Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Man of Feeling

Online discussion of MacKenzie’s The Man of Feeling has officially started! Please scroll down to read the essays written by graduate students Sarah Cote, Michael Gavin, Shayda Hoover, Laura Miller, and Zak Watson; use the comment feature located after every essay to join the conversation!

Thoughts on The Man of Feeling

by Sarah Cote (Cornell)

Today, the sentiments in Mackenzie's The Man of Feeling seem déclassé. They are the stuff Oprah dreams are made of – the middlebrow, matronly, mawkish. Nevertheless, the sentiments are securely embedded in even the most uber-“masculine” texts – Rocky, Star Wars, mafioso bildungsromans – thus, sentimentality and sentimentalism are permitted, nay, encouraged, so long as they are suitably dressed. So, the “new” masculinity endorsed in The Man of Feeling is certainly alive today, though the form is a bit adulterated – perhaps this makes one more element worthy of inclusion in Joseph Roach’s concept of the “deep” eighteenth century. Both then and now, it can be admirable, humane, human to enjoy feeling deeply – so long as the sentiments in question are disguised by allegedly palatable frame narratives involving, say, sports, terrorist anxieties, or bad fathers.

But, someway, somehow, I think that many of the unwitting sentimentalists who choke up during Rudy would be turned off by Mackenzie’s novel, even if the text opens with two sportsmen, is rife with emotional ‘terrorism,’ and Edwards can pinch-hit as the proverbial bad father. The Man of Feeling has not aged particularly well as a readerly text. It takes a great measure of self-discipline to read it today without sniggering – it is difficult to take its sincerity sincerely. But even if it’s not quite as “good” (and I welcome more discussion about this) in modern standards as Sterne, its semi-snarky narration renders it more plausible than The Vicar of Wakefield. Why might this be?

Even though The Man of Feeling is an acquired taste, it, like so many of its contemporaries, also seems eerily “modern.” It is pointedly not writing to the moment but tries instead to present writing that transcends any particular moment. Indeed, the novel has no time or place, really – and its hero is protected from picky chronologies by the framing narratives of a careless curate, the presumed ‘editor,' an uncertain hunter-gatherer of sentimental bits who is incidentally “ashamed to be pleased with the works of one knows not whom” – this whom being, quite simply, “Charles,” the only one of the three who has actually interacted with Harley. Thus, the hero’s supremely (over)wrought benevolence, the epitome of the new masculinity for the romantic era, provides a good example of Barthesian myth, an open secret of fiction natural(ized). Of course, we readers are turned into authors, for we take note of several gaps and omissions. Charles’s broken narrative is more extreme than the “mere” aposiopesis seen in A Sentimental Journey or the coy “avert your eyes” omissions featured in Joseph Andrews. Those two novels, among many others in the mid eighteenth century, “leave out” parts in order to tease us, to satirize our expectations. Does The Man of Feeling? The Man of Feeling is, at times, an occasional piece – almost a commonplace book of collected sentimental vignettes. Does the fact that its omissions do not matter, well, matter? We can still more than follow the simple progress – of both the hero and the plot. Is this part of the myth of sentimentality, of the ideology that champions “the moment that signifies more than a moment” but a lifestyle, an ethos, a brand?

Virtually all scholars who discuss eighteenth-century sentimental novels agree that the genre depends on the ocular. The sentimental hero or heroine watches a particularly moving scene, which then sparks a visceral reaction visibly performed for the triple benefit of said character’s conscience, the other characters in the frame, and, of course, our eagerly reading eyes. Sensibility – the refined susceptibility or receptiveness to the sentiments – is the ne plus ultra of cultural capital around the mid-eighteenth century, of course. Janet Todd points out that, generically, sentimental novels prefer action to description because simply constative speeches are too banal or flat: “Words are not left to carry a message alone, but are augmented by other heightening devices” (Sensibility: An Introduction 5); for her, this means that “readers are to some extent prevented from indulging in an identifying fantasy with a character or an author and are forced to respond to the emotion conveyed” (6). However, in novels, words are essential to the medium, a fact hammered home to us through the devices of missing chapters, missing pages, missing sections. No, we cannot be sustained by overwrought gesture alone; (our) explanations and discourse must fill in the gaps sooner or later.

