Friday, May 03, 2013

Evidence of Civilization

1. Frederick J. Hoffman (1909-1967) was a literary scholar and critic whose name seemed ubiquitous when I was young. His focus was American literature, with an emphasis on the twentieth century, but he also published an early monograph on Samuel Beckett. Somehow, Hoffman’s personal library ended up in the collection of the Fondren Library at Rice University. He taught at Ohio State, Harvard and Stanford, among other schools, and ended his career at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, but seemed to have had no formal ties with Rice.  I’ve asked the staff how this came about but they were unable to find a record of the donation. Over the years, I’ve borrowed dozens of Hoffman’s books, in each of which he inscribed his name, the university where he was teaching and the date. On Thursday I borrowed an old favorite, a first edition of Sherwood Anderson (1951), Irving Howe’s second book, and discovered it was one of Hoffman’s volumes, signed on the front endpaper in his customary manner: 

“Frederick J. Hoffman
The University of Wisconsin
March 21, 1951” 

Below, in a hastier scrawl, I found: 

“For Fred Hoffman,
With respect,
Irving Howe” 

In the book collecting trade, this is known as an association copy, doubly so, though I’m not certain anyone collects Hoffman or Howe. Along with Anderson, they’re soothingly familiar literary names. None is fashionable or much read today, none is a major writer, but each contributed something small and vital to the reader and writer I am. 

2. In the spring/summer issue of Dark Horse, the poet Amit Majmudar discovers unsuspected poetry in the letters of Matthew Arnold and other Victorians. In his amusing essay, “Our Hidden Contemporaries,” Majmudar writes: 

“Some traits that we value in poetry—irregularity of rhythm, unpredictability of language, a highly personal bent—were things that the Victorians allowed themselves only in their letters. The letter also lent itself to a structural characteristic so ubiquitous in contemporary poems it is almost unrecognized: the first-person anecdote.”

3. My reader in Dallas sends a postcard of an eighteenth-century fellow – buckle shoes, white wig – standing on a ladder in his library. He holds a book in his right hand, another under his left arm and a third pressed between his knees. The sign above his head says “Metaphysics.” The card advertises Williams Book Store at 18 Province St. in Boston. On the back my reader writes: 

“I re-read Chas. Portis’ Gringos over the weekend. I had forgotten this: 

“Simcoe read a book. It was all right to do that here. In the States it was acceptable to read newspapers and magazines in public, but not books, unless you wanted to be taken for a student or a bum or a lunatic or all three. Here you could read books in cafes without giving much offense, and even write them.”

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