Book Review

Richter, David H. Ideology and Form in Eighteenth-Century Literature. Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University Press, 1999.

Reviewed by William Warner | July 12, 2000

David H. Richter strikes a strident and polemical tone so as to stage a debate about the uses and abuses of “ideology” in eighteenth century studies of literature, especially as it has come to depreciate the central literary concept of an earlier day, “form.” Richter’s test-case is Henry Fielding who he finds both unappreciated and poorly read by the vogue for “ideological”(i.e. politically motivated) readings he exemplifies in discussions of Patricia Meyer Spacks and John Richetti. There is something very familiar about the “debate” as it unfolds across 15 essays, responses, rebuttals in this collection: it includes a loaded and tendentious use of terms; a proliferation of very different “approaches”; accusations of anachronism or nostalgia; the sturdy test-text (here Fielding) making itself available to all comers; and finally, the prize of “literature” either “in itself” or as it arises out of society, culture, politics, etc. In other words, this is a debate at cross-purposes, and one literary studies seems to have been having for a very long time. However, what vindicates this collection, and ends making it a rather fascinating index of where eighteenth century studies finds itself, is the distinguished array of contributors and the thoughtfulness of their essays. The contributors include the editor, David H. Richter, Patricia Meyer Spacks, John Richetti, Ralph W. Rader, Gerald J. Butler, Carol Houlihan Flynn, Ina Ferris, J. Paul Hunter, Trevor Ross, George E. Haggerty, Michael Boardman, Laura Brown and Lennard Davis. John Richetti’s fine essay most fruitfully explores the subtext of this volume’s brandishing of the term “ideology” as “a term of abuse pure and simple”; it’s always the ideology of one’s opponents that stands in the way of reading literature as it should be read. In his survey of theorists of ideology like Terry Eagleton, and the Marxist tradition for which Eagleton speaks, of 20th century criticism of the rise of the novel, of the 18th century writer Henry Fielding, John Richetti develops the argument that ideology is, on the one hand, an indispensable concept embedded in our critical procedures and everywhere at work in the moral and aesthetic judgments found in the 18th century texts of Fielding and his interlocutors, yet, on the other hand, the term “ideology” has become such loaded a term of disapprobation, it carries such a vague and simplistic sense, that it no longer can function as the focus or prize of rigorous critical argument. Perhaps that is why so many of the essays in the collection, written over a period of nearly a decade, and often dutifully including the term “ideology” in their title, nonetheless get their energy from exploring different eighteenth century forms: the heroic couplet of Alexander Pope (J. Paul Hunter), John Rocque’s map of London (Carol Flynn), the elegy of Thomas Gray (George E. Haggerty), and so on.

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