Controlled Revelation #6: Words Matter

“The Ancient Mariner would not have taken so well if it had been called The Old Sailor.”
Samuel Butler

I confess that I love words.  Every word choice is fraught with possibilities. Whenever I teach a literature class—or, for that matter, whenever I teach any English class—I encourage my students to pay attention to a writer’s word choice.  I encourage my students to ask themselves, “Why did the writer choose that word instead of another one?  What are the consequences of that particular word choice?  What impact does that word choice have on the meaning?  What words does the writer use frequently?   Why?”

I think that you get my point:  words matter.  Pay close attention to them.

Samuel Butler makes the point ever so poignantly in the headnote to today’s post.  Can you imagine Samuel Taylor Coleridge giving his “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” the title “The Old Sailor”?  Of course, not!  It would be preposterous!  It would be a different poem entirely. (So, we have Ancient instead of Old, and we have Mariner instead of Sailor.  And, while we’re pondering over the poem’s title, we also have Rime instead of Rhyme.  Selecting Rime goes far, far beyond mere metrics.)

But I digress.  What led me to ruminate so was my close reading of The Humourist’s essay of January 15, 1754.  As  I read and read and re-read that essay—just as I read and read and re-read—each of his essays, I had an epiphany of sorts.  I realized that I was mulling over—savoring, if you will—each and every word.

Some of those words captured my fancy more than others.  The single, solitary word from that essay that gained possession of me with greatest satisfaction was the word Records.   In context, the word appears “Records of Drama.”

Records.  “Anything preserving information and constituting a piece of evidence about past events; esp. an account kept in writing or some other permanent form; (also) a document, monument, etc., on which such an account is inscribed” (Oxford English Dictionary, the 4th definition of the noun).

I’m not sure why, but the phrase Records of Drama struck me as unusual, and it still does.  I started asking myself the same questions that I advise my students to ask:   “Why did the writer choose that word instead of another one?  What are the consequences of that particular word choice?  What impact does that word choice have on the meaning?  What words does the writer use frequently?   Why?”

It was in the answering of those questions that my minor epiphany came:  The Humourist uses the word Records (as a noun) with some frequency.  I could recall—though I knew not where—that he had used it in several of his essays.

So, I set about the task of re-reading—well, actually, skimming and scanning—all of the essays to see if my recollection served me well.

Indeed it did.

In his December 10, 1753, essay The Humourist comments:  “Search the records of old time.”  (Note, too, that he follows that with “and look into the annals of the present.”  RecordsAnnals.  How similar,  I need to ferret out Annals as well.)

Then in his January 1, 1754, essay we find, “These Gifts create a most happy Emulation amongst the juvenile part of Mankind, and are so many Records of Friendship for the Fathers and the Grandfathers to transmit to Posterity.”

And, as we have seen already, he uses the phrase “Records of drama”  in the essay that we are exploring today.

While I am reluctant to ascribe too great a significance to one mere word, it strikes me that The Humourist’s use of the noun Records strengthens the appellation that I gave him in my Controlled Revelation # 1.  The Humourist is a Historian.

My goodness!  One word has led me—and you—all over the place.  Note, however, that it is exactly this kind of close reading that fosters and enables greater understanding and greater appreciation of any passage.

What else did I discover as I gave The Humourist’s January 15, 1754, essay a close reading?  Aside from confirming my notion that The Humourist is a historian, it confirms as well that The Humourist is well versed in drama.   Indeed this essay stands as perhaps the earliest essay in American Literature to exalt positive impact that tragedy has on mankind.

Thus we have still another confirmation of an earlier claim:  The Humourist is a lover of literature with a preference for drama.

Finally, this essay confirms The Humourist’s interest in and knowledge of painting:  “nothing discovering that close Connexion between Poets and Painters more graphically, than the different Peinture they excel in, the one in the outward Lineaments of the Face and Body, the other in the inward Temperament of the Mind.”

Now, I going to take up the task of perusing The Humourist’s essays for the word Annals!  (As I searched for Records, I discovered something that I had not quite noticed before:  nearly every essay touches upon poetry and drama.)

I’ll share my results with you next week.  In the meantime, remember:  words matter. Pay attention to them.

Controlled Revelation #2: Science Aficianado.

“I’m really impressed with your ‘close reading’ of The Humourist so far.  […] You’ve always talked about ‘close reading’ in class, but I didn’t know you could get as close as you have to The Humourist, even to the point of checking how closely his quotations matched the original!  I never would have thought of doing that.”   Emails from a Faithful Student

Absolutely:  when you give a literary text a close reading, you get closer and closer to the author, but in order to do so, you must pay attention to every word, to every detail.