This is where we come in, for the reader of The Man of Feeling is both allegory and participant. Most critics recognize that Harley makes for a curious sort of hero in that he is continually destabilized and undermined by his bathetic, picaresque situations and/or his frank narrator(s) – Charles and ourselves. In that classically titled chapter “The Man of Feeling in a Brothel,” for instance, the narrator makes a characteristically wry comment about Harley’s supposedly pure benevolence or innocence: “From what impulse he did this [walked the prostitute into a tavern], we do not mean to inquire; as it has ever been against our nature to search for motives where bad ones are to be found.” What would be suspect in anyone else must be admirable in Harley, right? Or not; instead, Charles hints that his subject is “protected” (or make that baited) by his playful half-disclosures of compromising situations. So if one refrains from looking into motives, does that protect or harm the benevolist’s reputation? By the chapter’s end, Harley is called a cully – picking up on the notorious cullibility of Yorick, likely – for giving away a watch. Are we supposed to agree? And what do we do if we agree? For what good can come out of our observation of his notoriously impotent observations, after all?

I owe a lot to one of my advisors, Rick Bogel, for highlighting the problem with reading sensibility with a binary system of good/bad or admirable/foolish, etc.: “Whether critics view the novel as endorsing or criticizing Harley, however, they share the belief that the spontaneous and the mechanized can be reliably distinguished” (unpublished manuscript). That is, it isn’t quite right to worry too much about whether, through its winking “slips” or disclosures, the narration is damning or praising Harley’s flaws, for it’s not like anyone has the authority to say for sure that a reflex of charity is bad or unthinking – or vice versa. Nor is it easy to tell the difference between what acts are purely good and what are rote, not to mention the meaning of the signs that allegedly direct us – especially when so many of the signs are tantalizingly missing. Priceless wadding, indeed.

MacKenzie's The Man of Feeling as Sentimental Play

by Michael Gavin (Rutgers)

When Henry Mackenzie published The Man of Feeling in 1771, he was several years younger than I am now. As I reread the text for my participation in this forum, I couldn't shake that particular fact from my mind. This time around, the novel just seems so, well . . . youthful. The conceit of the found manuscript, the ostentatiously fragmented text, the topical relevance of its sentimentalism, the ambiguity of its hero: it's all so self-consciously literary, as if by a young Scot lawyer eager to perform his abilities, desperate to show London how he, too, can manipulate the shared conventions of narrative play.

In this essay, I want to offer the possibility of a perspective on sentimentalism that casts it neither as a kind of text (the ‘sentimental novel’) nor as a discourse in which texts participate, but as a set of reading techniques. My hope is that placing Man of Feeling in the context of sentimental reading will help account for the youthfulness and the playfulness of Mackenzie's novel, traits perhaps inevitably under-emphasized by the hyper-serious tone of most professional scholarship.

Every time I have encountered Man of Feeling in an academic context (and such is, of course, the only context within which one encounters the text), I have felt a strong disjunction between the tone of the novel and the tone of the language used to describe it. The book was taught in no fewer than three of my graduate seminars, and each time the discussion veered around one issue: To what extent are we supposed to identify with Harley as a model of polite behavior? Where does the text suggest Harley's virtue? Where and why does it question or undermine that virtue? The stakes are very high with such questions, because on them hinges not only Mackenzie's intentionality, but the social efficacy of sympathy itself. (I can feel my blood pressure rising, just as I type that sentence!)

