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.