Wednesday, March 22, 2017
The Takacs Quartet
I am perhaps too taken with accidental cultural congruences, and too eager to impose a nonexistent meaning upon them. But I pass on the following anecdote for what it is worth. The Princeton University Concerts, which under the leadership of a dynamic young woman named Marna Seltzer have in recent years reached a new level of imaginative excellence, has this season sponsored an extraordinary treat for local music lovers. The Concert Committee brought to our community the superb Takacs String Quartet, who gave public performances of all of the Beethoven quartets. I had to miss a few, but I was at the final two sessions last week to hear five of them—an extraordinary experience.
About the same time I quite accidentally re-encountered in my reading an old acquaintance, Joseph Blanco White (1775-1841), author of a poem now hardly known but highly praised in its day. Coleridge is supposed to have said that it was the finest sonnet in our tongue.
Mysterious Night! when our first parent knew
Thee from report divine, and heard thy name,
Did he not tremble for this lovely frame,
This glorious canopy of light and blue?
Yet 'neath a curtain of translucent dew,
Bathed in the rays of the great setting flame,
Hesperus with the host of heaven came,
And lo! Creation widened in man's view.
Who could have thought such darkness lay concealed
Within thy beams, O Sun! or who could find,
Whilst fly and leaf and insect stood revealed,
That to such countless orbs thou mad'st us blind!
Why do we then shun Death with anxious strife?
If Light can thus deceive, wherefore not Life?
Joseph Blanco White
Now this man Blanco White was quite remarkable. He had been born in Seville in 1775 and raised in a Hiberno-Spanish enclave of persecuted Irish Roman Catholic exiles. His mercantile father, whose surname was White, added the Castilian doublet. The brilliant son Joseph, or José Maria, was raised as a Spaniard. The Church offered the best chance to pursue education, and he became a priest. However, he inwardly revolted against the stultifying neo-Scholasticism and ignorant authoritarianism of Iberian Catholicism as typified by the Inquisition. Along with a few free-thinking clerical friends, he had gained access to some forbidden books by French Enlightenment writers. When opportunity arose (in the chaos of the Napoleonic invasions and Peninsular War) he fled to England in 1810.
In England Blanco White became an object of sympathetic fascination, a man whose exotic background, intellectual abilities, and personal amiability alike won him influential friends and patrons. He slowly came to embrace Anglicanism in a minimalist, nearly Unitarian form, and he was invited into the conclaves of the learned. In particular, he was taken into the senior common room of Oriel College, Oxford, where he never felt at home but became friends with several of the intellectual movers and shakers of the age. Most importantly, perhaps, he became intimate with Richard Whately, the logician. Whately eventually became the (Anglican) archbishop of Dublin, meaning that Blanco White could return to the homeland of his Romanist forebears as a Protestant chaplain! He eventually lapsed, or perhaps relapsed, into effective agnosticism, and repented of whatever mild claims for “Transcendence” might be lurking in his famous sonnet “To Night”.
Now Oriel College, in the 1830s, was the chief seedbed of the Oxford Movement (sometimes called the Catholic Revival) in the Church of England. The Established Church of the eighteenth century has been characterized as “the Tory Party at prayer” and “an admirable extension of the Police Force”. The Oxford Movement effectively shifted the Church’s center of gravity in the direction of a recovered pre-Reformation sacramentalism and liturgical seriousness and away from evangelicalism on the one hand and mere civil religion on the other.
Blanco White met Whately at Oriel, but his greatest friend there (for a while) was the young John Henry Newman, later (1879) “Cardinal” Newman, and later still (2010) the “Blessed” J. H. Newman. Another close associate was Thomas Mozley, Newman’s one-time student and intimate friend, who late in his life published Reminiscences, Chiefly of Oriel, and the Oxford Movement (1882), wherein I discovered the following fascinating information. Blanco White was a keen violinist and an enthusiast for Beethoven, who had died only in 1827. Newman had played the violin since he was a boy. According to Mozley “Blanco White would seem to have thoroughly initiated Mr. Newman into the mysteries of Beethoven.” Before Newman converted to Rome, he converted to Bonn.
