Think Piece

Melodrama in Disguise: The Case of the Victorian Novel

By guest contributor Jacob Romanow

When people call a book “melodramatic,” they usually mean it as an insult. Melodrama is histrionic, implausible, and (therefore) artistically subpar—a reviewer might use the term to suggest that serious readers look elsewhere. Victorian novels, on the other hand, have come to be seen as an irreproachably “high” form of art, part of a “great tradition” of realistic fiction beloved by stodgy traditionalists: books that people praise but don’t read. But in fact, the nineteenth-century British novel and the stage melodrama that provided the century’s most popular form of entertainment were inextricably intertwined. The historical reality is that the two forms have been linked from the beginning: in fact, many of the greatest Victorian novels are prose melodramas themselves. But from the Victorian period on down, critics, readers, and novelists have waged a campaign of distinctions and distractions aimed at disguising and denying the melodramatic presence in novelistic forms. The same process that canonized what were once massively popular novels as sanctified examples of high art scoured those novels of their melodramatic contexts, leaving our understanding of their lineage and formation incomplete. It’s commonly claimed that the Victorian novel was the last time “popular” and “high” art were unified in a single body of work. But the case of the Victorian novel reveals the limitations of constructed, motivated narratives of cultural development. Victorian fiction was massively popular, absolutely—popularity rested in significant part on the presence of “low” melodrama around and within those classic works.

A poster of the dramatization of Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist

Even today, thinking about Victorian fiction as a melodramatic tradition cuts against many accepted narratives of genre and periodization; although most scholars will readily concede that melodrama significantly influences the novelistic tradition (sometimes to the latter’s detriment), it is typically treated as an external tradition whose features are being borrowed (or else as an alien encroaching upon the rightful preserve of a naturalistic “real”). Melodrama first arose in France around the French Revolution and quickly spread throughout Europe; A Tale of Mystery, an uncredited translation from French considered the first English melodrama, appeared in 1802 (by Thomas Holcroft, himself a novelist). By the accession of Victoria in 1837, it had long been the dominant form on the English stage. Yet major critics have uncovered melodramatic method to be fundamental to the work of almost every major nineteenth-century novelist, from George Eliot to Henry James to Elizabeth Gaskell to (especially) Charles Dickens, often treating these discoveries as particular to the author in question. Moreover, the practical relationship between the novel and melodrama in Victorian Britain helped define both genres. Novelists like Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Thomas Hardy, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon, among others, were themselves playwrights of stage melodramas. But the most common connection, like film adaptations today, was the widespread “melodramatization” of popular novels for the stage. Blockbuster melodramatic productions were adapted from not only popular crime novels of the Newgate and sensation schools like Jack Sheppard, The Woman in White, Lady Audley’s Secret, and East Lynne, but also from canonical works including David Copperfield, Jane Eyre, Rob Roy, The Heart of Midlothian, Mary Barton, A Christmas Carol, Frankenstein, Vanity Fair, and countless others, often in multiple productions for each. In addition to so many major novels being adapted into melodramas, many major melodramas were themselves adaptations of more or less prominent novels, for example Planché’s The Vampire (1820), Moncrieff’s The Lear of Private Life (1820), and Webster’s Paul Clifford (1832). As in any process of adaptation, the stage and print versions of each of these narratives differ in significant ways. But the interplay between the two forms was both widespread and fully baked into the generic expectations of the novel; the profusion of adaptation, with or without an author’s consent, makes clear that melodramatic elements in the novel were not merely incidental borrowings. In fact, melodramatic adaptation played a key role in the success of some of the period’s most celebrated novels. Dickens’s Oliver Twist, for instance, was dramatized even before its serialized publication was complete! And the significant rate of illiteracy among melodrama’s audiences meant that for novelists like Dickens or Walter Scott, the melodramatic stage could often serve as the only point of contact with a large swath of the public. As critic Emily Allen aptly writes: “melodrama was not only the backbone of Victorian theatre by midcentury, but also of the novel.”


This question of audience helps explain why melodrama has been separated out of our understanding of the novelistic tradition. Melodrama proper was always “low” culture, associated with its economically lower-class and often illiterate audiences in a society that tended to associate the theatre with lax morality. Nationalistic sneers at the French origins of melodrama played a role as well, as did the Victorian sense that true art should be permanent and eternal, in contrast to the spectacular but transient visual effects of the melodramatic stage. And like so many “low” forms throughout history, melodrama’s transformation of “higher” forms was actively denied even while it took place. Victorian critics, particularly those of a conservative bent, would often actively deny melodramatic tendencies in novelists whom they chose to praise. In the London Quarterly Review’s 1864 eulogy “Thackeray and Modern Fiction,” for example, the anonymous reviewer writes that “If we compare the works of Thackeray or Dickens with those which at present win the favour of novel-readers, we cannot fail to be struck by the very marked degeneracy.” The latter, the reviewer argues, tend towards the sensational and immoral, and should be approached with a “sentiment of horror”; the former, on the other hand, are marked by their “good morals and correct taste.” This is revisionary literary history, and one of its revisions (I think we can even say the point of its revisions) is to eradicate melodrama from the historical narrative of great Victorian novels. The reviewer praises Thackeray’s “efforts to counteract the morbid tendencies of such books as Bulwer’s Eugene Aram and Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard,” ignoring Thackeray’s classification of Oliver Twist alongside those prominent Newgate melodramas. The melodramatic quality of Thackeray’s own fiction (not to mention the highly questionable “morality” of novels like Vanity Fair and Barry Lyndon), let alone the proactively melodramatic Dickens, is downplayed or denied outright. And although the review offers qualified praise of Henry Fielding as a literary ancestor of Thackeray, it ignores their melodramatic relative Walter Scott. The review, then, is not just a document of midcentury mainstream anti-theatricality, but also a document that provides real insight into how critics worked to solidify an antitheatrical novelistic canon.

