English Studies Today

 

Manfred Mickleson Applies for an 18th-Century Job

Dear Professor Eddington:

I am writing to apply for the position in Eighteenth-Century literature announced in the October MLA Job List. After having taken an M.A. at Cornell University, I am in the process of completing my dissertation -- "Commerce, Homosociality, and the Engendering of the Body in Defoe and Wollstonecraft" -- under the direction of Terry Castle at Stanford University. This year, I am a visiting assistant professor of eighteenth-century literature at Wagenknecht University. I expect to defend my dissertation in March. The manuscript is under contract to Routledge. As my vita shows, I have given over forty papers at various conferences on literature and cultural studies in the last three years, and have articles under consideration at twelve scholarly journals. (A portion of the first chapter, "The 'Eeek' of Literary Sentimentalism: Does Eco Echo Eco?" will be published in PMLA this coming spring.) I also have several other book-length projects under contract to Verso, Methuen, and Johns Hopkins University Press.

The argument of my dissertation, informed by current thinking in feminist theory, queer theory, cultural materialism, eco-criticism, and postcolonial studies, centers on the paradoxes of representation involving masculine authority and feminine desire in eighteenth-century pirate literature, and especially on sentimentalism as a response to the en(gender)ing of the patriarchal body -- which I see as epistemologically equivalent to the "body politic" in eighteenth-century political discourse* -- in the figure of the (male) sailor in British oceanic commerce during the first age of imperial expansion. I argue that it is the absence of women from shipboard life that permits Defoe, in his History of the Pirates, to depict seagoing commerce in terms of a normative homosociality -- the all-male society of the quarterdeck and lower decks in both naval and commercial shipping -- such that piracy then embodies the eruption of a transgressive (and, implicitly, anti-imperialistic) sexuality demanding representation in altered or displaced terms in the "literature of the shore," including such genres as the periodical essay, the mock-heroic poem, and the sentimental novel. It is in the sentimental novel, I argue, that this displacement achieves autonomous status as itself a normative discourse, with a representation of emotions in terms of a "feminine" sensitivity operating to compensate for the violated fantasy of all-male sufficiency represented by the boarding or "penetration" of an East India galley or naval three-decker by a depredatory piracy.

Since the background of such scenes is the emergent society of Anglo-Caribbean commerce -- slavery is a leitmotif in many of the pirate narratives popular in Defoe's period -- I also see a proleptic postcolonialism at work in the system of paradoxes evident in the attempt to recuperate African-Americans -- then, of course, not yet Americans, as "America" would not emerge as a cultural and political construction for a number of years -- as normatively transgressive figures in the portrayal both of Afro-Caribbean slave culture and as members of pirate crews.

My most controversial point, I think, concerns the way literary sentimentalism -- I have in mind not only such major writers as Charlotte Lennox and Mrs. Inchbald, but such male writers as Henry Mackenzie and Laurence Sterne -- operates as a compensatory mechanism for the "violated" homosociality of the shipboard crew assaulted by pirates. Far from representing an empowering domesticity, as Nancy Armstrong and other leading eighteenth-century scholars have argued, literary sentimentalism demands to be viewed as the representational equivalent of "the lower deck in drag," striving through a reassertion of "feminine" sensitivity to reassert the equilibrium of an "onshore" heterosexuality symbolically and practically suspended when the ship leaves shore with an all-male crew.

The entire point of literary sentimentalism, from this perspective, is to insulate the world of normative homosociality from the otherwise disturbing effects of masculine desire represented by the pirate society that boards the "normal" vessel with its cutlasses in its teeth, which on a higher symbolic plane operates to protect the (implicitly masculinist or patriarchal) ideology of an emergent British military and commercial imperialism from destabilization or disruption.

In this sense, works like Sterne's A Sentimental Journey were not only complicit with, but actively agential in the development of, British imperialism in the period following the Seven Years' War. By protecting the normative body of the British mariner through a compensatory sentimentalism -- especially in the ideologically problematic context of Afro-Caribbean cultural development, with the slave figuring as neither "masculine" or "feminine" but as an always-potentially-disruptive 'Other' -- literature was simultaneously insulating the "body politic" of the new post-Hanoverian commercial order from potentially dangerous forms of accidental or unintended demystification.

The description of my dissertation as I have given it covers only part of its first chapter. The manuscript will culminate in a detailed discussion of Mary Wollstonecraft's Pirates of Penzance as a feminist reappropriation of the piracy motif, together with an account of the masculinist or patriarchal suppression that would for many years result in this work's being attributed to Gilbert and Sullivan -- and does not mention the use made in subsequent portions of work by Foucault, Althusser, Lacan, Deleuze, Bourdieu, Gayatri Spivak, Edward Said, Judith Butler, and others. To grasp its full range, one would have to see a sample from the actual dissertation, which I would be very happy to send you.

I would also be very happy to send you a copy of my curriculum vitae, which contains full titles of my conference papers and articles under submission, plus a dossier containing letters from Terry Castle, John Bender, Laura Brown, Felicity Nussbaum, Jonathan Arac, and Peter de Bolla.

I may perhaps add, without seeming too boastful, that in the short time I have been teaching here at Wagenknecht University, I have won several Most Exciting Teacher awards, including, most recently, a citation for my creative use of eighteenth-century maps and engineering sketches in my class on "Jolly Roger on the Turnpike," a freshman seminar on the development of the English road system and response to the figure of the pirate-turned-highwayman in eighteenth-century criminal trials. (Basically, I argue that the figure of the former pirate must be viewed in terms of a transgressive sexuality absent from depictions of the shore-based highwayman who, having begun his career on a horse and ended it in a halter, is able to function as an unproblematic ideological support for a depredatory imperialist commerce during the period of the East India monopoly.)

Several undergraduates have told me that this course changed their lives. My original intention was develop this as the subject of my next book, but having discovered that its argument has been anticipated by the notable eighteenth-century scholar Erin Mackie, whose earlier study of the Tatler and the Spectator as "lifestyle magazines" has been so decisive an influence on my own approach to eighteenth-century studies, I have decided to retain it simply as classroom material.

I will be attending the MLA convention in December, and would be delighted to talk further with you there.

Sincerely,

 

Manfred J. Mickleson

Visiting Assistant Professor

 

 * Though this is a self-evident equivalence, I would like to acknowledge a special debt to Sam Whitsitt, to whom I owe thanks as a source of inspiration, particularly for his "Soccer: the Game America Refuses to Play," Raritan Quarterly (Summer 1994):

Let us consider somewhat abstractly how soccer defines the body of the player: we have a lower half that does everything, and upper half that does little, and an outdoor ball game that a man can play without getting his hands dirty. Putting things this way, I am suggesting that the body of the soccer player is structured by a certain image of the body which reflects a larger code, a code of the body politic: An upper half that does little, a lower half that does all, and the two mediated within the single body of the soccer player reflects the body politic of an England of 1863 with its declining aristocracy, a vigorous working class, and the new middle class from whose ranks came the young men at Cambridge who in that year formally decided to standardize the game of soccer.

The relation of this analysis to my own argument concerning the role of homosociality in eighteenth-century pirate literature should be clear to everyone on your committee. In Cultural Studies, as in every other worthy human endeavor, one stands upon the shoulders of giants.