John Henry Cardinal Newman (portrait by Millais)
Mozley continues: “…but one person, I remember, played Beethoven as no one else, Blanco White. I don't know how he learned the violin, but he would seem to have inherited a tradition as to the method of playing him [Beethoven]….Night after night anyone walking in the silence of Merton Lane might hear his continual attempts to surmount some little difficulty, returning to it again and again like Philomel to her vain regrets….” With Reinagle, an Oxford musician, “Newman and Blanco White had frequent trios at the latter's lodgings, where I was all the audience.... Most interesting was it to contrast Blanco White's excited and indeed agitated countenance with Newman's sphinx-like immobility, as the latter drew long rich notes with a steady hand." Thus for a season Beethoven joined in concert the most famous Roman Catholic convert in England with its most celebrated apostate.
Wednesday, March 15, 2017
Yesterday, before the Northeast Corridor shut down quailing in anticipation of a major blizzard, I was supposed to teach the second scheduled class in a six-week course on the Purgatorio of Dante Alighieri. I shall hope to be able to get around to that next week. The venue is the Evergreen Forum, which is an admirable local “continuing education” institution encouraged by the Princeton Senior Center and mainly organized by highly competent volunteers. My less reverent name is “Geezer College,” as most of the students are approaching my own age, and a few have already reached it. Though it has courses—indeed an impressive array of them—it is a college without degrees or credits.
Dante’s Divine Comedy is indispensable but not easy. The meaning of divine in the title is theological. As for comedy, that is an obsolete literary term for a narrative depicting a happy triumph over difficult and dangerous circumstances. Of the more usual modern sense of absurdity or risibility there is little in Dante; but he does tell the story of a man who starts out in danger, fear, darkness and ignorance and ends up enlightened in awesome joy and a sea of dazzling photons.
The poem’s structure is careful. It has three long sections of roughly equal length devoted to the “kingdoms” of hell, purgatory, and heaven. These sections are called in Italian cantiche (singular cantica). Each cantica is divided into smaller divisions called cantos, averaging about a hundred and forty lines each. The total number of cantos is 100: 34 in Inferno, 33 each in Purgatorio and Paradiso. If we regard the very first canto as a kind of general introduction to the whole poem, a plausible accommodation, you find a wonderful tidiness of both trinitarian and centuple structure.
I am often asked to identify my “favorite” cantica. Certainly the Inferno is easiest of approach. It is the logical place to begin the poem and by far the best known part among the general educatied population. I am actually of the opinion that the three cantiche ascend in greatness as the pilgrim-narrator himself ascends. Moral aspiration is often talked about in medieval texts in terms of a tripartite hierarchy. Think of the “three lives” as personified in Piers Plowman: Do-well, Do-better, and Do-best. That would mean that Paradiso is the “greatest,” but it still might not answer the question about “favorite”.
Oversimplifying madly I think of the distinctive genius of the Inferno to be its geographies, that of Purgatorio its people, and that of Paradiso its ideas; but that is probably a personal idiosyncrasy. Physical setting, human character, and extraordinary ideas are everywhere throughout the whole poem. There is, however, one way in which the Purgatorio is imaginatively distinctive. The descent into the Underworld is one of the “conventions” of the classical epic. Even if Dante had not amazed us by importing Virgil as the second or third most important character in the Commedia, there’s plenty of textual evidence that the sixth book of the Aeneid (in which the hero visits the underworld) was ever in the Italian poet’s mind as he wrote. Furthermore, visions of Heaven, though not quite a dime a dozen, are very common in Christian monastic literature, where they often derive from the “vision” of the Heavenly City in the Apocalypse, the final book of the Christian Bible. So here, too, Dante had an established tradition to follow or to knowingly depart from. But when it came to Purgatory, he was pretty much flying solo.
Wednesday, March 8, 2017
Most people with some professional connection to American higher education probably know something about Middlebury, one of the country’s more distinguished liberal arts colleges. Its lovely campus dominates an overgrown Vermont village, itself something of a gem, laid out along Otter Creek in the Green Mountains—a little more than halfway up the state on the left-hand side, if you’re thinking in map terms. The school commands a national reputation primarily on the basis of several summer schools in which foreign languages are taught intensively and effectively, and for a Writers’ Conference famous among the nation's would-be scribblers. I happen to know the place better than I might because for about fifteen years I spent most summers there on visiting appointment as a member of the Bread Loaf School of English. Bread Loaf is the name of a mountain roughly seven miles up from the village itself, site of a one-time summer colony with a huge old hotel and a huge old barn that are now the center of the School. Though the teaching was intense and the work exhausting, I have only happy memories of those summers, including memories of fruitful colleagiality with several Middlebury faculty members.