Maureen Harkin’s 1994 essay in ELH provides a useful and comprehensive exploration of this problem. Harkin responds most directly to criticism of the late 1980s that credits sentimental fiction with developing “a code of ethics based on sensibility to compensate for the erosion of traditional notions of social responsibility” (318). The problem is that such accounts run head-long into the thematic ambiguity of fictional texts like those of Sterne and Mackenzie. Because the reader's identification with Harley is continually compromised by disidentification from his unworldliness or effeminacy, the social project of sentimental community-building is compromised to the point of failure. But here is where Harkin intervenes. If I am understanding her argument correctly, her point is to focus on the way Man of Feeling thematizes this very problem. She concludes: “Mackenzie's novel is thus riven by its attempts to negotiate conflicting positions about the possibility of sentimental literature as a form of social practice and critique. The novel as Mackenzie conceived it could not justify its own stake in the regulation of social life, providing images of sympathy for victims and a principled resistance but no effective opposition to the ills it spends so much time noting” (336). Thus, fiction's ability to juggle ideological ambiguity undermines its social efficacy. Harley is too unworldly to be properly virtuous. Thus, the novel undermines even as it promotes sentimentalism as a form of social regulation. Mackenzie's point--the point of Man of Feeling--is to expose that tension, to struggle with it, to negotiate its murky and ethically dangerous terrain.

My point, to put it very reductively, is that I doubt anyone ever took the novel so seriously, or at least anyone before, say, 1980. To see Man of Feeling as deeply conflicted in this way requires making two assumptions that I want to suggest are misleading: you have to assume, first, that novels have and are supposed to have rhetorical force, and second, that this force is to be achieved through ideological coherence that can be inferred by finding thematic unity. Because Man of Feeling lacks thematic unity, it seems to lack ideological coherence, and so we conclude it must lack the rhetorical force that it normatively should have. Although Harkin tries to get out of this trap by emphasizing the way fiction can balance differing viewpoints or thematize its own futility, Mackenzie's text remains “riven” by an ideological conflict from which it can never emerge.

To get around this problem, I want to offer two very tentative possibilities about readers who wept over books like Man of Feeling: they did so collaboratively and selectively. To briefly demonstrate what I mean here, let me point to the famous remark that Lady Louisa Stuart made in an 1826 letter to Sir Walter Scott: “I remember so well its first publication, my mother and sisters crying over it, dwelling upon it with rapture! And when I read it, as I was a girl of fourteen not yet versed in sentiment, I had a secret dread I should not cry enough to gain the credit of proper sensibility.” (qtd. In Harkin, 319). My first point about this is that the model of sentimental reading here is social, even collaborative. In this anecdote, the text mediates not between author and reader, but between an already existing community of readers. Reading the text becomes an occasion for performing one's sentiment; to “gain the credit of proper sensibility,” then, is not The Man of Feeling's job as a text, but Lady Stuart's job as a reader. She feels compelled to feel, but that compulsion comes from her place in the family, not from the text.

What is at stake here is not an abstract code of ethics to be inferred through careful interrogation of the novel's plots or themes. Proper sensibility is not codified by the text; rather, it is performed by one's encounter with the narrative in a social context determined, in Lady Stuart's case, by the conventions of family and class. In a different setting, such as the male homosocial reading club (to take another highly conventionalized context of reading), the “proper” response to Mackenzie's text may have been different: the point is that, in either case, a reader's experience of sentimental textuality would be determined by social conventions anterior to the text itself. If sentimentalism was in fact a persuasive, regulatory discourse, that social regulation had to happen at the level of these cultural settings and the codification (formal and informal) of the social structures they imply.

The second point I want to suggest is that sentimental readers read selectively and discontinuously. That is, they willingly read parts of a text independently of its whole. For example, readers could freely extract the sentimental pathos of Sterne while disregarding his satire, much to the chagrin of critics like Samuel Johnson. It can't be stressed enough how different this is from the way college students are trained today in critical reading. If one of my students makes an assertion about some passage in a text, that assertion can either be supported or complicated by other passages in the same text. A selective, sentimental reading practice, by contrast, eagerly excerpts parts so as to make them available for an experience of rapture: thus, Sterne's fiercest critics could hold up his handling of the Le Fever episode as an example of sentimentalism done right.

