American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

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A Sweet Dedication

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From George P. Marsh, Lectures on the English Language (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1885).


Written by Ben Friedlander

June 27, 2015 at 3:45 pm

For those few who have not read . . .

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Click on the image for a legible view.

Once upon a time, everyone under the sun — and a few in the shadows — knew a certain great novel so well, its characters’ names served as figures of speech. One still does, the very figure of servitude. Here’s a dictionary definition for another; it attests quite well to the novel’s ubiquity a century after publication. The definition was written by Eric Partridge and comes from his Name into Word: Proper Names That Have Become Common Property (London: Secker and Warburg, 1949):

Simon Legree tends, in American writing, to mean, literally and figuratively, ‘a cruel, sinister, relentless slave-driver’. …

For those few who have not read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which appeared in the early 1850s and did much to precipitate the emancipation of the Negroes in North America, it is necessary to mention that Simon Legree hounded Uncle Tom and his fellow-slaves and came to a somewhat gruesomely sticky end.

And for those few who have not read the novel, Legree’s comeuppance is precipitated by a certain Gothic tomfoolery, performed by two of the slaves, who prey on Legree’s mind by playing ghost. Here’s the sticky end as Stowe gives it:

… finally, there came over his sleep a shadow, a horror, an apprehension of something dreadful hanging over him. It was his mother’s shroud, he thought; but Cassy had it, holding it up, and showing it to him. He heard a confused noise of screams and groanings; and, with it all, he knew he was asleep, and has struggled to wake himself. He was half awake. He was sure something was coming into his room. He knew the door was opening, but he could not stir hand or foot. At last he turned, with a start; the door was open and, he saw a hand putting out his light.

It was a cloudy, misty moonlight, and there he saw it! — something white, gliding in! He heard the still rustle of its ghostly garments. It stood still by his bed; — a cold hand touched his; a voice said, three times, in a low, fearful whisper, “Come! come! come!” And, while he lay sweating with terror, he knew not when or how, the thing was gone. He sprang out of bed, and pulled at the door. It was shut and locked, and the man fell down in a swoon.

After this, Legree became a harder drinker than ever before. He no longer drank cautiously, prudently, but imprudently and recklessly.

There were reports around the country, soon after, that he was sick and dying. Excess had brought on that frightful disease that seems to throw the lurid shadows of a coming retribution back into the present life. None could bear the horrors of that sick-room, when he raved and screamed, and spoke of sights which almost stopped the blood of those who heard him; and, at his dying bed, stood a stern, white, inexorable figure, saying, “Come! come! come!”

I say “as Stowe gives it” because the dramatizations that flourished in the nineteenth century and after often altered the details. Legree is shot, for instance, in the most popular of the stage versions, that of George L. Aiken.

Oddly, Partridge has no entry at all for Tom or Uncle Tom, though this epithet has had much a longer shelf life than Legree. Go figure.

Written by Ben Friedlander

January 25, 2013 at 11:57 am

Books of Poetry: The 1860s

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Joanne Dobson

One of the projects I’ve been working on for the past few years, in spare moments, is a counterfactual edition of Emily Dickinson’s war poetry: an attempt to imagine what a book of Dickinson’s war poems might have looked like, had she allowed one to be published at the end of the Civil War. I’m not the first to use this approach; I cribbed it from Joanne Dobson, who produced “a hypothetical Table of Contents for a volume of Verses by Emily Dickinson” as part of her own Dickinson and the Strategies of Reticence. Dobson’s Verses was comprised of fifty poems run together in a continuous sequence; it had an imagined publication date of 1864, the year five of Dickinson’s poems poems did appear in print, on ten different occasions, her most public year as a writer. The point of the exercise: to make vivid the fact that many of Dickinson’s unpublished poems would not have been out of place in the literary market of the time, as previous critics had imagined. The point of my exercise is a little different: to make vivid the particularity of Dickinson’s war poems by putting them in a form that makes comparison easier with other war poets of the time (those, anyhow, who published whole volumes on the subject). Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

May 10, 2012 at 7:07 am

A Nineteenth-Century Errata Slip

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From the Library of Congress copy of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman’s Poems (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1864), by way of the Internet Archive (link):

for “poles” read “polls”
for “bog-hut” read “log-hut”
for “smiles” read “smile”
for “Rhotruda” read “Rhotrude”
for “plaint” read “paint”
for “Let” read “Yet”
for “raftsmen” read “raftsman”
for “splashed” read “plashed”
for “give” read “gave”
for “earthly” read “earthy”

Written by Ben Friedlander

May 7, 2012 at 10:44 am

R.I.P. Frank Frazetta

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Click for a readable image

I’ve been meaning to write about this surprising new edition of Longfellow’s Dante, brought out by Del Rey Books, the science fiction imprint of Random House. And yes, it’s a video game tie-in.

