Character Building

Peter Campbell

  • Black Riders: The Visible Language of Modernity by Jerome McGann
    Princeton, 196 pp, £25.00, July 1993, ISBN 0 691 06985 9
  • Letters from the People by Lee Friedlander
    Cape, 96 pp, £75.00, August 1993, ISBN 0 224 03295 X
  • Margins and Marginality by Evelyn Tribble
    Virginia, 194 pp, $35.00, December 1993, ISBN 0 8139 1472 8

Books, too, have a body language. But does the way they are physically presented impinge in any significant way on the texts they contain? Jerome McGann reckons that the private press movement (William Morris and his followers) was an agent in the rise of Modernist poetry, and goes on to make large claims for the ability of poetry in the Modernist tradition to unknot linguistic and philosophical binds.

His line of argument is skittish – he breaks into it from time to time with asterisked objections which, alas, are not always the ones you would wish to raise yourself – but two substantial, linked claims are made unequivocally. The first is that the 19th-century renaissance of printing signalled a change in sensibility which placed a value on the physical appearance of books, and thus on the meaning of the look of printed words. McGann says that this objectification of the word has links with the poetry of Pound and Yeats. The Kelmscott Chaucer and Modernist poetry, the argument goes, are both hard to read because they are intentionally opaque. The second claim is that the links are not coincidental, and that the achievement of the latter was, in important ways, made possible by the former.

Heraldic words, words as patterns, have a long history. Inscriptions give dignity to words by slowing reading to a dead-march beat. The narcotic interlacings of an initial in the Lindisfarne Gospels delay the eye’s progress until the letter, like a word repeated over and over, loses its significance and drops out of the alphabet altogether. Carried to its extreme this can lead to the eating of written charms for their medicinal properties and books which are monuments. The reductio ad absurdum of the tendency is to be found in the nightmarish statistics of Anselm Kiefer’s sculpture The High Priestess. It consists of approximately two hundred lead books each with up to fifty lead leaves and weighing anything up to 220 pounds. Some pages are randomly stained like old plaster, some contain photographs. The whole library is contained in two vast steel bookcases measuring 14 feet by 26 feet. This is the end of the road which begins with the Kelmscott Chaucer and runs on through the heavy-paper pages and folio formats of the livres d’artiste of the 20th century.

Book fetishism came naturally to private-press printers. For them the exciting thing was the physical book, not the text. They modelled their productions on examples from printing’s pre-demotic years. When such a weight of ink and paper is dedicated to any text which fails to take itself very seriously it is liable to seem a slightly absurd enterprise: a lectern Bible perhaps, but a lectern novel? The book made to be read, on the other hand, seems to say: We are alone, you and I. Writing and print are messengers. No more than that. A true text can have many manifestations, do not bother too much about the livery of the messenger.

When, now and again, an author does allude to the look of a page (Lewis Carroll’s ‘Mouse’s Tale’, Sterne’s marbled interfoliations) it is intended to be cheeky – as a flunky, standing behind the speaker’s chair at a grand dinner, would sound if invited to interject. Typography, the advocates of transparency argue, should aim, like the puppeteer’s strings, to support and articulate without drawing attention to itself. When the characters of the alphabet become Characters, as they do in Lee Friedlander’s truly wonderful Letters from the People, a saturnalian role reversal takes place and Master Meaning waits upon Servant Style.

Why do literary texts suppress the graphic potential of letters? Why not go for a synaesthetic double whammy; why not a text in which printed word as thing and printed word as sign get our visual and verbal receptors vibrating in harmony? Why (lack of talent apart) have more people not done what Blake did? Put his graphic versions of his poems alongside printed versions and the reason becomes clear:

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

The poem gains when printed plain. The richly dressed text, to the frustration of the world’s private-press printers, illustrators and calligraphers, is set stumbling by the weight of its clothing. The aesthete may be charmed, but readers qua readers look only for puritan neatness. Billboards and headlines catch the eye, but if you want more than a few sentences to be read you had best turn to anaesthetic greyness and deny the eye its desire to find visual amusement in the look of words. Even among graffiti-makers the distinction between the decorative tag and the readable slogan is clear.