If sentimental reading happened in already existing social settings, and if sentimental readers felt free to disregard aspects of texts that did not accord with their desired experience, it seems doubtful that they would invest a little work by an unknown Scot like Man of Feeling with much persuasive agency or ideological import. By inviting his readers to take different, even competing, views of Harley and of sentiment, Mackenzie offers them an occasion for affective and critical play--play, that is, in a game where the rules have already been set.

A long view of Mackenzie's 60-year publishing career would trace his development from poetical contributions to Scots Magazine (1763-4), to topically current prose fiction (1771-7), to drama (1773-84), to collaborative periodical and political essays (1779-90s), to his collected Works (1808), to biography (1820s), and finally to his unfinished personal memoirs (begun in 1824). For Harkin, the trajectory of Mackenzie's publishing career is determined by “his dissatisfaction with the limited possibilities for social intervention open to the novelist” (337). Mackenzie's move to non-fiction prose suggests a kind of fall from grace--or at least from the literary. But, it seems to me that Mackenzie's career follows a trajectory of unambiguous ascent: ascent, that is, from the entertaining to the learned and from the youthful to the prestigious. For example, Richard Sher has noted that, although Mackenzie received only £52 for the copyright to The Man of Feeling and about "twice as much" for his other novels, he received £180 and £300 for rights to The Mirror and The Lounger, respectively (Enlightenment & the Book, 254, 211).

This history suggests that our contemporary interest in Mackenzie as representative of The Sentimental Novel risks overemphasizing the importance of a work like Man of Feeling. More specifically, we risk overstating what was at stake politically for Mackenzie and his early readers.

A Gap in the Manuscript

by Shayda Hoover (UC Irvine)

NB. Page references are to the Norton paperback (1958). Chapter references are included for convenience.

The Man of Feeling is dominated by the signs of incompleteness and interruption. The work is presented as the abandoned manuscript of a departed neighbor (known only as “the Ghost”) and has lost several pages. The “found manuscript” is a familiar pretext for fictional histories, but Mackenzie’s free use of “a gap in the manuscript” to provide a narrative break by omitting intermediate chapters suggests a willingness to use the romantic fragment to achieve sentimental effects quickly and move from height to height in the depiction of the protagonist’s responses. Between the fictional “ghost” writer, the fictional mangler of the material text (a curate), and the self-proclaimed, fictional “editor,” Harley’s history is thrice-mediated, and the result promotes its main character by omitting “the intricacies of a novel” (89/Interjection before Ch55) in order to get its readers quickly to the moments of sentimental oomph. The following is a brief overview of the effects of a fragmentary structure on The Man of Feeling’s depictions of human nature and interactions.

The Ghost’s manuscript is described as consisting of named and numbered chapters that enclose particular incidents. Most chapters move from encounter to aphorism to emotional response. The chapters are prone to break off at the moment of highest pitch. For example, visiting Bedlam gradually overpowers Harley when a young female inmate gives him a mourning ring she has made: “Harley stood fixed in astonishment and pity; his friend gave money to the keeper.—Harley looked on his ring.—He put a couple of guineas into the man’s hand: ‘Be kind to that unfortunate’—He burst into tears, and left them” (23/Ch20). The chapter breaks here and an unrelated episode follows. Larger breaks between episodes are blamed on “the depredations of the curate” (88/Editorial interjection before Ch55). Structurally, the frequent “gaps” in the narrative allow Mackenzie to omit unnecessary exposition and focus on a few episodes. The use of fragments is a kind of narrative foreshortening that causes Harley to emerge prominently from a crowd of flattened, undifferentiated characters. Very few of the characters have names; the majority of Harley’s contacts are distinguished minimalistically, e.g., “a beggar,” “the old gentleman,” “the younger stranger.” This generic quality extends to “the editor,” to his companion, “the curate,” and to the unknown author(s) of the text, “the Ghost” and also “a later pen” (who provides a moralizing interlude). The gaps in the record omit these characters’ larger histories, and make Harley’s own history appear disconnected and discontinuous: he is almost a ghost himself.

