Sunday, November 29, 2015

A work too hard for the teeth of time

Ten or twelve years ago, when I was working on the third chapter of my dissertation, I found a thread, pulled it--and wound up with a heap of flax so huge I'm spinning it still.

It's not something I found on my own, however. I stumbled upon work that someone on the scholarly margins had done fifty years earlier and that had lain neglected since then. My discovery wasn't due to any great perceptiveness on my part; I just happened to come across my predecessor's work when I was searching for a way into a text that had resisted all other approaches, and I happened to have been trained in the right methods and habits of thought to see the opportunities that his work opened up.

Briefly, this is what I discovered: in 1953, Jean-Jacques Denonain, a Frenchman or maybe a pied-noir, produced a scholarly edition of Thomas Browne's Religio Medici (the title means "a doctor's religion" and the work is a long, strange, beautiful essay that might be summarized as a meditation on the relationship between faith and reason). Denonain collated all the known manuscripts and the major printed editions and presented the text in a simple genetic format that showed the work's development over seven or eight years of composition and expansion.

 Denonain's presentation of the text and its development (Part II, section 5)
Thomas Browne, Religio Medici, ed. Jean-Jacques Denonain (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1953)

No one else had done this, so it would have been honorable work regardless--but Denonain's big revelation was that one of the surviving manuscripts appeared to represent an earlier and significantly different version of the text than the one that had been familiar for centuries.* But although his edition was published by Cambridge University Press and received at least one laudatory contemporary review, almost none of the subsequent scholarship on the Religio built on Denonain's work.

Several years later he published a complete transcription of just that early manuscript. However, it was in an obscure, French-language venue; after a few nice reviews, it all but disappears from the scholarly record. In the intervening years no one but Denonain seems to have looked carefully at this earlier version and no one wrote a word about it.

Denonain's transcription of the manuscript held by Pembroke College, Oxford (pub. 1958)

A decade after first presenting my work on the Religio and years after my first publications building on Denonain's work, I'm co-editing a new scholarly edition, my chief contribution to which is my deep familiarity with the peculiar early version that so fascinated Denonain. Indeed, with his (presumptive) death, it's neither vainglorious nor particularly impressive to say that I'm probably the world's leading expert on that manuscript. But though I frequently go back to work with the text in person and have high-resolution digital images of every page, I still keep returning to Denonain's editions and transcription, wondering what more he knew and saw and what he would think about what I've done.

In a sense, he's my ghostly collaborator: the only person who knows this text as well as I do, with whom I feel myself to be in conversation almost daily--but whom I'll never meet and about whom I know almost nothing.

A sense of intense connection with the dead goes with the territory when you work with old documents, but generally, when we discover the work of a previously unknown scholar, we can place him in a coherent intellectual tradition, tracing his genealogy forward and backwards and recognizing a chain of influence: we not only know which school or methodology a particular critic belonged to, but we know who trained him and whom he trained in return. With Denonain, I don't even have a birth or death date.

All I know is that he taught at the University of Algiers through the 1950s but by 1974 was teaching at the University of Toulouse - Le Mirail, which Google tells me was then a new university, one that emerged in the aftermath of '68. In addition to his editions, he published a book on Browne in French, and most of his other scholarship--a book on the metaphysical poets and a handful of articles on the likes of Marlowe and Bacon--is also in French. But he writes confident, idiomatic English and evidently had a deep familiarity with early modern English paleography and manuscript culture. It's conceivable that he was trained in the U.K., but if so, I have no idea where or by whom.

It's sometimes been hard, then, to escape the sense that I'm the only one who hears him, that he was conjured up like a genie or a ghost, to impart a message to me and me alone. I suppose there's comfort in this proof that scholarship really can last--that it can disappear like the river Arethusa only to reappear later in a different place--and that some of what we write might be, as Browne says of the Bible, "a work too hard for the teeth of time."

I realize it's condescending to assume that a Frenchman in Algeria who specialized in English Renaissance prose was necessarily an isolated figure; like me, Denonain must have had collaborators and colleagues, people whom he talked with and grooved on and who spurred him onward. But I'm still lonely for him, in both of the directions that preposition implies.

 *A second manuscript (BL Lansdowne 489) also comes from this stage of composition, but it's only a fragmentary copy.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Advice: promoting an applicant

So I find myself in the in-many-ways-enviable position of recommending a terrific student for admission to doctoral programs. This is a student whose application I feel good about in every way, including the whole what-if-there-isn't-a-job-at-the-other-end part (among other things, the student is older, with lots of work and life experience).

And it turns out that, at one of the programs to which s/he is applying, I have a valuable contact: an eminent senior scholar whom my student would be very interested in working with. I'm aware that reaching out to such people on behalf of one's students is A Thing One Does, and it's something I want to do for my student. . . but I'm feeling a bit stumped by the genre, especially given the nature of my own relationship with Eminent Senior Scholar.

If this were truly a friend, I'd probably just drop him or her a brief note saying, "Hey, I have this once-in-a-lifetime student who's applying to your program to work in your field, and I think you'll find them as impressive as I do. I'd love it if you could keep an eye out for their application."

But this scholar and I are only friendly in the been-on-some-panels-together kind of way. S/he has been extraordinarily warm and gracious to me, but we're not close. I'm also a bit of a fangirl, and s/he is the kind of person likely to review my book--or my next book, or write a letter for my promotion file--and that's making me really overthink the degree of familiarity I can assume or the tone I should take.

