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