Posts Tagged ‘Denise Gigante’

TLS: When did Keats become a great writer? Ask Gigante.

Tuesday, December 18th, 2012

“What was he really like?”

In case you missed it, a recent Times Literary Supplement article reviewed four new biographies of John Keats – one of them Denise Gigante‘s The Keats Brothers: The Life of John and George (we interviewed Denise here).

“What was he really like?” asks Jonathan Bate. “When, and under the influence of what shaping forces, did he become a great poet? Any literary biographer who can answer those two questions will have achieved the holy grail of Life-writing. The second will always be a matter of literary judgement, but the first becomes a great deal easier to explore when there is a cache of letters, diaries and intimate recollections.”

He concludes with special attention to The Keats Brothers:

But it is Gigante’s The Keats Brothers that comes closest to answering the question of when Keats became a great writer. It was in the summer of 1818, when he went north and began writing long letters, first to [brother] Tom and then to George and [sister-in-law] Georgiana. Previous biographers have recognized the importance of the walking tour with [friend Charles] Brown – the impressions of Wordsworth country, the visit to the tomb of Burns, the extraordinary vision of an old peasant woman, “squab and lean”, smoking a pipe as she is carried along by “two ragged tattered Girls” – “What a thing would be a history of her Life and sensations”. But Gigante’s method of writing the Lives of John and George in parallel allows her to bring into focus the key fact that other biographers sometimes forget: that the reason why Keats went north in the first place was to say goodbye to George as he set sail for America from Liverpool. George’s distance – and, soon after, the even profounder absence created by Tom’s death – was the primary force that shaped Keats in the year from the autumn of 1818 when he wrote his greatest poetry.

As Christopher Ricks reminded us nearly forty years ago in Keats and Embarrassment, John “always made an awkward bow” (that is the last sentence of his last surviving letter). The astonishing thing about the parting in Liverpool – and neither Nicholas Roe nor Denise Gigante dwells on this as fully as they might have done – is that he didn’t wait to see off the ship. He didn’t even know the name of the ship. Together with Brown, the surrogate brother, he slipped away at dawn. He couldn’t bear to say goodbye.

Denise’s fame has crossed the Pacific.  She sent us the review of a Chinese interview about her newest effort here.  The piece discusses her interest in association copies, and the way they intensify the bond among readers and writers.  As for the future of the book, it cites her earlier comment: “In the end, we will always be tactile creatures.”

Hey!  That’s exactly what she told the Book Haven here.

Sometimes a Kindle is not enough: Gigante recalls an era when books were buddies

Wednesday, October 10th, 2012

Denise Gigante, at home with a friend (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Last year, we interviewed Denise Gigante about her acclaimed new book, The Keats Brothers – the Q&A is  here.  The formidable author is now tackling a new subject, with the help of a Guggenheim fellowship.  Read more:

What is a book?  A source of wisdom, a cultural artifact, a sacred relic, a text that can be rearranged into pdf, ebooks and pasted into a cloud.  But in an earlier era, books were more than that: they were bosom friends.

Denise Gigante, a Stanford English professor, traces the power of the book in the 19th century and then looks forward to the future of the written word.  Her research for her forthcoming book with Harvard University Press, The Book Madness: A Story of Book Collectors in America, which earned her a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, also recalls the half-forgotten English essayist and “tastemaker” Charles Lamb, a cultural icon as popular in the 19th century as Charles Dickens.

Gigante tells a tale of how movements can flip into their own opposite: how transatlantic book-collecting and literary idolatry morphed into a fuzzy, off-the-page future. Passionate devotion to particular books has yielded to a universally available, disembodied text.

An "association copy" from the Fliegelman collection: John Quincy Adams' 1703 edition of Pliny the Younger’s "Epistolae et Panegyricus" (photo: L.A. Cicero).

If the past is anything to go by, her new book is likely to make literary waves.  Last year’s The Keats Brothers: The Life of John and George, was named a New York Times Notable Book for 2011 and an Editor’s Choice in The New York Times Book Review.

Gavin Jones, the chair of the Stanford English Department, said, “Denise is the rare scholar with the power to tell a story that’s also the biography of an age and an intellectual culture.”

Gigante’s research recalls an era when “bibliomaniacs had a relationship with books – they saw them as companions, friends, mentors, real presences in the world.  A character from Tom Jones could be as real to them as anyone they might meet.”