My own love affair with “close reading” began when I was a graduate student at the University of South Carolina during the 1970s.  I was part of an editorial team working on a critical edition of the works of American writer Frank Norris.  As literary works are printed and reprinted, numerous errors−sometimes substantive, sometimes accidental−are introduced into the text.  When establishing a critical edition, the goal is to reconstruct the text that is closest to the author’s approved version.  Doing so is not an easy process.

It requires comparing multiple editions of the same work and tracking all the variants.  We used a device called The Hinman Collator:

Shakespear scholar Charlton Hinman developed the Hinman Collator, a mechanical device for the visual comparison of different copies of the same printed text. By 1978, when the last machine was manufactured, around fifty-nine had been acquired by libraries, academic departments, research institutes, government agencies, and a handful of pharmaceutical companies. Though built for the study of printed texts and used primarily for the creation of critical editions of literary authors, the Hinman Collator was also employed in other projects where the close comparison of apparently identical images is required: from the study of illustrations to the examination of watermarks to the detection of forged banknotes. 

I remember spending hour after hour examining various editions of Frank Norris’ novels and dutifully recording the details of the variants that I discovered.  I was about to say that sadly enough I do not remember any of the variants at all.  And I do not.

However, no sadness surrounds my lack of recall.  Instead I am surrounded by great joy because it was during those countless hours of mechanically collating multiple Frank Norris texts that I  came to realize that every word matters.  Every word matters.  Every word.

It was during those countless hours of mechanically collating multiple texts that I fell in love with close reading.  Fell in love.  Close reading.

My hope is that my Faithful Student will continue to be impressed as I continue to share my close reading of The Humourist.

You will recall that my close reading of the Humourist’s November 26, 1753, essay led me to characterize him as a Classicist, Bibliophile, Historian, Lover of Literature, and Painter.

This week I will focus on his essay of December 10, 1753, to see what my close reading discloses.

He continues to show that he is a Lover of Literature by using a quote from James Thompson as his headnote.  Born in 1700, Thompson was an English poet and author of The Seasons.  In addition, the Humourist quotes Edward Young (1683-1765), British poet and dramatist, known especially for his The Revenge: A Tragedy in Five Acts (1721).  Once again, The Humourist quotes these writers verbatim all the way down to the correct poetic line endings.  Clearly, he is not quoting from memory:  he has the literary texts in front of him.  In addition to Thompson and Young, he continues to quote from his old friend Horace, and he quotes from Daniel Heinsius (1580-1655), a Dutch scholar and poet.

Also, the Humourist shows his familiarity with classic rhetoricians and literary critics.  He mentions Longinus, a Greek rhetorician and literary critic whose “On the Sublime” is a treatise on aesthetics and literary criticism and is generally considered to rank second in importance to Aristotle’s Poetics.  Also, he cites Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (c. 35 – c. 100), a Roman rhetorician known for his 12-volume Institutio Oratoria (Institutes of Oratory). 

It seems clear that whoever wrote the Humourist essays was a Classicist and a Lover of Literature.  As we move ahead, we will look for more clues to strengthen that assertion.

But what about the Humourist as Historian?  Indeed, in this essay he mentions “the tower of Babel” and he refers to “the ancients.”  Note as well that the Humourist uses the language−uses the words−that historians use:  “Search the records of old time”, “look into the annals of the present”, and “materials from […] ruins”.  When combined with last week’s clues, they provide additional evidence that the Humourist is an Historian.

Along similar lines−using language that is appropriate to a specific occupational field−you will recall from last week that he promised to provide a “Picture.”  Although he does not fulfill his promise, this week he expands the vocabulary:  “Copy of my countenance”, “painter”, and “sketch”.  I am especially intrigued by “sketch.”  I have known artists who could paint but not draw, and I have known artists who could draw but not paint.  The Humourist’s language suggests that he could paint and draw.  I am intrigued.

And how interesting that the Humourist says of himself:  “As to my private character, that falls more immediately within the sphere of the historian than the painter.”

I am intrigued even more, though, by a new clue that emerges this week.  The Humourist seems to have an interest in science.  Indirectly, he references Isaac Newton (English physicist and mathematician) when he writes “a dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant may see farther than a giant himself.”  Later in the essay, he shows an even more interest in science when he mentions efforts to “find out the quadrature of a circle, and the creeks and sounds of the north east and north west passages.”  Finally, in the advertisement that follows the essay, he refers to “the occult sciences”, “palmistry and physiognomy”, and “the twelve signs in the zodiac”.

Classicist, Bibliophile, Historian, Lover of Literature, and Painter.  All those have been confirmed and strengthened by this week’s close reading.

Now, we can add:  Science aficionado.

Controlled Revelations (April 16, 2013)

At last, the day has arrived that I have promised.  At last the day has arrived that you have been waiting for.  At last, the day has arrived when I …

But wait!  Such heightened anticipation requires a drum roll!

Surely, we can do better than that.  Let’s have a real drum roll:

Much, much better!  Now, as I was saying, the day has arrived when I reveal … Continue reading