Erik Simpson

Literary Minstrelsy, 1770–1830: Minstrels and Improvisers in British, Irish, and American Literature

Erik Simpson, Literary Minstrelsy, 1770–1830:  Minstrels and Improvisers in British, Irish, and American Literature. New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. 215 pp. ISBN:  978-0-230-20051-7 (hardback).  £45.00 (UK); $80.00 (USA).

Reviewed by Steven Newman, Temple University
(online, August 2011)

A book has to be pretty persuasive to make me re-read Thomas Percy’s The Hermit of Warkworth (1771), a tough slog through three ‘fits’ of ballad stanzas studded with precious archaisms like ‘y-clad’ and sugared throughout by its author’s deference to his noble patrons the Northumberlands. But I did so after reading Simpson’s inventive and careful analysis, in which Percy’s poem emerges as ‘the direct inspiration, in content and method, of Scott’s metrical romances,’ and its title character as a model for the melancholic Byronic hero (8–9). It thus stands as an important example of ‘literary minstrelsy,’ which he convincingly posits as ‘the social face of the nineteenth-century poetic imagination’ (157), an imagination that stretches across the Atlantic and will thus be of particular interest to the readers of Symbiosis.

Simpson’s study is a welcome addition to the polyphonic and growing scholarship on the elite appropriation of the ballad in ‘the long eighteenth century,’ from Susan Stewart’s ‘The Scandal of the Ballad’ in Crimes of Writing (1991) and Katie Trumpener’s Bardic Nationalism (1997) to Maureen N. McLane’s Balladeering, Minstrelsy, and the Making of Romantic Poetry (2008), along with newly galvanized scholarship on Robert Burns, James Hogg, Sydney Owenson, and others, many of whom are intelligently treated by Simpson. Along with this has been a growing interest in the print culture that includes the broadside, as in the work collected in a recent special issue of The Eighteenth Century (2006) and Ballads and Broadsides in Britain, 1500–1800 (2010). Within this scholarly constellation, Simpson’s book defines its ambit through the motile figure of the minstrel, as variously employed by men and women of differing nationalities and socio-economic positions, laboring to establish themselves in a shifting elite print marketplace.

After laying out his main claims by way of eighteenth-century predecessors like James Beattie’s The Minstrel (1771–74) and Percy’s Hermit, Simpson considers the work of Sydney Owenson. He shows how, in works like The Wild Irish Girl (1806) and The Lay of an Irish Harp (1807), she makes use of the multivocality that comes with ‘minstrel writing’—the set piece of poetic performance surrounded by narratorial commentary. Unlike Thomas Gray’s ‘The Bard’ (1757) or the novels of Walter Scott, Owenson refuses a neat historiography of progress that preserves bards and minstrels in antiquarian amber and mounts them in a display of the inevitable movement toward British modernity. This chapter also evidences Simpson’s gift for clever turns of mind and phrase that lend precision and energy to his analysis, such as ‘the slightly historical novel’ and the ‘sentimental scholarly note’ (35; 42). 

The next chapter develops this interest in the mutually inflecting terms of gender and nationality in its analysis of Germaine de Staël’s invention of the Italian ‘improvisatrice’ in Corinne, or Italy (1807) and those who followed her lead, such as Letitia Elizabeth Landon (LEL). Here, we see Simpson’s ability to tease out the political implications of ‘minstrel writing,’ as when he demonstrates that ‘Corinne presents improvisation as a political path between stasis and revolution, as an artistic theory of post-Terror moderate liberalism’ (55).  He then shows how Hannah More, Joanna Baillie, and others critiqued the dangerous feminism and Continental politics of the improvisatrice in a long contest over the meaning and value of the improvising female minstrel. 

From here, Simpson returns to Beattie to cast new light on two canonical pillars of Romanticism, Wordsworth and Byron. For Wordsworth, Beattie’s text offers ‘a narrative of youthful exuberance being tempered into a more reasoned adult wisdom’ (79). In texts of 1814–15 such as The Excursion, Wordsworth uses this politically conservative autobiography to offer an alternative to the commercial successes of Scott and Byron’s minstrelsy. In a Bourdieuvian ‘loser wins’ version of the literary marketplace, Wordsworth’s quietly maturing heroes may not sell as well as Scott’s action-packed minstrel tales, but it is precisely for that reason that they are more valuable (87).  Byron will have none of these pieties and revises Scott in another direction. In a fine set of brief readings from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto 1 (1812) and The Giaour (1813), Simpson reveals how Byron scrambles the neat temporal and geographical Border narratives of Scott to produce ‘a modern, skeptical minstrelsy’ (92).

Authors who occupy less stable positions than Byron, Scott, or even Wordsworth are at the core of the fifth chapter, ‘The Minstrel Goes to Market.’ As prize poems move from the circumscribed world of the university into the ‘mass-produced periodical,’ Felicia Hemans, James Hogg, and LEL bid for the laurel. Hemans’s poem on William Wallace (1819) demonstrates how an Englishwoman could appropriate a Scottish hero and thereby also reveal the way economic interest was essential to the supposedly disinterested poetic manufacture of patriotism. Hogg’s The Queen’s Wake (1813) exposes the corruption of the modern literary system, personified in Hogg’s undependable patron Scott, by refracting it through the lens of a minstrel contest for Mary, Queen of Scots, in which the humble Ettrick Shepherd is scorned by his social betters but poetic inferiors. LEL’s contest poems (1825; 1827) demystify the patriarchal and nationalistic impulses that inform minstrelsy by underscoring the artificiality of the chivalric tales woven by Percy, Scott, and their followers (132). While Wordsworth may influentially construct a Romanticism defined against the market, these poets reveal the contingencies that make it necessary for poets to engage in a more social and competitive poetic world. 