Accordingly I was very distressed to learn from press reports that Middlebury College was recently the site of an outrageous episode of illiberal intellectual thuggery masquerading as high-minded and “progressive” political action. Using the proper administrative channels and receiving the appropriate administrative blessings, student members of the campus chapter of the American Enterprise Institute had invited Charles Murray to the campus to give a public lecture relating to aspects of his recent and much discussed work Coming Apart.
Charles Murray is a widely published and widely read sociologist and political theorist of definitely conservative tendency. His work has been highly controversial because of its numerous offenses against liberal orthodoxy and, especially, because his most famous book, The Bell Curve, allegedly dabbles in pseudo-scientific racism. In that sentence the most important word is the adverb allegedly. He is not a college professor, but he does have a Ph. D. in political science from M.I.T., for whatever that might be worth. He has been a fellow at various conservative “think tanks”, and is presently at the American Enterprise Institute—the organization with which his undergraduate hosts at Middlebury were affiliated. Murray is notably more renowned, productive, and intellectually influential than any political scientist at Middlebury College or most other educational institutions; but it is doubtful that he or any other soi-disant conservative thinker could ever get a job there. That is a simple reality of American academic life, and it is what chiefly accounts for the rise of the “think tank culture” that has provided many conservative scholars and thinkers with a quasi-academic setting in which they can work with a certain sense of intellectual community.
There was of course no idea in anyone’s mind of hiring Mr. Murray. The more obvious and burning question at Middlebury appeared to be whether such scum could be suffered to stand and deliver before a lectern for fifty minutes to people interested in hearing him, or whether on the whole it would not be preferable that he be forbidden to speak, be shouted down, drowned in insults and obscenities and infantile chants. Accounts of controversial events doubtless vary with the dispositions and predispositions of their narrators. But somebody at the event made a video of the whole thing. The production values are not particularly good, but it gives a definite sense of what happened.
The forewarned Middlebury College authorities were not entirely clueless. The president, Laurie Patton, attended and gave a little pep-talk about the ideals of liberal education. I do not know President Patton, but I wish her well. In her unsuccessful preliminary remarks—unsuccessful in that they failed entirely to prevent a scandalous episode that will be a long-lasting stain on her institution’s reputation—she said a number of good and sensible things. She said one or two really stupid ones as well. After ritually but cravenly assuring the crowd that she disagreed with Murray (about what?—the man was not allowed to utter a public word) she went on to praise the “brilliance” of every precious student at Middlebury and to thank them for coming. The protestors then released their brilliance in the form of a bedlam of repetitive chants such as “Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Charles Murray go away!” Another was “Your message is hatred; we will not tolerate it.” Murray, no stranger to student protest, had to credit at least the novelty of the anti-gay charge. And of course to identify his undelivered “message” as hatred required mind-reading, which I suppose is a kind of brilliance.
The speaker’s party eventually withdrew to a supposedly safe broadcasting bunker so that Murray might give his talk via CCTV. There he calmly, courteously, and urbanely soldiered on with a sort of off-the-cuff mini-lecture through muffled bangings and raucous fire alarms. A partial recording preserves enough of his comments to allow an intelligent person to adjudicate their degree of capital heresy. It was only after the whole thing was over that protesters physically attacked (by jostling, man-handling, and car-rocking) the speaker and his faculty “conversation partner,” sending her off to the hospital with a minor injury.
The Middlebury College Latin motto, a noble one, is so simple that you don’t need an advanced degree to get it: Scientia et Virtus. On the old college seal—very recently changed to accommodate the global aspirations of the institution--this motto curves in a semicircle atop an open book. I had many opportunities to study its Protestant iconography during lengthy graduation ceremonies at the Bread Loaf School. The book seems to be strangely radiant. I supposed it was sending off rays of, well, knowledge and virtue. But maybe they are just burning it.
