There can be few places where the blessings, rather than the burdens, of the past are more obvious than at the University of Virginia. To walk along the Lawn, as the main quad of the university is called, to look up at the Pantheon-like dome of the Rotunda (designed by Jefferson, after Latrobe), to visit nearby Monticello itself or meander the length of the downtown pedestrian mall, adorned with coffee shops, bookstores and boutiques -- to do any of these seems to impart an indefinable sense of ease, of well-being and confidence. Of course, I was visiting Charlottesville (pop. 40,000) over graduation, a time of hilarity and bonhomie, with festive, well-dressed groups everywhere -- graduating seniors carousing till dawn, two or three generations of alumni dining together in low-lit restaurants. Imagine a subdued and decorous carnival.
Naturally, I was late -- the drive takes longer than you think, at least three hours, what with speed traps and winery tours, as well as glorious countryside -- and so I immediately had to rush off for a round of appointments with several distinguished textual scholars. No kidding. The University of Virginia continues to be the most exciting place in the country to study the transmission, production and physical nature of literary texts. If you want to eyeball major manuscripts by Faulkner and Hemingway or engineer sophisticated scholarly Web sites, then hie thee to Charlottesville, home of Studies in Bibliography, Rare Book School, the Electronic Text Center, the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities and, of course, the breathtaking special collections in the Alderman Library.
Outside the office of David Vander Meulen, editor of Studies in Bibliography, I notice a cartoon of a little boy giving a class book report. The caption reads: "I thought it had a pretty good story and interesting characters but I really didn't like the font." Inside, the basement cubbyhole is filled with tidy bookshelves and some 200 different editions of The Pilgrim's Progress. "The collection," explains Vander Meulen, "is useful for seeing changes in the methods of making books over three centuries and for discovering how Bunyan's original text has been adapted, interpreted, and used." Plus, to my unscholarly eye, the books look really nifty all in a row.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Bibliographical Society of Virginia, Vander Meulen informs me, with justifiable pride, "we converted the first half century of Studies in Bibliography to electronic form. We were the first major humanities journal to have its entire run of back issues made available without charge on the Web. It nearly broke us financially . . . But to our amazement, we now receive about 30,000 hits a month." (Check out the journal at etext.lib.virginia.edu/bsuva/.)
As it happens, "to provide humanities-related electronic texts and images on the Internet" is the stated purpose of the Electronic Text Center. "What used to be called cataloguing," notes its director, David Seaman, "is now metadata." In his elegant book-lined office, Seaman talks (with a British accent) and simultaneously types away at a laptop, while a large monitor displays some of the Web sites created at the Center: the Salem Witchcraft Papers, a stunning "Mark Twain in His Times." "Stephen Railton's built a whole series of contexts for the study of Twain," says Seaman. He touches a key, and there flashes on the monitor an essay, with illustrations, discussing in detail how the slave Jim has been depicted over the years.
How, I ask innocently, is all this entered online? "The big secret weapon is graduate student labor." And, indeed, next door to Seaman's quiet Jeffersonian retreat a large, austere workroom, lined with PCs, resounds with the clangor of clicking keyboards. I suppose it's no worse than being a teaching assistant in Middle English 101.
Or writing critical articles nobody reads. Hoyt "Dug" Duggan, gregarious like all medievalists (32 years at UVa), confesses: "I've never been guilty of publishing any literary criticism; I've just done hardcore scholarship." Then he boots up the CD of Volume 1 of "The Piers Plowman Electronic Archive." William Langland's alliterative verse epic -- Duggan calls it "the Mount Everest of Middle English literature" -- opens with quiet beauty: "In summer season when soft was the sun . . ." But then it gets truly complex. Because of the efforts of Duggan and his computer team, you can now see facsimiles of this demanding poem's original manuscripts, with accompanying transcriptions, as well as point and click on words of interest to bring up scholarly notes and learned speculations. As Vander Meulen reminds me, "This isn't just playing games, it's something that will endure."
The next morning I wanted to see books, so I browsed through some of Charlottesville's used bookshops: Daedalus Books, known for its dark basement of old fiction; the Blue Moon, with a remarkably extensive Irish section. Still, Heartwood remains special, with two separate buildings, one devoted to general stock (lots of literary criticism and scholarship in the back), the other specializing in antiquarian treasures.
After picking up some Wodehouse and Dunsany stories, I rushed off to Alderman Library, where the director of its Special Collections, Michael Plunkett, was waiting to show me a few books from his shelves. Such as? Oh, "Since you asked about Faulkner," said Plunkett, and casually plunked down before me the manuscript for The Sound and the Fury. I reverently touched a page. Faulkner, it turns out, penned a handsome, impressively tiny script, with few erasures. He would leave wide left margins in which to scribble microscopically the occasional second thought. Plunkett then dazzled me with the typescript for Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, including its original opening chapter, discarded on the advice of Scott Fitzgerald (the book first started, "This is a novel about a lady. Her name is Lady Ashley."). Then out came handwritten fragments for Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass -- and the first and second editions of that book (the second boasts a cover blurb from Ralph Waldo Emerson: "I greet you at the beginning of a great career"). Special Collections even owns one of Faulkner's tweed jackets -- and his seventh-grade report card. Mostly As and Bs, in case you wondered.
