Monday, January 14, 2008

13 lbs. of canonical intervention

Just before we left town for the weekend, Mr UPS dropped off a box from Oxford University Press that weighted a trifle more than both of the girls, combined, at birth (13 pounds, according to the label). Yes, it was the final installment – the big present – of the holidays: The long-awaited (we've been hearing about this book for a decade now), brand-spankin' new two-volume set of Thomas Middleton, The Collected Works (ed. Gary Taylor, John Lavagnino & a cast of thousands) and Thomas Middleton and Early Modern Textual Culture: A Companion to The Collected Works.

I hasten to add, lest this be thought an extravagance only slightly less outrageous than, say, a sharkskin tuxedo or a new Vespa, that 1) the thing was on considerable sale from OUP before the end of of last year, & as we all know university press books just don't get cheaper over time, and 2) since J. is after all a scholar of early modern drama, this monster both feeds my dilettantish Middleton-mania & serves as a necessary piece of equipment for her own scholarship, and 3) it's a lot cheaper than another new guitar I can't play, & takes up less space.

First impressions: •BIG. The Collected Works clock in at 2016 pages, rather longer than the Riverside Shakespeare. I imagined I knew Middleton about as well as anyone in my position – ie, contemporary poet, scholar of contemporary & modernist poetry – having read maybe 10 of the plays; but even a cursory glance over the table of contents (or the tables of contents – there're 3, chronological, alphabetical, & by genre) makes me realized I've only scratched the Middletonian surface.

•User-friendly – up to a point. Gary Taylor's last career-making project, his OUP edition of Shakespeare (with Stanley Wells) was an editorially adventurous book, but its handsome single-volume edition wasn't going to replace anyone's Riverside: no notes, either explanatory or textural. The Middleton CW includes same-page explanatory notes for almost all of the works included (except for Macbeth – "Macbeth?!?" you blurt – more anon on that). The annotations, however, have been prepared not by the general editors, but by the (cast of thousands) editors of the individual works – sometimes even by a different scholar from the person who's done the editing. I'm all for division of labor, I suppose (the heroic days of Havelock Ellis editing the entire corpus of early modern drama are long gone), but I'm willing to bet, even before spot-checking thru the 2000 pages, that the explanatory notes vary pretty widely in quality & utility. That's just how it is: some people write good notes; others, equally bright & talented, don't.

But here, in the notage category, is where I get irritated: the textual notes have all been farmed off into the "companion volume," Thomas Middleton and Early Modern Textual Culture, a 1200-page book which consists of "The Culture" – a collection of 11 essays by various hands, a 330-page book in itself that probably should have been published separately – "The Author," three essential essays on the Middleton canon, justifying the editors' decisions to include & exclude various works, and "The Texts," 700 pages of textual notes. Hmmmm. I smell a rat, or at least an editorial decision I don't like at all.

Textual notes, that is, need to be in proximity to texts. Not mixed up with explanatory notes, as in the misbegotten Riverside Milton, but somewhere close, so they can be consulted – ideally, as in the New Mermaids editions, under a ruled line beneath the explanatory notes at the foot of the page – or at the very least at the end of the play, as in the Riverside Shakespeare. Here's what I suspect: Gary Taylor & his cohorts, desperately jonesing to insert Middleton into the canon in a very big way, were loath to issue a complete Middleton in two big volumes (my guess is that if they'd scrunched up the textual notes just a trifle more, they could have gotten the whole corpus into two 1300-pagers). So they farmed off the notes into a separate volume (as Taylor/Wells did with the OUP Shakespeare) & padded the thing out with 300+ pages of for all I know quite rivetting background essays.

[Purchasers' warning: OUP clearly regards the Companion as something of a white elephant: they're charging $200 for the volume on its own, a price that only gets paid by well-endowed libraries with librarians so absent-minded that they forgot to order the thing the first time around. So if you got the Middleton jones, by all means order the set.]

•Weird. I'll only briefly mention the running heads, which are only a skoshe away from being just plain confusing. In order to emphasize the textual instability & multiple titling of TM's works, the running heads are deliberately inconsistent. Hengist King of Kent; or, The Mayor of Quinborough gets headed as "Hengist King of Kent," "The Maior of Quinburough," and "Maior of Quinborough," all in early modern hand-script. Other heads are generous with long "s"s and blackletter. It's all very Steve McCafferyesque, but rather unsettling when you're coming from a more conventional edition.

What Gary & company will get the most attention for, of course, is including in the edition a number of rather familiar plays that he argues Middleton had a hand in writing, editing, or revising: Macbeth, Measure for Measure, and Timon of Athens. My sense is that the knee-jerk reaction against the notion of Shax as a collaborative playwright has largely died down, but I also suspect that many readers will see the move of including these plays in their entirety, rather than just an account of Middleton's hand in them, for what it is: part of Taylor's two+ decades'-long push to establish Middleton on a level with Shax & Ben Jonson. (Among the more amusing documents of this push: a recent Time magazine article on the edition, in which we're told that Middleton writes a lot about sex, & Gary tells us that TM's "a great writer, who reaches out from the past and punches you in the stomach." And lower.)

I'm all for the push (I guess I've been doing the same for Zukofsky these last 15 years), & I'm looking forward to trawling my way thru vast unread tracts of Middleton over the next few months (if I can find a comfortable way to hold this bloody huge book). Now where, for God's sake, is that long-awaited & slightly less overdue Cambridge Ben Jonson?


Bradley said...

Emily will be so jealous; I ordered her a copy for our anniversary (because nothing says "I love you" like a book that sends you straight to the chiropractor) at MLA, but it still hasn't arrived yet.

For what it's worth, I think also accidentally ordered the critical companion you talked about-- there was some type of significant MLA sale, and I think I got confused about what I was ordering. So I think both are on their way to our house. I also suspect our UPS guy is going to punch me...

Anonymous said...

Very envious! I think you do a great job of analyzing where this edition stands in the ongoing discussion of Middleton's importance. Will this be the watershed moment that launches a massive re-evaluation of an unsung genius--or are we looking at an act of stunning overreach? The inclusion of Macbeth may, after all, be what it all comes down to. I mean, I wrote a Monty Python-style alternate ending to Romeo and Juliet in high school. Does that entitle me to include Shakespeare's first four acts in my "collected works?" Printing "tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" among Middleton's works on the basis of the Hecate doggerel takes a lot of what some might call gaul.

But I still envy you, and I'm still tempted to scrape together the dough to order my own. I'm woefully deficient in Middleton, myself. The only play of his I've read was The Witch, which I guess would have worked well enough in performance, but was noting to get excited about in print. I wouldn't have hailed him as Shakespeare's equal on the basis of it.

Literary reputations are surprisingly plastic, however, and literature has been dusted off and canonized by a devoted critic before now. It's going to be an interesting few years!

Anonymous said...

Or, indeed, "gall." Sigh. There was a little joke in there that was supposed to make the word "gaul" funny, but it didn't, so I removed it, but didn't fix the spelling. Such are the textual difficulties of comment threads. I'm a go play a video game now.