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old style

5 september 2022

Claudia Stokes' Old Style: Unoriginality and its uses in nineteenth-century U.S. literature is an offbeat, exceptionally intriguing, and – it must be said – highly original look at an aspect of literary history that most critics and historians used to consider just long enough to sneer at and discard.

Originality was a prime value for high Romantic artists: Turner, Beethoven, Byron. Americans under the spell of Romanticism – Poe, Hawthorne, Melville – also raised originality to paramount importance. The premium on originality kept getting higher and higher in the ensuing decades, till it became an imperative of Modernism.

But that was in avant-garde, aestheticist circles. As Stokes observes, popular literature, or edifying and didactic reaches of art, or politically conservative culture, often expressed the opposite value. Tradition, reiteration, imitation, and sometimes basic copying of accepted models was a best practice, a route to finding an audience and achieving success in the artistic marketplace.

Each of the six chapters in Old Style is sharply-focused and thought-provoking. Stokes starts with the case of Lucretia Davidson (1808-1825), who as her dates suggest was mostly a posthumous phenomenon. Davidson wrote poems on themes like "To My Mother" and "A Guardian Angel" that now hold no conceivable interest. But in her day, or rather for a few decades after her brief day, Davidson was esteemed as a naturally polished, fluent communicator of time-honored truths. If utter conventionality had an Emily Dickinson, it was Lucretia Davidson.

Stokes goes on to show that triteness wasn't always a bad word in the literary world. The practice of keeping a commonplace book – and later diving into it for just the right quotation to shore up one's own writing – was highly recommended in colonial and antebellum America. "Unoriginality used to be a sound literary career move" (172). Written discourse could at times seem like a tissue of borrowings; but as Stokes says:

Unoriginality in the nineteenth century did not present an intrinsic aesthetic liability and was for generations a legitimate aesthetic mode that, if executed well and devoid of any signs of outright plagiarism, could confer prestige and affirm respectability. (2)
And I guess the practice of interlarding criticism with quotations is still going strong.

"Epigraphs appear most frequently in the work of white women and writers of color," Stokes says (57); while Hawthorne et al., more invested in originality, avoided them. But it's complicated. Two of Stokes' featured examples are a white woman and a black man who quoted a lot: Fanny Fern and Frederick Douglass. Fern and Douglass thereby tapped into the ethos of their sources, and gained their readers' assent. But both could be skeptical and ironizing in their invocation of authority. And that original, transformational take on authority appealed even to their original audiences, and distinguished them from their contemporaries in real time.

Stokes next turns to re-reading as an unoriginal practice. The flood of (literally) stereotyped text that cascaded from mechanized presses in the early 19th century had a double impact. Novelty gained power: there was always something new to read and some exciting new trend to follow. Gone were the days when Grandpa sat by the fire reading Pilgrim's Progress for the Nth time to the whole clan. But this novel wave of production was also critiqued for its ephemerality and lack of seriousness.

And sometimes too, by the more Romantically minded, for its derivative practices. Stokes introduces an interesting and somewhat paradoxical reading of Moby-Dick (102) to illustrate this tension. Moby-Dick can be read as a great "extensive," dialogic mish-mash of various styles and registers; its very production depends on the huge ocean of print materials that Melville consulted in his research. Melville borrowed so much that his work achieved an encyclopedic originality. His contemporaries couldn't process such a welter of borrowings, but revisionist 20th-century critics came to see Melville's style as deeply original. Of such ironies is literary history made.

In the second half of Old Style, Stokes turns to three case studies: James Fenimore Cooper, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Thomas Bailey Aldrich. It seems to be a general law that triple-barreled names have not ultimately fared well in American literary history. Walt and Emily and Nat and Herm didn't need middle names, and Samuel Langhorne Clemens ditched his for a two-syllable pen name as fast as he could. But I digress. Cooper, Longfellow and Aldrich are also interesting for being mighty uninteresting. Derivative writers, who turned when models failed them to imitating themselves, they nevertheless became major cultural forces, using unoriginality in the service of cultural and social conservatism.

Cooper is an early example of how the sequel franchise can become an inertial force in publishing. (His most famous series is Leatherstocking, but he did several others that are now mostly forgotten.)

Cooper's sequels show how deliberate literary unoriginality, as expressed in the narrative return to familiar characters and plots, could also work to undermine and even attempt to halt the social mobility that literary traditionalism had long afforded. (106)
The same unoriginality that was that gained access for the forward-looking ideas of Fanny Fern and Frederick Douglass became reactionary in the case of Fenimore Cooper. Originality/unoriginality is a dichotomy that can flexibly accommodate a progressive or conservative position on either side of itself as a given case allows. The dichotomy does not have a fixed meaning, but is more a structuralist minimal distinction that can be filled with arbitrary meanings.

Longfellow was often accused of blatant plagiarism. Mens rea seems lacking, though. Longfellow echoed other writers constantly, but got embarrassed when he failed to edit out his borrowings. It seems he had too good a memory to avoid inadvertent quotation. At the same time, Longfellow positively valued tradition. He attempted to graft American stories onto the received forms of European ballads and sagas. He valorized unoriginal lifestyles, as with his village blacksmith. To really flatter Longfellow, you could imitate him in turn – as numerous poets did with his "Wreck of the Hesperus."

Aldrich is now just a footnote to the great originals; if even academic Americanists know his name, it's as the bad guy in the reception history of Whitman and Dickinson. "Aldrich was doubtless on the wrong side of history in various ways," but he was a powerful arbiter, and "his writings remind us that literary critics did not always value originality" (201). As editor of the Atlantic Monthyl in the 1880s, Aldrich tried to preserve American poetry in increasingly cryogenic imitations of beauties past. His project has a certain epigonic wistfulness to it, or would if his own verse had been much more interesting than that of Lucretia Davidson.

And as that dynamic suggests, Old Style is not a book about texts that many of us today would want to re-read. It is a book about the rhetoric, sometimes the business, basically the forgotten history behind those writers we still value. If we value a two-named writer like Stephen Crane and not the triplex Thomas Bailey Aldrich, it is because Crane seems remarkably "21st-century" – as he seemed "20th-century" to his champions then, and may now seem destined for perpetual freshness. But Old Style shows that the values of interpretive communities can change radically in the future.

A couple of decades ago, I was studying the value of originality to critics who conferred canonical status on Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. My own idea was not original; I was just trying to document a common observation. The oddness of Whitman and Dickinson is the reason 21st-century readers think of 19th-century American poetry as the age of Whitman and Dickinson (which nobody in the 19th century would have done). I was and remain skeptical about the absolute value of originality. For one thing, when critics extol a writer's originality, I found that they tend to do so in terms that always sound the same. Praise itself takes imitative forms. "Original" is a label one applies as a synonym for "good," not always stopping to consider in detail whether it really fits.

And the vast majority of compositions in any mode or genre are formulaic. Not because creators lack creativity, but because communication relies on meeting some expectations in order to unsettle others. "Deferential unoriginality," Stokes points out,

underlies much of our own labor as literary academics. … We might deplore the seeming hackwork of nineteenth-century literary traditionalists, but we have more in common with these writers than we might at first recognize. (24)

Stokes, Claudia. Old Style: Unoriginality and its uses in nineteenth-century U.S. literature. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2022. PS 201 .S76