1991 U. C. Berkeley Ph.D. Dissertation on Henry Fielding


Prof G. A. Starr
Prof Ernest Tuveson
Prof Arthur Quinn

U.M.I.  Order# 9228850

Dissertation Summary (2017)

This dissertation shows how Fielding shaped Tom Jones (1749) to survive centuries of plot-centered misreadings by novelistic "critics of mere Form" (V,i). He was a Platonist, it argues, writing in a quasi-Aristotelian age whose hostility to Plato rendered critics like Dr. Johnson tone deaf to the Platonic irony that informs Fieldingian irony. In Tom Jones and elsewhere, Fielding asserts that he wrote Tom Jones to be read synoptically, as a part - the magnum opus - of a larger, multi-generic oeuvre whose unity resides in the ironic 'Fieldings' through which he habitually and directly addressed English readers. 

Long familiar with these 'Fieldings', his contemporaries could instantly recognizedTom Jones for what was: the latest installment in Fielding's career-long dialogue with English readers of all kinds - "polite", "common", "learned", "dull", "sagacious", "female", "younger", and so on - on the age's most hotly debated topic: human nature. His close readers could also read Fielding's epic "great Creation of our own" for the two stories it tells: the comic, fictional one about its initially foundling but eventually triumphant hero and the tragic, autobiographical one (told in the book's eighteen "essentially necessary" prefaces) about Fielding himself and the "very severe Fate" that he, as Tom Jones' initially garrulous Master of Ordinary, knows he will suffer for ages to come at the hands of uncomprehending critics.

Irony is the lynchpin of Fielding's survival strategy for his dialogic writings. In his genre-busting "Heroic, Historical, Prosaic Poem", as he calls Tom Jones (IV,i), he deploys his own version of the ironic double rhetoric of esoteric and exoteric meanings that the Platonist Stanley Rosen has shown are the lynchpin of Plato's survival strategy for his comparably endangered poetic dialogues.

Original Dissertation Abstract (1991)

This dissertation reads Fielding's Tom Jones, the History of a Foundling as the work of a covert Platonist whose insights into the superficiality of the neoclassic formalism of his age forced him, as a writer attempting to describe the "amazing variety" that characterizes Tom Jones' declared "provision"of Human Nature, to find ways to elude the shallowness and "dictatorial power" of the quasi-Aristotelian critics of "mere form", including Dr. Samuel Johnson, who shaped English literary taste at mid-century. Focusing on the eighteen plot-governing prefatory essays to Tom Jones' story that have been largely ignored ever since R.S. Crane's outright dismissal of them in the 1950's, the dissertation explicates Fielding's Foundling, as Tom Jones was titled on the spine of Andrew Millar's first edition of the book, as a mult-form hybrid work whose generic origins Fielding intended to be as baffling to his readers as are the genetic origins of its foundling (and bastard) hero. 

By attending to the ironic speech (ironic direct address) that marks most of Fielding's journalistic and fictional writings, the dissertation recovers the veiled Platonic origins of his career-long dialogue with past writers and contemporary and future readers. Furthermore, by reading Tom Jones as the latest installment of Fielding's ongoing philosophical journal of his journey through life (a Socratic voyage from this world to the next, as Fielding makes clear from his early "reflexive" plays onwards), the dissertation recovers a host of Platonic dialectics. One is the dialectic of esotericism and exotericism that surfaces in Fielding's Jacobite's Journal. Fielding foresaw that his harsh critique of English philosophical and cultural materialism would either elude or be rejected by the formalist critics of his time. Like Plato before him, he "foresaw and foretold" that his writings would be misread by future ages and accordingly shaped them to survive centuries of neglect.