J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, June 10, 2011

Tristram Shandy and the American Generals

Yesterday Boston 1775 shared a glimpse of one spread from Tristram Shandy, a publishing sensation two and a half centuries ago. It made its author, the Rev. Laurence Sterne (shown here), into a celebrity.

Among the novel’s fans in America was Nathanael Greene. He made allusions to the book in his letters, and he imitated characters. According to Greene’s grandson and biographer:
his brothers, to the day of their death, could never mention Tristram Shandy without dilating upon the exquisite comicality of his impersonation of Dr. Slop.
In July 1775, Greene was made a brigadier general in the Continental Army and then assigned to serve under the major general Charles Lee.

Reading sources from that year, I sense that a lot of people saw Lee as larger than life. He was considered one of the greatest experts on military affairs in North America. He had been wounded once in battle and twice in duels. He had traveled west far enough to lead the first British expedition on Lake Erie, and east far enough to have seen the Russians fight the Turks.

Lee had told off George III for not granting him a regimental command. He had met the king of Poland, the Holy Roman Emperor, and Frederick the Great of Prussia. He was friends was Isaac Barré, Catherine Macaulay, the Earl of Shelburne, Edmund Burke, and other leading British opposition figures. Lee’s own political writing was widely reprinted in America in 1774-75.

And Lee was a good friend of Laurence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy. The two men had even published verse together. Imagine getting a new boss like that.

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