Think Piece

Lincoln Kirstein, Dance, and Intellectual History

by guest contributor Laura Quinton

Last week, New York University’s Center for Ballet and the Arts hosted a panel, “Dance and the Intellectual: Lincoln Kirstein’s Legacy.” The event featured moderator Leon Wieseltier, former literary editor of the New Republic, along with art critic Jed Perl, former New York City Ballet dancer Toni Bentley, and literary scholar and executor of Kirstein’s literary estate, Nicholas Jenkins.

Lincoln Kerstein in 1932. (NY Times)
Lincoln Kirstein in 1932. (NY Times)

Together, the panelists described a twentieth-century American renaissance man. In addition to co-founding New York City Ballet with the eminent choreographer George Balanchine in 1948, Kirstein (1907-1996) was an early champion of and contributor to the Museum of Modern Art. As an undergraduate at Harvard in 1927, he founded The Hound & Horn, a literary publication that included Gertrude Stein and Walker Evans among its contributors. He was a prolific writer, publishing scrupulous scholarship on dance history and art history, as well as a poet. Wieseltier called Kirstein both “otherworldly” and “this-worldly,” pointing out that concepts Kirstein used to elucidate the differences between ballet and modern dance, “aerial” and “terrestrial,” were equally applicable to this enigmatic and towering figure. Moreover, he emphasized that, while Kirstein strove to encapsulate the metaphysical potential of the arts in his heady writings, this intellectual never ceased being a “man of action.”

Discussing Kirstein’s diverse tastes in the visual arts, Perl similarly noted the difficulties of pinning the impresario down. In addition to supporting mainstream modernists, Kirstein enjoyed “nitpicky realism” and defended artists like Paul Cadmus when the art establishment disavowed them. Although Kirstein often “offended canonical taste,” Perl contended that the breadth of his predilections, which ranged from innovative to reactionary, ultimately reveal “what significant taste is.” Jenkins emphasized Kirstein’s paradoxical character by comparing him to literary figures. He argued that Kirstein simultaneously embodied the “adventurous” characters of Balzac, the “oblique” ones of James, and Fitzgerald’s Gatsby: like Gatsby, Kirstein was “self-creating and self-destroying.”

With the exception of Perl, all of the participants had known Kirstein personally. Bentley shared particularly rich memories of the impresario: she recalled Kirstein’s mighty presence at the School of American Ballet and recounted dinners where he would surprise her with his latest book. Jenkins suggested that – given Kirstein’s relatively recent passing – scholars and friends of this intellectual can only now begin to fully comprehend his outstanding historical significance.

While the speakers did an excellent job explaining the breadth of Kirstein’s expertise and the quirky nuances and ambiguities of his personality, I would have liked to hear more specifically about his involvement with the dance world. More could have been said about Kirstein’s relationship with Balanchine, as well as their diverging artistic visions for City Ballet.

For intellectual historians, Kirstein’s example reveals the stimulating role dance can play in intellectual life. Ballet prompted an outpouring of rigorous historical, critical, and even philosophical writing from Kirstein. The vast historiography of dance that he produced in turn legitimized the project to establish ballet as a national high-art form in twentieth-century America. Kirstein’s efforts to institutionalize ballet in the States also helped to ensure its permanence, offering rare financial security to dancers and choreographers. Moreover, as dance historian Jennifer Homans pointed out during the Q&A, Kirstein’s artistic suggestions were crucial to landmark modernist ballets like Agon (1957).

Kirstein was not the only elite twentieth-century intellectual to engage with ballet. Across the pond, the economist John Maynard Keynes championed the form above all of the other arts. In 1946, as chairman of the Arts Council of Great Britain, he personally engineered the re-opening of the Royal Opera House, which featured the Sadler’s Wells Ballet (later the Royal Ballet) in a new production of The Sleeping Beauty (1890). For Keynes, ballet was “above and beyond language” (Hession, 228), and the Royal Opera House gala was “a landmark in the restoration of English cultural life” that represented “the return of England’s capital to its rightful place in a world of peace” (Moggridge, 705).

Ballet also influenced the work of Keynes’s Bloomsbury friends. According to dance scholar Susan Jones, the early-mid twentieth century witnessed a “reciprocal relationship between modernist aesthetics” in dance and British literature (10). Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes inspired new literary content and formal experimentation by Clive Bell, Lytton Strachey, and Virginia Woolf. Beyond Gordon Square, dance motivated Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot to produce works like “Dance Figure” (1913) and Four Quartets (1943).

Frequently sidelined by intellectual historians, dance was evidently a vital part of elite intellectual life in the twentieth century. Rather than eschewing dance, historians would benefit from considering intellectuals’ complex relationships with this art form: along with expanding the scope of intellectual history, such consideration might yield some surprising discoveries.

Indeed, it was fascinating to see how Wieseltier, Perl, and Jenkins, none of whom are known for their work on dance, were so inspired by and engaged with Kirstein and his dance writings. For the audience, the back-and-forth between Bentley and these thinkers presented a compelling example of how dance and intellectual inquiry continue to intersect today.

Laura Quinton is a PhD candidate in Modern European History at New York University. She researches the history of British ballet.

