It’s startling to run into a celebrity. My wife and I were walking around Central Park one afternoon when she nudged me and stared flabbergasted at the man walking toward us. The man was Hank Azaria, who is probably best known for voicing a range of characters on The Simpsons. Azaria passed us in jogger shorts and a light long-sleeved t-shirt, talking on his phone. His face suggested that we, kindly, please not interrupt him for a photo.
Coincidentally, my wife and I only passed Azaria because we were walking through the park to get back to the subway on Fifth Avenue. This station happens to fall within view of the Molochian steel and glass face of Trump Tower. In this moment, just after our encounter with Azaria, I couldn’t help but think of Laurence Sterne’s relationship with his literary doppelgänger, Tristram Shandy. Fresh in my mind because of research I was doing on Sterne’s serialized work, Tristram Shandy remained in my head long after we passed Trump Tower and began our ride under the East River to our home in Queens. There is a quality that links Tristram Shandy with Hank Azaria and Donald Trump: it’s not really useful (politically or practically) to think about any of them actually existing except as public-facing performances or personas deployed by their authors. Instead, as we should refrain from merging Sterne with Tristram despite their association, it’s worth considering how the celebrity of Sterne, Azaria (or any well-known person), and Donald Trump irrevocably complicates the relationship between their public and private personas.
In the middle of the eighteenth century, the clergyman-turned-author Laurence Sterne was in failing health. He would die of tuberculosis a year later in London, but in 1767 he had just published the last installment of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Tristram Shandy is famous for its intricate digressions and wordplay. It is a fictional memoir whose subject, Tristram, remains for the most part at the periphery of the narrative, ceding focus to his father, his uncle Toby, and the family friend, Trim, along with other characters. Rather, Tristram usually appears as the book’s narrator and plays the part of its fictional author. Tristram often reminds his readers that they’re engaged in the act of reading by referring to the text at hand, and by employing a meandering first-person perspective inescapably rooted in the present. By maintaining the position of sole intermediary for his audience, Tristram coalesces with the book itself and Sterne, thus blurring the lines between Tristram and his real-life author.
The dying Sterne might be read here as attempting to escape the inherent transience of his mortal body by performing the same maneuver that made Tristram commensurate with Tristram Shandy. That is, if the book is synonymous with its narrator, Sterne made a conscious effort to shed his humanity and become Tristram during the book’s publication. This is somewhat apparent in the latter part of Tristram Shandy where the narrative finds Tristram embarking on a trip to Europe (that mirrors a trip of Sterne’s own) to escape Death when he comes knocking at the consumptive Tristram’s door. Sterne’s actual letters also reveal that he came to adopt Tristram’s mode of speaking and writing to evoke his character and “Shandy it away,” as he put it. By the time of his death, Sterne “achieved a sort of placeless omnipresence,” as David Brewer writes in The Afterlife of Character, which allowed Sterne to appear wherever his character might appear. Thus, Sterne is inextricably tangled with Tristram and Tristram Shandy. Perhaps this is best represented by Thomas Patch’s 1769 etching “Laurence Sterne, alias Tristram Shandy: ‘And When Death Himself Knocked at My Door,’” (above) which casts the then-deceased Sterne as Tristram in a scene from the seventh book of Tristram Shandy.
Donald Trump’s celebrity is integral to his success in same way that Laurence Sterne’s forsaking of his humanity brought immortality and notoriety to the dying author. Both cases work the same way, by creating a subtle disconnect between the boundaries of an individual’s real and represented personas. On the one side of the equation lies Donald Trump the man, born in 1946 to Fred and Mary Anne, brother to Maryanne, Fred, and Elizabeth, who was elected President in 2016. On the other side is a second Trump, fine-tuned from his interactions with supporters and the growing procession of detractors. This Trump is the showman, the quasi-human construct—the star of The Apprentice; the character who bestows titles like “Sleepy Joe [Biden]” and “Crazy Bernie [Sanders]” on political opponents; the figure who tweets to keep in contact with his constituency and bypass the alleged #FakeNews cabal.
Trump’s construction of his persona is shrewd because of the way it reliably absorbs the blows directed at it. When pundits call out Trump’s bellicosity, his racism, and his innumerable gaffes, they only enhance the potency of the second Trump among his supporters. In the same way that Sterne is not Tristram Shandy no matter how blurred the lines between the two are, to criticize the second Donald Trump for the President’s actions does nothing because the two are too far separated. Since attacks on the President are founded in the real, human world—attacks on the administration’s backwards climate policy, the administration’s reprehensible attitude toward women, the actual demonstrable deaths (!) of caged (!!) Latin American kids (!!!)—the inhuman persona of the second Trump allows the President to evades the charges every time.
To make matters more complicated, attacking the quasi-human Trump bolsters the President’s shield. Detractors simply become the caricatured “Obstructionist Democrats” that are often tweeted about, and Trump recasts himself for his supporters as a messianic cultural maverick who absorbs the attacks meant for them. An image he tweeted after his impeachment with the words “In reality they’re not after me, they’re after you. I’m just in the way” says as much. Every direction that critics of his administration turn, there is a sense of inescapability from the narrative that the President has created. The disconnect between the President’s actions and his constructed public persona has widened too considerably for critique, and it can feel as if we, like characters in a piece of fiction, will interminably be caught up in the machinations of Trump’s narrative.
I think there is reason to have hope, though. My community recently displayed its resolve when it fought back against Amazon. I live in the area of Queens where the company planned to build its new corporate headquarters. Despite a campaign of misinformation that carefully evaded talking about the enormous tax breaks the company would receive from New York City, Amazon backed off after sustained pressure from the local community. The people of Queens tirelessly voiced their disapproval over Amazon’s staunch anti-unionism, mistreatment of its workers, and concerns about the new headquarters spiking rent for residents of Queens’s Long Island City and surrounding neighborhoods, among other issues. Eventually the political headache became too much, and Amazon’s plans were scrapped. Yet, even despite this victory for the community, I am conscious of how my presence (as a native Midwesterner) likely contributes to the gentrification of Queens. There’s a good chance that eventually, in a generation or two, the families that have lived in my neck of Queens will be forced out and be replaced by the next highest bidder. I worry that my new city will one day cease to be the same city it is now or ever was if it can’t continue to muster its collective will. The neighborhood will become a misnomer, a name with only tenuous ties to its own past and the people who lived there. This is a thought that reemerges with each transaction that I make.
Queens’s fight against Amazon and the thousands of other stories like it that are affecting working-class adults and families all over the world, illustrates the power of political steadfastness and communal self-consciousness. It helps us solve one of the most important problems Trump’s presidency poses: how to separate the world and the real consequences of past actions from the narratives that permeate it. After writing this essay, I’m less sure that talking about Trump does much good. Instead, it would be more politically meaningful to talk about reality: about policies, the results of those policies, their effects on people, and about anything but the showmanship and the inhumanity that permeates the Trump presidency. We should always try to separate Tristram from Sterne, so to speak, and Donald Trump and his actions from @realDonaldTrump.
Andrew in New York is a writer who lives in New York City. In graduate school, he studied eighteenth-century British literature alongside some of the smartest people he’s ever known. In addition to eighteenth-century British literature, Andrew’s interests include post-war American novelists, cooking, and the art of the perfect cocktail.