Saturday, November 22, 2008
Norton Critical Editions!
Our ongoing feature of highlighting certain series of books must surely include Norton Critical Editions published for lo, these many decades by W.W. Norton. These books, as many of you will know, revolve around an idea of inspired simplicity: why not bring out editions of classic works that present those works in context? Not just a windy, aphoristic Introduction, but actual give-and-take, the specific details of a book's original setting, and some indication of its continued place in the stream of ideas.
In other words (even repulsive, industry-jargon words), it's reception.
In the long decades before the Norton Critical Editions showed up, eager readers (and mournful students) seeking to know such contextual details had to spend hours in the library, swinging from one secondary reference to the next like gibbons, always wondering if they were seeing everything - or even a fair representation of everything. Annotated editions of key texts were commercially available, and sometimes so were author- or book-specific collections of essays, but never the two in the place (yours truly well remembers the headache of hunting for those two separate things regarding Milton, one bitterly cold winter in Providence, many moons ago).
The Norton Critical Editions, largely filling that void, are therefore something like a shelf-full of miracles. Here you get a good solid edition of whatever primary-source work of literature you want (a huge variety is spanned, from Homer to Shakespeare to Wordsworth), plus a painstaking selection of contemporary responses to that work (where they're available), generous footnotes, and best of all, a collection of modern essays responding to the work.
The combination of all these things serves to situate the book in its own traditions better than anything short of a university lecture-course. Here you get not only War and Peace (in George Gibian's remarkably good revision of the classic Maude translation), which is all that most other editions even attempt, but you also get a helpful smattering of Russian critics from Tolstoy's era on, as when Tolstoy's correspondent Nikolai Strakhov wrote:
The picture of human life is complete.
The picture of the Russian of those days is complete.
The picture of what we call history an the struggle of nations is complete.
The picture of everything that people consider to be their happiness and greatness, their sorrow and their humiliation, is complete. This is what War and Peace is.
And can anybody doubt which killjoy wrote this?
Tolstoy is ridiculous as a prophet who has discovered new recipes for the salvation of mankind - and therefore the foreign and Russian "Tolstoyans" who desire to transform what is actually the weakest aspect of his teaching into a dogma are absolutely contemptible.
Yep - V.I. Lenin, take a bow!
Of course, it's possible to predict that the gathering of later scholarly reactions to any work would be unimaginably tedious, literary scholars being perpetrators of some of the densest, least-rewarding prose in the history of mankind. And lawd knows, sometimes this prediction is spot-on, such as when David Spitz gets going about John Stuart Mill's ultra-cerebral On Liberty:
Mill does not say that freedom of expression is of the same importance as freedom of thought; he says it is almost as important. He does not rest its defense on the same reasons; he would defend it in great part on the same reasons. He does not say that freedom of expression is identical to or inseparable from freedom of thought; he says only that it is practically inseparable from it.
Yeesh. Nobody's saying that Spitz is a hair-splitting old windbag; only that he's almost certainly a hair-splitting old windbag.
But all is not obfuscation! Academic discourse can be scintillating (it should always be so, but then, what school of writing has only worthies in its ranks?), and when the editor of a particular Norton Critical volume picks the right modern academics - and the right parts of their works - the result can often be a collection of writing that's just plain exciting.
'Exciting' isn't a word most of you would associate with Tennyson, for instance, but read a little of the great Arthur Carr on that Victorian master-poet, about whom Auden famously said, "there was little about melancholia that he didn't know; there was little else that he did":
In the presence of such a figure it is no wonder that critics who are also poets grow nervous and exasperated. They see in Tennyson not an open but a covert capitulation, perhaps involuntary though not altogether unconscious. Yet he is our true precursor. He shows and hides, as if in embryo, a master theme of Joyce's Ulysses - the accentuated and moody self-consciousness and the sense of loss that mark Stephen Dedalus. He forecasts Yeats' interest in the private myth. He apprehended in advance of Aldous Huxley the uses of mysticism to castigate materialistic culture. And in Maud, at least, he prepared the way for the verse of Eliot's 'Preludes' and 'Prufrock.'
If a pronouncement like that doesn't make even the most complacent poetry faddist rethink Tennyson a little, nothing will. The chief glory of the Norton Critical Editions is that so many of them contain so many such revelations, all gathered together for your convenience. Take Edmund Spenser, for example: he's unknown outside of academia today, his great works unread by the general public and only very reluctantly read by yoked and grudging students - and yet he's leapingly great, lightning flashing in a clear sky, and Hugh Maclean, in his Norton edition of Spenser, pulls together a collection of scholars of such easy learning and clear readability that even faddists might be in danger of having their minds opened a little, as when Douglas Bush says:
The Elizabethans, despite their generally superior knowledge of Latin and sometimes Greek authors, were very often content, like their medieval predecessors, to gather their mythological nosegays from the nearest conservatory.
Or when the great academic Northrop Frye gives a characteristic twist to interpreting Spenser's greatest work:
Private and public education, then, are the central themes of The Faerie Queene. If we had to find a single word for the virtue underlying all private education, the best word would perhaps be fidelity: that unswerving loyalty to an ideal which is virtue, to a single lady which is love, and to the demands of one's calling which is courage.
The collected Norton Critical Editions form a very large and varied library: there are great volumes on Darwin, Newton, Erasmus, Chaucer, Ben Jonson, Lord Byron, the pig Martin Luther, Oedipus Rex, Hamlet, Boccaccio, on myths and currents of philosophy, and even on little-known and rightly-ignored minor female authors. And the series is ongoing, constantly refining, supplementing, and enlarging a catalog that's already a wonder of the literary world. Nobody needs to have all of these volumes, but everybody with a favorite author or time period from the Western Canon should have the pertinent volumes, because every specialization has to have a starting-point, and there's no better starting-point for a work of literature than a Norton Critical Edition devoted to it.