Photographic print of Act 3, Scene 6 from The Whip, Drury Lane Theatre, 1909
Gabrielle Enthoven Collection, Museum number: S.211-2016
© Victoria and Albert Museum

Yet even after these very Victorian reasons have fallen aside, the wall of separation between novels and melodrama has been maintained. Why? In closing, I’ll speculate about a few possible reasons. One is that Victorian critics’ division became a self-fulfilling prophecy in the history of the novel, bifurcating the form into melodramatic “low” and self-consciously anti-melodramatic “high” genres. Another is that applying historical revisionism to the novel in this way only mirrored and reinforced a consistent fact of melodrama’s theatrical criticism, which too has consistently used “melodrama” derogatorily, persistently differentiating the melodramas of which it approved from “the old melodrama”—a dynamic that took root even before any melodrama was legitimately “old.” A third factor is surely the rise of so-called dramatic realism, and the ensuing denialism of melodrama’s role in the theatrical tradition. And a final reason, I think, is that we may still wish to relegate melodrama to the stage (or the television serial) because we are not really comfortable with the roles that it plays in our own world: in our culture, in our politics, and even in our visions for our own lives. When we recognize the presence of melodrama in the “great tradition” of novels, we will better be able to understand those texts. And letting ourselves find melodrama there may also help us find it in the many other parts of plain sight where it’s hiding.

Jacob Romanow is a Ph.D. student in English at Rutgers University. His research focuses on the novel and narratology in Victorian literature, with a particular interest in questions of influence, genre, and privacy.

Think Piece

Cavendish’s Daughters: Speculative Fiction and Women’s History

by guest contributor Jonathan Kearns in collaboration with Brooke Palmieri

Nor is the empire of the imagination less bounded in its own proper creations, than in those which were bestowed on it by the poor blind eyes of our ancestors. What has become of enchantresses with their palaces of crystal and dungeons of palpable darkness? What of fairies and their wands? What of witches and their familiars? and, last, what of ghosts, with beckoning hands and fleeting shapes, which quelled the soldier’s brave heart, and made the murderer disclose to the astonished noon the veiled work of midnight? These which were realities to our fore-fathers, in our wiser age —

— Characterless are grated

To dusty nothing.

— Mary Shelley, “On Ghosts,” London Magazine, 1824

Literary canon in general, and the canon of weird or speculative fiction in particular, is haunted by half-remembered absences. We think we know the details of all of the high points: Frankenstein (1822), The Vampyre (1819), Varney the Vampire (1847), Dracula (1897); the works of Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849), or Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873). But in reality, we’re just glossing over all the places where we weren’t paying attention: namely, the vast catalogue of stories written by women over the centuries that play a formative role in the creatures and creeping feelings of horror that we take for granted as canonical. An important chapter worth writing in women’s history, and in the history of women writers, is that which considers the particularly feminine perspective that has imagined into existence some of the weirdest works of literature.

For example, there are stranger early modern alternatives to Shakespeare than Virginia Woolf’s portrait of his sister Judith. Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673), Duchess of Newcastle, scientist, philosopher, poet, patron of all things strange, was the first woman to attend a meeting of the Royal Society and get annoyed with Hooke, argue with Hobbes, and raise an eyebrow at Boyle.
In 1666 she published two works together: Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, which argued against the most popular scientific worldview of its time, mechanical philosophy; and The Blazing World, equal parts utopia, social satire, and straight-up weird fiction. It’s a masterpiece of fish-men, talking animals, and submarine warfare—written significantly earlier than Jules Verne, despite including a journey to another world, in a different universe, via the North Pole. Should we not describe his works as Cavendishian? Scholarship more frequently cites Ludvig Holberg’s Niels Klim’s Underground Travels in connection with Verne, although that too bears clear hallmarks of Cavendish’s influence. Cavendish’s dual publication of a work of natural philosophy with a work of speculative fiction have arguably only met their synthesis in the twentieth century, when scientists admit the influence of science fiction in their research, and “hard science fiction” like that of Kim Stanley Robinson has fully blossomed as a sub-genre. In other words, re-conceiving the canon of science fiction, speculative fiction, horror, and weird fiction begins with reconsidering their muddled origins in works like those of Margaret Cavendish, the foremother of so many strange ideas, imagined and real.

The industrious half-beast, half-human characters populating Cavendish’s Blazing World—the bear-men philosophers, the jackdaw-men orators, the spider-men mathematicians—translate the myths, the folk tales, the monstrous births and miraculous occurrences of a declining world of superstition into new centuries, with new narrative possibilities. Alongside their afterlives in the realms of science fiction, their hybrid forms are also a starting point for horror and considerations of the supernatural.

The immovable object of women in speculative fiction is obviously Frankenstein (1818), first imagined two hundred years ago this past June at the famous Villa Diodati. Nobody nowadays really argues with Mary Shelley’s pre-eminent position as the mother of all reanimated corpses. John William Polidori (1795-1821), also present at the first telling of the story, probably features fairly strongly in the role of medical advisor, especially with his experience in the dissection theaters of Edinburgh and considering his academic preoccupations. Taking the staples of weird, speculative, horrifying, and supernatural fiction as a whole, most of the major tropes were the product of female authorship. Frankenstein’s Monster—scientific aberration, stitched-up King Zombie, vengeful revenant—is only one such pillar: a hybrid in the style of Cavendish’s Blazing World, yet a ghost in his own right, ruthlessly haunting his creator.