The text demonstrates that people are often baffled by appearances, and can rarely be certain whether they are esteeming each other correctly. Harley and his creator are aware that quantities of human deception can interfere perniciously in the exercise of benevolent impulses. Harley decides the question by arguing with himself (in the case of the prostitute, Miss Emily Atkins) that “to calculate the chances of deception is too tedious a business for the life of man!” (36/ch28). The narrator is slightly more guarded (see the ironical description of the mechanical process by which Harley’s hand releases a coin to a beggar, 14/Ch14), but he, too, considers it scarcely possible to discover the truth without help; and Miss Atkins reflects in hindsight that “our reason is so much of a machine, that it will not always be able to resist, when the ear is perpetually assailed” (40/Ch28). The structure of Harley’s history as a series of gaps and sentimental episodes points to a cynical truth: that individuals may be known to each other only in a fragmentary way, connected briefly, tenuously, and always with the possibility of a pernicious deception, as in the case of “the pupil” Edward Sedley’s admiration for a villainous European nobleman (“A Fragment”). In addition to the destructive effects of deliberate falsehoods, personal histories may break off or be lost to gaps in the record. Parted from his family, the old soldier Edwards loses the thread of their story. On his return, he finds his son and daughter-in-law dead, his grandchildren in a charity dame school. In this case, the story is recovered (the gap filled), but it could as easily have remained blank forever. The written history is extremely brief: the survivors locate “a ciphered R. E. plainer than the rest [of the characters]; it was the tomb they sought” (69/Ch35). The chapter—and the episode—ends with the eloquence of tears: “The girl cried afresh; Harley kissed off her tears as they flowed, and wept between every kiss.” The chapter break symbolizes the larger gap between individuals, able to feel communally but not to make experience whole.

Like the younger Edwards, Harley’s departure from life is premature. The fragmentary “conclusion” (a weak pun?) has the Ghost haunting Harley’s gravesite and pondering Harley’s legacy, which in fact seems to be restricted to the manuscript he is himself producing. The narrator has already described his response to Harley’s corpse in terms of broken connections: “’Tis a connection we cannot easily forget:—I took his hand in mine; I repeated his name involuntarily;—I felt a pulse in every vein at the sound” (92/Ch56). The Ghost strives for continuity—a continued “pulse”—but Harley’s death makes it seem that the connections between individuals are, in fact, easily broken, leaving experience incomplete (Miss Watson is left to wander “with a book in her hand”). The author is remembered chiefly for being “used to walk a-nights” before “he left the parish, and went nobody knows whither” (Introduction): nobody’s history is complete in this text. The Ghost’s concluding observation relies on his association of the gravesite with Harley’s nature, but the testimony to that nature is physically incomplete and the phrasing of his reflection takes us back to the frame story, where two ordinary men looked for amusement: “…there is such an air of gentleness around that I can hate nothing; but, as to the world—I pity the men of it” (94/Conclusion). Of these men of the world, the curate, impervious to sentiment, is probably one, and the Editor’s own sentiment is a little bit of the armchair kind—further emphasizing the amount of material that we are not given. Mackenzie’s “editor” later introduced the epistolary novel Julia de Roubigné with the claim that he “found it difficult to reduce [the letters] to narrative, because they are made up of sentiment, which narrative would destroy” (5); this clue helps us to recognize that sentimental response is itself expressive of the incomplete nature of earthly communication.

Feelings, Print, and Narrative

by Laura Miller (UC Santa Barbara)

Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling is often written about in studies of late eighteenth-century sensibility and the sentimental novel. The text’s stance on print readership and its skepticism with regard to narrative conventions are also worth examining. At times the novel places standard formal and narrative characteristics of other eighteenth-century novels in opposition to the genuine feeling it conveys. However, The Man of Feeling’s fragmented form and narrative simultaneously reveal its status as a printed piece of fiction and complicate the ways it directs its readers to feel.

