Tara K Menon responds to Daniel Wright

Daniel Wright rightly commends the “timely and suggestive tension between historicism and presentism” of Jonathan Farina’s method. Wright’s remarks made me return to Farina’s preface, in which he explains that he uses everyday words for evidence for “at least three reasons, the first two of which are historicist” (xvii). The two historicist reasons are: first, his approach approximates a nineteenth-century reading practice and second, the history of reading is embedded in form and these taken for granted words thus might be the best evidence of “attitudes, moods, manners, and assumptions” of time. The third reason, on the other hand, is that these words “remain common, and commonly taken for granted, features of everyday English prose” (xviii). This feels intuitively true—all of Farina’s examples (turn, particular, general, as if, something, but) are words we use often, even unthinkingly (as Wright so elegantly demonstrates in his first paragraph). Yet, even the anecdote Farina relates—“my attention to Dickens’s “as if,” for example, was accidentally prompted by a professor indulgently repeating “as it were” in a discussion of Little Dorrit”—made me want more evidence about the use of these words in the present. Do “as if” and “as it were” carry the same connotations? Do novelists in the 21st century use “particular” and “general” at the same frequency, and in the same way, as Austen does? If these words, as Farina shows so convincingly throughout, “have a specific valence in nineteenth-century Britain,” then how is their valence today different? Despite their apparent enduring prevalence, are they used at the same rate today as they were in the prose of the nineteenth-century?

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