Past and present
Tuesday, February 28, 2017
I see that this is the 399th in a series of weekly blog essays that began on June 13, 2009. Time sure flies when you’re having fun. Only rarely do I look back at this now sizable archive, and then mainly to fix in my mind the approximate date of this or that event or experience of the past eight years. That is the motive that led me to review the title of my very first blog post: “Of Columns, Communists, and Camões”. The “columns” part of this catchy title was pretty obvious, since my claim about the blog was that it would be the continuation of an earlier newspaper column. As for the Communists, I was just then publishing a book entitled The Anti-Communist Manifestos. Finally—and this is the punch-line of this shaggy-dog paragraph—I was seriously projecting a book devoted to the Portuguese poet Luís de Camões.
I do not know how fine my mill wheels grind, but I can certainly boast that they grind exceeding slowly. This past week has been spent with the proof sheets of Luís de Camões: The Poet As Scriptural Exegete. I would appear to have prosecuted this project at a rate of about a word an hour for the last eight years. If the center holds and the creeks don’t rise, an eager world can expect this important contribution to Camonian Studies in June or July, just in time to take to the beach. I have not done any proofreading in rather a long time. Readers of the blog will already sense that I am not particularly good at it. Only the fact that Joan has given the once-over to most of the essays keeps the mechanical quality at any acceptable level. Readers not infrequently draw my attention to more or less egregious flaws found on unjoaned pages. The kinder ones do it through my private email address.
As a matter of fact—and this is not special pleading—it is much easier to proofread something written by somebody else than something of one’s own. We tend to see not what is actually on the proof sheet but what we want to see there or what we think we remember writing. Although the early printers boasted that their new technology allowed authorial correction in proof, in actual fact their professional proofreaders were usually underemployed arts graduates who failed to get tenure in a reputable academic institution. They were called “correctors to the press,” and they were generally erudite Latinists with a tolerance for execrable handwriting rather than “independent scholars.”
The learned body of correctors to the press had their own informal guild, and they worked zealously if not always successfully to keep howlers out of publications destined for the erudite. Some developed theories of proofreading. The earliest handbook known to me on this subject (Leipzig: apud Michaelem Lanzenbergum, 1608), the work of a corrector named Jerome Hornschuch, is entitled, in Greek, Orthotypographias. If you know what an orthodontist or an orthopedist does, figuring out what an orthotypographer does is a piece of cake; and, fortunately, once you get beyond the title the rest of the book is in Latin.
“The proofreader [writes Hornschuch] should scrupulously avoid giving himself over to choler, to love, to sadness, or indeed yielding to any of the lively emotions….Especially should he shun drunkenness, for is there an individual with vision more deranged, or of greater degree of stupidity, than the idiotic corrector who transforms Ranam into Dianam and Dianam into Ranam?”* (A rana is a frog, whereas Diana is the goddess of the hunt, so that such a metamorphosis would be out of bounds even for Ovid.) I pretty much meet the standard. The lively emotions exist for me largely in memory, and I coddle my liver. But I still cannot proofread my way out of a wet paper bag.
I take comfort from the fact that some of the world’s greatest scholars have been notorious for their orthotypographical ineptitude. My own great master D. W. Robertson, Jr., in his engaging little book on Medieval London, mentions a certain church where the devout John of Gaunt sometimes went to play. That is, however, child’s pray compared with the howler from which a keen-eyed referee of my current manuscript rescued me. In a passage in which I was attempting to praise the late Vasco Graça Moura, a versatile Portuguese man of letters and traditionalist defender of the peninsular Lusitanian tongue, I wrote that he “was himself very much a Renaissance man: lawyer, politician, poet, pubic intellectual…”
Oh, well. I once read a book about the literary scene in Edwardian London. One of the most prominent English men of letters of that period was Edmund Gosse, perhaps best known today for his remarkable autobiography Father and Son. This author featured prominently in the book to which I refer, which was something of a festival of typographical errors. The library copy I read had pasted into it a list of “Corrigenda”—that is, “things to be corrected,” errors caught only after the book was printed. It began with the most poignant corrigendum I am ever likely to read: “For Goose, read Gosse throughout.”
*translation from the delightful pamphlet The Corrector of the Press in the Early Days of Printing (1922), by the great American bibliographer Douglas McMurtrie.
