Think Piece

Finding Feelings in Intellectual History

by guest contributor Michael Duffy

One of the consequences of advances in historical writing and theorization, at least in my neck of the woods, has been that we write about institutions as if feelings did not exist in them. Cambridge, to historians interested in the development of literature and philosophy, had a distinct character in the early part of the twentieth century. It was the home of Russell, G.E. Moore, eventually of Wittgenstein, and of I.A. Richards, who revolutionized the study of literature with his techniques of “close reading.” Analysis—that modern and Modernist tool of planned destruction and reconstruction, of shoring fragments against ruins—was its pastime, and this left its mark on many at the place. But no one had any feelings about this.

Richards—the stringy-haired sometime mountaineer, Platonist, technocrat, early Modernist and good friend of T.S. Eliot—developed as an undergraduate and then as lecturer at Cambridge the concept of “practical criticism”: the idea that criticism was not a vague method of appreciation but a precise technique of semantic decomposition, basing its authority in the facts of linguistics and psychology rather than in any nebulous sense of the value of art.

This had momentous effects on the discipline of literary studies and the theorization of culture in Britain and beyond in the first half of the century. It is responsible for the mid-century consensus among educators that works of literature are studied because of their “meaning” and not their verbal pyrotechnics or fantastic plot twists alone, and is about as clear an instance of the effect of an institution on history as you could imagine. But to assert this, you look at Cambridge discourse. You consider how Moore insisted that the misapplication of words was responsible for moral dilemmas. You look at C.K. Ogden, semiotics, Basic English. You even consider the eccentric lectures of Mansfield Forbes, who insisted that the meaning of each unit of a poem mattered.

What you do not do is assert that Richards knew A.C. Benson. Benson, sometime author of books with titles like Le Cahier Jaune: Poems, From a College Window, The Upton Letters, Beside Still Waters, The Thread of Gold. Editor of Queen Victoria’s letters. Lyricist of “Land of Hope and Glory.” Victorian at his core, aesthete in his tastes, and beloved popular essayist of Edwardian ladies—and men, too.

Benson was adviser to Richards at Magdalene College when the latter was an undergraduate, and a permanent fixture there when Richards became a lecturer in English (Benson eventually became Master in 1918). In 1913 over dinner, the young Richards could even brag to Benson about his experiments in close reading. And Benson could, that night, note in his copious diary that he found this all utterly fascinating and promising.

Benson had nothing to do with analysis. But that incidents like the one in 1913 occurred suggests there are places in institutions not just for the convergence of thoughts but for concrete moments of sympathy between thinkers. Benson could see something in what Richards was doing, even though he had no serious influence over him (Richards considered him merely a great conversationalist), and really inhabited a different universe altogether.

And this should count for something, since the sympathy itself was not without reason. Benson was critical of Britain’s educational system and the trading in platitudes passing for artistic “enjoyment.” Teaching at Eton for two decades before getting to Magdalene made him that way, and gave him the conviction that the semi-literate jocks Eton turned out would only continue talking bosh at Oxbridge. While he did not exactly lead the charge to create an “English School” to replace philology at Cambridge with the study of modern poetry (as indeed happened), he also did not hesitate to lecture on Milton and write books for the popular “English Men of Letters” series.

Benson was committed to his own appreciative mode of criticism because it opposed superficial expression. His books, like many late-Victorian aestheticist efforts, appreciate the beauties of an author’s style, but also insist that an author’s achievement is a matter of uniting these beauties in a persona. Ruskin’s effect on the world, Benson said in his book on him, was the effect of “a personality.” Not even the purplest passage in Pater, Benson also says, can compare with the moments when his prose “strikes a firm note of personality.” Vague conversational traffic in “beauties” was, to Benson, actually a way of suppressing this note.

Benson, then, might have seen Richards’ work as relevant to his own aestheticist proclivities and methods of critique. Perhaps the destruction of easy appreciative reading patterns could allow educational reforms could be carried out. And perhaps a closer look at forms of expression, not an acceptance of clichés, could allow for an appreciation of personality. This was reason enough to encourage it.

If these are merely vague agreements, expressions of a feeling of sympathy and support, possible thoughts that carry, ultimately, no immediate consequences for Richards or for the eventual dominance of analysis as a technique, they also provide a different view of Richards: one that makes him more than another Cambridge crusader wielding the discourse of analysis and laying low all the stiffs.

Eventually a wider institutional narrative might be able to include this, and perhaps all this consideration of feelings is simply preparatory work. But what interests me is how easy it is, even with the tools of discourse analysis, to think these things are not part of the record. How, that is, we look to an institutional context only to overlook most of its members, making Richards a lump of techniques he shares with other thinkers, and Benson nonexistent. And how easily traversing institutional networks of sympathy like this undermines the sense that ideas form even incoherent ensembles, while showing that they were actually entertained by many more members of the institution.

