Thursday, December 3, 2009

"such a lonely little boy. lonely then and lonelier now."

last night i finished my last grad school library science paper. perhaps in after years this will take on major significance in my life, but mostly it was just another paper and i wrote it and now it's done and i'm okay with that.

i managed to wrangle out a paper topic i was rather proud of. in the face of a suggested list of topics from my professor which included "write about the history of a typeface" and "consider biblioklepts over the years" (okay, they were really cooler than that, but you get the idea), i put together a proposal to write about the history of books in horror fiction.

really, this was just an excuse to re-read a lot of h.p. lovecraft and call it schoolwork.

and it mostly worked. i can't say this is the best paper i've ever written or anything like that, but it's a fairly solid paper; i know it would go over well with either of my history professors, but the lis professors are a peculiar and uneven crowd and difficult to foreguess. we'll see what happens. i am proud of myself for writing a single paper which allowed me to footnote -- within nine pages! -- jane austen, neil gaiman, stephen king, and neal stephenson. oh, and some academic'y stuff, too.

anyway, this is really one long lead-up to what i actually wanted to talk about which was a biography of m.r. james that i read for the paper. (i mostly wrote about two short stories james wrote -- "canon alberic's scrap-book" and "the tractate middoth" and a bunch of miscellaneous lovecraft including "the case of charles dexter ward," "the dunwich horror," and "at the mountains of madness.")

james was a late victorian, born in kent in the mid-nineteenth century, went to eton, then to king's, then proceeded onto the kind of calm, untroubled academic existence that e.m. forster and evelyn waugh, in very different ways, blew right out of the water with maurice and brideshead revisited. (to say nothing of dorothy sayers and gaudy night.) so, in order to garner any useful biographical details -- perhaps best described as "gobbets" in the tradition of irwin from the history boys -- about james's career as an antiquarian and rare books enthusiast for my paper, i read this biography, m.r. james: an intimate portrait, by michael cox. published in 1983 and before you ask -- how can it then be "intimate" when the author was, at best, an infant when the subject was in his last years? who knows. your guess is as good as mine. personally, my guess involves thinking that cox wishes he had been at cambridge in the '80s, '90s, and '00s rather like noel annan and his the dons. fairy tales for the true ivory-tower academic? maybe. we probably all need 'em on some level.

better him than me; they wouldn't even have let me in the door. literally.

the biography is very affectionate and not badly written; cox is clever at picking out good anecdotes and putting them together and teasing out significance from diaries and letters, not always an easy task. he generally resists making wild speculations. he does have a bad habit of smoothing over james's worst points and sometimes refuses to speculate at all just where you'd really like him to -- when it comes to james's private life for example. he never married but had a series of close, affectionate friendships with other men. none of them wildly underage; nothing "inappropriate" -- no fumblings at choirboys or anything like that -- but... i couldn't help feeling that forster, who was up at cambridge while james was there, must have had him in mind when writing maurice, at least a little bit. i think it's laudable that cox wants to avoid the kind of "pseudo-analytic biography" that wants to find significance in everything and claims to be able to know the deepest, darkest thoughts of the subject from grocery lists, but it also seems relatively plain -- even from the evidence cox puts forward -- that, whatever james was, he was no ruler.

is this a bad thing? no. a problem? only in that following his proclivities to the natural conclusion would have been illegal. small issue there. the wilde trial was international headline-making news during james's lifetime; i'm sure he didn't see that as a great "tallyho!" towards emotional satisfaction.

so that's all fine and really only regrettable in that it makes cox seems somewhat hidebound and stuffy in terms of defending his subject from something that isn't really an issue requiring defense and james must have led a sad life at times.

the really annoying part is that cox eternally defends james from charges of being conservative and out of touch with the times. while quoting things like james saying that undergraduates should aim to be able to "con" a page of greek as easily as they can a page of english or french. this is in 1925. okay, that's a laudable ambition but possibly a tad mid-victorian and, y'know, there's been a major world war and lots of people died and--did any of this register with you?

and the answer to all that seems to have been, no, it didn't. and, when it did, james took a fairly natural action and retreated back to familiar ground. familiar ground for him was an evangelical anglican religion and the comforts of eton/cantabrigian academics; a world run entirely by men, for men, whose rules he knew, and in which he had been comfortably at home since the age of 9.

i don't know if this is any more or less in need of defense than his (possible) homosexuality, but it does strike me as being a bright and shining example of why the british empire crashed and burned up against the first 20 years of the 20th century, particularly the first world war. they had people like this leading it and they thought the answer to everything was most likely something that had happened in their childhood. really, if it took place after 1890, it was a little new-fangled. (you should read what he said about the irish! dear god! not quite "white chimpanzees" but not too far off. "inspired by...")

and i don't know if i have any great closing thought for this little mini-rant but it just occurred to me riding home today on the t, reading about james trying to hold a place at king's (cambridge) for the classics against the dubious onslaught of liberality and the natural sciences. no wonder the machine gun came as such a shock -- how would you say it in greek?!

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