Gigante’s newest intellectual adventure began with the Jay Fliegelman Collection of “association copies” now in the Stanford Libraries.  The collection is important not just for the books that it holds, but for the signatures, notes and dedications to and from the era’s leading cultural figures contained in them.  English Professor Emeritus Albert Gelpi, describing the Fliegelman Collection, noted how “the books speak to each other.”

Gigante found inspiration in the collection. The idea of “association copies” was central to the 19th-century world of letters.  When a book had the pencil marks of an admired literary friend or had been owned by a long-dead colleague, it deepened the conversation between book and reader.

American collections put together by private collectors abounded in such souvenirs of the literary life – anything associated with authors was hoarded and venerated.  It was the age, Gigante said, of “bibliomania.”

In a residual way, the idea of association continues to this day. Think of all the people who line up at the local bookstore for an author signing.  “This is a legacy of the association copy, a commoditized version,” said Gigante.  “One can now purchase an autograph connecting the reader to the writer in a sentimental economy.”

Last year's triumph

Amateur book collecting – “amateur” is based on the French word for “lover” – was a very self-conscious way of styling oneself as a person of culture. For bibliomaniacs, taste was “a lived experience,” said Gigante, “an art of living.”

In the 19th century, such tastemakers were “usually people who had to work a day job, or fit their literary life into a workaday world.”

From the beginning, the movement was not about wealthy collectors. Charles Lamb, the son of domestic servants who wrote so lovingly about books, left school to work as a clerk.  His fellow essayists and bibliomaniacs, Leigh Hunt and William Hazlitt, spent their lives fleeing from creditors. Even John Keats, Gigante’s former subject, was the son of a hostler who took care of horses at an inn.

“There was a big difference between collectors with money who could buy anything that caught their eye, and people who had to make choices, to exercise judgment, in choosing one book over another.”

Book-loving morphed into a kind of bourgeois consumerism, where people stacked shelves with books for display (though old books retained their status as idols).  Book buying, selling and collecting became hallmarks of the age.  Bookstores became the center of social and cultural life.  Libraries became shrines where cultural heritage was preserved.

Portrait of Charles Lamb by William Hazlitt

Like just about everything else in America, the great libraries born in this era were not created top-down, as were their European counterparts, but rather bottom-up.  While the French royalty housed great collections in palatial structures and the British university libraries descended from the 16th century dissolution of the monasteries, American libraries were formed as “expressions of personality, character and individual genius rather than wealth,” said Gigante.

Compare these libraries to, say, Mr. Darcy’s library in Pride and Prejudice.  The books Elizabeth Bennet admired at Pemberley were collected over generations as a mark of a family’s cultural prestige – a collection of literary “Golden Oldies.”

But the marketplace eventually came to the fore. Thus, the 1848 sale of Charles Lamb’s old books, 14 years after his death, was a high-profile event. Sixty of Lamb’s dog-eared association copies, his “midnight darlings,” were displayed by a bookseller in the Astor House in Manhattan as a “seven-day wonder.” The English world of letters lamented the national loss of the iconic collection.

After the books were scattered at auction, a few were swallowed into John Jacob Astor’s collection, which formed the basis for the New York Public Library, and a few went to Charles Eliot Norton at Harvard. The private libraries of other collectors started the great collections at Yale, Princeton, Brown and other universities.

Something essential had fallen by the wayside in the rush for big collections.  The death of “gentle-hearted Charles” marked the end of the romantic quality of book collecting. “The gentility of the belletristic tradition amid the prosaic reality of middle-class life had been a model for many Americans,” according to Gigante.

We’ve turned the page onto a future without pages.  The medium is a computer screen. “The center of association shifts from the self to the commodity that is the computer,” Gigante said. “The agency of connection is likewise transferred from the internal space of reflection to larger corporations.”

What’s missing is a tastemaker’s wise words in real time and the presence of a bosom buddy on your bookshelf.  Does it matter? Gigante thinks so: “In the end, we will always be tactile creatures,” she said.

Stanford writers bag an awful lot of prizes this year

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012

It’s easy to forget the caliber of the people you are rubbing elbows with every day.  So let me take a moment to blow their collective horn – especially since they’re so humble.  Many of you may have seen the recent New Yorker article about high-tech Stanford’s close relationship with Silicon Valley.  Fewer people, alas, know that it also has one of the top-rated faculties in English and Creative Writing anywhere.

This year has been a banner year.  Stanford and its alums have bagged a Pulitzer, a Ruth Lilly Prize, a National Book Award, a Guggenheim, a presidential awards.   Everything short of a Nobel. Are you listening, Stockholm?