Wednesday, February 22, 2017
We just had a great weekend that included an overnight visit from old friends abetted on the meteorological front by an unexpected premonition of spring. There were a couple of memorable meals and lots of good talk. Joan and I capped it off by attending a “National Theater Live” filming of Shaw’s Saint Joan in a terrific production with a brilliant rendition of Joan by Gemma Arteton. The weekend also included one curious incident, beyond that of the dog in the night, that is.
Shortly before nine on Sunday morning I was driving toward church with our friend Susan when my clunky old flip-top cell phone rang. Now my cell phone seldom rings, and practically never while I am driving. On the rare occasions that does happen, I practically never try to answer it. But this time there was an unusual convergence of circumstances that encouraged me to do so. There was to begin with an ideal place to pull over and stop; secondly, I actually knew where the phone was and that I could easily reach it; third, I believed that the likely caller was my wife, who had forty minutes earlier set off to the hospital to see another close friend who (we had learned) had been taken there the previous night with a heart scare. So I pulled over and answered the phone.
However, the caller was not my wife but my daughter in New York. The conversation went like this—
J: Hi, hon…
K. I’m very glad to hear your voice!
It is always nice to feel appreciated, but this was a slightly odd remark, given that she rather frequently hears my voice without commenting upon the fact and, as I thought I remembered, had done so quite recently. Heard my voice, I mean.
But there was an explanation. She had just received an email from an eminent medievalist, a colleague of hers presently resident in Oxford, expressing her condolences upon the occasion of her father’s death, and soliciting suggestions for possible authors of a memorial notice to be published in Speculum, that best-selling quarterly organ of the Medieval Academy of America. The rumor of my demise, which I must characterize as grossly exaggerated if not flat-out fake news, had in fact originated at Academy headquarters in Cambridge, Mass. That Sunday was very busy, and by the time I broke free the rumor had been apologetically retracted quite without my intervention. I felt no desire to make further inquiry into it. However, I continued on to church with an augmented appreciation of my continuing existence and received Communion with an augmented sense of gratitude.
“It must have been some other John Fleming.” That’s the best the medievalists could come up with by way of excuse. John Fleming is not a common name. On the other hand, it is not exactly what you would call an unusual name either. At all points of my career there have always been two or three other John Flemings out there helping to besmirch or to burnish my reputation. One of them was the pre-eminent rare book dealer in New York. I never met him. He operated out of baronial offices on East Fifty-Seventh Street, where he had become wealthy flipping Gutenberg Bibles and Shakespeare First Folios. He was supposed to have chopped up one or two precious medieval manuscripts in order to maximize profit by selling the individual illuminated pages. It is hard to believe that so cultivated a man could be guilty of so philistine an act, and I report rather than affirm the accusation. What I can say with more confidence is that several manuscript experts in the medieval field were no less certain that John Fleming was a vandal than that I was John Fleming. I have reason to believe that misprision once cost me a place on the ballot of the New Chaucer Society! But sometimes what you lose on the roundabouts you can make up for on the straightaways. There was a prolific British art historian named John Fleming, who often collaborated with his life partner Hugh Honour. Several times when I was about to give a guest lecturer or participate in a conference panel the presider or introducer attributed to me, with glowing commentary, one or more of the important books produced by this couple.
This is, however, the first time I had been credited with another man’s death.
Descartes’s best known contribution to philosophy is sometimes called simply the Cogito, Latin for “I think”. You can arrive at certain grounds for belief in your existence simply by thinking about it. “I think; therefore I am”; for even if the mode of that thought be doubt, it requires an extant mind to do the doubting. So on this one I elect to go with the Cogito.
Wednesday, February 15, 2017
I was in my CVS the other day picking up the medical prescription of the week, and I could barely make it to the back, where the pharmacy counter is, through the large stacks of bright red Valentiniana clogging the aisles: greetings cards, heart-shaped gewgags too numerous to catalogue, and three or four metric tons of chocolate of pedestrian quality. “Aha,” I thought to myself, “Saint Valentine’s Day must be approaching.” In the words of our president, I am like a smart man. But one of the advantages of marrying an English spouse who came of age during Post-War British Austerity is that such a person was unlikely even to know what Saint Valentine’s Day is, let alone be prepared to show offense when roses fail show up in timely fashion.
