The Clockmakers Outcry

Or, to give it its full title, “The Clockmakers Outcry Against the Author of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy”.

This is anonymous pamphlet published in 1760 (Tristram Shandy, you will recall, was published – the first two books of it, at least – in 1759 or 1760, I haven’t the energy to determine which). You may think of this anonymous pamphlet as the c18th equivalent of a literary blog, by someone who was very much not enamoured with Laurence Sterne, either as writer or man; – at least, I think he is not enamoured, though for a time reading it I was left wondering whether the pamphlet was intended entirely seriously; – much of it is quite absurd; the manner of its argumentation most of all; – it seems like a parody of literary criticism; – and yet, as it goes on, in its humour ill both in terms of its vituperation and its lack, one begins to think in horror that the piece is entirely serious. – Well, perhaps not entirely.

What raises his ire? What was it that struck the contemporary man, used to his conservative / “Victorian” / literary novels, by this outlandish example of the avant-garde.

Well, firstly it is indecency. (I remember Faulkner too being called up for this in a review – not his incomprehensibility – no, not first of all; just his common indecency).

Secondly, he doesn’t appreciate the lack of plan in Sterne’s book; – this, from the preface:

Where design and method are neglected, be the manner of writing ever so sprightly and elegant, the whole turns out to be a mere wild goose-chace, that tends only to bewilder but conducts to no profitable end: it is an ignis fatuus whose twinkling leads us astray, but yields no serviceable light … We have never read any of the truly great humorists that neglected it [design and method] … Consult [Swift’s] Tale of the Tub: see with what art he steals you along, how complete, apposite and instructive are his digressions, not like the late flimsy imitations of them.

Thirdly, he does not like Sterne as a celebrity: -this, immediately following from the last, still referring to Swift as a contrast:

What a command must that great man have had over himself, never to be tempted by the excessive applause that work received, not only in England, but through Europe, to own it.  He did not choose to be pestered with the compliments of the silly and the idle; nor to run gossiping from tea-table to tea-table and cry, “Here I am the wonderful author — there are no works like mine”. Long may that remain a truth for the honour of these kingdoms. Swift did not hawk his face about … to all the portrait-painters in town, vainly begging to have his mazard [?] multiplied … The new tagger [?] of a truly contemptible farrago has met with a profusion and wantonness of success (a discouragement to real merit)

and later

Our manners of speech at present are all be-Tristram’d. Nobody speaks now but in the Shandean style: the modish phraseology is all taken from him, and his equally intelligible imitators

Any mention of Roman Catholicism also raises his ire. – I must admit, I hadn’t remembered it being once mentioned in Tristram Shandy, – but likely it is and often; – and it is only that it is not a subject that troubles me, that it did not signify.

He then proceeds on a line by line dissection of the first book (he cannot be bothered with reading the second), using a remarkable coterie of arguments which are not to the point – for instance, that some claims of Tristram’s are not entirely factual, or some parts of the narrative appear contradictory – as if he were reading the Bible; – whilst using expressions of abuse towards his target of which any litblogger would be proud: such as, “the forerunner of Antichrist … the pernicious author of” … “superficial meddlers in learning appear always fond of pressing any art or science … into whatever crude and incoherent production they are scrawling” … “his unpardonable incoherence and absurdities” … “his native barrenness and staring poverty of invention” … “the superfluous labours of a rantipole [?] brain” … “contains impotent and sniveling school-boy attempts at humour” …

No, I still can’t make up my mind whether it’s serious or not. – Satire should be funny, criticism sensible. It always is on the blog.


4 thoughts on “The Clockmakers Outcry

  1. Perhaps he was; perhaps he was. Tristram is keen to note also that his mother wasn’t a papist – but I think there was a joke here about Catholicism which, like all such jokes, inevitably passed me by.

  2. Either Toby or Walter Shandy is also prone to whistling the ‘Lillibullero’, an anti-Catholic ditty.

  3. I didn’t know that. Our anonymous pamphleteer at one point claims, though in the voice of another, that Uncle Toby perhaps is meant to represent King William.

    Still, I notice, when our anonymous pamphleteer says of the passage:

    [sorry for lack of accents] “sans faire aucun tort a le Pere”, when he learns French better he will write “au Pere”

    in my edition, this correction has been made.

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