A Fellow of Infinite Jest
Laurence Sterne is the one professed sentimentalist who is generally ranked among the unarguably great. As to Sterne’s infractions of the sexual taboos, the substance of his offense is that he regards sex as among other things a subject for humor. A Victorian biographer of Sterne, H. D. Traill, offers the suggestion that if, or when, Sterne’s sentimentalism seems to ring false, it is not because the spirit of the moment is falsified, but because Sterne insists on drawing the reader’s attention off the incident and back to himself. Most of what has been said and written in adverse criticism of Sterne would convict him on the matters of little more than a mild exhibitionism and an amused indifference to the shrieks of the excessively proper. All of the inevitable comparisons of Sterne and Rabelais break down upon a critical point—that Rabelais’ humor is as coarse and robust as the century that produced it, while Sterne’s shows delicacy.