Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Communist's (Humorless) Take on the Works of William Shakespeare

Even though I’m an English doctoral student, I’m not very energized by the many post-modernist theories of literature floating around in the academy. It’s not that I think they are invalid or incorrect; I simply feel that ninety percent of theorists are more interested in what they are writing instead of what they are writing about. I suppose my discontent is more a matter of how these critics write than how they think -- many of them have perfectly reasonable ideas, but getting to those ideas requires excavating several dumpster-loads’ worth of cluttered, imprecise, and dogmatic jargon, witticisms, and contortions. And, of course, very often the ideas presented by the theorist turn out to be politically motivated and, as with so many things that are politically motivated, more invested in propping up and endorsing the critic’s subjective, partisan perspective than in saying something related to the text at hand.


Now that I’ve vented my disclaimer, let me give you an example in this week's book. I should point out that though I confess to being slightly left-leaning in my politics, I own this week’s book for expressly collecting purposes. Don’t read anything into it beyond that.

The book is Shakespeare: A Marxist Interpretation by Soviet scholar Aleksandr A. Smirnov (1883-1962), one of the influential “socialist realist” critics of the mid-30s (Mikhail Bakhtin, in 1924, referred to Smirnov’s 1923 essay “The Paths and Tasks of the Study of Literature” as a “splendid article”). It was published as Number 2 in the Critics Group Series, a series put out by the Critics Group (96 Fifth Avenue, New York) in the 1920s and 1930s to provide “Marxist analyses of our cultural heritage and contemporary trends. The editorial board of the Group was chaired by Angela Flores and its advisory board included Georges Friedmann, AndrĂ© Gide, and D. S. Mirsky. Smirnov’s book was originally written in Russian, with the English translation prepared by Sonia Volochova, with the assistance of Sidonie Kronman, A. Goldstein, A. Morais, Zena Rautbort, and the Series’ editorial committee. The book’s design was laid out by Ben Ossa. According to the spine, it retailed for 35-cents (or about $5.17 in today's U.S. currency) when it was published ( a trial subscription was available for $1 [or $14.77 in today's currency], which would result in the subscriber receiving four titles from the Critics Group Series by post).

My copy was published in 1937 and is the fourth printing of the book; it first appeared in 1934, with the first English editions in 1936 (the second printing for the New Theatre League); subsequent editions appeared in 1957 and 1970 (Folcroft Library Editions) and most recently it was published in full-text online by Sally Ryan in 2000. The edition that I have is assessed at about $30-$50. It is in reasonably good condition, with some slight tearing and wear to the top and bottom of the spine. The binding is (appropriately) a faded red heavy-stock paper; the paper of the pages is a fairly cheap paper (sadly, not acid-free) common to mass-produced paperbacks of the twentieth century. The pages measure 14cm x 20.5cm. The first three pages (half-title; title-page; table of contents) are not paginated, but the title-page and table of contents are intended as [1]-[4], the rest of the book is paginated 5-[94], thus it consists of 48 leaves, bound into six gatherings of 8 leaves (16 pages) each. The gatherings were stapled together with two staples (now rusting) visible on the half-title page and pulling through some of the pages toward the end; the cover was then pasted onto the spine and folded over the book.

The book’s contents are divided into sequences more or less structured on the course of Shakespeare’s career. A “Chronology” of the dramatist’s works is provided on p. 4; a summary of “The Epoch” of Shakespeare’s time on pp. 5-16; an essay on “Shakespeare and Humanism” on pp. 17-28; a chapter on the “First Period” (1590-1600) on pp. 29-60; the “Second Period” (1600-1609) on pp. 61-82; the “Third Period” (1609-1611) on pp. 83-88; and a final chapter on “Shakespeare’s World Perspective” on pp. 89-93.