Despite naturalization and fifty odd years of acculturation she has mostly acquiesced in continuing to ignore the day. Mentions of its arrival in this household are generally muted or ironic, and gift exchanges have been very rare. So when I crept out of bed in the pre-dawn on February 14th and padded off to the kitchen I was most disconcerted to see in the middle of the breakfast table a large package in gift wrapping with an affectionate note that concluded “fooled you…” Indeed she had fooled me, but I still had a good hour before she would arise. It is not always convenient to work out of a “study” that approximates in the profusion and miscellaneous character of its crowded contents those of Dickens’s Old Curiosity Shop, but on rare occasions, such as this one, it can pay off. I was able to rummage about and come up with an as yet ungifted antique ornament as well as a gold-foil box in which to present it. I put the box on the kitchen table. This ploy would fool absolutely nobody, I knew, but it provided me with at least a flimsy ethical fig leaf in which I might face the dawn. My own gift, when eventually unwrapped, turned out to be a delightful small tableau in watercolor and paper appliqué by a prominent local artist and musician.
The first thing to know about Valentine’s Day is that it is, or should be, strictly for the birds. According to premodern ornithology, the fourteenth of February was the day on which the various birds chose their mates. The first substantial reference to this mating festival comes from a curious poem of Chaucer’s written well over six hundred years ago. In a list of his works once made by the poet himself it is called “The Book of Seint Valentynes Day of the Parlement of Briddes”—parliament meaning, of course, jaw-boning, chewing the fat, debating, or simply having a good natter.
The discovery of any possible connection between talking birds and any saint named Valentine has remained elusive given the fact that what we know about the former is probably more reliable than what we know about the latter. Saint Valentine is one of numerous hagiographical mysteries—hagiography being the literary genre of sacred biography. The great scholarly work on Christian hagiography, begun by a squad of Jesuit historian-philologists in the early seventeenth century and still in progress as I write, is called the Acta Sanctorum. Only the most physically fit among us can hoist a volume of this work and only the most erudite have the slightest chance of getting anything out of it once hoisted. The rest of us would do well to make recourse to one of two relatively brief English language popularizations (a mere twelve to sixteen volumes each), both entitled The Lives of the Saints. These are the work, respectively, of an eighteenth-century Roman Catholic priest named Alban Butler and a nineteenth-century Anglican priest named Sabine Baring-Gould. It is not mere sectarian bigotry that leads me to prefer the latter. Baring-Gould is one of the great if underappreciated eccentrics of English literature, not be mention being the actual godfather of Sherlock Holmes.
As Baring-Gould makes clear our first problem concerning Saint Valentine is that of the plurality of bodies. The real Valentine was a Roman priest persecuted by the Emperor Claudius II—aptly known as “Claudius Gothicus”. The Emperor, miffed by Valentine’s indiscriminate working of miracles no less than by his successful evangelism, “condemned Valentine to be beaten with clubs, and afterwards beheaded. He suffered on the Flaminian Way, on February 14th, A. D. 269. The body of S. Valentine is preserved in the Church of S. Praxedis, in Rome; but the head in that of S. Sebastian.” I myself have on more than one occasion accidentally left my hat behind, but forgetting one’s whole head suggests to me a level of distraction nearly culpable. Yet I find nothing avian about this martyr, and certainly nothing erotic. No more promising in this regard is any of the eight other Valentinian corpses catalogued by Baring-Gould, including that venerated in Annecy, that donated by Pope Urban VIII to the monastery of Socuellamos in Albacete, Spain, that treasured in Hamme in Belgium, or that “given in 1651 to the Jesuits of Ghent.” Some mysteries must simply be granted leave to retain their mysteriousness.
"Be Mine!" Paper and pigment, 13.5 x. 13.5 cms. K. Amon, American, early twenty-first century.
Wednesday, February 8, 2017
Sam Clemens, Printer's Devil with his composing stick
My claims to be a letterpress printer become increasingly threadbare, as my annual production is reduced to a few classy envelopes and a minimalist Christmas card. But heavy printing equipment still monopolizes a goodly part of my living space, and I remain attuned in various ways to matters typographical, which show up in unexpected places. I would not have thought it likely that at my august age I would find myself reading for the very first time a “new” work by Mark Twain, but that is what happened when I picked up my volume of The Gilded Age and Later Novels and started on the very latest: 44, The Mysterious Stranger.