And ghost stories too have a place in women’s history: Elizabeth Boyd’s Altamira’s Ghost (1744) describes a disputed succession adjudicated over by a spirit. Although supernatural in content, it is essentially a commentary on social injustice narrated by a ghost and dealing with the famous Annesley succession case, in which an orphan’s inheritance rested upon proof of his legitimacy. One peculiarity of the case is that a maidservant named Heath, claiming James Annesley illegitimate, was found guilty of perjury on one occasion, then acquitted on another, effectively allowing James to be ruled both bastard and not bastard simultaneously. Boyd was primarily a paid “hack” of notable skill, but it should be mentioned that her openly supernatural works (“William and Catherine, or The Fair Spectre” (1745) being another) fall thematically into the fantastically interesting category of female apparition narrative, in which female ghosts appear in order to provide insight into male wrongdoing and most notably domestic violence. A ghost woman can talk about things a live woman may not, and thus assist in the administration of justice. At one time an accepted literary device in its own right, this seems to have been forgotten along with Boyd and her contemporaries.

The pattern has a tendency to repeat. But the women of nineteenth-century weird fiction after Mary Shelley were more interested in giving their ghosts a body, much like the monster of Dr. Frankenstein. In 1828, only ten years after Frankenstein, Jane Loudon produced The Mummy! Or A Tale of The Twenty-Second Century (published by the piratical Henry Colburn, who published Polidori’s Vampyre under Byron’s name in 1819). Both of Loudon’s parents were dead by 1824, when she was 17, and she was forced to find some way to “do something for [her] support”:

I had written a strange, wild novel, called the Mummy, in which I had laid the scene in the twenty-second century, and attempted to predict the state of improvement to which this country might possibly arrive.

Already well-traveled and with several languages under her belt, Jane Loudon was clearly not without either smarts or skills. Her husband-to-be sought her out after writing a favorable review of the novel, believing her, naturally, to be a man. Once the shock of her femininity had worn off, they were married a year later.

Loudon’s resurrected Cheops is a sage and helpful corpse, granted life maintained by a higher power rather than by human error and hubris. Loudon’s twenty-second century is an absolutely blinding bit of fictional prophecy, on par with William Gibson’s Neuromancer for edgy prescience. The habit of the time was to view the future as the early nineteenth century, but with bigger buildings and with the French in charge, but Loudon’s 2126 AD goes for women striding about independently in trousers, robot doctors and solicitors, and something that’s not too far from an early concept of the internet. Her strange, wild story, in which corpsified Cheops helps rebuild a corrupt society, addresses much of the underlying horror of Shelley’s Frankenstein with a more redemptive take on the reanimation of dead flesh. It was also a definite influence on Bram Stoker’s better-remembered “Jewel of The Seven Stars,” published in the 1890s, and possibly even on Poe’s “Ligeia” in 1838, in which a man painstakingly wraps his dead wife in bandages prior to her burial.

There’s an argument for suggesting that writing weird fiction, at least in the form of ghost stories, became something of a fashionable exploit for nineteenth-century ladies. The Countess of Blessington (“A Ghost Story,” 1846), Mrs. Hofland (“The Regretted Ghost,” published in The Keepsake in the mid-1820s) are just two examples. On one hand, they might be seen as a natural evolution of the legacy of the Gothic giants Clara Reeve and Ann Radcliffe, alongside Jane Crofts’ hugely successful (and frequently necessarily anonymous) forays into the profitable world of Gothic novels and chapbooks (“The History of Jenny Spinner, The Hertfordshire Ghost,” 1800) and C.D. Haynes (“Eleanor, Or The Spectre of St. Michaels,” 1821). On the other, there is something innately rebellious, hinting at manifest destiny, in the feminine colonization of weird fiction as a form in which women can express themselves.

cavendish1Women who were already making a living as authors of anonymous romances and social sketches bent their efforts to the weird and supernatural with no apparent intent of turning a profit, but apparently more as an endorsement of the genre as something inherently theirs. Mrs. Riddell, Mrs. Oliphant, the Countess of Munster and Mrs. Alfred Baldwin were all successful, comfortable women with no particular need to deviate from a working formula, but they all ventured into what they clearly considered a darkness to which they had a right, and produced some of the very best weird stories of the nineteenth century.

cavendish2Mrs. Riddell’s (1832-1906) Weird Stories, published by Hogg in 1882, is one of the rarest and most beautifully written collections of supernatural stories of the last two hundred years.

cavendish3Mrs. Margaret Oliphant (1828-1897) wrote an incredible body of work—numbering over 120 published novels, historical works and collections of short stories—from the 1840s until the late 1890s, spanning almost the entire Victorian age in all its manifold weirdness.

The Countess of Munster, Wilhelmina FitzClarence (1830-1906), Scottish peer and illegitimate granddaughter of William IV, only became a novelist later in life. She published her Ghostly Stories in 1896, displaying a tremendous talent for the weird.cavendish4

Florence Marryat’s (1833-1899) The Blood of The Vampire, published the same year as Stoker’s Dracula and now shamefully almost forgotten, is a nuanced and complex (albeit erratic in execution) look at nineteenth-century male-dominated societal norms, race, sexuality, gender, and xenophobia, couched in the terms of the supernatural. Its mixed-race heroine is exploited by men and rejected by other women; the fact that she might be infected with vampirism is a secondary (and never cavendish5actually resolved) possibility when placed alongside how she is treated, regardless of supernatural influence. Marryat wrote over seventy published works, toured with the D’Oyly Carte company, had her own successful one woman show, ran lecture tours preaching female emancipation, and, during the 1890s, ran a women’s school of journalism.

