Leo Robson, “John Williams and the Canon that Might Have Been,” and making sense of a class from the past

Screen Shot 2019-03-25 at 6.47.46 PMIn “John Williams and the Canon that Might Have Been” (at The New Yorker), Leo Robson writes about the novels of John Williams, who co-won (if that’s a word)  the National Book Award in 1973 for his novel Augustus, along with John Barth’s Chimera.  Williams is best known today for the academic novel Stoner (1965), which has undergone a huge resurgence since Williams’s death in 1994.

As Robson says, Williams represented something at odds with the expansiveness of a Saul Bellow, but what? Robson: “Williams had been spellbound by [Yvor] Winters’s authoritative tone and by a set of absolutist convictions relating not just to Anglophone poetry but to literature as a whole. Modish, persona-heavy metafiction or fealty to a more austere and straight-backed standard: this was not a difference that could be split.” [emphasis added]

Robson goes on to explain the theory underlying Williams’s practice:

Winters thought that the high point of literary expression had come and gone during the Renaissance, when “the tougher poets” like Fulke Greville wrote with a sense of rational order in the “plain style.” In the early eighteenth century, a decisive break had occurred—the start of what Winters branded Romanticism, defined as the misbegotten idea that “literature is mainly or even purely an emotional experience.” In the fullest statement of Winters’s views, “In Defense of Reason” (1947), a compendium of his earlier critical books, he railed against what he called “the fallacy of imitative form”—the tendency to express disintegration or uncertainty through language that itself exhibits those qualities. The “sound” alternative, Winters wrote, was to make a lucid statement “regarding the condition of uncertainty.” The “conscious author” and the pursuit of “formal perfection” emerged as desirable alternatives to “the fragmentary and unguided thought of the character, as he walks down the street, or sits in a bar, or dreams at night.”

Robson ultimately asks “What if cool analysis and formalist precision had gained greater purchase at the time?”

But there was one place where it did gain purchase, if only for a semester: a course on the short poem in English that I took as an undergraduate.

We worshiped the plain style.

Fulke Greville was it. 

We were taught to have have little use for the Renaissance fancy guys like Sir Philip Sidney, because they were good but not plain. Literary quality was adherence to the plain style–tough, unemotional, understated.

Our principal text was John Williams’s English Renaissance Poetry. I didn’t know until Robson’s piece that this was (a) a transgressive and original anthology and (b) a book that seriously irritated Yvor Winters, who said “that Williams (‘the little bastard’) would make “a good deal of money out of me.”

Screen Shot 2019-03-25 at 6.47.00 PMOur other main text was Yvor Winters’s Quest for Reality,  a holy touchstone. (The cover I recall is a black and yellow one, but I may have conflated it with Forms of Discovery.)  Wallace Stevens made the cut, too, as did J. V. Cunningham.

Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth, and the rest of the Romantics, on the other hand, were infra dig–definitely not plain, and far too emotional to be real poetry, which had to constrained and contained.

The shock of recognition (TM Edmund Wilson) that I had on reading Robson’s piece was that I hadn’t realized back then that I was being taught school of literary criticism, much less one that had somehow gone underground and surfaced in an undergraduate class.  I was being taught poetry, full stop, and accepted those standards as given.

In addition to being interesting in its own terms and in reintroducing readers to John Williams, then, Robson’s essay is a reminder of how seriously students (well, one naive student, anyway) take in what they’re told and the ways in which canonicity can shape young minds–even if it’s a minor or uncanonical canon.

 

 

Editing devices for collation (a brief list)

Volume Editors have many methods of comparing texts, some of which are text based (relying on typed text) and some of which are image based (relying on photographs or physical volumes). This is a very limited list. If you have other resources, please feel free to add them in the comments.

Volume Editors have many methods of comparing texts, some of which are text based (relying on typed text) and some of which are image based (relying on photographs or physical volumes). If you have other resources, please feel free to add them here.

Different methods, text-based or image-based, will work better depending on what  you’re comparing.

