Wednesday, May 29, 2013

(still) writing

Last I posted, I felt I was hitting a pace. I managed to sustain than, even with an inevitable weekend break, & with all the crazy intensification of activities that comes with the girls' end of school. I began with a printout of my "base material" – lecture notes – and a legal pad, and started rewriting away. A couple of days in, I hit a bit of an impasse on one section; I couldn't find a quotation I needed, I seemed to have lost the thread of my argument, etc. So I stopped that bit and jumped forward to a later section, which breezed along quite satisfactorily. Eventually, I returned to section one and blocked it out to my (at least for now) satisfaction.

All this, mind you, on paper, pen & ink. I'd keyed in the first couple days' work, but hadn't printed it out. This morning I keyed in everything I've done so far – something over 5000 words – and just now I've printed it all out. I'll edit & mark up the printout, and continue writing towards the end of the essay on paper. I figure by this coming weekend I should have a full draft ready for the multiple revisions.

I know it all sounds arcane, but at the moment it's working.

Friday, May 24, 2013


So I'm writing again. I don't really count the other week, when I pumped out a 1000-word book review; not a bad book review, either, but not the sort of sustained argumentation/examination that feels like real writing.

I'd been avoiding this particular project – the one I'm embarked on – for some time. It's build around the armature of an opening talk I gave to a seminar, so I already have about 2500 words of sketchy prose, and a general direction of my arguments (tho those arguments get sketchier and more suggestive as it goes on). But for whatever reason I didn't feel comfortable directly revising the seminar file. The writing, for one thing, is terrible – it's mostly a matter of "here's what to say, make it eloquent as you talk – you can do that, you know..." And there's bales of stuff missing: most of the telling details (which I could count on myself to remember as I talked it thru) and all of the references to previous texts.

So rather than dive right into my seminar file and give it a massive makeover, I printed it out and settled down with a legal pad and my stacks of books, PDFs, and computer files. Then I began to entirely rewrite, line by line. It actually feels good. Yesterday I produced 1700 words (I typed them up this morning). I've hit my working pace, and with luck I should have two-thirds of this thing done before the summer's travels descend upon us.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

benjamin friedlander: one hundred etudes

One Hundred Etudes, Benjamin Friedlander (Edge Books, 2012)

The overall form is simple. As the book's opening page notes, the etudes pay homage to LZ's word-count prosody. Each page has three 3-lined stanzas, each line of 3 words. The etudes' numbers (eg "Thirty-seven") and titles (eg "DICTATION") count as well, tho an etude may begin or end anywhere with a three-word line. The poems are of variable length, but the book is exactly 300 pages long – so an average of 3 pages to an etude. (All those threes – I can't help thinking of course of Dante, and beyond him of Ron Johnson...)

The form enforces constant enjambment, & Friedlander is one of the most canny players of the line-break around. The etudes themselves are by turns hilarious, slyly witty, guilelessly frank, and transparently beautiful. The form tends, it's true, towards the epigrammatic, the gnomic – and that's fine, because I'd as lief have Friedlander's epigrams as anyone's since Martial – but they also open up into longer, more expansive structures. An amusing, moving, really splendid book, whose depths belie its unassuming title.


more – yes – Ruskin

It's become abundantly clear to me that one could make a life's work, not on Ruskin, but on secondary Ruskin materials alone. That's a bit of an exaggeration, I guess – one could probably read thru the whole corpus in a couple of years, if one didn't do anything else – but there is an awful lot out there. One of the great attractions of doing LZ in graduate school was that I could master the secondary literature in no more than a few weeks' time; and the really good secondary literature probably in a single week. Not so with Ruskin; of course, there's been a century more for the critical and biographical studies to accumulate.

Over this spring semester I've worked my way thru a few things, notably most of the editions Van Akin Burd has edited – Ruskin's letters to the girls at the Winnington School, Rose La Touche's diaries, and a strange book entitled Christmas Story, which is essentially a series of letters from JR recounting his paranormal experiences in Venice in 1876-7. Burd's MO in each of these latter two volumes is the same: under the guise of editing a fairly short text, he presents a behemoth introduction which in itself amounts to a monograph, then crushes the text itself under a mountain of annotation & commentary. This is okay for the La Touche texts; Burd's edition is the most complete account of Ruskin's late love affair. It's rather more tiresome for the "Xmas Story," whose introduction goes very far afield indeed in exploring the most tenuous connections JR had with the spiritualist community.