This is the complex ‘minstrel writing’ bequeathed to writers in the United States. The concluding chapter focuses on The Last of the Mohicans to argue that a broader trans-Atlantic minstrelsy has been overlooked by those who understandably focus on the racially-charged blackface minstrelsy of the popular stage. Simpson does this by tracing Cooper’s representation of minstrelsy back to de Staël, Owenson, and others and through his opposition of the travestied European minstrel, David Gamut, to the more authentic songs of Native Americans. Encoded within this ‘internationalization of literary minstrelsy’ (239) was a tension between exoticizing and domesticating. It gets enacted in Cooper as well as blackface minstrelsy in a term Simpson borrows from James Snead via Michael Rogin—an ‘exclusionary emulation’ through which one can imitate another culture while keeping the originators at a distance (146). The politics of this emulation could range from a protest against an Anglocentric Union to an impassioned defense of the slave system, but the structure remained the same. Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha (1855) provides a last example of this minstrel process at work. Blocked by the particularities of American history from a direct Herderian culture of the Volk, Longfellow appropriates a ‘perishing’ Native American culture, bringing its song into print just as the word ‘minstrel’ begins to become in Britain and America the name of a collection of songs. Longfellow is a late member in a long, trans-Atlantic genealogy that uses the rhetorical resources of minstrelsy—its orientation toward performance, rhetorical multiplicity, and masks—to a variety of ends. 

I hope I have given some sense of the richness and insights of this book. There are also, however, some regrettable absences. I sometimes wished for a fuller explications of the passages quoted since Simpson is a fine close reader. Additionally, while his adherence to his description of ‘minstrel writing’ as a ‘literary convention’ lends the book coherence, it also predisposes him to miss opportunities to situate it within a wider web of discourses and print. I would have also liked to see him do more than gesture toward the doubling of the ‘minstrel’ as both performer and songbook, especially since the minstrel does appear in ballads and chapbooks. For instance, Moore’s ‘Minstrel Boy’ is reprinted multiple times and inspires a ballad parody beginning, ‘The fiddler boy to the fair has gone’ (see The Bodleian Library Broadsides, ballads/ballads.htm). The minstrel’s presence in these cheapest forms of print raises interesting questions about the intended and actual audiences for this discourse, and I think they may be particularly relevant to Simpson’s interest in the difference made by the American context. Does the minstrel cross the Atlantic as a figure in ballads and chapbooks? If so, how might the appearance of this relic of an imagined feudality alter within a republican landscape? (This is a form of a question posed by folklorists about the lords and ladies of English and Scottish balladry when they get exported to America.) The ‘literary’ also limits Simpson’s analysis in a somewhat different vein; I wished for more explicit connections between ‘minstrel writing’ and the various historiographies and anthropologies that emerge during the Enlightenment and later around race, especially given Beattie’s reputation as a critic of Hume. This, I think, would have clarified and deepened the stakes of, say, the distinctions between Scott and Owenson’s visions of progress and the relationship of the individual and the collective. Finally, a fuller engagement with the relationship between lyric and race in nineteenth-century America would have been welcome, as in John Kerkering’s The Poetics of National and Racial Identity (2003). 

These desiderata do not call into question the basic claims of the book or their usefulness. Simpson covers an admirable amount of ground in a novel way, and perhaps would have happily engaged these topics more fully were it not for word limits or some other contingency. I do, however, have one concern of a more basic sort, and that has to do with the treatment of lyric. Simpson begins by positing minstrel writing as ‘a model of writing in dialogic opposition to Romantic lyricism,’ and his model is drawn from John Stuart Mill’s famous distinction between eloquence as heard and poetry as overheard. Yet Simpson leaves unexamined whether Mill’s distinction is an accurate account of non-minstrel Romantic lyric, and it is not therefore surprising that important recent work on Romantic lyric along these lines by Sarah Zimmerman, Anne Janowitz, and G. Gabrielle Starr goes unmentioned. In other words, the opposition between these two modes of lyric is clear enough, but there doesn’t really appear to be a dialogue between them. Simpson never reflects on his own categories of lyric in a way that would allow him to consider, say, William Blake, and not just the minstrel poems of Poetical Sketches but also the Songs of Innocence and of Experience and the epics that follow, not to mention Joanna Baillie or John Keats, or, in the American context, Emily Dickinson (see Virginia Jackson’s Dickinson’s Misery), Poe, or Whittier (though Whitman and Longfellow are mentioned briefly).

This absence is most telling in the analysis of Wordsworth, which is the least persuasive section of the book, though still useful in how it situates him within a wider debate over minstrelsy. Simpson does reluctantly admit, ‘at its best, Wordsworth’s poetry always complicated such simple teleologies’ (88). But the Wordsworth who emerges here is the very familiar reactionary of New Historicist critique. This has something to do, I think, with the decision to limit the examples to the work of 1814–15; for instance, the poems written out of the 1803 Tour of Scotland like ‘The Solitary Reaper’ and ‘Glen Almain’ (which takes up the myth of Ossian) offer a richer thinking through of the relationship between minstrelsy, balladry, and the supposedly solitary lyric. Also missing here is some scholarship that has taken up Wordsworth’s revision of the Ballad Revival, most notably Thomas Pfau’s Wordsworth’s Profession (1997).

Happily, this fine book does not stand or fall on Wordsworth, and it would be ungrateful to end on a complaint. This is a well-conceived and well-executed study of ‘minstrel writing’ that significantly enriches our understanding of what might be called an emerging trans-Atlantic poetics of the vernacular. 

 © Symbiosis, 2011