This is not to say that the look of plain texts does not carry information which has nothing to do with content. Lady Chatterley was prosecuted because she was to be dressed in paperback, and Quakerish simplicity makes one supersensitive to the detail of margins, type and paper. Strong feelings can be raised by these matters, as they can by an inch or two on the length of a hemline.

If one follows this line (and I do) one accepts that the presentation of printed texts gives evidence of the development of genres, changes in taste, the expansion of markets and the differentiation of readerships, and that these have a profound effect on what is written and published. On the other hand, it is hard not to be sceptical when it is suggested that, in any but unusual situations, typography is an integral part of the author’s message. There are exceptions (like the concrete poetry which is one subject of McGann’s book) but these prove the rule and do not shake one’s conviction that most poetry is not partly graphic – or rather, that the part which is graphic is conventional, an extension of punctuation, an indicator of breaks and units, not a symbol system.

McGann does not see it that way. His challenge is direct to those of us who, while not claiming that transparency is the only norm, believe that graphic texts (like Blake’s engraved books) can be made transparent without significantly diminishing their power as poetry. His argument for the synaesthetic text begins with the kind of graphic book produced by Morris and his followers and imitators in England and America. His evidence is of this kind: reading the line in the ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ which refers to the ‘foul rag and bone shop of the heart’ we should be aware that Yeats may have realised that old rags were collected to make rag paper, and that that kind of paper was used in private press books, in particular in the editions of his own poetry printed by the Cuala Press, which he founded; that Pound’s Cantos were first printed privately in large expensive formats; that Morris adapted his verse so that words made a better shape on the page, and so on.

The attention McGann gives these matters must be seen in the context of the evolution of bibliographical studies. ‘I have been trying,’ he writes, ‘to study and determine what place poetry occupies in a world that is already hailing farewell to the book as we know it.’ His celebration of the physical life of literature has an elegiac ring. Like an archaeologist faced with a midden, he wants to show the significance of information that treasure-hunters and stratigraphers alike have failed to pick up. Long before word-processors existed textual bibliographers (the stratigraphers of literature) had come to think of books as strings of characters to be tested and corrected. The book-as-object was of interest only in so far as it offered clues to the Platonic form of the text. The argument, put baldly, was that as long as the text was correct it didn’t matter what it looked like, and never had. McGann is one of the newer breed of scholars who have profitably questioned that assertion.

But the questioning can be taken too far. The meanings books-as-things carry are usually tangential to the meanings of the same books-as-texts. In particular, the way a text (or person) is dressed is usually intended to announce its category, not its individuality. Ex-punks wish to remove their more flagrant tattoos, Nabokov did not want Lolita to remain for ever in the green livery of the Olympia Press.

At some point in most reading you must stop noticing the printed page if you are to attend fully to the words on it. The thing about most private press books was not that they were read differently, but that they were not read at all. They were fondled, treasured, collected, put into fine bindings and laid down like some wonderful vintage which no one found undrinkable because it was too precious to uncork. McGann turns the tables on the common judgment that Morris’s books were too self-conscious to be readable (‘beautiful but dumb books as clumsy in their way as the Rozetti stone’ in the punning words of Robert Carlton Brown, a maker of what on the evidence of McGann’s examples must be handmade books of exemplary jokiness). Unreadability, McGann says, can be a virtue.