From its beginnings, The Man of Feeling displays an awareness of print culture. The novel’s narrative frame shows diverging standards of judgment among groups with regard to texts. A curate who has been using the novel’s manuscript paper for gun wadding acts the part of potential publisher: he has found a manuscript, a bundle of papers, much as many early novels were presented as miscellaneous papers tied together. However, the curate considers this story unpublishable by his standards: the handwriting is bad, the authorial stamp inconsistent, and there is not “a single syllogism from beginning to end” (4). From this list of complaints, readers can draw a list of this man’s standards for reading: that a text be easy on the eyes, narrated consistently, and give thoughtful conclusions to the scenarios it presents. It should mean something, and cause no frustration trying to make it out. His hunting companion, responsible for the novel’s ultimate publication, is also carrying a text he dislikes: “an edition of one of the German Illustrissimi,” a far more logical and rational text (4). The two men trade book-for-manuscript, saving both texts from ruin. Each finds a book that he’s suited to: even two men hunting in the same thicket may belong to different reading publics. A sketch of The Man of Feeling’s ideal reader emerges through a series of negations to the curate’s complaints: the manuscript’s reader must be patient to decipher handwriting, tolerant of narrative inconsistencies, and prepared to draw his own personal conclusions with the text. Even though we are reading a typeset and easier to read version, a tolerance and willingness to draw one’s own conclusions are encouraged. With regard to the many emotional scenes that follow, the reader is warned about the book’s tearjerking content, paradoxically via an injunction against crying over the works of an unknown author.

The novel contains many familiar plot elements found in other eighteenth-century novels, but they come in a fragmented form that criticizes the artificiality of plot-driven narrative. As in other novels, Harley, The Man of Feeling, begins his life in the countryside, but travels to London. Like many characters in novels, Harley seeks necessary financial gain in the city: through the lease of some lands belonging to the Crown. Also like other male characters, Harley lives near a beautiful and virtuous young woman, Miss Walton, whom he loves but dares not approach. As the opening section continues, this fragmentation awakens readers to the ways these devices have been used less conspicuously in previous novels, and thus to the vulnerability of the reading process itself. When a reader is in the hands of a masterful author who directs the action seamlessly, is it possible for a reader to have an individualized response? Even though this story is seen as its own kind of “false point,” where the narrative looks like it’s going to turn into something but never does, it also criticizes the existence of all points – true and false - in fiction. For this broken-up novel, the point of prose fiction is not formal perfection, but evocation of sympathetic feeling. Wherever the novel goes, it follows Harley’s sympathies, and cannot do otherwise. By contrast, manipulated plot points, however neatly they lead us to other, carefully planned fictional revelations, have a false truth to them. Of course, even Mackenzie’s book feels very manipulative to us reading it now – about a hair away from Lyrical Ballads in terms of its coincidental meetings with the colorfully downtrodden – but it resonated enough at the time of its publication that people wanted to know the identity of the real Man of Feeling.

Feeling does drive the novel, but even when feeling prevents traditional narrative events from taking place, narrative continues in other forms. En route to London, Harley means to breakfast at an inn, a narrative set piece of many novels, “but the fullness of his heart would not suffer him to eat a morsel” (15). So he goes for a walk, where he encounters a beggar who subsists by fortune-telling among the people of his town. Harley has wandered out of a narrative only to meet a storyteller. The beggar tells his own story, which resembles that of a tragic actor turned comic writer. When the beggar discovered others didn’t want to hear his honest narrative of his own misfortunes, he started telling happier, personalized tales to his audience because “folks will always listen when the tale is their own” (17). He acts as a master narrator of the town, picking up names and bits of information in order to supplement his predictions and prove his authenticity in fortune-telling. This strange scene offers a provocative challenge to contemporaries who might blame cheap print for encouraging self-indulgent entertainment. If this common man uses oral tactics identical to those used by novelists who are trying to appeal to a broad range of people, how responsible is the print market for its easily seduced readers? Alternatively, are novelists fortune-telling beggars?

