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Posts Tagged ‘literary history

“Who ever converses among old books will be hard to please among the new”*…

 

old book

There are four original manuscripts containing poetry in Old English—the now-defunct language of the medieval Anglo-Saxons—that have survived to the present day. No more, no less. They are: the Vercelli Book, which contains six poems, including the hallucinatory “Dream of the Rood”; the Junius Manuscript, which comprises four long religious poems; the Exeter Book, crammed with riddles and elegies; and the Beowulf Manuscript, whose name says it all. There is no way of knowing how many more poetic codices (the special term for these books) might have existed once upon a time, but have since been destroyed…

All four are on display at “Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War,” a new show of artifacts at the British Library in London.  An appreciation of “the ineffable magic of four little manuscripts of Old English poetry” at “What Do Our Oldest Books Say About Us?

* William Temple

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As we turn the pages with care, we might spare a thought for Quintus Horatius Flaccus– Horace– the Roman soldier and poet, born on this date in 65 BCE…  Horace’s Satires, Epodes, Odes, and Epistles, have earned him a reputation akin to Virgil’s…  He was in some ways the antithesis of earlier honoree (and champion of the Republic) Cicero; an apologist for empire, Horace was Augustus’ Poet Laureate.  He may have coined, but was in any case the first to use “carpe diem” in a recorded setting.   And he offered this good advice: “Add a sprinkling of folly to your long deliberations.”

200px-Quintus_Horatius_Flaccus

Horace, as imagined by Anton von Werner

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Written by LW

November 27, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit”*…

 

bon-mots

Both published in 1897, Bon-Mots of the Eighteenth Century and Bon-Mots of the Nineteenth Century, pretty much deliver what they promise — that is, a compilation of some of the best conversational witticisms of the two centuries. Examples from many famous and expected names adorn its pages — including Joseph Addison, Samuel Johnson, Oscar Wilde, and Lord Byron — but we are also introduced to more obscure though no less prolific sources, such as the actor Charles Bannister and the Irish politician John Philpot Curran. Although many of the bon-mots might not stand the test of time — so often firmly rooted in the language or the culture of the time as they are — some don’t fair too badly today. Also don’t miss the two introductions which each include entertaining examples of how various writers have defined “wit” (in Bon-Mots of the Eighteenth Century) and “humour” (in Bon-Mots of the Nineteenth Century). Look out also for the fun little “grotesques” that litter the pages of both volumes, by English artist Alice B. Woodward.

Voltaire

Bon-Mots of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century (1897)“; page through them at The Internet Archive.

* Oscar Wilde (featured in the second volume treated above)

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As we celebrate celerity, we might spare a thought for Judy Canova; she died on this date in 1983.  A veteran of a sister act in vaudeville (“the Three Georgia Crackers”), she got her break as a teenager when bandleader Rudy Vallée offered her a guest spot on his radio show in 1931.  Her career spanned five decades, during which she performed as a comedian, actress, singer, and radio personality, appearing on Broadway and in films.  She hosted her own self-titled network radio program, a popular series broadcast from 1943 to 1955, first on CBS, then NBC.

Judy Canova source (and repository of audio examples of her work)

 

Written by LW

August 5, 2018 at 1:01 am

“In the beginning was the Word. Then came the f**king word processor”*…

 

The story of writing in the digital age is every bit as messy as the ink-stained rags that littered the floor of Gutenberg’s print shop or the hot molten lead of the Linotype machine. During the period of the pivotal growth and widespread adoption of word processing as a writing technology, some authors embraced it as a marvel while others decried it as the death of literature. The product of years of archival research and numerous interviews conducted by the author, Track Changes is the first literary history of word processing…