The poems of Emily Dickinson, unpublished in her lifetime, test editorial practice. McGann’s account of them is an example of his methods. The manuscripts Dickinson left, many gathered in booklets of a few leaves sewn together at one corner, are difficult to read. The punctuation mark she most often uses is a dash. Variants, the intended position of which is often unclear, are written at the ends of poems or between lines. It is impossible to arrive at a final, best text which expresses authorial intention even if one allows that there was a single intended reading. The transition from manuscript to type always destroys evidence. In the case of Dickinson, McGann argues, this is evidence that matters. Dickinson’s first editors repunctuated her texts, regularised them and expunged eccentricities. Later editors have come closer and closer to making exact transcriptions of the manuscripts. McGann argues both that the manuscripts have subtleties which are lost in this process and that all the past editions have their own validity. Different editions, like different productions of a play, are necessary. No single printing can exhaust the potential of a set of words. Here is an example McGann gives – a stanza as set out in Johnsons’s 1955 edition of the poems:

Pain – has an Element of Blank –
It cannot recollect
When it begun – or if there were
A time when it was not –

McGann then arranges the lines as they appear in the manuscript:

Pain – has an Element
of Blank –
It cannot recollect
When it began – or if
there were
A time when it was not

The blank after ‘blank’, he suggests, is a kind of pun. His own transcription shows just how difficult the manuscript is to read (for it does, oddly enough, look as though ‘begun’ not ‘began’ is what Dickinson wrote and there does appear to be a final dash after ‘not’). Looking at the manuscript pages he reproduces raises the question of whether the em dashes McGann prints (visually the most emphatic mark of punctuation in the repertory) are appropriate: a spaced hyphen comes closer to matching the effect of Dickinson’s indeterminate cursive flicks. The use of an unspaced dash, which appears to be the house style of McGann’s publisher, may not even be a matter he thought about. That one notices it proves that Dickinson’s poetry deserves the kind of close attention McGann gives it, but even so, in my reading its effect on her verse is minimal.

McGann writes that the turnover in the manuscript version of the line –

Breaking in bright Orthogra-

– is ‘an important feature’. One looks at the reproduced version, and finds that either the sheet has been trimmed in reproduction or he is plain wrong in thinking there was room in the line for ‘phy’. More to the point, he never suggests why the more obvious interpretation of the turnovers in Dickinson’s manuscripts – that she did not think of the layout as at all important – should be rejected. McGann writes that ‘in the late 19th century, poetry in America was dominated by those once famous “Household” editions, issued by Houghton Mifflin, of Longfellow and Whittier and other “Fireside” writers.’ A problem modern readers have with old collections of poetry (I don’t know if this applies to the Houghton Mifflin collections) is that the two-column setting, used to save space, led to many such turnovers. Perhaps when more poetry was read aloud the breaks did not impinge as much as they do now – my own guess is that the turnovers which McGann reads meanings into have become more eloquent with time.

He goes on to make the same point in reverse about the formally written out and illuminated version of ‘The Weariness of November’, one of the poems in a book which William Morris wrote out for Georgiana Burne-Jones, claiming that when the line ‘Beyond these four walls hung with pain and dreams’ projects into the surrounding border it shows how Morris ‘translated the frame of his text into an iconograph of the “four walls” named in the lines’ and that ‘“pain and dreams” is figured in the way the lines make random breaches in the wall on the right.’ One trembles to think what he might do if he thought he spotted an anagram or cipher. The simple way of looking at it is that Morris the pattern-maker wanted text to fill a neat block (that, unlike Dickinson, he did like a tidy stanza), not that a previously unknown Morris, the weaver of typo-linguistic puns, was at work. As McGann points out, Morris laid out the poem differently in the printed version – happily breaking lines when large decorative initials required it. It seems that one was expected in both instances to read with eye and mind, but that the eye was in each case given a different text.