For a novel that is perplexingly incoherent, incomprehensible, and incomplete, it is a pretty engaging read. I might call it “post-modern” had it not been completed before Modernism is supposed to have begun in 1913, and I do call it “magical realism,” which is at least two thousand years older than Gabriel García Márquez.
The time of the novel is the late fifteenth century, the setting a strange Austrian castle occupied by a printer’s shop. The first-person narrator is a sixteen-year-old apprentice named August Feldner: a job the novelist himself once had. The printers are engaged in the enormous task of producing a large edition of a Latin Bible for the ecclesiastical authorities. There is in the book a strong strain of Masonic anti-Catholicism that has to be genuine Mark Twain and reminded me of both my grandfathers.
A book report on The Mysterious Stranger could make a decent blog essay, but the tangent I prefer to pursue is invited by the book’s extraordinarily rich and accurate vocabulary of letterpress printing technology. The author is all over quoins and friskets, makereadies and the “stone” that was as fundamental to printers as to alchemists. There can have been but few writers more typographically attuned than Mark Twain—for which fact there is a very good explanation. Long before he was Mark Twain, Sam Clemens had put in many a weary hour in the print shop. It is furthermore true that even more memorable than the means by which one becomes rich are those through which one becomes bankrupt.
Everyone knows about Johannes Gutenberg, but how many know about Ottmar Mergenthaler? How many fewer about James W. Paige? Gutenberg’s double invention, which brought together finely cast movable types with a machine capable of accurately exerting considerable leveraged pressure against them, effected a true “paradigm shift” in the manner of reproducing a written text. It is a sometimes sad truth of industrial history that if a repetitive task performed by human hand can be performed by a machine instead, the machine will win out. Today we tend to emphasize volume: the printing press could produce an indefinitely large number of identical pages at a rate no scribe or scriptorium full of scribes could hope to match. The early printers themselves stressed also accuracy: the printed word could carry the authority of having been corrected in proof by an expert editor or even the author himself.
It is an exaggeration, though one I permit myself, to say that Gutenburg’s printing technology of 1450 remained largely unchanged until roughly 1950. In that same period the demand for printed materials increased astronomically. My guess would be that in the period between 1750 and 1850 demand probably doubled. Presses could be and were improved and speeded up by the application of mechanical power, but there remained a bottleneck: the types had to be set by hand. Compositors (type-setters) might become amazingly agile and productive as compared with their Renaissance predecessors; but the entire printing industry knew that the next big thing had to be an automatic type-setting machine. Certainly Samuel Clemens did.
By the middle of the nineteenth century inventors throughout the industrialized world were hard at work on the idea. But America was the Land of Invention, and it would be two Americans who in the 1870s would independently and almost simultaneously succeed: James Paige (1842-1917), an engineer from Rochester, and the German immigrant Ottmar Mergenthaler (1854-1899). Paige won the prize for bells and whistles, Mergenthaler for lateral thinking. Unfortunately Mark Twain put his money, and I mean all his money, on the Paige Compositor. That is, he invested heavily in a project that might have made him a millionaire.
Paige had come up with a huge and almost supernaturally complicated machine that set individual pieces of type as a human compositor would, only much faster. A firm believer that hypothetical perfection should ever war against achieved adequacy, he then kept fiddling with improvements for years while his competitor went into production. This competitor, Mergenthaler, had had one of history’s great brain waves. His machine would not juggle thousands of small pieces of “cold” foundry type just dying to misbehave; it would be instead a small foundry itself, casting in hot metal whole solid, stable lines of text as they would appear in the columns of a newspaper or pages of a book. For this reason he called his invention the Linotype Machine.
Merganthaler's Linotype machine
In his will Shakespeare famously bequeathed to his wife his “second best bed”—a legacy no doubt generously conceived and gratefully accepted. But second best is not always good enough. The vast printing industry of the late nineteenth century turned out to be cruelly uninterested in the second best mechanical composing machine on offer even if a great American writer had bet the farm on it. These days, of course, only a few antiquarians like myself are interested in metal type at all—hot or cold. No doubt there are also those who collect Betamax and buggy whips.