Smirnov's book touches on all of Shakespeare’s plays, using their depictions of materialism, class conflict, and Hegelian structures of historical progression to demonstrate that Shakespeare was “the humanist ideologist of the bourgeoisie of the time.” Not surprisingly, Smirnov cites Marx and Engels far more than he cites any other literary critic of Shakespeare (a scan through the book’s footnotes quickly reveals Smirnov’s wide reading in socialist literatures...and his deficit of reading in early modern theater history and literatures). Many of his totalizing claims seem to be based on an inexact understanding of the nature of early modern dramatic conventions and practices. In some places, his claims seem quite simply to confuse and conflate fictive narrative with social reality; for example, he argues that Shakespeare often attacked the very bourgeoisie from which he emerged (and for which he became the token spokesperson) as evidenced by the fact that “the rapacity, greed, cruelty, egoism, and philistinism so typical of the English bourgeoisie--embodied in Shylock, Malvolio, Iago--are...scathingly denounced”. Smirnov does not bother to note that all three of these characters are neither English nor bourgeoisie, and all three evolved from specific dramatic traditions in order to appeal to specific expectations from Shakespeare's specific theatrical audience.

In the end, after touching on the entire canon (very briefly, in the case of some of the apparently “minor” plays, slightly longer, though no less perfunctorily, in the case of others -- see, for example, the extract from his rather reductive commentary on The Merchant of Venice, below), he draws his final telling conclusion:

At a later stage of bourgeois development Shakespeare became a threat to that class which had given him birth. The bourgeoisie have never been able to understand or accept the revolutionary elements in Shakespeare’s works, because these immeasurably transcend the narrow confines of bourgeois thought. They have attempted, therefore, to transform his revolutionary humanism into specious philanthropy and to interpret his concepts of mercy and truth as “tenderness” and “righteousness”; his continued appeals for patience--perseverance in the struggle to attain the ideal--as “submissiveness”; his disregard for religion and metaphysics as “philosophical and religious tolerance.” And so, the bourgeoisie have crowned him with the empty title: “The Universal Man.”

Throughout the book, the term “bourgeoisie” is used damningly of all other critics, but Smirnov never actually spells out who in particular he means by the phrase nor does he quote examples from his spectral adversaries. This generalization of all “other” critics but the Marxists is typical of most politically-motivated theorists who desperately seek to enlist Shakespeare in their particular “cause”; the critic turns from writing about his subject (Shakespeare) to writing about his agenda (Marxism) and because he has already decided upon his agenda, the evidence for that agenda will already exist rather conveniently in the subject (what, in logic, is called a hypostatized proof: finding the result before finding the evidence). Because of the sheer flexibility and copiousness of Shakespeare’s writing, almost any critic from any place on the political spectrum can find something in the 1623 Folio to endorse their opinion.

Christopher Morley’s prefatory “A Letter to a Reader” in W. A. Wright’s Cambridge edition of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Doubleday Doran & Company, 1936), suggests that Smirnov’s non-Communist contemporaries perhaps felt the same way:

[Shakespeare] keeps pace with the clock. Every new dogma or doctrine can justify itself in him. As I write this, there comes to my table a new book: Shakespeare, a Marxist Interpretation, translated from the Russian of A. A. Smirnov. An able little study, I can see at a glance, but devoid of humor. It proves, I gather, that "Shakespeare was the ideologist of the bourgeoisie . . . but the bourgeoisie have never been able to understand him." Which is, in logic, both eating your cake and having it. Jaggard, Shakespeare's printer, went blind; and most of his thesis-possessed annotators grow curiously cock-eyed. 

Or, to quote from The Merchant of Venice, “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” If the subject is sufficiently vast (if it “contains multitudes”, to borrow from Whitman), the commentator can only ever end up revealing more about himself than the subject.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Nonesuch Edition of "The Works of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester" (and England's first pornographer...)

April is National Poetry Month (which I guess means that the other eleven months are all National Prose Months?) and so I’ve chosen this week’s book to celebrate that fact.

The full title is Collected Works of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. The collection was edited by John Hayward and published by The Nonesuch Press of 16 Great James Street, London, in 1926, in a print-run of 1,050 copies. It was printed by William Brendon and Son, Ltd., of Plymouth, England. Each copy is hand-numbered, with numbers 1 through 75 issued on “English hand-made paper” and numbers 76 through 1,050 on “antique paper”; my copy is number 376 and is, indeed, printed on thick “antique” paper with rough-cut edges (some of the gatherings and leaves in my copy are still uncut along the top, mostly toward the end of the book in the textual notes and explanatory doesn’t read Rochester, I suppose, for the textual notes...). The book is fairly scarce and is assessed at approximately $150 to $250.

