Performing Authorship in the Nineteenth-Century Transatlantic Lecture Tour by Amanda Adams

Ashgate Publishing (Farnham, Surrey, 2014) – Reviewed by Graham Harman.

What is it?

At 148 pages, plus a further 20 pages of Bibliography and Index, Amanda Adams’ latest offering is a slender volume; but you won’t breeze through this substantive compendium of information in an afternoon.

What’s it about?

The label’s on the tin – it’s about “Performing Authorship in the Nineteenth-Century Transatlantic Lecture Tour”. And to give some colour, major authors discussed – from the viewpoint of their being transatlantic lecturers – include Harriet Beecher Stowe; Charles Dickens; Mark Twain; Matthew Arnold; Oscar Wilde and Henry James. Sylvia Plath and Paris Hilton also make cameo appearances in this detailed and far-ranging excursion into the cult of celebrity.

Who is the book written for?

My guess is, it’s written for a pretty narrow, academic audience. It’s presented in that dense, agglomerative style of writing, jam-packed with polysyllabic vocabulary, which is the habitual “embodiment” of present-day academic thought. This sort of stuff is best attacked with a dictionary in one hand and a machete in the other. You don’t so much read it, as hack your way through. Words such as “epideictic” and “peripatetic”, for example, had me retreating to Dictionary.com in search of back-up. General readers, with a particular interest in Dickens, would in my view find it rewarding but demanding.

What’s good about it?

It’s detailed, scholarly, packed with information, and picaresque and anecdotal (in a positive sense) in style. That is to say, the book delivers an unceasing stream of interesting and substantive vignettes, that bring to life the lecture circuit on which Dickens and his contemporaries performed their works. There’s absolutely no doubt that Amanda Adams knows her subject!

The book also makes you think! and enlarges our understanding of the works of Dickens and his contemporaries. Another plus of the book is that the information provided appears to be pretty much frank and fearless – the reader is left with the sense that, yes, this is how it happened, this is not a carefully selected set of facts that support a particular narrow case.

What didn’t I like?

Despite the claim on the back of the dust-jacket that this is an “engaging book”, a ripping yarn it ain’t. It’s also picaresque and anecdotal, in an under-organized sense. Whilst there’s undoubtedly an abundance of recurrent, cryptic allusions to a menagerie of theoretical underpinnings (and a killer bibliography!) there are only fleeting and occasional glimpses of any helpful signposts which tell you what the argument is; where the author is going with it; how all the jigsaw pieces relate to each other; and where you are, now. An extra sentence here or there would have made all the difference in terms of improving comprehension! Immersed in the book, you’ll spend 148 pages pounded by an ongoing maelstrom of shrapnel, declaiming that “performing authorship is interesting, and is important”; but I would have hoped for a sustained, coherent argument on the subject matter of the book, and I was disappointed in that regard. By the time you arrive at the end the book does not reach a triumphant climax, or even a compelling conclusion, but simply – stops!

The second way in which, in my view, the book is under-organized, is that information is released in a way that is neither sequentially logical nor, from a reader’s perspective, lucid. On page 4, for example, Adams writes that “The American popular lecture … was institutionalized – through the lyceum system and then the Chautauqua movement – lending itself to more focused study”. So – what are “the lyceum system” and “the Chautauqua movement”? The book does not tell you! They are introduced parenthetically and without explanation! You have to stop reading, and to Google them! Academic diffidence about stating the “obvious” is often misplaced. Presumably, given the price tag of $US99.49, the publishers could have funded a couple of extra pages in total length and explained more of the terms used in the book. In this particular example, I just needed a sentence that said: “The Chautauqua movement was an adult education movement in the United States, which was founded in 1874, and was highly popular until the 1920s”.

The final major negative, for me, was that I found the book to be somewhat unreadable. It is not, in my view, intelligible and well-organized at the sentence and syntactic levels. In a similar vein, the use of verb tenses is often awkward, and hard-going for the reader. It’s a big call to claim that a professor of English doesn’t have the ability to write English – an ability which you would have hoped was a core competency – but after battling through 148 pages of Adams’ tortuous prose I was still being hit over the head, in the concluding paragraph, by constructions such as this:

Audiences could shout “speak up”, laugh harder at one joke than another, or behave in disruptive ways, all of which performing authors took note and to which they responded.’

In my opinion that’s simply not grammatical. You be the judge.

What does it have to say about Charles Dickens?

Dickens is bracketed with Oscar Wilde in Chapter 2 of the book, a chapter entitled “Performing Ownership” – although there are plenty of other references to him, throughout. Chapter 2 opens with an amusing anecdote describing how the faithfulness or otherwise of Dickens’ 1867 New York interpretation of Martin Chuzzlewit, to the novel itself, was assessed by contemporary reviewers. It’s all a bit like that apocryphal episode, where Charlie Chaplin once came third in a Charlie Chaplin look-a-like competition. From that disquieting point of departure, the discussion moves swiftly into substantive matters relating to ownership; authorship; authenticity; and the nature of “embodiment” as it relates to novels, to characters, to fictional narrators and to the authors themselves. Here’s a taste of one of Adams’ dense and insightful descriptions of Charles Dickens’ “performing authorship”: “[Dickens’ and Twain’s] approach to lecturing – which involved performing or inhabiting the text – worked to close the gap between an author and an author’s work, if only for an hour, in a way that paralleled their more explicit fight for intellectual property”. Plenty of food for thought, just in that one sentence!

Conclusion – Four stars

I’d definitely rate this book, four stars. If you’re the kind of reader who likes dense, substantive, fact-packed academic writing, and if you’re after some serious brain calisthenics regarding who Charles Dickens “was”, and what a novel “is”, then that’s four stars out of five. If you’re a general reader who likes a flowing, coherent narrative that’s enjoyable to read and easy to digest, then it’s out of ten.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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