It’s almost inconceivable that the “stuff of extrapolation” has preserved Klim, Polidori, Stoker, Le Fanu, Rymer and their legions of successful cohorts as the manifest summits of weird fiction in the nineteenth century, and yet rarely even mentions Jane Loudon, Mrs. Riddell, or even Mrs. Oliphant, who had a body of work larger than that of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Mary Shelley’s 1824 essay “On Ghosts,” which began this post, had at its heart two main questions: “What have we left to dream about?” and “[I]s it true that we do not believe in ghosts?” The catalogue of weird fiction produced by Shelley and those after her shows that women had a great deal left to dream about. Female weird fiction frequently deals with minorities and outliers: wronged gypsy women, beaten wives, revenant witches, overly prescient children, the occasional voodoo priestess, and a preoccupation with the righting of wrongs, the application of a certain balancing justice. Unlike in the masculine variants, the menaces and threats are more often laid to rest or propitiated, or indeed left to float off on an ice floe—rather than being chopped up, burned up, stabbed up, or staked up by a gang of bros armored by either science or God, the two being interchangeable when fighting darkness.

One thing is for certain: the influence of women writers, whether anonymously, writing under male pseudonyms, or under their own names upon the landscape of the weird is not only significant, but momentous. If one can identify a trope or a device, the chances are that if one goes back far enough it originated somewhere in the untended and rarely-visited forest of female writers of the irresistibly odd and disturbing. As for Shelley’s second question, it is now their ghosts which haunt literary history and which must be remembered. Yet to believe them, requires that they be seen.

Jonathan Kearns has been working in the book trade for over twenty years and is the proprietor of Jonathan Kearns Rare Books & Curiosities. He is also a faculty member at the York Antiquarian Book Seminar.

Think Piece

Apes, Jews, and Others: a reading of Franz Kafka’s “A Report to an Academy” and Bernard Malamud’s “God’s Grace”


by guest contributor Yaelle Frohlich

On the surface, Franz Kafka’s short story “A Report to an Academy” (1917) and Bernard Malamud‘s last finished novel, God’s Grace (1982), appear quite different, but they each boast a striking similar feature: Both contain verbal apes who serve to drive home a point about the Jewish condition. Various readers —of Kafka’s piece, in particular—have described the device as a “grotesque” metaphor for otherness, depicting a world that is, in the words of literary scholar Matthew Powell, “eerily reminiscent of our own, yet not our own” (130). In other words, these riveting works achieve a literary version of the uncanny valley effect.

In “A Report to an Academy,” an ape named Red Peter describes his experience breaking into the human cultural scene. He recounts his capture on the “Gold Coast” and captivity among coarse sailors, during which he desperately seeks “a way out” of his impossible circumstances—a cage “too low for [him] to stand up in but too narrow for [him] to sit,” where he ends up “with knees bent and trembling all the time”(247). He successfully carries out an ingenious plan to imitate his human captors (the main requirements: boozing and spitting), and eventually wins enough human acceptance to land an entertainment career on Hamburg’s “variety stage” and acquire the education and “cultural level of an average European” (254).

Interpretation of Red Peter in a recent adaption of “Report to the Academy” by Montreal’s Infinitheatre

The story never mentions Judaism or Jews by name. However, it was originally published in Martin Buber’s monthly German-language journal Der Jude, and is widely—and compellingly—interpreted as a critique of Jewish attempts to assimilate into non-Jewish, Western European society, as well as of that society’s prejudicial treatment of its minorities. Matthew Powell connects Kafka’s animal stories to his autobiography—both to Kafka’s failed relationship with a non-Jewish woman, whom he felt would never be able to understand him, as well as to his father Hermann’s lack of social acceptance among non-Jewish peers even in the aftermath of legal emancipation (137-138).

Metaphors for the Jewish experience are visible on every page of “A Report to an Academy”—from Red Peter’s alienation from his previous identity as an ape (plus the distance his associates maintain from him “to keep the image”; 245) to his internalization of anti-Semitic/ anti-ape stereotypes about crudity and materialism. Notably, he remarks that “only an ape could have thought of” the “utterly inappropriate” name Red Peter, which refers to the red scar leftover from his captors’ bullet. Katja Garloff interprets this wound as castration, but I think it is possible to read a circumcision motif into Red Peter’s “predilection” to pull down his pants to show people the wound, claiming proudly that “you would find nothing but a well-groomed fur and the scar made (246-247). Red Peter also states that “apes think with their bellies,” despite the fact that it is his sailor-mentor who teaches him that one should rub one’s belly with a grin after over-consuming schnapps (252).

But the most strikingly Jewish passages of the story describe Red Peter’s excruciating decision to excise his identity as an ape, in order to survive his brutal ordeal. Red Peter’s path is precarious, and his sailor-mentor—like European monarchs toward the Jews, sometimes even like God himself—is alternatingly cruel and benevolent; “sometimes indeed he would hold his burning pipe against my fur, until it began to smolder in some place I could not easily reach, but then he would himself extinguish it with his own kind, enormous hand” (252).

For Red Peter, self-effacement provides the “way out; right or left, or in any direction” that he seeks, despite finding “no attraction…in imitating humans,” and despite having no expectations of true “freedom”(249-253). He proclaims: “I could never have achieved what I have done had I been stubbornly set on clinging to my origins, to the remembrances of my youth. In fact, to give up being stubborn was the supreme commandment I laid upon myself; free ape as I was, I submitted myself to that yoke” (245). The language here, which alludes to the twin yokes of Heaven and Exile so poignant in traditional Jewish texts, recalls the painful choice facing Western European Jews: Which yoke was more burdensome to bear, that of tradition or integration?

In Malamud’s God’s Grace, the roles of man, ape, and Jew are reversed. Furthermore, unlike in Kafka’s story, the prominent role of Judaism is explicit. God’s Grace takes place in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic future. A nuclear war has destroyed the earth and all its inhabitants—apart from Calvin Cohn, a rabbinical student turned paleologist, who survives the war in a submarine, but, according to God, only due to a “marginal error” (5). Cohn discovers a surviving chimp child, Buz, and the two are marooned on an island, where they find more living chimps, along with a lone gorilla, George.