The 232 leaves each measure 19.5cm x 25.5cm and are bound into gatherings of eight leaves apiece (oddly, the other copies I've found listed for sale online describe the book's format as quarto; it seems to me more accurately described as octavo royal); the initial gatherings (leaves 1-27) were evidently printed separately because their signatures ([#], [a1]-[a8], b[1]-c*[5]-[d2]) differ from the rest of the book’s (B-[2D5]). Each page has seven vertical chain-lines spaced at approximately 3cm, with no evident watermark. The binding is dark gray hardboard in three-quarter gray paper with a pasted paper label on the spine (all of which was the customary appearance--or “branding”, to use modern PR jargon--of Nonesuch books). My copy has a bookplate pasted inside the front cover indicating previous ownership by “James McDonald”; above the name is a standing raven, beneath which runs a ribbon containing the family’s motto: “Nec tempore nec fato” (“Neither by time nor fate”). The only previous readership evidence I have been able to identify is a tiny penciled check-mark in the inner margin of the penultimate line of p. xi of the introduction (on the subject of “Mrs. Barry’s” duodecimo editions of Rochester’s letters, published in 1714 and 1732).

At the front of the book there is a blank flyleaf, a half-title, the full-title page (with the numbering information on the verso), a dedication (to F. L. Lucas), and the table of contents. Following these preliminaries are some introductory pages on the book and the Earl of Rochester’s work (signed by Hayward “San Vigilio. Garda, 1925”). First is a “Prefatory Note” from the editor, in which Hayward explains the significance and scope of his work: “The Earl of Rochester’s work has never been edited.... This edition is nothing more than the largest collection of his poems and letters that has yet appeared in print.” Hayward also dismisses those moralists whose offense at Rochester’s highly obscene works kept them from being reprinted for so long. Apparently the 1920s, with its flappers and rum-runners, was better able to appreciate the subtlety of Rochester’s style of humor than the puritanical Victorians had been. Nonetheless, Hayward is not so crass as to allow all of Rochester’s vulgarity to be reproduced for the unsuspecting reader; particularly inexcusable language has been delicately censored out with the judicious use of hyphens (see, for example, the short verse "To All Curious Criticks and Admirers of Metre", shown here).

For those of you unfamiliar with “England’s first pornographer” (as Richard Norton puts it), or if you have not yet seen Johnny Depp’s somewhat fanciful take on the Earl’s life in The Libertine, John Wilmot (1647-1680; shown here crowning his pet monkey as poet laureate) can best be described as a satirist and a bawdy poet. He was also known for his voracious sexual appetite and indignant disregard for anyone who suggested he remain quiet about it (legends about Wilmot were so pervasive that characters based on him appeared on the English stage for over a century following his death). Though a member of the nobility and part of King Charles II’s personal circle, Wilmot was equally at home amongst the whores, pimps, thieves, and actors of London; his poetry, long repudiated as vulgar and gross by readers unable to see past the surface-layer of his debauchery and unorthodox lifestyle, actually brims with bitingly honest subtext that captures in plain, unflattering terms both the latent socio-political energies of the early Restoration and hypocritical public mores of its ruling elite. For more critical and in-depth information on the Earl and his work, I refer you to the honors thesis of Ealasaid Haas, which she completed at Occidental College (California) in 2001.

Following the single page prefatory note (paginated ix) there is a section on “The Text” of the works (xi-xviii), a general “Introduction” on the poet (xix-l), and finally a single-page “Chronological Table” of the key dates in the Earl’s life (including such choice episodes as “Attempt to elope with Miss Malet...May 28th, 1665”, “Banished for Satire on the King...1673” [his second of three such banishments], “Tavern brawl at Epsom...June, 1676”, and “Sets up as a Mountebank...1676”).

