Tuesday, January 25, 2011

For All In All

We've had a display for awhile now, of discounted Shakespeare titles, in the lobby of the bookstore where I work. There are some lovely paperback editions of the plays, all nice, scholarly jobs, and a few titles, in paperback and hardcover, of biographies and Shakespeare criticism and so forth. There are books for children on Shakespeare, picture books on Shakespeare and the plays, books about the history of Shakespeare productions, and I don't know what all. Coincidentally, in just the past couple of weeks, we seem to have purchased, from different sellers, mind, no less than half a dozen different hardcover editions of the complete works: everything from a chunky Norton, to a huge Riverside, and at least one rather hideous old thing from who knows when, in sickly green, cloth covers, though the interior is quite clear and readable, and the binding actually better than that of the newish Norton edition. The bookstore then is, just now crammed with cheap Shakespeare!

Any time one finds a display of books by and about Shakespeare now -- though this may have been true for years and I've only just noticed the fact -- at least half of the books about the poet aren't so much about him, as they are either about "proving" he was someone other than Shakespeare, or "proving" that, indeed, he was Shakespeare, but not who we thought that man was. Right now there's a book on that bargain table that would have William Shakespeare a master politician and spy, as well as a close confidant of Elizabeth I, and another that would explain his genius as best understood in terms of a secret code, incorporated in every word of the plays, major and minor. I won't even bother just here with all the Baconians and the Oxfordians, etc., who are always littered about the shelves. I would note however that just this past Friday, I was asked to order a book, by one Hank Whittemore, called Shakespeare's Son and His Sonnets, for a customer. We didn't stock the book. Happy to get it for our customer, though. When I asked the nice man on the phone, in all innocence, if this was a novel, as even I know that William Shakespeare's only son, Hamnet, died as a child of eleven, the customer replied:

"Ah, but did that William Shakespeare write the Sonnets?"

Knew right where we stood, after that.

I'd only just read a most interesting book, published in 2004, The Great Shakespeare Fraud: The Strange True Story of William-Henry Ireland, by Patricia Pierce. At the end of the 18th Century, and at just nineteen, Ireland, largely to please his father, a perfectly respectable dealer in engravings, and an avid Shakespeare collector, forged signatures, letters, poems, and even a whole "lost" play by Shakespeare. Clever boy. Fooled a lot of smart people, including poor old James Boswell, among the many who might have known better. Bardolatry was all the rage then, as Pierce does an excellent job explaining, and it was a perfect time to make such frequent and uncanny "finds" as young Ireland did. All came crashing around the poor boy's ears, soon enough, but the story of how and why he did what he did, and all that happened after the exposure of the fraud, was fascinating.

All this has reminded me of a couple of things. First, of the first book-signing I went to at the bookstore where I now work, but where I didn't yet, that first time I went. I'd spent entirely too much on a nice first edition of the one novel I didn't already own by the author reading that night, and I'd brought that, and copies of all his other books with me on the bus, to have him sign them for me. Turned out, the novelist does not sign his books. As that first novel had all to do with artistic authenticity, forgery and the like, he'd felt it wasn't right to sign copies, and this had then become a policy of his. He never signed. I'm not one of those obsessive collectors of signed first editions, but I had particularly hoped for this writer's signature, to mark the only occasion when I was likely to meet him or hear him read from and discuss his work. His explanation seemed to me then, and seems to me still, well nigh the silliest, most churlish, most self-important nonsense I've ever heard from a writer at an event organized to promote his book. My estimation of the man, and his work, suffered a serious adjustment, that night. (Though I've continued to read his books as they've been published, I do not collect them anymore, and I haven't kept the ones I already owned.)

The other thing that seeing all this Shakespeareana, and Shakespeare denial, psuedo-Shakespeareana, and all has put me in mind of again, are the other little books my father sent me recently, found in a box of junk from an auction. The first of these, I've already mentioned here. They were all charming little illustrated pamphlets, on everything from parlor tricks to superstitions. This second set, of just three titles, are unrelated to the first. These were produced in 1916, by The Second National Bank of Pittsburgh, for distribution to little children, to encourage them to begin the habit of thrift, and saving in a bank.

The choice of stories seems hilariously inappropriate to the message, do they not? Robin Hood, the Prince of Thieves, who stole from the rich to give to the poor... hardly the kind of person a Pittsburgh banker might want to encourage his youngest depositors to someday emulate, would you think? And then, there's Aladdin, another thief! And the final story, reproduced to entertain the wee ones, but also presumably to teach them another valuable lesson in responsible husbandry and good citizenship? Why, it's old Rip Van Winkle! What could the good burghers have been thinking?

The charming illustrations in these tiny books are all by Rhoda Chase. I haven't been able to learn much of the artist, but I include a few examples, as I think them quite good and frankly charming. Robin Hood, on the back of good Friar Tuck, looks a harmless enough sort of ruffian, doesn't he?