From a piece I wrote recently:

Turning 40 is a landmark for many, and poet Tracy Smith was no exception. She planned to celebrate in style with champagne. But what she didn’t expect was the biggest present ever: her husband told her The New York Timeswebsite had just announced that she’d won this year’s Pulitzer Prize in poetry.The new Pulitzer for Smith, a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, is one of several awards that have put a spotlight on Stanford’s top-ranked English Department and its renowned Creative Writing Program– a sometimes overlooked triumph on a campus that more often prides itself on its technological savvy.

Simone Di Piero, Photo credit: David LiittschwagerPoet W.S. Di Piero got the news that he had won the 2012 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize on April 1.  “They called me on April Fools Day.  So I had to ask twice if they were serious.  They said it was on the up and up.”

“In the land of poetry it’s a big prize,” said the emeritus professor of English.  His new collection of poetry, Nitro Nights, was published in December, but the $100,000 award honors lifetime accomplishments.

According to Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry magazine, “He wakes up the language, and in doing so wakes up his readers, whose lives are suddenly sharper and larger than they were before. He’s a great poet whose work is just beginning to get the wide audience it deserves.”

Poets weren’t the only ones to get prizes: English Prof. Denise Gigante got a coveted Guggenheim Fellowship, topping a year that had already brought stunning accolades: The Keats Brothers: The Life of John and George, was named a New York Times Notable Book for 2011 and an Editor’s Choice in The New York Times Book Review.

Denise Gigante, photo credit: Raul DiazThe Guggenheim will give her time to work on her new book, The Book Madness: Charles Lamb’s Midnight Darlings in New York, a study of 19th century bibliomania, the formation of important libraries and literary culture in America, and the half-forgotten English essayist Charles Lamb.

“Americans were fascinated with the figures of British poets,” said Gigante.  “Culture was imported from Britain – that’s not true today.  And library-makers were the cultural brokers of the time.”  Her book will be “an experiment in literary critical form,” she said.

Gavin Jones, English Department chair, said, “Denise is the rare scholar with the power to tell a story that’s also the biography of an age and an intellectual culture.”

The list of awards continues:  President Obama awarded Prof. Ramón Saldívar a National Humanities medal in February. (Arnold Rampersad, emeritus professor of English, received the same award a year before.)

The English Department has consistently been at the top of U.S. News and World Report rankings of graduate programs. The creative writing program, which does not confer an MFA, is considered by many to be the best in the country.  Its Stegner fellows form a tight-knit, ongoing society.

Pulitzer prizewinner Smith, at Stanford from 1997 to 1999, said her years at Stanford “pushed me to move towards a mature sense of what I was doing. To be honest, I didn’t know how to do that.”

The program’s focus on moving from manuscript to book “frees you from the person you were as a student and into what you will be as a poet.”

Smith, now an assistant professor at Princeton, was awarded for her collection Life on Mars. The New York Times called her “a poet of extraordinary range and ambition” whose book “first sends us out into the magnificent chill of the imagination and then returns us to ourselves, both changed and consoled.”

Although many may have seen The Descendants, a critically praised film with George Clooney that won two Golden Globe awards (for best picture and best actor in drama), few know it was born in the English Department. Kaui Hart Hemmings, a Stegner Fellow from 2002-2004, was working on the novel while at Stanford.

Jesmyn Ward, photo credit: Adam JohnsonJesmyn Ward became the out-of-nowhere winner of the prestigious National Book Award for 2011 with Salvage the Bones, a novel about a working-class family confronting the disaster of Hurricane Katrina.

Novelist Tobias Wolff said, “One of the great pleasures of teaching in the Stegner program is seeing the manuscripts we discuss in our workshops turn into books, distinguished, remarkable books, and recognized as such by the larger world.”

“Jesmyn Ward’s recent success is but one of too many examples to list here,” said the professor of English.

Eavan Boland, one of Ireland’s leading poets and director of the Creative Writing Program, called it “a stellar year” for the English department – but cautioned that  “our entire focus has to be on the writing and not the recognition. The writing life is an end in itself – that’s what the program stands for.”

“We have many outstanding Stegners who don’t win awards and go on to be significant writers through their commitment to that life and its outcomes.”

For the award-winners, however, the recognition certainly doesn’t hurt: “I’ve done a lot of the research, but the writing needs the fellowship,” said Gigante. “I needed to have this award. The timing seems perfect.”