Though Hayward claims that his edition is “in no sense...definitive”, its comprehensiveness and the inclusion of copious amounts of well-researched scholarly material makes this both a beautiful book (as most Nonesuch Press books are) but also a valuable one for any person interested in reading and learning about the Earl of Rochester. It is as thorough, if not more, than many cheap modern editions now available on the market. It contains 152 pages of the Earl’s poetry, a transcription of the broadside used to advertise his services when he disguised himself as “Alexander Bendo” (the “mountebank” mentioned above), The Tragedy of Valentinian, a scene from Sir Howard’s Play, and 51 pages of his personal letters. The book concludes with three appendices: poems attributed to but not certainly by the Earl, a court masque, and a series of letters written by his mother describing the illness that eventually ended his life and his famed deathbed repentance and conversion. These appendices are followed by a section of textual notes (329-351) and explanatory notes (355-404). The last four pages provide an index to the poems listed alphabetically by their first lines.

A few remarks on Nonesuch Press would be in order. Nonesuch was one of a number of small, independent publishing shops that opened up in London in the decade following World War I. Founded by Sir Francis Meynell, his wife Vera Mendel, and author David Garnett in 1923 it released approximately  8-18 titles per year up until 1935. During the years of World War II its output dropped dramatically to approximately 1-5 titles per year. In the 1940s and 1950s the Press went through a period of transitional owners (including a time under the control of George Macy, founder of the Limited Editions Club) until it was eventually closed in 1968. Recently modern presses such as Duckworth and, in 2005, Barnes and Noble have reissued Nonesuch editions. Unsurprisingly, these editions are fairly cheap and unremarkable; original Nonesuch volumes, on the other hand, are prized collectibles and can often fetch up to $2,000.

The Press specialized in English literature (though in its last years it expanded its market to include high-end children’s literature) and its signature style was single-color boarded hardcovers with text printed on heavy (often hand-made) paper, usually sold uncut. Unlike many of its competitors, Nonesuch employed a small Albion hand-press (like the one shown here) for the set up and design its books; these designs were then given to a machine-press printer (such as, in the case of my book, William Brendon of Plymouth) for production. This system allowed Nonesuch to mass-produce (and competitively price) titles that have the look and feel of high-end, handmade volumes. According to Meynell, in a 1936 retrospective bibliography on the first 100 volumes issued by the Press, this system demonstrated that “mechanical means could be made to serve fine ends.” In this sentiment, Meynell belongs to that generation of craft businessmen who between the wars seized on revolutions in industry and technology to economize products to a large market but who refused to relinquish those aspects of the pre-industry crafts age that consumers were thought to value as markers of personalization and quality.

It would be irresponsible of me to feature a collection of the Earl of Rochester’s works and not offer a sample from his work. Thus, to conclude, here is his “To the Postboy”, in which Rochester conflates the simple business of asking for directions (to Hell, no less) with a kind of perverse self-praise (the language is mostly accessible for modern readers, though the word “swive” is no longer in regular use). If you like what you read here (or if you are merely disturbingly fascinated by it), more of his works can be found at the Luminarium. Also, below this is an image taken of his rather raunchy "A Song. To Cloris.", in which Rochester riffs with ribaldry on a traditional pastoral poetic theme.

Rochester: Son of a whore, God damn you! Can you tell

A peerless peer the readiest way to Hell?

I've outswilled Bacchus, sworn of my own make

Oaths would fright Furies, and make Pluto quake;

I've swived more whores more ways than Sodom's walls

E'er knew, or the College of Rome's Cardinals.

Witness heroic scars -- Look here, ne'er go! -- 

Cerecloths and ulcers from the top to toe!

Frightened at my own mischiefs, I have fled

And bravely left my life's defender dead;

Broke houses to break chastity, and dyed

That floor with murder which my lust denied.

Pox on't, why do I speak of these poor things?

I have blasphemed my God, and libeled kings!

The readiest way to hell -- Come, quick!

