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Book Review: Those Who Write For Immortality

By (March 13, 2015) No Comment

Those Who Write for Immortalitythose who write cover

by H. J. Jackson

Yale University Press: 2015

Can you achieve a kind of immortality by writing a great book? The perennial hope of authors is that you can. In her new monograph H. J. Jackson seeks to answer the question with research rather than hope.

Jackson is a major scholar in the field of Book History. Among other things, she has published a fascinating study of marginalia. The perspective of Book History, which emphasizes the fortunes of books as material objects, the social geography of their audiences, and other non-textual things, enables her to approach her subject in novel and exciting ways; but the limitations of that perspective also prohibit her, ultimately, from answering her primary question satisfactorily.

Jackson begins with a brief history of the idea that authors can secure immortality. The Roman poet Horace proves to be the father of this idea. “I shall not entirely die, he declares, but ‘shall continue to grow, fresh with the praise of posterity.'” By the time of the Romantic period — Jackson’s specialty — this faith was the hallowed patrimony of writers.

What is literary immortality? And to what degree does it lie within the power of writers themselves? To answer these questions, Jackson conducts several comparisons of roughly similar writers whose literary afterlives diverged. In one chapter she talks about the poets Wordsworth, Crabbe, and Southey; in another, the novelists Scott, Austen, and Brunton; the poets Keats, Hunt, and Cornwall; and the poets Blake, Clare, and Bloomfield. And so on. Each chapter narrates the fortunes of the writers during and after their own lives, and tries to abstract from these narratives an account of the causes of fame. Ultimately, Jackson uses these comparisons to produce two interesting conceptual tools.

The first tool is a typology of fame.

Most of those who recognize the name of Wordsworth of any of his cohort do so from common knowledge of his life and personality, without firsthand acquaintance with any of his writing. This is the widest and shallowest form of fame; it brings the tribute of numbers. A smaller but still substantial group has a casual acquaintance with his poetry: they learn it or keep it by them, and turn to it occasionally as the need arises. They are the ones chiefly responsible for steady sales. A still smaller set of readers has studied the work methodically: they know it professionally, as critics or students. And the smallest group of all consists of other artists who absorb the work and use it, whether or not they are aware of doing so. These groups confer, respectively, celebrity, popularity, critical approval, and influence.

Literary immortality, Jackson decides, must mean a combination of these kinds of fame. But how does one ascend to the pantheon? She derives from her studies what she calls “the scorecard” of things that lead to immortality. Citing just a part of it will give a sense of the kind of Book History things she’s interested in:

7. Visualizability: illustration, photography, cinema

8. Locatability: association with place; tourism; shrine

9. Adaptation: other media–music, painting, stage, cinema, Internet

10. Variety of audience

11. Anthologies or publishers’ series

12. Reference books

The list is twenty-two items long, and if it doesn’t construct a theory of the causes of fame, it at least isolates a lot of probable candidates correlated in her chapter-narratives.

Those narratives are what make the book more interesting than my report of “scorecards” and “typologies” might suggest. I found myself engrossed, for example, in the story of Walter Scott’s rise to fame — by no means an unfamiliar story to me, but rendered fascinating once again by Jackson’s pace and prose. She is also an interesting expositor, full of good ideas on the paragraph level. Here she is, for example, exploring the role that intergenerational influence plays in a writer’s fame:

There is another subtler way, more common between generations than within them, in which one writer may carry another, and that involves the rather sinister medical metaphor of infection or genetic inheritance, as when we talk about carriers of hemophilia. Tennyson so internalized Keats–as Keats had internalized Spenser and Shakespeare and Chatterton–that not only Keats’s words but the deep structure of his way of using them came naturally to him. Thus later writers can train readers to appreciate the earlier one–creating the taste by which his predecessor is to be appreciated.

As a piece of scholarship, this book makes contributions on three levels. One is the level illustrated by the paragraph just quoted — the meso-level between individual narration and universal generalization, where she notices patterns and proposes causal relationships visible in the fate of her Romantic aspirants to literary immortality. For example, the coming to prominence first of illustration and later of cinematization favored writers with easily visualizable poems or stories. Also, securing the reputation of being suitable for children set apart the writers who could be championed in school curricula. These kinds of observations are fascinating. Second, at the lowest level, as I have already said, she is a pacey narrator of individual careers. At this level her scholarship is mostly synthetic, judging by her apparatus (kept very segregated, as discrete endnotes, from the body of the text, and more fully available — scourge of the internet-age monograph — on an associated website) — a valuable aggregation and summation of the kind of archival bean-counting that yields the best results in Book History.

But the highest level question Jackson seeks to answer — and therefore the book’s key thesis as a work of scholarship — has to do with the relationship between merit and fame. The quality of his work is largely within an artist’s control, so if fame follows merit, then literary immortality is not so contingent as to be a fool’s religion. But, repeatedly, we find this sort of thing:

Is Keats not a far better poet than either Hunt or Cornwall, judged strictly by the body of work left behind, and setting aside for the moment as distractions such matters as politics, personality, life story, and even historical impact? The answer has to be yes and no. Yes, because his work enjoys almost universal approval and has done for a long time now; and no, because judgments of quality depend on the criteria applied.

Sadly, Jackson forecloses the possibility of a good answer to her question about merit’s relation to fame in passages like this one. Whether a writer is famous is a question that requires a different kind of investigation than whether a work has merit; and therefore a question about the relation between the two must be answered using both kinds of investigation. Jackson is marvelous on fame. Her sprightly narratives combines a useful typology of fame with a great deal of research into the history of books and reader reception. But she is terrible on merit. Whenever the subject comes up, she starts off on a fruitless circuit of protestations about the plurality of opinion and the changeability of taste.

To judge the aesthetic merit of a book by who liked it is no better than to judge the truth of a proposition by who accepted it, or to judge the goodness of an action by who condoned it. These are tempting, easy ways to avoid the burden of judgment, unworthy of anyone really interested in truth, beauty, or goodness.

“Is this a good book?” “It depends” — is the refuge of the college freshman, shirking the labor of judgment. But fine historical appreciation for the relativity of taste does not provide an answer to the unyielding question “Is this a good book?” And Jackson knows it. Her own claims show that she knows it, despite her protestations to the contrary. At one point she says, “Anyone can judge, but no one can be sure of judging ‘accurately.’ There is no Olympian view of literary merit. There never will be.” Two sentences later, talking about Keats, Hunt, and Cornwall, she writes, “All three authors, writing at their best, were gifted artists, meritorious in distinctive ways. Their worst, rightly, does not matter.” Casually — of necessity — she relies upon her own literary judgment immediately after claiming that one should not do so. If there is no hope of judging literary merit accurately, how is she so confident that she can distinguish the best from the worst of Keats, Hunt, and Cornwall?

Because of this frustrating refusal to discuss merit with the same seriousness that she discusses fame, Jackson answers her most important question unconvincingly. Does fame follow merit? No, she says, despite having failed to address in a meaningful way what merit even is. This is a fundamental flaw, in an otherwise fascinating monograph. One must read the book for its marvelous parts, not for its disappointing whole.