Cohn, as the sole human, finds himself in an unusual position of power. Like Red Peter’s sailor-mentor, he tries to remake the chimps, and this new world, in his own image—but with seemingly more refinement and goodwill. He humanizes the chimp community by giving them speech, and tries to provide them with a foundational Jewish education, ranging from traditional biblical exegesis to Kierkegaard and Freud.

Despite some authoritarian moves (like marrying the one female chimp on the island), Cohn’s intentions are good. But even the last Jew on Earth can’t catch a break; Buz has inherited his former trainer’s anti-Jewish prejudices, and Cohn becomes the chimps’ despised other—more for his Jewishness than for his being a Homo sapien. (For instance, the ape named Esau threatens to “break every Jewbone in [his] head,” while Cohn, like a fiddler on a roof, implores him to “try to reason together”(201).) At the novel’s close, Buz leads the chimps in an Oedipal rebellion against Cohn; after being Adam, Noah and Abraham, Cohn finds himself playing the role of Isaac in an animalistic, reverse Binding of Isaac orchestrated by his adopted ape son.

Ironically, despite the violent ending of God’s Grace, the novel closes more optimistically than “A Report to an Academy,” in which Red Peter enjoys a safe but lonely existence with a half-trained female chimp companion whose haunting presence (and implicit reminder of his ape identity) he can only half-stand. As D. Mesher notes , Malamud himself drew attention to his novel’s final, hopeful scene, in which “George the gorilla, wearing a mud-stained white yarmulke he had one day found in the woods, chant[s], “Sh’ma, Yisroel, the Lord our God is one,”” and recites “a long Kaddish for Calvin Cohn” (223).

I’ve found no definitive proof that Malamud read “A Report to an Academy,” but Kafka and Malamud’s stories explore flip sides of the modern Jewish experience. Kafka asks: What is the place of the Jew in society? While Malamud asks: What is the place of the Jewish idea in the world? The artists provide similar answers, but through very different mediums. Kafka paints a dark picture that suggests that only disfigurement, not liberating transformation, can result from identity denial. But Malamud’s message is a positive one: that the teachings of Judaism might shine forever—even in the absence of humanity, or of Jews, and in the silence—or indifference—of God.

Yaelle Frohlich is a PhD candidate in History and Hebrew & Judaic Studies at New York University. Her work focuses on diaspora Jewish perceptions of the Holy Land during the mid-nineteenth century. During the 2016-7 academic year, she will serve as a Public Humanities Fellow through the New York Council for the Humanities.

Think Piece

Comparative Difficulties in the Global Academy

by guest contributor Nicholas Bellinson

[Fu Xi] looking up… observed the images in the heavens and looking down he observed the models in the earth. He looked at how the markings of the birds and animals were appropriate to the earth. Near at hand he took them from his body, and at a distance he took them from things. With these he first made the eight trigrams [written characters]…. (The Classic of Changes, “Commentary on the Appended Phrases,” translated by Edward Shaughnessy with modifications by Jane Geaney)

Adam first gave names to all things with souls, calling each one after its apparent constitution as well as after the role in nature to which it was bound… in that language… which is called Hebrew. (Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, XII.I)

At once, these two legends—one from the Chinese and one from the Christian Latin canon—invite comparison. Did both cultures, we wonder, derive this myth of natural language from a common source, or do the two stories manifest some universally human relationship to language? In my ignorance of Chinese traditions, I have no idea whether the ancestors and immediate offspring of the Fu Xi legend are documented. However, the Western discovery of this story and of the Chinese writing system (thanks to Jesuit missionaries in China) certainly resonated with learned Europeans more because of their own linguistic origin story. The Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher wrote in his monumental China Illuminated (1667) that

The Chinese place the first invention of letters about three hundred years after the Flood; the first inventor of letters was also a king named Fòhì…. The ancient Chinese obtained their characters from all the things which were presented to their sight, and from the various order and arrangement of these many accumulated things made manifest the concepts in their mind. (VI.i-ii)

Kircher thought that the Chinese were descended from the Egyptians, that the Chinese characters were hieroglyphic, and that both Egyptian and Chinese hieroglyphs encoded imperfect versions of the Edenic knowledge of nature which Adam had used to name the animals and passed on to his descendants. (Leibniz, meanwhile, read the The Classic of Changes and found support for his theory that all human thought could be reduced to binary code.)

Kircher eagerly assimilated a culture with which he had only passing familiarity into his standard universal-historical framework based on the Biblical creation myth; he would do the same with India, Egypt, and any other ancient culture he encountered. Anyone who has learned a foreign language knows how treacherous this temptation can be—and why we bitterly call words that sound similar but mean different things faux amis (“false friends”). The temptation grows with ignorance and distance.

Comparatists working across chasms of space, time, and culture have to take particular care not to fall in. We still both enjoy and criticize the first chapter of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, in which he compares the immediate style of Homeric epic to the inward style of the Bible. Under the influence of globalization, comparative literary scholars and historians have increasingly undertaken comparisons of entire traditions. Sometimes they give us useful scholarly projects and gatherings—but with more breadth often comes greater superficiality, and correspondingly the need for the academy to insist on greater depth of knowledge. The line between caution and limitation is fine, but worth treading.

I recently attended several sessions of the four-day international workshop “Across Text and Source: Comparative Perspectives in Literary and Historical Theory” at the University of Chicago (where I first heard of Fu Xi). Dr. Ulrich Timme Kragh noted in his opening remarks that, due to the vast range of the participants’ expertise, the organizers had chosen to divide each forty-eight-minute session into two ten-minute “concept papers” followed by discussion—in admitted hopes of “mutual intelligibility.” The primary goal of this event was to reexamine the categories of “text” and “source” using examples from ancient and medieval Asia and Europe (though modern comparanda were adduced on occasion).