Boy:                          N'er stir:

The readiest way, my Lord, 's by Rochester.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Nineteenth Century Latin Textbook and a Look Inside a Bored Adolescent Girl's Mind

Any true bibliophile knows that stalking the shelves of a bookstore with a fellow-shopper who is both educated in the ways of books and informed in your own particular tastes is much more fun and productive than browsing alone. It helps to have that extra pair of eyes skimming the spines and to have another intelligent opinion with which to discuss potential finds. I’m quite fortunate to have both of those qualities in one person: my twin brother.

Recently he and I were browsing at Gabriel Books in Northampton, MA and he came across this little item. Most book-collectors would pass over it because the title is not particularly collectible and the cover is a bit beaten up, but my brother knew of my interest in marginalia and thought I’d enjoy adding this to my collection.

Many collectors can be quite close-minded about marginalia, feeling that unless the markings have associative value related to the book (for example, the signature of the author, or proof markings by a reviser preparing a subsequent edition, or notes written by a notable or famous owner) reader's markings actually devalue a volume. I'm not terribly impressed by these kinds of collectors: their interests are purely pecuniary, thus they lack both the inductive imagination and the intuitive curiosity that are the hallmarks of a true bibliophile. In some ways I'm glad for that, though; it means more of these great finds for those collectors who can best appreciate the stories they have to tell.

The book is a first edition of the textbook A Latin Grammar for Beginners, written William Henry Waddell, Professor of Ancient Languages at the University of Georgia, Athens. The book was published in February, 1871 by Harper & Brothers of Franklin Square, New York and is listed in the Editor’s Literary Record & Review of the November 1871 issue of Harper’s Magazine. Harper published a subsequent edition in 1873 which is much more common; the 1871 edition is rare and valued at approximately $20-$30.

The pages measure 11cm x 18.5cm; the book was printed in duodecimo, in eight gatherings signed [A1], A2-D2. Each initial gathering (A1, B1, C1, D1) has four leaves, each ultimate gathering (A2, B2, C2, D2) has eight leaves. The initial leaf of A1 is a blank flyleaf; two additional blank leaves (not part of D2) end the volume. The pagination runs [1-9], 10-86; the final five leaves are publisher’s advertisements, paginated [1]-2, [1]-[4], [1]-[4]. The binding is a soft red leather on light cardboard boards, with gold impressed title on the front, impressed double-line border on front and back, and impressed publisher’s monogram on the back; the page edges are inked red all around. The binding is worn slightly and the corners (particularly the lower, outer corner on the front) a bit beaten up. Inside the front cover my copy has a yellow bookstore sticker for “Leary, Booksellers” of 5th & Walnut, Philadelphia, a landmark of Philadelphia’s book trade from 1849 through its closure in 1968 (when it closed it was the largest used bookstore in the U.S.; its stock was so large that in the process of clearing it out for closure an original Dunlap printing of the Declaration of Independence was found and sold for $400,000).

A preface by Waddell presents the book as a companion to his previous Greek Grammar for Beginners (published by Harper in 1869) and explains that its target audience is the high school or “the lower classes in our American colleges”. Perhaps most intimidating is his suggestion that the book “be committed to memory, from cover to cover, the first time the pupil goes over it”.

As might be expected, the contents of the book are organized along an old-fashioned linear pedagogical course of Latin language education, starting with a section on orthography, moving through an extensive series on etymology (noun declensions, verbal conjugations, etc.), and ending with two brief sections on syntax and prosody (which uses Horace for a case study).

The advertisements at the end of the book (which run 10 pages--the same amount of space as is dedicated to the prosody section and five times as much as space as is dedicated to the orthography section) are for other classical textbooks published by Harper. These include Waddell’s Greek Grammar, Harper’s Greek and Latin Texts series of classical text editions, Harper’s New Classical Library series, Willson’s School and Family Readers, and Loomis’s Mathematical Series. As with most publisher’s advertisements from this period, these list basic physical features of the books (size, price, pagination), copious endorsement quotations from reviewers and scholars, features that make them educationally useful, and in the case of Harper’s Greek and Latin Texts a listing of professors who currently use the books, 

The Waddell family was a fixture at the University of Georgia in the turbulent years leading up to, during, and after the Civil War. William Henry (shown below) was the son of Moses Waddell, who had served as the fifth president of the University from 1819 through 1839. He was probably also related to James P. Waddell, tutor at the University from 1822 to 1824 and full Professor of Ancient Language from 1836 to 1856. Another James Waddell (different man) also completed his undergraduate studies at the University around this time and went on to become a lawyer and member of the Georgia state legislature. A John Waddell, also a lawyer apparently, was issued an honorary degree by the University in 1864.