For Smith, now working on a memoir, the birthday bash was even bigger than she had planned. “A lot of champagne was involved,” said Smith. “It was put to good use, very quickly.”

What will Di Piero do with all the money? “Of course the first thing that came to mind a really hot, fast car.  I don’t own one, so if I’m going to buy one, I should get serious.”

“But in order to buy a car, I need a parking space, and to have a parking space, I should buy a house. And even the Lilly prize doesn’t go far enough to buy a house in San Francisco.”

John Keats and his greatest love – his brother George: Q&A with biographer Denise Gigante

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011


The Cockney Poet: "The goodness of his heart and the nobleness of his spirit.”

John Keats (1795-1821) is celebrated as one of the greatest poets of the English language, succumbing to tuberculosis at age 25.  His brother?  A ne’er-do-well who scarpered off to America, leaving both his brothers to die young of “the family disease.” 

That is, until Denise Gigante’s The Keats Brothers, published by Harvard University Press (a podcast is here).  Weaving the double stories of brothers John and George Keats with a sympathetic mind and heart, she tells how two men remained deeply committed to each other throughout their lives.  In fact, the case could be made that George was the great love of John Keats’s short life.

“My brother George has ever been more than a brother to me, he has been my greatest friend,” John Keats wrote in 1818.

George wrote nearly a decade after his older brother’s death: “I claim being the affectionate Friend and Brother of John Keats. I loved him from boyhood even when he wronged me, for the goodness of his heart and the nobleness of his spirit.”

The book is making big waves on both sides of the Atlantic.  Here’s a Book Haven Q&A with the author:

After long incubation, sudden acclaim. How does it feel to be suddenly in the news, everywhere?

I’m pleased that the book has been favorably reviewed and even made it to “Editor’s Choice” for The New York Times. But I have learned one lesson: you’re only as good as your reviewers.

Since there is so much reading material and so little time, the general reading public depends on book reviews for knowledge of new events in the cultural world. One assumes, naturally, that the reviewers, at least, read the books. That turns out not to be the case!

I’m afraid that the reviewer for The Independent in the U.K., for instance, did not get much past the prologue. Lesley McDowell’s last sentence of that review shows a painful ignorance of the circumstances of John Keats’s death.

On the other hand, Christopher Benfey’s review for The New York Times and Seamus Perry’s review for the British Literary Review both manage to distill the narrative and thematic ambitions of my dual biography of John and George Keats down to a few incisive—and lively—paragraphs for a general public.

How did George Keats get such a bad reputation? And how do scholars get the wrong end of the stick like that, for so many years?

George Keats left England in 1818 to make a new life for himself in America with his young bride, Georgiana Wylie. His intention was to earn enough money to return to England and support his family—which included his more famous brother—in the lifestyle to which they aspired to live.

George lost his inheritance in a steamboat speculation and returned to London, desperate with a pregnant wife back in Louisville, Kentucky, to scour up more funds. When he left England for America for the second time, in 1820, he had borrowed money from his brother John; he did not realize John was terminally ill.

A couple days after George’s departure, John had his first major pulmonary hemorrhage from tuberculosis, the family disease. John was sick and in dire straits financially—like George—and John’s roommate Charles Brown resented George for leaving the poet in his care. George failed to raise money to send John to Italy, where the doctors ordered the poet to go for the sake of his health. After John’s death, Brown proceeded to blame George for John’s sufferings.

Their mutual friend Charles Dilke later vindicated George, proving that he had not acted dishonestly, whatever one might say about his absence as a caregiver, but the rumors about George’s bad behavior have tarnished his reputation for posterity.

Big-hearted Denise

My effort has been situate these familiar events to us in a more historical, transatlantic context: the collapse of the American economy in the Panic of 1819; an unreliable mail system between England and the Western Country of America; sickness on both sides of the Atlantic; and so forth.

George, too, was a victim of circumstance. He spent the remaining twenty years of his life after John’s death trying to live up to his brother’s memory.

You have indeed situated these events in a bigger context.  We talk a lot about the era of globalization.  Your book shows us again that we aren’t the first to experience its traumas.  The American and French revolutions toppled imperial powers and had international repercussions, and the Industrial Revolution affected everyone.  Can you describe how these quakes affected the Keats family?

The ongoing Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812, involving many nations and a global economy, both ended in 1815, the year before The Keats Brothers begins, leaving Britain reeling both in heady splendor—think of the Prince Regent and his retinue—and, for the working classes, in the tribulations of poverty.

