Sunday, January 30, 2011

Citation Needed

I've never knowingly met any of the contributors to online reference sources like Wikipedia. I may have done. As I understand it, though there must be individual editors and possibly whole committees of people whose job it is to oversee the accuracy of what's posted there as fact, there is little or nothing to prevent any interested party from becoming a contributor. Reading some of the entries for more obscure favorites of mine, I've thought of offering my own additions, for instance, from my own library, to the listed bibliography of E. V. Lucas, or posting an entry for someone I've only discovered by way of having books reprinted for me on the Espresso Book Machine at the bookstore, "lost" writers like Richard Dowling or John Cann Bailey. In trying to research such obscure essayists and critics for myself, I've found that there are ways, online and off, to get at at least the basic biographies of such people, and I'm always a little amazed that no one among the hundreds or thousands of contributors to the rather wonderful Wiki has found the time or inclination to do this before. I've hesitated to do this much myself, not from modesty, as one is allowed anonymity still in contributing -- something I think admirable -- but for fear that I would do a disservice to these largely forgotten writers in finding no more in my researches than was required to mention them in a posting here. I have neither the qualifications nor the research skills that would seem to me necessary to make even the amateur encyclopedist. I keep thinking someone must not only know more than I do about these writers, as I'm sure lots of people must, but that whatever I might post, because of my unfamiliarity with the requirements of such sites, would not meet even the minimum standards of verifiable fact. If challenged, what could I say? I remember reading... something, somewhere? Was it something I read in a book lost somewhere in this room? or on some online incarnation of Debrett's Peerage? Don't remember now.

As a common reader, midnight scribbler, and the most casual, and forgetful of researchers, at best, while I feel an obligation to tell the truth as I find it, I can't make any claim to authority, even about the books I've just read, without having the book open before me. Posting quotes, I try to meet some minimum standard of accuracy as to the correct wording and the source, but I've found it's best to do this as I read, for the most part, for fear that, should I rely either on my memory or even my own notes, I will be just as likely to get something wrong as not. Startling how often that can happen -- even when I looking right at the page and passage I've marked! (What is that about?!) Now or nothing is about the best I can do. (I've always envied those readers who can keep what they've most admired ready for when they might need it. I envy a great memory almost as much as I admire the ability to tap dance. I know, some would say both are skills that can be learned, even at my age, but that, I confess, probably ain't gonna happen for me. How many times have I wished I remembered better some phrase that might serve an argument better than anything I might say, and thought I knew just the thing, if only I could remember who said it, and how? Know I read something good on that very subject -- whatever it is -- once. When I try, either here or in conversation, to come up with what this or that some superior person said, and I try to say it just as they said or wrote it, come to find out, when I have the time to check, I've muffed it, muddled the sense of it, or attributed it to someone else entirely than the person who said it first or wrote it best. Hopefully, with the time and resources of my leisure hours here at my desk, I do a bit better writing than I do when I'm trying to be clever over dinner-out. Hopefully. Don't make any bets, though.) That would seem to me to be the chief flaw in the new era of democratic Reference; the reliance on memories evidently no better than mine.

How many times, in this new age of computer reference, have I seen that disheartening little phrase, "(citation needed)", and wondered where else it ought to be popping up in the body of what's presented, on the whole, as being fact? Discouraging to think that anyone taking the trouble to write and post such information as they thought vital to the record, didn't have something more reliable than their own memory to hand when the time came to establish a fact for more readers than will ever hereafter think to check another source. After all, how many times do I really question the reference materials I find online, unless I just happen to know -- by purest chance --something contradictory? Wrong John Brown, for instance, pictured at one time at least, on two of the three entries under that name I happened to look up at Wikipedia.

Now, if I were a better citizen, I might have done something about that.

