Friday, June 26, 2009

The Good Professor's Meredith

Now I have George Meredith's An Essay on Comedy and the Use of the Comic Spirit to read. I found a copy, not knowing I was looking for it. The book is part of a series, "The Modern Student's Library," from Charles Scribner's Sons, this one from 1918. Years ago I bought and read The Essays of Addison and Steele, my first book of those essays, I think, in this same series. I still have that little book, and still read it in preference to others, because it is portable, well printed and well made, as have been all the others I've found in the same series. I've put back a few that had been read to pieces or scribbled in in ink, but generally, it would seem these books were made to outlive many owners. I like that. At roughly four and a half by six and a half, in plain but sturdy blue cloth, the titles embossed, with good notes, and never very expensive -- so far -- used, these books have become something my eye can find in an otherwise unpromising box, as I found the Meredith today.

As I said, I have the Meredith now to read. All I have read today though was the editor's brief preface, and a bit of the longer introduction, "The Idea of Comedy." It would seem the previous owner and or owners read no further than I have. Such pencil underlining and the few notes I've found in the book, all seem to come in the first thirty pages, before Meredith has even started. One of the previous owners has written her name and a date, "Regina De Armand, April 29, 1933," in the front. The hand that made the notes though, so far as I can distinguish, is different. Perhaps Regina read the book not at all. I prefer of course to think she had the sense to keep pencil and paper while she read, and chose not to deface the book with such inanities as "good!" and "just here," with an arrow. Some bookseller has also written, in ink, on the flyleaf, his price of fifteen cents. It's worth noting that I only paid a dollar for the book, nearly a century after it was published. Such is fame. The introduction, by one Lane Cooper, "Professor of the English Language and Literature at Cornell University," is informative and entertaining, though the entertainment tends to the unintentional, with lines such as these:

"He does not touch on the comic element in the Bible."

"Plautus, indeed, receives scant justice; and Scandinavian comedy -- for example, that of Holberg -- is not brought under consideration; nor are Russian authors considered."

With all due respect to the editor, Plautus would seem an oversight, but Holberg? (Evidently a Norwegian laugh riot.) But then, one might elaborate from the Professor's scant list, neither it seems does Meredith do justice to those hilarious Danes, Japanese, Fiji Islanders or Canadians.

As is my habit with older curiosities, I turned to the back of the book to peruse the notes and index. Don't misunderstand, I think the editor, in addressing the students of 1918, will prove a helpmate to the casual reader of 2009, and whatever his prejudice for the comedians of the Old & New Testaments, etc., I am already grateful for his brief explanation of the philosophic influences on George Meredith and the editor's own wide reading in support of this edition. His notes constitute fully half the length of this little book, and in this instance, I think such thoroughness will prove an aid.

But it is his bibliography that has tickled me most just now. The first part is a straightforward, alphabetical list of the comic writers referenced, presumably, either in the text of the essay or the editor's own notes. From Addison to Wycherley, these make up a list interesting in and of itself. There are mysteries here, as well as the familiar names, and I don't know that I betray any special ignorance in finding, between Lucian and Menander, "Master Tyll Owlglass," whose "marvelous adventures and rare conceits," are unknown to me utterly, a bit of a surprise. Very interesting, that name. I must look him up. The list is also interesting in an antiquarian way for referencing the standard editions of the editor's day, so that I might now look out, for example, for "Addison, Works, ed. Hurd and Bohn. 6 vols. London, 1873." I dread to think of the price nowadays for a full set of that, but I will look.

The editor's second bibliography though offers tonight's lesson. In his preface, he quotes from Lord Morley's Recollections, a work in two stout volumes which I happen to own, being a fan of some of John Morley's essays. I've dipped in the memoirs, but might do more, being reminded of them here. But it is not Morley or the other friends of Meredith who are listed in the editor's second bibliography, rather there are the texts on comedy Professor Cooper seems to have felt most helpful for further study. There are a few writers on Meredith mentioned, and there are some happily familiar names, like Lamb and Macaulay, and some terribly serious souls like Henri Bergson and Herbert Spencer, even Sigmund Freud's Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious, is here, which seems terribly forward thinking of the Professor in 1918, considering its publication in English is listed here as just 1916, but the greater number of the authorities suggested are as unknown to me as Master Tyll Owlglass and the Baron Holberg. Of those last two gentlemen, I might just have to learn more. As for the academics cited...

Here endeth the lesson.

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