I've also been working thru Helen Gill Viljoen's editions of JR. I read her Ruskin's Scottish Heritage, and now I'm mired in her edition of JR's Brantwood Diaries. I may take a break – aside from the passages leading up to his breakdown, it's pretty dreary reading – and read her edition of his correspondence with Froude.
At any rate, most recently I tackled JR's letters to a longtime friend, Lady Pauline Trevelyan, as edited by Virginia Surtees. And realized before getting very far that I was reading another "Effie" book – that PT was one of his confidants in the wake of the breakup of his marriage in 1854. Now I'd already read some of the canonical texts on that event – Admiral William James's (Effie's grandson's) The Order of Release, and the rather weird response by JH Whitehouse, Vindication of Ruskin (one of the most astonishing books I know – Whitehouse reprints JR's note to his solicitors as if it were a "vindication," seemingly unaware that the note's major effect is to make Ruskin look like the biggest dick on the planet) – and I'd even read Suzanne Fagence Cooper's potboiler of a biography. But I'd never tackled the primary source on the business: Mary Lutyens's Millais and the Ruskins, the second of a trilogy of books (the first was Effie in Venice, covering their first married years, the third The Ruskins and the Grays, covering their courtship) on the Effie-John marriage.

Millais and the Ruskins is actually quite excellent: scrupulously edited, very well-written indeed, and seemingly quite balanced. Lutyens is careful to give JR credit wherever it's due, and to draw attention to any lapses on Effie's part. Her sympathy – quite rightly – is with Effie (as history's has been – Emma Thompson's film version, with Dakota Fanning as Effie, should be out any day now), but she's doing her best to present a narrative – or really an interlinked series of documents (letters, etc.) with commentary – that gives a fair deal to everyone involved. So it was quite a jolt, after breezing thru Lutyens in a couple of enthralled days, to return to Surtees's edition of the Trevelyan correspondence (under the anodyne title Reflections of a Friendship) and find a full-throated defense of Ruskin every bit as sniffy as Whitehouse's back in the 1940s. Sigh.

Ruskin was a creep in so many ways; he was also incredibly generous. He was a genius, but he was also, in many ways, an idiot. I find myself liking him more and more, the more I read, and at the same time disliking him. I try to hold the two emotions in balance, at once, rather than swinging back & forth in the manner Edel describes in his Principia Biographia. But it's never boring – tho god knows some of the letters these editors feel compelled to print are so trivial that they would have been better tossed into a Jamesian bonfire.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

civil war imaginations

So among the books I dip into at night has been this, By the Sword Divided: Eyewitness Accounts of the English Civil War (1983, this edition Wrens Park Publishing 2001), a richly illustrated thing I picked up at a sale table at the Vanderbilt University campus bookstore a bit less than a decade ago. The author – or editor, since probably 60% of the book consists precisely of edited firsthand accounts – is John Adair of the University of Exeter, formerly of the Royal Military Academy. It's a nifty book for one interested in the human side of the Civil War, and more especially one interested in the war's visual representations.

A coffee-table book, to some extent – pictures on practically every two-page spread. There are a few maps, and a few of the detailed battlefield diagrams I used to moon over when I was 16, but most of the pictures are contemporaneous: crude woodcuts from the various newsheets of the day, formal portrait paintings of central figures of the conflict. There are relatively few battle scenes on canvas, either from the period of the War (the 1640s), the remainder of the 17th century, or the 18th century. This in contrast to the continental Thirty Years War (1618-1648), of which one can find any number of relatively contemporaneous large-scale canvases depicting various battles.

The Civil War doesn't really open up as a subject for narrative painting until the 19th century, and when it does, it does so with a vengeance. The Victorians loved historical genre painting; depictions of Balaklava were on the easels even before the veterans got home from the Crimea, it seems, and one of the charming anomalies of Adair's book is its wealth of Victorian narrative paintings of the Civil War. I'm particularly interested in the painting whose detail is on Adair's cover: William Shakespeare Burton's Wounded Cavalier (1856).