  1. EDITIONS, which will usually be set from different plates and have different typefaces and page numbers (e.g., Scribner’s first edition, Macmillan [British] first edition, and so on), can’t be compared with image-based technology because of the the differences in typefaces and pagination.  What’s on page 31 of the Scribner’s first edition of The House of Mirth will not be similar enough to what’s on page 31 of the Macmillan edition to make a comparison of individual words and letters possible, for the words will not be on the same lines. EDITIONS will need to be typed so that the text can be compared using Juxta or another text-based method.

The image on the left is from page 31 of the first Scribner’s edition of The House of Mirth; the second image is from page 31 of the Macmillan (British) first edition.

  1. PRINTINGS, which will be printed from the same plate as the first edition with the same typeface and page numbers, will differ little in appearance. The same material will be found on p. 3 of the Scribner’s edition, first printing and the Scribner’s edition, 5th printing, and the words will appear on the same line. PRINTINGS can be compared using image-based comparison methods like the Hinman or other image-based technologies. 

Text-based comparisons

Text-based comparisons let you look at the differences between two typed documents. Most of us are already used to doing this in Word, but Juxta Commons is useful for more complex comparisons.

Juxta Commonshttp://juxtacommons.org/  This easy-to-use and free software can compare two screens of text at once and can identify the differences by highlighting them. Juxta looks like this: juxta

To get typed text to compare, you might try these:

    1. Typing the volume into a text editor (like Notepad or Text Wrangler) or into Word.
    2. Using a typed version or the raw OCR (Optical Character Recognition) version found online that you proofread carefully against the copy-text volume (usually the first American edition).
    3. When raw OCR text comes out of the scanner, you’ll see that it is kind of a mess. There are odd characters, like ! instead of 1, m instead of rr, and even worse. You can see a little of this if you try to convert a .pdf document back into text using Google Docs.  Whenever scanned text is used, it has to be carefully proofread.You may see references to “cleaning” the raw OCR text. “Cleaning” is just a term from data processing; it means to correct the data (in this case the text) according to the scanned material so that it makes sense.
    4.  Adobe Acrobat Pro can turn .pdf files into  text, but the text it creates must be carefully proofread.
    5. Google Docs is supposed to be able to turn .pdf files into text, but the text it creates must be carefully proofread.
    6. Scanning the copy-text volume with a specialty software such as ABBYY Finereader https://www.abbyy.com/en-us/finereader/ This text must also be carefully proofread but is supposed to have fewer errors than other scanning to OCR (Optical Character Recognition) kinds of programs.

 

Image-based comparisons

If you have taken pictures of several printings of the volume you’ll be editing, image-based or digital comparison software will be helpful.

  1. Traherne Digital Collator, a free comparison and collation software. The Traherne Digital Collator compares two page images so that you can see differences between, say, the first and second printing of a volume.

The download links can be found here: https://oxfordtraherne.org/traherne-digital-collator/ and http://www.robots.ox.ac.uk/~vgg/software/traherne/. These methods work for different printings or states of the same edition but not for different editions that have different fonts.

In the screenshots below, the top image compares the first edition of The House of Mirth, from a copy in the Lilly Library, with a copy of the first edition in the Beinecke Library. Note the broken character on the running title (HOUSE), which is illuminated by a red color instead of purple in the second image.

traherne1

traherne2

2. Pocket Hinman. The Pocket Hinman is a free experimental app developed for James Ascher and DeVan Ard. It’s a free iPhone and Android app, available through the App store and here: https://rossharding.me/#/pockethinman/

The Pocket Hinman allows you to compare visually a volume that you’re looking at with a previous picture of a volume. Differences will stand out by flickering slightly.

Mechanical Comparators and Collators

If you live near a research library or are visiting one, you can use these older devices to compare physical volumes of the text: the two major kinds are the Hinman Collator and the Lindstrand Comparator.  Developed by Charlton Hinman from WWII bomb target technologies that compared two images and found slight differences by flickering images and used in creating comparative versions of the First Folio, the Hinman Collator can find small differences that indicate changes from one printing to the next.

Here’s an article that lists the locations of mechanical collators:

“Armadillos of Invention”: A Census of Mechanical Collators

Author(s): Steven Escar Smith Source: Studies in Bibliography, Vol. 55 (2002), pp. 133-170 Published by: Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia

Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40372237