William Henry had been a student at the University from 1848-1852 and a member of the campus branch of Phi Beta Kappa. His wife was Mary Bumby Sue Waddell.  According to the University’s Catalogue of the trustees, officers, and alumni, Waddell began teaching as a tutor at the University in 1853, moved up to adjunct in 1858 and was promoted to lecturer two years later; he was elected full professor in 1872, and resigned in 1878. During his tenure as professor, he was one of 11 faculty members at the University (including the Chancellor, Patrick Hughes Mell).  

Waddell was thus a lecturer during the years of the Civil War, at a time when the University granted permission to the Confederate government of the state to use part of the campus as an “ophthalmic” hospital. On June 19, 1864, Waddell expressed concern that the college would be unable to reopen that September because “the Dormitories [are] full of blind soldiers and Refugees.” According to a survey completed for the University’s Centennial Alumni Catalogue in 1901, Waddell died in 1880. His family name lives on as a street name near the campus and in the (misspelled) Waddel Hall, home of the University’s Rusk Center for International Law.

The advertisement in Waddell’s Latin Grammar promoting Harper’s Greek and Latin Texts notes that, “The volumes are handsomely printed in a good plain type, and on a firm fine paper, capable of receiving writing ink for notes...” These books were meant for practical purposes, meaning that many old textbooks often have interesting marginalia recording how their student-owners used them (or neglected to use them). This copy is no exception, though the markings suggest the original owner was less interested in the Latin lessons assigned to her and more interested in the schoolteacher assigning them.

The copious writing in the book appears to be from two or three owners, in multiple media (black ink, pencil, blue pencil, purple ink), but one late nineteenth-century hand dominates: Miss Jennie Venable

Jennie covered her book in many ramblings, very few of which are related to the content of the textbook, many of which are in verse, most of which center around her romantic fascination with “Mr. Willie Davis”, a man who, from the context, seems to have been her high school Latin teacher. The first several pages of the book are covered with flirtatious notes and poems about how handsome Mr. Davis is and how she hopes he will not forget her (some of the writing is in pencil and has been, perhaps in the interests of delicacy, erased). “Mr. Willie Davis is very handsome”, “Willie Davis is so handsome and dashing”, is a constant refrain.

When Jennie does attend to her Latin it is to scribble the word “amo” (I love) in various permutations and conjugations. Markings directly related to the content of the book (usually ticks and crosses by various lessons) vanish after page 39 (the second conjugation, subjunctive mood), suggesting either Jennie gave up on the Latin language for the second half of the school year or else the course did not proceed beyond that point (on the inside back cover an erased pencil note reads “<   > wish I could go home home home”). She does write some other remarks unrelated to the course or Mr. Davis (“Let virtue be your guiding star”, for example). 

Two verses on the verso of the front flyleaf are in different hands and are both addressed to, rather than written by, Jennie:

May happiness around thee shine

While germs of joy thy brow entwine

May lifes bright river gently flow

And all thy fortune brightly glow.


Forget me not I only ask

This simple boon of thee

And may it be an easy task

Sometimes to think of me

To Jennie

from Florence

An unsigned penciled verse on the verso of the title page is possibly in Jennie’s hand:

You I love and will forever,

You may change but I will never.

If separation be our lot,

Dearest one forget me not.

On the recto of the final flyleaf, another friend has inscribed a touching verse to Jennie:

Remember me when far away

Remember me when awake

Remember me on thy wedding day

And send to me a piece of cake.

The best wishes of a friend

Hattie Strickey

To Jennie Venable Miss.

A version of this poem--though slightly different--appears to have been written on the bottom of the flyleaf verso (beneath Florence’s poem) but subsequently erased. The name of Strickey appears elsewhere in the pages of the book as well.

