A Literary History of Sympathy, 1750–1850 would be a very good thing to have, but this book is not quite that. Rather, it starts with a testing point in Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments and then discusses various writers who might be seen to respond to it—principally Laurence Sterne, Henry Mackenzie, Saint-Pierre, Chateaubriand, Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, and the French translator of Smith. The point is the celebrated passage in Moral Sentiments where Smith discusses how we can never really participate in someone else's experience. We are always required to imagine it “in some measure,” he says, even if the experience in question is extreme and proximate, “though our brother is upon the rack.” Britton understands “in some measure” as articulating a limit to sympathy, making sympathy depend “figurative or literally, on the bonds of kinship,” a view apparently confirmed by Smith's remark, later in the book, that people...
Vicarious Narratives: A Literary History of Sympathy, 1750–1850
Seamus Perry is professor of English literature at the University of Oxford and a fellow of Balliol College. The author of Samuel Taylor Coleridge; Coleridge and the Uses of Division; Tennyson; T. S. Eliot's “The Waste Land”; and Auden's Face: Life and Poetry, he is also general editor of a forthcoming edition of the critical works of William Empson. He coedits Essays in Criticism (with Christopher Ricks and Freya Johnston).
Seamus Perry; Vicarious Narratives: A Literary History of Sympathy, 1750–1850. Common Knowledge 1 May 2021; 27 (2): 309. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/0961754X-8906187
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