SHARP 99 Conference

Teaching the History of Books and Printing Seminar

July 15, 1999 -- 2:15 - 4:15 P.M.
4207 Helen C. White Hall
University of Wisconsin, Madison

In a book which, for many reasons, I don't otherwise want to seem to endorse in any way at all, Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment (1997), Jane Gallop speaks of "the pedagogical relation between teacher and student" as, "in fact, 'a consensual amorous relation.'" The courageous Professor Gallop uses those terms a lot more literally than makes this late middle-aged male librarian entirely comfortable. What happens to such a relation, he wonders, even more nervously, when two instructors teach the class in which it presumably takes place? A quote for every occasion: thus Freud, from one of whose letters comes an epigraph to Lawrence Durrell's Justine: "I am accustoming myself to the idea of regarding every sexual act as a process in which four persons are involved. We shall have a lot to discuss about that."

I'll just bet we do. But, for my more limited purposes, merely worrying about the arithmetic in a class amorously related to two instructors seems excitingly problematical enough.

Or, to put all this a bit more conventionally, what happens in the classroom I'm here to describe for both Michael Ryan and myself -- misleadingly, since Michael remains at Penn and part of what happens in our classes depends on the presence of and interactions between both of us -- what happens in that classroom is not easy to describe. It is surely no easier to describe than anyone else's classroom, but perhaps even a bit more muddled because of the presence of two instructors. We see ourselves as presenting our students differing but complementary strengths. In fact, we try in part to build our course out of that initial presumption.

Michael is a European historian specializing in the early Enlightenment. I study literature with special interests in non-dramatic poetry of the English Renaissance. On the basis of this difference alone, I could -- only partly as a joke -- sum up our differences very easily:

We have tried to understand, so as to predict and thus effectively to use, these differences as we teach together. We have other differences, too, of course -- for example, in our relative short- or long-windedness, directness or circuitousness, as speakers; in our willingness to let the class flow or to try to plan it in advance; and, of course, in such details as dress and demeanor, easy to neglect although they do have an impact on the way a classroom works. The point is that we try to play off one another's strengths and compensate for one another's weaknesses in our class. Our students have noticed and apparently appreciate this effort; they, not we, have compared our teamwork to "Johnson and Boswell" -- or was it "Laurel and Hardy"? No matter.

It isn't my task, nor even if it were could I do it justice, to speak as "The Historian" in this setting. I regret that Michael is not here to speak in that persona for himself. In what follows, I can offer only "The Literature Person's" perspective on what I think we hope our course is trying to do.

It is by now conventional to note that Literature has become The Bad Hat for many of us. The field in which Theory reigns triumphant is riddled by jargon and infects every other once-decent discipline with which it comes in contact. Even bibliography, whether descriptive, analytical, or historical, has suffered ignominy during the Reign of King Theory. Once kindly Bibliography and Methods of Research instructors led graduate students by the hand to libraries. There they became acquainted with Primary Sources (printed books, occasionally even manuscripts) and the Reference Tools by which Primary Sources are to be interpreted. Now, alas, libraries are mere cités des morts, where no bird sings. Graduate students, and, worse, their instructors, stay at home slowly parsing the tortuous prose of Derrida, turning fascist under the influence of deconstructive de Man, or doing unspeakable things with the adventurous Professor Gallop.

It's a point of view.

But not, I think, a particularly accurate one, even though it was repeated yet again -- and far less imaginatively than I've just rehashed it here, if I do say so myself -- just this past May on a listserve devoted to English and American literature studies.

I don't believe a word of it. Michael and I teach at a place where the literature departments (all of them, not just English) are riddled with Big-Time Theorists. The upshot of their presence is a renewed interest in the physical objects -- the books and, yes, even the manuscripts -- for which we care. Those objects were among the first things dropped by the now old-fashioned New Critics whose works, forgetfully, we valorize and whose demise we lament. In the early 1950s, it was still possible at New Critical Yale to do an edition for a "respectable" Ph.D. Even by the 1960s and 1970s, long before the Theoretical Revolution, that day had passed.