Aladdin's giant genie, toting that incongruous pagoda down the beach, may look less harmless, but again, I don't know that even the smallest child, even in 1916, would find him anything but fun. There is a sweet kiss later in the little book, between Aladdin and his lady love, and that, I should think, might play less well with some of the little boys, but perhaps the kids at the turn of the last century took that sort of thing in stride better than little boys did in my time.

Finally, there is a quite boyish and blond Rip, drinking deeply of what is unmistakably not water, while "the strange little men" play at nine-pins behind him. With none of the weird wonder of Arthur Rackham's grotesques, or the depth and beauty of N. C Wyeth's illustrations for the same, Ms. Chase's drawing nevertheless seems rather magical to me, specially in the original size of the reproduction, the whole little book fitting in just the palm of my grown-up hand. That seems about right for a little book intended for very little hands.

That any of these little books have survived for nearly one hundred years is something of a wonder. Not my point though, just now. What I'm thinking about tonight is how what was a story by Washington Irving, published but roughly one hundred years before these little pamphlets, could even then be used without any acknowledgement of it's author, as if it was just another anonymous legend, like Aladdin and Robin Hood. Now isn't that interesting?

Is to me, anyway. This question of what might be owed an author, and what might be done with his work, how it might be used and altered and made, frankly, public property, as Rip Van Winkle was here, less than sixty years after Washington Irving's death, that interests me. What then of William Shakespeare? Just how many hands have had a share in shaping what we know, or think we might know, about that greatest of our poets, and the works that are still to be had in everything from inexpensive paperbacks to great, fat, collected editions in scholarly hardcovers?

Why should so many people care, for instance, to prove that Shakespeare wasn't, or that this, rather than that, folio is more authentic? Why should so many wise men have been willingly bamboozled by a nineteen year old forger, and then vilified his whole family, once the fraud was exposed, for violating "the Sacred Text?"

Ripping off old Washington Irving would seem a fairly harmless bit of dishonesty. Copyright in 1916 might not have been all that it might be, and as Irving made a sometimes quite serious pose at having collected all his fables from among the old Dutch of the Catskills, I suppose whoever wrote the simplified text to go with Rhoda Chase's drawings might well have denied having taken the story from Irving. And it must be at least a little flattering to Irving's shade to know that his story has become so much a part of the American culture that it could be told, like Robin Hood and Aladdin, as part of the collective childhood of mankind.

Shakespeare, though generations have squabbled about this variant reading and that, and about the interpretation of every work, if not every line he ever wrote, to say nothing more of the fantastic theories as to his very existence and true identity, seems to me a no less solid figure than old Washington Irving, no less deserving of the dignity of acknowledged authorship. We know but blessed little about Shakespeare's life, while the biography of Irving is well documented, but is there really anything much to be gained by this seemingly endless industry of speculation, claim and counter claim, as to the authenticity of the name assigned to that first folio and the sonnets and the rest?

Oddly enough, though I can't stand this speculative stuff myself, and will never read another word of the Shakespeare ciphering that clutters up that bargain table, I can't help but think just now that in a way, William Shakespeare is owed no less. It matters who he might have been because what he wrote still matters more than any other text in English, other than perhaps The Holy Bible. I don't mean to indulge in bardolatry myself here, I just suggest that as silly as so much of what is still being written about Shakespeare may seem to me, it matters that a man wrote those plays, that whatever their origin in obscure chronicles, older plays, other men's work, Shakespeare himself is still important because what he produced is uniquely valuable.

How many times has Shakespeare been retold as stories for children, adapted, edited, plagiarized, quoted, and recoined? It doesn't matter, it seems to me, so long as it is understood that Shakespeare is the preeminent genius of our literature, and both worthy of all this unceasing attention, and his work strong enough to survive any use to which we might put it, so long as we remember to come back to it, in the end.

Even our own American Irving, by no means the same caliber of genius, deserves to be better remembered than perhaps he is, or even than he evidently was one hundred years ago. It was Irving, after all, and no one else, who gave us not just Rip Van Winkle and Ichobod Crane, but our first glimpse of the Alhambra, and our first proper life of George Washington.

It was individual artists then, who made so much of not just what we remember of childhood, but what we think we know about ourselves, or at least what we say, without thinking much about the fact that someone had to say it first.

When I think now of that contemporary novelist offering me a lecture instead of just signing his damned book, I have to smile. At the time, I was insulted, and not just because I thought his reasoning was specious, his attitude patronizing, and his manners bad, though all that I still think. To think that anyone, however talented an artist he might be, should count on anyone remembering, let alone caring what he thought or wrote, or why he might choose not to give autographs, or even who he was, sixty, or one hundred, or four hundred years later... well, as I said, I have to smile.

Can't think of that writer's name, just now. Maybe it will come to me.

No comments:

Post a Comment