More at HUP’s page, and

* Dan Simmons

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As we stretch for the backspace key, we might recall that it was on this date in 1893, in the text of Alfred Jarry’s play Guignol in L’Écho de Paris littéraire illustré, that the term– and the concept of– ‘pataphysics first appeared.  Jarry defined ‘pataphysics (derived from a contracted Greek formation that means “that which is above metaphysics”) as “the science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments.”  Jarry insisted on the inclusion of the apostrophe in the orthography, ‘pataphysique and ‘pataphysics, “to avoid a simple pun”… indeed Jarry’s aim was to compound the puns:  The term pataphysics is a paronym (considered a kind of pun in French) of metaphysics. Since the apostrophe in no way affects the meaning or pronunciation of pataphysics, this spelling of the term is a signal–a sly notation– to the reader, suggesting a variety of puns, among them patte à physique (“physics paw”), pas ta physique (“not your physics”), and pâte à physique (“physics pastry dough”).

Jarry’s concept was resurrected after World War II  with the foundation (in 1948) of The Collège de ‘Pataphysique, a “society committed to learned and inutilious research” (“inutilious” = “useless”).  Its members have included  Raymond Queneau, Eugène Ionesco, Joan Miró, Man Ray, Max Ernst, Julien Torma, Roger Shattuck, Groucho, Chico and Harpo Marx, and Marcel Duchamp.

Alfred Jarry

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Written by LW

April 28, 2016 at 1:01 am

“I have never met a vampire personally, but I don’t know what might happen tomorrow”*…

 

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Readers will know of the evening in 1816, on the shores of Lake Geneva, when a challenge from her husband-to-be and his friend Lord Byron led Mary Shelley (then, Mary Godwin) to create Frankenstein.  What’s less well known is that this same challenge led another guest to create that other great figure of 19th-century gothic fiction – the vampire.

The first fully realized vampire story in English, John William Polidori’s “The Vampyre”… establishes the vampire as we know it via a reimagining of the feral mud-caked creatures of southeastern European legend as the elegant and magnetic denizens of cosmopolitan assemblies and polite drawing rooms.

“The Vampyre” is a product of 1816, the “year without summer,” in which Lord Byron left England in the wake of a disintegrating marriage and rumours of incest, sodomy and madness, to travel to the banks of Lake Geneva and there loiter with Percy and Mary Shelley (then still Mary Godwin). Polidori served as Byron’s traveling physician, and played an active role in the summer’s tensions and rivalries, as well as participating in the famous night of ghost stories that produced Mary Shelley’s “hideous progeny,” Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.

Like Frankenstein, “The Vampyre” draws extensively on the mood at Byron’s Villa Diodati. But whereas Mary Shelley incorporated the orchestral thunderstorms that illuminated the lake and the sublime mountain scenery that served as a backdrop to Victor Frankenstein’s struggles, Polidori’s text is woven from the invisible dynamics of the Byron-Shelley circle, and especially the humiliations he suffered at Byron’s hand…

Find the rest of this twisted tale (if not eternal life) at “The Poet, the Physician and the Birth of the Modern Vampire.”

* Bela Lugosi

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As we make the Sign of the Cross, we might send metrical birthday greetings to Samuel Taylor Coleridge; he was born on this date in 1772.  A poet, literary critic, and philosopher, Coleridge is probably best remembered for two poems, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan, and for his prose work Biographia Literaria.  Coleridge and his dear friend (and partner in founding the Romantic Movement) Wordsworth were contemporaries of Byron– who went out of his way to insult them in Canto III of Don Juan.

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Written by LW

October 21, 2014 at 1:01 am

Speculative biography…

 

At his wonderful site, The Fertile Fact— a literary website that treats famous authors and artists like fictional characters– Rhys Griffiths invites biographers/experts/super-fans to draw on their knowledge and compile a list of five things or aspects of modern life that they think their biographee, were they writing today, might have liked, loathed or otherwise been opinionated. The more far-fetched, the better.

Check out Joan Schenkar on Patricia Highsmith, Robert Zaretsky on Albert Camus, Nicholas Murray on Franz Kafka, and 20 more time travelers (so far) at The Fertile Fact.

