Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Dead Letter Scholarship

 Where great ideas go to die

Most people are probably familiar with the alliterative advice given to fledgling professors: “Publish or perish.”  It means that the publication of scholarly research is a requirement of keeping a professorial position in an academic institution.  In general scholarly publication is a necessary but insufficient requirement for academic success.  Publishing your essay on “The Incidence of Incest among Lace-Makers in Seventeenth-Century Toulouse”—in a “good journal,” of course—cannot guarantee your advancement to a tenured position, but failing to publish it can seal your doom.

            These circumstances partly account for the generally uninspiring character of large swaths of the academic press—the thin books that might have made a tolerable journal article, the thin journal article that might have sustained a cocktail-party conversation for a minute or two.  Horace thought you ought to keep a finished manuscript in your drawer for nine years while you thought about the wisdom of publishing it.  But of course by then a junior professor would already be entering the third year of a second career as a taxi driver.

            In the calculus of academic evaluation books rank considerably higher than journal articles, but they are also more difficult to write.  Hence the academic vogue of the “edited volume”—and with it my eventual topic, the dead letter essay.  You dream up a topic and a title—Incest and Lace-Making: New Perspectives, perhaps.  Then you invite eight or ten desperate youngsters to contribute essays to your volume.  There were, after all, lace-makers in Genoa, Prague, Ghent, and Allentown PA as well as in Toulouse, plenty to go around.  And if they didn’t practice incest they sometimes had indigestion, which is close enough for volumes of this genre.  Eight or ten young scholars can add an item to the “Articles” subsection of their bibliographies, and you get to add a whole book!

            If you can actually get the book published, that is.  There has been known to be a certain slippage twixt cup and lip.  In my second year of professorial life (1964) I succumbed to the flattering invitation of a senior scholar who had the great plan of publishing a book of essays with new perspectives on every one of Chaucer’s tales.  I knocked myself out writing the greatest essay ever penned on the “Summoner’s Tale.”  It is also the greatest never read, because never published.  It was the first in what was to become a rather thick file of my dead letter essays.
             Full many a flower is born to bloom unseen
            And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

 world's largest dart board?

            Hardly less disconcerting than the editorial death of a laboriously written essay is its resurrection from the dead after considerably more than three days.  Hanging on a wall in the Great Hall of Winchester Castle is a huge wooden disk that looks like the largest dartboard in Britain.  According to a black-letter legend encircling the bull’s eye “This is the rounde table of king Arthur with xxiiii of his namyd knightes.”  What is it—besides being a Tudor fake, that is?  In the early 1970s I was recruited by an eminent but feckless proposer of edited volumes to write the lead essay for a book that would study every conceivable aspect of this bizarre artifact—artisinal, art historical, calligraphical, carbon-dendrological—you name it.  My assignment, should I choose to accept (as in a moment of temporary cerebral intermission I did) was to write a synoptic essay on “The Round Table in Literature and Legend”.  Arthurian literature is not exactly a small topic, and to work up such an essay from scratch was an enormous labor. I was accordingly rather miffed when it turned out to be a dead letter.

            Fast forward twenty-five years.  A strange contraption called the computer is now a common sight in academic offices.  I have sired children, and they have graduated from college.  My temples are gray.  I am an alleged eminence myself.  Out of the blue—Cambridge blue, in this instance—I receive an urgent communication from an editor informing me that after “some delay” my essay is about to be published.  Would I be good enough to make a quick review of the scholarship of the last quarter century to see whether my footnotes might require some tweaking!

            All this comes to mind because of a message from the editorial tomb received only this week.  Marjorie Reeves (1905-2003), an Oxford historian, was the world’s greatest expert on Joachim of Fiore and medieval millennialism generally.  She was a lovely woman and person of extraordinary moral vibrancy.  She played a significant role in my life and that of my wife, who had been an undergraduate at her college, Saint Anne’s, Oxford.  She is the only scholar with whom I have jointly published a book.

Marjorie Reeves (1905-2003)
          When her centenary hove into view as the twentieth century departed, I was happy to fall in with a plan proposed by a scholar in Germany to contribute to an “edited volume” in Ms. Reeves’s honor.  The editor was a woman unknown to me—perhaps not a promising  augury in retrospect.  But I wrote the essay and sent it off—straight to the dead letter office, or in this instance the Abteilung für unzustellbare Briefe.  Marjorie Reeves eventually died, and while I shall never forget her I had long since put her stillborn festschrift out of mind by the time I retired in 2006.  Guess what?