Wednesday, May 15, 2019
D. D. Home Getting a Rise Out of His Aucience
One of my two academic children, the anthropological one in Montreal, recently approached me to voice concern about my scholarly Nachlass. I use the German term, which is slightly less spooky than the English relics or remains. Luke knows that I have written quite a lot of stuff over the years, including boxfulls of still unpublished papers, just lying around. What is worse from a scholar’s perspective is that I do not even have a complete list, or bibliography, of published works. He wants all this to be available to the world; and it speaks eloquently of his character that the legacy that concerns him is this one.
This is where Academia.edu comes in. Luke suggested it is the solution to the Nachlass problem. Academia.edu is a huge platform, a single vast composite scholarly journal where academics can display their work, completed or in progress, and discover interesting work by other scholars. It is a showcase of brainy Zuckerbergian “connectivity”. Many famous scholars participate, include numerous of my friends and old students. It seems to be particularly well-patronized by younger scholars, for whom it can serve as a professional showcase. The Academicians tell you how many readers you have, how many times your name has been mentioned by others. It’s sort of like Tinder, as I understand it, except that position aimed for is not temporary and horizontal but vertical and tenured.
I actually had signed up a long time ago, though I had forgotten. I forgot, too, that I had even published an essay there—a piece about Delmore Schwartz’s short story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities”. I won’t tell you how I came to write that. But since I clearly didn’t understand the system, my method of presenting it was as effective as filing it in a locked drawer. So I needed to begin again. The first scholarly squibs I committed to posterity are probably in the pages of Notes & Queries around 1963. Pending further searching, I can do nothing more on that score. But my very first published essay I did remember well. It dealt with philological minutiae in Browning’s dramatic dialogue “Mr. Sludge the Medium”. The model for the satirized subject of this poem was a famous Hiberno-American spiritualist, D. D. Home (1833-1886), who had a sensational international career as a psychic, clairvoyant, levitator and table-rapping medium. Browning obviously thought him a humbug. Home had emigrated to America as a boy and spent his years of linguistic formation in upstate New York before returning to Britain to conduct séances for the rich and famous. It occurred to me in reading “Mr. Sludge” that among other objects of Browning’s scorn were possible Americanisms in Home’s English. They are the subject of “Browning’s Yankee Medium”, which was published in the journal American Speech, vol. 29, in 1964. Were I to write a précis of this brief essay it would go something like this: “A seminar paper dealing with some minor philological points in a poem you have never read by a Victorian poet most people have forgotten.” I mounted this paper into my barren niche at Academia.edu.
What happened next was dramatic. Within twenty-four hours my paper had attracted one thousand, three hundred readers from all over the interconnected world. Academia.edu congratulated me upon being, at the moment, among the top 1.6% humanistic scholars in their whole outfit. They further suggested that I upgrade from the free service to “Academia Prime,” which I could do for the mere pittance of a hundred bucks. The advantages of Academia Prime, though actually a little opaque to me, clearly promised yet more cossetting of the ego, and I sprang for it. Maybe I could get it down to 1.5%? Having satisfied the demands of historical priority, I then set out more seriously to implement Luke’s suggested plan, which was to begin by posting now and again a previously unpublished essay in conjunction with one that, though published, was to be found only in a rather obscure place. As the example of the former I mounted “The Many Musics of Luís de Camões,” a literary-musico study of the Portuguese epic poet. From the latter group I sought out an underappreciated essay on the relics of Thomas à Becket in his medieval shrine at Canterbury. The first of these is merely brilliant, the second transcendentally so.
You can accordingly imagine my puzzlement at what can at best be described as a muted response from the Internet. I did not attract thirteen hundred new readers. Five people took a look at the Camões essay; that was the same number that over a period of probably three years had read my essay on dreams. However, nobody had looked at the masterpiece on the Becket relics.
A few nights ago, at a friend’s book-launching party, I talked with an eminent nonagenarian colleague with whom I had not conversed in many months. He told me he was writing a book. That did not surprise me. He has written many fine books, one of his themes in retirement being his youthful military service as an aviator in World War II. But the subject of the work-in-progress did surprise me: Shakespeare’s King Lear. He said he had at last understood the essence of Lear’s tragedy, as crystallized in a terrible scene (iv, 7) in which the King in his insanity is able to recognize neither his loving daughter Cordelia nor his faithful liegeman Kent. The King says I am a very foolish fond old man, fourscore and upward…a likely prospect for a upgrade, I’d say.