Archive for January 28th, 2013

Swift’s Battle of the Books

Dear friends and readers,

Nearly a month has gone by since Jim and I returned from the MLA and tonight is the first chance I’ve had where I have time and energy and there is a space on this blog to transcribe some of what was said at the 18th century sessions. But now going through my notes I’ve discovered that although I went to about 5 sessions which focused on 18th century matters wholly, 3 of these were either too detailed so that I couldn’t get the history or theoretical point of view down accurately enough even to give a gist of the talk. Sometimes there was insufficient concrete content (information and specific insight) to lend itself to summarizing. The two I can report on here were on literature, and both occurred on the very last day, Sunday morning just before it was time to rush back to the train to go home. A third (I’ve put in the comments) session (Friday afternoon) I can record a telling idea about transitional attitudes towards dress in eighteenth century celebrities.

The reality is that although this MLA was described as being more open to older literary designations, the kinds of papers given in most of the sessions I attended were often post-modern, somewhat theoretical, about book history or globalization: one of the sessions on the 18th century, was chock-a-block filled with information on the history and economics of slavery in the US colonies in the 18th century, economic and political history. I wish I could have taken sounder notes for I heard some things said which suggested to me a certain complacency about slavery (analogous to complacency about people losing jobs, starving, trafficked today), or I heard a sound critique of the 18th century economic banking and philosophical laissez-faire (this time a humane point of view which could be used analogously to understand what is happening in our world today).



So I was glad I got up early enough to make the 8:30 am session (Sun, Jan 6th, No 682) called “Scriblerians at Three Hundred” because I could take in what was said readily and learned that the existence of a Scriblerian Club was not a myth although the way it manifested itself among its participants was not quite as had been envisaged originally by George Sherburn.

Judith Hawley’s “The Metamorphosis of Martin the Scribbler, 1723-1800,” came first. She began by describing Kerby Miller’s edition of the works of the Scriblerian Club and then an essay by Ashley Marshall, “The Myth of the Scriblerians,” BJECS 31 (2008):77-99. Prof Hawley suggested it was true that the group never meant to publish a Memoirs like Kerby Miller’s. She cited Dustin Griffin who wrote that the individuals continued to write and to keep in touch with one another after the group was spit but that the Club was an idea invented by Sherburne. Hawley countered that what happened among them (the writing of several works prompted by their meetings and outlook) was a fluid contingent process. It was Pope who published the works of Scriblerius in Volume 2 of his complete works. Pope kept the project in mind and tried to publish a memoirs. He had a definite aim to ridicule false taste and false learning. The book was to be called The Works of the Unlearned.

We can capture what happened by looking at an “avante text,” the kind of text people put together previous to publication: hints written down, letters, single collaborative works, short pieces. Martin Scriblerius was an invented character who stood for a group of ideas sometimes referred to as “lucubrations” really obscure half-understood notions. The word was intended to make fun. When Swift left for Ireland and both Parnell and Gay died, Pope carried on with the point of view himself. They were all going against aspects of the mainstream culture.

Hawley identified three attempts. 1727-32 Peri Bathous, Gulliver’s Travels, Beggar’s Opera and the first Dunciad (1729). These were interrupted (so to speak) and made difficult for Pope by copyright and other kinds of quarrels, with Curll. 1737 was the second attempt. Curll had published an unauthorized edition of Cromwell’s letter (a friend of Pope) but Pope himself used sleazy and dishonest methods to get what he wanted into print. Then finally in 1741 Volume 2 of Pope’s Works (to do which he had had to play a trick on Swift. There were man lies and evasions along the way of all the publications, and not everything each man published fits into the perspective. The farcical play, Three Hours after Marriage was published 1717, and of course Pope published elegiac poetry, Swift political Irish satire, Gay his Trivia and Fables.

You might say that if there is a myth it was begun by Pope in the 1730s; not by Sherburn in the 1930s.


ILeana Baird turned her attention to “Scriblerians in the Public Sphere.” She suggested that the origins of the club can be traced to Pope, and it was one of many clubs in the era. It included Pope. Gay, Parnell, Swift, Arbuthot and Robert Harley (Earl of Oxford). In January 1714 they met in Arbuthnot’s rooms and invented a character who epitomized the qualities of the people and kind of writing they reprehended. She saw the big publications as the Peri Bathous (a parody of Longinus), the Dunciad. The 1741 publication enabled the recognition of Martin, this character, presented as engaged in all sorts of projects, mathematical, science; and writing against liberty and for corruption. Volume 2 of Pope’s Works is an important text to study to get at the undertones of the era.

Then other people began to publish imitations, only some of which shared the original group’s attitudes. (Not that there were all that homogenous.) Among these remembered today are Fielding’s Author’s Farce by H. Scriblerus Secondus, The Tragedy of Tragedies, the Grub Street Opera. She described oddities like “the Old Woman’s Dunciad” by Wm Kendrick whose purpose was to improve language. The Scriblerus name appeared on 841 works (she said). There were also people writing in the vein, e.g., Laurence Sterne in Tristram Shandy and coffeehouse culture of the era.