History, of course, is not entirely what people felt. But agreements, affiliations, affections matter, and they are quite complicated, taking place despite differences in intellectual temper and vocabulary. The coherence gained by identifying instances of some kind of larger discourse or “discussion” sometimes has to give way to the world created by people’s coexistence. Which, ironically, may bring more historical actors into dialogue.

Michael Duffy received his M.A. in English Literature from Princeton University. He researches British intellectual life at the turn of the twentieth century and is writing a history of British and American literary criticism.

Think Piece

Intellectuals on Toboggans

by Emily Rutherford

For the sake of some midweek levity, and in honor of the weather across much of northern North America at the moment, here are some pictures of intellectuals and educators enjoying the snow:

Symonds tobogganing
J.A. Symonds tobogganing in Davos. Bristol University Library, John Addington Symonds Papers, DM 410/2 (Emily Rutherford)
Gildersleeve and Spurgeon toboggan
Virginia Gildersleeve, Caroline Spurgeon, and dog tobogganing. Columbia University Rare Books and Manuscript Library, Virginia Gildersleeve Papers, Box 5 (Emily Rutherford)

As comical as these pictures are, there’s actually something to be said here about the culture in which an increasingly professionalized group of Anglo-American intellectuals operated. Sports such as rugby, American football, baseball, and rowing loomed large in schools and universities on both sides of the Atlantic, and the history of universities and of institutions like the Rhodes Scholarships tells us lots about the racialized valences of this. But that’s not the whole story: among university men in England—even those who weren’t particularly athletic or oriented toward a “muscular Christian” attitude—Alpine adventuring and other winter sports were particularly trendy in the latter decades of the nineteenth century. In January 1884, the Oxford Magazine satirically commented on the fad for mountain-climbing by suggesting, “It is proposed to utilise Port Meadow [a large tract of common land in Oxford] by importing and erecting upon it a genuine Alp, to be selected by the Oxford members of the Alpine Club, from whose number a Reader in Alpine Climbing might be appointed” (vol. 2 issue 1, 19 (Bodleian Library)). Long-distance walking was also popular, as Arthur Sidgwick’s diaries show: Sidgwick records astonishingly long walking trips across England, such as from Oxford to Windsor, a distance of almost fifty miles on present-day roads. But the Alps loomed particularly large in the culture in which most of the middle-class British people connected to education and ideas in this period operated: they had the disposable income for holidays and the knowledge of French and German, and groups of young men or nuclear family units often holidayed in the Swiss Alps. John Addington Symonds (top picture) met his wife there while on holiday with a group of friends (she, also English, was on holiday with her family); later, having contracted tuberculosis, he and his family moved permanently to Davos, site of a primarily anglophone health resort for people with respiratory illnesses. The whole Symonds family became heavily involved in winter sports, and while this reflected something about the English culture to which they belonged, it also may have helped the family to move beyond their English enclave. Symonds’ daughters Margaret and Katherine both record in memoirs about their childhood in Davos that through winter sports they interacted with local children of different class backgrounds, while Symonds père was celebrated in the local community for sponsoring an annual toboggan race.

It’s not wildly implausible that the Symonds daughters’ enthusiasm for winter sports might have rubbed off on other educated women of their generation involved in internationalist charitable causes, as they were. There’s no way of knowing this, but the bottom picture depicts two women of the same age who moved in a similar orbit: Virginia Gildersleeve, Dean of Barnard College from 1911 through the Second World War, and Caroline Spurgeon, a professor of medieval literature at Bedford College, London, who were long-term romantic partners. I don’t know where or when this photograph was taken, but I found it in a folder of other photographs and memorabilia that document Spurgeon’s and Gildersleeve’s relationship. Due to being lost among Gildersleeve’s papers for some years, this one file escaped the flames to which most of the couple’s letters and so on were consigned. With the dog, it’s very much a family group, and it evokes something about what William Whyte has called intellectuals’ “lives beyond their books” (18).

In the same article, Whyte also asks us to consider “the way in which walking, and cycling, rowing and mountaineering became the characteristic—and self-consciously characteristic—occupations of the intellectual aristocracy” (35). Whatever one might think about the usefulness of the label “intellectual aristocracy,” I think this is true of this group of British professional intellectuals and their families, and it seems to transcend strict gender lines or religious, political, and imperial ideologies. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this—if you have some ideas, I hope you’ll share them in the comments! But it’s a useful and evocative reminder that intellectuals are people—with significant relationships, children, health concerns, and even hobbies—as much as they are generators of ideas.

