The Hesitant Modernity of John Dunton
Final Published Version
Eighteenth Century Life
Dunton's journalistic Athenian Mercury and his proto-novel A Voyage Round the World, both from 1691, imply through their strategies of presentation significantly different ideas of authorship. Experimenting with a participatory format that paired readers' questions on a variety of matters with editors' answers, Dunton enhanced the credibility of the Mercury by inventing a fictional “Athenian Society” of experts who pondered questions and provided answers. Published responses thus carried the weight of their collective authority. The Voyage used an opposite strategy, featuring two personal narrators who together recalled a fragmented history of their youth. This self-representation was harlequin-like—insistently informal, by turns irreverent or extravagant or facetious, based entirely on their changing whims. The eccentric world of their novel existed only as they imagined it. This article argues that in these publications, Dunton anticipated two modern authorial postures that have competed for literary predominance ever since—one based upon empirical reasoning and institutional authority for validation, the other insisting upon the authenticity of personal experience, self-constituted and self-sufficient. Dunton saw the advantage of both postures and did not choose between them.
P. M. Briggs, "The Hesitant Modernity of John Dunton," Eighteenth Century Life 40.2 (2016): 119-135.