Obviously, I'm writing a letter for my student's application that will go into detail about all the wonderful, extraordinary things s/he has done and why the program should admit immediately if not sooner. . . but should I recapitulate some of that information? How much?

Friends, if you've either written or received emails of this sort, I'd appreciate all the advice you can give me about this genre: length, content, tone. I want to help my student put the best possible foot forward (and avoid looking like a freaky weirdo myself).

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Former things have not been forgotten*

A grad school friend died on Monday. He was 42, and the kindest and most generous person I may ever meet.

Yesterday my Facebook feed and my instant-messenger account started filling up with queries and reminiscences, and it's clear that everyone who knew Brett felt the way I did. Though he and I had remained in touch, exchanging a couple of email messages a year and grabbing a private meal whenever we wound up at the same conference, I can't claim that we were especially close; I just felt that we were, because everyone felt that way about Brett. People who hadn't seen or talked to him in a decade confessed to having spent yesterday afternoon hiding in their campus offices and crying.

Those of us who knew him have been trading a lot of stories, and the ones I've heard have made me laugh and briefly recaptured his presence. I don't think they'd do much to conjure it up for anyone else, though, and that's because presence was precisely Brett's genius, his charism: he was there, fully there, with everyone, whether it was a student, an old friend, or someone he had just met over a conference cheese plate.

This was an extraordinary thing to experience even at this age, but it was almost unfathomable when we were students. It meant that Brett stood outside the ordinary economy of grad school, with its competitions and anxieties and constant sizings-up, so grounded and comfortable in himself that he was endlessly open, endlessly welcoming. As one friend wrote about that period, Brett "was open and kind well before he had the professional standing that makes being like that easy." He knew everyone and he made everyone feel known.

And there's no substitute for, no way to hold onto that gift once it's gone. Brett would have been an active and devoted teacher into his eighties, and the kind of person who still produced a little thrill in each new student, scholar, or poet when he took an interest in them. (And he would have, all of them.)

I'd known that Brett had been diagnosed with cancer, but the last time we'd exchanged messages, in April, he seemed to have turned a corner. A couple of months ago, though, I started to hear rumors that things were not going well--and, without inquiring, I sent him a chatty catch-up message that also managed to say a version of the things I've said here.

I didn't hear back, and there's no reason I should have. I wasn't a close friend, and we never responded that quickly to each other's messages anyway. But I'm glad I sent it, and I hope he received it--or that, at any rate, he knew how thoroughly and completely he was beloved.

And if I don't have the talent or the temperament to be a Brett in other people's lives, at least I hope to do that: to show those I care about that I do, every day that I can.

*Title after Isaiah and this extraordinary poem.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Always ask

At actually-not-so-very-long-last, the Article of Eternal Return is in print. (PDF here, courtesy of Modern Philology and the University of Chicago Press).

As I documented in excruciating detail along the way, this article had a hell of a time getting through peer review (though, yes: it became a better, stronger, and more nuanced piece as a result)--but getting it into print was surprisingly fast; faster, indeed, than I had any right to expect. That's what this post is about.

During the two solid years that I was trying to get this article accepted, it was also kinda-sorta promised to an edited collected that had grown out of an SAA seminar where I'd presented an earlier version. I'd been up front with the editors about my need to seek a higher-profile venue, and had initially declined to participate. But they were kind and laid-back, urging me to wait and see where it got accepted and what that journal's republication policies were.

This was great, until it became embarrassing: as their book proposal moved forward, and then got a contract, and deadlines started accumulating, I kept having to say, to every email, that I actually still didn't have the article placed--so I was going to withdraw! And I was so sorry! But I just couldn't leave them hanging! And time after time, they kept insisting that it wasn't a big deal and I didn't have to make a decision yet.

In the summer of 2014, things looked like they were finally coming to a head: I'd returned a new version in response to my latest R&R, but I felt grim and defeated and didn't have much hope of acceptance. At the same time, I had a contributor's contract that I hadn't signed (and a second one, which the press sent when I didn't return the first) and a looming submission deadline if I was to participate in the collection. I felt like an asshole, and a failure, and like the universe was telling me to get the fuck over myself.

And then. . . my essay was accepted!

Except. I couldn't very well respond to an acceptance email with an immediate "thanks!!! that's awesome! Also, hey: can I republish it? Like, immediately? Like maybe before it even comes out in print with you guys?" At the same time, I couldn't bring myself to email the collection's editors, either, and tell them whatever I'd have to tell them.

So I spent about a month just not dealing.

But once I'd screwed up the courage to send the necessary emails, the degree to which everyone worked to accommodate me was astonishing. Although the journal requires first publication of everything to which they hold copyright and has a nearly three-year publication backlog, they worked some magic and slated my essay for publication just 11 months later, sent me all the permissions forms, and told me what information I needed to get from the book publisher. In turn, the editors of the collection talked to their publisher on my behalf, my contributor's contract got rewritten, and an appropriate acknowledgment drafted.

Somehow, then, the essay is in print just over three years after I first sent it out, in a journal I couldn't be happier with. And it will be republished almost immediately.

I don't exactly know why everyone was so helpful and so willing to work with me and my ridiculous situation, though I hope that ultimately everyone benefited: that the editors of the collection thought the essay was good enough to wait for (and that being flexible didn't harm them one way or the other), and that the journal was also excited by the work and/or simply saw an advantage to having it immediately republished with an acknowledgment of their priority.

In any case, my takeaway is that you should always ask. You're not being a diva or a special snowflake if you frame your request politely, acknowledge how big a favor you're asking, and are prepared to hear "no." There may be more generosity and helpfulness out there than you expect.