In this insightful, detailed, but digressive work, Wilson (The Pursuit of Liberty, 1984) makes the bold claim that the...

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FIGURES OF SPEECH: American Writers and the Literary Marketplace, from Benjamin Franklin to Emily Dickinson

In this insightful, detailed, but digressive work, Wilson (The Pursuit of Liberty, 1984) makes the bold claim that the evolution of the literary marketplace was the most important influence on American writers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. An introduction proposing this theme is followed by five chapters discussing writers representative of major genres of the day: Benjamin Franklin (autobiography), Washington Irving (fiction), William Lloyd Garrison (journalism), Ralph Waldo Emerson (essays), and Emily Dickinson (poetry). Wilson determines each author's conception of the role of the writer by analyzing biographical materials and the texts themselves. The writers' ambivalence about the relatively new notion of writing for money and for a mass audience forced them to project various solutions to the dilemma: Franklin's consciously contrived heroic persona; Irving's refusal to acknowledge the professional aspects of writing; Garrison's status as rebel with a cause; Emerson's increasingly socially engaged poet-scholar; and Dickinson's withdrawal from the world were all reactions to a new professional climate. As Wilson painstakingly deconstructs these invented ""figures of speech,"" the theme of self-imaging at times overshadows the issue of the marketplace. Beginning in each case with the writer's family and class background, Wilson sketches his or her life, focusing on anecdotes and key events that shaped character. The lively narratives are marred by redundancy and excessive use of examples, and range off in different directions as Wilson pursues biographical or critical ideas not central to his theme; moreover, the author's attempts to unmask his subjects are not always convincing. More valuable for its individual psychological portraits than for any coherent assessment of the relationship of writers to the marketplace.

Pub Date: Feb. 9, 1988

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: -

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1988