Posts Tagged ‘William Hazlitt’

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.

Goethe, J.M. Coetzee, and a million little lies

Monday, April 9th, 2012

Show me a guy like this, and I’ll show you a first-class drag:

“I present a young person gifted with deep, pure feeling and true penetration, who loses himself in rapturous dreams, buries himself in speculation, until at last, ruined by unhappy passions that supervene, in particular an unfulfilled love, puts a bullet in his head.”

Leave it to J.M. Coetzee, writing in this week’s New York Review of Books, to explain how Goethe‘s early book, The Sufferings of Young Werther (new Norton translation by Stanley Corngold) is “extraordinary, trail-blazing.”

“Goethe claimed that he wrote the first draft of Werther in four weeks, in a somnambulistic trance,” writes Coetzee.  That explains it.  The book is a testament to bottomless self-pity – am I missing something? I haven’t the patience. Oh, the joys of middle-age … one has survived so many thing worse than a lost love.

"Ossian on the banks of the Lora, Invoking the Gods to the Strains of the Harp"

But the most interesting passages discuss James Macpherson‘s putatative Ossian, that Scottish bard from misty, mystic early centuries who flavors Goethe’s novella.  What a lot of hooey!

The taste for Ossian is a feature of early Romantic sensibility easy to mock. The fact is, however, that until well into the nineteenth century the poems were widely accepted as a great epic of northern European civilization. “The Homer of the North,” Madame de Staël called Ossian. The recovery of the Ossian epic in Scotland became a spur to the recovery—or invention—of other founding national epics: Beowulf in England, the Kalevala in Finland, the Nibelungenlied in Germany, the Chanson de Roland in France, the Song of the Host of Igorin Russia.

Macpherson was not a great poet (pace William Hazlitt, who set him alongside Dante and Shakespeare) nor even a dedicated one: his Ossian project concluded, Macpherson quit the Highlands for London, where he was fêted, then took ship to Pensacola in the new British colony of West Florida, where he spent two years on the staff of the governor. Returning to England, he entered politics; he died a wealthy man. …

Taken in ... in a big way.

In Britain the Ossian poems were tainted by controversy over their authenticity. Were there indeed Highlanders who could recall and recite these ancient lays, or had Macpherson made them up? Macpherson did not help his case by seeming reluctant to produce his Gaelic originals.

In Europe the question of authenticity had no purchase. Translated into German in 1767, Ossian had a huge impact, inspiring an outpouring of bardic imitations. The young Goethe was so smitten that he taught himself Gaelic in order to translate directly into German the specimens of Scots Gaelic he found in The Works of Ossian. The early Schiller is full of Ossianic echoes; Hölderlin committed pages of Ossian to memory.

Well, I had thought better of Hölderlin.  Sensible Samuel Johnson concluded that Macpherson was “a mountebank, a liar, and a fraud, and that the poems were forgeries.”  Gives a historical perspective to James Frey, Greg Mortenson, & co., don’t it?

No love lost: “authors are some mean mofos”

Saturday, July 2nd, 2011

Hank James, zat you?

A few weeks ago, we wrote a few words on famous feuds between authors.

What better way to follow up than with nasty letters authors wrote on each others’ work?  I read flavorwire’s post on the topic some time ago, which excerpted a longer column from The Examiner here, with a Part 2 here.  It seems like as a good a way as any to begin the holiday weekend.

Take this one:

Wyndham Lewis on Gertrude Stein: “Gertrude Stein’s prose-song is a cold black suet-pudding. We can represent it as a cold suet-roll of fabulously reptilian length. Cut it at any point, it is the same thing: the same heavy, sticky, opaque mass all through and all along.”

As one commenter, Dave, concluded:  “Authors are some mean mofos.”

Instead of resnipping the earlier lists, however, I decided to raid the suggestions from readers.

No eraser

Ben Jonson on Shakespeare:  “I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare that in his writing, whatever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, ‘Would he had blotted a thousand.”

Baudelaire on Voltaire: “I grow bored in France – and the main reason is that everybody here resembles Voltaire … the king of nincompoops, the prince of the superficial, the anti-artist, the spokesman of janitresses, the Father Gigone of the editors of Siècle.”

H.G. Wells on Henry James: “A hippopotamus trying to pick up a pea.”


Louis-Ferdinand Céline on D.H.Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover: “600 hundred pages for a gamekeeper’s dick, it’s way too long.”

As far as potty-mouth goes, try this one:  Stephen Fry on Dan Brown‘s The DaVinci Code: “Complete loose stool water. Arse gravy of the very worst kind.”

William Hazlitt about his good friend Coleridge: “Everlasting inconsequentiality marks all he does.”

Then there’s a Jane Austen pile-on:

Mark Twain:  “Just the omission of Jane Austen’s books alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn’t a book in it.”

Charlotte Bronte‘s criticism is less snarky, more an excellent Romantic era critique of the preceding era’s Classicism:

"A Chinese fidelity..."

“. . . anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works; all such demonstration the authoress would have met with a well-bred sneer . . . She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well; there is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy in the painting: she ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound: the Passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy Sisterhood; even to the Feelings she vouchsafes no more than an occasional graceful but distant recognition; too frequent converse with them would ruffle the smooth elegance of her progress. Her business is not half so much with the human heart as with the human eyes, mouth, hands, and feet; what sees keenly, speaks aptly, moves flexibly, it suits her to study, but what throbs is the unseen seat of Life and the sentient target of death–this Miss Austen ignores, she no more, with her mind’s eye, beholds the heart of her race than each man with bodily vision, sees the heart in his heaving breast. Jane Austen was a complete and most sensible lady, but a very incomplete, and rather insensible (not senseless) woman . . .”

Ceallaig‘s perceptive comment from an intelligent heart:  “My question is: if Mark Twain hated Jane Austen why does he say ‘every time I read it?’ Wouldn’t once have been enough? Ditto Noel Coward‘s slam on Oscar Wilde: ‘Am reading more of …’? as if the first dose wasn’t sufficient? I’m sure most of these slams were meant to be witty, and I agree with a number of them, but … wit used for the sake of nasty doesn’t work for me.”

Ellis: "a mean shallow stupid novel"

Then I found this interesting post, from bibliokept. David Foster Wallace on Bret Easton Ellis.  I leafed through Ellis’ Less Than Zero in the Stanford Bookstore a couple decades ago, and found it ugly and depraved.  I haven’t read Wallace at all, and have been put-off by his super-celebrity status, which, morbidly, seemed to accelerate with his 2008 suicide – until I read this excerpt from an interview:

“I think it’s a kind of black cynicism about today’s world that Ellis and certain others depend on for their readership. Look, if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic, and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development. With descriptions that are simply lists of brand-name consumer products. Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other.

Wallace: "In dark times..."

‘If what’s always distinguished bad writing—flat characters, a narrative world that’s clichéd and not recognizably human, etc.—is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is?

“In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. You can defend Psycho as being a sort of performative digest of late-eighties social problems, but it’s no more than that.”

I’d say it’s considerably less.

Bibliokept‘s thoughtful consideration of Ellis versus Wallace definitely worth a thoughtful read.