McGann is not particularly sensitive to the physical qualities of the books he writes about. This comes out in small things – to use the word ‘incised’ to describe the heavy impression of type on handmade paper suggests that the surface is cut rather than dented. In other matters he is confusing, or plain wrong. To say (in a note) that ‘the old-face Caslon font was cut in 1844 for the Chiswick Press at the special request of Charles Whittingham. Its most distinctive feature is an elongated “s”’ is both confusing and wrong. The Caslon font was not cut, but cast for Whittingham. The punches were original: Caslon old face was a genuine 18th-century font. The long ‘s’ was not its most distinctive feature, rather it was a character available in that font because it dated back to the time when the long medial ‘s’ was still in use. It was used by Whittingham in Lady Willoughby’s Diary, his first substantial revival of Caslon as a conscious archaism: the Diary (unlike the type, but like the photoset version of Caslon McGann’s own book is set in) was a pastiche. The printing revival, of which Whittingham’s use of Caslon was a significant part, led to the cutting of close imitations of many early typefaces – and not only by the proprietors of private presses for hand composition. These versions of historical faces were so successful that, unlike 19th-century readers, who usually read new books in contemporary typefaces, we are very often presented with books set in types which are reproductions of characters of another century.

It is churlish both to be eager for the meanings inherent in the design and production of books to be noticed and sceptical about McGann’s ambitions for their interpretation. But if one asks, ‘Could Yeats have written what he did without the example of the private press movement?’ the answer is yes. If one asks, ‘Has someone who has read the poetry of William Morris or Emily Dickinson only in a printed format which bears little relationship to the original manuscripts a necessarily imperfect understanding of their art?’ the answer is no.

The attention scholars like McGann have given to the way printed texts work has finally laid to rest the idea that it is possible to create a single, correct printed version. But it has not yet forced us to believe that the truth of individual texts, apart from the few which are presented as exercises in graphic pattern-making, is to be found in their physical nature. It is impossible to deny the thesis that a feeling for the word as a thing on the page freed poets from traditional ways of writing, but McGann’s arguments are not overwhelming.

In particular, they do not provide a good foundation for the more theoretical part of his book. In this he takes the work of Modernist poets who use found elements and write non-syntactical verse, and argues that they are of particular importance to us because, as he puts it, they are among those ‘best writers of the past twenty years’ who have ‘succeeded just because they agreed to enter the prison house of language’. We all inhabit that but ‘only those who inhabit it deliberately are able to tell the truth about it.’ Poetry, he suggests, finds new life in using language to make readers conscious of language itself.

The effects he identifies are not marginal if you accept his judgment that ‘the conjunction of theory with various kinds of imaginative writing in the Seventies and Eighties reflects ... an important development for writers and philosophers alike,’ and share his view that it is poets, and in our time poets in the Modernist tradition, who truly understand the nature of language: ‘If language is ultimate reality, then only those in and through whom language reveals itself will be reliable sources of the truth of language, and hence of the reality of the world.’

As one would expect, accepting McGann’s judgment raises problems. The most obvious is the different attitudes of poets and philosophers to language and its paradoxes. Philosophers tend to increase confidence in ordinary discourse by suggesting that the prison house bars are really linguistic artefacts, bothersome phantasms, paradoxes of self-reference which the oddity of using language to talk about language throws up. Poetry which treads the line between sense and nonsense cherishes the thrill of posing the puzzles which analysis dissipates. It may illustrate the philosopher’s moment of vertigo, but cannot, by its nature, be a contribution to the philosophical process.

Evelyn Tribble’s Margins and Marginality investigates the significance of marginal notes on early English printed pages – Bibles, Edmund Spenser, Thomas Nashe, Sir John Harington and so on. She is more pedestrian than McGann, but more convincing. When the sound-stream of language can be represented graphically, symbolic gestures (swearing on the Book) and the use of the text itself as a visual symbol become possible. Arguments, which in spoken language must be a dialogue, can take the form of graphic juxtaposition; sources can be signalled and in a way which gives, or questions, authority. There is nothing new in noticing this kind of thing – Tribble points to the ‘ironic critique of reliance upon authorities’ in Cervantes, who mocked margins loaded with Classical references. However, tracking the changing implications of a note as it creeps from margin to foot of page and from foot of page to end of book is a real contribution to our awareness of what a text meant to its first readers.