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Laurence Sterne began his literary career with political pieces in the York-Courant in 1741. Two years later, he published a poem, “The Unknown World,” in The Gentleman’s Magazine (July, 1743). His song “How Imperfect the Joys of the Soul,” written for Kitty Fourmantel, appeared in Joseph Baildon’s Collection of New Songs Sung at Ranelagh (1765), and a four-line epigram, “On a Lady’s Sporting a Somerset,” was attributed to Sterne in Muse’s Mirror (1778). His sermons were published in three installments: two volumes in 1760, another two in 1766, and a final three volumes in 1769. A satire titled A Political Romance was published in 1759 but quickly suppressed. After Sterne’s death, Letters from Yorick to Eliza appeared in 1773, and his daughter arranged for the publication of the three-volume Letters of the Late Rev. Mr. L. Sterne to His Most Intimate Friends (1775). These volumes include an autobiographical Memoir and the Fragment in the Manner of Rabelais. In 1935, Oxford University Press published the definitive edition of Sterne’s letters, edited by Lewis Perry Curtis. The Journal to Eliza, composed in 1767, was not published until 1904.

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Achievements

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When Laurence Sterne went to London in March, 1760, he was an obscure provincial parson. He rode as a guest in Stephen Croft’s cart, and he brought with him little more than his “best breeches.” Two months later, he returned to York in his own carriage. Robert Dodsley, who the year before had refused the copyright of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent. (commonly known as Tristram Shandy) for 50 pounds, now gladly offered Sterne 250 pounds for the first two volumes, 380 pounds for the next two, as yet unwritten, and another 200 pounds for two volumes of sermons. The famous artist William Hogarth agreed to provide a frontispiece to the second edition of volume 1 and another for volume 3; Joshua Reynolds painted Sterne’s portrait. Like Lord Byron, Sterne could have said that he awoke to find himself famous. As Sterne did say, in a letter to Catherine Fourmantel, “I assure you my Kitty, that Tristram is the Fashion.” Despite the carpings of a few—Horace Walpole thought Tristram Shandy “a very insipid and tedious performance,” and Samuel Richardson thought it immoral—the novel was the rage of London, inspiring so many continuations and imitations that Sterne had to sign the later volumes to guarantee their authenticity.

After the novel’s initial popularity, sales did drop off. In book 8, Tristram complains that he has “ten cart-loads” of volumes 5 and 6 “still unsold.” Dodsley abandoned publication of the work after volume 4, and Sterne’s new publisher, Thomas Becket, complained in April, 1763, that he had 991 copies of volumes 5 and 6 unsold (from a printing of 4,000). Samuel Johnson’s famous comment, though ultimately incorrect, probably reflected the opinion of the day: “Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last.” Even Sterne may have tired of the work; the volumes grew slimmer, and volume 9 appeared without its mate, volume 10 having, in Sterne’s apt words for an obstetrical novel, “miscarried.”

Tristram Shandy has lasted, however. It retains a readership, even if it has continued to justify Sterne’s complaint of being “more read than understood.” Some modern-day readers have made great, perhaps exaggerated, claims for the novel, seeing it as the harbinger of the works of Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Albert Camus, who, it is said, derived from Sterne the concept of relative time, the stream of consciousness, and a sense of the absurd. Even if one discounts such assertions, there can be no question of the work’s importance in the development of the novel or of Tristram Shandy’s place in the first rank of eighteenth century fiction.

Less has been claimed for A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (commonly known as A Sentimental Journey), yet this work, apparently so different from and so much simpler than Tristram Shandy, greatly influenced Continental, especially German, literature of the Romantic period. Though critics debate the sincerity of the emotions in the work, eighteenth century readers generally did not question Yorick’s sentimentality, which contributed to the rise of the cult of sensibility exemplified by such works as Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771). Because of its brevity, its benevolence, and its accessibility, A Sentimental Journey has enjoyed continued popularity since its first appearance. Although lacking the stature of Tristram Shandy, it remains a classic.

Discussion Topics

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In what ways do the works of Laurence Sterne defy the emphasis on reason and order which were important in his time?

What was the basis of Sterne’s admiration of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615; English translation, 1612-1620)?

Is there a relationship between Sterne’s Yorick and the Yorick of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601, pb. 1603)?

What is sentimental in A Sentimental Journey?

What stylistic features of Tristram Shandy were imitated by twentieth century novelists?

Why does Walter Shandy fall so far short in his attempt to raise the perfect son?

Bibliography

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Cash, Arthur Hill. Laurence Sterne. 2 vols. London: Methuen, 1975-1986. The definitive biography. The first volume follows Sterne’s life to early 1760 and offers many details about his role in the religious and political affairs of York. The second volume treats Sterne the author. Presents a realistic picture freed from Victorian strictures and romantic glosses. The appendices provide a series of portraits and of letters never before published.

Cash, Arthur Hill, and John M. Stedmond, eds. The Winged Skull: Papers from the Laurence Sterne Bicentenary Conference. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1971. A collection of essays on a range of subjects, including Sterne’s style, his reputation outside England, and his fictional devices. Includes some helpful illustrations.

Kraft, Elizabeth. Laurence Sterne Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1996. Gives a short biography, and then devotes individual chapters to specific works. Also includes a final chapter on Sterne’s changing critical reputation as well as a selected bibliography.

Myer, Valerie Grosvenor, ed. Laurence Sterne: Riddles and Mysteries. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1984. Contains eleven essays on The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent., covering such matters as the nature of Sterne’s comedy, the intellectual background of the novel, and Sterne’s influence on the work of Jane Austen. Includes a brief annotated bibliography.

New, Melvin. “Tristram Shandy”: A Book for Free Spirits. New York: Twayne, 1994. After providing a literary and historical milieu for Stern’s most famous work, New explores five different methods of approaching Tristram Shandy: “Satire,” “Heads” (that is, intellectually), “Hearts” (that is, emotionally), “Joy,” and “Tartuffery” (as a humorous attack on hypocrisy).

Ross, Ian Campbell. Laurence Sterne: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. A well-researched biography that concentrates on the events of Sterne’s life rather than literary analysis of the works.

Stedmond, John M. The Comic Art of Laurence Sterne: Convention and Innovation in “Tristram Shandy” and “A Sentimental Journey.” Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967. Sterne’s novels highlight the comic distance between aspiration and attainment that is endemic in human existence. Provides helpful readings of the novels and an appendix recording Sterne’s direct borrowings.

Walsh, Marcus, ed. Laurence Sterne. New York: Longman, 2002. Sterne’s works are particularly amenable to post-structuralist interpretation; this collection pulls together a stimulating group of essays that take theoretical approaches to the work.

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