My own memory is strong on this point. More susceptible of public verification than my memory, however, is the exemplary contempt a 1999 memoir, I>In Plato's Cave, evinces for Charles Prouty, editor of George Peele. Written by Prouty's own Yale graduate student, Alvin Kernan, the same book also has unkind things to say about Kernan's own Yale graduate student, the too-theoretical-for-Kernan Stephen Jay Greenblatt. Neither Editor Prouty nor New Historicist Greenblatt is New Critical enough for Kernan: no latitudinarian he. The New Critics, whose departure from the scene we rue, thought work of an editorial kind fit only for dullards capable of doing nothing more exciting. Just as they thought, and continue to think, work of a theoretical kind fit only for people who don't care about the works they are supposed to read and teach.

So how come Greenblatt interests himself in history, digs about in primary sources? He may not be -- as others of his critics often allege -- the best historian in the world; but it isn't, as they say, "his field." Meanwhile, not only is his own work some of the most exciting and revivifying work extant today in Renaissance English literature generally and Shakespeare studies specifically, but also his example draws countless students (and not only in Renaissance studies) to primary texts unexamined during the heyday of the New Criticism. Then all students needed to worry about was understanding poetry, fiction, and drama -- preferably a là mode de Brooks and Warren or Brooks and Heilman -- without assistance from such merely ancillary disciplines as history, biography, social context, or -- as Fredson Bowers used to be fond of recalling -- bibliography, all of which were an unnecessary waste of a critic's valuable reading time. Now such an approach will no longer do.

As a specific instance of what this change of approach means in practice, I cite The Norton Shakespeare, a text of which Greenblatt is General Editor and one that I have used in other classes I teach. True, the book itself is printed on a fancy kind of toilet paper, on which Norton seems to have the patent, and that is, alas, a serious flaw. But it's not Greenblatt's flaw. His textbook is distinguished by its sensitivity -- by no means perfect, but far more heavily emphasized than has been true of the general run of his text's competitors -- to the complex textual re-investigation of the basis of "the" Shakespearian text under way as we speak. The Norton Shakespeare prints Q1 and F1 Lear, as well as the "traditional" conflated Lear, although it balks at printing all three -- Q1, Q2, and F1 -- Hamlets (which also strikes me as a serious flaw, even though I understand the economic issues that underlie the decision -- which is, essentially, to hope that all these little porkers just go away). Despite that flaw, the edition of Shakespeare put out by Theoretical Greenblatt makes clear, in a way that no New Critic's or mere Editor's edition of Shakespeare made clear when I was an undergraduate or a graduate student, why textual scholarship, and its bibliographical base, might matter to a student of literature.

Similarly, the academic movement related to (a generally American) New Historicism, that is, (the generally British) Cultural Materialism, with its insistence on the material means by which texts get transmitted, also brings students back to the library to consider primary sources. It does so from a very different point of view from that of the New Historicists, one that proves to be curiously similar to the kinds of interests shown by old-fashioned descriptive, analytical, and historical bibliographers.

Reception theorists, for yet another example, are also drawn to primary materials -- sometimes even to manuscripts -- for contemporary (or later) evidence of how books were distributed, circulated, received, read.

In fact, so impressive has this impact of theory on renewed attention to physical objects been, in the context within which Michael and I teach our course, that we have been able to build into our planning something more than simple play off one another's strengths. We have also been able to use the differing strengths of our students, who come from backgrounds in English, French, and comparative literatures, history, and music. (I may be forgetting some other departments, as well.) As we play off one another, so they have played off their varied classmates.

Additionally, our faculty colleagues's advanced theoretical notions have spared us any need to expatiate at tedious length on the significance of our subject. The faculty themselves run a seminar -- led by instructors from English, classics, and other modern languages, with input from musicology, even from our business school, and (mirabile dictu!) from the Library -- on the history of books and printing (or, as it is also called, of "material texts"). This seminar meets regularly every Monday in the Library during both fall and spring semesters; it is about to enter its fifth year as one of the most successful, longest-lived, and best-attended interdisciplinary seminars at our University. Students are welcome. Not only graduate students but also undergraduates have attended, some because, even in undergraduate classes, their theoretical instructors are introducing them to questions that only a curiosity about how texts gad about can begin to answer.

