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.

Literary Mysteries: Solved and Unsolved

“A lot of the fun lies in trying to penetrate the mystery; and this is best done by saying over the lines to yourself again and again, till they pass through the stage of sounding like nonsense, and finally return to a full sense that had at first escaped notice.” —Anthony Hecht

Dare I confess how gratified I have been with my blog’s traffic since it began a week ago today?  Well, I am!

  • 446 views (including 1 from the United Kingdom!)

Not bad stats for my first week.  Now bad at all for a first-time blogger.  Thank you!

And since I am confessing, let me confess something else:  I’ve shared my joy—and my amazement—with a handful of folks in my close circle, and, over and over again, they have replied enthusiastically with the likes of:

“WOW!  Doesn’t surprise me a BIT!!!!!  Everybody wants to know who wrote those essays!”

Some of your comments affirm:

“Ahhh…everyone loves a good mystery!” 

“Oooh, I love a good mystery! … I look forward to watching you unravel this centuries old mystery.”

To be certain, I’m hooked on the mystery, too:  who was The Humourist?  Preparing a critical edition of his essays will be straightforward—well, to the extent that scholarly research is ever straightforward.  On the other hand, identifying the author will require keen analysis and extensive research in order to make a conclusive (and, if not conclusive, then convincing) case that will stand up to scrutiny and review.

Solving the mystery hinges to a large degree on internal clues to be extracted from the essays.  Looking at the Humourist’s November 26, 1753, essay, we find three clues already.

Clue One: One of my followers—soyfig, in fact—picked up on this one by writing:  “I had to read the Humourist’s first essay three times before I began to understand it!  They certainly wrote on a higher plane then than now!”

Indeed.  Whoever he is, the Humourist is erudite.  In one short essay, he provides a sweeping overview of literary tastes, going all the way back to “Days of monkish Ignorance” and continuing on up to novel writing that reigned in his own time.  

Clue Two Whoever he is, the Humourist seems fascinated by the past.  He opens his first essay with a quote from Horace, and he refers to the past several times in that essay:  “If we make a Retrospect into past Times” and “various Tastes of Mankind in the former ages.”

Clue ThreeWhoever he is, the Humourist seems to have an intense interest in painting:  “as an inducement to the World to read my Paper, they may shortly expect a Present of my Picture.”  However, as we shall discover next week in his December 10, 1753, essay, “as it is impossible to procure it [the painting] in any reasonable time, if the painter be allowed to shew his skill or do justice to my person, I shall therefore beg my readers patience, and present them with a true sketch of my figure in print.”

What a mystery!  What a puzzle!

As I move ahead with my efforts to solve the mystery, I have another confession to make:  I love the task of transcribing the Humourist essays—of sitting at my computer, typing away on the keyboard.

Typing.  I love it:  typing!  It’s not nearly as poetic as the suggestion that Anthony Hecht offers up for penetrating a mystery:  “saying over the lines to yourself again and again, till they pass through the stage of sounding like nonsense, and finally return to a full sense that had at first escaped notice.”  

Typing.  It’s probably more akin to what Carl Jung says about mysteries:

“Often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain.”

In that sense, then, as I transcribe the Humourist’s essays—as I type them—my hands are helping me become familiar with the essence of his literary outpourings, character by character, letter by letter, word by word, paragraph by paragraph, essay by essay.  My hands are helping me become familiar with his style.  My hands are helping me see what he put in—and what he left out!

After I have typed one of his essays once or twice—actually, I typed his November 26, 1753, essay three times—I can say with some degree of certainty:  I know that essay well.

I know that essay even better because I have done what I always do with documents:  I checked the Readability Statistics.  So, here’s Clue Four.  Whoever he is, the readability statistics for the Humourist’s November 26, 1753, essay are as follows:


  • Words:  444
  • Characters:  2181
  • Paragraphs:  20
  • Sentences:  13


  • Sentences per Paragraph:  1.3
  • Words per Sentence:  24.6
  • Characters per Word:  4.6


  • Passive Sentences:  15%
  • Flesch Reading Ease: 56.7
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level:  10.3

Admittedly, these readability statistics are skewed because the Humourist quotes other writers rather extensively in his first essay.  Nonetheless, it is a beginning.

As we move to future essays—and as I continue doing what I have begun doing—all the clues will converge, and I am certain that the Humourist himself will lead me to discovering who he is.

But I digress.  My scheme for sharing Humourist essays with you will be in the same fashion that he shared them with the world:  weekly.  This week, however, he did not publish an essay.  (His next one will appear on December 10.)

Therefore, as I contemplated my post for this week, I was intrigued by how intrigued my readers were by the mystery—by my efforts to solve this literary whodunit—and I was particularly smitten by “soyfig’s” comment:

“A different mystery has been solved.”

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