Think Piece

Global Microhistory: One or Two Things That I Know About It

by guest contributor Maryam Patton

Where does the local fabric of human life stand in the great heights of global history? Consider Jürgen Osterhammel’s discussion of travel literature and the growth of exploration in his titanic The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century: ‘This intellectual curiosity about the outside world was specific to Europeans in the early modern period …. Although a few Ottomans reported on their journeys, Muslims generally had little interest in “infidel” lands’ (Osterhammel, 817). This matter of curiosity for visiting foreign lands has been the subject of significant debate. Yet here Osterhammel, with his authoritative scope offers little room for more nuanced understandings of the sort that Nabil Matar among others propose in response to Bernard Lewis’ original thesis of Muslim disinterest.

And so I was reminded that what excites me as an historian are these complicated details drawn out from the surface noise of life itself. Thus the neatly packaged narrative of ever-increasing globalization, interconnectedness and universalization feels unsatisfactory or too abstract to be meaningful to any single audience beyond professional historians. This is perhaps a redundant observation about global history’s broader aims. But the proliferation in recent years of what is being called “global microhistory” complicates this discussion of scale.

English translation of Leo Africanus’ Descrittione dell’Africa (Wikimedia Commons)

The most representative examples of this trend—though it is perhaps too soon to call it that—are Natalie Zemon Davis’ Trickster Travels: The search for Leo Africanus, Linda Colley’s The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World History, and Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s Three Ways to be Alien: Travails and Encounters in the Early Modern World. Each of these histories concerned the lives of remarkable individuals who crossed boundaries and defied the neat geographical categories of their time, though global history itself continues to undercut any such neat distinctions.

Of the three studies, Trickster Travels merits further consideration because Zemon Davis avoids making references to global history, micro- or otherwise. And while this may be due partly out of respect for popular audiences, her decision to emphasis biographies should nevertheless raise questions in contrast to the various kinds of globality typified by the macroanalysis of Osterhammel. At least while reading works dealing with the early modern period, I am struck by the emphasis on travellers as the practical subject in terms of sketching a global perspective. If Zemon Davis’ historiography is any indication, this is becoming a potentially defining characteristic for what it means to be ‘global’ in the early modern world. If this reliance on travellers has not been misplaced, a text still remains to emerge with a structuralist perspective that shows how global currents acted on the scale of the individual before the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. I personally welcome such a text, for it could rekindle some serious debates that began in Italian microhistory but were never truly resolved. For now, we have a growing collection of microhistories, which, wonderful though they are, resemble narrative case studies without greater historiographical ambitions.

Francesca Trivellato anticipated these anxieties towards global microhistory. In her 2011 article, “Is There a Future for Italian Microhistory in the Age of Global History?” Trivellato stresses the need to revisit the original aims of the Italian microhistorians, though they were intellectually diverse, as a potential direction for future studies and for “a healthy dose of critical self-reflection” (Trivellato, 1). She reminds us of their conviction that “to reveal phenomena obscured by received wisdom would invalidate the teleology of grand narratives.” This is not to say that microhistory always sought to negate the rule through the ‘exceptional normal’; just as often, the exceptional could be used to “extrapolate typical and relevant indicators” (Trivellato, 3). To return to Zemon Davis’ case of Leo Africanus: what, in his case, was typical and what was exceptional? Zemon Davis is careful not to come out too boldly on either side, though there is no denying there were exceptional qualities to Leo Africanus’ character and the circumstances which led to his colorful life in Europe. He was not the only captive on his ship that fateful day he was handed over to the Pope. Yet even after a life lived in defiance of strict cultural divides, Zemon Davis reminds us that—at the end of the day—if he succeeded in returning home to Fez, he would have been received in disgrace as a convert and accused of collaborating with the enemy (Zemon Davis, 249). What I wish to emphasize is that we should be wary of accepting global themes as the new orthodoxy without pausing to consider what is obscured. A recent article by John-Paul Ghobrial on the life of the 17th century figure Elias of Babylon engages with this problem of obfuscation.

In many ways, Elias of Babylon resembles one of these ‘global lives’ that threaten to become representative of the early modern period. In 1668, Elias permanently left his native Iraq, (then under control of the Ottomans); by his death, he had travelled widely across Europe and even to the Spanish colonies in the New World. The accounts Elias left behind—rediscovered only in the last hundred years—constituted the first Arabic history of the new world. But Elias’ “Book of Travels” was more than a travelogue of far away lands intended to entertain audiences back home. He was a member of the Church of the East, and Ghobrial uses this fact, along with Elias’ allusions to rebellions against Rome (a common trope among Spanish Catholics who viewed the conversions of the Americas as a blow to Protestant efforts) to uncover a much deeper current about the limited significance of Elias’ global inclinations (Ghobrial, 71). Members of the Church of the East, or Nestorians as they were sometimes called, were still heretics in the eyes of Rome, so Elias’ pro-Catholic rhetoric comes as a surprise. When he returned to Europe from Mexico, and news had spread of his efforts, Ghobrial found consistently that his contemporaries and descendants all focused not on his global life but on his pro-Catholic leanings. It was his “local significance…as an early convert to Catholicism” that occupied the interests of his community (Ghobrial, 88-89).

