Saturday, February 27, 2016

`A Great Deal of Title for Very Little Book'

My friend Melissa Kean has written a post about Stockton Axson (born 1867), who taught English here at Rice University from 1913, a year after the school opened for business, until his death in 1935. In the archives she discovered a poem, “Rice Institute at Twilight,” apparently written by Axson, and its author unquestionably gets the campus details right – mockingbirds, cloistered arches, weeping oaks, “the magic of a spell too deep to know.” By the way, “Rice Institute” was the school’s name from its founding until 1960, when it became Rice University. The first president was Edgar Odell Lovett, who had chaired the Department of Mathematics and Astronomy at Princeton University. Lovett’s move was endorsed by that school’s president, Woodrow Wilson, who was soon to become president of the United States. Melissa writes:

“[Axson] came to Rice from Princeton in 1913 at Lovett’s pleading and stayed, with several leaves of absence, until his death in 1935. He was Lovett’s close friend and had been the brother-in-law and advisor of Woodrow Wilson.”

Which explains why the Fondren Library has a copy of Axson’s Brother Woodrow: A Memoir of Woodrow Wilson, based on lectures and notes Axson accumulated between 1919 and 1934. Princeton University Press published the volume for the first time in 1993. Wilson ranks among the less compelling of our presidents, somewhere above Jimmy Carter and below Abraham Lincoln, so I won’t be reading Axson’s memoir. But as its editor, Arthur S. Link, says:

“Axson gained something like a nationwide fame as a lecturer on and interpreter of English literature. He never published a serious scholarly work, but he did publish a number of essays on English and American writers, English poets, arts, etc., in a series known as The Rice Institute Pamphlets and elsewhere.”

In front of me is Vol. 3 of the bound pamphlet series, borrowed from the Fondren, and it includes Axson’s “Approaches and Reactions in Six Nineteenth-Century Fictionists.” The final word in the title is a new one on me: “fictionist.” The most recent citation in the OED dates from 1875, and its use by Axson gives off a strong Victorian whiff (one of the OED citations is drawn from Edward Bulwer-Lytton). Axson’s chosen six are Dickens, Thackeray, George Eliot, Hawthorne, Poe and Stevenson. In the table of contents, however, “Hawthorne the Puritan Artist” is crossed out with a red pen and next to it is written: “Some asshole tore it out.” Sure enough, pages 60 through 78 have been removed as cleanly as a ruptured appendix. I, for one, don’t miss Hawthorne, and wish the surgeon had excised Poe while he was at it, though I’m not endorsing book vandalism. In his preface, Axson works hard to assure us he’s not working hard:

“When they clapped a huge mustard plaster on poor Tom Hood, emaciated from his last illness, that incorrigible punster remarked that it seemed like a good deal of mustard for very little meat. To many, including the writer, it must appear that this volume carries a great deal of title for very little book.”

This is old-fashioned, unnecessary and utterly charming. Basically, Axson is saying he loves these writers. His lectures are, he says, “general in their plan and undogmatic in their purpose.” No deconstructionist he. In his lecture, Axson often refers to characters exclusively by their first names, as though they were old friends, and seldom mentions the books they inhabit. For readers unfamiliar with the novel in question, this can be confusing, but it suggests Axson’s fondly casual approach to literature. My favorite among the six is George Eliot, and Axson is not an uncritical admirer. Her “deficiency,” he writes, “lay precisely where she thought it lay—in dramatic power.” Axson shows off his aphoristic knack: “George Eliot was not clever; she was only great.” His appreciation of Eliot is precisely the reverse of mine. He favors the early novels, and fawns over Adam Bede. I revere Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda. Axson takes an odd detour near the conclusion of his Eliot lecture. Citing Blake, Nietzsche and George Bernard Shaw, he says that “the power of the will and the recuperative power of Nature are greater than evil.” He goes on arguing with Eliot:

“George Eliot did not counsel skulking, but the implication of her novels is that evil is a finality. Evil is not a finality. Evil is tragic, loathsome, strong. But there are stronger things in the universe than evil. A valiant will is stronger, Nature is stronger, God is stronger. And in brave reliance on these efficiencies, the Will and Nature and God, the heroes of mankind have fought their way to glory.”

With World War I already underway (with the U.S. about to enter), and Lenin, Stalin and Hitler waiting in the wings, Axson’s pleading sounds positively Wilsonian.

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