A change in Jennie’s affections for Mr. Davis seems to have struck sometime over the course of the school year, by the time the class reached page 25 in the textbook (in the middle of the lesson on comparative adjectives). On this page she expresses her interest in “Cousin Newton Harrold”, who is “the sweetest sweetheart so he is”. On p. 27 this budding crush is reiterated more confidently: “I love cousin Newton so I do.”

On the recto of the penultimate leaf, Jennie provides a lengthy meditation on her incestuous plight:

Well I do love cousin Newton ofcourse [sic] it is to be expected

I would love my dear cousin my darling little Newton

my little genius, how could I help it. I do not

Harm any one for loving him except it does make

me jealous for any one to love cousin ofcourse I

love him only as a dear fond cousin + nothing

else on earth, but he is powerful sweet, yes he

grins so prettily + shows his beautiful pearly

white teehh teeth, I wish cousin Newt- loved

me. If he loved me like I loved him

his knife can cut our love in two.

Perpendicular to this, in pencil along the bottom margin of the page, is the somewhat histrionic exclamation:

Oh! Dear me what will be my f<   > [fate?]

But, alas, the heart of a young lady is ever fickle: yet another crush is expounded upon on the verso of this leaf as two different hands engage in dialogic note-writing back and forth.

Wallis D is much handsomer

than G------ I think.

Well he was called a

fool I don’t think in

my soul that he is

as big a fool as some

body else in Bridville.

The name of this bigger fool was apparently written below the comment but has been judiciously scratched out. (I haven’t been able to find a “Bridville”, but it may be a misspelling of “Bridgeville”, which is the name of a town in Delaware and a town in Pennsylvania, which may explain how the book ended up at Leary’s in Philadelphia.) This writing is then followed by an illegible, erased comment about Mr. Davis. Below that is another cryptic inscription, once again in Jennie’s hand and written in pencil:

I think Mr. Willie Davis is

handsome, but I think somebody

else a great deal handsomer.

As I finish transcribing these melodramatic lines, I can only wonder what Professor William Henry Waddell would think of his textbook being used as an outlet for such adolescent outbursts. And my eye is drawn to what is perhaps the most coincidental of the scribblings in this book pulled from the shelf for me by my twin brother. Written in Jennie’s ornate, purple-ink hand on the recto of the front flyleaf, is a random jotting that seems clearly to read: “Your Twin find.”

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Thornton Wilder's "The Woman of Andros" and a Digression on the Social Utilitarian Perspective of Literature

In the small rural towns of New England, the social life of the community still often centers around those peculiar institutions that were the bedrock of village life two-hundred years ago: the town hall, the church, the post office, the village store, and, of course, the town dump.

Nowadays the town dump usually goes by a more attractive, cleanly moniker; in our town of Leverett, Massachusetts it’s called the Transfer Station. The euphemism is not misplaced: Leverett has the highest per capita recycling rate in the Commonwealth. Not only does our dump have an active recycling program, but it is against the law to throw out something that can be recycled instead. We also have a line-up of sheds dedicated to the second of the three R's: reuse. There is a “Take-It or Leave-It” shed for household items, a clothing shed, and--you guessed it--a book shed.

Most of the volumes in this shed are cheap paperbacks or outdated popular works of nonfiction (cookbooks, business manuals, self-help books, etc.). Many are damaged, if not by previous owners than by the admittedly dismal storage conditions of the shed. Every other week, after taking care of the household garbage and recycling, I take a moment or two to browse through the free books to see if there’s anything worth saving. This week’s featured item came from the Leverett Transfer Station Book Shed.

The book is American novelist and dramatist Thornton Wilder’s third novel, The Woman of Andros, published in 1930 by Albert & Charles Boni of New York and, for a time, a national bestseller. My copy is a first American edition; it was printed in small octavo format, with 82 leaves and bright orange flyleaves and pastedowns at front and back (the front flyleaf in my copy has been torn out). The binding is tan cloth with gilt lettering and an embossed red figure of a classically-dressed woman reclining in a chair (which occurs again on the title page, p. [3]); the paper is a hefty stock with deeply pressed vertical chain-lines with 2cm gaps, 5 to a leaf, with no discernible watermark. The pages measure 12.5cm x 20.5cm. There is some slight foxing and water-staining both within the book and on the front board and spine; the spine also has worn at the top from being pulled from the shelf. 