 Examples like Elias show that it is worth slowing down, and that too great a focus on narratives of connection threatens to conceal moments of disconnect which can be just as revealing. A departure from the narrative model and case studies would be a welcome breath of fresh air as global history continues to grapple with formulating rigorous theoretical frameworks. Finally, it is worth considering whether travel had to take place literally for an early modern thinker’s world to be transformed. Books also traveled in this age, often from very strange lands and in large quantities, and could not the experience of reading them be enough to change a thinker’s context? Polymaths like Athanasius Kircher, who never left Rome, or Isaac Casaubon certainly possessed global worldviews, but intellectual history has yet to really question what that means. It is time for historians to adopt a global imagination on the scale of their subjects.

Maryam Patton is a second-year MPhil student at the University of Oxford studying the intellectual history of the Mediterranean in the early modern period. She is particularly interested in the cross-cultural exchange of ideas and people, and her dissertation focuses on 17th century British Orientalists. 


Think Piece

Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading in the Archive (II)

by Emily Rutherford

A caricature of Oscar Browning from Vanity Fair, 1888 (Wikimedia Commons)
A caricature of Oscar Browning from Vanity Fair, 1888 (Wikimedia Commons)

Last week, I wrote about how easy it is to become paranoid in the Victorian archive—that is, how reading against the grain in search of sexuality can overwhelm other routes to understanding and, perhaps, more interesting and important questions. This week, I turn to the different questions we might ask, and what we might find when we ask them.

Take, for instance, the thousands of letters in Oscar Browning’s archive from boys and young men. Browning took an interest in all sorts and conditions of boys: from Eton pupils and King’s College choristers, to the sons of college servants whom he recommended as valets to his friends, to the succession of boys in their late teens who spent summers as his secretary, sorting through the mail at his seaside house in Sussex. Browning seems to have gone to great trouble to help boys financially: funding their education; working all his connections to find them employment in wealthy households or the India Office; sending them lavish but tasteful presents such as furniture, china, or writing implements. Browning stayed in touch with many—especially those who became powerful—throughout their lives, whereupon he would ask them to get him admitted to such-and-such a club or try to influence their political decisions.

What did it mean to be Browning’s “protégé,” to quote King’s College’s finding aid? Given only one side of the correspondence, it is hard to see anything lascivious in it. It can be very difficult, sometimes, to know what to do with the affections of Victorian men for children, which we could never tolerate today—but we can say, at least, that Browning’s protégés do not send him love-letters. One Charles Copeman sent Browning 240 letters, most focusing on the period 1884-89. Browning had met Copeman when the latter was a chorister at King’s, but his father had been unable to afford to send him to school, so Browning undertook to pay for his education at Norwich Grammar School and Selwyn College, Cambridge. At school, Copeman sent Browning a letter at least once a week, describing his life in dense detail.

Copeman’s relationship with Browning is largely transactional, if not unaffectionate—and yet that doesn’t absolve it of suspicion. Browning, like many similar educators, would have used the classical Greek model of a relationship between an older and a younger man with some pedagogical content to describe any attraction he felt toward students and other young men. A naïve schoolboy, whose access to any classical texts likely to let him in on this secret was carefully guarded, would have been unlikely to catch on. Indeed, if the pederastic model is any clue, that may have been part of the point: well-behaved ancient Greek boys were supposed to play the innocent. A suspicious reader might find herself drawn to the many letters that begin, “My dear Mr Browning, Many thanks for the [book, writing-table, holiday, cheque]…,” imagining Browning going to the British Museum in search of Attic red-figure kylixes that depicted a bearded man wooing a youth with a gift of a hare or a cock.

But instead of focusing on what we can’t know, why not think about what we can? For this is where Copeman’s letters get interesting. This teenager—probably fifteen or sixteen when he starts at Norwich—is not so articulate or self-aware as to ask Browning the reason the man who used to watch him sing in chapel is paying his tuition, but he gives us something at least as exciting: thick detail about the daily life of a regional grammar school towards the end of the nineteenth century. This kind of writing by and large just doesn’t exist: boys’ ephemera was not usually saved by schools, and most of what we have are romanticized recollections that appear in memoirs and novels as older men look back upon their salad days. But Copeman’s letters pile on the minutiae of what late-Victorian schoolboys did and cared about. They show us a school that—perhaps influenced by the Tom Brown’s Schooldays craze that swept the nation after the novel’s publication in 1857—is trying very hard indeed to be like a public school, and one that seems to have met with success in regularly sending students to Cambridge. Amid more detail than I, certainly, ever wanted or needed to know about inter-house rugby matches and Copeman’s lack of talent at rowing, the boy tells us with startling specificity what he is reading and about what he is thinking:

As for work, besides the work stated on Sunday we do a chapter or two (today the VIIth) of the Acts in Greek & say it from 9-10 tomorrow & from 10-12 we do Latin verses. Tuesday we do about 60 lines of Horace (Book 1 of the Satires) tho IX is the next. Wednesday. Homers iliad Book XVI by I. Pratt & Walter Leaf (Fellow of Trinity) about 60 lines. Thursday Horace Friday Horace Saturday Latin Prose & Grammar Paper & Iambics which I am just beginning the afternoons either Greek Prose or Roman History from 2-3 & Euclid 1st Book Arithmetic & Algebra (Fractions) from 3 to 4. That is about all I think. I have joined (tho’ I am hardly fit for it) the Classical Society as I was asked by one of the masters, it really consists of only VIth Form chaps & masters. We are going to read the IIIrd (I think) Georgic twice a week I believe It is very good for me if I can manage it but I am such a dreadful drafter. I find the work hard but as I go to private tuition every evening I manage to get on all right. I do not do French nor Spensers Faerie Queen. I am very backward in Euclid, I do 3 books at a time. & yesterday I missed saying them for the 1st time. Last night we had a debate, subject Is the higher education of women desirable or no? I spoke a few maiden words after being elected We came to the conclusion after eloquent speeches on both sides that it is not desirable. (n.d. [1884], King’s College Archive Centre OB/1/395/A)

I was really drawn to Copeman’s juxtaposition of the contents of his intensely classical curriculum with his conclusion that “the higher education of women” is “not desirable.” You don’t have to take up questions of “who put what where”—of which the only interesting thing about them is that, never being written about, they are unanswerable—to arrive at sophisticated understandings of public-school masculinity, its inherence in texts and pedagogies as well as the playing field, and how these things might unite men like Browning and Copeman across generations.


This gives us a clue to how we might read the story of Browning’s dismissal from Eton, whose interpretation has previously rested on the presumption that a hidden sex scandal is there to be uncovered. J.J. Hornby, the headmaster, fired Browning because Browning had promised places in his House to more than the prescribed maximum of forty students. This was a small technicality, whose justification for Browning’s dismissal—a drastic action, highly unusual in Eton’s history—was swiftly challenged by Browning’s colleagues and by the parents of Browning’s students, some of them very powerful people, who mounted a public campaign in his defense. However, it stood in for a larger question of school governance: Eton was undergoing a period of reform that entailed centralizing its administration and standardizing rules about how it should be governed. Browning, who often did as he liked—including fostering an artistic atmosphere in his House that Hornby may have seen as an explicit countercultural objection to a more athletic ethos—posed a challenge to the headmaster’s authority.

A small packet of materials relating to Browning’s dismissal appear, suddenly and surprisingly, in the very last folder in his archive. If you read all the papers in order, this is an unexpected denouement to thousands of letters that obscure the events of 1875. From Browning’s correspondence with Hornby and with allies among his colleagues and his students’ parents, it seems as if Hornby made some statement to Eton’s Governing Body in which, seeking to justify his dismissal of Browning, he made a vague allusion to Browning’s want of moral character. The letters that follow give as good a demonstration as anything of how paranoia works: for in nineteenth-century boys’ boarding schools, there is only one want of moral character that is so vile as “not to be named among Christians.” Browning’s friends go into damage control mode, urging him to downplay all accusations and not to make a scene. They urge him not to sue Hornby for libel on the basis of that statement—eerily presaging Wilde’s hubristic decision, twenty years later, to sue the Marquess of Queensberry for mentioning Wilde in connection with sodomy. But Hornby’s comment was not nearly so specific: “I have made no charge of immorality against you in the sense of special vices generally denoted by that name,” he wrote to Browning on November 26, 1875, clarifying that he had instead been upset by a tendency Browning had to twist the truth when trying to represent himself in the most positive light in school disputes (KCAC OB/3/6).

Indeed, as he marshaled his defense, Browning constantly misrepresented the truth, changing his story about what he had actually told Hornby about how many boarders lived in his House, whether he broke any rules, and the substance of his objections to Hornby’s accusations. Throughout his life, Browning was a difficult man to work with, especially in disagreements about institutional policy and governance. Letters from colleagues at King’s display tense frustration with Browning’s tendency to assume that any action taken was designed specifically to offend him. Once, at King’s, finding that History students were underrepresented among those receiving college scholarships, Browning issued a formal printed circular alleging that this was a deliberate slight: it “transcends all decency and is tainted with injustice,” he wrote (OB/3/2).

To be sure, Hornby probably knew exactly the suspicions he was mobilizing when he referenced Browning’s character. There was also a prior context: just three years previous, Hornby had demanded the resignation of another master, William Johnson, Browning’s own teacher; the DNB records that “There is no question… that he [Johnson] was dangerously fond of a number of boys.” For all his self-righteousness, Browning wasn’t wrong when he wrote to Hornby, “You are inflicting upon me by your own irresponsible power the greatest injury short of death that one human being can inflict upon another” (OB/3/6). Still, when Browning put a team of lawyers on the case, they found that Eton’s statutes allowed a headmaster to dismiss an assistant master for any cause or none—and there were all sorts of reasons, none of them especially scandalous, why a headmaster might want to rid himself of a difficult, fractious, petty colleague.


To my surprise, this was where my thoughts had arrived at the end of my time with Oscar Browning’s papers. Despite some insights about the world of late-Victorian homoeroticism that emerged here and there—Symonds’ collection of data, Robbie Ross’s insights into Wilde’s trials and tribulations—Browning’s archive simply didn’t allow me to make homosexuality the story of his life. In her book Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England, Sharon Marcus has written that if we overcome our desire to read suspiciously, we can see the female, feminine friendships that were everywhere in Victorian England, instead of the lesbians who weren’t. “[M]ainstream femininity was not secretly lesbian, but openly homoerotic,” she argues (3). If we wanted to assess the masculinity of Browning’s archive (indeed, the relative absence of female voices among his correspondents is notable), we would have to draw similar conclusions.

