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Saturday, September 02, 2006

Portrait of a Professor as a Young Man

This article from tomorrow's NY Times, "John Adams Talks to His Books," has inspired me to relate my favorite example of a reader engaging with another author's work.

This marginalia exists in a book I picked up during my senior year of college. One of my favorite English professors was retiring at the end of the semester and so was giving away books to students, lots of books. For reasons that now escape me, I decided I should own his copy of John Keats, Complete Poems and Selected Letters, ed. Clarence DeWitt Thorpe (New York: Odyssey Press, 1935). As part of his editorial duties, Thorpe, described on the book's title page as "Professor of English, University of Michigan," had written a rather substantial introduction of thirty-nine pages (pp. xv-liii), and it was this introduction that exercised the younger version of my then seventy-year-old professor. He may have owned the book in grad school, or perhaps when he was a junior professor, for he was no Romanticist and I imagine he had not taught Keats in many years (and even if he had, he clearly would not have assigned this volume from the Odyssey Series in Literature, gen. ed. Robert Shafer). I like to imagine him studying for his Ph.D. exams, dutifully reading the introductions to books, and, in the midst of that somewhat bitter experience, caustically reacting to the cant in Thorpe's essay.

His comments start quietly enough. There are some underlined sentences, vertical lines along the edges of paragraphs, and rather neutral comments like "cf. Bleak H.," next to the story of Keats's "ill-advised chancery suit, which dragged on for nearly twenty years" (p. xvii). Exasperation begins to set in with Thorpe's comment that "A mere dreamer is not a true poet, but the dream-state, or state of abstraction, is not a condition of poetic creation" (p. xxiii), which prompts a question mark from my professor. More question marks and exclamation points show up on the next few pages. He queries the word "Humanitarian" in the section "The Humanitarian Keats" (p. xxiii) and "Realism" in the section "Keats's Realism" (p. xxv). Thorpe's description of Keats's "periods of high mystic experience" occasions a question mark (p. xxiv), as does the word "insight" in the sentence, "Neither experience of life and knowledge and thought and insight, nor a rich personality, nor sensitiveness to beauty in all its forms could, however, have sufficed to complete the genius that was in Keats" (p. xxvii). A question mark--exclamation point combination shadows, "It strikes to the deep places of the human heart..." (p. xxvii). Other sentences and phrases deemed objectionable are "the conventional eighteenth-century stanza" (p. xxviii), a hazily identified "middle caesura" in a quotation (p. xxix), "the fine technical quality of Lamia (p. xxxi), "his quite glorious total achievement" (p. xxxii), "It is the music of the organ, calm, deep-toned, strongly sustained" (p. xxxiii), "Only Keats could have written these lines" (p. xxxiv), and "Keats has here exactly conveyed the mechanical effect of sleep-walking" (p. xxxv).

At this point in the introduction, my professor begins to spell out his objections more clearly. Thorpe's "There must be everything here that Keats wanted to convey" is met with a "so what!" (p. xxxv). The sentence "It is the classical expression in our language of the joyous wonder of literary discovery" inspires "aren't we broad, no!?" (p. xxxvi). The interjection "god!" accompanies "One would like to quote from many of them and linger over their beautiful cadences and rich meanings. With what exquisite appropriateness Keats apostrophizes his youthful fellow-poet Chatterton, dead before he had reached eighteen years" (p. xxxvii). On p. xl, my professor offers a bit of advice to Thorpe: "a reading of Pound's Essays wdn't harm you at all, Prof. Thorpe!." One page later he suggests replacing the phrase "be lightly disposed of" with the simpler "dismissed." Thorpe's description of Keats as "not a philosopher in the technical sense of the term; he was, however, genuinely philosophical" is met with a "meaning?" (p. xli). The clunky phrase describing love as "the impulse of one being to go out in sympathy and desire" elicits an "ug!" (p. xliii).

As we approach the end of the Introduction, my professor's ascerbic wit begins to come out. When Thorpe writes, "Indeed, Keats was trying to wean himself away from Franny at the time," my professor responds, "literally?!" (p. xliv) (which is actually quite funny). And Thorpe's judgment that Keats conveys "the deepest truths of life in noble language" is occasion for another "god!" (p. xliv). An entire paragraph is judged "S-L-O-P-P-Y!" (with my professor's notations included):
The way to this accomplishment is the way of the imagination, though intuitive vision of essential truth and beauty. Knowledge and thought and (experience of all kinds) form a basis for such vision and give it substance, but are never in themselves a direct avenue to it. (Such a conception) (?) denies alike the validity, for poetic achievement, of a mere dream-world and of a cold, uninspired reason and knowledge. (p.xlii)

Finally, at the end of the introduction, my professor was sufficiently angry to offer this advice to its author:
Prof T: If you care about the acquisition of a perspicuous & agile prose style (if it isn't too late, I mean!), I'd suggest your getting out of the Rom. Period, & taking a short but intense vacation w/the prose writers of the 17th and 18th cents: Cowley, Bunyan, Temple, Addison, Swift, Johnson. They learned very early only to use wds. to which one definite meaning could be attached; they had, in short, "insight," but none used that god-awful word! Faithfully,... (p. liii).

What I love about this letter is that it does a great job of capturing my professor's authorial and critical persona. He hated cant and sloppiness, and wrote many essays to that effect. But I also love the youthful desire to engage at such length with a clearly bad essay. I read that "Prof" in his salutation to Thorpe as one produced by ambition and derision: how dare this author of such a dreadful introduction, how dare this boob, hold a professorship while I'm toiling away as a graduate student (or, alternatively, as a junior professor at a not very esteemed school). I know I used to be prone to such outbursts in my books, but, now, I rarely care enough; I find myself thinking instead things like, "Oh, another bad introduction; big surprise."

But, above all, I love this fleeting glimpse of my professor as a young man, someone I obviously could never know, but, here, in this one book, can imagine as he was in the 1940s. It's kind of like "Tintern Abbey," except I'm Dorothy watching William as he was and as he is, and the different Williams are separated by fifty years instead of five. It's a cool experience.

 Scribble some marginalia

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