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"Let people tell their stories their own way":

Tristram Shandy as Novel, Provocation, Remix

From 1759 until shortly before his death in 1767, Laurence Sterne published the weirdest work of fiction yet seen -- "postmodern" generations before the term would be coined.  In it, Tristram attempts to tell the story of his life -- his whole life, from conception on -- as he is rapidly running out of time.

Sterne claimed "Tristram Shandy... was made to baffle all criticism - and I will venture to rest the book on this ground - that it is either above the power or beneath the attention of any critic or hyper-critic whatsoever.” Critics will critique, of course: in 1776, Samuel Johnson huffed that it was "not English” and that "Nothing odd will do for long... Tristram Shandy did not last.”  Twentieth-century critic FR Leavis dismissed what he called Sterne's "irresponsible (and nasty) trifling.”  But Tristram Shandy has lasted, thanks to those like Virginia Woolf who found the novel brings us "as close to life as we can be,” C.S. Lewis, who found Tristram Shandy ideal teatime reading, and the generations of authors, from Karl Marx to Salman Rushdie to Milan Kundera, who were all inspired by Sterne’s style.

Because it was published a volume or two at a time, across eight years, readers were able to respond, creating fake continuations, songs, dances, card games, pornographic parodies, sermons, cartoons, portraits, and more. Much more. Ignatius Sancho wrote to Sterne to encourage his characters to voice support for the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade, and their resulting correspondence became a talking point in the ongoing debate.

This course takes seriously the idea that transformative work (adaptation, fanwork, and the like) is a useful form of literary analysis and critique. Our "slow reading" of Sterne's masterwork will be punctuated by readings of other novels published simultaneously (a feminist utopia, the first Gothic novel) as well as debates from the period (the abolition of slavery, the buildup to the American Revolution, transformations of copyright law).  We will also consider the many creative responses by our own contemporaries (radio, film, and graphic novel adaptations), and do hands-on creative work using the tools of the new Book Lab Cart (marbling paper, setting type).  We will also have the gift of many visiting artists, writers, and scholars, thanks to the Women in the Arts 1660-1840 conference held here at Auburn.

Students will be responsible for maintaining a commonplace book across the semester, participation in the work of an active learning classroom, and curating a final portfolio of creative responses rooted in careful textual engagement with our readings.  

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