I reviewed Gregory Woods’s Homintern, a survey of homosexuals in the arts during the 20th century, for the 7 May 2016 issue of The Guardian.
I’ve got an essay in the July 2015 issue of Harper’s, titled “Counter Culture: Fighting for Literature in an Age of Algorithms.” It seemed appropriate to offer as a preview a photo of the essay taken on my Ipod Touch.
In the first chapter of American Sympathy, my 2001 study of the literary representation of affection between men in the antebellum United States, I wrote about two genteel Quakers in late-18th-century Philadelphia who kept diaries recording their romantic friendship. Their names were John Fishbourne Mifflin and James Gibson, and they went by the cognomens of Leander and Lorenzo, respectively. Gibson’s diary and the second volume of Mifflin’s were, and still are, in the archives of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. (Here’s a link to the catalog entry for the physical diaries, and one page of Leander/Mifflin’s diary has been digitized and is available online here. Rather cleverly, the page that the archivists chose to digitize is the one where Leander/Mifflin begins to describe a rather erotic dream that he had about Lorenzo/Gibson.)
I also had access to the first volume of Leander/Mifflin’s diary, through a photocopy that was loaned to me. This photocopy had been made by a bookseller decades earlier, while appraising a private individual’s collection. For safety’s sake, before returning this photocopy, I made a photocopy for myself. This turned out to be prudent, because the first-generation photocopy that I returned was later lost, and although the person who was thought to be the owner of the original manuscript graciously granted me permission to publish, he later told me that he had never been able to locate the original in his collection. Perhaps the bookseller had been mistaken in his memory of who owned the original. In any case, the second-generation photocopy that I had made became the only copy available to scholars.
Over the years, I sent reproductions of the photocopy to any scholar who asked, including Richard Godbeer, who wrote about the diarists in The Overflowing of Friendship (2013), and Sarah Knott, who wrote about them in Sensibility and the American Revolution (2009), but it made me nervous that I hadn’t made any provision about putting the photocopy into an archive somewhere. When my father-in-law passed away this January, I was reminded of the propriety of taking care of these things sooner rather than later, and at last I emailed the Historical Society of Pennsylvania to ask them if they would take custody of the photocopy. I’m happy to report that they said yes, I sent it, and it arrived safely. It doesn’t seem to be in their online catalog yet, but it’s there, if any scholar wants to consult it.
Of course I made a third-generation photocopy for myself, before I put the second-generation one in the mail.
Reading this much of a critic’s work will also alert you to his tics. Lane has only one that annoys me: He will cross the street, walk around the block, catch a cross-town bus and wait in line for an hour to make a dopey pun, and unfortunately we are forced to go with him. For the pun-averse this can sometimes feel like engaging in one of those seemingly straightforward conversations that turns out to be the wind-up for an evangelical pitch or an obscene phone call; you wonder if Lane has enticed you through a whole paragraph on “Braveheart” solely so he can hit you with a groaner like “Fast, Pussycat! Kilt! Kilt!”
Shakespeare with his excellencies has likewise faults . . . A quibble is to Shakespeare, what luminous vapours are to the traveller; he follows it at all adventures; it is sure to lead him out of his way, and sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible. Whatever be the dignity or profundity of his disquisition, whether he be enlarging knowledge or exalting affection, whether he be amusing attention with incidents, or enchaining it in suspense, let but a quibble spring up before him, and he leaves his work unfinished. A quibble is the golden apple for which he will always turn aside from his career, or stoop from his elevation. A quibble, poor and barren as it is, gave him such delight, that he was content to purchase it, by the sacrifice of reason, propriety and truth. A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it.
Reed College and the University of Portland have invited me to give a talk at the end of March in Portland, Oregon. I’ll be giving the same lecture at both places. The title is going to be “The Disenchantment of Literature in the Age of the Hit Counter,” and here are the details:
- Monday, March 30, 4:30pm. Psychology 105, Reed College. The David R. Eddings Lecture.
- Tuesday, March 31, 7:30pm. Campus Bookstore, University of Portland.
Both are free and open to the public. Please come!