“Ambitious” is a gentle word for such a goal. How does one initiate listeners into the mysteries of an alien culture in ten minutes, forty-eight minutes, or four days? I was fascinated to learn from Dr. Ping Wang that the classical Chinese wén (“text,” according to her) literally means a “woven pattern,” much like the English “text” (cf. Latin textus from texo “I weave”)—but the ensuing discussion involved enough disagreement about the exact meaning of wén that I came away without a confident evaluation of the conceptual parallelism between the two words. Participants keenly aware of the structural difficulties facing them sought to disentangle (or perhaps even spin) den roten Faden (“the red thread,” a German phrase for the unifying concept or theme); I wasn’t present for enough of the conference to judge their ultimate success. The obvious gains of such an event are intimations of new material which participants can later investigate in depth: new texts, new ideas, new patterns. I wonder, though, whether these gains come at the prohibitive cost of a certain model of scholarship.

When a medieval Latinist and a classical sinologist discuss similar features of their respective scholarly domains, they will produce a very different kind of comparative work from that of a single scholar who knows both traditions very well. To return to the analogy of foreign languages: translating The Classic of Changes into English would require one fluent reader of both English and classical Chinese, not two distinct speakers of English and classical Chinese. (Occasionally, “translations” have been attempted without knowledge of the language, like Stephen Mitchell’s rewritings of Chinese texts, which have been criticized by “very irate Taoists.”) In general, I’m inclined to think that two comparatists’ heads are not better than one.

To be clear: cultural historians and literary theorists have much to learn from even a superficial acquaintance with other cultures and time periods. In perhaps the most celebrated case of successful comparative work, Milman Parry and Albert Lord derived permanent insights about the Homeric poems’ composition from ethnographic research on modern Slavic bards. Entire fields, like narratology and generic criticism, are highly comparative. Yet because comparatists often emphasize formal similarities and minimize differences, they can seem intentionally superficial and stubborn. It’s not a new point that “close reading” implies a focus deliberately rejected in the comparative approach, but the growing interest in “global” comparative projects occasions a renewed call for caution: studying the intersection of two traditions requires firm prior knowledge of both.

Nicholas Bellinson is a second-year graduate student in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. He has studied Renaissance literature, art history, and history of science. He is writing his dissertation on Shakespeare.

Think Piece

‘Slimy rimes’: Donne’s Contagious London

By guest contributor Alison Bumke

John Donne, c. 1595. Anonymous painting, National Portrait Gallery London. (Wikimedia Commons)

While John Donne (1572-1631) was writing verse letters and elegies in the early 1590s, London was experiencing a major plague epidemic. His lyrics trace everyday life in a plague-stricken city, describing efforts to identify sources of contagion, disinfect living areas, avoid public spaces, and protect one’s body. They also express the shock of living in a transformed city, where bustling streets are suddenly ‘lancke & thin,’ as he writes in a verse letter, ‘To Mr E. G.’ (l. 9). Donne’s early verse conveys a familiarity with medical theories of contagion that would inform how, decades later, his sermons depicted sin passing through a population.

By the 1590s, the term ‘contagion’ had been used in an English medical context for nearly a century. The period’s medical theorists were undecided, however, on whether contagion had physical substance. Galen, the widely cited Greek physician, believed that it consisted of tiny ‘seeds’ of air, water, and organic matter: a precursor to modern germ theory. These seeds were thought to communicate sickness through the air and via direct contact. At least two English plague tracts, printed during London’s 1603-4 plague epidemic, refer likewise to a ‘corrupt and venemous seede’ of disease. In Italy, meanwhile, a physician and poet named Girolamo Fracastoro proposed the existence of airborne ‘seeds’ of disease in his De contagione (1546). But in early modern England, the prevailing theory of contagion was that miasmas—expanses of foul-smelling air—communicated illness.

Video from the Virtual Paul’s Cross Project, reconstruction of where Donne would have preached. For more information on the sulfurous smoke and gloomy weather of Donne’s weather, see here.

A person inhales infectious air through her nose’s porous lining, Galen argues in his De instrumento odoratus (c. 170). This porous lining is like a sponge: its ‘hollownesse and holes … may take in the smoake that is resolued, and commeth from the thing that is smelled,’ Stephan Batman explains. After the person’s sponge-like nose inhales the ‘smoake,’ or vapour, that an object produces, the vapour proceeds to her brain. By the time her brain perceives its scent, the corrupt air has started to infect her body.

To avoid inhaling corrupt air, the person can fill her nose’s ‘hollownesse and holes’ with sweet scents. Spices and herbs produce pleasing, harmless vapours that fill the nasal passages, preventing putrid air from reaching the brain and infecting the body. The period’s medical tracts recommend carrying scented sachets and pomanders in public, as protection against disease. In Physicall directions in time of plague (Oxford, 1644), for example, an anonymous author urges readers to carry fragrant items when ‘going abroad, or talking with any’. A person should hold a perfumed object in her mouth or hand so she inhales its vapours, rather than putrid air. Medical tracts recommend also using spices to perfume rooms, indoor fires, and cleansing water. In A dialogue bothe pleasaunte and pietifull (London, 1564), William Bullein writes, ‘Forget not to kepe the chamber, and clothyng cleane, no priues at hande, a softe fire with perfumes in the mornyng.’ Perfuming homes with pleasing, innocuous scents reduces the inhabitants’ risk of inhaling corrupt air.