Harley’s visit to Bedlam (as well as many other scenes that I don’t have space to discuss) also illustrates these tense connections between feeling, narrative, and print. Harley’s most sympathetic encounter in Bedlam isn’t the most extreme or shocking: it’s the most novel-friendly: the young girl who went mad after the loss of her lover and her cruel father. When Harley and his friends visit those who are “in the most horrid state of incurable madness” they wish to leave immediately (23). Next they meet a parade of Enlightenment losers: a mathematician who incorrectly predicted the return of a comet based on Newton’s calculations, a stock-trader who lost everything in the South Sea Bubble, and a schoolmaster who lost his mind in a sea of Greek vowels (24-25). Even though the novel could endeavor an emotional response to the early eighteenth century by interacting with its cast-offs, these men instead serve as a warning against living too much in our minds: the same thing people are warned against when they read too many books, or when the books they read are of poor quality. At the same time, this novel encourages fantasy, with its many missing parts and melodramatic scenarios.

The way to align some of these contradictions between narrative convention and following one’s feelings would appear to be sensibility, with its emphasis on appropriate emotional outpourings, but reading publics and print culture are too powerful on their own to be overlooked. Maureen Harkin writes that, “The novel basically pits Harley against the forces of modern commercial life in an unequal struggle that Harley is bound to lose” (324). The force of print is one of these forces – so powerful that it is the only way we can encounter Harley. And Harley, if he is attempting to pursue feeling at the expense of behaving like a dutiful character in a plot, must lose at least a little, if he is to outlast the hunting season.

Works Cited
Harkin, Maureen. “Mackenzie’s Man of Feeling: Embalming Sensibility.” ELH 61.1 (1994) 317-340.
Mackenzie, Henry. The Man of Feeling. Oxford World’s Classics Edition. 2001.

The Man of Feeling: Schmaltz or Schadenfreude?

by Zak Watson (University of Missouri)

“If you want me to cry, then mourn first yourself” (Horace 126). So Horace advises Telephus and Peleus in the Ars Poetica. The sympathy between reader and poet, the emotional mimesis in which poetry should engage, underlies tear-jerking works like Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling. The ideal reader of this sentimental novel will emote as its main character Harley emotes, dropping a single tear or heaving a winsome sigh where appropriate; this sympathetic response is the bedrock of sensibility. Indeed, contemporary readers, it is reported, had appropriate emotional reactions to Mackenzie’s book. The Monthly Review wrote of The Man of Feeling in May of 1771 “the Reader, who weeps not over some of the scenes it describes, has no sensibility of mind” (Mackenzie Harkin 205). Critics from that day to this have read the book in terms of its pathos, analyzing its rhetoric as aimed at wringing a physical and emotional reaction from its readers by depicting exquisitely overwrought scenes. Brian Vickers notices a brief satirical tone in the treatment of Harley’s aunt, but holds that “it is never enough to disturb the non-ambiguous mood of pathos and sympathy” (Mackenzie Vickers xiv). The text itself provides more than ample evidence that it operates on this emotional axis; nearly every page greets the reader with Harley’s exemplary grief, inviting her to cry along. However, this emotional propinquity which would align the reader with Harley and teach her to feel does not explain all that passes in The Man of Feeling. It is my contention that, rather than unambiguously extorting reader sensibilities, The Man of Feeling, particularly through its formal peculiarities, presents a nuanced picture of sensibility. The critical tradition notwithstanding, Mackenzie’s popular novel is as important a commentary on sensibility as it is a performance of it.