If you step back to look at what is in an archive like Browning’s, you might see Eton and Cambridge exam papers, giving a rich record of the extent of boys’ and young men’s academic knowledge, or Charles Copeman’s hundreds of letters about rugby and rowing and fretting about his chances of getting into Cambridge. You might see conversations with colleagues about curriculum and institutional politics, requests to write articles for magazines, the fits and starts of establishing a teacher-training college for Cambridge men, and of making the university more accessible to non-public-school men. Browning doesn’t come off as a nice or good man, necessarily, but nor does he come off as a bitter, hysterical homophobic stereotype. We can’t excise homoeroticism from the picture of fin-de-siècle elite education, nor should we—and we should always be scrupulously responsible in how we deal with the problem of men who honestly believed that their desire for their young male students was entirely blameless. But through archives like Browning’s we can find a more appropriate place for homoeroticism within the world of elite single-sex education, one which can hardly be understood through the paradigms twentieth-century critical theory invented to account for sexual deviance. It may well have been that, for Browning, homoeroticism was such a normal and intrinsic part of his and his correspondents’ world as not to be worth remarking on.

Think Piece

Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading in the Archive (I)

by Emily Rutherford

It seems no wonder, then, that paranoia, once the topic is broached in a nondiagnostic context, seems to grow like a crystal in a hypersaturated solution, blotting out any sense of the possibility of alternative ways of understanding or things to understand. (Eve Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” in Touching Feeling, 131)

When I travelled to Cambridge at the start of this summer, there were three things I knew about Oscar Browning’s personal papers: 1. like the personal papers of many former fellows, they were in the archives of King’s College; 2. there were a lot of them, mostly correspondence; 3. midway through his professional career, Browning had been dismissed from his teaching job at Eton College under suspicious circumstances.

A caricature of Oscar Browning from Vanity Fair, 1888 (Wikimedia Commons)
A caricature of Oscar Browning from Vanity Fair, 1888 (Wikimedia Commons)

Browning, as his ODNB heading informs us, lived from 1837 to 1923 and was a “teacher and historian.” He spent his life caught in the Eton-King’s revolving door (until 1861, only Old Etonians could become members of King’s): educated at both institutions, he washed up at King’s after he lost his job at Eton. He wrote popular accounts of political and military history, helped to found the modern history course at Cambridge, and particularly devoted himself to the cause of teacher-training. His career could not be said to be successful—he was more of a comic stock character—but I was drawn to him for what he might tell me about the world of elite education in the late nineteenth century: his archive includes letters from hundreds of correspondents, many of whom taught in schools and universities, some of whom were prominent in public life, and some of whom were schoolboys, trainee teachers, and other more anonymous figures on whom I would be unlikely to land in a less focused trawl through the archives of an educational institution.

But when you have three weeks to get through tens of thousands of documents, you make certain choices that influence your reading practices, and there I was led astray. The finding aid lists series of letters in alphabetical order by correspondent, with other miscellaneous papers coming at the end. I went through in order, making a note of familiar names: headmasters, future politicians who had been Browning’s students at Eton, Cambridge dons—and prominent figures in the history of homosexuality, such as George Ives, G.L. Dickinson, Robbie Ross, J.A. Symonds, and Oscar Wilde. Thanks to the gossipy tone of Ian Anstruther’s biography of Browning, as well as other sources that assume Browning’s homosexuality, I was primed for scandals and secrets. In my head, I placed ironic scare quotes around the finding aid’s identification of certain young male correspondents as “protégé” or “secretary.” I started calling up letters that had nothing to do with education reform and everything to do with homosexuality, hoping that they might show that Browning had let slip a confidence confirming his sexuality or shedding light on his dismissal from Eton.

Spoiler alert: dear reader, this is exactly not how you should read the archive of someone who lived in the nineteenth century. In her essay on “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” Eve Sedgwick criticizes a “hermeneutics of suspicion”: a Freudian diagnostic mechanism as applied to texts, an analytic frame that fixates above all else on sexual difference. Following Freud and then Foucault, historians of nineteenth-century sexuality have often worked in this vein, seeking to uncover the homosexuality or other forms of deviance lurking under the covers of Victorian propriety. Particularly in the literature on education, they have been joined in their suspicions by school chronicles and biographies written by old boys, the sorts of books that are able to rely on uncited but intimate background knowledge and that allude to gossip with winks and nudges. It’s no surprise, then, that I fell unwittingly into a suspicious approach when I entered the world of Oscar Browning’s archive. But while some pioneers (such as Symonds or Wilde) eventually made sense of their desire for men by making it part of a countercultural identity, so many other men’s intense same-sex friendships, or their unfulfilled longing for the beauty of youth they saw all round them in their teaching jobs, was part and parcel of an elite culture that enjoyed powerful official sanction as the forge of imperial masculinity. Which category applied to Browning, if either? The answer wasn’t as conclusive or as interesting as I had expected, and I ultimately came to understand that I was misreading everything.