Donne’s early verse alludes to medical tracts’ guidelines for avoiding putrid vapours. His poem ‘The Anagram’ mentions two of the spices Physicall Directions lists: musk and amber. He writes,

In buying things perfum’d, we aske; if there

Be muske and amber in it, …                          (ll. 13-4)

Potential buyers ask if perfumed objects contain strongly scented spices, like musk and amber, to determine if the objects will block corrupt air’s scent. In addition to masking putrid odours, individuals could attempt to purify corrupt air. Bradwell’s A watch-man for the pest (London, 1625) advises firing cannons, so air is ‘first forcibly moved, shaken, divided and attenuated, and so prepared for purification; & then immediately (by the heat of the fire) purified.’ Alternatively, he recommends leading a ‘great drove’ of oxen through an infected city so ‘their sweet wholsome breath’ can ‘cleanse the impure Aire.’ Donne refers to the former method in his poem, ‘The progress of the soul, Metempsychosis.’ ‘Thinner than burnt air flies this soul,’ he writes (l. 173). Cannon fire burns away air’s impurities, so the resulting, ‘burnt’ air is thinner than average.

Attempts to purify or mask corrupt air had limited success, however. ‘In every street / Infections follow, overtake, and meet,’ Donne writes in 1592 in a verse letter, ‘To Mr T. W.’ (ll. 9-10). A major plague epidemic was starting in London, and it would ‘overtake’ tens of thousands by 1594. The concept of contagions having physical heft—enabling them to ‘follow’ an individual—appears often in contemporary medical tracts. Thomas Dekker, for example, writes in 1603 that ‘thick and contagious clowdes’ of infection have ‘driven’ some individuals out of their ‘earthlie dwellings,’ or bodies, while others have avoided the ‘arrowes’ of infection. Bradwell assigns contagion a similar physicality, observing that the plague ‘over-runneth … like a torrent, and few escape at least a scratching with it, if they be not deeply bitten by it.’ In each case, the contagion—whether in figurative clouds, arrows, or torrents—is an external aggressor, presenting a tangible threat to the human body. Individuals try to escape from it by masking putrid odours and purifying air, but they remain deeply vulnerable.

The prevalence of the plague made Donne consider his verse, or ‘rimes’, in cognate and related terms. In another verse letter from the 1592-4 epidemic, ‘To Mr. E. G.,’ Donne compares his ‘slimy rimes’ to standing water’s putrid vapours:

Euen as lame things thirst their perfection, so
The slimy rimes bred in our vale below,
Bearing with them much of my love & hart
Fly vnto that Parnassus, wher thou art.                     (ll. 1-4)

Donne humorously compares his addressee’s home on Highgate Hill, an elevated area next to London, to Greece’s Parnassus, a mountain bordering Delphi. Highgate and Parnassus have much purer, healthier air than their neighbouring cities. Meanwhile, Donne writes from ‘our vale below,’ London, which is situated in the Thames Valley. London is prone to disease, he suggests: its valley location enables standing water to accumulate, releasing disease-causing vapours. Donne sees the current plague epidemic’s effects everywhere. He observes ‘Theaters … fill’d with emptines,’ noting that ‘lancke & thin is euery street & way’ (ll. 8, 9). The city has closed its theatres and people are avoiding the streets, or abandoning the city altogether, to reduce their risk of infection.

Woodcut from Thomas Dekker, A Rod for Run-awayes (London, 1625), picturing the plague (Wikimedia Commons)

Until now, though, Donne has remained in the city, which inspires his verse. London’s ‘vale’ breeds his ‘slimy rimes,’ he contends: his poems acquire the slime of their source, London’s damp river valley. In a literal sense, his lyrics express his native city’s character as they ‘fly’ to Highgate. He does not claim that they will infect his addressee, but he does seek to move his friend with his vivid descriptions of plague-ridden London. His lyrics transmit another feature of their source, as well: Donne’s ‘love & hart.’ Donne flatters his friend, asserting that the latter’s physical elevation in Highgate signals elevated intellectual and moral status, or ‘perfection.’ Donne’s imperfect lyrics ‘thirst’ for an audience with such a person as they rise from a source—Donne and London—that is literally and figuratively lower. Donne asserts that his verse expresses ‘spleene’: laughter and mirth, inspired by his city’s absurdities (l. 11). But as the epidemic takes hold, his spleen finds ‘Nothing wherat to laugh’ in London (l. 11). He will flee the city, he decides, seeking alternative sources of inspiration and pleasure.

Donne returned soon after the epidemic, however, and—before his death in 1631—he experienced two more major outbreaks of plague in London, as well as frequent epidemics of typhoid, typhus, and smallpox. These outbreaks continued to influence his writing’s style and themes long after he first celebrated his ‘slimy rimes’.

Alison Bumke is a College Lecturer and Fellow in English at Queens’ College, Cambridge, for the 2015-16 academic year.

Think Piece

Visual Affinities, Living History

by contributing editor Brooke Palmieri

There are all kinds of ways in which a book’s form can intensify its content, draw its words into relationships, inscribe its title within the family trees of works written by other people in other places and times. Books from the Fellow Travelers series started in 2012 by Publication Studio have exactly that effect from the very moment you look them in the cover: they are unmistakable descendants of works published fifty years earlier by Maurice Girodias at his Olympia Press, what he called its Traveller’s Companion series.


Through visual affinities, a lineage can be built, a history can be told, through bringing books together that look alike a pattern emerges not unlike the experience of spending time browsing Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, where images of similar gestures bespeak shared values, shared experiences.