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As we wonder how we’d have done in Conan Doyle‘s time or Camus‘, we might send stern birthday greetings to John Milton; he was born on this date in 1608.  A poet (Paradise Lost), polemicist (the Areopagitica), not-so-successful playwright (Comus), and Roundhead civil servant (he had a Secretarial appointment in Cromwell’s Commonwealth), Milton would surely have disapproved of much– if not most– in our modern life.

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Written by LW

December 9, 2013 at 1:01 am

“Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it…”*

Today we revisit James– “DawnPaladin” on Deviant Art— and his handy reference for readers, viewers, and listeners: The Periodic Table of Storytelling.

Click here for James’ explanation, again on the image there for a larger version; and click here for the source material at our old friends TV Tropes… which has been materially updated/expanded since our last visit.

* Hannah Arendt

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As we prepare to tell tantalizing tales, we might send pious but modern birthday greetings to Laurence Sterne; he was born on this date in 1713.  An Anglican clergyman known in his own time for his published sermons and memoirs, Sterne is surely best remembered these days for his novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.  

Tristram Shandy was roughly received in England on its publication.  It parodies accepted narrative form, playing with narrative time and voice, and includes a healthy dose of “bawdy” humor– which led to its being largely dismissed by the likes of Samuel Johnson as being too corrupt.  But it was a hit on the Continent; indeed, Voltaire declared it “clearly superior to Rabelais.”  That said, Sterne’s real influence had a longer fuse.  As Italo Calvino observed, Tristram Shandy is the “undoubted progenitor of all avant-garde novels of our century,” one that, in its challenges to the formal concept of the novel, had powerful influence on Modernist writers like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, and more contemporary writers like Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace.

Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of Sterne (1760)

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Written by LW

November 24, 2013 at 1:01 am

Writing with scissors…

 

Over at the New York Review of Books, Christopher Benfey has a fascinating– and illuminating– review of Ellen Gruber Garvey’s Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance, in which the author makes the case that scrapbooks—which everyone seems to have kept during the nineteenth century—“are the direct ancestors of our digital information management.”

There are examples of politically-focused compendia (Garvey’s primary interest), but also wonderful tastes of more artistic applications:  Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman… and Mark Twain:

Mark Twain was perhaps the king of American scrapbook culture. According to the OED, he was the first writer to use “scrapbook” as a verb, writing in 1881 about the origins of his book A Tramp Abroad, “I scrap-booked these reports during several months.” Prolific in inventing ways to lose money, especially in his attempts to predict how books would be published in the future (not, he found to his chagrin, with type fashioned from clay), Twain successfully marketed his own patented design for a more efficient scrapbook, outfitted with no-muss adhesive pages and an index awaiting entries. Twain’s scrapbook can be seen as the ancestor of the lavish “Keeping Memories Alive” scrapbook industry today, with its glitter and fluff and hobby stores…

Twain’s loose and baggy non-fiction books Roughing It, The Innocents Abroad, and A Tramp Abroad were assembled from his own carefully maintained travel scrapbooks, and retain some of the pleasingly serendipitous and fragmented feel of life on the road.

Still, as Twain’s buddy William Dean Howells noted, “anyone may compose a scrapbook, and offer it to the public with nothing like Mark Twain’s good-fortune. Everything seems to depend upon the nature of the scraps, after all.”

Readers can find the whole story (before they hop over to Pinterest) at “Scrapbook Nation.”

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As we reach for the paste, we might recall that it was on this date in 1750 that the first professional theatrical production of a Shakespeare play– an “altered” version of Richard III— was mounted in New York City at its first formal performance space, The Theater on Nassau Street.  Sitting just east of Broadway, it was a two-story wooden hall with a capacity of about 280.  Actor-managers Walter Murray and Thomas Kean set up shop there, and opened with the Bard.  But their repertory also included the first documented performance of a musical in New York — John Gay’s The Beggars Opera, which they premiered on December 3rd of that same year.

The site of the theater in 2004

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