Modern Antiquities: The Material Past in England, 1660-1780.
Through an analysis of material culture, Kalter's study addresses the ways that the eighteenth century interacted with the past. Central to Kalter's argument is that a reevaluation of the means through which authors brought imagination into assessments of the material past is what defines the modern period. Ancient and medieval objects were adapted, collected, and displayed both to uphold and to challenge constructions of the national present. Kalter's project is imaginative and often innovative in its treatment of seemingly disparate subjects that relate to the collection and representation of the material past in the eighteenth century. Kalter's prose is elegant and, even more important, always cogent enough that difficult terminologies and complex theories appear clear and comprehendible. Especially relevant and remarkable is the introduction, which thoughtfully organizes critical voices from a wide chronology, ranging from Medieval texts to twenty-first century scholarship. Perhaps this achievement is a result of the study's acknowledgement of the way that objects complicate conceptions of time and history. The sections on time and the advent of chronology are particularly noteworthy in their measured and articulate evaluation of theorists ranging from Hume to Benjamin. One of Kalter's many strengths lies in locating such varied and rich early sources, but never letting them bog down the argument or distract from the central claims. The quotations are illuminating and far-reaching, and the primary letters, especially those from Dryden and Walpole, are not only immensely relevant, but also frequently entertaining.
Kalter guides readers through four chapters that are linked by their relationship to history and the study of the material past. In Chapter One, Kalter juxtaposes John Dryden's manipulation of time against contemporary conceptions of chronology to suggest that the 'opposition between poetry and chronology becomes less diametrical and more dialectical' (30), and then examines Dryden's use of anachronism as a challenge to linear time. Chapter Two addresses eighteenth-century editions of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales to locate the two strains that define the English modern period, one that establishes through Chaucer's archaic language a national past, and the other that emends and annotates the text to show a national progress to the future. In either case, these versions were 'manufactured as totems of [...] the nation' (73). In Chapter Three, Kalter brings to light Thomas Gray's search for medieval-style wallpaper, a product that 'epitomizes the tensions of a period in which commerce was transforming rather than replacing historical consciousness' (111). Chapter Four reconsiders Horace Walpole's collection of curiosities at Strawberry Hill in terms of his interest in ephemerality to show that historical objects lose their attachment to the past and begin to represent the contexts of their current environment. Walpole's collection creates a new history by demonstrating that changing the past is 'unavoidable, once the past has been identified with alterable, fugitive things' (155).
In the conclusion, Kalter writes that his book has 'traced a contradictory, crooked course history took through epic anachronism and modernized Canterbury Tales, Gothic wallpaper, and collectible armor' (200). Although Kalter draws attention to the 'contradictory' and 'crooked' nature of his subjects--indeed, much of what defines the modern period is deemed paradoxical--the study could profit from more indications of continuity. The chapters themselves are individual triumphs, but the study might benefit from more signposting and connective tissue to keep the collective argument at the forefront. Kalter's investment with how fiction writers collected, displayed, and altered the past is centered on Dryden, Gray, and Walpole, as it studies the authors' use of anachronism, wallpaper, and armor, respectively. Yet Chapter Two focuses on eighteenth-century translations and adaptations of Chaucer, a chapter which, though meticulously presented and undoubtedly original, seems peculiarly out of place in a study of the material past. Kalter asserts that each 'chapter reads works by authors in light of their knowledge of scholarly techniques, findings, and principles' (9), but the many critics that Kalter introduces in his chapter on Chaucer may serve to obscure the greater claims of the book. Perhaps it is merely a result of the interests of this reviewer, but the later chapters on Gray and Walpole are the most entertaining and may be the most relevant to the central claims of the study.
For scholars interested in the Gothic, Kalter's chapter on Walpole is probably the most useful. The section on 'Excavating The Castle of Otranto is particularly imaginative and adds new and crucial ideas to a novel that has heretofore invited much critical attention. Through his analysis of Walpole's purchase and display of armor, Kalter sheds new light on the dream that Walpole claimed inspired Otranto. This section, however, begs for an even deeper excavation not only into Walpole's investment with the material past, but also with how this investment plays out within the pages of Otranto. Kalter's conclusion that the past is a 'site of ongoing construction like Strawberry Hill, constantly augmented and revised according to fresh evidence and new concerns' (190) is deeply intriguing and warrants even more examples, not only from Walpole, but also from other writers and collectors in the eighteenth century. Still, Kalter's study is an essential step in reconsidering the role of the material past in forming modern ideas. Kalter argues that the 'perception of time was mediated by objects' (12). Rather than defining historical periodization in abstract qualities and quantities, Kalter locates modernity at its roots in the physical world. Kalter puts the aims and relevance of his project best: 'The myriad objects around us that once seemed locked in synchrony now tell their own times, relating countless histories that deviate from the master narrative of modernity as the rejections of all that precedes it' (195). The study of the material past in the eighteenth century defines modernity not only as a gaze towards the future, but also as an engagement with the vibrant intersections between the present and the past that are often located at sites of consumer culture.
CLAYTON TARR Leicester UK
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||May 1, 2014|
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