Laurence Sterne’s masterpiece, Tristram Shandy, is seldom read any more outside of graduate seminars. This is a sad fate for the author whom Nietszche deemed “the most liberated spirit of all time,” and whose style, in its day, was considered “the most rapid, the most happy, the most idiomatic of any that is to be found.… [T]he pure essence of English conversational style.” The novel was wildly popular for years after its appearance. As the enthusiastic James Boswell rhymed, “Who has not Tristram Shandy read?/ Is any mortal so ill-bred?”

The book’s initial success was due in no small part to its heavy flirtation with obscenity. Such smut was considered bad enough, by certain critics, when the book was published anonymously; when it became known that its author was an Anglican minister, it caused an outright scandal. One correspondent in a popular magazine...

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