Jennifer Phegley, John Cyril Barton and Kristin N. Huston, eds, pref by David S Reynolds, Transatlantic Sensations (Oxford: Routledge 2012) 302 pp. Hb, £95.00. ISBN: 9781409427155
This book sets out to examine narrative and artistic representations of sensation. Choosing and using diverse approaches to the subject matter, this collection of essays demonstrates the strongly interdependent relationship between European and American literary works by undertaking a simultaneous analysis of the fields of sensation writing and transatlantic studies. Focusing on the long nineteenth century, the interdisciplinary investigations contextualise their objects of study in relation to debates that occurred among contemporary authors from both sides of the Atlantic - whose main themes primarily touched upon cultural anxieties about the "Other" (the foreign, the radical, the enslaved and others who were outside the hegemonic power structure). The essays in this volume challenge the traditional academic emphasis on canonisation by providing readers with innovative insights into the intercultural basis of transatlantic identity.
Transatlantic Sensations begins with the study of sentimental and gothic fiction, highlighting their importance in the period. Christopher Apap's 'Irresponsible Acts: The Transatlantic Dialogues of William Godwin and Charles Brockden Brown' demonstrates that Godwin's interest in experimenting with the sensational in detective novels (mostly concentrating on false accusations) was strongly shared by Brown, his transatlantic admirer, who established the American Gothic by focusing on psychological themes. Holly Blackford's essay entitled 'Daughters of the American Revolution: Sensational Pedagogy in Susanna Rowson's Charlotte Temple' deals with the dilemma of sustaining virtue in seduction novels while drawing attention to Rowson's attempt to balance sensational thrill and moral voice in her writing in order to gain appreciation and respect from her readers.
The piece that follows - '"Raw Pork Steaks with Treacle": Nineteenth-Century American Sensationalism and Oliver Twist' by David Bordelon - highlights the American appetite for violence, vivid descriptions of vice and scenes of horror in literature. Oliver Twist fed America's hunger for and excitement about cases of cruelty and, by extension, created a link between an English writer and his American audience. In contrast to this argument, David S. Reynolds's 'Radical Sensationalism: George Lippard in his Transatlantic Contexts' focuses on the separation of the two cultures. Reynolds claims that the Philadelphia author reformed the themes and literary devices of European sensation writing, making them more extreme and more politically radical. An exceptional writer, Lippard combined sensationalism and working-class radicalism with his trademark powerful intensity, in this way creating a new literary discourse.
The next article also concentrates on portraying efforts to distinguish America from Europe. Alexander Moudrov's 'The Scourge of "Foreign Vagabonds": George Thompson and the Influence of European Sensationalism in Popular Antebellum Literature' reveals that George Thompson - whose works infuriated some readers due to their use of sadism, pornography, cross-dressing and other socially unacceptable themes - preferred scandalous subject matter precisely because he aimed to promote traditional American values and warn his people about the dangers that they faced, should they allow European art and literature to influence American society. In essence, Thompson justified his choice of provocative topics and characters in his fiction by claiming that it was his patriotic duty to expose the negative aspects of American life - which he believed were the results of European influence.
As a way of exposing the intricacies of the dichotomy between America and Europe, Dorice Williams Elliott adopts a markedly different viewpoint in her essay 'Charles Reade: the British Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Affect of Sensation'. Examining the British sensation writer Charles Reade's It Is Never Too Late to Mend (1856) and American novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), the author stresses that Reade not only gave Stowe's novel high praise, but also linked its core topic to his own by suggesting that prisoners were as much a tabooed class in England as blacks were in America. Reade refrained from separating America and Europe based on such generalised qualities as vulgarity vs. sophistication, rather he tried to uncover features that united the two cultures.
Combining European and American viewpoints, both Kimberly Snyder Manganelli's 'Women in White: The Tragic Mulatta and the Rise of British Sensation Fiction' and Jennifer Phegley's 'Slavery, Sensation, and Transatlantic Publishing Rights in Mary Elizabeth Braddon's The Octoroon' analyse Braddon's fictional character, Cora Leslie, who is an American girl educated in England. Her story revolves around a shocking secret (she does not know she is an octoroon) and a struggle to escape the unjust and tragic destiny of mixed-race people in America. Approaching legal issues from a slightly different angle, in 'Business Sense and Sensation: the Transatlantic Trade in Domestic Drama' Kate Mattacks investigates the creative and legal tensions that underpinned the transatlantic trade in texts as exposed, for example, in Thomas Hailes Lacy's reprint of one of Augustin Daly's dramas.
In her essay entitled 'Transatlantic Magnetism: Eliot's "The Lifted Veil" and Alcott's Sensation Stories' Susan David Bernstein adopts a comparative method of analysis. She skilfully evaluates themes, techniques and transatlantic appearances in the works of George Eliot and Louisa May Alcott. Narin Hassan also chooses Alcott as one of the main writers to consider in 'Botanical Brews: Tea, Consumption, and the Exotic in Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret and Alcott's Behind A Mask', and she looks into the narrative portrayal of women as performers of female domesticity in the two stories.
Tamara S. Wagner's article on 'Transatlantic Sensationalism in Victorian Domestic Fiction: Failed Settler Narratives in Charlotte Yonge's The Trial' likewise scrutinises an unusual theme: it emphasises the ways Yonge used her fiction to question the transportability of domesticity that is vital to successful migration and settlement in a foreign country. Julia McCord Chavez also offers a distinctive perspective in 'The Return of the Native as Transatlantic Sensation; Or, Hardy Sensationalized' by re-examining Thomas Hardy as a popular novelist participating in a complex transatlantic literary culture. Finally, Ana Savic Moturu's 'Violent Passions: Anglo-American Sensationalization of the Balkans' also makes an original contribution by studying the role of sensational journalism in shaping American popular response to the Balkan crisis.
The contributors succeed in highlighting the many ways in which literature and the arts reflected social and political differences on both sides of the Atlantic, yet created new channels of communication between a variety of cultures. In addition to being of interest to literary scholars, Transatlantic Sensations is essential reading too for those with a research interest in the growing field of transatlanticism.
Teodora Domotor, University of Surrey