Founded in 1953 from a desk in the back of the Rue Jacob bookshop in Paris, Girodias aimed to provide English-speaking soldiers abroad a complement to the already popular ‘Black Book’ series of detective fiction. But Olympia Press would scratch a different itch. Its name, after Edouard Manet’s infamous Olympia, is as evocative as gets: the first books in the series were erotic with no respect for the boundaries between high and low culture. Girodias collaborated with a collective of young ex-pats who moved to Paris as a kind of second-wave Lost Generation coalescing around a literary magazine called Merlin. At their insistence he published Samuel Beckett’s novel Molloy alongside Marquis de Sade’s La Philosophie dans le Boudoir, Apollinare’s Memoirs d’un Jeaune Don Juan, and George Bataille’s L’Histoire de l’Oeil, and Henry Miller’s Plexus. Over the years, money was so short that the Merlin collective would meet, drink, and invent smutty titles they had not yet written, sending out false catalogues to their subscribers, as John de St. Jorre describes in The Good Ship Venus: The Erotic Voyage of the Olympia Press (1984). The money made from pre-ordered books paid the authors to begin writing them.

The books of Olympia Press were not the first to use the design. Girodias adapted it in homage to his father, the publisher Jack Kahane. Kahane ran Obelisk Press and had a whole history of his own in the shoestring publishing industry, and he was no stranger to obscenity. Obelisk Press published Radclyffe Hall’s Well of Loneliness in 1933, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer in 1934, and Anaïs Nin’s House of Incest in 1936. Girodias had rebellious literary taste coded into his genes.

Well“Fans were as fascinated by the ugly plain green covers as the addict by the white powder, however deceptive both may prove to be,” Girodias wrote about the appeal of his own series. Deceptive, too, is the view of any of these books in isolation, not only as it goes against the reality of addiction and addictive reading, but also because bringing each green book among its companions recreates a sense of the wide, wide world of effort it takes to shift values and tastes. At Olympia Press, there was a rotating cast of contributors and collaborators, men and women: Alexander Trocchi, George Bataille, Bataille’s wife Diane, Iris Owens, Marilyn Meeske. Helen and Desire, White Thighs and The Whip Angels, were all part of the literary ecosystem that made possible, intellectually and financially, works like Lolita, and Naked Lunch, now canonized, set apart.

From visual affinities, to the bonds of blood, to the realities of fighting censorship through collaboration, the efforts of publisher-printers like Kahane and Girodias can be traced back and back. But they can also be seen to gain increasing vividness — and coherence — as they are lifted from the past and taken forward. The sparse covers of Kahane’s and Girodias’s books alongside those of Publication Studios name censorship as a common enemy of publishers. In Girodias’s case, Olympia Press opposed the censorship of obscenity laws; more recently, Publication Studios rejects the censorship that lies at the heart of a market that refuses to engage fresh talent in favor of predictable moneymakers. The constraints amount to the same thing: very similar groups of authors are left out, very similar types of writing are hard to find. Each Fellow Traveler (there are eight and counting) includes a Publisher’s Forward, which addresses the problem head-on:

Patricia No and Antonia Pinter’s battle cry gives new life to Maurice Girodias’s goals with Olympia Press, it gives coherence to his impact on the publishing landscape of the 50s and 60s, an impact that would have been difficult to assess at the time given his movements between Paris and New York, the constant legal and financial struggles. “We proudly present great work that the market has not endorsed, but that we believe in,” No and Stadler write. Their approach to updating the Traveller’s Companion to the Fellow Traveler’s series distills Girodias’s literary tastes into a modern manifesto against greedy publishing. Which is incredibly generous to Girodias, since he spoke as much about profit as love of good writing, and who did not always treat his authors well. He was a ‘toad’ to Valerie Solanas, and Breanne Fahs’ biography of Solanas painstakingly describes the conditions under which he held copyright of her S.C.U.M. Manifesto that pushed Solanas’s mental health struggles to breaking point. Girodias claimed she came to his office June 3, 1968 looking for him with a gun. He was out of town, so she went and found Andy Warhol instead. It’s unclear whether Girodias made this up to sell more copies of S.C.U.M. that he published immediately after the Warhol shooting made front-page news. Either way, Solanas’s fixation and despair over her treatment was a source of stress and debilitating paranoia she spoke of until her death in 1988. Publishing on the edge implies a certain kind of living on the edge, which does not necessarily imply kindness and fair treatment. Exploitation, however, can be dropped from the history that is kept alive, it can be re-written even if it is not done so by self proclaimed victors.

With Publication Studio, the struggle against market censorship goes even deeper, beyond the cover, to the ways in which the books themselves are assembled. Stadler and No are able to produce around 50 or 60 books per day through their Print on Demand system consisting of a black and white printer, a machine that puts glue on the spines, and a perfect binder: “Every day is different. That’s part of why we stamp date of production on the spine of every book.” Stadler said in an interview. The books are bound in file folders: “[B]ecause we were broke. You can get them free.”

Book before and after the file folder binding is trimmed (author’s collection)

Moreover, the methods travel well: the original Publication Studio was set up in Portland, Oregon, but satellite publishers using similar POD technology have cropped up all over the USA, and Canada, with one of the most recent incarnation opening up across the ocean in London, run by Louisa Bailey of Luminous Books.

Where big publishing houses pay little attention to transgressive authors, and POD produces incredibly messy results, the emerging constellation of Publication Studios addresses the shortcomings of both through ethical, well-made books printed on demand that showcase novels with a transgressive or political edge, including queer authors like Shelley Marlow and STS. There is an emotionally rich collapse of space between the roles of publisher-printers of the past, who staked their livelihoods alongside their authors in the works they published, and the work of publishers who remain active interpreters of the traditions they have chosen to inherit.

Adapted from part of a lecture delivered at the launch of Shelley Marlow’s Two Augusts in a Row in a Row at the London Centre for Book Arts, 29 October 2015. Correction (11/20): The co-founder of publication studio is named Matthew Stadler, not Mark. Publication Studio’s first location in Portland, Oregon is now run by Patricia No and Antonia Pinter.