Sophistication: A Literary and Cultural History

September 2, 2010

'Sophistication' eludes definition, and yet provocatively invites us to pursue, capture and possess it." So Faye Hammill begins her fascinating and engaging study of the je ne sais quoi of sophistication in literature and culture from the 18th century to the present day. By general cultural consensus, sophistication seems to be something one possesses rather than learns; to need to ask how one becomes sophisticated is to necessarily exclude oneself from ever being so. Yet, as Hammill demonstrates, almost without exception the literature of sophistication of the past three centuries has been preoccupied, more or less overtly, with providing an education in sophistication, at the same time as presenting it as the reserve of a discriminating elite.

An important aspect of Hammill's exploration of sophistication is the changing meaning of the word from its etymological origins in ancient Greece to the present day, and the traces of earlier connotations still to be found in its ambiguous modern usage. Derived from the Ancient Greek for "wisdom", sophia, but also the Greek sophist philosophers, with their emphasis on the power of persuasive rhetoric over logical argument, sophistication was for a long time a negative quality, suggestive of falsity or deception.

Up until the end of the 19th century, we learn, for example, that the English-speaking world was deeply suspicious of the attitude of sophistication, as evidenced in the derogatory terms by which it was described; frivolous, insincere, perverse and, perhaps most typically damning, French. For English commentators in the 1790s, sophistication was a marker of French decadence in contrast to the more solid values of English moral virtue.

It is ironic, then, that it was the English phenomenon of the dandy, the elegant self-made man epitomised by the Regency arbiter of understated sartorial style Beau Brummell, that would contribute most to the modern understanding of "sophistication" as signifying taste and refinement. Fleeing the country to escape gambling debts in 1816, Brummell died penniless in an insane asylum in France, but his influence continued on both sides of the Channel, to be developed in a more metaphorical sense by the poet Charles Baudelaire, who described the dandy as having "no profession other than elegance", his refinement defined by "the aristocratic superiority of his mind".

Hammill's analysis covers an impressive historical and literary breadth, paying attention to canonical literary texts - from the late 18th-century satire of Richard Sheridan's The School for Scandal, to Henry James' novel of fatal sophistication Daisy Miller, and Noël Coward's uber-stylish Private Lives - while enthusiastically reviving those that were once popular but are now relatively obscure, such as Max Beerbohm's parody of dandyism, Zuleika Dobson, and Winifred Watson's comedy of sophisticated transformation, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, and offering original readings of others, such as the interplay of innocence and sophistication in Lewis Carroll's Alice tales or Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita.

It is, however, the account of the Jazz Age world of the new American glossy magazines such as Vanity Fair, The Smart Set, The New Yorker and Esquire, and the evolution of a New York literary and cultural sophistication in the early decades of the 20th century that is perhaps most implicitly provocative. For what Hammill's book reveals, although does not explicitly address, is that it is a certain tradition within American life that ultimately perhaps best understood and inherited the quality of sophistication and savoir faire in the 20th century.

James dedicated almost his entire oeuvre to dramatising the clash of American innocence and European sophistication, but the New World pursued its transatlantic education quickly and well; from the sharp wit and mannered urbanity of Dorothy Parker, to the lustre of Jay Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald's archetype of the American dream's self-made man, and the hard-drinking ennui of Lady Brett Ashley, Ernest Hemingway's heroine in The Sun Also Rises, the icons of modern sophistication are American creations.

It is the same tradition of American sophistication that reappears in the cool grace and elusive detachment of John F. Kennedy as seen through the eyes of Norman Mailer, burnished with what Mailer famously described as the "patina of that other life, the second American life, the long electric night with the fires of neon leading down the highway to the murmur of jazz".

Every reader will think of other figures who for them epitomise sophistication, and it is a marker of the energy of Hammill's study that it stimulates us to do so. Original in focus, critically nuanced and written with humour and élan, Sophistication: A Literary and Cultural History is smart, subtle and intelligent; much like its subject.

Sophistication: A Literary and Cultural History

By Faye Hammill. Liverpool University Press 256pp, £25.00. ISBN 9781846312328. Published 1 May 2010

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