The typical reading of the novel as a performance of sensibility, a work whose chief interest lies in its pathos, seems initially to be supported by its genre as well as by abundant textual evidence. Early reviews instantly recognized the work as attempting something like Sterne’s Sentimental Journey, albeit with less sophistication and success. Given the comparison to Sterne, whose sentiment is tempered throughout by his wit, it is surprising not to see early reviewers finding anything more than pathos and careless composition in The Man of Feeling. Maybe they didn’t go looking because the text presents its argument so clearly. When Harley says to old Edwards “‘let me hold thee to my bosom; let me imprint the virtue of thy sufferings on my soul,’” it is as impossible for the reader to doubt his sincerity as it is for her to fail to take this message as a sort of user’s guide to the novel (Mackenzie Vickers 95). If texts teach readers how to read them, this one certainly seems to instruct its readers to imprint the virtue of Harley’s sufferings on their souls, to get close enough to the heat of his sympathy that they might burst into flames as well.

While that reading may be satisfying in many ways, it leaves important elements of the text out of its purview. For instance, the standard view tends to ignore the many levels of mediation present in the text. Harley is present in a bundle of papers composed by a character known only as The Ghost, used by the curate as wadding for his hunting gun, and finally passed to the nameless editor who presents the text to the reader. If the purpose of the text is to use language to get readers close to Harley, then why impose these frames on it? Why include three possible sources for any word in the book? Sure, Mackenzie gains the luxury of working with a fragmented text trouvé, which means he gains authenticity, doesn’t have to worry about plot and can concentrate on getting to his emotional point, but there is no need to have so many editors to achieve this end.[1] What’s more, the text includes consistent observations on Harley that serve to distance the reader from him. For instance, rather than being plunged into Harley’s consciousness, the reader confronts descriptions such as the one of old Edwards’ “white locks [which] crossed that brown of his neck with a contrast the most venerable to a mind like Harley’s” (Vickers 85). The “to a mind like Harley’s” calls attention to the distance between (presumably) The Ghost and Harley, suggesting that their minds are perhaps not alike. In one of his descriptions, Harley’s mind is like a lady’s mirror, which always gives a favorable tint to what it reflects, but mirrors are impenetrable as well as reflective. The form of the novel guarantees Harley always remains at a third-person perspective, as opaque as reflective. The narrator speculates on people’s motives in spreading bad news, asking “Is it that we delight in observing the effects of the stronger passions” (Vickers 106)? This question is aimed squarely at his reader; is the text’s misanthropist right, is Schadenfreude the real motive to read The Man of Feeling? While Harley approaches the world with mild ignorance and the best intentions, the mediated form of the text makes it impossible for the reader to actually take Harley’s position. The performative aspect of the text is interrupted by its commentative aspect. Mediation is more than a formal device here; it works thematically to highlight the ways in which would-be sentimentalists are separated from their objects by failures of ignorance.

One of the pleasures of this text is judging Harley, even if that judgment is a positive one buoyed by the reader’s knowledge of his ignorance. In some ways, Harley’s story is like a hanging at Tyburn, all spectacle to be observed by a sophisticated reader, one afforded the palpitating glimpses at Harley’s heart no less than the cooler and wider survey of The Ghost and the other editors. This is not a straightforwardly and crushingly sincere book, intent on breaking hearts. Rather, it is a quietly sophisticated examination of the conditions of possibility of sensibility; the conclusion of the examination is that sensibility rests only on a kind of ignorance or resistance to knowledge which even a text free of the entanglements of the novel cannot grant its readers.

Works Cited
Harkin, Maureen. "Mackenzie's Man of Feeling: Embalming Sensibility." ELH 61.2 (1994): 317-40.
Horace. "Ars Poetica." Trans. D. A. Russell. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent Leitch et. al. New York: Norton, 2001. 124-35.
Mackenzie, Henry. The Man of Feeling. Ed. Maureen Harkin. Peterborough: Broadview P, 2005.
---. The Man of Feeling. Ed. Brian Vickers. Oxford: Oxford U P, 1987.

[1] For more on the effect of mediation on this text, see Maureen Harkin, "Mackenzie's Man of Feeling: Embalming Sensibility," ELH 61.2 (1994).