It's to my eye a rather affecting picture. The pale red-haired cavalier – so young! he has the beard of a 19-year-old – lies dying, blood soaking through his lace collar from a wound in his throat. He staunches the flow (unconscious already?) with the help of a young Puritan woman. Her face is not as close to his as it initially seems – but close enough – but her gaze is unfocused, thoughtful. The detail is an emblem of the human cost of war; perhaps, in a better world, these two attractive young people would be lovers, would be married, would be depicted with their children.

It's worth looking at the entire painting:
There has been a fight here; the cavalier's sword, caught in the tree, has broken off at the hilt; his documents have been sifted thru (there are some playing cards scattered about in the right foreground) – he was a courier, one assumes, ambushed or otherwise confronted by Parliamentary forces. As he now lies dying in the arms of the young Puritan woman, her companion – her boyfriend? fiancé? brother? – stands, an enormous Bible in his hand. His expression is to my eyes unreadable (tho a number of commentators read it as disapproving, "sour").

Burton (1824-1916) was at the fringes of the Pre-Raphaelite movement; this painting is his only full-blown excursion into PRB-style detail. (Compare Millais's The Order of Release for a similar example of detail put to historical usage, his Ophelia for similarly painstaking natural detail.) As Tim Hilton comments on Burton, "One cannot but feel a certain kind of admiration for an artist who, for the closer observation of flowers and grasses, dug a deep hole for himself and his easel, so that the daisies, as he painted them, would be only inches away from his penetrating gaze."

The Wounded Cavalier was hung on the line at the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1856. (Originally, it had been overlooked by the hanging committee, but the academician CW Cope – who also painted a number of Civil War scenes – insisted it be hung in place of one of his own canvases.) Burton's painting was next to Holman Hunt's Scapegoat, a signal Pre-Raphaelite work. Ruskin devoted several pages of his "Academy Notes" – a kind of omnibus review of the annual exhibition – to Hunt's painting; of Burton's, he comments the its subject is "not very intelligible," tho its painter's work is "masterly, at all events, and he seems capable of great things."

The contrast between the Royalist cavalier and the plainly dressed Puritan is echoed in any number of Victorian Civil War canvases. Perhaps the most famous is William Frederick Yeames's 1878 And When Did You Last See Your Father?
The child in blue is being questioned by Parliamentary functionaries of some sort. The soldier with his hand – not unkindly – comforting the little girl in pink is dressed in the New Model Army's proverbial red coat (ancestor of the British military uniform for the next 150 years – Captain Hook wears a NMA red coat, which popular legend has as the standard dress of Caribbean pirates, since so many of them were Cromwellian veterans fleeing the Restoration). The children wear bright colored silks; their elder sisters? (governesses?) to the left wear fine lace and velvet; their questioners, in contrast, wear the drab, plain civilian clothes associated with Puritanism. They could be characters in Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter. Their hair is – for the 17th century – very short indeed, befitting "Roundheads."

The iconographical distinction between Royalist and Parliamentarian, then, is firmly in place by the Victorian era. It has of course little basis in historical fact. Most Parliamentarians wore their hair long, and if they could afford them, wore clothes every bit as colorful as the Royalist opposite numbers. Common soldiers of either army were indistinguishable (at least before the New Model Army instituted the rather striking innovation of an army-wide uniform). But the iconographical differentiation between the two groups was crucial to the Victorians's own self-mythology.

For the Victorians, England was a land in which the two impulses represented by Puritanism – piety, restraint, thriftiness, self-control – and by Royalism – elegance, self-display, loyalty to the monarch – had been most signally reconciled in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Before that event – the central moment of the Whig Interpretation of history – had been the bad old times, when Puritan godliness had been pitted against Cavalier excess. Burton's Wounded Cavalier, then, is an allegory of a Victorian England in which the Puritan impulse – most signally represented in Burton's own day by the Evangelicals – can look with regret and pity upon a misguided, excessive aestheticism (there is a butterfly on the blade of Cavalier's broken sword). There is too great a divide in 1644 (say) for the young woman and the dying horseman to ever share that kiss to which they are so close; but in Burton's painting, as in so much of Pre-Raphaelite art, the aesthetic and the godly can finally find common ground.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

institutional memory

Our Fair University's president just resigned, after a perfectly dreadful semester of one public relations blunder after another. She had swept into office on a wave of high hopes among the faculty – here at last we had a president who was an actual academic, rather than a political appointee, someone who knew something about how a university worked & might be able to make things better. She found herself immediately caught up in a succession of budgetary apocalypses (thank you, Governor Rick Scott).

