Monday, September 30, 2013

`Ordinary Everyday Readers of English Literature'

On my father-in-law’s shelves are thirteen books he was awarded as academic prizes while a student at Saint Andrew’s College in Aurora, Ontario, in the early nineteen-fifties.  Among the volumes, all published by Oxford, are three by Shakespeare, two by Dickens and one each by Byron and Tennyson. There was a time when educated people read and valued such things, and judged them worthy of bestowing on accomplished students. Our thirteen-year-old son is now a student at St. Andrew’s, and I wonder if the  school still gives books as prizes, or is it gift cards and “smartphones.” Not one of the Oxford volumes, all printed on fine India paper and some bound in leather, has turned brown. The bindings remain sturdy, spines unbroken, despite residence in three countries across sixty years. 

The largest of the books, at 932 two-column pages, is the third edition of The Oxford Companion to English Literature (1932), edited by Sir Paul Harvey and reprinted in 1953. As a sign of the times, consider the opening sentence of Harvey’s preface: “This volume will serve its purpose if it proves a useful companion to ordinary everyday readers of English literature.” One could write a substantial volume devoted exclusively to glossing nearly every word in that sentence, including “a.” The emphasis on the uncommon common reader is almost poignant, and Harvey’s tome can read as an artifact from an almost-vanished civilization. He devotes slightly more space to Dr. Johnson than to Shakespeare, and makes this curious observation of the lexicographer: 

“Johnson’s literary output bears no proportion to his reputation. The latter is due in great measure to the fortunate accident by which an ideal biographer was found in Boswell to record for us the humour, wit, and sturdy common sense of his conversation, and a kindness of heart sometime concealed under a gruff exterior.” 

Most entries are brief and factual, a collection of names, titles and dates, but occasionally Harvey digresses into often entertaining opinion. Of Ben Jonson he writes: “As a man Jonson was arrogant and quarrelsome, but fearless, warm-hearted, and intellectually honest.” Why “but?”  Of Thomas Gray, unexpectedly: “His letters are among the best in the language; they reveal his character and humorous spirit.” Harvey includes entries for T.S. Eliot but not Pound or Stevens. From Fors Clavigera, he quotes several sentences (not typical of most entries) and says Ruskin “sets out to show the causes of the evil and the means of remedying it.” And who do you suppose he’s writing about here: “He is considered typical of a certain side of modern American writing. That is to say he is sophisticated, conscientiously unsentimental, and largely concerned with members of the various American colonies in Europe, especially in Paris.” That would be Hemingway. 

As a bonus, I’ll reproduce a passage from another of my father-in-law’s prizes, The Musical Companion: A Compendium for All Lovers of Music (1934), edited by A.L. Bacharach. This is the “eighteenth impression,” published in May 1952, from a section titled “A Word About Rhythm and `Rubato’”:                                       

“Jazz, popularly supposed to be much the most rhythmic music, is not rhythmic at all, but rigidly metrical. True rhythm has the fundamental regularity, but also the quick, responsive variability, of the human pulse, not the mechanically precise beat of the metronome. It feels time and goes in time, but not dead in time. Yet the jazz fever—if anything so cold-blooded and machine-pulsed may be called fever—has been allowed to invade the concert room. One has heard performances of Mozart concertos, particularly by one of the younger French pianists, sound as though their composer were indeed the `Austrian Gershwin.’”

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