


5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on a project on the relationship between mental labour and manual labour from John Locke to Mary Shelley.  I’m interested in how many writers across this period understand their own mental labours as analogous to manual labour.  The connection is not simply metaphorical though: writers like Samuel Richardson, the son of a joiner and a working printer, were well acquainted with manual work and emphasize the manual aspects of writing itself.  I’ve published an essay (“Richardson’s Hands”) from this new project in Eighteenth-Century Fiction and another essay from the project is coming out in the same journal in Spring 2020 (“Robinson Crusoe and the Earthy Ground.”)  I’m working on Samuel Johnson at the moment and his “beating a track through the alphabet” in working on the Dictionary of the English Language.

The nature of the project is taking me in an eco-critical direction which I hadn’t anticipated at the beginning: I’m struck by how many theorists understand manual labour as a process in which human beings seem to fuse with the natural world: so Locke writes of people mixing their labour with the earth and Marx writes of labour as a form of metabolism with nature.  I’m excited to find out where else the project leads!

I’m also working on an edition with Ema Vyroubalová of Trinity College Dublin of the manuscript writings of the 18th century writer the Reverend Jermyn Pratt, who was a friend of Christopher Smart, who mentioned Jermyn and his sister Harriet in Jubilate Agno.  There is a cache of Pratt’s literary writings that I came across in the Norfolk Record Office, many written in his neat hand in marbled notebooks.  To be honest he is not much of a poet!  But his play set in Norfolk, The Grange, is hilarious, as is his Sterne-influenced essay “The Zgubbs,” about little gremlin-like spirits that mess up best-laid plans.