Matters weren't helped for those of us on the shop floor by the fact that in short order she fired most of the standing administrators (those who knew what they were doing) & replaced them with hand-picked yes-people. The run up to last semester's accreditation ordeal was a painful exercise in anal-retentive bean-counting, arbitrary & draconian decisions, & astonishingly increased paperwork. This past semester brought all the administration's shortcomings into the open. There were a series of of "crises" – public relations crises, not "real" events – each of which the president fumbled: a faculty member's blog posts, propounding ludicrous conspiracy theories about the Sandy Hook shootings, got picked up by the media & went viral; another faculty member's "consciousness-raising" class exercise ("Stomp On Jesus") became a right-wing cause célèbre; the administration sold stadium naming rights to a private prison company, & then was astonished that students & faculty protested; the president clipped a protesting student with her Lexus in the parking lot, drove off in a huff & later demanded the student apologize to her.

I had been expecting this resignation announcement for weeks, but I'm not surprised she waited until after the Spring semester had ended to formally hand it in. I wish her the best in her "return" to the faculty (not that she's ever actually had the experience of teaching here). Once again, the Peter Principle is demonstrated.
At the end of this year, I will have been at Our Fair U for eighteen years. Wow. I've lost count of short-term interim presidents, but during my time here we've had three long-standing, permanent appointees: the Napoleon-complex architect, who sought to heighten his unfortunately wee stature thru risers in his dress shoes and an impressive white quiff, & whose money-laundered $42,000 parting gift was a red Corvette (what taste!); the former Lieutenant Governor with the Howdy Doody smile, wholly innocent of higher education, whose incoming gesture was to announce that he'd like to make unannounced visits to our classrooms (yes, he used to be a high school principal) because he'd really like to learn what went on in college classes; and the recently resigned academic with the U Mass PhD in botany, & with the impressive academic credentials (posts at LSU, USF, and Cleveland State).

Of the three, it's safe to say that the last has been by far the worst. Go figure.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013


The semester is over, the dust has finally settled. Earlier today I sent off a short book review of a very long book of poems—a review I enjoyed writing very much indeed. (Bonus: the magazine style sheet taught me how—finally—to make a proper em-dash!) The recipe for a review, so far as I know it, is pretty simple: find the passages of the book you like, or find telling, & mark them; then figure out your overall impression of the book (which can include things like repeated motifs & themes, overall atmosphere, interesting writerly techniques); then try to put it all down in as lively writing as you can manage. It's a recipe rather like that for an omelette, and about as hard to go wrong with.

Longer pieces, like the big Black Mountain thing that should be seeing the light of day any moment now, are rather more complicated, and involve all sorts of architectural decisions, which are always made more complicated by the constant imperative to keep the prose, if not lively, than at least readable. (But of course I'm always shooting for the lively.) Over the past few years I've found it easier to write conference papers than things meant to be published, because when I'm writing a conference paper I'm always thinking about its delivery, about how to pace my arguments, my funny bits, my decisive pauses, etc.

I've had the opportunity lately to go back over pretty much everything I've published over the past 15 years, outside of books. I'm not unhappy with what's there. I do notice, however, that there's a pretty radical difference between what I've written for a "general" audience—essays for Parnassus, reviews for Chicago Review and Talisman, literary-historical pieces for various Oxford & Cambridge volumes—and the reviews of academic books I've done for more academically "reputable" venues. The latter are deathly dull, for the most part. Why is that? They do what academic reviews are supposed to do: that is, they summarize the main points of the book(s) at hand, and pronounce some sort of summary judgment. Do I feel constrained by the more rigid, tweedy atmosphere of the academic journal? Or am I simply less than interested in what I'm writing about?

My god—have I become a belletrist?