The first clue that I was doing it wrong appeared five days in, when it started to dawn on me that none of the men whom I expected would talk to Browning about homosexuality were doing so. Browning was around the same age and moved in the same social circle as John Addington Symonds, who had been writing and talking with his friends about what it meant to be a man who desired men since the mid-1860s, before the word “homosexual” existed. But Browning’s archive doesn’t suggest him to have had the same self-consciousness or sense of membership in a group of men united around a label such as “Uranian” that generated dialogue in other correspondence I’ve encountered. Even if this kind of commonality might have helped to initiate his friendship with men such as G.L. Dickinson, George Ives, or Robbie Ross, it didn’t sustain it. With his old Eton tutor William Johnson, about whose erotic interest in students the record is not so ambiguous, Browning discusses pedagogy and the academic abilities of pupils. With Dickinson, a colleague at King’s, Browning discusses reforms to the Modern History Tripos and college politics. Ives was one of the most visible activists for queer men’s rights in England in the first half of the twentieth century, but his letters discuss cricket and give Browning fashion advice, which only the most suspicious reader could regard as some kind of clue. A certain Hellenic homoeroticism preoccupied many men who were passionately devoted to single-sex educational institutions: even my research subject Arthur Sidgwick, who grew up to record in his diary a passionate relationship with his wife, spoke as a young man in an idiom that praised “beautiful boys”: all his friends were doing it. But Browning’s papers never quite go there. Oscar Wilde’s correspondence with him is about whether he will write an essay on “the women benefactors of Cambridge” for Woman’s World. When Symonds writes to Browning, as he did to many men, asking for data about the place of “sexual inversion” in Britain that he can use in a new research project, he asks Browning whether he thinks studying the Greek and Latin classics in school inclines boys towards homoeroticism, and whether there is any link between school dormitories, masturbation, and homosexual tendencies. He’s asking Browning’s opinion as a professional educator, who was once a housemaster at the country’s most famous public school—not necessarily as a homosexual himself. Folder after folder of letters caused me to reevaluate the picture of Browning as a flamboyant, effeminate queer man offered by the secondary literature, seeing the gossipy insinuation in works such as Anstruther’s biography as homophobic stereotyping rather than honest uncovering.

The mechanism of paranoia explains how, when there is a gap in a particular narrative, our imaginations will rush to fill it with such intensity as to overwhelm the information we actually have to work with—perhaps especially when it comes to repressed homosexuality, which Freud associated with paranoia. Browning’s archive, which contains over 10,000 letters, gives the illusion of completion because it is so vast. But stop to think, and you realize that most runs of letters from a given correspondent—even those Browning knew since childhood—begin in 1875 or ’76. 1875 was the year that Browning was fired from Eton and had to start his life anew, suggesting a bonfire of paper at some stage: perhaps a perfectly innocent one, meant to clear up waste when Browning closed up his Eton house and moved into smaller quarters in King’s College, Cambridge; perhaps one specifically designed to hide secrets that could cloud Browning’s righteous outrage at having been unfairly sacked. Our brains don’t like gaps: simple optical-illusion tricks show that when we are shown half of a familiar type of image such as a human face, our brains will automatically fill in the other half. Our paranoid minds rush, perhaps, to ascribe the interpretation that would offer conclusive proof of repressed homosexuality, instead of the more mundane one. The thing is, there are plenty of examples of both situations among men in Browning’s milieu. It’s Schroedinger’s archive: both are equally possible.

Throughout the entire vast archive, too, we only have one side of the story: aside from copies of a few letters, Browning’s voice itself doesn’t come through. We have teenage boys who thank him for lavish presents; we have Symonds’ requests for data; we have Robbie Ross’s appeals to a fund in support of Wilde and his family during Wilde’s imprisonment. But we don’t know what Browning might have said, if anything, to suggest that he was receptive to such letters. Perhaps, if such conversations ever existed, Browning would have been too nervous to put them in writing. My status as a professional researcher allows me access to archives; my knowledge of foreign languages dead and living allows me to read documents whose creators originally tried to hide them from the eyes of anyone not an elite man. But I’ll never know what, if anything, was said behind closed doors, perhaps with the aid of Browning’s prodigious personal wine cellar, when like-minded men could be fully frank with one another.

Still, as Brooke Palmieri has wisely reminded us, all archives are constructs that are necessarily subjective and incomplete: how, then, can we work with what we have? Next week, in part two of this essay, I will suggest that we might start by asking different questions.

Think Piece

Personal Reasons: On Mai-mai Sze’s Motivations for Reading and Annotating

By guest contributor Erin McGuirl

In studying annotations, we think of ourselves as entering into an otherwise impenetrable space: the mind of another reader. As I’ve looked closer and closer at Mai-mai Sze’s books and the marks she made in them, I’ve been especially curious about one thing. What motivated her to read so intensely? After all, she published only one work of scholarship in 1956 at the age of 47. After that she was neither writing nor teaching, but she was littering the margins of her books on eastern and western philosophy, religion, art, and history with notes in both English and Chinese. Why? As I’ve spent more time with both her as both reader and writer, I think I’m getting closer to an answer.

Annotations from Mai-mai Sze’s copy of Science and Civilisation in China, volume 2.
Annotations from Mai-mai Sze’s copy of Science and Civilisation in China, volume 2.