Still, my favorite treasure was Peter Viertel's script for the movie of The Sun Also Rises -- with Hemingway's caustic and often profane comments. Much of the dialogue Hem succinctly characterized as "jerk talk." He also made brutally plain the nature of Jake's genital wound, a matter much speculated on by readers and critics: His penis had been shot off, a common injury in World War I.
That evening I wandered around this "academical village" (Jefferson's phrase), feeling overwhelmed. Textual studies, digital facsimiles, famous manuscripts. And I hadn't even visited the Press of the University of Virginia, which is publishing sumptuous editions of Matthew Arnold's letters and William James's correspondence. I thought, too, of the University's own literary magazine, Virginia Quarterly Review, edited by Staige Blackford, which this year celebrates its 75th anniversary with an anthology of showpieces, We Write For Our Time (Thomas Mann; Evelyn Waugh; Mary Michie, author of the unforgettable account of her dying, "A Splendid Day"), as well as a special 75th-anniversary issue. But any issue of this magazine can be special: Last summer it brought out an unpublished Faulkner story, "Lucas Beauchamps," and R. H. W. Dillard's fond appreciation of George Garrett, which I read with particular attention.
Was the word "genial," in all its senses, ever used properly by anyone who hadn't met George Garrett? Poet, novelist, essayist, storyteller, screenwriter, teacher, editor, literary journalist -- Garrett embodies Charlottesville courtesy and charm (though he grew up in Orlando, Fla.!). Garrett and his wife, Susan, live next door to poet Eleanor Ross Taylor, widow of the revered short-story writer Peter Taylor. I ask, "Since Taylor died, are you Charlottesville's dean of letters?" The 70-year-old author of Death of the Fox and many other books laughs. "Only when Mary Lee Settle is away."
Settled in his living room with Italian liqueurs, I notice poet Henry Taylor's latest book, Brief Candles, a collection of clerihews: "Hart Crane / plunged into the bounding main. / His situation could not have been graver: / His father invented the candy lifesaver." There are works by many other friends scattered throughout the house: National Book Award-winner Settle, onetime student Madison Smartt Bell, colleagues like Douglas Day and Joseph Blotner (biographers of Malcolm Lowry and Faulkner, respectively ). A once extensive poetry collection, Garrett tells me, has been donated to a little school near Sewanee, Tenn.
The University of Virginia has been the temporary home to a number of moody, disturbing talents: Edgar Allan Poe (who, as a member of the university's class of 1826, probably met Jefferson); the gothicky American-French novelist Julien Green; the short story writer Breece D'J Pancake, who committed suicide at age 27; Alexander Theroux, author of that modern classic of linguistic rococo, Darconville's Cat. And, of course, the grandmaster of the grotesque, Gothic and magnificent, William Faulkner, UVa's first writer in residence.
"Did you ever meet Faulkner?" "Not quite," answers Garrett, and launches into a well-paced story about how as an undergrad at Princeton he used to mow the lawn of Saxe Commins, Faulkner's editor. "One day he told me to use the push mower because Mr. Faulk ner was asleep in -- and here Mr. Commins pointed melodramatically -- That Back Bedroom There. I used the push mower, and that was as close as I ever came to meeting Faulkner."
My host scarcely pauses, though, before starting another Faulkner tale, which culminates in Garrett's handwritten scribblings about "The Bear" being accidentally exhibited as Faulkner's working notes on this famous story. "A couple of hundred years from now some scholar will prove that Faulkner's works were actually written by this other guy, this George Garrett." He laughs again. And the academic anecdotes spill out. Garrett tells me about the zany evening when historian Shelby Foote visited Charlottesville for a reading -- one that culminated in a Dixieland band marching through Alderman library at the invitation of a "voluptuous" young librarian. The tale, in all its sumptuous detail, can be found in Garrett's collection Whistling in the Dark.
Yet another time, recalls Garrett, clearly on a roll, "I was standing behind a drunk John Berryman when he asked a liquor store owner for a bottle of liquor. 'What kind?' Berryman drew himself up: 'I am a poet. Don't bother me with petty details.'" Sipping his own drink, Garrett then wistfully describes a party at which Katherine Anne Porter -- successor to Faulkner as Writer in Residence -- took off a huge emerald ring and placed it in his hand. "Heavy, isn't it?" After a pause, she whispered: "Son, that's the Ship of Fools," in other words, the money she earned from her bestselling novel. "Son," Porter said, "you carry it around for a while." Could one ask for a more convincing anointing?
George Garrett writes, appropriately, up in his house's garret. The attic room is chockablock with shelves, boxes, old volumes of the Dictionary of Literary Biography, for which this versatile man of letters contributes an annual survey of book reviewing (talk about thankless tasks). There's a set of weights on the floor. Out of a misplaced politeness, I turn down an unexpected invitation to stay for supper with Martin and Ruthe Battestin, leading authorities on Henry Fielding.
Later, of course, I regretted missing the Battestins, among others. Poet Rita Dove was off in South Africa. I meant to telephone novelist John Casey. Terry Belanger, the owner of Book Arts Press and director of the Rare Book School happened to be away. So was Jerome McGann of the Rossetti Hypertext Archive. Oh well. A three-hour drive isn't really all that long. Especially if you stop at wineries and bookshops along the way.
Copyright © 2000 The Washington Post.
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