I am just old enough to trust books better, and some names better still than others. Years ago, I read Harry R. Warfel's biography, Noah Webster: Schoolmaster to America. Admirable book about an admirable man, as I remember it, and an admirable and accurate title for him too. For any who might wonder by what way a man's name may become, for generations after his death, synonymous with his life's work, even after that work has been subsumed and or supplanted, I can think of no better example than Webster, or of a better explanation than that offered in Warfel's old standard biography. Webster not only taught the new Republic how to spell, how to pronounce, how to read, and to read their Bible, but also to define themselves and their new country, for themselves, in their own language. Quite an amazing accomplishment, and worthy, wouldn't you say? of long remembrance. If no one now would have much use for Webster's original work, An American Dictionary of the English Language, they still know his name, and use it as a standard to which all our subsequent reference works are yet held. No small fame in that.

How many other examples of this might be found on the bookstore's Reference shelves? Roget, Brewer, Fowler, Follett, Strunk & White, and maybe one more, without thinking too hard, Benét. Go into almost any bookstore, selling new books or used, or both, anywhere in the United States, and you are likely to find, in one edition or another, Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia. The fifth and most recent edition came out just in 2008, but the book, in one form or another, has existed, as such, since 1948. That's pretty good for a reference book. I wonder, how many people who might even know that book, might even own it, remember William Rose Benét? That's him, by the way, in that rather whimsical portrait at the top. (Reference failure: it is not only a charming likeness, it is the only one I could find online or anywhere else, and I never could find the name of the painter.) Now, I've worked in bookstores for a quarter of a century, and I don't know that I ever knew that Benét's was so called because of it's first editor, or that that was William Rose Benét, that he was the editor of the Saturday Review of Literature for twenty five years, that he'd won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, that he was married to the poet, Elinor Wylie, or that he wasn't the same guy as his brother, and fellow Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Stephen Vincent Benét. (All to you, Wikipedia.) Curious, isn't it? Must be the only American siblings to have both won such a prestigious literary award, and me working in a bookstore, and I didn't even know, or at least quite remember that these were two different poets, or that the one I remembered least well, actually made one of my favorite books. Such, it seems, is immortality.

But the name Benét, whatever else it may or may not still mean in American Literature, still means enough, has still sufficient recognition to it, to have survived William Rose Benét, if nowhere else, on a book with however many editors since, and on a book that is still the standard for an American work of literary reference. Pretty good.

I recently bought the two volume, illustrated, second edition that is shown in the other picture here. Didn't have to pay much for it, used. If you don't know Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia in this, or any other edition, let me just say what an odd and admirable object it is. I can't frankly imagine it surviving, as a reprinted book all that much longer, however extensively revised. Too much of what this book was meant to do for both reader and writer can now be done, and is being done with greater efficiency, if with no improvement in either style or accuracy, online. The idea of such a book was to anticipate the references and allusions in literature to other books, authors, myths, and familiar phrases, and to collect and define these in a single, handy volume. What Benét was hired by his publisher to do was take an existing reference work of theirs, Crowell's Handbook for Readers and Writers, and update and improve it. As Benét noted in his introduction to the first edition of his book, that book in turn owed it's existence to Brewer, now best remembered for A Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, but also the author of The Reader's Handbook. All of this information may be had now, in one shape or another, online, but what Brewer, and Benét after him, did, and what the contributors to Wikipedia are now themselves doing after their fashion, was a continuation of a tradition at least as old as the French encyclopédistes of the 18th Century.

The ideal of collecting all human knowledge into one comprehensive and accessible work, while an admirable and revolutionary concept, had, by the time William Rose Benét came along, long since been given over to an industry of professional encyclopedia-makers, but certain aspects of culture and science, having outgrown any such confines, almost required, and could still be profitably treated to their own individual volumes. Made sense, in 1948, to get an American man of letters, like Benét, in to do the job for literature.

What I've always liked best about books like Benét's is their confidence, one might better say their optimism or naïveté, in thinking not only that such a thing might be done, but that it should. The age of literature as the exclusive property of the academic had yet to so disastrously dawn. Benét, like Brewer, and Webster in his way, before him, could still assume that even so complex a subject as letters or literature might be understood by anyone, with just such help as might come from just a reference book or two, and moreover, that it ought to be. Remember, by the time Benét came to make a new reference book out of an old one, he could still mention, as he does even in his introduction, a book like Joyce's Ulysses without suggesting that no one but specialists might be qualified, or inclined to read it. Think of that.