One of the books that Mai-mai read with the greatest care was Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilisation in China. Of the fifteen volumes she owned, the second on the history of scientific thought in China is by far the most carefully studied. In this book Needham comprehensively explores the relationship between Chinese philosophy and its role in shaping scientific thought and study in China. He boldly argued that Taoists, “whose speculations about, and insight into, Nature, fully equalled pre-Aristotelian Greek thought, and lie at the basis of all Chinese science.” ((1) For more on this argument, see Nathan Sivin’s fascinating study of the relationship between Taoists and science.) This controversial point was of great interest to Mai-mai, and guided her reading of every book in the series. While this entire volume is heavily annotated, her interests in Taosim in particular come to light through her extensive marginal notes in section 10, “The ‘Tao Chia’ and Taoism.”

Mai-mai’s interests in Taoist philosophy can be traced back to her translation of The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, which the Bollingen Foundation published in 1956 as a two-volume set with her only published piece of scholarship, The Tao of Painting: A Study of the Ritual Disposition of Chinese Painting. “The main intent of this inquiry,” as Mai-mai wrote in her introduction, “has been to seek a fresh approach to Chinese painting by exploring the main features of the tao or Chinese ‘way’ of painting and tracing and relating these aspects to the ideas a the source of Chinese life and thought.” (Volume 1, ix) The intention of volume two of The History of Science and Civilisation in China, published in the same year, was much the same, and I think that this that drove her to read the book with the remarkable intensity conveyed in her copious annotations.

Annotations from Mai-mai Sze’s copy of Science and Civilisation in China, volume 2.
Annotations from Mai-mai Sze’s copy of Science and Civilisation in China, volume 2.

Much like early modern readers like Gabriel Harvey or Adam Winthrop, Mai-mai read Needham alongside several other books, and cross-referenced these in her penciled notes. She occasionally references secondary sources, such as Percy J. Bruce’s study of the Neo-Confucianist Chu Hsi, but her most common references are to the philosophical texts that Needham used to support his arguments about the relationship between philosophy and science. Throughout the book, Mai-mai copied the original texts in Chinese into the margins, often with English translations by Arthur Waley others, contrasting Needham’s translations of Laozi, Zhuangzi, and other philosophers. Her copies of these texts – many published a decade or more after Science and Civilisation in China, suggesting that her interests in Needham’s work evolved over time – also contain references back to Needham.

Mai-mai’s interests in Taoism and her emphasis on the translation and interpretation of primary sources as a reader and annotator suggest two things. First, it establishes her as the Bollingen specialist on Chinese esotericism, alongside Cary F. Baynes, the translator of Richard Wilhelm’s German translations of the I Ching. As William McGuire makes clear in his memoir, Bollingen was as much a cohort of scholars and thinkers as it was a publishing enterprise. His memoir and correspondence with her (now part of his archive at the Library of Congress) show that her relationship with him and with some other Bollingen thinkers – particularly Maud Oakes and Natacha Rambova, both women artist-scholars without advanced academic training, like Mai-mai– continued almost to her death, long after the publication (and republication) of The Tao of Painting and the dissolution of the Bollingen Foundation by Paul Mellon in 1963. Although the specifics of her participation in and the overall cohesion of the group remain mysterious to me, her reading and her correspondence help to better situate Mai-mai within a very well defined group of writers and scholars with interests in esoteric humanism broadly conceived.

Second, Mai-mai’s annotations in English and Chinese show that language and translation were a lifelong obsession, continuing long after her only published translation of a Chinese text. Although she was born in China, she was raised primarily in England and America and spoke only rudimentary Chinese. Wellesley did not offer instruction in the Chinese while she attended the college in the late 1920s; she was entirely self-taught in classical form of the language. In The Tao of Painting, Mai-mai wrote much on the paleographical history and etymology of Chinese characters, expressing the relationships between the written language and the ways in which characters themselves help to illuminate certain philosophical concepts. While the book was positively reviewed in several publications, two critics – Nelson I. Wu and James F. Cahill – condemned the Tao of Painting, specifically because of errors in the translation and disagreements with her viewpoint in her study of the relationship between Chinese philosophy and painting. Cahill was particularly harsh, devoting three full pages to mistranslations and factual errors. These criticisms must have deeply wounded Mai-mai, a devoted reader of reviews. Considered alongside her annotations, which show the intensity and duration of her study of Chinese philosophy, language and translation, Nelson and Cahill’s criticisms may help to explain why the Tao of Painting was her first and last scholarly publication.

Mai-mai Sze’s notes on the concept of yin and yang, in Chinese and English.
Mai-mai Sze’s notes on the concept of yin and yang, in Chinese and English.

In the memoir of her child- and young adulthood, Echo of a Cry (1945), Mai-mai describes learning the French word deraciné: one who is uprooted from her native society. Throughout her life, Mai-mai struggled to bridge the gap between the disparate cultures she was raised in, without ever feeling that she was truly part of any one of them. This internal struggle took on an intense form and meaning in her reading and, at least up to 1956, her writing. Mai-mai’s reading was part of her search for identity in a world in which she felt she belonged to neither the culture of her birth in the east nor the society of her upbringing and adult life in the west. With Mai-mai Sze, reading, annotating, and translating was an intensely personal act that that helped her to situate herself in the world; it was a lifelong pursuit.