I’m not a player, so I can’t say anything about the game (this is not snobbery on my part, I’m inept — I haven’t tried a game since pinball made me its Charlie Brown) … but the treatment of the text is loving. If that’s any indication, the game must be terrific.

The cover copy is priceless: The Literary Classic That Inspired the Epic Video Game from Electronic Arts.” And likewise the back: “The timeless classic of a journey through the horrors of hell … The action adventure blockbuster that’s rocking the video-game world.” Included: a 16-page full-color insert, with screen shots of the game and art by William Blake and Gustav Doré. The effect reminds me of Deadliest Warrior: there too a little research heightens the pleasure of make-believe — a geeky dress-up pleasure in that case, pop mythology in this one.

And there’s also an introduction, a good one, by Jonathan Knight, the game’s executive producer, and also — I love this — a note on the text. Unless I’m missing something, no individual is credited, but someone went to Harvard and looked at Longfellow’s papers: the annotations are as Longfellow wanted them, and for the first time. I’ve seen less credible texts on college syllabi. [1]

I wanted to spend some time with this edition and with the game’s website — and some of the online commentary — before writing this post, but I’ve been busy with end-of-semester stuff. Meanwhile, Frank Frazetta died today, at age 82. It seemed appropriate to mention the book in his memory. I’ve never played video games. But Conan? Bran Mak Morn? Yeah, I’ve spent some time in those worlds, which I associate as much with Frazetta as I do with their creator, Robert E. Howard. I wouldn’t have thought before now to link Howard with Dante, but Howard’s publisher, Del Rey, has done that for me, by way of Frazetta. Take a look at the image below, and then at the new Longfellow cover. Frazetta’s art is clearly an inspiration. If not directly, then through a chain of artists who influenced artists who influenced the artists at Electronic Arts.

Enjoy a long afterlife, Frazetta.


1 [Back to text] Del Rey’s website lists Matthew Pearl and Lino Pertile as authors, and it would make sense if they had a role in the editing — Pearl wrote The Dante Club, a novel in which Longfellow is a character, and Pertile teaches Dante at Harvard — but I can’t confirm that.

Written by Ben Friedlander

May 10, 2010 at 9:57 pm

Margaret Fuller’s Running Heads

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Click on the image for a link to the book

I have a thing for running heads. They’re a compositional device that bridges the gap between text and paratext, or can, though it’s not always clear who’s responsible. A case in point: the first edition of Margaret Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century, which was brought out by Horace Greeley in 1845. Though I know from some of the scholarship that Fuller was responsible for the frontispiece (shown at the left), I don’t know what sort of role she played in the other aspects of the book’s design. It’s hard to imagine that anyone but the author would write running heads such as




— but you never know.

One of the curious things about the running heads is that they change direction about an eighth of the way into the book. Up until page 25 (after the preface and first page of the text proper, that is), the headers spell out Fuller’s title, with




sitting atop the verso and recto pages, respectively. Starting at page 26, the versos read


and the rectos begin to have descriptive headers. Here’s a complete list (with page numbers in parentheses, and a few illustrations interspersed): Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

March 29, 2010 at 6:59 pm

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W. said he had never dedicated a book. “I do not know why — probably there was no why. Dedications have gone out of vogue — are no longer regarded as necessary.”
With Walt Whitman in Camden

For no particular reason I’ve been thinking about dedications this week. Has anyone ever compiled a book of the really good ones? Here’s an instance I’d include, from a book I was reading this week, Our Famous Women (1884):

"To / Men and Women / WHO HONOR MAN AND WOMAN, / AND SEE THE SPECIAL FITNESS OF / THIS BOOK, TO-DAY, / IT IS DEDICATED." (click for a larger view)

I’ll have more to say about that book in the coming weeks, if I can find time to scribble it out. There are a few really fascinating biographies of poets included in it, and a few other biographies that were written by poets. In the meantime, the book’s dedication brought another to mind, this one from Mary Berenson’s A Modern Pilgrimage (1933):


Index under “Genres — paratextual.”

Written by Ben Friedlander

March 21, 2010 at 9:18 am

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