That's exactly what has kept a book like Benét's in print all these decades, that assumption that the reader's curiosity might be best satisfied by actually reading our literature, with perhaps just such help as might be had from one or two other fat books. Until we were persuaded otherwise, by our own higher education, or the lack of it, men like Benét were still pretty sure we could manage these things, if we had to, for ourselves. The breadth of a book like Benét's is still impressive. As amusing and quaint as they might now seem to us, many of the assumptions these old editors made about just what to be valuable to their readers, weren't all that unlikely then. A literate American, in 1948, might have wanted a word or two on Swinburne without being thought overly eccentric. And as glaring as the omissions might look after more than sixty years, -- imagine! not a word on Filipino poetry! -- and in light of the most recent progress in the study of the various college programs of hyphenated-studies, a book like Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia, or Brewer's dictionary, still seem to find readers, and not just among fusty old eccentrics like me. How is it then that such books, if only for the time being, still find readers in the age of electronic information? How is it that I'm pretty confident, even if these books go completely out of print, one way and another, they will always find readers?

Old Aeschylus said somewhere -- at least according to one of my dictionaries of quotation -- "The man whose authority is recent is always stern." So it seems to me, for now, is much that might be consulted on the Internet as being even close to a respectable source for information. Whatever it's impressive reach, and however miraculous it's accessibility, Wikipedia is frankly a bit... dry. Nothing wrong with that, for what Wikipedia is or is meant to be. In matters of art and literature particularly though, the simple, verifiable Gradgrindian facts may not be quite enough for any but the most devoted students of the M'Choakumchild school. (Look 'em up.) To read literature at all well, one might be better served, at least as one goes along, by reference to the older,still very individual, if no longer unchallenged opinions of men like Martin Seymour-Smith, and William Rose Benét, the former a delightfully opinionated old party on the subject of Modern Literature, and the later, in his more subtle way, no less inclined to let slip, here and there, something of his own estimation of various giants, as in his little wink, just at the end of his thoroughly straightforward entry on George Eliot. In 1948, and again, it seems, as late as my second edition from 1965, it was still thought proper to refer without further comment to the living arrangements of Miss Mary Ann Evans and George Henry Lewes as "irregular," but that isn't the funniest bit, really. Benét, the poet, ends his entry on "Mrs. Lewes," the great novelist, with the following:

"Her greatest preoccupation is with moral problems, and more particularly, with the moral development of her characters, many of whom strive with the difficulty of arriving at an individual and mature view of life. See SPANISH GYPSY, THE."

Now one would have to have read poor Miss Evans' poor old poem, "The Spanish Gypsy," to find that amusing, I suppose, but of all the possibilities to which the reader might be directed for a better understanding of just how well Miss Evans' managed, at least artistically, to resolve her own "moral problems," there are few products of her mighty pen less likely to enlighten us than the painfully silly story of noble Fedalma, her equally noble beau and their ridiculously noble parting. Someone may have been suggesting a bit of the humbug just here.

That's the kind of odd charm only a book like Benét's can still afford the reader, and presumably only because there was no one back in the day with the superior authority to suggest that Benét was either being too eccentrically obscure in this closing reference, or wrong to be poking a little fun at the noble George Elliot.

One needs a certain authority to do either with, as it were, a straight face.

If I'm being honest, I bought this edition of Benét's mostly for the illustrations -- an equally eccentric selection of portrait plates and "148 line cuts of title pages, old woodcuts, and cartoons." (As this edition was published only after the great editor's death, I scent the musty pleasures of the copyright-free usage in this, more than any suggestion of William Rose Benét's.) Now I must admit that I think I will have to keep the old thing whole, and add it to my reference books, just because I like the idea of the thing as much or more than whatever use I may find for it as a reference. However much improved the speed of our communications, and however much I may personally have come to rely on the easy access to information provided by the Internet, I think I'd better be sure to keep as many good reference books as I may find always about me. Better to trust a man so confident in the sufficiency of his own dignity as to pose for his portrait decked in a cloak and a floppy red hat, than all the unseen authorities floating out there in the ether.

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