Pope’s grotto: from Maynard Mack’s The Garden and the City, a romantic perspective is taken

Matthew Reilly’s paper was also a response to Ashley Marshall’s argument but he focused on a specific episode where the Scriblerians made fun of the orientalism of the era. He also discussed a conscious revival of the Scriberian point of view between 1930 and 1963. Sitwell wrote a book which attacked the then romantic point of view in biographies of Pope; he found its Wordsworthian ideals a bore and at the time a number of British critics praised it: Tillotson, Ault, Eric Blair (Orwell).

The situation morphs to where Wyndham Lewis mocks Sitwell; she is a subversive playing with literary history. The idea could be used to attack other groups as pious bores or elitists (Bloomsbury crowd). McLuhan used the attitude. Reilly felt Nabokov wrote the last Scriblerian texts (Pale Fire). Since then there have been revivals of fueds over Pope’s Scriblerus canon, with sometimes the faultline being US (where the romantic view became prevalent) versus the UK.

Helene Deutsche’s was the last paper. She focused on Swift and argued that Said had worked for a long time on Swift as an embattled critic against fatuity; Swift became a kind of model for Said; both exiles, estranged. She went through Said’s papers at Columbia and found Said fascinated by Swift’s intellectual conscientious troubled conservatism. Swift stood in his mind for someone who made scholars uncomfortable; as a presence Swift haunted Said. Hope can come from enraged despair. She brought out other collocations; a Shakespearean scholar who reads Blake for compensatory refuge.

Pehr Hilleström (Swedish artist, 1732-1816) A Maid Taking Soup from a Cauldronblog
Pehr Hillestrom (1732-1816): A Maid taking Soup from a Caldron

The second wholly 18th century session I can report on for that morning (Jan 6th, Sun, 713) was Victoria Warren’s “‘Delight and Instruct;’ Restoration and Early 18th century Entertainment. Catherine Keohahn told us about her attempt to teach a class of students about specific political tracts and stories of Defoe and Swift. The students had to understand the contemporary references by reading historical background and then allegorize the material to see how the specifics related to family and state. When they did that, they could see how these works related to their own lives and political situations today.

Marta Hess’s paper was on 18th century cookbooks. In 1730 Eliza Smith published The Compleat Housewife. It went through 16 editions and was a kind of “accomplish’d gentlewoman’s companion.” Every effort is made to be useful, not to talk down, to refer to books the audience would respect and to help the potential reader try to elevate her status and what she was doing. In the same year Carter produced a cookbook where the strategy is to promote herself as sophisticated and worldly. Carter helps her reader to impress people; she flatters, makes her readers feel important, tells of famous people who did this or that. A 1932 cookbook envisages a big household; it’s aspiring, & tells of dinners with 36 dishes. The 1759 The Ladies’ Assistant in the Economy of the Table is filled with recipes & costs as well as evaluations of the recipes in other books. Hess remarked on how recipes which resemble modern ones have different titles: Four Knights of Windsor sounds like French toast.


Victoria’s paper was about Restoration comedy in general with her focus on Ravenscroft’s London Cuckolds;. After describing the specifics of the play (which I have seen done in London in the 1980s), Victoria wanted us to see that the play is a sexual romp, blithely indecent. Its satire on middle class London citizens, its aristocratic heroes and unchaste heroines are found in many other similar plays of the era, from Dryden’s to Durfey’s to Behn’s. Basically she undercut the kind of solemn sociological and politicizing readings (political moralizing) that so many critics use to justify our reading and watching these plays. Hers was a refreshing paper.

John Richetti’s was on the difference between what’s popular and what almost despite itself rises above what draws a wide audience (which does not want any disturbing ideas or feelings). He compared verse by Ned Ward and Swift and by reading the verses themselves demonstrated that Swift’s language has a deep scabrous feel, a primal energy, incisive verse that makes it rise above the merely lubricious bawdy that Ward purveyed. We can find the same kind of strong genius in Pope’s verse, high vileness (so to speak), extraordinary intensity, mythological. It was very enjoyable to listen to Prof Richetti read aloud the poems he had chosen.

For Celebrity Dress, see comments.

Mrs Mary Robinson by George Romney

I wish I had more 18th century sessions to report on, for in the other sessions I can report on there were only occasional references or perhaps an individual part of a paper on some 18th century topic. There were 2 sessions on Austen but both conflicted with something else I was going to. (Over on Ellen and Jim have a blog, two is where I’ll report on papers and sessions on modern, 19th century & American texts as well as modern film.) I like to write up what I read, what I see, where we go because then I can come back and read what I once knew and re-remember it. When I don’t write up what I heard it quickly becomes blurry and more than half-forgotten or misremembered and then in a real sense lost to me.


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