Erin Schreiner is the Special Collections Librarian at the New York Society Library. You can see Mai-mai Sze’s annotated books there at Readers Make Their Mark: Annotated Books (through to August 15, 2015).

Think Piece

Personal Philology

by guest contributor Richard Calis

For those who care to look closely enough, the world of early modern philology has many treats in store. Contrary to its reputation as nit-picking, dull scholarship, philology is in fact a discipline full of love, strife, passion and emotion. One such passionate and dedicated, yet now sadly unknown practitioner was Pieter Fontein (1708-1788). A student of the renowned Dutch philologist Tiberius Hemsterhuis in Leiden, Fontein became a teacher at the Mennonite Church in Amsterdam in 1739 and would remain so until his death some fifty years later. Over his career, Fontein amassed an impressive collection of Latin and Greek classics, all of which he bequeathed to his church, except for a small group of related books on the Greek philosopher Theophrastus. It is this collection of forty-three Theophrastiana (currently in the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam) that brings back to life the philological achievements of a scholar who never made it into the annals of classical philology.

Casaubon's annotated copy of Theophrastus. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM: Hs VII D17.
Casaubon’s annotated copy of Theophrastus. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM: Hs VII D17.

It is still unclear when exactly Fontein amassed his books, but our story begins in 1754, when he was spending his days reading a rather special book from the collection of the then-famous botanist and Professor of Anatomy Willem Röell (1700-1775). The book that Fontein found so absorbing was a 1542 edition of Theophrastus’ Opera Omnia, printed at the famous Froben press in Basel. Moreover, the book was nothing less than a working copy of that great Theophrastus scholar Isaac Casaubon (1559-1614), who, over a century earlier, had adorned its pages with numerous notes and annotations.

In 1591, Casaubon had published his own edition of Theophrastus’ Characteres, a lively set of character sketches known for its problematic text and manuscript transmission yet also the philosopher’s most popular work. Ever since, Casaubon was known to the world of scholarship as the single most important authority on Theophrastus, a reputation that was not lost on Fontein. In fact, the primary reason that Fontein took an interest in Röell’s book was because of Casaubon’s marginal notes. This, at least, is suggested by the way in which Fontein treated them: when he went to examine the book, Fontein bought and brought with him his own clean copy of the same 1541 edition —no mean feat more than two centuries after its publication— and herein copied nearly every single annotation that Casaubon had left in his book. For pages on end, Fontein faithfully transcribed Casaubon’s notes in his own beautifully regular eighteenth-century hand.

Casaubon's notes. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM: Hs VII D17.
Casaubon’s marginal notes. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM: Hs VII D17.
Fontein's transcription of Casaubon's notes. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM: Hs VII D19.
Fontein’s transcription of Casaubon’s annotations. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM: Hs VII D19.

We may pause for a moment to appreciate the great intimacy of this —to my knowledge— unique practice of relocating marginalia from an annotated copy to a pristine one. To Fontein, these were not only notes explicating a text, but also the material evidence of the reading and annotating practice of one of his greatest predecessors. We know of scholars who organized their information in commonplace books but buying a two hundred year old edition to copy notes in was not everyday practice; not even for Fontein, whose book collection does not seem to include any other such inscribed copies. It will come as little surprise then that Fontein would even go on to buy Röell’s book in 1767, when the latter found himself in rough financial waters. After all, a transcription of Casaubon’s annotations was surely no replacement for the original.

By then, Fontein had steadily collected more and more Theophrastus editions dating from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Some of them were densely annotated. This collecting spree was undoubtedly aimed at gathering every bit of information on Theophrastus that was available. As another copy from his library attests, Fontein was concurrently working on his own edition of the Characteres, Originally, he drafted his material in a small, handy octavo reprint of Casaubon’s edition, published in Cambridge in 1712. Yet today it can hardly be recognized as such: the edition is now completely interleaved with huge folio-sized pages, all of them awash with Fontein’s corrections, notes and interpretations. From these ‘additions’, one can observe how he continuously reworked the text. Fontein crossed out sentences, rewrote entire paragraphs, emended or explicated words, and crammed new notes in the margins of the margins. There are at least four drafted introductions to the work and its author, some prolegomena and countless comments and notes on the Greek; horror vacui takes on a whole new meaning.

Fontein's working notes on Theophrastus. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM Hs. XVI A5.
Fontein’s working notes on Theophrastus. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM Hs. XVI A5.

Sadly, the project came to nothing, as Fontein died before its completion. But even in his final days, the philologist’s passion for the project burned steadily. In his will —made in 1769, specified in 1775, and now in the Amsterdam City Archives— Fontein gifted all his books to the Mennonite Church with the sole exception of the Theophrastiana, which he wanted to keep to himself. We can almost see how the elderly Fontein with only a handful of necessary books unceasingly fine-tuned his views on a notoriously elusive text, while continuously adding new material to his already massive commentary. Again and again he kept revising, never gave up, and continually worked on a more accurate edition, with Theophrastus on his mind and his cherished Casaubon on his desk. What a character he was.

Richard Calis is a first-year Ph.D. student in history at Princeton University. He has worked for Annotated Books Online (ABO)—which provides online access to three of Fontein’s books— and is predominantly interested in book history, marginalia, news, and the various cultures of the Medieval and Early Modern Mediterranean.