Thursday, November 16, 2006

Milton in Print, Inertially

Michael Bérubé, in this suspiciously like that other regular-guy-with-a-French-surname Bob Archambeau, has taken to posting his conference papers on his blog; or at least yesterday's entry on Le Blogue Bérubé consists of the good bits from a Midwest MLA keynote address. [I don't in theory object to this practice, by the way – indeed, it seems a dandy way to fill up internet space that might otherwise be occupied by... uh... anyway, I just don't do it myself because a) I haven't been in high conference circulation mode, & b) it was embarassing enough to deliver that thing live, why put it up where everyone can read it?]

Michael's talk was on – you guessed it – blogging in academia. It sounds like a pretty shirt-sleevey performance, but I kinda liked the ending: "Some of us don’t take time away from our real work to do meaningless blogging, and some of us don’t take time away from important blogging to do other meaningless drivel. Because we think that in the end, academic blogs just might serve the useful function of representing to any interested Internet passerby just what it is we do with our time and our skills. For in all their high and low manifestations, our blogs depict professors at work." I'd guess that Culture Industry is me blogging as academic maybe 35-45% of the time; another 20-25% is me blogging as poet; and then the rest is me blogging as guy who reads books, listens to records & likes to talk about them.

In the spirit of Bérubé's "academic blogs as academic self-representation," then, & as a contribution to that first 35-45% of CI's contents – and really as a plea for advice – here's a post on textual editing & course book orders, elements of the academic teaching life that qualify as the "dismal science" part of literary studies.

In other words, even tho it's something like 7 weeks from the start of the spring semester, no I haven't gotten in my book orders. I've ignored two hectoring e-mails from the department secretary: after all, she's just acting under the influence of the "official" campus bookstore, which is one tiny incompetent limb of the vast & evil corporate octopus Barnes & Noble – the folks in the campus bookstore, after all, are very good with sweatshirts & baseball caps, but they're a bit fuzzy on how to go about getting those "book" things, & like about 10 weeks lead time for orders. Me, I send my book orders to the independant textbook place across the street, which is able to get pretty much anything in 10 days or less.

But I'm not just procrastinating. (Me, procrastinating?) The plain truth is I haven't decided what books to use. The Joyce seminar is pretty easy (tho I could use advice on a splendid up-to-date collection of essays by various hands on Ulysses). The real sticking point is Milton.

In the past, I've used Roy Flannagan's Riverside Milton, one of those big doorstopping volumes that includes every bit of the poetry and more of the prose than anybody except a sadist would want to inflict on undergraduates. I'm a fan of omnibus volumes – everybody brings the same book every day, you all flip back 'n' forth to the same pages, nobody comes in with that "damn, I thought we were doing 'Lycidas' so I brought my poetry volume & left the prose under a pizza box back at the dorm & therefore have nothing to say about Areopagitica..."

But this Fall all my slowly mounting irritations with the Riverside came to a head, & I started shopping around for other editions. I like the pretty comprehensive range of texts included in the Riverside; I like the large-page format; and I like the fact that it's an original-spelling text, mainly because
a) Milton was pretty emphatic about most of his orthographical irregularities, & indeed seems to have used some spelling variations for intentional emphasis
b) I believe students ought to confront early modern texts in all of their alterity, including that of early modern spelling, and
c) I'm a sadist (no, just kidding)
But Flannagan's annotations, which sometimes take up a third of the page in teeny-tiny print, drive me up the friggin' wall. They come in at least three flavors: simple glosses and explanatory notes; longer interpretive notes, which often take issue with other critics & try to cram whole traditions of critical debate into a paragraph; and outright textual notes: "in the 1654 manuscript, Milton writes 'every,' while in this 1673 edition the word reads 'ev'ry'..." (The Riverside Chaucer & Shakespeare hive off their textual material to a separate section, where grad students can contemplate it with glee or glumness.)

In short, Flannagan offers an over-annotated edition, where my po' undergrads are confronted not merely with this crazy 17th-century heretic-Puritan poet who's as happy writing in Latin as in English (& who half the time seems to be writing something in between the two), but with a huge, undigested bolus of annotation which ranges from telling them who "Hermes" is to footering around with whether the choice between a colon & a semicolon was made by the blind Milton, his emanuensis, or the typesetter. So I hied me to the bookstore & picked up a copy of the book the Riverside replaced, Merritt Hughes's John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose.

This doorstopper was published just about half a century ago, & I gather was the Milton of choice for college courses about 40 years. (Flannagan is pretty explicit in his preface that he's producing something to replace Hughes.) It was out of print when the Riverside came out back in 1998; since then, I suspect in response to instructor dissatisfaction with Flannagan, it's been reprinted by the plucky little Hackett House, of whose editions of Spinoza & Leibniz I've very fond. I was disappointed: I can live with Hughes's decision to print the poetry in modern spelling (retaining the emphatic "mee"s and the indiosyncratic "thir"s), & I can live with his somewhat thinner general introductions to the poems (he's much less concerned with political & historical context than Flannagan is, which I think reflects a subsequent shift in emphasis in early modern studies).

But if Flannagan overannotates, Hughes underannotates. Maybe readers in 1957 didn't need to be told what "th' Aonian Mount" is; maybe they were more willing to look it up. But that's precisely the sort of annotation needed in 2007. I don't think my students are any more ignorant than Hughes's were 50 years ago, but their treasuries of knowledge are definitely different. Hughes expects a reader with a working knowledge of classical history & mythology, Christian doctrine, & English literary history; my students often don't have that, tho they have a pretty sophisticated set of ideas about gender construction & politics: it's a different skill set, but one that has to be taken into account.

So I phoned up a colleague of mine, the best Miltonist I know, & asked him what do you assign? He uses it turns out an Anchor edition of the complete poetry (ed. John Shawcross) & an old paperback of the selected prose edited by CA Patrides. We chatted a bit, & he made a pretty good case for those volumes. But the puncher came at the close of the conversation: "Of course, they're the editions in which I read Milton in grad school."

Course text selection thru inertia. I can feel it pulling me right now, as I look over the bright white pages of Hughes, contemplate a new copy of Shawcross, & then turn to my Flannagan, whose pages are blackened (& blued, & purpled) with the marks of multiple readings & teachings. I hear it calling for the Joyce seminar, as I reread my 1986 copy of the Gabler Ulysses whose every page is scored with talking points & cross-references.

Back in the day I read Ulysses in graduate seminar with a professor whose claim on history was that he'd published the first (the very first) study of Ulysses keyed to the then-brand-new Gabler text. What did he teach out of? Well, while there was always a Gabler open on the table to his right, when it came time to look up a passage, he would pull the rubber band off of his disintegrating copy of the old Random House text.
Jane Dark has learned to count to 3; therefore, he righteously castigates Josh Corey (& practically everyone else) for remaining within Machichean Duality. The "slippery slope" – a logical bogeyman much beloved of neo-cons and other sophists – as one learns early on in philosophy courses, is usually as much a fallacy as its derivative the "domino theory."
Finally, a National Book Award that excites one!

1 comment:

steve said...

I'm pretty sure the line "Milton in print, inertially" was included in Stein's lost first draft of Four Saints in Three Acts. Can't you just hear it, Vergilly?