Although John and George Keats were not part of either extreme, opportunities for both of them were curtailed in a sociopolitical system based on rank and hereditary privilege. John faced a snobbish conservative press determined to mock his poetic pretensions: he was a “Cockney Poet.”

George could not get a start in any business, and faced years of paying his dues as an anonymous clerk: he became a “Cockney Pioneer,” like the entrepreneurs he followed to the so-called “English Prairie” in the Illinois Territory. He was part of a flood of migration from the British Isles, across the Atlantic and down the Ohio River, to the new states and territories opening up west of the Allegheny Mountains. The New World represented a land of opportunity away from entrenched systems of power and privilege. The reality was often otherwise, as George Keats, like many other pioneers, found out.

Jane Campion's "Bright Star" – more light than heat?

John Keats’s love affair with Fanny Brawne has become the stuff of legend. Jane Campion’s recent movie Bright Star was devoted to the tragic affair between the poet and his neighbor, carried on as John was staring down the all-too-close antagonist, death.

But until George left England, John had always found his closest bonds to be with his brothers. “When I am among Women I have evil thoughts, malice spleen,” he confessed, “I cannot speak or be silent—I am full of Suspicions and therefore listen to no thing—I am in a hurry to be gone.” He was attracted to women, clearly, but his trust and intimacy resided in his brothers.

After George left for America, and their younger brother Tom had died, John’s enormous capacity for love shifted to Fanny Brawne. The Keats brothers did have a sister, but she was very young and isolated from them by their guardian, Richard Abbey. George was John’s anchor until 1819: the year after George’s departure when John wrote his most lasting verse in the void opened up by his brothers’ absence.

Can you tell us about some of that verse?

“But what without the social thought of thee, / Would be the wonders of the sky and sea,” John wrote to George in the concluding couplet of a sonnet titled “To My Brother George.”

His poetry, following the loss of his brothers, became darker, more introspective, deeper, and more philosophical. The poems known as the Great Odes—“Ode to a Nightingale,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode to Melancholy,” “To Autumn,” and so on, written in the spring of 1819, after Tom’s death and George’s departure—describe the misery into which the poet had plunged after the loss of his brothers: “George is in America and I have no brother left,” John wrote to an acquaintance that May. “My brother George always stood between me and any dealings with the world—Now I find I must buffet it—I must take my stand upon some vantage ground and begin to fight—I must choose between despair & Energy—I choose the latter.”

Not a rotter

And choose he did, writing the majority of poems that appeared in his famous volume of 1820, the book that made his lasting reputation. His letters also reveal the profundity of his connection with George, to whom he spoke of life not as a vale of tears, but as a “Vale of Soul-making.” We come into the world, he speculated, as atoms of perception—“intelligences,” the poet called them—that have no distinct personality or identity but that, in the school of hard knocks called experience, a school whose lessons are felt on the pulses, those intelligences become souls. Such a system of spiritual redemption proved no affront to his reason.

You’ve taken on a double narrative in your book.  As a writer, can you describe some of the perils of this kind of writing?

The story of John Keats is as famous as the story of George Keats is unknown. The sections of the book focused on John tend to be more concerned with his imaginative and intellectual life—his thoughts, his emotions, his poetry—while the sections of the book devoted to George are active: where he went, whom he met, what he did. John in fact had an imaginative relationship to the world around him, while George lived in a world that for us today is purely imaginary: a wild landscape inhabited by settlers and Native Americans, keelboats and whisky-drinking boatmen, transatlantic packet ships weighed down with iron to be shaped into plowshares, men gouging out each others eyes after a few drinks in the tavern. The main narrative challenge lay in reconciling the diverse worlds of Regency London and frontier America, keeping the right rhythm between the two brothers.

 Are there any living descendents of John Keats’ family today?

George Keats had eight children and his descendants in America number in the hundreds. Among them is Lawrence M. Crutcher, of Louisville, who is descended from George’s daughter Emma and who has compiled a book, The Keats Family [Butler, 2009], which contains biographical portraits of George’s many descendants.

Fanny Keats, unlike her brothers John, George, and Tom, did not die of tuberculosis. She had six children and lived into old age; her family tree is alive. Crutcher’s cousin, Fernando Paradinas, provided information regarding the descendants of Fanny Keats, the brothers’ sister, which Crutcher has included in The Keats Family.