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Goldsmith's cosmopolitanism

By J Watt


[First Paragraph] Although imaginary travelers and voyages date back at least as far as the work of Lucian, the figure of the fictional oriental traveler seems to belong primarily to the eighteenth century. Following the great success of Giovanni Marana’s Letters Writ by a Turkish Spy, first published in Paris in 1684, a wide range of European writers sought to exploit the various satiric and comic possibilities that were offered by Eastern spies and observers. While a work such as George Lyttelton’s Letters from a Persian in England (1734) was clearly informed by a specific anti-Walpole agenda, fictional orientals in early-eighteenth-century British writing, especially, seem above all to have offered another means of addressing the experience of modernity: figures such as the Indian in Tom Brown’s Amusements Serious and Comical (1702) or the Ambassadors of Bantam in Spectator 557 (1712) are presented as newcomers to London, and shown to be both fascinated and perplexed by the workings of commercial society. In many ways, then, the oriental traveler performs more or less the same function as a range of other eighteenthcentury spies and observers, by offering positions — albeit provisional and ironic — from which to view the customs and manners of modern Britain. Oliver Goldsmith’s Chinese philosopher, Lien Chi Altangi, stands out from the crowd of such fictional informants, however, both because he is made to play a larger role than this, and because he serves as more than just an estranging device. Although Lien Chi frequently misreads situations and gets things wrong, he describes himself as one who seeks “to know the men of every country,” and he advances the claims of a “cosmopolitan” orientation that Goldsmith’s other writings of the late 1750s and early 1760s take very seriously. But while The Citizen of the World attempts to hold on to a utopian sense of global community, it offers a number of interrogative and even antagonistic perspectives on the idea of the cosmopolitan, too, often rehearsing the terms of current debates. Although Goldsmith arguably took the fiction of the oriental traveler further than any of his contemporaries, therefore, his work might also be seen to offer a critical reflection on such figures, and to anticipate the slow demise of this genre in the later decades of the eighteenth century. Continues.

Year: 2006
DOI identifier: 10.1215/00982601-30-1-56
OAI identifier:

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