The only annotation or markings in the book that suggest provenance is the red-purple inscription of an owner’s name on the first leaf; the name is not terribly legible and might read “Dianne”, “Diarune”, or some other permutation of “Dia-” followed by several squiggled minim strokes and a terminal “e”. I do not know who this person is (or was), but the book has a local provenance since Janet Wilder Dakin, the youngest sister of Thornton Wilder, once lived in the neighboring town of Amherst, Massachusetts, in the building that is now the home of the Massachusetts Center for Renaissance Studies. As far as I know, however, this particular copy is not linked to her or the estate. The first edition is not exceptionally rare and is usually valued between $15 and $55 depending on the condition and whether the original dust-jacket is extant (which is very rare); Wilder autographed a number of the copies during the book’s initial promotion and these copies are, of course, worth considerably more (between $180 and $280).

The core of the novel, the first part of which is based upon Terence’s comedy Andria (which was, itself, based upon two lost plays by Menander), is a classical narrative of the ancient Mediterranean world, written in a purposefully heavy-handed and ornate style and centering on the philosophy (yes, philosophy--the story is short on plot) of pain and suffering made meaningful through the prophesied coming of Jesus Christ, along with issues of generational conflict, a love triangle, and familial discord. The book appeared only a few months after the stock market crash of 1929 (which is perhaps why I subconsciously chose it for this week’s book) and its message of patient sufferance did not go over well with critics, particularly Marxist critics such as Michael Gold of The New Republic, who charged that Wilder was an elitist out of touch with the suffering of the average American. Gold wrote a withering critique in which he excoriated the philosophical novel for failing to come to grips with the economic disaster burdening the country (as if the crisis were somehow Wilder’s fault and not the fault of the brainless, short-sighted robber baron speculators). 

The review, and the heated exchange that followed, led to a nationwide debate about whether literature has an obligation to maintain relevance to contemporary social and economic conditions. Then, as now, when financial clouds lour upon our house, the communal knee-jerk response is to relegate the arts and literature to “luxury” status, arguing from the strictly utilitarian perspective that their duty is either to be “useful” or not “to be” at all. The argument--then as now--is both strained and ignorant, missing the point of why these fields are called humanities in the first place. Besides, one could also make the argument that we do not need the institution of insurance, we do not need banks, we do not need the stock market. At its heart, though, Gold’s argument hinges on the same myopia that causes economic ruin, it neglects the issue of temporality: we create art and literature to persist beyond the contemporary, beyond the moment, beyond the finite life of the creator. It is the embodiment of that part of our spirit that is meant precisely to rise above the peculiar, particular, and ephemeral needs, wants, and problems of today and, instead, to survive as our embassage to all those future generations yet unborn and unimagined.

But I digress...  

Following the 1930 edition of Albert & Charles Boni, the firm of Longmans, Green & Company released a U.K. edition the same year. Subsequent editions appeared in 1931 in Leipzig (E. P. Tal & Co.), 1932 (Boni), 1934 (Longmans), and 1954 (Longmans), as well as in various collections of Wilder’s works. It was never the most popular of his works and, despite the brief surge in its sales occasioned by the intense public debate following the Gold review, its lack of literary merits long ago relegated The Woman of Andros to the lower echelons of Wilder's otherwise legendary oeuvre. 

A more detailed description of the book, covering both its history and bibliography, can be found on the website of Professor John M. Unsworth at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Support Your Local Independent Bookstore

The Boston Globe today has an informative article on how independently owned and operated bookstores in Massachusetts are better able to survive (and even thrive) in the down economy than their big-brand bland-box chain-store counterparts.

My personal interests in bookstores tend towards secondhand, collectible, antiquarian, and speciality (to a point) stores rather than new books stores of any kind (independent or chain), but it does give one hope to see how some local merchants are able to make lemonade out of the lemons thrust upon us by the greedy and incompetent "Disasters of the Universe" who got us into this mess.