Think Piece

Records of Student Life in Early Modern Europe

by Madeline McMahon

Much of student life in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe revolved around writing in books. Unlike modern library copies of frequently assigned texts or even students’ personal copies (such as this outraged copy of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter in the Onion), however, many of these books were intended for annotation. The cover of Wynkyn de Worde’s publication of Virgil’s Bucolica (1514) shows students poring over the text as their teacher expounds upon it. But if the early English printer imagined his customers writing in the Bucolica, he did not leave them much space to do so. The lines of poetry are jammed against the accompanying commentary interspersed every few verses or so.

Title page of 1513 copy of Virgil's works. By permission of the New York Society Library.
Title page of a 1513 copy of Virgil’s works. By permission of the New York Society Library.

Yet at the same time, De Worde’s contemporaries on the continent were adapting their printed textbooks of classical works to student use. From about 1490 to 1520, publishers in German university towns churned out “lecture texts” that included interlinear spacing and wider margins to accommodate note-taking (Jürgen Leonhardt, “Classics as Textbooks: A study of the humanist lectures on Cicero at the University of Leipzig, ca. 1515” in Scholarly Knowledge, Textbooks in Early Modern Europe). Thousands of such books can be found, often with identical annotations—many hands recording the same series of lectures (Leonhardt, 90-1).

Annotations between the lines and in the margins of Virgil's Eclogues. This book will be displayed at the New York Society Library's upcoming exhibition, "Readers Make Their Mark," Feb. 5 - Aug. 15.
Annotations between the lines and in the margins of Virgil’s Eclogues. This book will be displayed at the New York Society Library’s upcoming exhibition, “Readers Make Their Mark,” Feb. 5 – Aug. 15.

The book shown here, a copy of Virgil’s poetic works printed in Leipzig in 1513 and now in the New York Society Library, is one of many such extant school texts. The anonymous student annotated the Eclogues the most heavily; while all of Virgil’s works were commonly assigned bestsellers in this period, the Eclogues were particularly popular (Leonhardt, 90, 107). He used the spaces between lines of Virgil’s text to add vocabulary notes, and wrote more advanced comments in the wide margins around the short commentary of Hermano Torrentino that punctuated the poetry. Yet in general, although this student underlined some of the printed commentary, his primary annotations were more or less transcripts of lectures, in which his teacher would paraphrase the poem’s meaning in easy-to-understand prose. Red-colored ink, much like the modern neon highlighter, helped important information leap off the page. This book shows the early sixteenth-century humanist classroom in action: this student learns how to annotate as he is taught how to read a classic.

Such annotations can help us to imagine the experience of attending early modern lectures—or not. A lecture text’s pristine pages can signal when a student failed to show up to class (Leonhardt, 104). Such absences remind us that student life was not confined to the lecture hall, then as now. We can glimpse the friendships formed at early modern universities from a different kind of book meant for writing as well as reading: the album amicorum, or register of friends. These small books of blank pages were also popular in German universities, although they were used across Europe (June Schlueter, “Michael van Meer’s Album Amicorum, with Illustrations of London, 1614-15,” 302). An owner would solicit entries from friends and acquaintances as well as the great. Filled with pithy quotations, flattering notes, coats of arms and illustrations, albums are valuable sources for the history of scholarly culture in addition to a range of other approaches—from the history of theater to that of politics. The album amicorum was like an early yearbook or proto-Facebook, keeping the memories of one’s college friends within reach. The Englishman Nathanael Carpenter (1589 – 1628) brought his album with him to Dublin, where he spent much of his career. The book (Trinity College Dublin MS 150) is full of notes in Latin, Greek, and French from an international group of friends Carpenter met during his time at the University of Oxford in the early 1610s. Flipping through the clever adages and colorful drawing of an astrologer in his album, Carpenter would have come across his friend Jonas Adelwertus’s note:

You desire, good friend, that my hand be read in this album; why should I deny?
I will inscribe not only my name but I will add a distich,
So that you may never not remember me.
I pray, good friend, that you may be well, flourish, and live as long as Nestor, and that you remain happy.

Ut mea conspicue manus, hoc cernatur in albo,
Optime Amice cupis; qua ratione negem?
Non tantum inscribam nomen, sed Distichon addam,
Ut nunquam possis, non memor esse mei.
Ut valeas, vigeas, vivasque in Nestoris annos,
Et maneas fielix, Optime Amice precor. (TCD MS 150, 86r)

Like Carpenter, we can still access early modern student life through annotations, the record of friendship as well as education.
Many thanks to Erin McGuirl, rare books librarian at the NYSL, for permission to show the images. The copy of Virgil shown here will be on display at “Readers Make Their Mark: Annotated Books at the New York Society Library.” My thanks to Will White for leading me to TCD MS 150.