We have, in our context, one advantage that many folks don't have. We don't have to appear, hat in hand, at the door of the rare book librarian to ask permission to (pretty-please?) let our students see manuscript x or book y. We are the rare book librarians. We even meet in a room close enough to our stacks so that, if something comes up during a session we had not anticipated, we can, without breaking a sweat, often find the right illustrative object ready to hand. And yet . . .

What I have not conveyed in all this is that, if their concentration on the physical objects we care for is something we want to encourage in our students, it is, at the end of the day, not the significance of these physical objects as physical objects that either of us is concerned about. For some instructors in this field, that will seem a serious enough flaw in our approach that it will vitiate all else; and so I have thought it best to be up front about it. Physical objects -- books and manuscripts -- are by no means negligible for us or for our students; but they are starting points, not endpoints. We really are concerned that our students recognize trees when they meet them. But we are a bit more concerned that they notice that many trees sometimes constitute a forest.

I'd like them to remember that we pay attention to these objects not simply because books are intrinsically fun objects, appropriate ends in themselves, although it has come to my attention that they are that, too. There are purposes for which it is exciting to trace the printing history of a tract on the seductions of Presbyterianism for its own sake, or to consider the reception of a motorist's guide to White Sulphur Springs for its. However, I am finally more interested -- and, I suspect, ultimately so will our students be -- to study such issues with respect to books in which somewhat larger significances inhere.

I'd like them to come out of such a course with a broader concept of what constitutes "evidence" in the study of book history than that in which some of my colleagues believe. Books themselves are evidence, of course; but they are not the only real evidentiary base for book historians. Evidence also comes from a multitude of other sources: letters, diaries, account books, just to cite some of the obvious sorts of things we have at our students's disposal.

I'd like our students to have some sense of the often extremely complicated roles that manuscripts and books have played in the circulation not only of literature but also of ideas; of the evidence they can provide not only of their own history but also of the histories they embody (of, say, literacy, or of certain kinds of gender or group histories); of the esthetics of books; of the valorization of books; of the impact their format changes have had on the way people metaphorize thinking -- and, perhaps, think.

I'd like them, in short, aware of what to me seems the indisputable fact that the history of books and printing is a subject about which infinitely less is known than we want to know.

Indeed, much more than a broad sense of what might constitute appropriate evidence in the study of book history, and much more than a broad sense of the field's paucity of available "answers" to its own questions, I'd like our students to leave the fifteen weeks they spend with us with a sense that the very questions that need to be asked about books have not yet begun to be asked, let alone exhausted. A study that takes fifteenth-century bookbinding styles and ties them to developing esthetic and philosophical circles in Renaissance Italy, for example -- I'm recalling Anthony Hobson's magnificent book on Humanists and Bookbinders here -- illustrates beautifully what happens when a scholar uses "evidence" to answer questions that it has rarely crossed anyone's mind to ask. Very nearly single-handedly, that scholar moves a peripheral "decorative art" into a context of intellectual history that illuminates not only the bindings from which his study emerges but also the ideas and interrelationships of a circle whose history those bindings help to embody.

Another such study, one from a very different place of academic origin, that asks about the social function of Harlequin romances, opens up new ways to think about readers and reading. Its questions are ones that most of us are far too well-read, and perhaps far too well-bred, to ask. Or were, before Janice Radway published her book.

I'd like our students to leave our class with a sense that its subject remains "in a mist," vaguely discernible -- yes, there's something there! -- but no means yet clear even in its gross outlines. It remains something of a mystery to me -- to us, I think I can safely say. And it's a mystery that has serious attractions. If this class succeeds in problematizing a student's understanding of "the," "history," "of," and "the book," and makes the various problems of these words and their permutations seem interesting, it will (I hope) have done its work.

If I may invoke Gallop one last time, in order to put this hope a bit differently, if our students left our class thinking it possible to enter into a consensual amorous relation with our subject, I for one would be very pleased.

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