One-hundred fifty notable books: Literary studies (PART ONE)

From the emergence of the study of English literature as an academic discipline in Victorian England until the re-emergence of Cornell University Press in 1932, academic publishing had devoted itself principally to the production of scholarly apparatus: dictionaries of Old and Middle English, inventories of manuscript collections, and biographies, bibliographies, and variorum editions of great and minor poets. When Cornell revised its press under the directorship of Robert Patterson, it acquired rights from Yale University Press to all 17 volumes of the Cornell Studies in English, to which it added 26 more titles over the next 35 years. Volumes in this series included an index of names in Middle English poetry, Milton’s prose tracts and Latin poems, and several collections of the correspondence of Wordsworth and his circle. One of the most successful entries in this series Were Edwin Nungezer’s Dictionary of Actors and of Other Persons Associated with the Public Representation of Plays in England before 1642—still a useful reference, although if it were published today it would undoubtedly have been given a snappier title.

Much of this useful and interesting work still goes on at university presses, though much of it has been supplanted by searchable online databases.

Another successful volume in the series, Harold Wilson Blodgett’s Walt Whitman in England, was an early example of what would become a defining characteristic of Cornell titles: the exploration of a little-known aspect of a well-covered subject.

Cornell Studies in English includes a number of works devoted to the influence of Classical sources on English writers. This is due to the influence of its general editor, Lane Cooper, Cornell’s first professor of Comparative Literature (and a staunch advocate for reopening the Press during the 1920s), who recognized early on that students were no longer required to obtain a solid grounding in Greek and Latin before pursuing studies in the Humanities, and so devoted himself to making it possible to study classic and international literature in translation. Aristotle and the Art of Poetry, published in 1947, was an updated edition of his translation of the Poetics, originally published by Ginn & Co. in 1913.

Aimed at undergraduates and other non-specialized readers, Cooper’s book could be seen as a sort of pre-digital hypertext, his explanatory interpolations and cross-references being presented in brackets within the text rather than as footnotes.

tyler copy 2
Moses Coit Tyler

Before Cooper came to Ithaca there was Moses Coit Tyler, Cornell’s (and America’s) first professor of American History. For the Press’s eightieth anniversary in 1949, Cornell republished the first (1878) edition of Tyler’s great work, History of American Literature, 1607-1765, with additional material from later editions (the fourth and last came out in 1897), and marginal notes transcribed from Tyler’s own copy. Long considered the standard literary history of the colonial period, Tyler’s work was the precursor of later books by Vernon Parrington, Percy Miller, and Van Wyck Brooks. Tyler worked rigorously, vowing form no opinion of the writers in his study “at second hand” (N. B. I make no such claim for opinions expressed in this blog post).

He also defined his goal as an effort to write “artistically” with style, wit, and personality—a quality not easy to find in scholarly writing (or non-scholarly writing either, for that matter), then or now.

Of course, the colonial period was by no means the high point of American literature, which may explain why Tyler’s name was not as familiar to mid-twentieth century readers as Brooks’s. One wonders how he would have reacted to this bit of praise from The Saturday Review of Literature (Dec. 17, 1949): “however dull his subject, he himself refuses to be dull.”

While books of criticism and theory gained the lion’s share of attention in the Seventies and Eighties, important textual studies continued to be published, including two series by Cornell that were among the most valuable contributions to the field. The Cornell Wordsworth began in 1975 with The Salisbury Plain Poems, edited by Stephen Gill. This series, under general editor Stephen Parrish, presented “for the first time, the full and accurate texts of Wordsworth’s long poems, together with all variant readings from original drafts down to the final printing in the poet’s lifetime” (Book Forum, 1975), along with photographs of the original manuscripts. It was followed (with some overlap) by The Cornell Yeats, inaugurated in 1982 with The Death of Cuchulain, edited by Phillip L. Marcus.

The transcriptions of the Yeats drafts were particularly welcome given Yeats’s notoriously bad handwriting, as attested by the photographs. What sensibility and how much knowledge it must have taken to accurately decipher such snarls of squiggles!

I was fortunate to be a student of both Professor Parrish and Professor Marcus in the 1980s, but young enough, unfortunately, not to grasp the importance of their work. I dimly recall Professor Parrish showing me some his work on one of the Cornell Concordances (of which he was also general editor) when I dropped by once during office hours. Part of me couldn’t understand why such a distinguished professor would spend so much time on such a mechanical task as compiling word-indexes. My corn-fed 20-year-old imagination still pictured such scholars up in the clouds communing with the Poets and hurling thunderbolts at the philistines (in my defense, we were reading Blake that year).

Excited by my recent introduction to the art of close reading, and beginning to hear rumors of the intellectual high-wire acts of the French post-structuralists, I had virtually no idea of the importance or the complexity of such work.


James McCaffery is digital publication assistant at Cornell University Press.

One-hundred fifty notable books: Literary studies (PART ONE)

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