Colonial Discourse and William Makepeace Thackeray's 'Irish Sketch Book.'

By Brewer, Kenneth L., Jr. | Papers on Language & Literature, Summer 1993 | Go to article overview

Colonial Discourse and William Makepeace Thackeray's 'Irish Sketch Book.'


Brewer, Kenneth L., Jr., Papers on Language & Literature


INTRODUCTION: DISCURSIVE ECONOMIES

"Some hundred years hence," Thackeray writes in The Irish Sketch Book of 1842,

when students want to inform themselves of the history of the present day, and refer to files of Times and Chronicle for the purpose, I think it is possible that they will consult, not so much those luminous and philosophical leading-articles which call our attention at present both by the majesty of their eloquence and the largeness of their type, but that they will turn to those parts of the journals into which information is squeezed into the smallest possible print: to the advertisements, namely, the law and police reports, and to the instructive narratives supplied by that ill-used body of men who transcribe knowledge at the rate of a penny a line. (10)

Thackeray's argument is that journalistic space is structured according to a binary opposition between "high" and "low" discourse that is signified in a number of ways: by the style of writing ("eloquence" or the lack of it); by the size of the print (larger print indicating importance); and finally by the payment the writer receives, which, while obviously not immediately apparent, is implicit in the way the first two factors create certain premises on the part of readers. Here, what Thackeray suggests is that future readers attempting to understand the past will look to what the current hegemonic reading public considers "low" discourse: these writings, Thackeray claims, provide a more accurate representation of his time than supposedly more "philosophical" analyses. Thackeray insists that the "low," not the "high," should be privileged as a source of insight into the specificities of a historical moment,

Historiography has, of course, with the rise of "new historicism," proved Thackery remarkably prescient. For adherents to this method, the claim that the real "truth" of Victorian England, or any other period, is to be found in what the period itself considered "low" discourses is a working assumption. There is, however, considerable irony in this comment appearing in The Irish Sketch Book. In the context of Thackeray's own oeuvre, the Sketch Book has long been considered "low" in relation to the later fictional works of "genius" such as Vanity Fair and Henry Esmond, receiving little scholarly attention. However, the attention it has attracted has been almost completely negative: for many critics the text shows Thackeray as a virulent racist who saw the Irish, in B.G. MacCarthy's words, as "at best irresponsible children, at worst dangerous incendiaries" (55). The Sketch Book, these readers argue, is full of stereotypes of the Irish, and is the work of a man who was unable to get past his prejudices to see "objectively."(1) Thus, heeding Thackeray's own advice and digging through "minor" works, readers like MacCarthy uncover evidence that could diminish Thackeray's status as a writer and social critic. Perhaps because of the inherent ambiguities of fictional discourse--notably the distance the use of character introduces between author and attitudes espoused in the text by particular characters--it is apparently far easier for these critics to delineate Thackeray's political attitudes in the travelogues than in later works, especially the works towards the end of his life, which are historical novels and thus complicate issues of representation. And these early writings reveal, the argument goes, Thackeray's reliance on racial categories to explain and justify the colonial relationship between England and Ireland.(2) The irony, then, is that Thackeray's hope that future readers would dig through the archives for accurate representations of the past is being realized at his own expense.

These denunciatory readings have not gone unchallenged. Gunther Klotz, in a short essay, wishes "to reconsider what seems to have become a stereotype of Thackeray criticism [that the Sketch Book is racist] and to replace it by an assessment more in accord with Thackeray's texts and with his methods of irony" (95). …

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